Devarim: Meet the Deuteronomist

We enter the dog days of summer: the sun burns fiercely; our forays outdoors are humid and steaming. And we prepare for Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of the Month of Av, the most tragic day in the Jewish calendar. This Shabbat, we begin our reading and study of the fifth book of the Pentateuch/Chumash: Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy.

As a child, my Orthodox rabbis taught me that the Torah—that is, the Five Books—were written in a complete unit by Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Rabbi. At this point in the overall narrative, he seems to have gained a renewed strength, both in body and purpose: to educate the Dor HaMidbar, the Wilderness Generation—those Israelites with no personal memory of Egyptian slavery or the Sinai Theophany. He does so by recounting the entire Wilderness History of our nation, beginning with this, our parsha.

Moses’s central theme is the urgency of obedience to God, lest Israel risk His wrath and punishment. The only assurance is to remain eternally faithful. Moses recounts his appointment of judges of thousands, of hundreds, fifties, and tens—oddly enough, he seems to have forgotten how Jethro, his Midianite father-in-law, assisted him in establishing the roots of Jewish jurisprudence. But then, Jethro’s tribal status would perhaps not make him worth remembering, in light of the Israelites’ struggles with Midian in the previous parsha.

All of this discourse and exhortation occurs in a way station of “that great and terrible wilderness” (Deut. 1:19). It must have been awe-inspiring: the assembled multitudes of Israel, all young, idealistic, eager to cross the Jordan and attack their Canaanite foes. Indeed, this same indoctrinating style persists throughout the entire Book of Deuteronomy, but it does not stop there: it continues into Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, as well as parts of the Book of Jeremiah. It is, indeed, a deep and long-winded discourse by Moses, in a windswept, sun-baked plain of the Sinai Peninsula, the Aravah. Highly dramatic, too—except that it never happened.

Modern Biblical scholars hold, for the most part, that an anonymous scholar (or school of scholars) whom they label the Deuteronomist, wrote the above works. He emerged following the destruction of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, by Assyria in 721 BCE. Jewish refugees of the catastrophe, as tragic and infamous in its day as the Holocaust to us, came to the Southern Kingdom of Judah for refuge. They brought with them a strong need for our people to survive, along with a bedrock belief in the concept of Adonai as the only God to be served. This was news to the sinful people of Judah, engrossed in idolatry.

The movers and shakers in Judean society were the aristocrats who owned land, and who furnished the governmental administrators in the capital of Jerusalem. Skimming over that era’s history of regicide (King Amon, 640 BCE) and the aristocrats’ placing his then eight-year-old son Josiah on the throne, as well as Assyria’s downfall and its replacement by harsh and ruthless Babylonia, we encounter the signal tragedy which we mourn, the Destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.

All of these court intrigues and external pressures weighed on the consciences of our ancestors: if God loved Israel so, why was He allowing their destruction and suffering? Here is where the Deuteronomist emerged, with a simple but weighty reason and solution: God had decided to punish His people for their many sins of ignoring Him, oppressing the poor and the Stranger, and neglecting the Temple for idol worship.

Given that the overwhelming weight of Jewish History is tragic, it was heartening when Babylonia fell and the Persian Empire under Cyrus allowed the Israelites, along with other captive peoples, to return to their homelands (539 BCE). From there to us post-modern Jews of today, with our streaming services and virtual Judaism, seems a breath of fresh air.

Following the fateful Ninth of Av, we enter the High Holy Day season, time for the strongest and largest temple attendance of the year. We look around at one another and note that we have survived an old year with its calamities, to welcome a new year with its blessings.

Never forget to thank the Deuteronomist, who worked so hard to ensure our faith and our survival. And, see you in temple this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur!

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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