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Parashat Devarim

Parashat Devarim is the forty-fourth weekly portion in the Torah and the first one in the Book of Deuteronomy (1:1-3:22). It is read either on or right before the Ninth of Av, a fateful day on which the Jews in the wilderness are condemned to wander for forty years (as retold in this portion) and the two Temples in Jerusalem are destroyed, half a millennium apart.

Indeed, though the Book of Deuteronomy has a reputation of redundancy, it is only Parashat Devarim itself which can be characterized as a recapitulation. The rest of the book contains over two hundred new commandments and explains details of others. It also explores many of the philosophical underpinnings of monotheism at length.

As for Parashat Devarim itself, it focuses on two main events: in Chapter 1, the Sin of the Spies (that term is used only here; in the Book of Numbers, they are “scouts”) in the second year; and in Chapters 2-3, the conquest of Transjordan in the fortieth year. For Moses, these events demonstrate that when the people defy the word of God, they fail; when they follow the word of God, they succeed. In each case, we discover details omitted in the Book of Numbers. For example, Numbers 13 tells of God’s command to send scouts, but in Deuteronomy we learn that the people request this initially, with Moses’ approval. Similarly, Numbers 20-21 tells us that the Israelites avoid the territories of Edom, Ammon and Moab; in Deuteronomy we learn that this is by divine command, as God gave these lands to Abraham’s other grandson and his grand-nephews respectively. (It even mentions that the same is true for Gaza, 2:23).

As the Talmud says, Deuteronomy is special because though Moses writes it at the direction of God (like the previous four books of the Pentateuch), he does so in his own voice. This first-person perspective allows us new insight into the experience of Israel in the desert — not just the events at Sinai four decades earlier, but the events on the East Bank of the Jordan four months earlier as well.


The portion from the Prophets is the final episode of the Three of Punishment: the first chapter of Isaiah, in which the prophet laments the impending fall of Jerusalem. While not explicitly connected to the Torah portion, the final line, “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those who return to it by righteousness” (1:27) echoes Moses’ words in the Torah portion: “Listen among your brethren and judge righteously… for justice belongs to God” (1:16-17).

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