Sefer Devarim: A beacon of light


In the first mishnah of Pirkei Avot, our Sages teach that the Torah was given to us by Hashem along with the Oral Law: “Moshe received the Torah at Sinai, transmitted it to Yehoshua, who did in kind to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets and they, in turn, to the Men of the Great Assembly.”

All of Tanach is divrei Elokim emet. As the Talmud Bavli teaches us, it was communicated in humanly accessible form by a trans-historical community of writers: “Who wrote the Scriptures? — Moshe wrote his own book, and the portion of Balaam and Iyov…”

The phrase “his own book,” certainly refers to the Torah. In fact, the Torah is referred to in the Prophets as “Torat Moshe” no less than seven times.

While the entire Torah is the Book of the Law of Moshe, Sefer Devarim stands out most prominently. Indeed, the very first verse proclaims the personal nature of this final volume. Instead of the usual, “And G-d spoke to Moshe saying,” we encounter: “These are the words which Moshe spoke to all Israel …”

In other words, this sefer is at once divrei Elokim emet, and the heartfelt expression of Moshe’s love for the Jewish people.

Our Sages refer to Sefer Devarim as “Mishneh Torah.” Tosafot and the Ramban translate this term as “repetition.” In their view, it is primarily a summary of previous narratives and halachic passages.

In the introduction to his commentary on Sefer Devarim, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, takes a very different approach. According to the Netziv, Chazal coined the name “Mishneh Torah” to connote Sefer Devarim’s emphasis on meticulous Torah study. Therefore, Mishneh means depth-level analysis and knowledge of the Torah — including its language, laws, and mussar.

The Netziv underscores his understanding by quoting a fascinating Midrash that shows the preeminent position of Sefer Devarim in Rabbinic thought: “Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai said: ‘Sefer Mishneh Torah was the standard of Yehoshua. At the very moment that the Holy One Blessed be He revealed himself to Yehoshua, He found him sitting [and learning], and the Mishneh Torah was in his hands’” (Bereishit Rabbah, section 6).

We might well ask: “Why not one of the other books of the Torah? Don’t they also incorporate crucial laws and ethics? Why was this Yehoshua’s touchstone?”

The Netziv’s answer reveals the unique nature of our sefer: “We may learn [from this Midrash] that this book in particular incorporates the entire gamut of moral and ethical principles [that are found throughout the Torah].”

In a few days, we will commemorate the events that befell our people on Tisha b’Av. In light of the Netziv’s understanding, there is no more appropriate sefer than Devarim to read and study on the Shabbat immediately preceding this day.

Tisha b’Av teaches us the necessity of reaching out with compassion to our fellow Jews, whoever and wherever they may be. This is a lifelong journey fraught with many challenges and trials. We are blessed that Torat Moshe in general, and Sefer Devarim in particular, provide the roadmap we need to guide us on the proper path of understanding. 

As the Netziv teaches us, Mishneh Torah uniquely encapsulates the mussar that serves as a beacon of light to guide us through the darkest of spiritual times. Like Yehoshua, may G-d grant us the wisdom and discernment to implement its eternal message in our lives.