The Parsha in a Nutshell
The entire book of Devarim is structured like a covenant. It represents Moshe’ renewal of the Sinai covenant with the next generation, who would soon enter the Promised Land and there create a covenant-based society.
Accordingly, the parsha of Devarim opens with the first two elements of a covenant document: an introduction pinpointing the speaker and context (Devarim 1:1–5) and a historical overview of the events that led to the covenant and its renewal (beginning at 1:6).
The introduction identifies time and place: the last weeks of Moshe’s life, with the people encamped by the banks of the Jordan. Moshe recalls his appointment of leaders, the sending of the spies, and the people’s crisis of faith that led to the forty-year stay in the wilderness. Moving to more recent episodes, he reminds the people of their victories over Moab and Ammon and the settlement of their land by the tribes of Reuben and Gad and part of Menashe. The parsha ends with Moshe’ description of his appointment of, and encouragement to, Joshua as his successor.
The Core Idea
Imagine you are 119 years and 11 months old. The end of your life is in sight. Your hopes and dreams have received devastating blows. You have been told by God that you will not enter the land to which you have been leading your people for forty years. You have been repeatedly criticised by the people you have led. Your sister and brother, with whom you shared the burdens of leadership, have died. And you know that neither of your children, Gershom and Eliezer, will succeed you. Your life seems to be coming to a tragic end, your destination unreached, your hopes unfulfilled. What do you do?
You could sink into sadness, reflecting on what might-have-been, had the past taken a different direction. You could continue to plead with God to change His mind and let you cross the Jordan. You could retreat into memories of the good times: when the people sang a song at the Red Sea, when they accepted the covenant at Sinai, when they built the Tabernacle. These would be the normal human reactions. Moshe did none of these things – and what he did instead helped change the course of Jewish history.
Moshe gathered the people on the far side of the Jordan and spoke to them for a month. Those speeches became the book of Devarim. The topics are extremely diverse, covering a history of the past, prophecies and warnings about the future, laws, stories, a song, and a set of blessings. Together they form a profound vision of what it is to be a holy people, dedicated to God, and instructions of how to construct a society that would be a model for humanity in combining freedom and order, justice and compassion, individual dignity and collective responsibility.
Let us now look beyond what Moshe said in the last month of his life, and examine what Moshe did. He changed career. He shifted his relationship with the people. No longer defined as Moshe the great and powerful leader who set them free, the lawgiver, the worker of miracles, the intermediary between the Israelites and God, he now became the figure known to Jewish memory: Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moshe, our teacher.” That is how Devarim begins – “Moshe began to explain this Law” (1:5). The Torah uses the verb be’er (to explain), that we have not seen used in this way before. Moshe wanted to explain, expand on, make clear. He wanted the people to realise that Judaism is not a religion of mysteries that makes sense only to a few special people. It is – as he would say in his very last speech – an “inheritance of the entire congregation of Jacob”
Questions to Ponder
1. Why do you think Moshe made this career change at the end of his life?
2. Why do you think Moshe is known to us as Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moshe, our teacher” rather than as any of the other roles he played?
3. Do teachers play an important role in your life?
It Once Happened…
Nechama Leibowitz, the famous Jerusalem Torah scholar, writer and teacher who died in 1997, requested that the only words that appear on her gravestone should be her name and the single word Morah – teacher. For her, this was her greatest achievement, her life’s work, and the ultimate honour and title. The following story was written by a teacher who read this about Nechama Leibowitz, and thought, “I feel the same way!”
When I was training to be a secondary school teacher (for pupils aged 11-18) at the very beginning of my career, the university course required that the first week be spent in a primary school (for pupils aged 4-11) so that we could gain an understanding of where our high school students would be coming from. Without a moment’s hesitation I knew which school and which teacher I would choose to shadow.
Rabbi B. was my favorite teacher from primary school. That I knew. But to be honest, I had no idea why. I do not particularly remember any of the lessons he taught or information that I left his classes with, and I am sure that over the years as I continued my Jewish education I relearned that information many times
since. So what was it about this particular teacher that had had such a lasting impact on me? I was excited to find out.
It didn’t take long. As soon as I entered his classroom and perched my oversized body on one of the tiny chairs, it was obvious to me that his classroom was filled with love and respect for his students. And their respect for him in return. He connected to the soul of each of his students individually, and taught them using his own soul. I knew then I wanted to model my teaching on his. Some twenty-five years later, I pray I have lived up to this wish.
Questions to Ponder
1. Do you have any teachers like this, who you can imagine you will remember for many years to come?
2. What do you think is the key to being a teacher who can make an impact like this?
Thinking More Deeply
Moshe became, in the last month of his life, the master educator. In these addresses recorded in the book of Devarim, he does more than just tell the people what the law is. He explains to them why the law is. There is nothing arbitrary about it. The law is as it is because of the people’s experience of slavery and persecution in Egypt, which was their tutorial in why we need freedom and law-governed liberty. Time and again he says: You shall do this because you were once slaves in Egypt. They must remember and never forget – two verbs that appear repeatedly in the book – where they came from and what it felt like to be exiled, persecuted, and powerless.
Throughout Devarim, Moshe reaches a new level of authority and wisdom. For the first time we hear him speak extensively in his own voice, rather than merely as the transmitter of God’s words to him. His grasp of vision and detail is faultless. He wants the people to understand that the laws God has commanded them are for their good, not just God’s.
At this defining moment of his life, Moshe understood that, though he would not be physically with the people when they entered the Promised Land, he could still be with them intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally if he gave them the teachings to take with them into the future. Moshe became the pioneer of perhaps the single greatest contribution of Judaism to the concept of leadership: the idea of the teacher as hero.
Heroes are people who demonstrate courage in the field of battle. What Moshe knew was that the most important battles are not military. They are spiritual, moral, cultural. A military victory shifts the pieces on the chessboard of history. A spiritual victory changes lives. A military victory is almost always short-lived. Either the enemy attacks again or a new and more dangerous opponent appears. But spiritual victories can – if their lesson is not forgotten – last forever. Even quite ordinary people, Yiftah, for example, or Shimshon, can be military heroes. But those who teach people to see, feel, and act differently, who enlarge the moral horizons of humankind, are rare indeed. Of these, Moshe was the greatest.
Not only does he become the teacher in Devarim. In words engraved on Jewish hearts ever since, he tells the entire people that they must become a nation of educators: “Teach [these words] repeatedly to your children, speaking of them when you sit at home and when you travel on the way, when you lie down and when you rise. (Devarim 6:7)
In Devarim, a new word enters the biblical vocabulary: the verb l-m-d, meaning to learn or teach. The verb does not appear even once in Bereishit, Shemot, Vayikra, or Bamidbar. In Devarim it appears seventeen times.
There was nothing like this concern for universal education elsewhere in the ancient world. Jews became the people whose heroes were teachers, whose citadels were schools, and whose passion was study and the life of the mind.
Moshe’s end-of-life transformation is one of the most inspiring in all of religious history. In that one act, he redeemed his career from tragedy. He became a leader not only for his time but for all time. His body did not accompany his people as they entered the land, but his teachings did. His sons did not succeed him, but his disciples did. He may have felt that he had not changed his people in his lifetime, but in the full perspective of history, he changed them more than any leader has ever changed any people, turning them into the people of the book and the nation who built not pyramids but schools and houses of study.
The poet Shelley famously said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In truth, though, it is not poets but teachers who shape society, handing on the legacy of the past to those who build the future. That insight sustained Judaism for longer than any other civilisation, and it began with Moshe in the last month of his life.
From the Thought of Rabbi Sacks
The greatest leader we ever had was Moshe. And what fascinates me is the title we gave him. Moshe was a liberator, a law-giver, a military commander and a prophet. But we call him none of these things. Instead we call him Moshe Rabbeinu, ‘Moshe our teacher’, because that, for us, is the highest honour…
Teachers open our eyes to the world. They give us curiosity and confidence. They teach us to ask questions. They connect us to our past and future. They’re the guardians of our social heritage. We have lots of heroes today, and they are often celebrities – athletes, supermodels, media personalities. They come, they have their fifteen minutes of fame, and they go. But the influence of good teachers stays with us. They are the people who really shape our life.From Optimism to Hope, p. 132
Question to Ponder
1. Why is being a teacher “the highest honour” for Judaism? Do you think this is reflected in wider society?
2. Who are you heroes? Are any of your teachers a hero?
Around the Shabbat Table
- Why do you think Moshe focused on education at the end of his life, and became known to us simply as Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moshe, our teacher” rather than another equally deserved title?
- How can a teacher make an impact that will last long after they have stopped teaching the student? How did Moshe do this?
- How and why did the Jewish people become a “nation of educators”?
The Core Idea
- Moshe realised that soon he would no longer be a physical presence for the people, personally leading them through the upcoming challenges they would face. So he changed the focus of his role to making an impact that would last beyond his life, becoming a teacher, leaving a legacy that would guide his people, and all subsequent generations of the people (even until today).
- While Moshe played many important roles as the greatest leader of the Jewish people, such as statesman, military leader, and spiritual leader as a prophet, his role as a teacher is the one that has had the longest impact on future generations. Perhaps this is because the role of the teacher is the most respected and honoured in Judaism. What we are taught, and what we pass on to others, outlives us, and can span across generations.
- Hopefully the younger generation discussing this can see the importance of teachers in their lives and the lasting impact they can have (although not all teachers have a long lasting or positive impact on the lives of their students, every teacher has the potential to do this).
It Once Happened…
- In all likelihood, we will each have only a handful of teachers (if we are lucky) that will leave a lasting impact like this. And it may be hard for a child to identify them while they are still a student. They may need the help of an adult to identify the qualities in a teacher that will leave a lasting impact like this.
- There are pedagogic skills that can be learned, and improved with experience, such as classroom management and curriculum development. But the essence of good teaching is love and respect, and that is what Rabbi B. based his teaching on, and what made him beloved as a teacher then and now.
From the Thought of Rabbi Sacks
- Because education is one of the highest values in Judaism, being a teacher is one of the highest honours in Judaism, and is a highly-valued and deeply respected profession. Perhaps this is not reflected in wider society, where other principles (such as wealth and power) are prioritized by many. Some argue this can be seen in the salaries commanded by various other professions.
- A hero is a person who is admired or idealised for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. The greatest teachers leave a real, positive impact on their students, and their actions and values could allow us to respect them as heroic figures who make a lasting on us.
Around the Shabbat Table
- Moshe changed his focus towards the end of his life to creating a legacy that would outlive him. By playing a stronger role as a teacher, he left a lasting imprint on his people, in both that generation and beyond, until today. While Moshe played many important roles as the greatest leader of the Jewish people, his role as teacher is the one that has had the longest impact on future generations.
- A teacher can still have an impact on his or her students long after ceasing to teach them by giving them teachings and values they can take with them into the future. Moshe realised this and so he dedicated the remaining time he had with his people to teaching them everything he felt they needed to know in their hearts to go on without him.
- The value of education has been central to the Jewish people since the beginning of their history. Love of learning has always been a core value in Judaism, found in Jewish texts and Jewish traditions. Elevating education to a central and core Jewish value has meant that literacy levels among Jewish communities were often much higher than the average, and many Jewish people reach adulthood with a great love for learning. Many Jewish children grow up to be Rabbis, teachers, leaders, writers, educators, academics, and teachers to their own children. Ensuring that all Jews are fully versed in their own traditions and laws has also contributed to the strength of Jewish identity and continuity throughout the period of exile, being one of the factors explaining the miracle of Jewish survival and continuity against the odds.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.