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Devarim: Beginning the Jewish Interpretive Tradition

A Torah interpreter must not only go over and repeat, and not only hear that which has not yet been heard, but must also try to answer the questions which the Torah and its previous interpreters have left unanswered
Rabbi Avital Hochstein is a faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute and has learned, taught, and done research at the institute for more than 15 years. In 2016, she was among the first recipients of rabbinical ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute / HaMidrasha at Oranim Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis. Avital is currently working on her Ph.D., focusing on Talmud, in the Gender Studies Program at Bar Ilan University. Avital is President of

Devarim: Beginning the Jewish Interpretive Tradition

Toward the end of his life, Moshe stands before the children of Israel, addressing them and conveying his final thoughts. Even though the book of Devarim is known as Moshe’s last speech, the book is not just a farewell. The last book of the Torah is also in fact the founding stone of the Jewish interpretive tradition: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moav, Moshe undertook to expound the Torah” (Devarim 1:5).

What principles of interpretation emerge from Moshe’s words? How does he interpret and explain the Torah? Moreover, what do the verses teach about the act of interpretation itself, and how is the project of interpreting the Torah defined by its first undertaker, Moshe?

1. Bringing the past into the present: interpretation as repetition

The first chapters of the book of Devarim, and as we shall see many of its verses and chapters in general, are filled with events that have already been described in the other books of the Torah and laws that have already been given over. Thus, there is a seemingly significant component of repetition in the book. However, events, and even laws, in Devarim are often described in great and sometimes different detail, not as we might have expected from a mere repetition.

Furthermore, the nature of this repetition neither precludes the inclusion of detailed remembrances nor the expansion of additional components, new to the story. It seems that the Torah serves as the starting point of Moshe’s interpretation, as well as its boundaries. Moshe acknowledges this anchor explicitly: “Moshe undertook to expound this Torah, saying, ‘YHVH our God spoke to us at Horev, saying…'” (Devarim 1: 5-6).

Thus, we learn that the act of interpretation is characterized by repetition: “our God spoke.” Repetition has a basic component of making sure and creating a joint point of departure. Moshe repeatedly recounts the events and laws that have already been given over in past tense, which appears in the verses again and again, and serves as testimony to the consciousness of the element of repetition:

Devarim 1:5-19

YHVH our God spoke to us at Horev, saying: “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. 7Start out and make your way…” 9Thereupon I said to you, “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself…. 14You answered me and said, “What you propose to do is good.”… 16 I charged your magistrates…19We set out from Horev and traveled the great and terrible wilderness…

Furthermore, commentators from the period of the Mishnah suggest that Moshe was not only personally involved in this act of repetition, but involved the entire congregation in the activity as well:

Sifrei Devarim Parashat Devarim 4

“Moshe undertook to expound the Torah…” – He said to them: “I am near death! One who learnt one verse and forgot it, let them come and it shall be repeated to them; one passage and forgot it, let them come and it shall be repeated to them; one chapter and forgot it, let them come and it shall be repeated to them; one law and forgot it, let them come and it shall be repeated to them.” That’s why it says, “Moshe undertook to expound the Torah…”

According to the midrash, Moshe opens his act of interpretation by suggesting that all who feel that the Torah is not rolling off their tongue come, learn once again, remember and reiterate. The Tannaim thus expand Moshe’s project of repetition not only to the rest of Israel but also expand this project beyond the written Torah to include the oral Torah as well:

Sifrei Devarim Parashat Devarim 2

“Moshe spoke to all Israel”… From where [do we know that this includes] all of the [Ten] Statements, the logical analogies (kal va-homer), the analogies through comparison of words (gezerah shavah), the general rules and the exceptional details (kelal u-frat), the main principles and the small details? That’s why the verse says: “Moshe spoke to them like all (ke-khol) that God commanded him.”

In this way, Torah and the past are entwined as basic anchors of the interpretive act, turning interpretation into an act that has a basic and significant component of repetition. Moshe turns an activity that is seemingly occupied with the past – with history, with what was – into an action taking place in the present. Repetition is an act that is done in the now, and the interpreting Tannaim clarify that Moshe’s act of explaining was also an invitation to all to take part in the current activity of review and repetition.

This understanding of the book of Devarim casts Moshe’s character in a completely new light. Throughout the Torah, Moshe is known as a prophet. Now, the book of Devarim suggests that we expand our understanding of Moshe to see him as an interpreter, too. Thus, whereas prophecy faces forward towards what will be, interpretation, even one which faces forward, looks back again and again towards the past.

2. Bringing the present into the future: interpretation as an act of productivity

The way Moshe engages in repetition and in retelling the past is surprising. As I noted, in the book of Devarim, Moshe describes events many of which were already portrayed in the first four books of the Torah. Yet his descriptions of these events differ strikingly from the accounts we saw in the previous books. Let’s examine two such examples.

A. Building the legal system


Devarim 1
Shemot 18

6YHVH our God spoke to us at Horev, saying: You have stayed long enough at this mountain. …9Thereupon I said to you, “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. 10 YHVH your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky.- …12How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!

1Yitro priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel His people, how the God had brought Israel out from Egypt. 5Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, brought Moshe’s sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God…. 13The next day, Moshe sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moshe from morning until evening. 14But when Moshe’s father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” … 17But Moshe’s father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; 18you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

B. The spies


Devarim 1
BeMidbar 13

22 Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead to examine the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.” 23I approved of the plan, and so I selected twelve of your men, one from each tribe.


God spoke to Moshe, saying, 2″Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.” 3So Moshe, by God’s command, sent them out from the wilderness of Paran, all the men being leaders of the Israelites.

An initial consideration of these examples demonstrates that there are many differences in the descriptions of the events in the various books of the Torah. Thus, in the examples before us: despite the strong similarities between the descriptions of the events in each one of the books, the genesis of each is quite different. The decision to appoint judges is described in the book of Shemot as an initiative of Yitro, whereas it is described as Moshe’s idea in the book of Devarim.

The characters are described differently as well in different places: in the story of the spies described in the book of BeMidbar, God commands the spies be sent forth, whereas in the book of Devarim, the people themselves decide to send out the spies.

The scope of our current discussion cannot contain a conversation regarding the meanings of these differences, though one basic characteristic of biblical interpretation becomes apparent in this very initial consideration: Moshe’s reading of the past and explanation of the Torah clarify that the basic interpretation of the Torah is productive. That is, it includes innovation vis-à-vis what already exists as Torah. It is an overflowing consideration of the record of the past. The Torah, its laws and stories, and their repeated learning are the grounds for hearing additional voices that are within it; they produce a framework for generating creativity.

But creative listening and productive hearing that could give birth to new fruit are not the end of the interpretive action. Moshe’s act of explaining the Torah means repetition, but repetition is not the be all and end all of interpretation, firstly: repetition gives birth to new sounds, new voices, new notions and ideas, secondly: those new voices turn themselves to become part of the Torah.

Learning Torah and repeating it not only strengthens and fortifies what exists but also expands it.

3. The current activity: listening to the gap between the text and its interpretation

One obvious question remains unanswered and receives no treatment: why do the descriptions in the book of Devarim differ from those in the other books of the Torah? Why are the reports distinct from each other? Why is the description given by Moshe before his death divergent?

Moshe’s character does not reveal what stands behind the way laws, stories and events are portrayed in the book of Devarim; there is no explanation offered as to how the new layer of voices is heard, and how it emerged from the narrative of the previous books. The Torah itself, like God, doesn’t share with us, its readers and students, what stands behind these refurbished, renewed stories. Moreover, there is a total silence regarding the meaning of the changes and differences. The way of Torah is that its messages are more often than not hidden and not expressed directly. These questions remain on the door steps of those who choose to learn the Torah.

In this way, through his silence, the first interpreter of the Torah teaches us one more basic aspect of interpreting Torah. As its interpreter, one is not only to go over and repeat, and not only to hear that which has not yet been heard, but to also try and answer the questions which the Torah and its previous interpreters have left unanswered. Through this process we are to wonder, to strive to understand, and to demand the meanings of what is before us. Our role is likely also to leave questions for the generations to come.

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