This week, we begin reading the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and last book of the Torah. Discovered in the First Temple in Jerusalem in 622 BCE, Deuteronomy is believed to have been written by a new author in a far more poetic and evocative writing style than the other four books.
Not only that, but Deuteronomy completely reshapes the character of Moses. As many of us know, Moses was “slow of speech,” which is understood to mean that he had some kind of speech defect. In the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, Moses often communicates with God but rarely speaks on a personal level to anyone, including his wife, brother, and sister (Unless he is angry or frustrated, at which point Moses is quite vociferous about his displeasure, but I hardly call that a conversation). For the most part, Moses acts as a conduit, communicating the laws, commandments, and teachings of God. He is a terse and distant figure.
In Deuteronomy, Moses is transformed. The entire book is a series of speeches given by Moses to the people of Israel, as they stand assembled on the border of the Promised Land. Suddenly, this shy and aloof and tongue-tied man has so much to say, so much to express and share. He talks and talks and talks until in the very last paragraph, we are told that he has died.
The name for Deuteronomy in Hebrew is Devarim, which means words. These are the words of Moses and they are beautiful, powerful, and important. They include the Shma and the V’ahavta, exhorting us to love God, educate our children, and remember and incorporate the mitzvot into our daily lives.
Moses also urges us to be strong and courageous and to choose a life of blessings. He reminds us to be openhanded to the poor, to remember the stranger, and love our neighbor as ourselves. He reviews our miraculous Exodus from Egypt and the majestic revelation at Sinai where we received the Ten Commandments.
For the first time, Moses pours his heart out, begging and chastising the people to be ethical, moral, and even holy. What makes this so poignant is that it’s also the last time.
Because while the people of Israel will finally enter their homeland after forty years of wandering, Moses will not be joining them. Earlier, God had informed him that he will not be allowed to enter, but can only stand on a nearby mountaintop and longingly gaze at the land from afar before he dies.
I have so many questions, so many conflicting feelings about the Moses of Deuteronomy.
Why did he wait so long to speak personally to the people? Was he too busy, too tired, and too self-conscious about his speech impediment? He had so much to say but did he think God’s words were enough and his own teachings didn’t really matter?
Are there people I need to speak to, connect with, and share with, but never get to it because I am too busy or tired? Do I harbor insecurities that prevent me from revealing my true self to people?
Maybe he thought there would always be time later on.
Do I postpone important decisions because there’s always tomorrow? Do I have a bucket list where everything stays on the list and is never realized?
At the end of his life, Moses’ brother, Aaron, and sister, Miriam died. There is no mention of his wife and two sons. What happened to them? Where is his family? There is something so tragic about his final days because he is so alone.
Have I become increasingly isolated and alone as I grow older? Do I have relationships that I need to repair? What about close friends or family that I have lost contact with? People suddenly die and then it’s too late. That has happened to me personally with three people I meant to contact, but never did. I have so much regret about that.
Moses had so much wisdom and experience and insights about life. The Midrash tells us that he repeated the words of Deuteronomy in seventy languages so that future Jews living in every country across the world would be able to understand him.
Do I have important things to share? Is there a book or article I want to write? A class I want to teach? Someone I want to mentor? What about creating an ethical will where I write down my morals, values, and life lessons for my children and grandchildren, and future generations?
Moses knew that he was about to die. Most of us do not have that information. The Talmud suggests that we should live each day as if it were our last. Ecclesiastes says we ought to enjoy every day of our lives as long as we live. Rabbi Hillel asks, “If not now, when?”
My heart breaks for Moses. He was a great leader but always felt burdened, beleaguered, overwhelmed, and anxious. I don’t think he ever felt content or satisfied. I am grateful for his teachings but would not want to emulate his life. Instead, I will try to use my words, my “Dvarim,” to reach out, connect and share, and repair the brokenness in my life – not tomorrow, not next week, not on my deathbed. Instead, I will start today.