Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Devarim

The Original "Last Lecture"

Most people go through life without knowing when they will die.  Moshe, though, had the mixed blessing of having such foreknowledge, and he used it to prepare the nation which he was going to be leaving behind.  Here are some overarching questions to consider about Moshe's address:

  • In the first section (Devarim 1–3), Moshe reviews some of the nation's history.  What is his purpose in doing so?  Is it to rebuke, as RambanDevarim IntroductionAbout R. Moshe b. Nachman claims, or to encourage, as R. HirschDevarim 1:1About R. Samson Raphael Hirsch implies?
  • The main section (Devarim 4–26), in contrast, is legal in nature. Were these new laws first introduced in the fortieth year, or had these been previously conveyed and were just being reviewed?  Why were specifically these laws chosen to be relayed now? Contrast RashbamDevarim 1:1About R. Shemuel b. Meir and Ibn EzraDevarim 1:1About R. Avraham ibn Ezra.
  • How much of Moshe's speech constitutes his own words, and how much is from Hashem?  The first person narrative would suggest that Moshe wrote Sefer Devarim "מפי עצמו".  Is this theologically problematic to suggest?1  Might there be a difference between the historical and legal sections of Moshe's words?
  • Over how long a period did Moshe give over his farewell address?  The book opens on the first of Shevat, but it is unclear when Moshe died.  While most assume that he died on 7 Adar, others suggest that his death occurred any time up to a full month earlier.  What evidence is there for any of these positions? How might it change our perspective on Moshe's speech (or other related Biblical stories)?  See the discussion in RadakYehoshua 3:2About R. David Kimchi's commentary on Yehoshua.

Contradictory Accounts

In Sefer Devarim, Moshe recounts several episodes described in earlier books of the Torah. Often, these accounts differ on key points.  In some cases, they even appear to contradict each other. How are we to understand the variations?

    • Compare the accounts of the story of the Spies as narrated in both Parashat Shelach and Parashat Devarim. What differences do you note? Which are the most troubling? How might you explain them?  Do the same for the description of the conquests of Sichon and Og in Parashat Chukkat and Parashat Devarim. 
    • What are the overall objectives and messages of Moshe's historical speech in the opening chapters of Sefer Devarim and how might these affect the way that he retells earlier stories?
    • Is it problematic to say that Moshe intentionally recasts history to promote an agenda?

For more, see The Story of the Spies in Bemidbar and Devarim, Encounters with Esav, Moav, and Ammon in Bemidbar and Devarim, and Battles with Sichon and Og in Bemidbar and Devarim.

The Spies' Route and Slander

Did the Spies really travel from the Wilderness of Zin all the way to Israel's northern border, evaluating the country's main cities, fortifications, and water sources along the way, then return to Moshe, all within a span of forty days?

  • While Rashi Bemidbar 13:21-25About R. Shelomo Yitzchakiasserts that special Divine providence hastened the Spies' pace and enabled them to explore the entire land, NetzivBemidbar 13:17, 21-22About R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin claims that the spies scouted in pairs, dividing up the country between them.  Some modern scholars,2 in contrast, suggest that the spies scouted only the southern region of the land, as that was intended to be their entry point into the land and the first stage of its conquest.
  • Which verses support each position? Which are difficult?
  • How do the different positions shed light on the nature of the Spies' sin as a whole? How might our evaluation of the spies differ if Chevron was the sole city visited rather than merely one stop of many? What difference would it make if only one or two of the spies encountered the giants or if all of them did? For discussion, see The Spies – Where Did They Tour?

Moshe's Assistants

The very first event Moshe chooses to recount in his speech in Devarim 1 is his enlisting of leadership to aid in "bearing the burden" of the nation. It is not clear, however, to which episode Moshe is referring.  Is it the implementation of Yitro's advice in Shemot 18, the appointing of elders in Bemidbar 11, or some combination?

  • What is the relationship between the appointments of Shemot and Bemidbar?  Do these accounts describe two distinct events or tell of one event from different perspectives?  If Moshe had already appointed assistants in Shemot, why would he need others in Bemidbar?  Finally, which aspects of Moshe's retelling in Devarim match each account?  See Appointing Moshe's Assistants for more.
  • In Shemot, what does Yitro suggest are the necessary qualifications for the judges?  What qualifications does Moshe speak of in Devarim?  How do these relate to one another? How would your own list compare? Was Moshe able to find people with all of these qualities? See אנשי חיל and Advice and Implementation.
  • What are "rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens"?  Does this refer to the numbers of people over whom each group of judges was supposed to rule?  If so, the mathematical calculations would produce a figure of 78,600 judges for a population of only 600,000 men, making for a very large bureaucracy. Are there other ways these terms could be understood?  See Yitro's System – A Bloated Bureaucracy?

Hardened Hearts

Devarim 2 notes that Sichon refused to allow the Israelites to pass through his land because "Hashem hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate."  The verse suggests that Hashem manipulated Sichon so as to cause his defeat at the hands of Israel.

  • What does this episode suggest about man's free will? Are there circumstances under which Hashem chooses to override this principle? If Hashem does indeed take away someone's free choice, how can He hold the person responsible for their actions?
  • There are many events that Tanakh attributes to Hashem, saying, "it was the hand of God" or the like.  Are all of these cases miraculous wonders, or might they have happened through the natural order?  If the latter, why are these instances described as Hashem's doing?
  • The best known example of Hashem's hardening of hearts is the case of Paroh and the Egyptians. Can you think of examples of modern "Paroh's" who similarly refuse to capitulate in the face of definite defeat, knowing that it will lead to the destruction or suffering of their nations?  What leads these modern figures to "harden their hearts"?  Can the hardened hearts of Biblical characters be explained in similar fashion?

For further discussion of the above, see Hardened Hearts.


For more, see: Parashat Devarim Topics.