The Long Road Back

The Book of Devarim is known as ‘Deuteronomy’, a ‘Second Torah’, from the Rabbinic title, ‘Mishne Torah’ which means the same.[1]

Typically, we assume that the Rabbis call it that because it repeats and revises much of the core content – both narrative and law – of the previous parts of Torah. But that would hardly suffice to represent all that Devarim is about. 

After all, according to Rambam’s classification of the 613 Mitzvas, it turns out that around 200 of them are taught in Devarim. Even if we exclude those that are connected to Mitzvas already mentioned previously in Torah, there are still at least 70 that are totally new. They include the Mitzvah of divorce, of an idolatrous city, of what to do when the law is not clear, of the laws of war, and even the Mitzva to do Teshuva (to repent) a wrongdoing.

So why then do the Rabbis call it a ‘Second Torah’?

Focusing for a moment on the start of this week’s reading, another question comes to mind: 

Moshe opens by recapping two major episodes that had taken place fourty years earlier. One is the spies and the rejection of the land. That makes sense. Here they are about to embrace a second chance to enter the Land of Israel. The first had been ruined buy the sending of the spies, their negative report, the people’s refusal to enter and the fourty year delay. Now, Moshe was telling them, let’s not mess it up a second time.

But before he talks about the spies, Moshe draws attention to another episode whose lesson is less obvious; it is not the golden calf, not the rebellion of Korach, nor any of the other minor and major national mistakes. Instead it was the moment he felt the people had become too great a burden for him, and that he needed to delegate some of the responsibility for leadership to the seventy elders.[2]

Why is that a key event to focus his speech on?

Both of the key episodes that Moshe recalls are also linked to Tisha B’Av (literally the ninth day of the month of Av – the day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple and the pain of exile). The annual cycle of reading of the Torah puts the reading of Devarim in proximity to Tish’a B’av, and the very first Tish’a B’av was indeed the day that the spies returned and the people rejected the land.

That day [that the spies gave their report] was the evening of the Ninth of Av. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to the Jewish people: You cried an unwarranted cry, and so I will establish for you a reason to cry for generations. (Sanhedrin 104b)

But what is surprising is that Tish’a B’Av also thematically connects to the episode of Moshe’s delegation of responsibility too. After all the pain of Tish’a B’Av is articulated in the agonising Megilat Eicha – the book of Lamentations. The word ‘Eicha’ – literally ‘how could it possibly be?’ opens the whole book, and three of its five chapters. It is the sense of shock that initiates the depth of grieving over the catastrophic calamities that befell and befall our people. But its first Biblical occurrence[3] is in the very words Moshe uses this week to describe his need to delegate his responsibilities:

           Eicha! How can it be that I alone carry your work, your burdens and your quarrels? (Devarim 1:12)

Clearly the episode of delegation must have had some tragic component to it that is the key to understanding the book of Devarim. 

So let us return to the first recounting of the episode as it was presented in the book of Bamidbar, just as the people set out on what ought to be have been the final three-day triumphant march to the end of history:

They travelled from the Mountain of Hashem, on a three-day journey. The Ark of the covenant with Hashem travelled ahead of them on the three-day pathway to search out their resting place. (Bamidar 10:33)

But the march initially stalled from complaints that seem utterly trivial; a desire for a different diet:

The rabble that was amongst the people had a strong craving. Eventually Israel was turned, and wept asking: ‘Who will feed us meat? we remember the fish that we used to freely eat in Egypt; those cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we feel dried out. We have nothing except this manna!’ (Bamidbar 11:4-6)

At first this seems inexplicable. In just three days they could eat whatever they would want from the land of Israel. In any case the manna tasted like almost anything they could want.[4] But it turns out that the rejection of manna was much deeper – it was the beginning of the rejection of Moshe himself.

After all, Moshe is deeply related to the manna. The Talmud tells us that ‘the manna came in the merit of Moshe’[5] and that it ended on the day that he died.[6]

The deep connection between the two is to be found in Moshe’s own words, recognizing that as soon as they reject the manna he loses his ability to lead them:

Moshe heard the people crying…

He called out to God: ‘why have you done this terrible thing to Your servant? Why have I not found favour in Your eyes – that You have placed the burden of all the people on me? 

Did I give birth to all the people? Did I raise them that you should ask me to carry them like a nursing mother caries her child?...

From where am I meant to find them meat?

…I cannot carry all the people alone, for it their burden is too great for me.’

(Bamidbar 11:10-14)

Moshe tells God that he never asked for the role of being the nursing mother of Israel, but now that he has that role he cannot provide them with meat, only manna. Manna, it turns out, is in fact the equivalent of a mother’s milk!

Just as the mother provides milk with many tastes, so did the manna constantly offer different tastes (Sifrei, 89[7])

What this implies is that the rejection of Moshe and manna, is the desire to be weaned, and to become independent. That is not in itself a bad thing. Moshe himself seems delighted that people are gaining their own spiritual power independent of him.

Two of the [newly Divinely-inspired] men remained in the camp… a holy spirit fell upon them... and they prophesied in the camp… Yehoshua ben Nun, servant of Moshe… said: ‘Master! Stop them!’ Moshe replied: ‘are you being jealous on my behalf? If only the whole nation of Hashem would be prophets; let Hashem put His spirit upon them all!’ (Bamidbar 11:26-29)

It turns out that the problem was not so much in what was being asked for, as the way it was being asked. The Torah subtly alludes to a flaw in their attitude from the moment that they set out on the journey.

[the people] travelled from the Mountain of Hashem on a three-day journey…Their intention was to remove themselves from there, because it was the mountain of Hashem (Bamidbar 11:33, Ramban 11:35)

The desire for awakening their part in the relationship with God and with Torah is deeply admirable; indeed essential. But the desire to detach from Sinai, from Moshe Rabbeinu and from the direct revelation at Sinai is a deep and tragic, if subtle, error. It is this that Moshe draws attention to in his own subtle rebuke this week:

‘I said to you at that time: “I am not able to carry you alone… bring forward men who are wise, understanding and knowledgeable from amongst your tribes and I will appoint them as your leaders.” You replied saying “that’s a great idea that you have suggested…!” 

You at once decided the matter to your benefit. You should really have replied: Our teacher, Moshe! From whom is it more fitting to learn, from you or from your disciple? Is it not from you who have taken such pains about it? But I knew your thoughts: you said, “Many judges will now be appointed over us; if one of them does not happen to be an acquaintance of ours, we shall bring him a gift and he will show us favour. (Devarim 1:9-14, Sifrei Devarim 14, Rashi 1:14)

Rather than change their relationship with Torah, Moshe and Hashem, the people sought to become their own masters of Torah, in control of its interpretation with detachment from it as its own nurturing source. Like people who fear relationship because they fear the loss of control, they turned their maturity into detachment.

The consequence was that they could no longer enter Eretz Yisrael because Moshe had said so, nor because of Hashem’s promise to their ancestors. The meat-eating generation that had ‘travelled from the Mountain of Hashem’ would now need their own relationship with the land. They would now need to ‘see it for themselves’ and relate to it on their own terms. Hence the need to send spies.[8]

Moshe makes the link between their desire for their own council of elders, and the desire to send spies explicit.

‘I said to you at that time: “I am not able to carry you alone… bring forward men who are wise, understanding and knowledgeable from amongst your tribes and I will appoint them as your leaders.” You replied saying “that’s a great idea that you have suggested…!” 

…I said to you at that time: “You have reached the Amorite Mountain that Hashem our God is giving to us, see that Hashem Your God has placed before you the land. Go and possess it, just as Hashem God of your ancestors has told you…”

You all gathered together before me and said, “we will send our own spies before us…” (Devarim 1:9,13-14,20-22)

Detached from the nurturing source that unifies us, the individual human becomes lost as a single perspective, unable to grasp the whole of reality. And whenever we see the world from our own perspective we do not see reality but a subjective interpretation of it.

So what is the solution? One might have thought it should be for the people to re-accept Moshe and to shut down the institution of the elders. But that is not the case. The book of Devorim will clarify and strengthen the role of the elders.[9] The reason is that the gap between Moshe and the people has grown too large. It can no longer be closed. The people fell to a level too far down for Moshe to raise them. Now they would need a new leader (Yehoshua), centuries of hard work, and a new pathway along the long road back. 

That new pathway is the book of Devarim.

Throughout the book, Moshe introduces to the people instruction after instruction that is designed for the struggles that they are now likely to face. Having fallen to the level they are now at, there will now be a far more intense struggle against the temptation of idolatry.[10] After all people who want to be in control, and who struggle to stay at the full Sinai experience are going to struggle not to search for intermediaries between them and Hashem. There are Miztvas to love and fear Hashem[11] – until now the idea was for God and Israel to be inseparable;[12] now that relationship will require work.

Above all there are dozens of new Mitzvas for dealing with situations that ideally should never happen. Ideally spouses would not get to the point of not being able to stay married. But if they do, the Torah has a new Mitzva – there is the option of divorce, and the right way to do it. Ideally we should never have an idolatrous city, but if we do the Torah has a new Mitzva for that too. Ideally we should never forget the Miztvas, but if we do the Torah has a new Mitzva for that, and so on all the way through. Even the Mitzva of Teshuvah itself, is given prominently in the book of Bamidbar. Ideally we would never sin at all. But we are not in that ideal world. We are in the world where people do fail and people do fall. Devarim is the book that says, no matter how badly we fail, and no matter how far we fall, there is always a pathway back.

That is why it is a ‘second Torah’. It is the second pathway that Torah offers. It is the pathway that allows us to take responsibility, and yet to find our own way back to the level of Sinai. We had a problem – the people wanted some independence, but we also need our connection to Moshe. Devarim provides the answer: Moshe himself offers us the pathway back. In learning and keeping the Mitzvas of Devarim we learn to wean ourselves from milk to meat, whilst never losing our connection to the nurturing parents of Israel, Moshe, Mount Sinai, and ultimately our connection to Hashem Himself. 

As we cry the tears of Tish’a B’Av, and feel the pain of the rupture in our relationship, it is crucial to remember that Hashem always offers us a second chance, a ‘Mishna Torah’, a way back to him.


[1] ‘Deuteronomy is based on the Greek title in the Septuagint, Deuteronomion, meaning ‘a second law’. 

[2] Devarim 1:10-18

[3] Actually the Midrash Eicha, and the Targum on Megilas  Eicha (1:1) point out that the same letters make up the word Ayeka,  and appear for the first time as god calling out to man after the sin in the Garden of Eden. The link is beyond the scope of this essay. 

[4] Yoma 75a

[5] Taanis 9a

[6] Kiddushin 38a

[7] See similarly Yoma 75a, and Rashi to 11:8 sv. Leshad

[8] This may also partly explain why in Bamidbar (13:1-2) it is presented as Hashem telling Moshe to send the spies, whereas in Moshe’s own repetition in Devarim (1:22) he says ‘you all gathered and said “let us send men for ourselves…”. 

[9] Eg. 16:18-20, 17:8-13 

[10] The majority of the 51 laws that Rambam records in ‘the laws of idolatry’ are from the book of Devarim.

[11] 6:5, 6:13

[12] See eg Shemos 19:5, 20:21 etc.

- July 23rd 2020

About the Author

Rabbi Daniel Rowe Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country. Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".  Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.

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