This week’s Torah portion starts the book of Devarim, otherwise known as Deuteronomy. This book is also known as “Mishnah Torah”, a repeat of the Torah. This latter name comes from the fact that many of the commandments are repeated in addition to some new ones.
Considering that we study the Torah every year, then on Simchat Torah re-roll the scroll and start over again to study the same thing for the next year, why have a review? Why do we need to have what is essentially a review-within-a-review, especially since we are going to start over again in just a few months? Isn’t it enough to just go over it once a year?
Short answer: no.
The context of this repetition is that it is now 38 years after the Israelites were condemned to remain in the Wilderness and die out without the privilege and pleasure of seeing and inhabiting the promised land. This generation, having grown up without knowing the yoke of slavery and being weened on desert survival, is a heartier bunch that is better suited to take the land. Moses’ purpose is to discuss the flaws of the previous generation and in the words of Elvis: “Little sister don’t you do what your big sister done”.
The discourses that comprise the book of Deuteronomy is really for us, the successive generations later. It is to hone in some very specific points about what’s important to us as the descendants of those who interacted directly with Hashem. It is to make sure that we remember what’s important.
Consider the first part of the book, the first things that Moshe Rabbeinu says. He gives a little travelogue that outlines the journeys of the Israelites over the past 38 years. He specifically names the places in which the Israelites sojourned.
Some commentators look at the names of the places and see a veiled reference in the names. The names are derived from the events that took place in those locations. Unfortunately, those events were the negative aspects of the journeys, like where the Israelites contended with Moses over the need for water, or the rebellions. Rather than just out-and-out state the incidents, the Torah couches them in sort of code names.
While this does remind us of the improper things that the former slaves did to challenge Moses and Hashem, it also spares them of the embarrassment of having their actions demeaned throughout the ages. This is similar to a mention towards the end of the previous book “Numbers” of the incident of a certain person who gathered wood on Shabbat, a no-no that had some very serious consequences. Most sages agree that this was Tselophahad, whose daughters then beseeched Moses to share in an inheritance since there were no sons, but they also contend that the Torah is sparing his family the embarrassment of his actions since his daughters were righteous and ultimately had an added commandment on their account.
“Lashon Harah” is a frequent issue in Judaism that is repeated or referenced many times in our yearly journey through the Torah. Why? Because it’s so easy to descend into that sin. Yes, sin. It is a sin and big temptation.
Why? Because many of us get frustrated by certain events and people. Many times, it isn’t so much the current issue that is right in front of us, but other issues about which that reminds us; this is what psychologists call “transference”.
Our tongues last out. We want vindication and we want justice for ourselves. We are so tempted by this need for validation that forget the commandment to not take our own vengeance but leave it up to Hashem to dole out divine justice. No, we want that power to control someone’s reputation that either makes up for attacks on us or just to give ourselves power for a much-needed ego boost.
Hashem and Moses apparently knew how tempting it was to demean people to sure up our own egos that it is a concept that is mentioned many times in the Torah. It is to show that us that if the powerful and wise people of our heritage were able to withstand this temptation, then they are our role models and we would do well to follow them. Certainly, it’s hard not to gossip and demean, but our religion is all about pushing ourselves to a higher level of behavior.
This is especially true with Tisha B’Av right around the corner. It customary to read a portion of the Talmud tractrate from “Gittin” that discusses the incident of two rival rabbis. One of the rabbis then allied with the occupying Romans against his rival and this is one of the main incidents that led to the destruction of the Second Temple.