Devarim: At the Threshold of a Dream

Moshe recited the Book of Deuteronomy as the Jews stood on the banks on the Jordan, preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael. The crossing of the Jordan River was to be a spiritual as well as a geographic movement. During their journeys through the desert, the Jews depended on miraculous expressions of Divine favor: they ate manna, their water came from the Well of Miriam, and the Clouds of Glory preserved their garments. After entering Eretz Yisrael, however, the Jewish people were to live within the natural order, working the land and eating the fruits of their labor.

To make this transition possible, they required an approach to the Torah that would relate to man as he functions within his worldly environment. It was for this purpose that Moshe taught the Book of Deuteronomy.

Herein lies a connection to the present day, because we are also “on the banks of the Jordan” preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael together with Mashiach. It is through the approach emphasized by the Book of Deuteronomy fusing the word of G-d with mortal wisdom that we will merit the age when “the occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G-d,” the Era of the Redemption.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“A Mortal Mouth Speaking G-d’s Word”
from the “In the Garden of the Torah” series
Commentary on Torah Portion Devarim

“I have to confess, I don’t really get it. If you believe in Jesus, you believe he is the King. The Lord. The Boss. Your Boss. There is no other option. It’s an integral part of his identity. The fact that some people have lost sight of that fact is evidence, to me, of how far we have come from a really Biblical idea of who Jesus is. We have forgotten that there is no such thing as a Jesus who is not our King, a Jesus we don’t have to obey.”

-Boaz Michael
Founder and President of First Fruits of Zion

I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to stand there on the banks of the Jordan river, watching and listening to Moses, knowing that this was the last time he would speak to Israel, knowing that they were on the threshold of the fulfilled promises of God, knowing that Moses wouldn’t be part of that fulfillment.

It must have been an incredible thrill mixed with passionate anticipation and more than a tinge of bitter sorrow. How could Israel go into Canaan, take possession of The Land as God had ordained, and yet have God deny the man they had come to know as Prophet, tzaddik, and even father entrance with them? What would the realization of a dream mean if Moses wasn’t there in their midst?

From Moshe’s point of view, how difficult it must have been for him. For over forty years, he had guarded the Israelites. He had guarded them from hunger and thirst, from losing their way, both geographically and spiritually. He had guarded them from hostile kingdoms and armies and he had protected them from their own folly. He had watched the entire generation he brought out of Egypt die one by one in the desert, and he had watched their children grow up and become the people who replaced them; the people who would enter The Land.

But he wouldn’t be going with them. Who would protect them from their folly should they speak against God and God’s anger flare against them?

That’s what Deuteronomy is all about. Moshe’s last message to the Children of Israel before he was to die and they were to live and go forward. It was his last opportunity to speak out, to encourage them, to warn them, to beg them, to scream at them, “Don’t screw this up! I won’t be with you to save you anymore!”

The Chassidic sages have much to say about the last speech of Moses, trying to reconcile the words of God that came through the prophet in the first four books of Torah with the words of Moses that fill to the brim this last, fateful tome:

Our Sages note that the Book of Devarim differs from the first four Books of the Torah in that the latter are “from G-d’s mouth,” while Devarim is “from Moshe’s mouth.”

This does not — Heaven forfend — imply that the words in Mishneh Torah are not G-d’s. Rather, as Rashi explains: (Sanhedrin 56b.) “Moshe did not say Mishneh Torah to the Jews on his own, but as he would receive it from G-d he would repeat it to them.”

Since the words of Mishneh Torah too are not Moshe’s words but G-d’s, why are the first four Books of the Torah considered to be from “G-d’s mouth” while the Book of Devarim is considered to be from “Moshe’s mouth”; what difference is there between the first four Books and the fifth?

The inherent sanctity of Torah is such that it completely transcends this physical world; in order for it to descend within this world an intermediary is necessary — one who is both higher than this world yet within it. This intermediary bridges the gap between the sacred Torah and this corporeal world.

from “The Chassidic Dimension” series
Commentary on Torah Portion Devarim
Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. XIX, pp. 9-12
and on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

I know. It’s difficult for me to comprehend as well. How can the first four books of Torah basically be from God as “dictated” to Moses and yet the fifth book be from Moshe’s own mouth and yet still be inspired by God?

I don’t know.

How can the letters of Paul be Paul’s own words, written in his “style,” expressing his own concerns, his own fears, his anger at the screw ups some of the churches were making, and still be the inspired word of God through the Holy Spirit?

It’s a mystery.

Can you have a rant and still have it be a “holy rant?”

I don’t know that either. But that’s what Deuteronomy is mostly about. The deep anguish and pain of a man who was about as close to God as any human being ever got expressed in his own words, through his own feelings and yet…

…and yet, God was still in all that somehow.

I don’t think I’m a prophet. Far from it. I’m just a guy with a blog. I sincerely doubt that there are any prophets in the world today that we could compare with Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Holy people, tzaddikim, sure, but no prophets. I don’t think there are “letter writers” (today, they’d all be emailers and bloggers) who have the special mission Paul had, to communicate to the churches in such a way that our words would become holy documents.

But we have our own words. As people of faith, we sometimes faintly hear the whispers of God. Most of the time, we have no idea what we’re hearing. It it our imagination? Is it just the wind? Is it only my feelings?

Paul wrote letters and, in all likelihood, he probably never had any idea that they’d become part of what we consider the Holy Scriptures. He was just doing his job, being the Messiah’s disciple, being the emissary to the Gentiles, trying to make it all work somehow, depending on the Spirit of God to get him through it all.

When Moses was standing there at the Jordan, did he realize that God would have him record everything he was saying later for the Torah? Did he think that it all ended with Numbers? After all, he knew he was to die soon. Maybe he thought the responsibility for recording God’s words was already past. How could he possibly imagine that God would have him record the moment of his own death and then what happened next?

I have no idea. I’m not theologian or historian. For all I know, Christian and Jewish scholars and authorities may have answered these questions ages ago.

Or not.

All I know…all I can tell for sure, is that both Moses and Paul were mere flesh and blood. Just like you and me. Moses had an unparalleled relationship with God. They spoke, for all intents and purposes, as if they were “face to face.” Paul saw a vision of the Master on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-6) and later was taken up into the third Heaven. His experience in the latter case goes something like this:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. –2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (ESV)

These were both men who led lives and had experiences probably none of us could even begin aspire to. And yet they were human beings, they got hungry and thirsty, they became angry and frustrated, they cried out to God.

Just like you and me.

So as Moses launched into his last, impassioned speech to the Israelites at the Jordan river, anticipating all that was to come and knowing that time was extremely short, God was somehow infused in this last book of Torah, and yet everything that was of Moses was there, too.

What does this teach us?

I can’t give you a definitive answer, I can only give you my answer.

I think it teaches us that a life of faith is a life of companionship. Some people think of time as a predator, stalking us all our lives, closing in on us as we get older and weaker, waiting for the moment to strike and make the kill. However, God shows us that time and a life spent in faith is a life of companionship. God goes with us on the journey and reminds us to cherish every moment, because it will never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we’ve lived. After all, we’re only mortal. (with apologies to Patrick Stewart and his alter ego Captain Picard as they appeared in Star Trek: Generations 1994)

Each morning when we wake up, we stand at the threshold of living out our dream. It’s not a dream of the house you’ve always wanted to live in, the clothes and the car you’ve always wanted to own, or the places you’ve always wanted to visit. It’s the dream of a day lived out with God as a companion. It’s the realization that we can be, and we indeed are, fully and completely ourselves, frail and mortal human beings, and yet we can still walk our path, step by step, with the lover of our souls. Moses walked this path until the day he died. So did Paul.

By the grace of God, so will we all. Like them, we will try to continually listen to His Voice and to obey His Words. But as we live out His Words, they will be expressed to the rest of the world through whatever we say and do. This is just like Moses in his farewell to Israel recorded in Deuteronomy. This is just like each of Paul’s letters to the various churches of the diaspora.

This is just like us every time we speak of our lives, our journey, our very existence at the side of our God. The words and the voice everyone hears are ours. But somehow, God is in them, too.

When the white eagle of the North is flying overhead
The browns, reds and golds of autumn lie in the gutter, dead.
Remember then, that summer birds with wings of fire flaying
Came to witness spring’s new hope, born of leaves decaying.
Just as new life will come from death, love will come at leisure.
Love of love, love of life and giving without measure
Gives in return a wondrous yearn of a promise almost seen.
Live hand-in-hand and together we’ll stand on the threshold of a dream.

-Graeme Edge
from the song “The Dream”
on the album On the Threshold of a Dream (1969)

Someday we will cross the threshold with our Master, our Messiah, and we will enter the final Shabbat rest in the Kingdom of Heaven. And the whole world will know God. The dream will become reality.

Good Shabbos.

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