Reflections on Parashat Devarim

Parashat Devarim

Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) consists of Moses’s speech to the people of Israel, as they prepare to enter the land of Canaan. In this first parasha, he describes their journeys in the desert, including the establishment of the judicial system, the incident of the spies, their encounters with the nations of Eisav, Moav, and Ammon and battles with Sichon and Og, and the giving of the Trans-Jordan territory to the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe.

Devarim, Rashi, and God’s Love for Israel
The Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) opens: These are the words which Mosheh spoke to all of Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wildnerness, in the Arava, over against Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban and Hatzerot, and Di-Zahav.     
Rashi comments: Since these were words of rebuke, and here are listed all the places where they angered God. Therefore the verse condenses these matters and alludes to them only through a hint, on account of the honour of Israel.
From a simple reading of the text one would not have gleaned that concern for Israel’s honour is the guiding principle behind the list of locations. What explains Rashi’s comment?
Before suggesting an answer it is worth considering some of the difficulties of reading Rashi.
Rashi – full name Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki – wrote, arguably, the most significant and beloved of all commentaries to the Torah. And yet, figuring out what Rashi himself actually thinks is particularly difficult.
Firstly, where other medieval Biblical commentators such as Ramban or Seforno wrote, in addition to exegetical works, long essays on topics they deemed significant, Rashi’s work is almost exclusively made up of commentaries to verses. If he is ‘chained’ to the verse, how can we know what topics mattered to him?
Secondly, his comments are almost always brief. If we are to deduce something of his worldview, we have only a few words each time to work from.
Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the vast majority of Rashi’s words are not even his own! Rather they are select quotes taken from the vast pool of earlier midrashic commentaries. So if Rashi is copying and pasting from elsewhere, what can we usefully say is his own opinion?
Professor Avraham Grossman, in his wonderful book on Rashisuggests a number of tools that lovers of Rashi can use to overcome these problems. One idea is to isolate instances where Rashi consistently inserts a certain theme into the text at various locations, even though the Torah text itself makes no hint at such a theme.
The most striking example of this is Rashi’s first comment to each of the Torah’s five books. In each case Rashi diverts from the simple meaning of the text in order to insert an alien theme – God’s love of Israel.
Bereishit (Genesis) opens with creation – a universal theme – and yet Rashi turns to the land of Israel and God’s gift of it to the Jewish people, conditional upon their righteous behavior.
Shemot (Exodus) begins with an innocuous list of the names of Jacob’s family who went down to Egypt but Rashi notes that the list has already been mentioned at the end of Bereishit, and is repeated here ‘to make known God’s affection for them’.
Vayikra’s (Leviticus) begins, ‘And God called to Mosheh…’ – and goes on to list the various sacrifices. Rashi, however, notes that the language of God ‘calling’, as opposed to the usual language ‘speaking’ denotes the affection and intimacy that God feels for Mosheh and Israel.
Bamidbar (Numbers) opens with the census of the Jewish people, ostensibly to assess their military strength. Yet Rashi explains, ‘on account of His love for them, He counts them at every moment’.
And, as we have seen, Rashi’s first comments on Devarim introduce an identical theme. The Torah passes over God’s rebuke to Israel on account of their honour.
Five times then, at a highly significant juncture in the text Rashi emphasizes God’s love for Israel, and this, despite anything in the actual text, which indicates that this is a theme. What are we to conclude from this?
Rashi lived in France and Germany from 1040 to 1105. Dominated by the Crusades, this period was arguably one of the most miserable in Jewish history. If ever there was a period in which Jews could have been forgiven for thinking that God had forgotten this covenant with Israel – this was it. A religious leader could have told them that God was still their judge or king and would hold them to account if they strayed.
Yet Rashi, put God’s enduring love for Israel front and centre.
Tisha B’Av – the most sombre day of the Jewish calendar – falls this Sunday. Rashi’s example, at the beginning of Devarim and elsewhere, reveals one of the most compelling themes of the day. More noteworthy than the destruction of the Temple and other historical catastrophes, is that despite these catastrophes, Jews did not lose their faith.
Not for nothing was Rashi given the moniker ‘me’or einei hagola’ – he who illuminated the eyes of the exile.

This post was originally posted in Limmud on One Leg's weekly email.