AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Devarim

Parashat Devarim

Av 4, 5780 – July 25, 2020

Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Devarim, which is Hebrew for “words.” The opening line reads: “אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר משֶׁה֙ אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל” meaning – “These are the words which Moshe spoke to all the Jewish people (to all Israel).” It is important to note that Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, is quite different than the previous four books of the Torah that we have covered thus far. Up until this point, the four books of Bereshit, Shemot, Vayikra, and Bamidbar are largely considered to be the word of G-d that Moshe received directly and then delivered to the Jewish people. Many parashot within these four books begin with a line, such as “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying…” or something to that point. But here, at the beginning of Parashat Devarim – which introduces us to a new book of the Torah – it is clear that this is a different form of prophetic revelation. The first four books were dictated directly by G-d, yet here we are hearing the voice of Moshe Rabbeinu – Moshe our Teacher – recount the journey of the Israelites in his own words. As I mentioned in a previous audio essay, the Book of Deuteronomy is sometimes referred to as Mishneh Torah – meaning, “The Repetition of Torah.” This by no means renders it an inferior book; Sefer Devarim has its own virtues, because the words of G-d are “reach[ing] a higher compatibility with the human mind.”[1] And this is a significant point because G-d’s wisdom is actively being grounded, being brought down to earth through its translation. By way of Moshe, the Torah is passing through the interface of a human mind so that it can more easily interface with other human beings.[2] In a sense, this book of the Torah is a divinely inspired work of human understanding. It is what set the precedent for later prophetic works, and for Rabbinic Law – which is human-made yet considered to be an extension of G-d’s will. [3] But, from an ecological mindset, this book – this translation of G-d’s revelation – is what will lead the Jewish people into the Land: the Land that they will cultivate, care for, and preserve as a place of their heritage.

There’s a term in Judaism, Baal teshuva (plural: Baalei teshuva), which translates to “Master(s) of Return.” It’s used in a few different contexts but is most widely used to describe a Jew who is constantly working to return to G-d, to their truest/highest self, through the medium of mitzvot and Torah study. The idea here is that any Jew can make this choice of their own free will and initiative, but – on a deeper level – G-d is helping with this process by infusing the subconscious soul with Divine revelation.[4] In this respect, the Sages draw a parallel between the Book of Devarim and teshuva because of how it was relayed. They were Moshe’s words, yet divinely inspired, and this encapsulates the mechanics behind the movement of a baal teshuva. The Book of Devarim is characterized by “subtle rebuke.” Moshe begins the book by warning (or reminding) the Jewish people of their previous sins. He does so indirectly, though, by naming the places where those rebellions against G-d occurred. The traditional teaching here is that this is done out of love and respect for his fellow Jews, because – if one is to rebuke a Jew – one should do so kindly and gently, so as not to inflict any unnecessary distress.[5] Subtle rebuke is a technique to help assist another in initiating their own process of teshuva– of return to their highest self. And this is why the Book of Devarim is characterized by “rebuke”. But its important to note that Moshe’s words are being delivered on the banks of the Jordan as the Israelites are about to enter Eretz Yisrael. In the Land, their reality is to change. They were no longer going to be protected by the constant intervening of miracles. Instead they were to work with the Land, and with material reality, so as to uplift it – so as to refine materiality and make plain the sparks of holiness embedded within it. It is easy to think about teshuva as a vertical act – that such a movement conquers physicality by moving above it. But the task of material refinement is horizontal as much as it is vertical; teshuva is a movement towards the Land, into the Land, of the Land that helps to reveal the inherent goodness of the world. In this way, teshuva is a return to the realization that we have a moral responsibility to the Earth and the forces which preserve its integrity. Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac, terms this a moral responsibility a “land ethic.” Leopold describes this “land ethic” in a section of the book titled “Ethical Sequence,”[6] and even referenced the Mosaic Decalogue (these are the commandments revealed to Moshe atop Mount Sinai) as an ethic that deals with the relations between individuals. We first have an ethical framework for human-to-human relations, and that – then – helps the individual integrate into organized society. He insists that “there is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” And this is where he describes how a “land ethic” fits within the ethical sequence. But I would argue that this has been the whole trajectory of the Torah – that preserving the integrity and stability of the Land is the ultimate Toraic principle. The Jewish Sages teach that “every person should spend their entire life in teshuva.”[7] This is to say that one should strive to forever be moving toward the Land, for the sake of the Land, by conceptualizing ourselves in a constant state of return. The very literal and moral act of teshuva is actually enacting a “land ethic,” and the Book of Devarim can help us envision this moral journey, as Moshe delivers his rebuke on the banks of the Jordan.

As I already described, Moshe begins the Book of Devarim by mentioning the names of places where rebellions occurred – rather than naming the sins themselves. The implication here is that a land-based teshuva can begin by naming the places of our transgressions and verbalizing a metaphysical geography where our ancestors also rebelled. Places hold a history, and when we name a place we are also interfacing with a geographical landscape of the mind that is inheritable. Makom, Hebrew for place, is a name of G-d – this is why, when we read about Jacob’s vision at Moriah, his “primary encounter was not with a geographical location, but with G-d.”[8] The lesson is that our naming of places where we transgressed is an act that can initiate a healing of the moral geography, which – in turn – involves restoring the sparks of goodness in that physical location. It doesn’t heal it entirely; it only introduces the potential for healing – which is the first step in a long process of return. But the modern world, as a whole, is beginning to recognize this concept – it is becoming proper custom, in certain circles, to introduce yourself, and where you’re from, by naming your place of origin. If that place is land that was promised to native peoples, it is custom to acknowledge the indigenous territory. This is a subtle way to recognize the history of colonialism and to understand that naming sites of transgression can be transformative acts that work to heal metaphysical geographies. Perhaps this is why Moshe begins his rebuke by naming places – we have a responsibility to speak of, and name, troublesome histories. The exodus from Egypt was a liberation from a geopolitical landscape that was oppressive. We are asked to remember the history and legacy of that movement every day, and this can be a meaningful practice. The same thing is occurring on the east side of the Jordan, which is a demonstration of land-based teshuva.

In closing, Rashi comments that Moshe translated the Torah into seventy languages, even though – at the time – this was not relevant to the Jewish people.[9] He insists that this was for the sake of the Torah, because its holiness is retained through translation. This will come to serve Jews throughout the diaspora who were separated from the Land, and throughout the course of history, because Torah will always be Torah – no matter what language you are studying it in. This idea is extended into the concept of Shivim Panim la’Torah (The Seventy Faces of Torah), which holds that “the Torah can be interpreted on many levels” (there are, of course, the four interpretive levels of Pardes), but also that every Torah idea has seventy facets to it. As Chaim Miller states: “There is not one monolithic interpretation, there are seventy possible interpretations.”[10] Even though the kabbalists take this a bit further, insisting that there are 600,000 possible permutations to every aspect of Torah, this teaches us about the power of plurality in thought. The Torah is an ethical mosaic that spans across time, space and even language. In this way, it is inherently diverse, inclusive, and is designed to retain its integrity through its translation and through its transmission. Plurality of thought and plurality of being is an important approach for us to hold, as we work to build an inclusive world that respects all cultures and all creatures. Even with translation and the diaspora, we can always tie the Torah to a land—based ethic, which should govern our relationship to place – no matter where we are.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: Teshuva and a “land ethic,” healing metaphysical geographies, and the importance of plurality


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References

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County almanac: With other essays on conservation from Round River. Outdoor Essays & Reflections, 1970.

Miller, Chaim. "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition." (2011).

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Miller, Gutnick Chumash, p.1121 [2] Ibid., p.1121 [3] Ibid., p.1121 [4] Ibid., p.1121 [5] Ibid., p.1121 [6] Leopold, A Sand County almanac, p.238 [7] See Avot D’Rebbe Natan 15,4. [8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.145 [9] Miller, Gutnick Chumash, p.1123 [10] Sourced from Chaim Miller’s Torah in Ten: Devarim. Can be accessed here: https://www.chabad.org/multimedia/video_cdo/aid/4467679/jewish/Torah-in-Ten-Devarim.htm

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