Ensuring Authority – Devarim 5782

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

When it comes to lengthy sentences, there are none that compares to one in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in James Joyce’s classic novel Ulysses. The sentence contains 3,687 words. It was the record holder until recently. Lucy Ellman’s 2019 book Ducks, Newburyport,  is more than a thousand pages long 98% of which consists of one sentence. Leonid Tsypkin’s 1980 book, Summer in Baden Baden, in English translation, comes in at 391 words. And in an even more distant fourth place is the opening sentence of Laurence Stern’s comic novel Tristam Shandy that registers 144 words. The closest that appears in scripture is the opening passage in the Book of Deuteronomy – a mere 79 Hebrew words. (Today this passage spans five verses but numbered verses were not introduced into the Hebrew until 1571 by Robert Stephanus.)


A question that inevitably arises is how to explain the disparity between the introductory passage here and the opening passages of Genesis (7 words), Exodus (11 words), Leviticus (9 words), and Numbers (17 words). Professor Marc Zvi Brettler in How to Read the Bible (2005) explains that the unusually long introductory passage in the Book of Deuteronomy has a very simple function: to legitimize the book as a whole. Since so much of the book repeats narratives and legal material from earlier sections of the Torah, readers may conclude that the book is derivative and without any independent authority. Indeed, the very name Deuteronomy (“second law”) reinforces this worry.


However, there is much that is new. Though the Decalogue is featured prominently in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, there are significant and noteworthy deviations. Likewise, the story of the spies in Deuteronomy diverges from the same story in the Book of Numbers. In addition, there are laws that appear only in Deuteronomy like those of the rebellious son, levirate marriage, the laws of warfare, and the laws of kings.


Yet despite the appearance of new laws, the impression still remains that Deuteronomy is redundant. Hence, it was crucial to affirm that the content of Moses’ words that follow were uttered “in accordance with the instructions that God had given him for them” (Deuteronomy 1:3). No other book required this justification.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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