Rabbi David Walk
This spring I bid a very fond farewell to Stamford, CT. Rivka and I are moving to Jerusalem this August. On a few occasions I was called upon to say my good byes to the two marvelous organizations, Congregation Agudath Sholom and Bi-Cultural Day School, that I've worked for these 16 years. The message was short and simple each time: 1) Thank you for having me and 2) I loved the experience of sharing Torah with wonderful people. However, not everyone is so pithy. One of the most famous farewells in History was delivered by George Washinton September 19, 1796. Like me, however, he made two salient points: 1) Please, forgive me, 'I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend.' 2) Be Americans first, 'The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.' It took him 6090 words to do it, so my audiences came out fine. But this week we begin reading an even more famous, and, I fervently believe, more important farewell address, that of Moshe Rabbeinu. It takes up the entire book of Devarim or Deuteronomy. He used 14,249 words, translations are even longer.
Let me quickly clear up a problem. I just called this book Moshe's Farwell Address, but didn't God write the Torah? The Zohar (Devarim, 461a) claims that Moshe wrote Devarim, according to Maimonides (Laws of Teshuva 3:8) this is heresy. I'm going (at least this week) to rely on a compromise suggested by Don Yitzchak Abarbranel. That great 15th century scholar opined that, indeed, Moshe, spoke all these words of his own composition. Later, God commanded that this exact material be incorporated into our Chumash.
So, what is the point or points of this valedictory speech? Let's begin with a short survey of the material. The book contains three distinct parts. The first Section (parshas Devarim-Eikev) is musar or tochacha, ethical teachings and chastisement, for spiritual failures. The next material (Re'eh-Ki Tetze) is made up of mitzvot which will be needed for the new society to be built in the Promised Land. Finally, the last third of Devarim (Ki Tavo-Zot HaBracha) deals with the Covenant between God and Israel. The covenantal community was begun by Avraham and became a national covenant at Sinai. The end of Devarim informs us that this covenant will be renewed upon arrival in Israel and at some, as yet undetermined, time in the future.
This is a wonderful paean to our national connection to God, Torah and Israel. But, like in the farewell address of Washington, can we boil this long sermon down to a basic sound byte or two? Rav Yehuda Shaviv of Yeshivat Har Etzion thinks so, and I'm inclined to agree. He wrote, 'If we seek some unique feature of this Sefer we shall discover that one of its characteristics - if not the crux of its whole message - is the concept of a second chance...even if one has failed and sinned, there is always an opening for repair and improvement, for change and renewal...Teshuva is not presented here simply as a mitzva, but rather as a thoroughly