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A MATTER OF SPEAKING

by Rabbi Elie Cohen    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The Talmud teaches us that often the words of the Torah are "poor in one place and wealthy in another place." This refers to those occasions when questions are raised upon studying one portion of the Torah to which we derive the answers from an entirely different section.

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The Talmud teaches us that often the words of the Torah are "poor in one place and wealthy in another place." This refers to those occasions when questions are raised upon studying one portion of the Torah to which we derive the answers from an entirely different section. This week's Torah portion starts at the beginning of the last book of the Torah with the words, "These are the words (devarim) that Moses spoke to all of Israel." At first glance, this introduction seems ambiguous and wordy. It is ambiguous because we are not informed exactly to what portion of the book "These are the words that Moses spoke" refers to. Is it just the next few verses? Does it refer to the entire Torah portion? Furthermore, couldn't the phrase "These are the words that Moses spoke" be shortened to simply say "Moses stated"?

Although Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, does not address these problems in his analysis of this verse, in his commentary to Ecclesiasties he reveals a great gem which serves as our solution. The first words of Ecclesiasties are, "The words (divrei) of Kohelet (King Solomon)." There, Rashi points out that whenever the term "words" is employed with the Hebrew "divrei" or "devarim", it does not refer to just any words, but specifically to words of rebuke. Illustrating this idea, Rashi actually cites the first verse of this week's Torah portion, "These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel," and informs us that this verse refers to words of rebuke, as it states later in the book, "Jeshurun (Israel) became fat and kicked [out of rejection of Hashem's authority]" (Deuteronomy 32:15).

Even without fully understanding why Rashi selected this example of rebuke from amongst the many in Deuteronomy, we can certainly derive from Rashi's comments the following two conclusions. Firstly, the term "devarim" in this week's Torah portion refers to words of rebuke. Moreover, the fact that Rashi selected an example of rebuke from chapter 32 when the whole book of Deuteronomy is only 34 chapters long, clearly indicates to us that the phrase "These are the words that Moses spoke" refers not only to the next few verses, but to the entire book of Deuteronomy. Thus, we have a completely new reading of the first verse of this book: "These words of this book are the words of rebuke that Moses spoke to all of Israel."

This new understanding sheds a great deal of light on our perspective on the book of Deuteronomy. Although there are many mitzvot that are taught to us in this book, we now see that they are not what forms the structure of the book. The "skeleton" of Deuteronomy is the words of rebuke, the ethical speeches of Moses throughout the book. The mitzvot are the "flesh" upon that skeleton. It is no wonder that at this time - from right before Tisha B'av when we mourn for the loss of the Temple caused by our sins, through the penitent days of the month of Elul and the High Holidays - this book of rebuke is read. Let us seize the opportunity to understand each portion in Deuteronomy as well as its content as a whole.

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Rabbi Elie Cohen, a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is an educator at the Columbus Torah Academy in Ohio.

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