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Torah Commentary
D'varim (August 13, 2016)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

What’s the Good Word?

We call the book “Deuteronomy,” which is Greek for “Second Telling,” but its Hebrew name is D’varim (Words), and from the very beginning we know that words are going to be important. The Jewish people always have been “the people of the Book,” and to build a book you need words.

The story of D’varim is a dramatic one. Scholars agree that the book was written long after the other four books of the Torah, probably a century after the destruction of the kingdom of Israel. King Josiah, the ruler of the kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem is located, was taking advantage of the temporary weakness of Assyria — the dominant empire in that area — to bring reforms to his kingdom and centralize worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Chapter 22 of the Second Book of Kings recounts a story of the “discovery” of the scroll that most scholars agree is most of the book of Deuteronomy. It’s a wonderful tale; I am amazed that someone didn’t make it into a movie. The king had ordered that the Temple in Jerusalem be cleansed and rededicated to the God of Israel. In the midst of the cleanup, someone “found” a scroll that included laws for proper worship and righteous living. The High Priest, Hilkiah, ran to King Josiah with the news, and Josiah insisted that the Book be read aloud to him. When he heard it, he tore his clothes (a sign that he was deeply moved) and told the priests, “Go, inquire of the Lord on my behalf, and on behalf of the people, and on behalf of all Judah, concerning the words of this scroll that has been found.” In other words, “Let’s make this a big deal and use it to launch a religious reformation.”

Many scholars agree that the scroll was the basis of D’varim. The words in it helped the Israelites living under Assyrian rule to try and unite their kingdom and adopt new rules by which to live.

Did it work? Yes, for a time. We are still here, we Jews, the spiritual descendants of those Israelites, so it must have worked in some sense. That religious revival, like so many occasions of Jewish renewal and rebirth, was based on words.

I was privileged to be in college when V.K. Krishna Menon came to speak. Menon was a powerful and controversial figure in India’s history, but there is no doubt that he was a brilliant speaker. In the mid-1950s, when Menon addressed us, India and the U.S. were involved in a seemingly endless number of conferences, none of which seemed to accomplish anything. One of the students asked him why there were so many of these meetings, if nothing seemed to come from them.

“The best thing you can say about a conference is, it meets,” Menon answered. “The second best thing you can say is that it calls another conference. As long as people are talking, they are not fighting.”

Whether or not we agreed with Menon’s politics, there was a sense among those of us who took the time out of our studies to hear him speak that he had laid down an important principle. He was advocating for ballots over bullets, words over war.

So let us turn our attention to D’varim and see what we can learn from its words. Words not only build books; they build bridges between people and communities. As the “People of the Book,” let us turn our attention to this book of words.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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