The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell address to the Jewish people. The historical necessity for the creation of the Jewish people was laid out in the Book of Genesis; the story of how this people came to be was told in the Book of Exodus; the nature of its unique relationship with God was detailed in the Book of Leviticus; and the issues that arose when this relationship was put to the test were resolved in the Book of Numbers. All that remains now, it would seem, is for Moses to sum things up and perhaps give some final instructions for the conquest and occupation of the Promised Land.

Yet, the Book of Deuteronomy is similar in length to the other books of the Torah. This in itself indicates that Deuteronomy will not be a mere summation but will contain significant content in its own right.

There are, in fact, two intertwined and overlapping strata of content in Moses’ farewell address. The first comprises his exhortations to the Jewish people to remain loyal to God and to the teachings of His Torah; the second is a review of much of the legal subject matter contained in the preceding books. Although we might expect the first type of material to appear in a farewell address, why was it necessary to rephrase so much of the legal material that had apparently been clearly stated before?

Another striking feature of the Book of Deuteronomy is its literary form. Unlike the preceding four books, in Deuteronomy (with the exception of just a few passages at the beginning and end), Moses speaks in the first person. The phrase we have heard continuously in the preceding books—“And God spoke to Moses, saying…”—is almost entirely absent from Deuteronomy.

This naturally raises the question of the theological status of this book. The sages tell us that although Moses transmitted the first four books from God verbatim and Deuteronomy “in his own name,”1 nevertheless, even in the latter case “the Divine Presence spoke from his mouth.”2 In other words, the Book of Deuteronomy is no less Divine than the first four books of the Torah, but whereas the first four books are God’s words transmitted directly by Moses, Deuteronomy is God’s words transmitted through Moses. But if this is the case, why the sudden change in literary form between the first four books and the final one?

The answer to both these questions hinges on the fact that this book is addressed to the generation that will enter the Land of Israel. The abrupt change in lifestyle—from a nation of nomads sustained by God’s supernatural protection into a nation of farmers who must work the land—called for a practical restatement of God’s hitherto abstract teachings. The generation of the desert had been nourished with miracles, beginning with the ten plagues and the exodus from Egypt, through the splitting of the sea, to the revelation at Mount Sinai, the manna, the well of Miriam, and the protective clouds of glory. Their perspective on life had thus been elevated to a level quite above and beyond the ordinary; God’s normally invisible hand in nature had become a manifest reality for them. They were thus able to relate to the Torah in a concomitantly abstract, spiritual way, and that is how it was transmitted to them.

All of this was about to change. True, the supernatural presence of God would remain manifest in the Tabernacle, but God’s hand in the parameters of day-to-day life was about to become veiled in the garb of nature.

This transition was, of course, a natural and essential part of achieving God’s purpose on earth: to transform it into a holy place, in which not nature but God is understood to be the driving force. Nature is but God’s instrument, subject to His will, rather than an immutable, unchanging force that determines the course of events. In order for the façade of nature to be torn away, humanity, led by the Jewish people, had to invest itself into the natural order and, in that context, sustain and retain consciousness of God, revealing the infinite within the finite.

Still, such a descent in God-consciousness, even for the sake of achieving a higher level, is not without its risks. We saw how these risks frightened the spies, were misinterpreted by Korach, and were over-romanticized by the tribes of Reuben and Gad. The Jews about to cross the Jordan were understandably apprehensive about their ability to face the challenge.

Moses was even more realistic: “I know that after my death you will act corruptly and stray from the path I have commanded you.”3 There was no doubt that the transition into the real world would entail inevitable lapses in both the individual’s and the nation’s Divine consciousness and commitment.

Therefore, it was necessary to describe the mechanism for repairing, restoring, and renewing the relationship between God and His people. This device is teshuvah (literally, “return”), the process that God set in place allowing and providing for the Jew to attain a second innocence. It is the eternal promise that sincere efforts backed by sincere intentions will always triumph over all obstacles in our relationship with Him.

Essential to the process of teshuvah is that the individual restore his appreciation of the Torah’s relevance in his life. The underlying rationale behind any lapse in Divine consciousness or commitment is that n some way or some context the Torah is not relevant.

This is why it was necessary for the Book of Deuteronomy to be transmitted in the first person. By communicating the message of Deuteronomy via the voice of Moses, God was telling us that even while remaining faithful to the Torah’s objective truth, we must see its subjective relevance to every individual and in every generation.4

Moses was the archetypal intermediary between God and man. His direct communication with God had made him quite at home in the spiritual dimension, but even while he was on Mount Sinai he appreciated physicality enough to be able to refute the angels who sought to keep the Torah in heaven. An intermediary, however, can transmit the message he is given in either of two ways: he can either convey it verbatim, serving as a transparent conduit or funnel; or he can absorb it, and thus be able to “translate” it into terms more readily understood by the recipients.

In transmitting the first four books of the Torah, it was enough for Moses to act as the former type of intermediary; the exalted level of the generation of the desert allowed this. When he transmitted the Book of Deuteronomy, however, the audience had changed. Moses now had to become the latter type of intermediary in order to ensure that God’s message be fully communicated.

In order to do this, Moses in a certain sense had to attain a greater selflessness than was necessary when transmitting the first four books. In order that mediating God’s words through his voice not involve interposing his ego, it was crucial that his sense of self be absolutely dissolved in his awareness of God. Only by “existing” within God’s essence, so to speak, could Moses paradoxically be both there enough to serve as an intermediary yet not there enough to serve as a transparent conduit for God’s words.

In this sense, the first-person narrative of Deuteronomy indicates not a lesser Divinity than the other four books but a greater one, for the “I” of Deuteronomy is no less God’s than Moses’!

The same applies to us all when setting about uncovering the Torah’s relevance: our success is predicated on our eliminating our egotistic motives from the process.

The Book of Deuteronomy is thus a lesson in keeping the Torah alive and relevant, the means by which we can recommence the study of the Torah on a new level of understanding. By ensuring that the Torah remain eternally relevant, we can read it from an always deeper, fresher, newer perspective, and thereby continually deepen, freshen, and renew our relationship with God.5


Teshuvah is a three-stage process: first, we need to recognize what we have done wrong (and articulate this recognition); next, we need to feel remorse for having done what we did; finally, we need to resolve not to repeat our behavior.6 It is only natural, therefore, that the first parashah of the book whose whole subject teshuvah begin with rebuke designed to make us recognize the gravity of our misdeeds and missed opportunities. Therefore, Moses reviewed with the people the events that were crucial to their process of teshuvah, even those events that had occurred relatively recently and were most likely still fresh in their memories.7

Nevertheless, Moses’ rebuke is an object lesson in the proper approach to repentance. Although Moses did not omit any detail that could have driven home the need for teshuvah, he took care to mention each detail firstly as vaguely as possible, in order to preserve the people’s dignity and self-esteem; and secondly, always in the context of their great promise, emphasizing how far they fell short of their potential rather than how terribly they failed.

This perspective, coming as it does at the opening of the book, sets the tone for the “rebuke” that will continue throughout the entire book, even including the dire threats we will hear in its course. Candid and brutal honesty couched in terms that nonetheless convey deep and sincere respect is the surest way to reach encourage both ourselves and others to repent, to experience true teshuvah, and thereby renew ourselves and our relationship with God in the deepest way possible.