What Does Mishnah Torah Repeat1?
Regarding the purpose of Chumash Devarim, there is near unanimity. Everyone
knows what it is about. Following the lead of Chazal who called it Mishnah
Torah, we all know that Devarim is about repetition. It is a reprise, in
capsule form, of the first four Chumashim.
Much harder is getting people to describe just what it is that Moshe
repeats. Theories abound; each has its strengths and drawbacks.
Clearly, Devarim does not touch upon everything discussed before. About one
hundred laws come up; seventy of those appear for the first time!
Looking at the treatment of holidays allows us to detect a pattern of what
is and what is not included. More precisely, looking at which special
events are not treated in Devarim enlightens us about the purpose of the
sefer. Shabbos, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Shmini Atzeres are all
omitted. All four express truths about an individual’s relationship with
Hashem, quite apart from any geographical context. Their observance upon
entering the Land would not be substantially different from their observance
during the forty years of travelling in the wilderness. On the other hand,
Devarim does deal with Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos – each one of which would
be transformed when the Bnei Yisrael would settle into their permanent home.
(They all deal with the growing cycle; they would be marked by the
pilgrimage to Yerushalayim and all the planning and adjustment that came
with it.) What we see is the Torah preparing a people about to enter the
Land for changes necessitated by the transition to a new life style in Israel.
Many other inclusions and omissions follow the same pattern. Devarim
contains an unusual number of admonitions against avodah zarah. What had
been theoretical during the wilderness years would now become very
practical, as the Bnei Yisrael came into contact with both idolaters and the
appurtenances associated with idolatry.
Issues of community organization, leadership and exercise of power would
become matters of vital concern. Devarim deals with all of them, including
areas we might overlook, like false prophets, rebellious elders, and the
accuracy of weights and measures.
Waging war would become a regular and frequent fact of life. The halachos of
warfare therefore had to be included.
With people distancing themselves from a central, nearby Mishkan,
meat-eating would change character. No longer would offerings in a Mishkan
serve as the most important source of meat. Thus, laws of shechitah, purging
of blood, flesh taken from living animals, etc. would need to be introduced
or reviewed. The very transition from a Mishkan to an eventual Mikdosh
required the reinforcing of a concept of connection to a central place of
profound kedushah, including institutions like ma’aser sheni which created
attachment of people to Israel’s most special city.
Social structures would undergo the most dramatic changes. In the
wilderness, their needs were provided by the overt miracles of the mon and
the be’er. There was no sharp differentiation between classes of people,
between haves and have-nots. Coming into the land, with people taking charge
of providing for the needs of their families, some would be more fortunate,
while others would see their efforts fail. Institutions like tzedakah,
shemitah, and workers’ rights would soon become relevant and needed. As
property – especially real property, the source of national sustenance –
would take in immense importance, some social laws that had been important
before would now become even more so. Marriage and divorce would no longer
concern them only because of their role in maintaining families based upon
kedushah. Now, economic considerations became bound up in familial
relationships as well, and needed renewed attention.
Briefly, then, Devarim readies a new generation of Bnei Yisrael for a
sea-change in life style upon entering the Land. Sefer Devarim is certainly
not a random hodge-podge of sundry topics. Rather, it is surgically precise,
focusing only on areas that required special treatment.
It is not the content per se of Chumash Devarim that earns the name “Mishnah
Torah.” As stated above, most laws it contains appear for the first time,
not as repetitions. Rather, Devarim was part of Moshe’s general review of
all his teaching. Within that broader recapitulation of Moshe’s message,
some of the material – mostly the new material – was preserved by HKBH as
the written text of Devarim. The written text, then, is only a small
fraction of what Moshe taught in the last weeks of his life.
In one area the Torah does not allow for only partial citation. The first
eleven perakim form Moshe’s introductory remarks to his final review. Here,
nothing is deleted. Moshe revisits fundamental concepts in Man’s
relationship with Hashem and His Torah. The events of the previous forty
years become, in retrospect, teachable moments to reinforce the larger
truths that he had taught them. (We can speculate that the Torah devotes so
much detail to this section because its usefulness is never exhausted. It
speaks not only to those ready to cross into the Land, but to all Jews who
periodically need to remind themselves of important components of their avodah.)
Moshe therefore touches on a sizeable number of crucial concepts: yiras
Hashem, ahavas Hashem, deveikus, and the Oneness of Hashem. The
all-important mitzvah of Torah study – both in regard to individual
learning, and to the obligation to teach one’s children – comes in for
special mention. So does the immutability of Torah, in the form of the
commandments not to add or subtract from it. Although Moshe chiefly
addresses the generation preparing to enter the Land, he provides a bundle
of essential mitzvos (Shema, tefillin, mezuzah, birkas ha-mazon) that can
accompany an individual Jew no matter where Providence will take him. These
mitzvos can be effective in neutralizing the pernicious effect of unhealthy
non-Jewish influences to which Jews are exposed.
Bnei Yisrael were understandably excited about taking possession of the land
promised to them. In anticipating the long military campaign, they may or
may not have worried about how steadfast in their beliefs they could remain
once they had shifted from the strong central authority of Moshe’s
leadership to a decentralized one. Moshe, however, was a step ahead of them.
Anticipating the problem, he provided much of the arsenal from which people
could draw in the years following his death.