Why Deuteronomy?/h1>

Andy Oram

Although the entirety of Jewish learning is sacred—it is like a hologram, in which you can extract one part and through it see the whole—there is a special cachet attached to reading the five books of Moses. Why did Ezra (or whoever assigned special ritual status to the first five books of the Bible) stop with those scrolls? What would be different if we read Joshua, Judges, or even Ruth, which Christian Bibles also place early in the canon?

Because the Ḥumash ends before we establish our Israelite nation, it is free to present a vision of society that is pure: one where the neighbor gets her cloak before the chilly nighttime falls, where the laborer receives payment each day so he can eat, where the flour salesman does not put her thumb on the scale, and where sin can be expiated through an unblemished animal. We can guess from God’s warnings that communal life will not always be this way—the conditions against the prophets raged are just over the horizon—but for a blessed hour in the synagogue we can contemplate what might have been.

And why include Deuteronomy? The very name (which contains the Greek word for two) suggests that the book is redundant. We have read all about the travails and accomplishments of the Israelites in the previous books, so why do we tack on this long afterword, purportedly a caustic ramble by the fatigued and superannuated Moses?

The need to recount one’s history is central to Judaism. Many Biblical passages exhort us to "tell our children," and Passover is our most popular holiday. Psychologists have found that people develop "screen memories" that transform real-life events into simplified narratives that help them make sense of their past.

So Deuteronomy may be Moses’s screen memory. Here he hammers on the worst of the Israelites’ moments, perhaps with the implied reassurance that they made it through and recovered. He carefully chooses, from the burdensome sequence of laws given him by God, a subset of what he apparently considers most important, sometimes slightly garbled (as people will do when recalling from memory). He adds on crucial injunctions of his own to go beyond mere obedience and love God. Like a conscientious guardian, he leaves each tribe with a personal message. And he lays out a detailed roadmap for the disasters that will befall the nation, so that future sufferers will understand the cause and hopefully his remedy—which he confidently declares they will.

After 40 years of mishaps, several wars with varying outcomes, and a long road through the desert, the dust settles in Deuteronomy. With the anticipation of entering the land defiled by pagans and grappling with corruption there, Deuteronomy gives the Israelites a chance to assess where they have been and where they are now. The Torah would not be complete without it.

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