THIS WEEK BEGINS THE TALE of Moses, and his five-week testimonial to the nascent nation of Israel.
Unlike the Torah’s first four books, tradition ascribes Deuteronomy strictly to Moses’ hand. Like the second creation story in Genesis, the Moses-eye view of the Egyptian Experience and Sinai Event differs somewhat from the first account in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers: most famously, in the wording of the Fourth Commandment and the “guard/remember Shabbat” dichotomy. I like to think that’s deliberate, to encourage us to think instead of blindly obey. It’s certainly part of a pattern.
All through Torah we seem to get the subtle message “two is better” — that the second iteration or experience of something seems to make it more “for keeps.” It’s not just the two creation accounts in Genesis. To take a few examples, none of the patriarch’s first-born (Ishmael, Esau) carried the Jewish generational way forward, but their second-born (Isaac, Jacob) did. The first set of the 10 Commandments tablets were smashed by Moses, the second tucked safely inside the Ark. As noted above, there are two texts of the 10 Commandments. Adam was alone until Eve came along. And there’s even the “second Torah” of the Mishna and Talmud, the Oral Law, which is more of a basis for Jewish living than the Written Torah.
But it’s also reflected in the statement that “first things belong to God.” Even first-born males must be redeemed from the service of the Temple. So it follows that if first things belong to God, second things belong to us. First things are a novelty. Second things are part of the background, the foundation of life.
“Two is better” because one reinforces the other. It’s a statement of establishment and endurance, and also of colloquy: there are two cherubim atop the Holy Ark, and Torah tells us that’s from where the voice of God would issue forth. So two can also symbolize commitment and completion, transmission and reception.
Reading Deuteronomy with the idea that it’s Moses’ perspective (rather than God’s) also casts the text in a unique light: the light of day-to-day living, but also of the bystander at (and catalyst of) great events. Or of the man who does not know and can only learn to trust; a man no longer alone in his faith and commitment to his vision of God. A man who knows that all this matters — and is continually discovering why.
And that’s as good a metaphor for Torah study as any. Shabbat shalom!
Neal & Ann’s Torah Study
Saturday, August 6, 2011, 10 am-noonish (RSVP)
Torah Portion: Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)
Haftarah (Supplemental Reading): Isaiah 1:1-27