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August 11th, 2016

The fifth book of the Torah, Sefer Devarim, has the same status as the first four books of the Torah, and yet it is quite different from them in a number of ways. The initial chapters are framed as a monologue delivered by Moshe, featuring his musings on his time as leader of the Jews, and his observations and instructions for them before they cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. Many mitzvot that appeared in the previous three books are repeated in Devarim. There are also a number of mitzvot that appear in Devarim for the first time.

So what is Devarim? Is it a transcript of Moshe’s own words, later incorporated into the Torah? Or is it the unadulterated word of God? The idea that any part of the Torah was not dictated by God word-for-word is extremely problematic, and is actually referred to as heresy in the Talmud, and by Maimonides. The commentators struggle with this enigmatic problem, and try to reconcile what Devarim seems to be, and what our tradition insists that we believe it to be.

A discussion about this ambiguity is not an obscure theological debate – it actually cuts to the core of Judaism and Jewish tradition, as in order to understand the balance between the immutable word of God, and the role of Jewish leadership and tradition, it is imperative that we understand what Sefer Devarim represents.

Rabbi Dunner looks at what the Talmud says, and also delves into an important passage of the Zohar, before beginning a long piece by Abarbanel, who offers an overview of the entire discussion, and a compelling explanation that sets everything out with clarity, and presents us with a deep and yet simple insight into our Jewish belief system – an insight only made possible by the dual messages of Sefer Devarim.

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