Yom Shlishi, 25 AdarI 5781
Tuesday, 9 March 2021
Parashat D'varim 5774

Rabbi Harry Jacobi
29th July 2014

When interviewed for the position of Rabbi in Zurich, the committee questioned me for two hours. When I thought they had finished, an elderly lady who had not said anything before, asked me: “Rabbi, what is your favourite book in the Bible?” Later I learned she was Dr. Florence Guggenheim, the most eminent historian of Swiss Jewry. “If really forced to chose, I replied, it would have to be Deuteronomy.” We begin Deuteronomy again this Shabbat.

At the coronation of our Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave her a copy of the Bible and said: “This is the most valuable thing this world affords”. The Archbishop was following a biblical precedent, the legislation of Deuteronomy: “When the King sits on his throne, he shall write him a copy of this law in a book. It shall be with him and he shall read therein all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord, his God, that his heart not be lifted up above his brother, that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children in the midst of Israel.” (17, 18 – 20)

If the Bible is the most valuable thing this world affords, I want to make out a case that the book of Deuteronomy is the most valuable book in the Bible.  Firstly, because it contains the basis of our Jewish belief in monotheism, the Shema, which we shall read in its context next Shabbat, and are enjoined to read twice daily. Secondly, because it contains the second, revised version of the Ten Commandments. And thirdly, because its legislation, as we shall see as we follow it during the next eight weeks, is in line with the demands and teaching of Isaiah, our Haftarah this Shabbat, who stresses that in God’s eyes ethical behaviour is more acceptable than ritual purity and animal sacrifices. Leitmotives of Deuteronomy are love of God, kindness, helpfulness, charity and reverence. Deuteronomy can with justification be regarded as Liberal Judaism’s  programme within the Bible. It aims to make Judaism more democratic, less theocratic. It gains in importance and relevance to-day at a time when Judaism, particularly in Israel, is once again in danger of becoming more theocratic and less democratic. With Deuteronomy as our proof and our weapon, we will succeed in giving ethics predominance over ritual.

In Liberal Judaism, it goes without saying, we cannot in all honesty accept the traditional belief in the Mosaic authorship, that the whole of the Pentateuch – Genesis to Deuteronomy – was given at Sinai by God to Moses. Biblical scholarship assigns it to a much later date, that it was the law-book found by the priest Hilkiah during the reign of King Josiah in 621 BC   (2 Kings, Chapter 22) The language, style and syntax of Deuteronomy are so different from the other books of the  Chumash, that were you to believe that they must be from the same author, you might as well believe that Chaucer, Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw  are one and the same.

One aspect of Deuteronomy has always troubled me and apparently also the compilers of early Liberal liturgies, for they omitted it from their prayer books. It is referred to as ‘the Deuteronomic viewpoint of history. It is in Chapter 11 and known as the second paragraph of the Shema. “If you obey and carry out God’s commandments, he will give you rain, a fruitful harvest and you will prosper. If not, you will suffer draught, hunger, poverty. Life, alas, is not so simple, and in practice this point of view has never, and probably never will, be tenable. But it is wholly consistent with another most important aspect and teaching of Deuteronomy, the insistence of free-will granted to us. In two weeks’ time in Chapter 11 and again in Chapter 30 we will read and learn that God has given us the ability and responsibility to choose what we make of our lives. Our fate, according to Deuteronomy is in our own hands and not ‘beschert’nor foreseen nor according to Brutus: ‘in our stars, for we are underlings’. As Rabbi Akiva maintained: “Everything is foreseen, yet free-will is given; the world is judged with goodness, and all depends on the preponderance of our deeds.” (Avot 3,19) This gives Deuteronomy its supreme value and importance above all other biblical books.

This Shabbat we once again make a fresh start with Deuteronomy. Let us follow it diligently, as it says only in this book ‘with all our heart, soul and might’, so that by the time we reach Chapter 26 we are a good way towards its promised reward: that God will set you high above the nations, lithilah, in praise, u’leshem, in fame, u’letifaret, in honour, as he has spoken.