My notes on Devarim

Parashat Devarim

Deuteronomy 1

1:1          These are the words which Moses said to all Israel on the far side of Jordan, in the waste land in the Arabah opposite Suph, between Paran on the one side, and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Dizahab on the other.

Comment: It is amazing that the very first word of this whole book, “These”, in Hebrew אלה, can be used to represent a number 36 (5=א=1,ל=30,ה, so אלה =  5+30+1=36), which can remind us that this whole book was the product of Moses’ last 36 days in this world! (See verse 3 below.) I wish I could spend my last 36 days in this world too in such a meaningful way, teaching the Bible, and producing a useful book!

(This connection between the 36 days and the numerical value of the word אלה, can be found in Or Hachayim, Deuteronomy 1:1, English translation by Eliyahu Munk


1:3          Now in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses gave to the children of Israel all the orders which the Lord had given him for them;

Comment: The date was 11/1 in the biblical calendar. Israelites crossed the River Jordan on 1/10 the following year (Joshua 4:19), after 3 days of preparation (Joshua 1:11) and 30 days of mourning for Moses (Deuteronomy 34:8). So Moses died on 1/10-3-30=12/7 in the biblical (lunar) calendar (which is usually in February in our solar calendar). So at the moment of this verse, Moses has 12/7-11/1=36 days left before he departs from this world. He made the best use of these 36 days: he reviewed the teachings of Gd for the Israelites, and incorporated his own encouragements. These formed a new book of Torah called “Deuteronomy” (which means a review of Torah (The Jewish name of this book is Devarim, or “words”, which is a word taken from the first verse of this book .)


1:6          The Lord our God said to us in Horeb, You have been long enough in this mountain:

Comment: “The Lrd our Gd said to us”: The book of Deuteronomy is different from the first four books since it is Moses who is speaking to the Israelites, in first person. Even when he teaches them what Gd originally said, now he says “Gd said to us”, instead of “to Moses” in third person. (Compare Leviticus 1:1 “And the LORD called unto Moses, and spake unto him ”, Numbers 1:1 “And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai,”. ) This fifth book is still regarded as a book of Gd’s Torah (instruction), even if spoken by a human being. This is why even nowadays a pastor’s sermon may be referred to as ‘Gd’s words’. A human could make mistakes, but Gd can still use a human being to speak to an audience guided by the Holy Spirit.

In this fifth book of Torah, Gd uses Moses to “teach us how to teach” Torah. We need to make words of Torah “alive” and apply them to our current living situation. Moses starts with Gd’s words that are most relevant to the current goal of crossing the river Jordan. Then as a main theme of this weekly Torah portion, Moses uses recent and remote histories of Israelites and other nations to encourage the new generation of Israelites to avoid the failure of their fathers.

“Horeb” is Mount “Sinai”, they are addressing two different aspects of the same mountain (“desolate”, and “thorny”, respectively  In this mountain, the Israelites learned Torah for almost 1 year (Exodus 19:1, Numbers 10:11). 

“You have been long enough in this mountain”:  learning Gd’s Torah is not enough, now go do it …


1:8          See, all the land is before you: go in and take for yourselves the land which the Lord gave by an oath to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to their seed after them.

Comment: … in the promised land. Our main task is to “go in” and “take” our promised land, and to practice Torah there.


1:9          At that time I said to you, I am not able to undertake the care of you by myself;

Comment: We will need many leaders to implement Torah; I myself is not enough, …


1:11          May the Lord, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times greater in number than you are, and give you his blessing as he has said!

Comment: … because in the future, Gd’s people will be many more in number. (Moses prayed for about 1,000 times 600,000 = 0.6 billion adult males. Nowadays, approximately 2.38 billion people practice some form of Christianity globally.

Teaching and implementing God’s words will be a long term and large scale project, involving readers of this book throughout many generations.


1:15          So I took the heads of your tribes, wise men and respected, and made them rulers over you, captains of thousands and captains of hundreds and captains of fifties and captains of tens, and overseers of your tribes.

Comment: Even a congregation of size 10 needs a leader to implement Gd’s teachings. With a minimum of 10 righteous people, Gd would have spared a whole city as evil as Sodom or Gomorrah (Genesis 18:32)! Conversely, when Gd’s teachings are not implemented, 10 people lacking faith could ruin a whole generation (Deuteronomy 1:28)! 

Even nowadays in Jewish congregations, 10 is the “minyan” or count (, which is the minimum number of adult men present, for Torah to be read publicly. 

This paragraph on implementing judges seemingly “doesn’t belong to” this weekly portion,  but in fact, the keyword “ten” in this verse is connected to the incidence of the ten spy’s below. In addition, it is necessary for Israel to be organized in these legions of different sizes, in order to function well in conquering the promised land, and in implementing Torah there effectively.


1:28          Where are we going up? Our brothers have made our hearts feeble with fear by saying, The people are greater and taller than we are, and the towns are great and walled up to heaven; and more than this, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.

Comment: The season when these words were actually said in the bible was midsummer, after the harvest of grapes (Numbers 13). This is the same season when this weekly Torah portion containing Deuteronomy Chapter 1 is nowadays read, which is before the 9th day of the 5th Biblical month (in late July or early August), when both the first and the second temples were burnt.  

 “Our brothers”: the 10 spies, one from each of the twelve tribes, except Caleb from the tribe of Judah and Joshua from the tribe of Ephraim. This verse shows how the older generation of Israelites complained (with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb). Moses recounted to the new generation how their fathers failed. Their fathers were afraid of the giant enemies. They should have focused their eyes on the greatness of their Gd, instead of on the sizes of their enemies.  So in the rest of this portion, in order to encourage the new generation, Moses hinted again and again how a giant size of the enemy could never stand against God’s will.


Deuteronomy 2

2:9          And the Lord said to me, Make no attack on Moab and do not go to war with them, for I will not give you any of his land: because I have given Ar to the children of Lot for their heritage.

Comment: Even though the Moabites are not Gd’s chosen people, as long as Gd gives them a land to possess, no enemy will be tall enough to resist them. I think that is why the subsequent verse says that “In the past the Emim were living there; a great people, equal in numbers to the Anakim and as tall”.


2:21          They were a great people, tall as the Anakim, and equal to them in number; but the Lord sent destruction on them and the children of Ammon took their place, living in their land;

Comment: Same thing happened to the Ammonites. If Gd helps them, they can take possession of their land from giant enemies.


2:24          Get up now, and go on your journey, crossing over the valley of the Arnon: see, I have given into your hands Sihon, the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and all his land: go forward to make it yours, and make war on him,

Comment: Now it’s your turn to start possessing your promised land, do not fear the enemies there, since Gd has given it to you. 


Deuteronomy 3

3:11          (For Og, king of Bashan, was the last of all the Rephaim; his bed was made of iron; is it not in Rabbah, in the land of the children of Ammon? It was nine cubits long and four cubits wide, measured by the common cubit.)

Comment: The enemy king Og used a 9-cubit iron bed since he was extraordinarily tall and heavy. (A cubit is an elbow-length, about half a meter. A normal person’s height is only about 3 cubits.) This text seems to be explaining what Moses wanted to tell the new generation: Despite the extraordinary size of our enemy, we won this war also, with Gd’s help. So don’t be like your father’s generation, who were afraid of the tall enemies in the promised land (compare Deuteronomy 1:28).


3:21          And I gave orders to Joshua at that time, saying, Your eyes have seen what the Lord your God has done to these two kings: so will the Lord do to all the kingdoms into which you come.

Comment: I read the logic of Moses as the following: We won these two wars under my leadership, but it is really Gd who “has done” these victories. If Gd can help us succeed before, He can also help us succeed in the future. Human conditions change, but Gd is eternal.  I will not be with you there in the new wars, but it doesn’t matter, since Gd will be there with you. He will be “fighting for you” (as stated in the subsequent verse).