Devarim: A Sublime Autobiography
There is a biography.
And then there is an autobiography.
Our biography is the way others see us. Our autobiography is the way we see ourselves.
Typically, there are sharp differences between the two. Others see us from their own perspectives. Some biographers can be boldly objective, confronting us with facts about ourselves which we did not see, and perhaps do not want to see. Other biographers have their own agendas and interpret our lives to fit their perceptions, frequently distorting the facts and the meaning of our lives in the process.
Similarly, in the accounts of our lives that we ourselves write, there are two broad possibilities. We can disclose all of our lives’ details accurately, hiding nothing. Or our autobiographies can be gross distortions of our life stories, intentionally falsified or unconsciously mistaken.
Whomever we think we are, we are well-advised to be aware of how others see us. This week in the synagogue, we read the Torah portion of Devarim and thus begin an entirely new book, the fifth of the five chumashim: the Book of Devarim, or Deuteronomy. The book we begin this Shabbat differs fundamentally from the preceding four, so much so that the rabbis call it Mishneh Torah, a “Second” Torah, a review of much that came before.
For me, there has always been something else that distinguished Devarim and made it astoundingly different, not only from the other Books of Moses, but from every other book in the entire Bible. It is an autobiography!
Whereas the other biblical books are invariably written in the third person, Deuteronomy is written, or more correctly spoken, by Moses in the first person. Moses speaks to us in his own voice.
Repetitively, until this week, we have read, “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying…” This week, we will read again and again, “And the Lord spoke to me…”
We will read not, “And the Lord commanded…”, but, “And I commanded…” The attentive reader of these texts cannot help but be astonished by this remarkable shift.
This transition into the first person gives us the opportunity to relate to Moses directly, to hear his personal take on all that we have been reading about until this point.
This week, we will hear Moses complain about the pressures of leadership in his own voice. We will overhear him exclaim, “How can I alone bear your bothersome, burdensome, and petty squabbles?” And we will eavesdrop upon him as he transcends his resentments and profusely blesses the people.
And next week, again in his very own words, he will tell us of his enthusiasm for the Land of Israel, and of how desperately he petitions the Almighty to allow him entrance into the Land. And he will intimately disclose to us his disappointment when his prayers are rebuffed.
As we proceed through the parade of self-disclosures of this book, we will learn more and more about Moses the person. He will not hide his faults from us, he will tell us his versions of events, and he will select the mitzvot which he deems important to introduce or to review.
Devarim is the window into the mind and heart of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, the single most important personality in Jewish history.
This week’s Torah portion contains the opening chapter of what may very well be the world’s oldest autobiography. Like every good autobiography should, it instructs the student, interests the reader, and inspires us all.
It is instructive, for it teaches us how to be honest with ourselves. Moses is humble, but he knows who he is. His self-image does not change in response to the hostility of his detractors, nor does his head swell because of the flattery of those who adulate him. He never loses sight of his mission and task, no matter what is going on in his psyche.
Reading it is a privilege because it is a rare example of a leader who allows us to peek into his inner life and who shares with us his doubts, fears, and hopes.
But more than a privilege, Devarim is a challenge and an inspiration. We are challenged by the awareness that, in many ways, we are no different from Moses. We too have our frustrations, limitations, and unanswered prayers, and we too have the ability to cope, to overcome, and to graciously accept failure and disappointment.
Finally, it is an inspiration to read of a leader who candidly and openly shares his innermost thoughts and emotions for all to know, and for all time. An inspiration surely for all who wish to learn, to strive, to hope, and to persevere.
Have I convinced you that I was correct in the title I selected for this essay, “Devarim: A Sublime Autobiography?”