Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Goodbye to Deuteronomy

So here it goes. I've been wafting and wedging about writing this Siyyum.
Because doing so would imply that this part is really over. Because it would mean I need to decide what to do next. And also because Deuteronomy was hard for me, on so many levels. How do I sum it up--or some up my interaction with this difficult book?

Deuteronomy means literally "deuter" "nomos"--"second law"--a close translation of the Rabbinic appellation for the book: "Mishne Torah"--"second/ repeated law". Both names focus on the fact that this book is mostly retrospective, a spoken review of the books that came before. In terms of the time frame, this book was indeed, for me, a doubling--it took me as long as the other 4 books put together. It is harder to get a sense of continuity with all the time that passed since starting this book and finishing it. I was forced to do my own "review", going back and looking at the images, to try to feel how this book develops. 

In some ways, the Book of Number leads smoothly and directly into Deuteronomy. The final chapters of Numbers act as a segue, as they begin the review of the desert years that becomes explicit at the opening of Deuteronomy.  More profoundly, if the Book of Numbers focused on learning how to speak, this Book of Words (the literal meaning of the Hebrew name, Devarim) focuses on the next stage of speech: the creation of identity and memory. We move from learning to speak, to learning how to write, and to transmitting this writing to the future. And if Numbers ends with the fear of curses and imprecation, Deuteronomy closes with the giving over of blessing.
How does this “book of words” transform speech?

“These are the words the Moses spoke”: we begin with a focus on the role of the narrator. The first chapter of this book can be read as a primer in literary theories of narratology, with a defined speaker presenting reported speech and internal speech, vying with a narrative that has already been told. The literary structure forces an awareness of the presence of the speaker, and how the speaker’s experience and narrative stance affects the story that is told. The review is not identical to the original. The prism of identity stands in the way—an identity formed by the “words” being spoken, which define the timeline, define causality, define responsibility. Experience is translated into a particular frame, and into various narratives that compete with each other. Speech becomes the bearer of identity, the maker of memory. It is words that bind: you are defined by what you swear by, by the words you declaim. History is defined by what and how you choose to remember. Covenant is a story that must be personally and collectively articulated, again and again.  The book ends with a grand scene of establishing a seminal text that will serve as the nexus of identity: "And Moses wrote this teaching (torah) and delivered it to the priests and the sons of Levi...and the elders of Israel" (31:9). From internal speech, we are moving outwards, towards writing that is meant for reading, for sharing: "you will read this teaching before all of Israel, in their ears. Gather the people together: men women, and children and the stranger within your gates, that they may hear and may learn... so that their children, who do not know, may hear and learn" (10-13). 

The focus on speech and its role in creating identity, is accompanied by a focus on boundaries, both literal and metaphysical. The book sets out to differentiate "self" from "non-self."Like all stories, it is a story that also excludes and destroys. There is no room for dual loyalties in the covenant. All that is "not self" must be destroyed or incorporated.  Deuteronomy  continuously moves between a defined center and outer limits and back again--whether by tracing the contours of the country though the tri-annual journey from the peripheral cities to the central "place" that God will choose; or through a judiciary that is placed at "every gate" yet relies on a central authority; or through the network of roads providing refuge for the inadvertent killer. Beyond these etched contours is the space "outside"--a space to which the army "goes out," only to come "back in". The boundaries of the land are echoed in metaphysical laws that define and limit who can "come into" the congregation.  Even the consequence of sin is limited by a boundary, not to exceed the limits of the individual life.

It is Moses, the speaker, who experiences these absolute boundaries most acutely. Barred from crossing the physical boundary of the Jordan River, his life embodies the unbreakable and unmoving limit of God's will. The book opens as he looks out toward the Promised Land, and closes as his final request is once again refused, and he dies "there, in the desert, by the passages of Moab," unable to "cross" the river. It is Moses who embodies the lesson that his "song" comes to teach:  That God is the singularity that holds all opposition,: "I am He...there is none that can deliver from My hands."

In its focus on giving and taking and absolute boundaries, Deuteronomy returns us to the primordial introduction of the speech act: Eden and its aftermath.  Deuteronomy indeed acts as a "second law" in that it returns us to the issues that animated the primal presentation of humanity: : speech, knowledge, possession, and “good”--the adjective that Moses repeats again and again. The first, the only, command given to the humanity is to see and not not to take--to accept the imposed limits, to be a guardian who does not “send forth his hand.” In Moses’ bitter experience standing on Nebo, we return to the human in the garden, staring at the forbidden fruit. And this time, the painful boundary remains unbroken.
Does this perhaps, allow the blessing to answer the curse? 

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