Sefer Devarim as the ultimate Mussar Sefer

Last Shabbat we began reading Sefer Devarim, often referred to by its rabbinic name Mishne Torah, which on first glance is a summary of the previous four books of the Torah. However, a closer look at Sefer Devarim shows that there is far more than mere repetition in this book. In fact, 200 of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah are recorded in Sefer Devarim – meaning that the so-called Mishne Torah is, in fact, overflowing with new content.

However, Devarim is unusual in another way, because rather than describing events taking place at the time, Sefer Devarim is Moshe’s retrospective of his 40 years of leading the Jewish people. It does not describe what is happening; it reflects on what has happened. It is Moshe’s ‘last lecture’, and over a period of 9 weeks Moshe reminds the Jewish people of their mistakes of the past in order to help in their decisions for the future.

Significantly, the term דברים itself has prompted considerable discussion amongst the commentaries, and as Rashi remarks the use of the harsher term דברים alludes to the fact that לפי שהן דברי תוכחות – because these are words of rebuke, meaning that much of the Sefer contains direct criticism towards Bnei Yisrael.

Thus, Sefer Devarim is – in many ways – not a book of history embellished with commandments. Instead, it is a book of ethical instruction – a Mussar Sefer – which is interlaced with mitzvot which are meant to help the Jewish people maintain a higher ethical standard. In fact, the Pardes Yosef notes that Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowicz (1766-1813), the founder of the Peshischa sect of Hasidism and often referred to as היהודי הקדוש (the Holy Jew) would dedicate some time every day to read a few pesukim from Sefer Devarim because he regarded it as a Mussar Sefer – and this too was the practice of his contemporary R’ Simcha Bunim (1765-1827).

Significantly, our Rabbis actually had two names for Sefer Devarim. One, as previously mentioned, is Mishne Torah, whereas the other, as noted in the Gemara, is Sefer HaYashar – the book of the upright. And why? Because it contains the instruction “וְעָשִׂ֛יתָ הַיָּשָׁ֥ר וְהַטּ֖וֹב בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה – And you shall do that which is right [yashar] and good in the sight of the Lord” which – in many ways – is the core message that underpins all Jewish values and all Sifrei Mussar because, ultimately, our lives should be guided by what G-d thinks is right and good rather than merely what we think is right and good. And now, having explained this point, it is time to explore the connection between Sefer Devarim and Tisha B’Av.

We are taught that five tragic events occured on Tisha B’Av, with the first in the list being נִגְזַר עַל אֲבוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁלֹּא יִכָּנְסוּ לָאָרֶץ – on Tisha B’Av that it was decreed that our ancestors not enter the land of Israel. This remark is explained further by the Gemara which states that the night when the spies returned with their negative report about Eretz Yisrael was Tisha B’Av. In response to this, Chazal teach us:

אמר להם הקב”ה אתם בכיתם בכיה של חנם ואני קובע לכם בכיה לדורות
The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: You wept needlessly that night, and I will therefore establish for you a true tragedy over which there will be weeping in future generations.

Clearly there was something profoundly wrong with the negative report of the spies, and as we know, it was due to this report that the Jewish people continued to wander in the wilderness for a further 40 years. But do we really think that this negative report was sufficiently bad to stimulate the tragedies of Tisha B’Av which we continue to mourn? Was their sin really so grave?
I believe an answer to this question can be found in Parshat Devarim where Moshe reviews the events surrounding the sending of the spies (Devarim 1:22-24):

וַתִּקְרְב֣וּן אֵלַי֮ כֻּלְּכֶם֒ וַתֹּאמְר֗וּ נִשְׁלְחָ֤ה אֲנָשִׁים֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ וְיַחְפְּרוּ־לָ֖נוּ אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְיָשִׁ֤בוּ אֹתָ֙נוּ֙ דָּבָ֔ר אֶת־הַדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נַעֲלֶה־בָּ֔הּ וְאֵת֙ הֶֽעָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָבֹ֖א אֲלֵיהֶֽן׃
Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.”

וַיִּיטַ֥ב בְּעֵינַ֖י הַדָּבָ֑ר וָאֶקַּ֤ח מִכֶּם֙ שְׁנֵ֣ים עָשָׂ֣ר אֲנָשִׁ֔ים אִ֥ישׁ אֶחָ֖ד לַשָּֽׁבֶט׃
And the matter was good in my eyes, and so I selected twelve of your men, one from each tribe.

וַיִּפְנוּ֙ וַיַּעֲל֣וּ הָהָ֔רָה וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ עַד־נַ֣חַל אֶשְׁכֹּ֑ל וַֽיְרַגְּל֖וּ אֹתָֽהּ׃
They made for the hill country, came to the Wadi Eshcol, and spied it out.

If we focus in on pasuk 23, we notice something very strange. Despite the classic rendering of the story in Parshat Shelach Lecha which is understood by many to imply that Moshe didn’t want to send the spies, here – in his own retrospective – Moshe remarks וַיִּיטַ֥ב בְּעֵינַ֖י הַדָּבָ֑ר – “And the matter was good in my eyes” – to which Rashi remarks בעיני ולא בעיני המקום – “in my eyes, but not in the eyes of God” .

It is this remark which now helps us understand the importance of this retrospective in Sefer Devarim which, as mentioned, is otherwise known as Sefer HaYashar. As noted, Chazal gave Devarim this name because it contains the instruction “do that which is right [yashar] and good in the sight of the Lord”, while Moshe admits that his actions were not yashar and that an aspect of his decision-making concerning the spies was measured according to what was good in his eyes but not according to what was right [yashar] and good in the sight of the Lord.

What we learn from this story is that even our great leaders can – at times – prioritise their interests over those of G-d, their וַיִּיטַ֥ב בְּעֵינַ֖י הַדָּבָ֑ר over וְעָשִׂ֛יתָ הַיָּשָׁ֥ר וְהַטּ֖וֹב בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה. And having understood this, it is now worthwhile looking at the end of that pasuk, because it continues by adding:

לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וּבָ֗אתָ וְיָֽרַשְׁתָּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥ע יְהוָ֖ה לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃
And you shall do that which is right and good in the sight of the Lord that it may be good for you and you will then come and possess the good land that the Lord your God promised to your fathers.

By stating that doing what is right [yashar] and good in the sight of the Lord will enable us to possess the land of Israel, we learn that it was this failure that halted the Jewish people from entering the land of Israel.

Having explained this connection we can now appreciate the depth of Sefer Devarim as the ultimate Mussar Sefer, because not only does it contain the Mussar that Moshe directed to the people, but it also contains the Mussar that Moshe directed to himself – because, ultimately, the greatest source of Mussar for ourselves must be ourselves.

But beyond this insight there is one further connection between this verse and the Churban HaBayit. The Gemara teaches us that:

לא חרבה ירושלים אלא על שדנו בה דין תורה. אלא דיני דמגיזתא לדיינו!? אלא אימא שהעמידו דיניהם על דין תורה ולא עבדו לפנים משורת הדין:
Rabbi Yohanan says: Jerusalem was destroyed only for the fact that they adjudicated cases on the basis of Torah law in the city. But what else should they have done? Should they rather have adjudicated cases on the basis of arbitrary decisions? Instead, [the meaning is] that they established their rulings on the basis of Torah law, and did not go beyond the letter of the law.

But where are we taught that Torah should be judged ‘beyond the letter of the law’? According to Rashi , this is derived from the verse , וְעָשִׂ֛יתָ הַיָּשָׁ֥ר וְהַטּ֖וֹב בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה which, as noted, is the basis for the designation of Sefer Devarim as Sefer HaYashar. In fact, as the Maharsha remarks , many of the teachings of Sefer Devarim explain and explore the concept of going ‘beyond the letter of the law’, which means that within Sefer Devarim we can find the teachings and tools to rectify the spiritual errors that led to the Churban.

Let me end with one final remark which I saw in the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe which I think is really quite wonderful.
As previously mentioned, the Gemara relates that Jerusalem was destroyed only for the fact that they adjudicated cases on the basis of Torah law …and did not go beyond the letter of the law’.

On this point the Rebbe remarks that the failing of those during the time of the Churban was to limit their religious expression to ‘Torah Laws’, whereas we are taught that we should relate to G-d through all that we do and thereby live our lives where our religious expression goes beyond the letter of the law.

Ultimately, as I hope I’ve explained, it is this message which is found, repeatedly, in Sefer Devarim, which is why this book is also referred to as Sefer HaYashar, and which is why I, and many others, regard it as the ultimate Mussar Sefer.

To download a handout that accompanies this shiur, click here.


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