Parashat Devarim begins with a long description of the time and place at which Moshe addresses the Jewish people before they enter the land of Israel. The first three Pesukim read as follows:
“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel, across the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the Plain, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel and Lavan, and Chatzeirot, and Di Zahav; eleven days from Choreiv, by way of Mount Sei’ir to Kadeish Barnei’a. It was in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month, when Moses spoke to the Children of Israel, according to everything that Hashem commanded him to them.”
What is the reason for this lengthy description? Why is it necessary for the Torah to present these seemingly unimportant details?
Rashi (Devarim 1:1 s.v. Eileh HaDevarim) explains that the names of the places Moshe mentions are hints of rebuke for the Jewish people, as the Jewish people angered Hashem throughout their journey in the desert in all of these places. Rashi writes that Moshe cast rebuke implicitly rather than explicitly, “Mipenei Kevodan Shel Yisrael,” “out of respect accorded to Israel.”
In contrast with Rashi’s understanding of these Pesukim, Rashbam explains that the simple understanding is that these places’ names are just names, nothing more. Rashbam makes no mention of these places being included in order to rebuke the Jewish people for their past sins. Although Rashbam’s opinion is most likely the Peshat of the Pesukim, according to his understanding, we are left wondering why we need this seemingly unnecessary and lengthy description.
In his commentary on the Torah, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that this lengthy description enables Jews of later generations to find precisely where Moshe’s speech occurred. This, in turn, enables the Jewish people to identify with Moshe Rabbeinu and his lengthy speech. Rav Hirsch explains as follows:
“The more that every word of these last speeches … bears the stamp of the depth of feeling with which his [Moshe Rabbeinu’s] heart clung to his people and their future happiness, the more the deep longing is expressed therein to give his whole spirit and soul to his people for the future so full of trials and tests which awaited them, and the less this spot in the wilderness is recognizable by any special characteristics of its own, all the more is the wish understandable to keep it in memory by the knowledge of its exact location….”
After the lengthy description of places in the first few Pesukim in the Parashah, the Torah describes how “Moshe began to expound the Torah” (Devarim 1:5). Based on a Midrash (Tanchuma Devarim 2), Rashi (Devarim 1:5 s.v. Bei’eir Et HaTorah) explains this phrase to mean that Moshe explained the Torah in seventy languages. What is the meaning of this Midrash, and why does Rashi choose to cite it here? In addition, why was it necessary for the Torah to be taught in a multitude of languages, especially given that the Jews were all spoke Biblical Hebrew? Thus, it would seemingly be unnecessary for Moshe to expound the Torah in seventy different languages.
This Midrash can be explained to mean that the Torah is applicable in every language and to every different society. Applying this principle, the Midrash teaches that even generations after Moshe’s speech, when Jews learn in all different languages, it is considered as if Moshe directly taught the Torah to all Jews.
This idea – that the Torah of Moshe’s generation is the same Torah that we learn today – is crystallized by Rambam. In his introduction to the last chapter of Sanhedrin, in his commentary on the Mishnah, Rambam explains that the Torah will never be replaced or exchanged. Similarly, Rambam declares (Hilchot Melachim 11:3)
“The laws of the Torah will not ever change, and we neither add to them nor detract from them. Anyone who does so, or who changes Mitzvot from their original meaning, is a wicked person and a heretic.”
Rambam means to say that the Torah needs to be applied to every generation and that is not to be displaced. Beyond that, the Torah must be applied to the precise circumstances within which one finds himself. The Torah must always be translated into the language of the particular culture where its learners are. It is for this reason that the Torah cites the exact time and place that Moshe gave his speech to the Jewish people. The application of the Torah must always be precise in order to fit the audience that one addresses as clearly as possible. We can learn from this to always think how the Torah, in its ubiquity, can be applied to every situation. This realization will, God willing, allow all of us to maintain a true Torah lifestyle.