Sefer Devarim and the Classroom of Moshe Rabbenu (Ideas #126)

The Talmud (Sota 40a) recounts the story of two rabbis, R. Chiya bar Abba and R. Abahu, who began to lecture at the same time, the former about the intricacies of halacha and the latter about homiletical stories. After everyone flocked to hear the stories of R. Abahu, he told his colleague not to take it personally and that which had happened was only because “everyone loves a good story.”


Of course, the above raises a problem – not all important information can be presented in story form. So what is the teacher to do? Is he to sacrifice the transmission of such information so as to keep his students interested or must he give it over nonetheless, regardless of the cost? In Sefer Devarim, our prime teacher, Moshe Rabbenu, gives us a strategy of how to present important factual information without losing our audience.




It would appear that Moshe heard the laws that he gave near the end of his life already at Mount Sinai. Yet if that is so, why does he only speak about many of these laws now? More than one commentator has answered this question by saying that these laws have to do with the Jewish state that would be established by Yehoshua and so, it was not immediately relevant when the Jews were encamped at Sinai. In this way, they explain the practical side of Moshe’s timing. What they do not elucidate, however, is the important educational ramifications of Moshe’s strategy. It is not just that these laws weren’t practical before the Jews were going to cross the Jordan. Even more important perhaps is that, because of their lack of relevance, they weren’t really interesting until that time. For theoretical laws don’t capture our attention. However, when we know that without these facts we will be unprepared for what we want to do, we force ourselves to listen.


I remember when I was first learning the laws of what constitutes prohibited cooking on Shabbat – since I was almost never involved in meal preparation at the yeshiva, when it came to the Shabbat kitchen I basically didn’t know my right hand from my left. The result was that much of what was said in class was completely lost on me. It remained distant and certainly less interesting than something that would be immediately practical.


And since, barring a good story, a skilled educator must always find ways to draw his students’ attention, we are well advised to note the efficacy of teaching information that is immediately useful. Obviously, there is a need for the transmission of theoretical knowledge as well, but that is usually the realm of intellectual elites. Moreover, when needed, it is not impossible for a good teacher to find ways to make it appealing. Still for the vast majority, theoretical knowledge simply has no resonance.


It is in this context that another famous Jewish educator’s words should interest us. In Ramban’s famous ethical will, known as the Igeret haRamban, he tells his son that when he gets up from a session of Torah study, he should find a way to actually practice something that he has learned. Like our teacher Moshe, he understood that facts need to be relevant in order to be interesting. Who was involved in the theoretical fine points of all areas of Judaism more than Ramban? And yet when it came to his son, his own sublime proclivities did not prevent him from being a good teacher. As such, he understood that the Torah is full of laws that are only potentially interesting and that the job of the teacher is to make them come alive for the student.


Incidentally, and perhaps not so incidentally, the laws of the Jewish state that we read about in Sefer Devarim have lost much of their appeal. For many, this is because they don’t live in the Jewish state. For others, it is because they don’t have any hopes of applying the Torah’s laws to the contemporary state. For still others, it comes from an attitude that separates the Beit Midrash from the street, as if the Torah was only meant to be theoretical. And if the latter has become a dominant, if usually unspoken, motif in many of our Torah institutions, it could easily explain why the entire Torah (except for the stories!) does not interest the majority of Jews today.


I wonder if it is not time to return to the classroom of Moshe Rabbenu.