Random Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 34
by Bob Schwartz
Studying a random Torah chapter each Shabbat contravenes the traditional, conventional and sacred process of following the Torah through a fixed annual cycle of portions. I only recently learned from reading the revered and brilliant rabbi and scholar Aryeh Kaplan that meditation on random Torah passages is actually a historical Jewish phenomenon. Who knew?
While working on an extended explanation of my taking this iconoclastic Torah study path, today I offer a poem about breaking cycles:
We see better in discontinuity
The way we see better in the dark.
We strain for every glimmer of light
To make out shapes.
Cycles and patterns are comfortable
The more they repeat
The easier it seems.
But nothing is easy.
We are lulled into false confidence
That we know what is there
And what is going on.
The broken line
Is as powerful as the solid.
Deuteronomy 34 is the last chapter of the Torah. It is the death of Moses.
The Torah begins on a cosmic scale with the creation of everything. It ends with a single man, a very old and special man, sitting on a mountaintop, surveying the future. He will never see or experience that future, partly because he is old and dying, partly because he has been forbidden to enter the land he has led his people to.
Scholars will tell you that as a literary matter, this final chapter may not technically be the end of the text, that the five books (Pentateuch) are actually six (Hexateuch), and this compendium work originally continued with the story of Joshua, which now appears in the non-Torah book of Joshua.
That is an important scholarly debate in some ways, and a silly one in another. The Big Story always begins with an ineffable cosmic moment. It always ends with an old person surveying the past, present and future, with promises fulfilled and unfulfilled, barred by the nature of creation from going any further. This final chapter gets it right.