|Annual Reading Cycle|
by Dr. Patrice Fischer
Congregation Ohr Chadash, Clearwater, Florida
This week we begin to read the last of the major sections of the Torah, known in English as Deuteronomy (from Greek, in the Septuagint: deutero = second and nomos = law). However, in Hebrew it is known as Devarim, meaning ‘words’ in biblical Hebrew (and interestingly, in Modern Hebrew, as ‘things’, or in everyday Israeli language as ‘stuff’).
These first chapters form a travelogue, a sort of ‘state of the journey’ address that Moses gives the people. We can almost imagine Moses formatting the presentation like a talk-with-Powerpoint slides in an academic classroom. In this way, Dt. 1:19 ff. might go something like this:
Moses: “Then we set out from Horeb…”
CLICK: picture of Mt. Sinai, with rising sun in background
M: “and went through all that great and terrible wilderness…”
CLICK: flip through various views of the Sinai desert: shrubs, dunes, rocky canyons, treeless barrens
M: “and we came to Kadesh-barnea…”
CLICK: picture of the camp at Kadesh-barnea, perhaps adding family pictures of ‘typical’ days in the camp, families eating dinner (manna in its various styles of preparation), family groups singing at their campfires, a beautiful sunset
And so on…
But that is not how this book is usually taught, is it? Just putting the term ‘law’ in its title is very strict and stern, and therefore these stories out of the ministry of Moses are seen more as Timeless Theological Truths, rather than a summary report of the journey as he sees it.
Let’s try, for a moment, to couch this book in human pictures, as Moses would have been able to do if he had 20th century technology (today’s technology would make it even more spectacular…). This is the story of his family. These people are shown, warts and all, and their last 38 years is laid out in a very matter-of-fact way, giving the original instructions from HaShem and how those instructions were followed (or not followed, as the case may be).
Moses describes the establishment of their governmental system with a short section. The choosing of various ‘wise and experienced’ (1:15) tribal leaders was necessary because of the burden of leadership that Moses admitted he was ‘not able to bear alone’ (1: 9). [“What?” some modern day people exclaim. I can hear them questioning, “Why doesn’t he just claim the promise that ‘Through Yeshua I can do all things that strengthen me’?”]
No, this is not a state-of-the-journey report that hides the group’s flaws, nor hides the leaders’ weaknesses. It is not full of excuses for why they haven’t gotten there yet (although they could be listed), nor ways to triumphantly march into the Promised Land. How unlike today’s average weekly sermon from spiritual leaders to their followers this message is. Instead, the difficulties immediately ahead of them are appraised, and they are encouraged to go forward (2: 24).
Toward the end of chapter 2 and on into 3, there is a veritable Table of Middle Eastern Nations, reflecting the names and geographical areas of those peoples that they encountered (or were about to encounter) as they headed towards the Promised Land. This gives us an insight as to the ‘foreign policy’ of this people during the end of their journey, as delivered by the man in the middle of it all. There are specific instructions as to whom they may fight on their way to the land, and whom they must not fight. And there are plain statements, without explanation within this context, that Joshua will be the next commander for the people as they attempt, finally, to take the land that was promised to their ancestors (1:38 & 3:21).
The acknowledgement of the failures of the older generation is put in an almost understated manner, in 1:26 – 2:15. Notice that no mention is made here of the thousands of people who died in the wilderness—by some calculations, more than 100 funerals per day would have been necessary.
This book takes twists and turns along the way, but the underlying lessons we can find here are valuable and complex. Consider the following paradoxes that have been recognized in Devarim (each would take a while to develop in detail). Perhaps the following thoughts can guide us through different analyses of this book in the coming weeks:
I recommend that we spend time musing on the marriage relationship between HaShem and Israel as we go through Devarim this year. I can’t think of a more fruitful way to prepare ourselves for the High Holidays than to remind ourselves of what Moses reminded Joshua as he sent him to lead the fight for the Promised Land: “Do not be afraid of them [the kingdoms you must fight]; the Lord your God himself will fight for you" (3:22).