We are now deep in the stream of Moses’ discourse as he goes through all of God’s laws, accompanying these with promises and warnings. It is as if he were a very wise old man speaking calmly and encouragingly with his children before he leaves them to go into the future depending on their own will and actions. Appoint yourselves judges, he says, at the beginning of Shof’tim. Do not erect sacred pillars or engage in any of the revolting practices and idolatry practised widely in the region. Resolve difficult judicial questions by consulting the Levitical priests (and Levites). Do not allow your monarchs to aggrandise themselves. Root out sorcery. Some of the rules are an expression of compassion, such as allowing those betrothed, those who have recently planted a vineyard, or even those who are simply faint-hearted, to return home before a battle.
Ki Teitzei continues in similar vein. Women captured during a war may not be sold as slaves or kept as servants if the captor does not wish to marry them. It is not clear, however, what choice the women themselves had in the matter. And what about the rebellious son who does not amend his ways even after flogging and may be stoned to death? The rules continue. You must help a neighbour’s donkey if you see it fall under its load. Do not take a mother bird along with her chicks. If a man bears false witness against his wife he may be flogged. A rapist will be put to death. And so it goes on, ruling after ruling, all designed to enable Israel to construct a just and fair society. If you don’t believe me, and even if you do, come along on Saturday at 10.30. Adam Feldman will put us right.
You are a very stubborn nation. Why? Because (Ekev) you provoked God your Lord in the desert. So Moses tells the Israelites as he continues his lesson to the people in the wise words of Devarim. All is by no means lost, however. We can make the difference between disaster and success. Not alone, for we rely on the grace of God, who has already guided and supported us ever since His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The ultimate choice, though, is ours and it is a simple choice. Follow the laws, build and maintain a just society free of corruption, refrain from the glorification of things and from idolatry and we will be great. Disobey, allow self-interest and the thirst for wealth and power to overrule our moral sense, replace God with a deification of material objects, and we will be subjected to alienation and the rule of others.
As Moses speaks, he weaves the moral choices in with the history of the people so far. He also says the words which have become part of the litany of Jewish prayer: “If you are careful to pay heed to my commandments, which I am prescribing to you today, and if you love God your Lord with all your heart and soul… Be careful that you heart not be tempted to go astray and worship other gods, bowing down to them.”
And so we come to R’eih, the choice between a blessing and a curse. The parsha covers a lot of ground: idolatrous practices, the responsibilities as a chosen people, kosher food, treatment of slaves and the remission of debt. In other words, it treats of both ritual duty and of social laws and justice. There is a lot more, and to find this out and to share Shabbat morning with the community, come along at 10.30. This week Harvey Kurzfield and Murray Brown will be leading us, so a real treat.
Words, words, words… Devarim is full of these slippery, chameleon, shape-shifting creatures. Are they to be trusted? To encourage us to do just that, the last book of the Torah begins by situating itself very exactly in space and time: “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the east bank of the Jordan, in the desert, in the Aravah, near Suf, in the vicinity of Paran, Tofel, Lavan, Chatzeroth and Di Zahav… On the first of the eleventh month in the fortieth year, Moses also spoke to the Israelites regarding all that God had commanded them. This was after he had defeated Sichon, king of the Bashan, who lived in Ashatasroth…” And so it goes on. To fix Devarim even more securely, Moses proceeds to summarise the story so far. Here he is at his grandest. The simple yet unassuming authority with which he speaks makes the reader sit up attentively, as it must have made the Israelites stand and listen with the greatest alertness. Moses brings the narrative up to the present and begins to reach forward to the impending entry into the promised land.
Poor Moses. After forty years of leading the people, of guiding them, reasoning with them, pleading with them, and pleading with God on their behalf, he understandably pleads now on his own behalf to be allowed to cross the Jordan with the people he has done so much for and see the good land. Va-etchannan. But it is not to be. Yet Moses, straight and true, despite his profound disappointment, does not plead any longer or complain, but continues his work by beginning to remind the people of the lessons accumulated over forty years. “What nation is so great that they have such righteous rules and laws, like this entire Torah that I am presenting before you today?” The parshah proceeds to enumerate some of the laws and further to prepare for the history that lies ahead. There is so much – history and law that is. To get much more of a flavour than these few words can give, come along to the service on Saturday at 10.30. Pat Lipert will lead us.
If a man makes a vow to God or commits himself to some action, he must keep the vow. So we are told in Mattot, and this is not surprising. If a woman makes a vow, then whether or not she has to keep it depends on either her father or her husband, depending on where she is living. Is this surprising and does such a distinction provoke debate? At the time Moses receives these rules from God, there is no time to have one, since Israel is commanded to attack Midian, which they do with great success. No sooner do the victorious troops return with the spoils of conquest, including the women and children, than another troubling incident occurs. Moses, the compassionate leader, the one who has so often pleaded to God for the people, reprimands the generals and captains for not killing the women and boys and promptly commands them to do so. Are the boys guilty of the sins of some of their mothers? Another swing of emotion follows, when, over and above the portion of spoils the army is instructed to present to the priests and the Levites, the commanders, of their own free will, offer gifts to God in thanks for not losing any of their men – an act of double generosity. If only the generals in charge during the First World War had cared so much for their troops!
More generosity of spirit follows. The leaders of Gad and Reuben ask that they be allowed to settle on the side of the Jordan presently occupied by the people. Despite Moses’ misgivings that they are trying to avoid having to fight in order to conquer the land on the other side of the river, the two tribes show that they have absolutely no intention of shirking the fight. Quite the opposite: they volunteer to be in the vanguard, and so Moses responds with equal generosity and grants their request.
Can it be? Are we already at the far edge of the wilderness, at the end of B’minbar? It has taken forty years to get here, yet it seems like only yesterday that we were embarking on the beginning of Bereshit. We are indeed coming to the end of the journey, and Mas’ei summarises all our wanderings. It does not end there, however. Instructions are given for the conquest of the land and the delineation of its borders. As a new chapter (or book) is about to begin in our history, new leaders are appointed. Land is to be set aside for Levitical cities and for cities of refuge. This is a parsha full of things and there is no more space here for them, but there will be at 10.30 on Saturday. Liz of the most musical settings will be leading us, so come along.