August 8, 2015 – 23 Av 5775
Annual (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25): Etz Hayim p. 1037; Hertz p. 780
Triennial (Deuteronomy 9:4-10:11): Etz Hayim p. 1042; Hertz p. 784
Haftarah (Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3): Etz Hayim p. 1056; Hertz p. 794
Picking up from where he left off, Moses exhorts the Israelites to follow God and God's commandments. Fear of of neighboring nations or victories against such peoples are not valid excuses to lessen their devotion to God. And the stakes for the people are high: they are about to enter a bountiful land where they can be fully satiated -- all of which can be taken away if they are not religiously resolute.
Moses knows that the Israelites' track record is not good. He recalls how the people once so brazenly built a calf and made it an idol at the same time that Moses was receiving the commandments. God nevertheless gave Moses a new set of tablets of the Law to replace those he broke during the Golden Calf incident, and allows the march to the Promised Land to continue.
In order to conquer and maintain control of the land of Canaan, the Israelites must erase their stubbornness, provide for the needy, and worship God only. Doing this, coupled with following the other commandments, will enable the land to produce prosperously; failing this, Israel's bounty will disappear.
Theme #1: Overrated?
And when the Lord your God has thrust them from your path, say not to yourselves, "The Lord has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues"; it is rather because of the wickedness of those nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. It is not because of your virtues and rectitude that you will be able to possess their country; but it is because of their wickedness that the Lord your God is dispossessing those nations before you, and in order to fulfill the oath that the Lord made to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Know, then, that it is not for any virtues of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiffnecked people. (Deuteronomy 9:4-6)
God makes it crystal-clear that the Israelites should not feel too comfortable even after they succeed in conquering the land of Canaan.
The point is made three times, in three verses in a row: it is not because of your virtue but rather because of these nations’ wickedness. Some think that the repetition is just a scribe’s error, repeating a line by mistake. That is possible, but the repetition itself is not sufficient reason to make that conclusion. On the contrary, the text seems to me precisely to be making the point as emphatically as possible. … Moses thus gives a powerful warning against chauvinism and self-congratulation. And this also provides a profound balance to the declaration that Israel was chosen to become a treasured people, which came just two chapters earlier. -- Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah
The central role of the nation Israel is Jewish biblical theology is self-evident. Israel’s origins are related to the creation of the world and the need for human beings to act as partners with God to complete and sanctify creation. God therefore chooses Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah for a special covenant relationship through which their descendants will form the nation Israel. The Bible contends that Israel is constituted as a nation holy to God and a kingdom of priests that stands at the center of all the nations of the world. The Bible is careful to specify that Israel was chosen for this role not by any special merit, but because God chose to keep the promises made to Israel’s ancestors. Israel’s experiences thereby become an example to the nations concerning divine power, justice, and mercy. -- Marvin A. Sweeney, “Jewish Biblical Theology”, from The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship, Frederick E. Greenspahn, ed.
Setting the Bible’s interest in youngest sons within this larger context of its preference for ostensibly unlikely heroes is illuminating for the way Israel is portrayed as a whole. Deuteronomy puts this most succinctly when it describes her as “the least among the nations”. Although the words are unique to this setting, its point -- that Israel was an ostensibly unlikely choice -- is hardly idiosyncratic. -- Frederick E. Greenspahn, When Brothers Dwell Together
Questions for Discussion:
Friedman interprets the text as sharing the forceful claim that the Israelites don't necessarily deserve their blessings as a treasured nation -- it's just that other nations deserve such blessings even less. It recalls Winston Churchill's comment that democracy is the worst form of government in the world, except for all the others. Is the idea of being the best out of a bad bunch too harsh a judgment of the Israelites, especially since, in Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to a generation that had largely avoided the sins of their fathers and mothers? Can it be an effective motivation for Jews today?
Sweeney notes what is for many the most effective explanation of Israel being the "chosen people" -- that we are meant to provide a positive example to the rest of humanity, not necessarily to be better than anyone else. Is there a place in our language for an alternate approach, for proclaiming "Jewish exceptionalism"? Is it possible for this belief to be more authentic? What are the potential downsides of this concept?
To Greenspahn, Israel being a chosen nation is reminiscent of the many occasions in the Hebrew Bible in which a younger or youngest sibling becomes the favored or more blessed member of the family. In what ways are the Jewish people an underdog in general society? In what ways do Jews more naturally take the role of an "older sibling"? Should these designations matter when evaluating the Jewish experience?
Theme #2: That Thing You Do!
As long as I have known you, you have been defiant toward the Lord. (Deuteronomy 9:24)
Moses knows the Israelites' tendencies all too well, and speaks to his experience.
This verse begins with a mem [which has a value of 40 in Gematria] and ends with a mem. This is to indicate to you [that Moses meant to say,] “For the entire 40-year period that you have been in wilderness, you have been rebels. -- Ba’al HaTurim
Verses 22-24, which interrupt the narrative, have long been considered as a later insertion enumerating other additional cases of such rebellions on the part of Israel. -- Gerhard Von Rad, Deuteronomy
The Samaritan text and the Vulgate read “he knew you,” but in Deuteronomy 31:27, “during my lifetime … you have been rebellious” seems to support the Masoretic version. -- Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy
Questions for Discussion:
Ba'al HaTurim utilizes Gematria -- the assigning of numeric values to Hebrew letters -- to indicate that the Israelites' rebellious streak lasted for the entire 40 years of wandering. Is it also possible that the fact that the verse begins and ends with a letter in the middle of the Hebrew Alef-Bet is a sign that the Israelites have a tendency not to follow typical order? How much stock should we put into the significance of Hebrew letters and their numerical value when gleaning meaning from the Torah?
Von Rad sees this snippet in our text as somewhat tangential to the subject at hand. But from a literary point of view, is it possible that Moses is simply speaking with a kind of stream of consciousness? Is it more likely that Moses is speaking according to a fixed (or memorized) script over the course of the book of Deuteronomy, or is he being more extemporaneous? If he is being more spontaneous, does that change the way we evaluate the words of the book of Deuteronomy and its laws?
Weinfeld's view indicates that it is unclear whether Israel has been rebellious throughout the time Moses has known the nation or the time God has known the nation. To what extent is Moses expressing his personal frustration with Israel, and to what extent is Moses reflecting God's frustration? In what ways would Moses's frustration be different than God's frustration?