Imagine the scene – on the eastern side of the Dead Sea in an area now in the central western parts of Jordan, where the sun-drenched desert landscape of sandstone bluffs and valleys is extremely hot and dry, and there camped on the Plains of Moab, are hundreds of thousands of Israelites, thousands of tents and a vast number of cattle, placed in well organised groups by tribe in a prescribed order.
Moses, their revered and recognised leader, now an old man, knows that he will not cross the Jordan and get to live in the Promised Land – the land filled with milk and honey.
He wants to address the people, to give his final words of instruction and warning. He desperately wants to persuade them to follow God’s laws and commandments, to live righteous and holy lives. But he already knows that he will fail. The people will become distracted, greedy, selfish and disrespectful. Nevertheless he must try. As he delivers the sermons recorded in Devarim, he will repeat the Ten Commandments, give the people the Shema, and threaten them with the promise of what will happen if they fail to take detailed note of his message.
I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the scene, even if there weren’t quite as many people as the Book of Numbers had indicated when they left Egypt, which was said to be more than six hundred thousand men, so probably close to two million if the women and children are included. By the time of Moses’ sermons, addresses, call them what you will, there must have been a gigantic crowd of people and of course there were no electronic devices to convey his message, no megaphones, no amplifiers, loudspeakers, press, radio or TV coverage – and if you can believe it, not even any Zoom!
So in reality he was probably only heard by the most senior and important leaders, perhaps ten to 15 men from each tribe, that would amount to 120, maybe 200 at most and they would all have had to stay very very quiet, no cattle mooing close by!
And I guess it would have been all men. These few will presumably then have gone back to their tribes and encampments and relayed what they heard and recalled from Moses’s words, which perhaps might have been what they thought was important and relevant to their particular tribe and maybe ignoring things they didn’t really want to hear. Perhaps if half the audience at Moses’ feet had been women, the messages they passed on to the people might have been differently nuanced and maybe the impact on later generations would have been very different.
The Women’s Commentary on Torah says that experts examining when these passages were written suggest that much of Deuteronomy was written in the 7th Century BCE, more than 500 years after the actual events, and revised in the period of Babylonian exile in the 6th Century BCE. The Commentary goes on to suggest that there is more than one audience intended here. The first group is those who were present at the time, those receiving the final messages from God via Moses, especially important since no one else after Moses had such a close interpersonal relationship with God, and since Moses would not be completing the crossing into Canaan it was the last chance for him to pass on God’s message. The second audience comprised the Israelites who were the contemporaries of the authors of this part of Deuteronomy i.e. those in exile in Babylon. The authors wanted to pass on three specific messages: God’s role in Israel’s history, the definition of Israel’s territorial boundaries and finally to emphasise the need for the people to obey the word of God. The final audience is Jews down the centuries, culminating in us hearing part of it today.
Moses began by describing their journey after they escaped from Egypt, using the theory that one has to understand where one has come from to figure out how to deal with the future. He recalled the great victories over Sihon, king of the Amorites and Og, the king of Bashan. He reminded them that they had approached Canaan some thirty eight years earlier and God had told them that the land was ready for them, and as you may recall, twelve spies were sent out to investigate the land. The spies were senior well-respected representatives, one from each tribe. And today Amalia read how Moses described what had happened, with the people being afraid of the reports from ten of the spies, who had described heavily fortified cities and the very tall, large and menacing people living in the land, and finally refusing to cross into the land. In verse 32, Amalia read u’vadavar hazeh einchem ma’aminim b’adonai eloheichem “Yet in this thing you did not believe the Lord your God”.
Moses reminded the people that God had been extremely angry with that generation and decided that they would not get the opportunity to get to the Promised Land and so the forty years of wandering began. Only Joshua and Caleb would be allowed to finish the journey along with all of the children, who by the time they reached the plains of Moab had, of course, become battle hardened adults and people who he hoped had learned from the battles, hardships and many setbacks to believe in God and trust their leaders.
Moses continues to describe a bit more of their journeying and tells them that they mustn’t attack or harm the people of Moab or the Amonites, the latter because their land was given to the children of Lot, and Moab because of what will happen with the Moabite Ruth and Boaz in the future, leading to the birth of King David.
A commentary from the Orthodox Union suggested that the rejection by the Israelites of that first chance to cross into Canaan occurred on the ninth of Av and that is why this Sedra is always read before Tisha B’av and this began the trail of exile and punishment that has continued ever since and specifically again next Thursday.
Also, it is worth noting that most of Torah is narrated in the third person, however Deuteronomy is narrated almost entirely in the first person, the “I” of Moses addressing a “you”. This could be all of Israel, the elders, or just Joshua and Caleb, but it must include us as well, because the requirements to follow God’s commandments to create community, to look after the land, to care for each other and our neighbours are as important today as they were three thousand years ago. The word “you” occurs more than a hundred times in the 105 verses of this Sedra.
And, we know that one of the prime propositions of Judaism is to treat others as you would like them to treat you, and part of this involves loving one’s neighbour. This has become something of a cliché, and yet actually, how elusive and difficult it is to achieve.
Rabbi Moshe Lieb of Sassov once told his disciples that he had learned a secret about this from a conversation he’d overheard between two villagers:
‘Do you love me?’ asked the first.
‘I love you deeply’ replied the second.
‘Do you know what really hurts me?’ asked the first.
‘How can I know what really hurts you?’ shrugged the second.
‘But if you don’t know what causes me pain, how can you say that you really love me?’ responded the first.
‘This was a profound lesson about the nature of love,’ said Moshe Leib: No one really loves their neighbour unless they know what’s hurting them. But if we do not acknowledge the hurt within ourselves – our fragility, our vulnerability, our woundedness – we cannot bear to hear it in another: our partner, our parent, our child; all those who cry out for justice or just cry themselves to sleep, our ‘neighbour’. No one is ever loved enough.’
We know that we cannot live by “bread alone” – we search for meaning and purpose, maybe we can find some support through our families and friends, we also have an opportunity to build our community, to support each other and to look after each other just a little more. We have a great community in Beth Shalom and we all have the opportunity to make it a little more welcoming, a little more caring.
I would like to end with a short poem written by Rabbi Reuben Silverman who himself was inspired by Amicha Lau Lavie.
“In the beit midrash there is the Ark
In the Ark there is a scroll
In the scroll there’s a story
In the story there’s You and I
In You and I there’s a story
In the story there’s a scroll
In the scroll there’s the Ark
In the Ark there’s a beit midrash”…..*
El Shadai – Shomer Dlatot Yisrael –
Keeper of the Doors of Israel
When I am recognised by name I am I
When I am with you I am your ‘You’
When I transcend my I, and you yours,
You and I are ‘We’
El Shadai –
Show me when to say ‘dai’ (enough)
Open a door for us – to what is good enough
Not to the way of perfection which is daunting
But to what is sufficient, satisfactory, satisfying
To the solution that is present in the problem
To the challenge which embraces the change.