Parashat Devarim – Erev Shabbat 21 July 2023 (5783)
Week of 16 July – 22 July 2023
Torah portion: Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27
Theme: As a Man carries his Son.
As Deuteronomy opens, it is the fortieth year since the Israelites departed from Egypt. They are in the land of Moab on the eastern bank of the Jordan, poised to enter the Promised Land (1:5). The text is presented as Moses’ final words (devarim) to his people. He recounts their journey through “the great and terrible wilderness” (1:19), where at both Horeb and Kadesh-barnea, they were mandated to “Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers … from the Arabah to the Great River” (1:8, 21). At Horeb, because they were already “as numerous as the stars in the sky” (1:10), a system of tribal leaders and of judges was established. At Kadesh-barnea, twelve scouts were appointed to reconnoiter the Promised Land; however, their favorable report and the fruit they brought back could not allay the fears of the people. Even Moses’ image of God carrying them through the wilderness as a man carries his son, (cf. 1:31) failed to evoke their confidence. We hear Moses’ realization: “you have no faith in the Lord, your God” (1:32), and then God’s judgment that none of that exodus generation will enter the land. The haftarah conveys what must have been the tone of that moment.
In the synagogue, on this Shabbat preceding Tishah b’Av, the first twenty-seven verses of the Prophet Isaiah constitute the haftarah. There, the destruction of the temple emerges, not so much as a result of military defeat, but rather as a call to a deeper insight. The profound grief of betrayal, haunts this “declaration of the Sovereign, the Lord of Hosts, the Mighty One of Israel” (24). It is an unmitigated accusation of infidelity, the tragedy of a once intimate relationship brutally betrayed, culminating in the judgment: “Alas, she has become a harlot/the faithful city/that was filled with justice/where righteousness dwelt” (21). At the heart of this situation is the failure to “know … take thought” (3). The way to reconciliation and reparation lies not primarily in rituals: “when you lift up your hands, I will turn my eyes away from you; though you pray at length, I will not listen” (15). The only way forward is through radical conversion: “Put your evil doings away from my sight” (16) … “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice” (17). The Lord issues a deeply compassionate invitation, “Come, let us reach an understanding” (18). The passage ends with a promise, “I will smelt out your dross with lye … Zion shall be saved in the judgment; her repentant ones in the retribution” (25, 27).
In Dt. 2 the Israelites leave Kadesh, traversing lands claimed by others. Three times God declares: “I will not give you” Seir (2:5 the possession of Esau), or Ar (2:9 the possession of the descendants of Lot) or Moab (2:19 the possession of Lot). Sihon, King of Heshbon, and Og, King of Bashan, refuse them passage, only to be defeated by Israel, who then possesses the country from the Wadi Arnon to Mount Hermon (2:8). The parashah ends with Moses’ hope-filled assurance to Joshua: “what the Lord has done to Sihon and Og, will be the fate of all of the kingdoms into which you shall cross” (3:21-22).
Reflection and Discussion: 1. In this Deuteronomy passage, Moses sustains an awareness of the presence and action of God. Recall a personal experience in which you became aware of the leading of God only much later. 2. In 1:31 we see Moses’ image of God; how would you describe your image of God now?
Bibliography: Plaut, W.G., The Torah, Union of American Hebrew Congregations (New York, 1981); Brown, R., Fitzmeyer, J., Murphy, R., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall (New Jersey, 1990).
This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Diane Willey,nds, Canada, Bat Kol Contributor.