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Parashat Hashavua Devarim 2014 / 5774 - What Gives Us Strength

31.07.2014 by

This week we read the first parsha in the book of Devarim - Deutoronomy - which begins a long, moving farewell speech by Moshe which continues until the very end of the book, which is the end of the Torah. The parsha, like the entire book of Deutoronomy,  is full of Moshe's recollections of the events of the past forty years, along with an attempt to convince the Israelites that, once he is gone and they enter the land of Israel, they must mend their ways and keep the covenant that has been made with God. Moshe begins the parsha with a list of the failures of the Jewish people, the things they did wrong during the years of wandering in the desert. 

One of the central sins they committed was, of course, the sin of the spies, when the people refused to enter the Land of Israel, fearing they would be defeated by the Canaanite nations there. Moshe retells this story here, at some length. He begins by reminding the people how well-positioned they were to enter the land, making their refusal to do so all the more perverse. He does this in an interesting way: he emphasizes  the fact that, before they started making their way to Israel, Moshe had set up an extensive judicial system. He recalls the fact that, at the urging of his father-in-law, Yitro, and realizing that he could not carry the burden of leading and judging the people on his own, he appointed officers of a thousand, officers of hundreds, officers of fifties, and officers of tens, and policemen for the tribes. This veritable army of "wise, insightful, well-known" men was appointed to judge the people, and to guarantee a fair, just, legal system, so that the laws of the Torah would be enforced intelligently, equally and without prejudice among the people.

Immediately after reminding the people of this fact - that, as the Ramban (Nachmanides) puts it, "we had received the Torah, and there were placed upon you judges and police officers to judge and lead you, and we were ready and prepared to enter into the land" -  Moshe goes on to recount the awful sin of the spies, which delayed the entry into the land for 38 more years, until the entire generation that had sinned had died, so that their children, the next generation, could enter it.

The juxtaposition of the creation of an extensive, democratic (many thousands of people were involved as judges) legal system with the sin of the spies is remarkable. Moshe is clearly saying that the refusal to enter Israel was especially inappropriate because  the Israelites were  so completely prepared to enter the land. And what is that preparedness? What made them so ready to enter and settle the land of Israel? The rule of law. The fact that we had a society not run by just one man (Moshe), or a small clique of aristrocrats or oligarchs, but by a large representative body of citizens who brought law, justice, and leadership to the entire people. In other words, the thing that should have made us realize that we were ready and able to enter the land, conquer and settle it, was not our military strength, or riches, or even the help we could expect from God. It was the rule of law. As Nachmanides says, the presence of a broad class of leaders, chosen from the people, charged with the task of bringing God's law to the people on a day-to-day basis, fairly and without bias, is what made it so obvious that we could conquer, and successfully settle, the land of Israel. A nation's most important asset, its ace in the hole, its reason to have faith in itself and its mission, is its commitment to justice, fairness, and equality before the law.

Right now, Israel is in a very tight spot. We are fighting a war against people who have made it impossible for us to live in peace in our homeland, by, for the past fourteen years, attacking us with thousands of rockets. People who, back in 2004 and 2005, forced us to close a relatively open border by first using one of the border crossings (Karni) to sneak into Israel and murder ten civillians in the Port of Ashdod, and then attacking the crossing itself (Read that again. They attacked the border crossing itself. And people today are complaining about Israel's closing the borders and "besieging" Gaza), killing six civillians working there. People who took millions of dollars of aid and used it for terror tunnels, rockets, RPGs, explosives, etc., rather than doing anything for their people (and we are blamed for the "horrible conditions in Gaza"). While fighting this war, we also have to defend ourselves in the court of public opinion from people who are too wrong-headed, misinformed, misled, or biased to understand what is going on here, and what insane evil we are up against.  And, actually, we are doing fine, thanks for asking. We are united, strong, profoundly moved by the sacrifices made by so many, inspired by the strength of our fellow citizens, especially those living near Gaza, tearfully mourning our dead, saddened by the dead on the other side, and determined to live. And what makes it all possible, what gives us our strength, is the fact that we are an open, law-abiding, democratic society, with deep Jewish values, morals, and ethics. We are not perfect, but we have what Moshe told the Jewish people it takes: we are a fair and just society, with reasonable leaders (most of the time), chosen from and by the people, trying to live up to our ancient Torah values of respect for life, solidarity, justice, decency, and the rule of law.  Our enemies are not. They do not share these values, and operate within a perverse, profoundly oppressive, monolithic culture, which is why we must, and will, prevail.

Those of us who, ironically, at this difficult time, go beyond the boundaries of reasonable discourse and behavior, and threathen or bully (or do worse to) those with whom they disagree, are missing the point: our strength lies in Moshe not being the only one to lead and judge us. A diversity of views, a culture of open debate, of intellectual honesty, of power-sharing, is our legacy, and is what makes us strong, especially now, when we have been forced to conquer the land all over again.

Shabbat Shalom, בשורות טובות,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

And what is that preparedness? What made them so ready to enter and settle the land of Israel? The rule of law.Rabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Devarim


The Book of Devarim, the last book of the Chumash, begins with the parsha of Devarim - Words - in which Moshe begins his long, final, farewell address - actually series of addresses - to the Jewish people before he dies. Moshe reviews various incidents which took place during the forty years in the desert, stressing the difficulty he had in leading the people. He reminds the Israelites of their sins during their sojourn in the desert, particularly the sin of the spies. He also reviews the military and diplomatic interactions they have had with the nations near the land of Canaan, as they approach the promised land.

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