By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
In last week’s Torah Parsha (DEVARIM), we heard the words of Moses as he explained to the Children of Israel the sins and transgressions committed by their forefathers, with the consequence that God banned them from entering the ‘Promised Land’. He also told them the reason he believed the he, also, would not live to cross the Jordan with this new generation of Israelites.
In this week’s Torah Parsha (VETCHANAN), Moses begins his speech in a peculiar and unexpected manner: “I pleaded with the Eternal at that time, saying…O Eternal God, You who let me, Your servant see the first works of Your Greatness; Your mighty hand; You, whose powerful deeds no God in heaven or earth can equal; let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan” (1).
We may wonder how Moses’ final words were received by this young, eager generation. Did they find it incongruous that Moses, the greatest man they have ever known, the man who stands before them and exhorts them about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘sin’ and ‘punishment’, will himself be prohibited from entering the Land? Were they, perhaps, intimidated by the knowledge that even Moses was unable to adhere to God’s standards?
Apparently, Moses was sensitive to these unspoken doubts and rumination and immediately reverted to his role as a teacher and inspiration. He tells the Children of Israel: “Ask now about the former days, long before your time; has any group of people, aside from your ancestors, heard the voice of God, and did not die?; has any God tried to take for Himself, one nation out of another, by miracles, signs and wonders; by war; by a mighty Hand and an outstretched Arm; or, by great and awesome deeds, as He did for you in Egypt” (2).
“But the Lord, Your God, Himself brought you out, as if you were an iron crucible” (3). Rashi explains that the reference to an ‘iron crucible’ signifies that the Israelites were like gold (4).
Moses’ primary concern for this generation, once they crossed into the ‘Promised Land’, was the temptation to practice idolatry. Canaan would be a relatively small nation, surrounded by other much larger nations, who believed in multiple gods. Although these idolaters typically attributed any military success to their deities, none of these nations perceived their gods as their sovereign, legislators, or law-givers. Instead, it was typically the kings who defined society’s rules.
It was incumbent upon Moses to stress that the laws, the justice system and the moral code of society for the Israelites were commandments of God. “See, here I have taught you decrees and laws, as the Lord, my God commanded me…..observe them carefully, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of all the other nations; they will learn about these laws, and consider this great nation as wise and superior in its understanding of justice” (5). Further, Moses spoke of the dire punishment for any individual who deviated from the worship of the One and Only God.
Moses then proceeded with a recitation of the Ten Commandments and the verses of the Shema. He emphasized the preeminence of the Shema as words which bring us closer to God’s infinity, with a reality which is so much greater than our passing human existence. Moses affirmed that when reciting the Shema we cover our eyes, averting our gaze from an experience which is so intense.
(1) DEUTERONOMY (3:23-3:25)
(2) DEUTERONOMY (4:7-8)
(3) DEUTERONOMY (4:20)
(4) Rashi on DEUTERONOMY
(5) DEUTERONOMY (4:5-6)