Parashat D’varim/Shabbat Hazon
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
These are trying times. Many of us feel that we are unprepared for the crises that have engulfed us. We feel that our expectations have been cruelly and suddenly shattered. We turn to our Torah for sustenance and guidance.
As Moses begins his long and final speech to the Israelites, he chooses to start by reminding them of their past and how they got to their present situation. While it should have taken a mere eleven days to get from Sinai (Horeb) to Israel, it took forty years, instead. (Deut. 1:2) So, too, we need to remind ourselves that we have not reached the present moment in our country and society in an instant. Our present situation is the result of long and accumulated choices and experiences. I share with you my comments on this Torah portion from 7 years ago (- Torah Sparks, 2011). I feel that they could easily be speaking about our present moment:
This Torah portion, the first section of the last book of the Five Books of Moses, is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the exile of the Jews from their land. For two thousand years, as we prepared to recall our exilic state, we read a Torah portion that seeks to prepare us to enter the very land from which we were later expelled. This is an important part of traditional Jewish consciousness. We simultaneously locate ourselves on the shores of hope, about to cross the River Jordan, as we also sit, disconsolate, on the banks of the Rivers of Babylon, weeping as we recall Zion. (Psalm137)
This means that, whether we focus on the Torah portion or focus on the calendar, and the haftarah, the prophetic reading of the first chapter of Isaiah, chosen for this portion, we look toward entering – or re-entering the Promised Land.
But the words of Moses and the words of Isaiah together warn us that such entry must be based on meeting certain conditions. Moses knows that he will not enter the Promised Land. The people will have to go on a build their lives without him. So he begins his extensive monologue, a speech that ends up constituting the whole book of Deuteronomy, with describing the special care that he took to find the right leaders to guide and administer the people.
These leaders are in addition to God’s chosen heir for Moses, Joshua. More leaders are needed for such a large people. Those leaders come from within the ranks of the people themselves. They are “wise, understanding and well-known.” (Deut. 1:13) But their celebrity and talents are not sufficient in themselves to give them direction in their mission as leaders. Moses says: “I commanded your judges at that time saying, ‘Listen carefully to all your brethren and be sure to judge righteously, whether in disputes between one person and his kin or even with a stranger… for justice belongs to the Almighty.” (vv. 16-17) The entrance fee, as it were, to the Promised Land, says Moses, is to do justice and to expand that sense of justice “even to the stranger” – to include everyone, even those who are not full citizens and fully accepted in society.
Both in this country and in Israel, today, there is great turmoil and dissension. We cry out for leadership that will approach our conflicts wisely, with a commitment to do justice for the enfranchised and for the disenfranchised. We may disagree about applications and practicalities, but Moses’ vision is clear – justice is expansive, not constricted. It is for all, not just for the few. It is a commandment, not a prize awarded to the successful and fortunate.
This non-negotiable condition is the great message of our Prophets. As formulated in this week’s haftarah, by Isaiah, “I will restore your judges as in the beginning and your counselors as in the beginning. Zion will be redeemed through justice (mishpat), and its returnees through compassionate righteousness (tzedaqah).”(Isaiah 1:27)
Rabbi David Greenstein
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image: by John Moore via Getty Image “embed“