Crossing Over To The Other Side

The parasha this week, Va’etchanan (“And He Pleaded”), refers to how Moshe/Moses pleaded with God to cross over into the Promised Land, along with the People of Israel.

Interesting how when we look back on incidents in our lives, and we re-tell the story of what happened, some of the more difficult facts have a way of morphing into something other than what actually happened. Has this ever happened to you? Something happened one way but you tell the story in another way, without even meaning to hide the truth — it just changes in your memory.

You may remember, back in parashat Cukkat, when we talked about God’s extreme displeasure with the way Moshe (and his brother Aaron) handled the crisis in Meribah — when they were supposed to produce water from the rock (Numbers 20:6-12). Now, in this week’s parasha, Moshe revisits that incident, actually blaming the people and their incessant complaining as the reason he is not allowed to enter the Land. Deuteronomy 3:26:

But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!”

The storytellers this week pick up on the incident with the rock at Meribah, and conclude that Moshe is punished because he hit the rock instead of speaking to it. Just as Moshe himself concludes that his punishment should be attributed to the behavior of the people, there are scores of commentators through the ages who have come up with other reasons. Dr. Jacob Milgrom, of blessed memory, writes an essay in The JPS Torah Commentary ‚Äď Numbers (pates 448-456), discussing this complex problem in some detail. Known as Excursus 50, Dr. Milgrom orders 10 major interpretations given over the centuries for why Moses is punished into three categories: Moses strikes the rock rather than speaking to it; he exhibits character traits in doing so that are unworthy of his office; the nature of the words that he uttered is unbecoming. While the full essay is not available online, I have summarized it here.

Our storytellers choose one reason; it seems that Moshe has another; and the late biblical scholar, Professor Milgrom, concludes yet another.

What does this teach us? Are some reasons or interpretations wrong while another one is right? I don’t think so. I think we are meant to learn that the Torah is multi-faceted (as Ben Bag-Bag says in the Talmud, Avot 5:22: “turn it and turn it, for all things are in it”) and that different interpretations of what happened, in different historical periods, will better shape our understanding of what actually transpired.

This parasha also has several outstanding passages that have entered Jewish life on a daily basis, and have entered both the Jewish and Christians traditions in a major way.

  • For Jews, it is here in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, when we first read the Shema, often called the “watchword of our faith,” which is recited every morning, every evening, and upon going to sleep at night. The Shema prescribes two practices that are still done today, both of which involve parchment upon which the verses from our parasha are inscribed, instructing Israelites then, and Jews now, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

    1. Putting a mezuzah on one’s doorway,
    2. and donning “phylacteries,” known as tefillin.
  • More universally, there is the other outstanding passage: The Decalogue, aka The Ten Commandments, or the Ten Utterances, which we previously read about in Exodus 19. (Because Deuteronomy is basically a speech by Moshe, he here repeats what we have read before, with a few minor changes.)

The storytellers suggest that Moshe is pleading for his life, to be spared a death on the across from the eastern border of the Land of Milk and Honey. Indeed, a metaphor for dying found in African-American spiritual songs is “crossing over the river to the other side.” The expression “crossed over” is linked with Moshe in the novel Moses Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston, the Aftrican-American anthropologist and novelist, published in 1939. In one paragraph, the sentence “he had crossed over” appears 12 times in a lyrical description of Moshe at a key moment in his life — during his transformation from Prince of Egypt to shepherd of the nascent Israelite nation.

The answer Moshe receives from God concerning his entering the Land of Israel is plain and simple: no, you may look but you will not enter…it is now time for new leadership to take over. Of course we then get to read another approximately 30 chapters of Moshe’s final speech, but at least we now know how these Five Books will end — with the death of our most beloved, most human, and most cherished prophet. When we get to chapter 34 of Deuteronomy we will talk about his death in more detail.

For now, if you are looking for summer reading, you might want to pick up a copy of Moses Man of the Mountain, to enjoy how “our” story was tweaked to fit the narrative of the African slaves brought to the New World in bondage. To whet your appetite, here are a few lines from the author’s introduction:

Moses was an old man with a beard. He was the great law-giver. He had some trouble with Pharaoh about some plagues and led the Children of Israel out of Egypt and on to the Promised Land. He died on Mount Nebo and the angels buried him there. That is the common concept of Moses in the Christian world. But there are other concepts of Moses abroad in the world. Asia and all the Near East are sown with legends of this character. They are so numerous and varied that some students have come to doubt if the Moses of the Christian concept is real…..

One more tidbit: this book was published the same year that Freud’s Moses and Monotheism was published, and the year that concepts of race began to define Jews in Nazi Germany.

Deuteronomy, Here We Come!

This week we begin the 5th of the Five Books of Moses: Devarim, which literally translates to “The Words” even though we usually hear “Deuteronomy” as the English (Greek! more on this later below) name. Some like to say, “These Are The Words,” because the entire book amounts to a very long exhortation by Moshe/Moses to the Children of Israel as they stand on the threshold of the Promised Land, the Land of Israel.

The first thing that is odd about Devarim is the very fact that Moshe, at the end of his long life, has become an orator. Remember back in Sh’mot/Exodus, chapter 4 verse 10, when he tells God “Please Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In other words, Moshe begs God not to make him the leader of the Israelites, since he feels himself to be handicapped when it comes to making speeches. How things have changed in the 40 years of wandering in the desert! What do you think… does Moshe still have his same speech defect, or did something essential about him change? What happened to enable him to speak the words that make up the book of Devarim?

In English, this book is called Deuteronomy, based on the Greek word “Deuteronomion,” meaning “second law.” This name is likely because the book repeats many of the laws already given in Exodus chapters 19-23.

However, 70 of the approximately 100 laws found in Devarim appear only here. In fact, it is sometimes enlightening to compare the version in Deuteronomy with the original version in Exodus…. For example, how are the Ten Commandments different in each book? It is commonly accepted among bible scholars that Devarim was written several centuries after the other 4 books comprising the Torah, likely in the 7th century BCE, during the reign of King Josiah, and that the discovery of “a scroll of the Teaching,” mentioned in Kings 2 chapter 22:8, is none other than the book we are now beginning to read in synagogues.

There are lots of ways this book differs from the previous four:

  • the Hebrew language is different;
  • it has a different tone;
  • the laws in it are presented as a form of covenant between God and the People;
  • and this covenantal language corresponds to the covenants of other peoples in that part of the world at that time.

An excellent one-page overview of the Book of Deuteronomy, written by Professor Jeffrey H. Tigay, can be found in the Etz Hayim chumash (Torah and commentary), published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1999. Dr. Tigay writes:

Deuteronomy’s effect on Jewish life cannot be overstated. No idea has shaped Jewish history more than monotheism, which this book asserts so passionately. And no verse has shaped Jewish consciousness and identity more than Deuteronomy’s classic expression of that idea, the Sh’ma.

An excerpt of Dr. Tigay’s essay can be viewed on MyJewishLearning.com.

Our G-dcast narrator points out that a journey that might have taken just 11 days took 40 years! And as we begin reading, we notice that Moshe is recalling a bunch of places and people met along the way. The entire book of Devarim is divided into three discourses by Moshe, plus a few narratives, including the very last story, which we will get to in about 3 months — the story of Moshe’s death.

This week, we begin with the first discourse, in which our leader is intent on doing a major review…. It seems he really wants to ensure that they know what has happened during the 40 years of desert wandering, even if some of those to whom he is speaking didn’t experience the episodes first hand — maybe they were born in the desert and had no knowledge of what their parents went through.

So teacher Moshe is giving geography lessons, history lessons (which kings and which people we fought during those desert years), and a lot of “remember this, remember when?” What’s so important about having to remind the Israelites of every single one of these encounters with foreign nations? And how do you think this links up to Moshe telling the people Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to assign to them and their heirs after them (chapter 1 verse 8)?

One last note: from sundown on Monday, July 15 ’til darkness on Tuesday, July 16, there is a holiday commemorating the Jewish national day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, the 9th of [the month of] Av. It is a solemn fast day, a day to remember many of the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, beginning with the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash/the Temple in the year 586 BCE. In this week’s parasha, in chapter 1 verse 12, we have one little word that gives a hint that Tisha B’Av (during which the Book of Lamentations is read) is around the corner. That little word is “eicha,” which means “how.” Moshe asks, “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering?” This echoes the first word in the Book of Lamentations, where the opening verse is, “How does the city sit so lonely, she that was once great among nations!” It is a plaintive cry, and, in fact, the parallel word in this week’s parasha is chanted with the same sad melody as the Book of Lamentations.

Lots to think about, lots to ponder, as we enter Shabbat, and then the sad day of mourning on the Ninth of Av.

The Big Ten

As you read this blog post, some thoughts to consider:

  1. Sometimes others can offer advice on a particularly vexing problem you are experiencing. How is it that they can see solutions when you can’t figure things out for yourself?
  2. What do you think about offering advice to others?
  3. What do you make of the fact that Yitro was an outsider? Do we accept the advice of outsiders as easily as from people more like ourselves?

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, is special to me, speaking strictly personally, because it was my bat mitzvah parasha, in 1960, at a large Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. Becoming a bat mitzvah as a 13-year-old girl was still not something taken for granted in those days. So much so that girls were only allowed to chant the haftorah (the portion from the prophets loosely linked to the Torah portion of the week).

Back in 1960 as a young adolescent, what I thought was special about parashat Yitro was that it contained the Ten Commandments — and who doesn’t know about the Big Ten? Our G-dcast narrator opens her story this week along the same lines.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the Ten Commandments are pretty important. They represent one of the parts of the Torah that many folks have heard of, even if they don’t actually know the specifics of what they say. I’m guessing that most people raised in the Western world who have inherited the Judeo-Christian religious ethos can recite a few of what’s known in Hebrew as Aseret HaDibrot (the 10 Utterances). However, if you really stop and read these statements carefully you will see that not all of them are really commandments… or are they?

The lead-up to God’s Revelation at Mt. Sinai comes in Exodus chapter 19, and in chapter 20 we “hear” the voice of the Almighty commanding the tribes of Israel to observe this Decalogue.

Some of these commandments seem universal for all human communities to flourish, such as “you shall not murder” and “you shall not steal” (Exodus 20:13). Others, such as “honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12), seem psychologically astute. And yet others, such as “I am Adonai, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage..” (Exodus 20:2) seem very particular, aimed at those listening in that time and space, and not even being much of a “commandment.”

The general nature of each of these utterances or commandments left the rabbis of the Talmud and subsequent generations of commentators with plenty of material to unpack, define, discuss, and argue about. All of the laws of Sabbath observance are derived from the simple statement in Exodus 20:8-10, by means of painstaking discussions in the Talmud. The rabbis whose oral discussions are captured by the Talmud fully understood that they were creating a new framework for how the seventh day was to be observed. Although they used the commandment “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8-10), they knew that their construction of the Sabbath laws was related to the Torah verses as “…mountains hanging by a hair, for they have scant scriptural basis but many laws…” (Chagigah 10a).

Leaving the Decalogue (another name for the Ten Commandments) for a moment, I want to focus on a section of the parasha that I think is equally compelling as the well-known list of laws, and that is the system of organization recommended by a non-Israelite leader, the man known as Yitro (or Jethro), the father-in-law of Moshe/Moses. In fact, the parasha is named after this priest of Midian, who is not only a good listener, but also a man astute in the ways of constructing a viable society. Some call him the first person to apply the rules of organizational development to a group of people who could be regarded as a motley crew of newly liberated slaves.

In chapter 18, Yitro helps Moshe figure out how to set up a system of accountability and organization so that this rag-tag multitude can begin to resemble a society that can survive together in a sustainable way. This removes a tremendous burden from the shoulders of Moshe and allows him to lead his people to their promised land. You can read the conclusion of this whole episode in chapter 18:24-27.

How absolutely wonderful for this Midianite Priest, Yitro, to observe, diagnose, and remediate a problem that plagues many organizations, even today. And how wonderful for his son-in-law, Moshe, to take the advice of his perspicacious father-in-law to heart and to re-organize the Israelites into a viable structure for daily life. Now the tribes of Israel have both the laws by which to lead their lives (the Ten Commandments) and they have adopted a system of hearing complaints and adjudicating arguments, maybe they are ready to hear more (from God) about how to go about building a life of meaning. What do you think?