Emerging From the Wilderness
In this week’s parashah, the book of Deuteronomy leaves prologue behind as the Israelites come one step closer to exiting the wilderness in which they have so long been wandering. Moses has set forth and fine-tuned the major themes of his final discourse. Now it is time for him to lay out a blueprint of the commandments that will shape and guide the new life awaiting the Children of Israel upon their entry to the Land of Israel. When his presentation is complete, the people will be ready to cross the Jordan—and Moses will be ready to die on its near side. Deuteronomy has set the stage. Its readers, like the Israelites of old, are ready to move on.
One final passage of prologue remains, however, and Parashat R’eih opens with it (Deut. 11:26–32): a declaration that blessing and curse await Israel, depending on its response to the commandments that Moses puts before them. This brief announcement of stark choice foreshadows a far longer and detailed recital of blessings and curses that will follow Moses’s presentation of the commandment (Deut. 27:9–28:69). Blessing and curse thus frame Moses’s recital of law. The narrative structure is striking. What are we to make of it?
Biblical scholars have long noted—I myself learned this lesson from the work of Moshe Weinfeld (z”l), who passed away this year—that the Torah has, in this respect, adapted to its unique theological purpose a standard feature of Ancient Near Eastern covenant ceremonies. Agreements between rulers and the peoples they ruled often concluded with a set of blessings and curses very similar and, in some cases, even identical to those we find in Deuteronomy. God has replaced Pharaoh as the ruler of the People Israel. They swear allegiance to God’s laws by acknowledging that they will receive blessing if they obey those laws and be cursed if they do not.
The meaning of the passage is, in this reading of it, straightforward—even if theologically problematic. The problem is that, in Israel’s history, good kings seem to have met frequently with disaster, while bad kings prospered; just as, in individual life stories, it is often true—as the saying goes—that “bad things happen to the righteous, while for the wicked things go well.” Deuteronomy seems to hold with the rule of cause and effect, however, and says so in the recital of curse and blessing.
But I want to suggest another meaning for the passage; one that is brought to mind by recent events. It is that blessing and curse frame the account of what Israel should and should not do once it has entered the Promised Land, because blessing and curse are both magnified exponentially upon acceptance of political responsibility. That is all the more true when responsibility entails sovereignty over territory and population.
It is one thing to live according to God’s Torah in Diaspora, attempting to bring personal and communal behavior into line with the highest norms that we know and using every faculty and piece of knowledge at our command to do so. This is difficult to do, as every adult knows from experience. Justice is not always achieved or sought. Authority is sometimes perverted. The poor are not always taken care of. Personal relations are sometimes deceitful and always bedeviled by human frailty. We fall short, make atonement, and try again. Sometimes we succeed and, at rare moments, succeed brilliantly. The blessing that we know on such occasions is palpable. Our society, our community, our family, and we ourselves all benefit from the good that we have done.
When one has the opportunity to bring an entire state and society into line with prophetic teaching, the stakes are infinitely higher. Torah has potential sway over an educational system, a health care system, labor laws, taxation, foreign policy, treatment of minorities, war and peace. Jews can accomplish so much more good in the State of Israel than in the Diaspora—and the consequences, when we fall short in Israel, are so much more grave. There is no safety net to protect us from errors of judgment or moral failure. The whole world seems to shine a searchlight of scrutiny upon every deed and shortcoming of the People, returned to Zion, whom the prophets said would be a “City on the Hill,” shining light to the whole world. Expectations of the Children of Israel who live in the Promised Land are extraordinarily high. Judgment, by ourselves and others, is correspondingly severe.
There is another matter that changes with the possession of sovereignty. Jews have always disagreed about the translation of age-old norms and commandments, such as those set forth in this week’s portion of Torah, and the details of practice in changing circumstances. Those arguments fill many volumes that students of Torah have pored over for centuries and that rabbis have used to adjudicate legal cases that came before them. Their rulings have made a great impact on individual lives and the well-being of individual communities. Today, however, disagreements over what the Torah wants us to do scream out to us in newspaper headlines, Knesset debates, and countless writings in print and on the web. The arguments include profound and irreconcilable disagreement over who should decide what the Torah wants and whether the continuing authority and influence of Judaism’s most sacred text is a good thing, given the impact rabbis now have on state policy. The rulings of Israeli rabbis, the policies of legislators who follow those rulings, and the actions of politicians who want the votes of the rabbis and their followers: all of these drive home, as never before, the curse and blessing wrapped up in obedience to Torah. Some days, one is grateful, as always, for Torah’s guidance. On other days, angered or appalled by what some rabbis or politicians say or do in the name of Torah—or God—one wishes that Torah and State could be separated by a wall. This is not what Deuteronomy had in mind. Jews will need to find a way to apply Torah to the radically altered circumstances that the State of Israel presents without the sort of coercion and politicking inherent in the present system.
The Hasidic commentator known as the Sefat Emet (R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger) noted about a century ago that the Torah uses different words at the beginning of the two clauses pertaining respectively to blessing and curse (the Jewish Publication Society translation ignores this difference in the Hebrew): “See, I set before you this day blessing and curse, the blessing asher you listen to the commandments of YHWH your God asher I command you this day, and the curse im you do not obey the commandments of YHWH your God…” There seems to be a kind of presumption in favor of obedience. The blessing clause uses asher (in the case that), while the curse uses the clearly conditional language of im lo (if you do not). The Sefat Emet writes, after pointing out the difference: “Goodness exists within the Jewish people by their very nature; sin is only incidental…Even if they have fallen away…each day they are given the choice anew; ‘I place before you this day.'”
Not by coincidence, but by rabbinic ordering of the Jewish calendar, we read these words soon after the Ninth of Av, on the third Sabbath known as a Sabbath of Consolation. The need for consolation is great this year. So much in the Jewish world—and the larger world—is not going right. Israelis are asking─loudly, frequently, and sometimes in serious search for blessing and not just the desire to score political points─whether the official rabbinate’s political influence and power is a good thing, and whether the Torah’s narrative and laws concerning life inside the Land are being properly heard and followed. Diaspora Jews are asking what role our voices should properly play in those decisions that so affect our common future, or whether, as some Israelis maintain, one curse of choosing Diaspora should be self-imposed silence on every matter affecting Israel’s future, except when for pronouncing unreserved blessing on all actions of Israel’s government.
I hope and pray the Sefat Emet, following Deuteronomy’s lead, is correct in believing that the “default” position for Jews when it comes to God’s Torah is to do good. Choices, good and bad, are made daily. Today is as good a time as ever to take stock and think anew. The Days of Awe approach to serve that very purpose. Maybe Jews need a renewed covenant binding us to one another across every divide, the Orthodox-secular and Israel-Diaspora divides first of all. Never, perhaps, has the reading of Deuteronomy mattered so urgently to Jews and to the world.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.