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Torah Sparks

Parashat D'varim (Shabbat Hazon)
July 13, 2013 – 6 Av 5773

Annual: Deuteronomy 1:1‐3:22 (Etz Hayim p. 981; Hertz p. 740)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 2:31‐3:22 (Etz Hayim p. 994; Hertz p. 746)
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1‐27 (Etz Hayim p. 1000; Hertz p. 750)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

Both its Greek name – Deuteronomy – and its classical Hebrew designation – Mishneh Torah ("a repetition of the Torah") – aptly describe the fifth book of the Pentateuch and this, its opening parashah. In his first oration, or discourse to the Israelite nation, Moses recaps much of their earlier experiences, and the lessons which have arisen from that forty year sojourn. This begins with God's command to the Israelites at Horeb to make their way to Canaan and to take possession of the Land. Moses recalls the burden of leadership and the resulting appointment of judges and chieftains to share in the day-to-day leadership of the nation.

Moses further recalls the journey from Horeb through Amorite territory to Kadesh, where spies were dispatched into the Promised Land, only to return with a faithless and pessimistic majority report. The two dissenting optimists among the spies – Joshua and Caleb – are duly rewarded. They alone of their generation will be permitted entry to the Land, where Caleb will receive an allotment and Joshua will assume national leadership. Moses, too, is denied entry to Canaan. This divine decree requires the Israelites to follow a tortuous, circuitous route through the wilderness… involving confrontations with Edom, Ammon, and Moab.

The crushing Amorite defeat of the Israelites at Hormah is recalled. Other encounters with hostile, foreign powers include those with Sichon and Og. Sichon refuses Israel permission to traverse its territory, despite Israel's friendly, diplomatic request. Israel is compelled to battle both the Amorite Sichon, and Og of Bashan, conquering each and seizing their land.

The beginning of the allotment of tribal portions in conjunction with the conquest is recapped: Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh are apportioned conquered territory – as earlier explained – in the Transjordan. Their territorial grant is conditioned upon their participation in the national military defense as shock troops – the vanguard of the conquest.

Parashat Devarim concludes with Moses retelling his appointment of Joshua as his successor, and his charge to his protégé not to fear the kings, powers, and forces he encounters in bringing about the conquest – "for it is the Lord your God who will battle for you."

Theme #1: "Dispassion Play"

"You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God's." (Deuteronomy 1:17)

Derash: Study

"'For judgment is God's.' Judgment is a matter that concerns God, as lawgiver, and the judge acts as God's representative. The relationship of this clause to the preceding one, ‘fear no man,' is ambiguous. It may mean that the judge ought fear offending God more than he fears offending any human. Alternatively, it means that the judge need not fear offending any human since God will protect him." (Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Commentary)

"When justice is postponed injustice creeps into the vacuum. When truth is suspended, falsehood reigns unchallenged. When integrity and honor are deferred, invitation to bias and dishonor is inferred." (Rabbi Baruch Silverstein)

"Justice is truth in action." (Benjamin Disraeli)

"If you get all the facts, your judgment can be right; if you don't get all the facts, it can't be right." (Bernard Baruch)

"The law is reason, free from passion." (Aristotle)

Questions for Discussion

Rabbi Tigay identifies the ambiguity inherent in our verse. "Judgment is God's"... but people are expected to engage in judgment and jurisprudence. How should awareness of the divine nature of judgment impact human judges, both civil magistrates and rabbinic decisors? How does this understanding of justice relate to the admonition to "fear no man"?

Rabbi Silverstein discusses all that hangs in the balance for those charged with the administration of justice. What is the duty of a judge when she or he perceives a conflict between the demands of law (as formulated or received) and the demands of justice (as that judge perceives that elusive goal)? How do the values of "integrity and honor" direct such judicial conflicts?

How might Disraeli and Aristotle answer the preceding question? How do their aphorisms differ?

Bernard Baruch's "commentary" on our verse demonstrates the burden placed on the judge and the difficulties obstructing correct judgment. Without the facts we are sure to fail; with all the facts we don't necessarily succeed! How does this humble judicial perspective help to elucidate our verse? Does this insight bolster the stature of the judge or undermine confidence in mortal law (or in human application of divine law)?

How does this verse illuminate the central role of law in Jewish spirituality?

Theme #2: "Just a Lot of Bunk"

"Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bedstead, an iron bedstead, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit!" (Deuteronomy 3:11)

Derash: Study

"As the floodwaters swelled, Og, king of Bashan, sat himself on one of the rungs of the ark's ladders and swore to Noah and to his sons that he would be their slave forever. What did Noah do? He punched a hole in the ark, and through it he handed out food to Og every day. Og's survival is hinted at in the verse 'Only Og remained of the remnant of the Rephaim' (Deut 3:11)." (Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer)

"'His bedstead.' That is, the cradle he used as an infant… for when he was little, he was very strong, and his erratic movements would have broken a cradle of wood. Therefore, they made him a cradle of iron. A grown man of understanding would have no need for such a thing." (Rashbam)

"His beadstead, an iron bedstead… This clause seems to refer to his sarcophagus, where he was buried… Ammon, along with Bashan, was considered to be the land of the Rephaim, which explains why the bedstead of the last survivor of the Rephaim was placed in the capital of Ammon." (Moshe Weinfeld, Anchor Bible Commentary)

"What accounts for the unusually extensive attention given Og in the Midrash is uncertain. Certainly, scripture's lyrical description of Og's oversized bed and/or cradle (Deuteronomy 3:11) can easily lead to fantasies about giants and visions of massive creatures…. Perhaps the message that binds the Midrashic narratives together is that the Jewish people, with the help of God, have the power to vanquish their enemies, no matter how large or powerful. It is a lesson that must not be dismissed." (Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald)

"It is the mark of a great man that he puts to flight all ordinary calculations. He is at once sublime and touching, childlike and of the race of giants." (Honore de Balzac)

Questions for Discussion

Og's bed (cradle? Sarcophagus?) is described as some six feet wide and 13.5 feet long! What is the function of this narrative reference to his giant dimensions? The power of God to defeat even the most daunting of detractors and fearsome of foes (see Rabbi Buchwald)? The natural tendency to view our past and our predecessors as larger than life? Rhetorical excess directed by Moses to his weary and wary listeners?

What does the specific identification of Og's bedstead as made of iron add to our text?

Consider the distinct difference between the interpretations of Rashbam (further magnifying Og's enormity by attributing these dimensions to his infancy) and Anchor Bible (the burial bier: an interpretation common in Christian exegesis). What might motivate these different perspectives? Which do you find more likely? More inspiring?

Balzac seems to attribute particular virtue to the pattern of fantasy represented by our verse, putting "to flight all ordinary calculations." How might the willing suspension of disbelief better serve the purpose of Scripture (and the Jewish People's historic mission) than the attempt to demonstrate the historicity and scientific truth of the Biblical text?

How and when else in Jewish practice (and to what moral or spiritual end) do we encourage such "sublime and touching, childlike" flights of fancy?

Historic Note

In the haftarah which gives Shabbat Chazon its name, read today, July 13, 2013, Isaiah admonishes: "Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow." On July 13, 1985, the Live Aid concert raised $70 million for African famine relief.

Halachah L'Maaseh

In some ways, the prohibition against Torah study (See BT Taanit 30A) is the most onerous restriction of Tishah B'Av: study and reading are a natural diversion on a long summer day devoted to historical speculation, yet on which we are forbidden to eat, drink, enjoy music, etc. We refrain from Torah study because it is a source of such joy and, as such, is inconsonant with our observance of the saddest day of the Jewish year. Accordingly, areas of Torah study that are particularly somber and unlikely to inspire joy are permitted: Job, Lamentations, Jeremiah's ominous prophecies, and the description of Jerusalem's destruction in Tractate Gittin (See also Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 554:1- 2; Rabbi Eli Munk, World of Prayer, 2:331; Rabbi Isaac Klein, Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, pp 249-251).

 
 
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