Devarim Twenty-Nine: Hidden Things

Moses reminds the people all that they have seen of God’s greatness and wonders, particularly as they pertained to His actions against the Egyptians. “Yet until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear (Deuteronomy 29:3).” Somehow, it seems, that throughout the time in the wilderness, the people were in some kind of divine incubator, a magical state in which they didn’t have the same material needs that they would have normally. Their clothes and shoes didn’t wear out, and they didn’t eat and drink as human beings. God took care of them through manna and divine will, and through this, the people knew God on a very intimate level as the one who took care of their daily needs. It’s crazy to me that all of this was happening, and yet the people always found something new to complain about. Even when all of our needs are met, through no effort of our own, human beings constantly find ourselves grasping for the next level.

Now, the people are at the place where they defeated Sihon and Og. And so, they have come to the place where they have to begin fulfilling their end of the bargain in terms of the covenant. Now, they must work for their portion. God is making His covenant with them, and they have to actively participate in upholding it. “But not only with you am I making this covenant and this oath, but with those standing here with us today before the Lord, our God, and with those who are not here with us, this day (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).” The covenant was made in a moment, but lasts beyond that moment, and beyond the individuals who were physically there at that instant. It pertains to all of us, and is all of our responsibility to uphold.

This chapter ends with a fascinating verse. “The hidden things belong to the Lord, our God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah (Deuteronomy 29:28).” I don’t remember ever reading, or at least ever paying attention, to this verse before, but I love it. I think that today, we as a society are consumed with knowing, or at least having “the right” to know everything. Nothing is sacred, or personal, or just off-limits in a world of social media when we offer the public insights into our lives and thoughts on a constant basis. Yet, according to this, there are things that are hidden, that we aren’t meant to know. I know that most people wouldn’t be content with that, but I am. I’m happy with what has been revealed to me, and what continues to be revealed, but I’m also more than at peace with the knowledge that there are things that I will never understand or even be aware of, because I’m not meant to. I’m more than occupied with that which I do have access to, and don’t need to be hung up on the hidden aspect of the universe.

Devarim Twenty-Eight: Diaspora

We know what happens if the people don’t obey God. Now, we hear what they’ll be rewarded with if they do. “And all these blessings will come upon you and cleave to you, if you obey the Lord, your God (Deuteronomy 28:2).”

So, the blessings:

  1. The people will be blessed in both the city and the field
  2. There will be blessings on the fruits of the wombs, soil, livestock, and flocks of the people
  3. The baskets and kneading bowls will be blessed
  4. The people will be blessed coming and going
  5. The people will be blessed in battle

“The Lord will establish you as His holy people as He swore to you, if you observe the commandments of the Lord, your God, and walk in His ways (Deuteronomy 28:9).” The people will be feared and respected by other nations of the world because they have God’s goodwill and blessings. But again, all of this is conditional. Anything that can be given can also be taken away if the people stray from God’s ways, and each blessing is now listed as a curse. The people will be cursed in battle, in their livelihood, in their flocks and fields. They will be cursed with diseases and bad weather, and they will be dispersed by their enemies. The curses are listed in far greater detail than the blessings, and are honestly graphic and tragic. Many of them have come to pass. “And the Lord will scatter you among all the nations, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you will serve other deities unknown to you or your forefathers, wood and stone. And among those nations, you will not be calm, nor will your foot find rest. There, the Lord will give you a trembling heart, dashed hopes, and a depressed soul (Deuteronomy 28:64-65).” In reading this, the years of Jewish life in the Diaspora were a curse from God. This is a view that many Jews held throughout the years, that living outside of the land remained an exile from God because of the wrongdoings of the people. Now, of course, living outside of the land is a choice, not a default, and therefore I no longer see it as a curse, but as a legitimate expression of Judaism. Nevertheless, it’s clear to see that according to the text itself, living in the land is the ideal, and anything else is less than whole.

Devarim Twenty-Seven: Curses

Entering the land means that a lot of things will change, including the sacrifices that the people are obligated to offer to God. “And it will be, on the day that you cross the Jordan to the land the Lord, your God, is giving you, that you shall set up for yourself huge stones, and plaster them with lime. When you cross, you shall write upon them all the words of this Torah, in order that you may come to the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, God of your forefathers, has spoken to you (Deuteronomy 27:2-3).” So, when they say stones, they must mean truly huge stones that are able to hold all of the words of Torah. The stones will not only serve as a written testimony, but also as an altar to God, on which the people will make sacrifices. As they cross into the land, the people will sacrifice and rejoice because they’ve finally reached this goal, and will thank God for giving them this day.

“Moses and the Levitic priests spoke to all Israel, saying, “Pay attention and listen, O Israel! This day, you have become a people to the Lord, your God (Deuteronomy 27:9).'” Why on this day? Why didn’t the people become a people on the day of the Exodus, or the day that they crossed the Sea, or the day that they received the 10 commandments? How is today the ultimate day, the day that Jewish peoplehood was actualized? Perhaps it’s because that today is the day that they have received the laws that will govern them, enabling them to function as a society, as a true people, and not just as a wandering tribe. The experiences that have bound them before have made them a family, but today they are also a society.

When the people cross into the land, two groups will be made, one which will stand on Mount Gerizim, and one on Mount Ebal, with those on Gerizim blessing the people, and those on Ebal cursing them. Nothing is said in this moment about how it was chosen who got each role, but the people are required to say ‘amen’ to each curse and blessing. Now, we get a list of the curses, and the things that can cause a person to be cursed.

  1. Anyone who makes a secret image or idol
  2. Anyone who disrespects his father and mother
  3. Anyone who moves back his neighbor’s land markers
  4. Anyone who misguides a blind person
  5. Anyone who takes advantage of the stranger, the orphan, or the widow
  6. Anyone who lies with his father’s wife
  7. Anyone who lies with an animal
  8. Anyone who commits incest (with his sister, his father’s daughter/his mother’s daughter)
  9. Anyone who lies with his mother in law
  10. Anyone who hits another in secret
  11. Anyone who takes a bribe and puts an innocent person to death
  12. Anyone who doesn’t uphold the words of the Torah

The last one seems truly encompassing. Anyone who doesn’t live a godly, righteous life, will be cursed, and in this moment, the people agree to upholding these rules or suffering the consequences.

Devarim Twenty-Six: Harvest

When the people come into the land, there are lots of specific commandments that begin to apply only in that space. One of them is the law of first fruits. “That you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you. And you shall put into a basket and go to the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there. And you shall come to the kohen who will be in those days, and say to him, ‘I declare this day to the Lord, your God, that I have come to the land which the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us (Deuteronomy 26:2-3).” First fruits are given to God because of what He did for the people when we were slaves in Egypt, and because He brought us to the land of Israel, which is what enabled us to have the fertile land that grew the fruits.

In the harvest season, the people are commanded to rejoice. “Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you (Deuteronomy 26:11).” The whole community benefits, and therefore the whole community must rejoice, even those who weren’t brought out of Egypt and given the land as an inheritance. They’re not part of the people, but they’re still part of the community, and are therefore part of communal celebrations such as this.

Devarim Twenty-Five: Levirate Marriage

This chapter gives us a detailed description of the levirate marriage, a Jewish tradition that commands a childless widow to marry her husband’s brother. We saw this in action in the story of Judah’s sons back in Bereshit, and now we’re seeing the actual law be given to the people. “If brothers reside together, and one of them dies having no son, the dead man’s wife shall not marry an outsider. Her husband’s brother shall be intimate with her, making her a wife for himself, thus performing the obligation of a husband’s brother with her (Deuteronomy 25:5).” If the woman and her second husband have a child, this child is given the name of the dead brother, and is considered to be his son. This means that he would get an inheritance from his dead father’s portion. Other interpretations take it more literally, and say that he’s just supposed to be given the name of the dead brother, literally carrying on his name, if not his lineage. I’m not sure how I feel about this concept. On the one hand, it’s a beautiful way to keep the memory of a man who died without children alive, and to protect his widow from being alone. On the other hand, according to the text she gets no say in the matter. The brother, on the other hand, is able to refuse. We’re given a long description of the halitzah ceremony, in which the woman would go to her dead husband’s brother and remove his shoe, humiliating him before the elders of the community for not fulfilling this obligation.

Next, we learn about the importance of being honest in weights and measurements. “You shall have a full and honest weight, a full and honest ephah measure, in order that your days will be prolonged on the land which the Lord, your God, gives you. For whoever does these things, whoever perpetuates such injustice, is an abomination to the Lord, your God (Deuteronomy 25:15-16).” It’s so important to be honest in ones dealings with others, business and personal, that to be deceitful in these matters is considered an abomination. Once again, dealings between people are God’s concern, and are reflected in His good (or bad) will towards the people.

Finally, we are once again commanded to remember Amalek. “You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God. It will be, when the Lord your God grants you respite from all your enemies around in the land which the Lord, your God, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)!” There’s an immediate contradiction here between the commandment to remember, followed immediately by the commandment to obliterate the memory. How do we reconcile this? Do we remember, or do we get rid of the memory? Jews are good at remembering. The “Eleventh Commandment” of the Jewish people in this generation is Never Again, stemming from our memory of the Holocaust and our desire to perpetuate that memory into action moving forward. We’re not good at forgetting past injustices. However, maybe in this case obliterate the memory means not to be stuck in the past, to know what happened and move forward.

Devarim Twenty-Four: Family and Strangers

“When a man takes a new wife, he shall not go out in the army, nor shall he be subjected to anything associated with it. He shall remain free for his home for one year and delight his wife, whom he has taken (Deuteronomy 24:5).” This is such a beautiful concept. It shows that in Judaism, family takes the ultimate precedence, even before defending the country. The man’s priority should be his wife, and only after fulfilling that commitment can he give his full attention to other pressing matters.

“When you lend to your fellow any item, you shall not enter his home to take his security. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you are extending the loan shall bring the security to you outside (Deuteronomy 24:10-11).” Even when you are in a position of being able to dominate another, you should allow him to maintain his dignity to the best of your ability, given the situation. A person doesn’t need to be humiliated to be helped. We should be better at following rulings such as this today, and protecting the dignity of those less fortunate than ourselves, even as we help them tangibly.

Next, we have laws concerning the most vulnerable members of society: the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. These people have no one to protect them and are largely at the mercy of the public, so they must be cared for. They have to be judged fairly, and parts of the harvest must be left for them, all because we were slaves in Egypt. Therefore, because we were once vulnerable and preyed upon, it must be ingrained in us for all time never to turn around and do that to others, even when we have power and could in theory do so.

Devarim Twenty-Three: Honor

This chapter begins with some very practical advice. “A man shall not take his father’s wife, nor shall he uncover the corner of his father’s [cloak]. [A man] with injured testicles or whose member is cut, may not enter the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:1-2).” Two very odd statements. The first one seems like common sense – it’s disgusting to think about and therefore we shouldn’t do it. Of course, that’s never stopped anyone from going beyond this limit. Flashback to the dysfunctional families of Bereshit and Reuben taking Bilhah! The second statement is almost sad. A man has clearly endured some massive problem, and now he can’t come before God either? How is that ok? I’m wondering if it has to do with how important virility was in the ancient world, and still is today to an extent. If a man felt like less than a man due to some physical problem, and therefore didn’t see himself as whole, maybe he couldn’t be fully present, as is needed before God.

On the list of people who can’t enter the assembly of God, we also have bastards (until the 10th generation), and Ammonites and Moabites. This is payback because the people of Ammon didn’t treat the Israelites well when they left Egypt, and the Moabites tried to curse them. However, right after the punishment of the Moabites is a kind word. “You shall not despise an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not despise an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land (Deuteronomy 23:8).” The Torah has a long memory. Positive and negative attributes can mark a person not only for their lifetime, but through all of their descendants as well.

Devarim Twenty-Two: Oxen, Cross-Dressers, Birds, and Rapists

The Torah, and Judaism in general, is founded in principles of personal and communal responsibility. So much of it is devoted to setting up a mindful society that cares for the needs of its members, albeit in an often odd manner. I appreciate this ideal, that a person is responsible for their community, and I honestly wish more people today cared about the direct impact of applying that concept. “You shall not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. You shall return them to your brother (Deuteronomy 22:1).” We are commanded to take notice of other people, and by extension their possessions, and are responsible for returning that which is lost. Likewise, if we see someone’s animals in pain, we don’t just walk by. We have to stop and help.

Now, things get random. The Torah generally lacks transition clauses, meaning we effectively jump between issues with no warning. “A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment because whoever does these is an abomination to the Lord, your God (Deuteronomy 22:5).” So, we go from a gentle communal ideal to condemning cross-dressers. Awkward. I understand that in biblical times this was an unacceptable lifestyle choice, but honestly, with so many people today doing actually abominable things (hello, ISIS), I’m really thinking we can be a little more accepting of someone who chooses to wear non-traditional clothes. But that’s just me.

Now, we move back to nice things, in my opinion. If a man finds a bird’s nest, he can’t take the eggs while the mother is sitting on them. “You shall send away the mother, and you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days (Deuteronomy 22:7).” Once again, it’s about respect, even for animals. It’s not that we can’t eat the eggs, but that we can’t be unnecessarily cruel in the process, and make the mother bird watch her babies be taken and eaten. I love that. I’m not a vegetarian, but I hate the thought of a mommy having her babies taken from her. At least spare her that pain.

Once again no transitions, and we learn about things that can’t be mixed. A vineyard can’t have a mixed variety of species, a donkey and an ox can’t be hooked to the same plow, and we can’t wear wool and linen garments together. No explanations are given as to why these things are forbidden, so I’m just going to roll with them for now.

Next, we have what to do with a jerk. Or, more specifically, a man who decides he doesn’t like his wife, and decides to accuse her of not having been a virgin upon their marriage. In this case, her parents will obtain evidence of her virginity (ew), and take it to the city elders. “Then, the elders of that city shall take the man and chasten him (Deuteronomy 22:18).” He gets fined for defaming his wife, and he has to keep her. This kind of sucks – she knows her husband can’t stand her, he publicly humiliated her, and now she’s stuck with him forever? Not so nice for the woman. Also, in case he’s right and she wasn’t a virgin, she gets stoned to death. Somehow this doesn’t seem equivalent to me.

More rules: a man sleeping with a married woman results in both of them dying. If a virgin is engaged but sleeps with another man, both of them die. But, if it’s rape, only the man dies. At least there’s that. And, if the girl isn’t engaged, and she gets raped, then the rapist is obligated to marry her. I can’t even process how many wrong, traumatizing things come as a result of these verses. The woman is now trapped with her rapist for the rest of her life? I get the intention, to keep her from being “damaged goods” and without a future in those days, but seriously that poor girl that this happened to was stuck being the wife of her rapist forever. There’s no reconciling that in my mind.

Devarim Twenty-One: Death, Captives, and Parenting

“If a slain person be found in the land which the Lord, your God is giving you to possess, lying in the field, it is not known who slew him, then your elders and judges shall go forth, and they shall measure to the cities around the corpse (Deuteronomy 21:1-2).” Now, this is when things get weird. They will determine which city is the closest to the corpse, and take a calf from that city, and decapitate it. Just putting it out there, police investigations today have nothing on this process. The kohanim will come to the calf to judge the case. “And all the elders of that city, who are the nearest to the corpse, shall wash their hands over the calf that was decapitated in the valley; and they shall announce and say, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime] (Deuteronomy 21:6-7).'” With the blood of the calf, the people will be atoned for the blood that was shed. I don’t necessarily see how this is an equivalency, but according to the text, there is a wash between the blood of the calf and that of the man.

If the people go to war, it’s expected that they’ll take captives. “And you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take for yourself as a wife. You shall bring her into your home, and she shall shave her head and let her nails grow (Deuteronomy 21:11-12).” For a full month, the captive will be able to mourn for her family, before she is taken by the captor. I think this is a beautiful concept. It doesn’t do away with the problem of captivity, of course, but it treats the captive as a human and not an object, and allows her time to mourn and transition into her new life. There’s thought and emotion, not just lust, in this process.

Now, we have some parenting tips. If a man has two wives, and he loves one more than the other, and he has a son from each one, when the father makes his will, he has to give the firstborn his rightful birthright, even if he’s the son of the less loved wife. The children shouldn’t suffer based on the status of their mothers. If a man has a rebellious son who won’t listen to him or his wife, then they have to take him to the gate of the city. “And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; a glutton and a guzzler (Deuteronomy 21:20).” After that, the elders of the city will stone the son to death. No big deal. Honestly, I can’t imagine many circumstances in which parents would personally sentence their son to death. It’s not like the son committed rape or murder – he’s listed in this instance as someone who overeats and drinks. So he’s rebellious and irresponsible, but is that really worthy of death? I’m not sure what this is symbolic of, but there has to be a deeper message here in order to make this remotely understandable.

This is one of those crazy chapters when so much is crammed into so few verses. With this much in a single chapter, I can’t imagine trying to pick one message out of whole portions and writing about it. The Project 929 daily breakdown forces me to focus, and even then, there’s sometimes too much to choose from.

Devarim Twenty: Ethics of War

“When you go out to war against your enemies, and you see horse and chariot, a people more numerous than you, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord, your God is with you, Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 20:1).” Throughout history, the Jewish people have relied on this verse for comfort. Always a small population, always the minority, and often disadvantaged, it’s easy to be afraid of other people. But knowing about the covenant, and the promise of being ultimately victorious, has kept the people hopeful, even in the face of all of these enemies. This chapter talks about how battles used to go, with the kohen, the high priest, motivating the people. We also learn a great deal about the values of the people at the time of the Torah.

“And the officers shall speak to the people, saying, What man is there who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man inaugurate it (Deuteronomy 20:5).” A man who hasn’t inaugurated his house, and a man who has planted a vineyard but not harvested from it yet, and a man who is engaged but hasn’t consummated his marriage yet, are all exempt from going to war. Why are these the things that are so important that a man is exempted from the draft as a result? It seems to me that all of these are things that would seriously distract someone, and their thoughts would be at home, rather than on the immediacy of the battle. Home, livelihood, and family – the trifecta of distractions that Israelites prioritized over war.

“When you approach a city to wage war against it, you shall propose peace to it (Deuteronomy 20:10).” Peace is always the first option. The people aren’t told to make war for its own sake, but instead to offer peace first. This isn’t meant to seem weak though. The people will still be at an advantage based on the terms of the peace agreement, but keeping blood from being shed is the ultimate priority. It’s up to the other parties how things proceed from there. The people don’t want war, but they will participate in it if necessary. However, even in battle, there are rules and values that pervade. The people can’t become savages. They can’t destroy the trees of the enemies, which shows that they keep their humanity, even in the most inhumane of moments.