Devarim Thirty-Four: The End of an Era

We’ve made it to the final chapter of the Torah. The five books of Moses end, fittingly, with the death of Moses. “And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, top of the summit facing Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the Land: The Gilead until Dan (Deuteronomy 34:1).” Moses takes in all of the land, the land that Abraham was instructed to walk and that God promised to the Israelites. He looks at all of it, at the closest thing to the reality of the dream that he has been working towards for most of his life. And then, in the presence of the land, he dies. “And Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there, in the land of Moab, by the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 34:5).” Moses has died, and God Himself buries him, so that no human being knows the exact location of the burial. Although Moses was old when he died, having reached the age of 120, we are told that his eyes hadn’t dimmed and he was still vibrant. What does that tell us? If Moses hadn’t made a mistake, could it not have been his time? Did he only die now because of the punishment, and not because he needed to?

“And the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days, and the days of weeping over the mourning for Moses came to an end (Deuteronomy 34:8).” Joshua takes over the leadership of the people, and prepares to move them into the next stage of their journey. However, neither he nor any future prophet would ever compare to Moses. “And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, as manifested by all the signs and wonders, which the Lord had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land, and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).” None were like Moses, and no one else could have done what he did. The people have to move on without their great leader, and to enter the land, figuring out what it means to be conquerers and sovereigns for the first time.

With that, the Torah ends. I can’t believe that I’ve officially read every chapter on its own, not glossing over the ones that I might have thought of as boring, but paying attention and reflecting every day. I’ve obviously found something to say about each one, even when I never thought I would, and I’m so happy that Project 929 has given me that opportunity. I’m eager to continue with the project, and to move into the stories of the Prophets. There’s so much more to read and learn and understand, and I’m so glad that this project encompasses all of Tanakh, not just Torah, because I wouldn’t be ready to end at this point.

The Torah is five books, and 187 chapters. Now, there are 742 chapters to go in this project, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Devarim Thirty-Three: Last Words

“And this is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel before his death (Deuteronomy 33:1).” The text itself literally introduces this chapter, so I don’t have to. Some of the blessings that he bestows are for the entire congregation, while others are designated for a specific tribe. “May Reuben live and not die, and may his people be counted in the number (Deuteronomy 33:6).” This reminds me of Jacob’s blessing to his sons back in Bereshit, right as he prepared to die. It’s so interesting to think about the progress and change that has occurred since then. Jacob blessed twelve individuals, his sons. Now, the prophecy has been fulfilled, and they have become a nation, which Moses is now blessing once again. It would be interesting to do a full comparison of these two speeches, and to see if the themes of one reflect in the other.

“Fortunate are you, O Israel! Who is like you, O people whose salvation is through the Lord, the Shield Who helps you, your majestic Sword! Your enemies will lie to you, but you will tread upon their heights (Deuteronomy 33:29).” With this, the final speech of Moses officially ends. He hasn’t mentioned himself at all, or expressed regret for the circumstances that have lead to this moment. As in his life, his thoughts are with the people, and with God.

Devarim Thirty-Two: Moses Shares His Wisdom

Moses begins his final, epic speech with some poetic language. “My lesson will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew; like storm winds on vegetation and like raindrops on grass (Deuteronomy 32:2).” These are beautiful metaphors, and a little unexpected in this context. Obviously some books of Tanakh are full of this type of flowery language, but Moses is usually a lot more straightforward in his speech. I guess this truly marks the end of an era, and he wants to make sure everyone understands the gravity of the situation. There are some wonderful life lessons in this speech, things that we should continue to listen to. “Remember the days of old; reflect upon the years of generations. Ask your father and he will tell you; your elders, and they will inform you (Deuteronomy 32:7).” So many more people should pay attention to advice such as this today. We don’t pay enough attention to history, or reflect on the past, or listen attentively to the wisdom of our elders, and we should.

God is described as a warrior, a champion of the people, a miracle worker, and as one with a lot of wrath. “See now that it is I! I am the One, and there is no god like Me! I cause death and grant life. I strike, but I heal, and no one can rescue from My Hand (Deuteronomy 32:39)!” God is everything. He is absolute, He controls the rhythms of the universe, and of our lives. Moses conveys all of these things to Joshua and to the people. Then, he gives his final teaching. “And he said to them, ‘Set your hearts to all the words which I bear witness for you this day, so that you may command your children to observe, to do all the words of this Torah. For it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life, and through this thing, you will lengthen your days upon the land to which you are crossing over the Jordan, to possess it (Deuteronomy 32:46-47).'” Torah is not just comprised of words that we’re supposed to follow blindly. It’s not an empty vessel, but a guidepost for our lives.

That same day, God tells Moses to go to Mount Nebo, to see the land on the other side, and then to die on the mountain. “For from afar, you will see the land, but you will not come there, to the land I am giving the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:52).” Quite honestly, this sucks. A lifetime of loyal service, dealing with these people (who seem pretty annoying), and because of one transgression, Moses is denied his life’s dream. He gets to see it, a mere glimpse, but cannot complete the journey. I can’t imagine being shown your destination and knowing that you will never achieve it. He accepts this far more gracefully than I ever could, which seems to emphasize to me why I wish he could have reached it.

Devarim Thirty-One: Happy Birthday Moses

It’s time for Moses’s birthday! Today, he turns 120 years old. It’s a slightly morbid birthday though, because it means he’s basically reached the end of the road and won’t be fulfilling his ultimate goal of crossing the Jordan and entering Israel. The people will complete the mission without him, lead by God and Joshua. “The Lord, your God He will cross before you; He will destroy these nations from before you so that you will possess them. Joshua, he will cross before you, as the Lord has spoken (Deuteronomy 31:3).” Moses gives words of wisdom to the people, who are now on the precipice of losing the only leader they’ve ever known, right as they embark on this new stage of their journey. “Be strong and courageous! Neither fear, nor be dismayed of them, for the Lord, your God He is the One Who goes with you. He will nether fail you mor forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6).” Even at this moment, Moses is concerned about his people and not himself. 

The leadership transition is publicly made. Moses tells Joshua to be strong and courageous in the presence of the people, placing his confidence in his successor. God also has a role in the turnover. “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, your days are approaching to die. Call Joshua and stand in the Tent of Meeting and I will inspire him.’ So Moses and Joshua went and stood in the Tent of Meeting (Deuteronomy 31:14).” This is a model that modern businesses should pay attention to. The leadership transition was done mindfully and clearly, with time for wisdom to be shared and lessons conferred. 

Even though there are several chapters left, it is at this time that Moses finishes writing the Torah. “And it was, when Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll, until their very completion (Deuteronomy 31:24).” The scrolls are placed in the ark by the Levites. The next few chapters will consist of Moses’s final speech to the people before his death. I guess it’s Joshua who writes those down and adds them to the final record, making the honoring of Moses his first task as the new leader. 

Devarim Thirty: Choose Life

The prophecy of exile continues with a promise of redemption. “And you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children, then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you (Deuteronomy 30:2-3).” It’s challenging to read this prophecy of the ingathering of the exiles, an iconic Jewish concept. When I look at today, this process has already begun, with the catalyst being the modern State of Israel. Now, I know that there are those who see that as divine, but in my eyes, it’s a miracle created by human beings with the blessing of God. Visionary leaders and tragically young men and women thought, dreamed, and died, for its inception, and for Jews around the world to have a place to return to. Was that because of a voice from God, or because of a dream of Zionism? Maybe modern Israel isn’t what’s being talked about here, as the full ingathering, but it’s a step in the direction, or a manmade vision of this reality that we have created because no divine redemption seemed forthcoming.

The text talks about the blessings the people will get once the redemption occurs, all of which will happen once the people return to God, heart and soul. “For this commandment, which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell to us, so that we can fulfill it (Deuteronomy 30:11-12)?'” I love this. It’s the ultimate hubris to say I know how God feels, but in this moment, I feel like I kind of do. He’s literally laying out for the people the idiot’s guide to the future, telling them exactly what they have to do, and what will happen if they do/don’t. There’s no mystery and no ambiguity in this speech (a rarity) and there’s nothing for them to search for. All of it is directly there for them to take. I’ve been there, telling my fiance, for example, exactly what to do, and then him thinking there’s some kind of hidden message. Sometimes, there’s not. Don’t go looking for the next layer, just do what you’re told and it’ll all be fine.

“This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live; To love the Lord your God, to listen to His voice, and to cleave to Him. For that is your life and the length of your days, to dwell on the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob to give to them (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).” I love this chapter. The words are so poetic, and so beautiful. Choose life is one of my favorite Jewish concepts. It not only highlights our free will and ability to determine our own fates, but it also emphasizes the importance of life as active. We choose it, every day. A person can be alive and not live, and even God is literally telling us to choose the path of life, throughout our lives.

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.