Wednesday, 24 Jul 2013

Written by Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild

”All the Commandments which I command you this day, you shall observe and do them, so that you may live and enter and possess the land which God swore to your ancestors…”  There is a lot of Political Science as well as Theology tied up in this verse (Deuteronomy 8:1). Let us try to dismantle the verse a little – within the bounds available to short overview. We will find many questions and – as usual – fewer answers.

(a). ALL the Commandments? Even the ‘teeny-weeny oh-no-they-cannot-be-so-important’ ones? Who is to decide whether Shaatnez is really at the same level as, say, abstaining from murder and adultery? Who is to explain the chronological inconsistency of giving a nomadic people in the desert a whole range of agricultural commands to keep when they get into the land, and then saying they cannot get in until and unless they have been obeying them? Hmmm.

(b). Which I command YOU. Who is I in this verse? God? Or God speaking through Moses? Or God speaking to us through a page, a word, written or printed or read aloud from an ancient parchment? And if so, who wrote it, and when, who copied it, how many times has it been copied out, can I rely upon the text as it currently stands? May I read it for myself in my own language or is only the ‘authorised version’ in some ancient semitic tongue in strange letters that go backwards valid? How dangerous are translations and misinterpretations? Which voice do we hear, what authority can it have, how eternal is its significance, which bits can one dismiss as ”old-fashioned and primitive – we don’t do THAT any more” and which bits can we say ”speak to us even now”? Which prophets can we acknowledge as genuine messengers of God’s Word and which do we dismiss as secondary, irrelevant, self-deluded, false, even corrupt?
        And who is YOU? Was I really there? The rabbis like to say that all Jews before and since stood at Sinai when the Torah was given – but did I also stand on the east bank of the Jordan and await the moment for Joshua or someone to cry ‘Kadimah!’ and then head westwards (not eastwards!) to take the Land?
        The Hebrew doesn’t really help. A rabbinic student would get marked down for the dreadful grammatical errors. ‘Asher anochi metzav’cha’ – that is second person singular; ‘lema’an tich’yun, ur’vitem….’ – well, that’s second person plural! We can tie ourselves in knots discussing ‘communal singulars’ or ‘plural majestatis’ and similar attempts to wriggle out of such impasses… but a lawyer would rub his hands in anticipation when looking at such a will or contract.

         If YOU is a singular concept – a People, a Nation, a Group – then who defines the group identity? Who leads the group? What role, what rights to Individuals have, when they wish to be more than just Group-Members? What happens if one or two members lapse? Must the entire group suffer and NOT live, NOT enter the Land, just because of these self-willed people who have different opinions? The example of the fate of Sodom rings in the ears. Collective responsibility is practiced in many Jewish communities as a form of moral blackmail – ”You must come; We need you for the Minyan…!” Which leads to a related question: Does YOU include those Persons of the Female Persuasion, whose voices are higher and therefore allegedly sexually distracting, and who are therefore forbidden to read these words aloud in public, according to some of our less-sage sages? (Perhaps more onions than sages….)

(c). (c).  This day. HaYom. For how many days did Moses speak throughout the Book of Devarim? What about the things he told the Israelites (that’s Us, yes?) yesterday, or what might others say to us afterwards? – We have had a lot of Yesterdays since then, we have a Today now and some of us at least still hope there might be a Tomorrow.
(cii). (d). You shall observe them and do them. Well, not those for Kings, of course, or for Cohanim, or for farmers, or for people with skin diseases, or slave-owners, or…. well, OK, I’ll do the ones I can. Is that all right?

(e). So that you may live. That’s a good offer, but at the end of the day we all remain mortal in any case. But sometimes biblical theology works in this very simple pedagogical manner: Almost like dog-training: ‘There is Reward and Punishment and you will get what you (or You? Or YOU?) deserve’. If only it were always so simple. Of course the corollary is that every time we suffer some disaster, persecution, massacre, destruction, exile, we have to assume that we did deserve it. This leads to a form of Self-Criticism that can be very healthy and constructive – but can also lead to brooding depression and paralysis if carried to extremes. Why cannot we sometimes not just palm some of the blame back onto God? What would be a fair division?

(f). enter and possess the land which God swore to your ancestors
Well, here we enter a current political jungle. God promised our ancestors the Land but did not deliver it on a plate. Even in Genesis 13:14 when God makes the first territorial promise to Abraham it is clear that there are already other peoples living there – it is not empty, virgin territory. Unfortunately God neglected to inform the Canaanites and others that their lease was up and so it was left to the Israelites to take (re-)possession by force. In Gen. 15:7 there is a repetition and in 15:16 we learn that the Amorites have not yet used up all their moral credit. But in 15:18f the geographical boundaries and the existing ethnic peoples are clearly delineated.
          Colonialists liked to think that they were going to new, empty lands – the presence of a few ‘natives’ or ‘ab-origines’ could be easily overlooked, because they didn’t really count. Nowadays some of us at least look at this matter differently.
           So may we go in and invade and occupy the Promised Land – or at least a part of it? (Even this compromise is bound up with potential theological problems, since it implies we are turning down a part of the promise; Who has the power to make the compromise or define the new boundaries?) ”Viyrishtem…” – The verb ‘YaRaSh’ is defined in the ‘BDB’ p. 439 No. 4329 as ”to take possession of, inherit, dispossess.” And here lie the seeds of the modern endless and wearisome debate over the legitimacy of Zionism and Israel. Do we, did we as Jews ”inherit” a land and ”take possession of our rightful inheritance” – or did we ”dispossess the previous inhabitants”? The same word means both, so it is a matter of our interpretation!
            And do those who converted count as legitimate descendants of these ancestors? Can one voluntarily join the heirs and claim a part of this inheritance?

            Well, I am a Reform rabbi who has had to search for meaning and possible answers to all of these questions. I have formed my own opinions as to who is ‘I’ and who is ‘You’ and who is ‘We’, I work in a land, a continent where many died horrible deaths for which I can NOT find simple answers or blame them, I work to enable conversions and I support the right of Jews to live in the Land of Israel even though I have not (yet) chosen to live there myself. It all sounds so easy, but each of us is confronted daily with the difficult questions that lie behind this single simple verse. And the Torah is full of them! 

Landesrabbiner Dr. Walter Rothschild, State Rabbi of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.
Rabbi of Gescher LaMassoret in Köln, Gescher in Freiburg (Breisgau) and Or Chadasch, Wien.
Ordained Leo Baeck College 1985


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.