As we go through the comforting month of Menachem Av and come towards the month of Ellul, the month of repentance, we study the final book of the Torah, known in Hebrew as Devarim (Words and Things), known in Greek as Deuteronomy.
The reason that this Book is called Words and Things is that Moses reminds the Jewish people that words are injunctions which have to be put into practice. Many people appear in our lives who offer fine words, but as the saying goes: ‘fine words butter no parsnips.’
This coming Shabbat we encounter Devarim 11:26-16:17, known as Parshat Re’eh, which means simply ‘See!’ Better put, maybe, it means ‘take a good look and digest …’
In this parsha, G-d presents a choice to the Jewish people – both a blessing and a curse. He gives the Jewish people strict instructions on how to live on the Land that they are about to enter – the Promised Land – where idolatry of any kind is to be strictly forbidden.
The inheritance of the Jewish people is the place where G-d chooses to ‘indwell His Name‘. And – relevant to the entire world today – the Jewish people should not trust people who call themselves prophets and dreamers, because refraining from hero and idol-worship is a sign of the people’s love for the One, unique G-d Himself. G-d reminds the Jewish people that only He loves the Jewish people, since it was only He who took them out of Egypt, the land of slavery, to be a free people, in order to enact the way of life that G-d has prepared for them.
In Devarim, G-d prohibits self-mutilation or overdoing grief in mourning the dead. Death is not final and we should embrace life. This is why, incidentally, the 7-day shiva period was introduced into Jewish practice – one of the wonders of Jewish life and death, when others take over and don’t expect you to behave normally. Quite a few contemporary converts to Judaism have informed me that this was the main reason for their conversion – the way that Judaism treats life and death, and then life once again.
The nub is given in Chapter 14, verse 2: ‘For you are a holy people to the Lord your G-d, and G-d has chosen you for Himself to be a treasured people, from among all the people on the face of the earth.‘
This means not that the Jewish people are special so they can do what they want – but on the contrary, the Jewish relationship with G-d is one of covenant – the Jewish people have taken it upon themselves to live out G-d’s life on earth. The other peoples and nations of the earth are not expected to observe the entire 613 mitzvot, but the basic Noachide laws should be kept.
And it is stressed again and again that one should be especially open to the poor and lonely – debts should be remitted after seven years, and (no doubt Jesus had these next words in mind) ‘You shall open your hand … for the poor will always exist on the Land … therefore you shall surely open your hand to your fellow human being, and to your poverty-stricken in the Land.’
In other words, there will always be people who will need our open hand and we should do this with joy and not begrudge the fact that some people are worse off than us, because although we should always try and alleviate poverty, poverty will always be with us.
And the parallel Haftorah teaching of Isaiah 54:11 -55:5 takes account, in addition, of those Jews not currently living in the Land, but forced into exile in ‘strange lands.’ G-d tells his exiled people, ‘oh afflicted, storm-tossed, unconsoled one’, not to despair, for they will be brought back to the Land and at that time ‘all your children will be students of the Lord and abundant will be your children’s peace.’
The key words for this text in Hebrew are all based on the root bnh, from which the idea of ‘children’, ‘stones’ and ‘build’ derive. So what the prophet Isaiah is hinting at is that the children, the descendants of the exiles, will themselves be the ‘stones’ and ‘building-blocks’ which will construct not aesthetically beautiful cities, regarded as wonders of the world, but ‘foundations of righteousness’, and this is what ushering in the Messiah is all about for us as Jews.
And anyone who wants to learn about righteousness, when everyone will fulfil G-d’s word that was first enunciated in the last Torah book of Devarim, will be ‘thirsty’ enough to ‘go to the water‘ of Torah teaching, and not simply to the ‘water’, but also to the ‘wine and milk’. For wine is for adults and gladdens the heart, as Torah does. Milk, on the other hand is the main sustainer of life, when we are as if reborn once again, which Torah also does. And in addition, just like mother’s milk, Torah learning is unconditional and the more you draw from it, the more it keeps coming!
Thus, the students of Torah are actually doing the work of the world. And this is only too true as I write. In the last six months a huge outpouring of Torah study has been made available online, as the world struggles with the latest plague that we are currently going through all together.
From Canada, the USA and the State of Israel, men and women of huge learning are offering the entire world their services in teaching Torah and offering words of comfort for all levels. These people are therefore doing G-d’s work in building up the edifice described in Devarim and in Isaiah, so that hopefully, by the time of Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year, ‘the birthday of the world’, which takes place in the middle of September, we will all be ready, finally, to accept the Messianic teaching as it was meant to be.
Dr Irene Lancaster