D’var Torah for August 11, 2007 August 11, 2007
Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17
It’s not Moses’s fault, but I can’t read these chapters of Deuteronomy without thinking of Ronald Reagan, whose speeches so often invoked America as a “shining city on a hill.” Reagan adapted the phrase from the famous sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity” that ends with the closing verses of today’s Parsha: “Behold, there is now sett before us life and good, Death and evill, in that we are commanded this day to loue the Lord our God and to loue one another, to walk in his ways and keepe his commandments and his Ordinance and His lawes, and the articles of our Covenant with him.” The English Puritan John Winthrop composed those words on board the Arabella in 1630, as he was sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to assume the governorship of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Like Moses in his farewell speech to the Israelites, he assured his fellow Puritans that if they kept their part of their bargain and served God faithfully then God would reciprocate by ensuring that the theocratic polity they were founding in the New World would prosper. But if they tried to stiff the Almighty—if they allowed their hearts to “turne away, soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship and serue other Gods, our pleasure and proffitts, and serue them”—then they would surely perish. “Wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill,” Winthrop declared. “The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world.” The ironies are almost too obvious to point out. Neither the Israelites nor the Puritans exactly did well by the indigenous inhabitants of their respective promised lands; neither nation has been immune to the temptations of selfishness and greed. In recent years especially, both Israelis and Americans have become “a story and a byword” throughout the world for our perceived arrogance, self-righteousness, and militarism. Which brings me back to Ronald Reagan. “I've spoken of the shining city all my political life,” he remarked in his own farewell address to the nation, which he delivered from the Oval Office on January 11, 1989. “In my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.” It’s sentimental, it’s clichéd, it sounds a bit like something you’d read in a pamphlet cooked up by the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, but it could be worse. At least Reagan didn’t tell us to obliterate the native Americans’ altars (not to mention the native Americans themselves); he didn’t tell us that if our slaves were loyal and loved us we should nail their ears to our doors with awls; he didn’t remind us to put our heretics and even their cattle to the sword and burn their town “and all its spoil as a holocaust to the Lord your God.” But neither did he bother to say anything about the obligations of a community towards its least fortunate members—a concern which is at the very heart of this week’s Parsha. In Chapter 15, verse 4 Moses asserts, “There shall be no needy among you—since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion—if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.” But after spending forty years in the wilderness with the Israelites, Moses knew better than to expect that they would pay either him or the Lord any heed. In Chapter 15, verse 11 (a mere seven sentences later) he emends himself. “There will never cease to be needy ones in your land,” he concedes. “Which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy.” There is so much to react negatively to in this Parsha—all those arbitrary rules and regulations; so much animal and human blood spilled on the ground like water—that it’s easy to overlook what is positive and completely relevant to us today: the injunctions to treat the unfortunate not just with kindness but respect; the required remission of debts after seven years; the generosity that informed Moses’ insistence that slaves and servants and strangers should be invited to partake of the bounty of feast days. And there’s nothing wrong, nothing sacrilegious or disrespectful about that negativity. Just as Moses’ farewell looked forward prophetically to the founding of the Temple in Jerusalem (“the site where the Lord your God will choose to establish his name”), we’re not confined to Deuteronomy’s ostensible present tense either. We know how badly things turned out. Most Bible scholars believe that these verses were in fact composed in the seventh century BCE, during the reign of the Judean king Josiah. The priests who wrote it in Moses’ name were trying to purge Canaanite influences from Judea’s religious practices, lest Judea meet the same fate as the northern kingdom, which had already fallen to the Assyrians. It didn’t work. From our own historical perspective, which comprises not just the subsequent Assyrian invasion of Judea but the eventual destruction of two temples, a two-thousand year Diaspora, the Inquisition, the Shoah, and an agonizingly difficult return to a promised land whose natives have been no more welcoming to us than their historical counterparts were, we know that our covenant with God is infinitely more complicated than “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” and that to opt for blessings instead of curses, life rather than death, we might have to make a different set of choices than the authors of our ancient scriptures could have ever imagined. But at the same time, we should give those scribes credit where credit is due. They understood a lot—a lot more than Ronald Reagan did, for example, who bethought himself far too much of commerce and nowhere near enough of tzedakah, who hardened his heart before Cadillac driving welfare queens and all those others who have no “hereditary portion…the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.” Justice and mercy and charity are no less Biblical virtues than dogmatism, chauvinism, and militarism are. The moral sensibilities that make so many of us squirm when we read this Parsha were fostered in us by the same ancient Israelites who wrote it. That three thousand years later we can distinguish between what they wrote that’s right and what they wrote that’s wrong, between what’s blessed and what’s cursed—and that we can hold ourselves and our leaders up to ever higher and higher moral standards—is as much a part of their legacy as the Torah itself.