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D'var Torah: Devarim

Torah reading: Deuteronomy 1:1 to 3:22.  
Third Haftarah of Rebuke:  Isaiah 1:1-27.

Today's Torah reading comes from the beginning of Deuteronomy, which I've always found a very difficult book to deal with. Essentially, the book consists of a speech or sermon delivered by Moses as the people of Israel are about to cross the Jordan, slaughter the people living in Canaan and seize their land -- all, apparently, on God's explicit orders. When we come up against passages like Deuteronomy 7:2 ("When the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy") -- what are we to make of such a bloodthirsty command? Is God actually in favour of war and ethnic cleansing?

Having said that, when I read through today's excerpt I was struck not by how bloodthirsty it was, but instead by the repeated emphasis on -- amazingly -- peace.

"Then the Lord said to me [i.e. Moses], “You have made your way around this hill country long enough; now turn north. Give the people these orders: ‘You are about to pass through the territory of your relatives the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own. You are to pay them in silver for the food you eat and the water you drink....So we went on past our relatives the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. We turned from the Arabah road, which comes up from Elath and Ezion Geber, and traveled along the desert road of Moab.

Then the Lord said to me, “Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any part of their land. I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as a possession.”…And the Lord said, “Now get up and cross the Zered Valley.” So we crossed the valley…

The Lord said to me, "Today you are to pass by the region of Moab at Ar. When you come to the Ammonites, do not harass them or provoke them to war, for I will not give you possession of any land belonging to the Ammonites. I have given it as a possession to the descendants of Lot.”

Three times God reiterates that the Israelites are not to conquer the territory they pass through, but to respect their fellow nations -- even to the point of carefully paying for all food and water they consume on their way. Instead of emphasizing differences, God reminds Israel that these tribes are their distant relatives and must be respected.

Even when Israel finally does come to battle, it is only after an attempt at peaceful resolution:

From the Desert of Kedemoth I sent messengers to Sihon king of Heshbon offering peace and saying, “Let us pass through your country. We will stay on the main road; we will not turn aside to the right or to the left. Sell us food to eat and water to drink for their price in silver. Only let us pass through on foot— as the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir, and the Moabites, who live in Ar, did for us—until we cross the Jordan into the land the Lord our God is giving us.” But Sihon king of Heshbon refused to let us pass through. For the Lord your God had made his spirit stubborn and his heart obstinate in order to give him into your hands, as he has now done.

The message is clear. Israel is not to be an expansionist, warlike nation, seeking to conquer more and more territory for itself. God has given the Israelites the land of Canaan, and no more. Other nations are to be respected and treated peacefully. War is not a tool to be used at will to gain resources, plunder other nations or enhance prestige -- it takes place only at God's specific command.

Of course, to modern ears even this seems outrageous. Did the tribes living in Canaan "deserve" to be slaughtered any more than Moab or Seir's inhabitants? Does limiting genocide to a particular geographic area make it right? Obviously, no. All the same, it is rather fascinating how the emphasis in this reading is not on conquest, but on restraint. Compare a passage from Plato's Republic, written several centuries after Deuteronomy:

[Socrates, describing the ideal State:] Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means; having an eye to poverty or war.

…Yes, Socrates, [Glaucon] said, and if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?

But what would you have, Glaucon? I replied.

Why, he said, you should give them the ordinary conveniences of life. People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas, and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style.

Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created…For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety…And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?

Quite true.

Then a slice of our neighbours' land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?

That, Socrates, will be inevitable.

And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?

Most certainly, he replied.

Though Socrates states that he personally sees a pastoral, simple existence as being humanity's "ideal" state, Plato's overall message is unmistakable: war is inevitable, and all countries will try to enhance their own lifestyle by plundering the resources and land of their neighbours. In this model, all nations are engaged in continual conflict, each vying for supremacy. Sadly, Israel would too eventually fall into this trap: the book of Amos in particular makes a very clear connection between the spoiled, luxurious lifestyle of the elite classes and Israel's final catastrophic defeat. In this zero-sum game, everyone loses eventually.

However, God had a very different plan for the nation of Israel. It is remarkable how similar many of the prophetic writings are to Socrates' original vision of a world where all people live within their means and are at peace with their neighbours:

"They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them.
    They will plant vineyards and drink their wine;
    they will make gardens and eat their fruit." (Amos 9:14)

"He will judge between many peoples
    and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
    and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
    for the Lord Almighty has spoken." (Micah 4:3-4)

Today, we find ourselves in a similar situation. Perhaps military conflict is less of an overt threat to most countries in the Western world -- but all around us companies and advertisers urge us to buy, buy, buy. Like the inhabitants of Plato's imagined city, we demand countless luxuries and possessions to enhance our personal prestige. Most of us own more "things" than we can really enjoy or even keep track of. But "stuff" has to come from somewhere, and the costs -- both to the people of the developing world and to our planet's ecology and climate -- are immense.

Our prophets today, as in ancient Israel, speak with one voice: live more simply. Stop consuming. Continual growth is not an option if we want to create this ideal world, a "peaceable kingdom" where all can live in harmony with one another and with nature…or even if we want to survive the next hundred years.

This week, I want to encourage everyone to think about how to live more simply. From small to large changes, what can we do to reduce our own "footprint" on the world and on our fellow human beings? How can we best help to bring God's vision into reality?

Shabbat Shalom!

Originally posted to Street Prophets on Fri Aug 01, 2014 at 10:47 AM PDT.

Also republished by Elders of Zion.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (13+ / 0-)

    "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

    by Eowyn9 on Fri Aug 01, 2014 at 10:47:17 AM PDT

  •  Question for the Hebrew experts in the group (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mayim, auron renouille

    Is there a connection between the title of this parsha ("Devarim") and the "D'var" in D'var Torah? I remember reading that "D'var Torah" means "word of Torah", and "words" is one of the first, well, words of the reading... If so, what grammatical form are they in?

    "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

    by Eowyn9 on Fri Aug 01, 2014 at 11:48:51 AM PDT

    •  Not a Hebrew expert but I'll try (4+ / 0-)

      Devarim = words
      D'var = word

      Each of the five books of the Torah, and each parsha, takes its Hebrew name from the first uncommon word of the text.  Thus "Ehleh devarim" = These are the words, which are the first two words of Deuteronomy which is known in Hebrew as Devarim.  The first parsha of each book shares its name with the name of the book.  Thus:

      Bereshit = In the beginning, the first word of the Torah and the Hebrew name for Genesis.

      Shemot = Names, the first two words of Exodus are V'ehleh shemot = These are the names.  (notice ehleh, with which Deuteronomy/Devarim also opens, "these," is too common  a word to be the name of a book or parasha.)

      VaYikrah = And he called, the first word of Leviticus.

      Bemidbar = "in the wilderness," the fifth word of Numbers, the first four words - "And God spoke to Moses" is a phrase repeated a hundred or more times in the Torah so it's too common to become the name of the book.

      This parasha Devarim is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B'av so its text is often overlooked in favor of the events of Tisha B'av, so thanks for your examination of this often overlooked text.

      "Corporations exist not for themselves, but for the people." Ida Tarbell 1908.

      by Navy Vet Terp on Fri Aug 01, 2014 at 02:28:16 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  i believe it also means "thing" or "matter" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      as in "object" or "concern" or "issue", in modern spoken and written Hebrew, which is adapted from previous eras of usage, so...  f.w.i.w.

  •  Though I am not religious, I (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eowyn9, Navy Vet Terp, mayim, the fan man, Smoh

    appreciate your diary.

    Unfortunately, some of us have not evolved past the chimpanzee state. We are too enamored by war and filled with envy.

  •  Impressive. Thank you for your effort. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eowyn9, Smoh, Navy Vet Terp

    From your mouth to the ears of those who need to hear it.

    Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree. -Martin Luther

    by the fan man on Fri Aug 01, 2014 at 05:54:53 PM PDT

  •  Toda Rabah for the valuable drash. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Navy Vet Terp, Old Iowa Liberal

    My immediate thought (and far from the first time ... in fact dating back to the 1960's and soooo often ever since) on reading

    Continual growth is not an option if we want to create this ideal world, a "peaceable kingdom" where all can live in harmony with one another and with nature…or even if we want to survive the next hundred years. [...] think about how to live more simply. From small to large changes, what can we do to reduce our own "footprint" on the world and on our fellow human beings?
    is zero population growth, which eventually leads to negative population growth even under peaceful conditions. "The planet groans every time it registers another birth." (Born at the Right Time - Paul Simon). The zpg movement in the west sank without ripple as multiple segments of the midcentury social change movement decided that zpg was propaganda meant to make them 'die out' and cease to be a 'problem' to the privileged.  I constantly wonder if that conclusion was actually propaganda planted to make sure that increasing numbers would cause us to turn on each other and lose track of whose megapowerful footprints really is on all our backs, holding us all down in the gladiatorial arena, poisoning our bodies with toxic bread and our minds with blood and circuses.

    Living simply may not be enough. Historically, whenever a population grows beyond what it can cultivate its own resources to support ---or beyond what it's led to believe it can cultivate--- its desperation and fear become ripe tinder for inflammation to war, and whomever runs the drum&trumpet brigade is who's in the strongest position to decide what enemies to set against each other and profit from the outcome. Behind envy and violent impulse is fear of deprivation or outright experiencing of it. But behind greed is sociopathy.

    The planet's only so big. The strategy of winning control by birthing the most recruits has been sort of successful from the viewpoint at the top of the heap, but really not from the viewpoint at the bottom, or even middle.

    So, I didn't have kids. And found that my nearest and dearest plus plenty much further away considered my choice to license them to make me their unrecompensed hardworked productive yet disdained slavey, and to pay me less than people doing the same work at lower quality and demand more yet from me, and to treat me predaciously, and regard my volunteerism to the family of humanity and my study to learn to do it well as just as sneer-worthy in me as considered praise-worthy in them for doing a fraction of what I did. The consequences to me were destructive and permanent.

    In other words, I may not have thought it all out as well as it needs thinking out. I understand better now that one of the drives to have families is one's own security, in the belief that families take care of their members and strangers don't care. Sometimes the first part of that is actually true. Often so is the other part. Not always, 'tho.

    So I guess the zpg strategy needs more thought as to tactics. But I still feel pretty sure it's basic.

    Shavua tov.


    •  In many countries in the West, though (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mettle fatigue

      population is actually in decline. E.g. Canada (where I live) would not be able to replenish its natural population without immigration.

      I think it's a natural thing to want to have kids (as God said, "Be fruitful and multiply") -- but obviously within limits. I personally couldn't see myself having more than one or two children anyway (not that I have any right now.)

      Population growth does seem to be slowing even in less developed countries. Hopefully, as education becomes more widespread in these countries and young people are taught about contraception (and if particular religious leaders would reverse their ridiculous teachings about the morality of such contraception!) it will slow to replacement levels. After all, who WANTS to have ten kids underfoot? ...Certainly not me.

      "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

      by Eowyn9 on Mon Aug 04, 2014 at 08:30:15 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  i interpret "be fruitful and multiply" as (0+ / 0-)

        we should use the gifts we've been given --innate or acquired-- so as to do good for the world, as well as take good care of ourselves so we can continue doing good.

        in other words, even if there's reflexive verb construction, that can mean intellectual gifts and education. absolutely need not and should not be interpreted to mean to "go breed".

        zpg biomathematically implies negative growth downward toward sustainable numbers, not replacement 1 for 1, because (as cold as it sounds), natural causes of attrition even with good healthcare tend to make each generation slightly smaller than preceding when the preceding only "replaces" 1 for 1. because not every 1 even survives to reproduction age even under the best circumstances.

        this planet cannot healthily or safely support the population it's got.  most intergroup conflict is basically over scarce material resources, very few of which resources are susceptible to enlargement/improvement.  

        world food quality might be (if we can get beyond the mistaken idea that high numbers of green leaves & fruit is the equivalent of high nutritional properties (it isn't - most cropland in the world has been leached of nutrients 'thru the misperception —as admirable as veganism philosophically is— that plant life cycles independently of animal).

        world intellect is.  

        air might if we'd stop filthing it.

        but water supply and land space are not increasable, they are only conservable, and were already overloaded in the '60s or the zpg movement wouldn't have made the little progress that it did.

        for widely differing (and unfortunate) reasons, my 2 parents' only 2 kids had no kids at all = neg pg.  
              but my dad's sister & brother-in-law produced 5 g'kids.  
             and tho 3 of my mother's 10 siblings produced no g'kids at all, the other 7 have over 40 (one of my orthodox cousins had 12 kids at last count: his wife doesn't have the neurology for birth pain, confirmed by the one physician --orthodox, female-- in our generation, who only had 2 kids herself and believed the absence of pain is no license for excess childbearing), so it's safe to say, probably, that those of us with self-restraint about biological descendents were not "rewarded".

        Canada benefits by emigrees' diverse backgrounds enriching the figurative gene pool of creative intellect. My impression is this has always been the case. I tend to wonder if closemindedness in any population or subset might be due to refusal of diversity.

        oh cheese, i went long again. well, maybe it's worth having been said.

        thanks for replying.

        •  I really like this: (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          mettle fatigue

          "we should use the gifts we've been given --innate or acquired-- so as to do good for the world, as well as take good care of ourselves so we can continue doing good."

          Well-said! (And this is definitely one of my dreams in life, whereas having children is still a "maybe" thing for me.)

          "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

          by Eowyn9 on Mon Aug 04, 2014 at 07:34:42 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Eowyn, sorry (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    it took me so long to see this. I kept thinking of the need for natural resources and colonialism.

    We need a world in which we ask "What's happened to you?" more and "What's wrong with you?" less. (From a comment by Kossack nerafinator)

    by ramara on Sun Aug 03, 2014 at 02:30:42 PM PDT

    •  Do you mean that (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      it took you a long time to see this in a general sense? Or just to see my diary?

      "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

      by Eowyn9 on Mon Aug 04, 2014 at 08:30:57 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  :) (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I mean the diary. It's a long time since I read the Republic, though I remember finding it shocking - I think I was a college freshman.

        We need a world in which we ask "What's happened to you?" more and "What's wrong with you?" less. (From a comment by Kossack nerafinator)

        by ramara on Mon Aug 04, 2014 at 11:59:55 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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