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Devarim 5770-2010

“On That Day the Lord Shall Be One and His Name One”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The book of Deuteronomy, known in Hebrew as Devarim, opens with the people now standing at the border of Canaan. Having led the people of Israel through the wilderness for 40 years, Moses offers the first of a series of farewell messages. He recounts the many years of wandering and warns the people against the temptations that await them in Canaan.

In chapter 2 of Deuteronomy, after dwelling on the people’s abortive attempt to enter Canaan, Moses recalls the victories that were won in the final years of their wanderings. Noting that rebellion had brought shame and punishment upon the people, Moses underscores that their obedience was crowned by blessing and triumph.

Upon reviewing the travels and the encounters, Moses reiterates G-d’s instructions to the people as they approached the borders of the children of Esau who dwell in Seir. Deuteronomy 2:5: “Ahl tit’gah’roo vahm, kee loh eh’tayn lah’chem may’ahr’tsahm, ahd mid’rahch kahf rah’gel, kee y’roo’shah l’Eisav, na’tah’tee eht har Seir,” Do not contend with them [the children of Esau] for I will not give you their land, not so much as the sole of the foot to tread on, for I have given Mount Seir to Esau for possession.

Moses notes that even though the Israelites were not permitted to do battle with the children of Esau, they were permitted to purchase bread and water from them. The people, however, moved on in their travels without passing through the land of the children of Esau.

Moses then recalls the people’s encounter with the Moabites on the border of Moab, how they crossed through the Brook of Zered, and faced down the Ammonites and the Amorites.

In Deuteronomy 2:19, Moses reminds the people of G-d’s warning before their encounter with the Ammonites: “V’kah’rav’tah mool b’nei Ammon, ahl t’tzoo’raym, v’ahl tit’gahr bahm, kee loh eh’tayn may’eretz b’nei Ammon l’chah y’roo’shah, kee liv’nei Lot n’tah’tee’hah ye’roo’shah,” And when you come close to the children of Ammon, harass them not, nor contend with them, for I will not give you the land of the children of Ammon for possession because I have given it unto the children of Lot for a possession.

Although Moses’ review of what happened to the Jewish people as they approached the land of Canaan seems to be pretty straightforward, this narrative is far more than a simple history lesson.

In Deuteronomy 2:5 and 2:19, we see that the people of Israel are specifically instructed not to touch the people of Edom (Esau) and Ammon, or to possess their lands, for those lands were given as inalienable possessions to their inhabitants. Perhaps the reason for allowing these nations to hold onto their lands was due to the special relationship between the people of Israel and the nations of Edom (the descendants of Esau) and Ammon (the offspring of Lot). Since they are related to the Jewish people, Israel is forbidden to make war with them or harass them. Even in later times when David fought against the descendants of Esau and they became subservient (Samuel II 8:14), we see that David did not dispossess them from their land. In fact, they later became independent again (Kings II 8:20).

The rabbis note an interesting exception with regard to the Moabites. After all, they too were descended from Lot and were related to the people of Israel, yet Israel was permitted to conquer their land. The commentators ascribe this to the fact that Moab hired Bilaam to curse the Jewish people in an attempt to defeat them. Consequently, there is no prohibition to make war with Moab or to incite them. This explains why a portion of the land of Moab that was previously overrun by Sichon in his battle was possessed by Israel. However, even the Moabites were rewarded for their part in sparing Abraham’s life when Lot did not reveal that Sarah was really Abraham’s wife and not his sister (Genesis 12:10-13:1).

The two verses that were previously cited regarding the prohibition of possessing the lands of Edom and Ammon are by no means a simple recounting of history. In fact, they confirm a fundamental principle that many take for granted. The fact that G-d plays an especially Providential role in the history of Israel is confirmed by the story of the Exodus, and by the wanderings in the wilderness. But does G-d also play a key role in the lives of other nations? Clearly, He does. It is the permanent allotment of the lands of Edom and Ammon to their native inhabitants that confirms the concept that G-d holds sway over all the nations, cares for them all and judges them. He is the one single G-d. He is G-d alone, and there is no power besides Him. Other gods are false, and their adoration futile.

The book of Deuteronomy, often regarded as simply a rehash of Jewish history, is in fact a primary source for the concept of a “universal” G-d. It is here that monotheism is proclaimed in its full glory. Two little seemingly “throw-away” verses in Deuteronomy, 2:5 and 2:19, powerfully proclaim a singular all-embracing G-d of the world, Who cares for Israel as well as all the nations of the world.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of new month of Av, began on Sunday night, July 11 and continues through Monday, July 12. It marks the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av. This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Chazon”–the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction.