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Devarim 5772-2012

“The Al-mighty’s Relationship with the Nations of the World”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As we have previously noted on several occasions (Devarim 5765-2005), the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is also known as Mishneh Torah (a repetition of Torah), because its contents often revisit facts that were previously recorded in earlier books of the Torah.

In his first discourse in Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:6-4:40), Moses reviews the journeys of the People of Israel from Sinai to Kadesh. The review closes with an exhortation to the People of Israel for obedience and loyalty to G-d.

In the first portion of his opening discourse, Moses dwells on the people’s earlier abortive attempt to enter Canaan. Now Moses focuses on the positive, on the victories over Sichon and Og that mark the close of the people’s wanderings. These heralded victories would now instill courage in the people as they prepare for their anticipated conquest of the Promised Land. Admonishing the people that their rebelliousness and lack of belief has brought shame and punishment on them in the past, he now reminds them that their obedience to G-d and repentance have already been crowned by blessing and triumph. Moses concludes by assuring the people that continued positive behavior will be rewarded in the future as well.

In the opening verses of Deuteronomy 2, Moses recalls how the Israelites turned back toward the Red Sea and marched around Mount Seir, until G-d instructed them to turn northward and pass peacefully through the territory of Esau.

Passing through the territory of Esau would be a new experience for the people, since, shortly before, they were refused permission by the king of Edom (Numbers 20) to pass through their territory. (Although Edom is often identified as Seir, some commentators claim that they were different branches of the same nation).

Even though Moses tells the Israelites that the children of Esau are terrified of their Israelite cousins, Moses states emphatically (Deuteronomy 2:5): “Ahl tit’gah’roo vahm, kee loh eh’tayn lah’chem may’ar’tzahm,” Do not contend with them, for I will not give you of their land, because, Moses says, G-d has given Mount Seir unto Esau for possession. He tells the people that while marching through the land of Seir they are permitted to purchase food from the children of Esau for money and buy water to drink.

Moses then reminds the people of Israel’s earlier encounter with Moab that was not as favorable as their encounter with Seir. Despite the Moabites’ refusal to allow the Israelites to pass through their land, Moses recalls that G-d said to him, in Deuteronomy 2:9, “Ahl tah’tzar et Moav, v’ahl tit’gahr bahm mil’chamah, kee lo eh’tayn l’chah may’ar’tzoh y’roo’shah,” Do not allow yourselves to come to battle with the Moabites, for I will not give you any inheritance of their land. For unto the sons of Lot have I given Ar as an inheritance.

As a conquering nation headed toward their Promised Land, it is quite unexpected that Moses would go into such great detail warning the people that they may not contend with, or make war with, the people of the land of Seir or the Moabites.

Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that these chapters teach a fundamental principle of Judaism and Jewish values. Although the people will be afraid of you, G-d says about the children of Seir (Deuteronomy 2:4), “V’nish’mar’tem m’ohd, you must be very careful not to allow yourselves to take liberties with them. The nations are certainly aware that, after enduring the long trek in the wilderness, the weary and starving Israelites have been deprived for so long of so much. They have every reason to expect that the Israelites will be greedy, perhaps desperate, and take everything they can by force, says Rabbi Hirsch. G-d, therefore, says to them, “Contain yourselves, and show them just the opposite of what they fear!”

Rabbi Hirsch notes that the Torah declares that all the nations have been granted their place of settlement in the world through Divine guidance (Deuteronomy 32:8). The descendants of Esau (Edom), who stem from the family of Abraham, as well as the Moabites and the Amonites, who are descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, were all given lands by G-d specifically for them.

Says Rabbi Hirsch:

The remembrance of this, just at the time when Israel is to receive its Land from the Hands of G-d, could be of far-reaching importance. It drives home to the Jewish nation that G-d’s Providence rules also beyond Jewish circles, and looks after the history of other nations too; that Israel is to enter and take its place amongst the nations with G-d-fearing respect for the possessions of the other nations, and not look on itself as a conquering nation before whom henceforth no nation in the world could feel secure in undisturbed possession of its land; but that its acts of war and the renown won thereby was to be limited to taking possession of the one land which G-d has designed for them and promised to them from the very beginning of their historical existence.

Concludes Rabbi Hirsch, “The rights of inheritance is one of the pillars of all social development.” G-d clearly rules the world, including protecting the rights of the nations of the world. It is for this reason that the descendants of Esau, Isaac’s oldest son and Jacob’s brother, and the nation of Amon, the offspring of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, were given these lands as inalienable possessions to their inhabitants.

The Biblical scholar W. Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) further amplifies this point:

The permanent allotment of lands of Edom and Amon to their inhabitants, introduces a concept which later prophets stressed with great force; it is G-d’s unique quality that He holds sway over all the nations, cares for them, and judges them. He is the one single G-d, He is G-d alone (Deuteronomy 6:4) and there is no power beside Him. Other gods are false, and their adoration futile. Here, then, Monotheism is proclaimed in its full force, and the book of Deuteronomy devotes much space to its proclamation. Deuteronomy 2:5 and 2:19 are notations made on the canvas of Israel’s story and they hint at the full development, which Moses will give to the theme of the all-embracing One G-d of the world.

The proclamation by Moses of the admonition not to engage in battle, or even to cause stress to the nations of Esau and Edom, is quite remarkable–in fact, unparalleled in the annals of the history of nations. Here stand the People of Israel, who have wandered through the wilderness for forty years. The older generation, those who were above age twenty when they left Egypt, have now perished, and the new generation, born in freedom, survive. While most of them did not witness the Ten Plagues or the Splitting of the Sea, and possibly not even the giving of the Torah at Sinai, they certainly were aware of these miracles, and possibly participated in the battles against the two most powerful kingdoms, who were defeated by Israel, Sichon the king of the Amorites and Og the king of Bashan. Israel was now a triumphant people, confidently marching toward their Promised Land, who not only defeated, but crushed, every one of their enemies. This now was Israel’s time! The people who, not long before, had been brutalized as slaves in Egypt, were now marching as free people, to take possession of their own land. With G-d at their side, they had no reason to fear the 31 kings whom they would have to battle in Canaan. All the nations of the Earth were paralyzed by fear of them, and they knew it.

And yet, it is exactly at this point that Moses tells the people in the name of G-d that there are universal rules by which they must abide and a doctrine of human rights that they must respect. You, Israel, may be the “Chosen People,” but all of earth’s inhabitants are G-d’s children. You may not intimidate them, you may not start unjust wars against them. All the people on earth belong to G-d. You must respect them, if not love them.

This exalted vision of humanity is uniquely Israel’s, a legacy of our Torah. Although we have shared it with the world, these values belong to the Jews. It is only by embracing these principles that we will remain G-d’s people and be a blessing to all humanity.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, was observed on Thursday night, July 19th and all day Friday, July 20th. It marked the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading up to the fast of Tisha B’Av. This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Chazzon”–the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction.

Because the 9th of Av is on Shabbat, the observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, is postponed until Saturday night, July 28th and continues through Sunday night, July 29th, 2012. Have a meaningful fast.