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Covenant & Conversation

Devarim (5770) – The Birth of a Nation

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The book known as Devarim (“words”) was originally known as Mishneh Torah – the repetition or restatement of the Torah. Hence the name Deuteronomy, “a second (statement of the) law”. In it Moses restates, with some additions and some omissions, both the history and legislation contained in the previous three books.

But there is also something new. The first verse of the book uses a phrase we have not heard before in the Torah, though it takes a sensitive ear to hear it:

These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel [le-khol Yisrael] in the desert east of the Jordan-that is, in the Arabah-opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab. (Deut.1:1)

It was R. Ephraim Landschutz [= Leczyca, 1550-1619] in his commentary Kli Yakar (to Dt. 1:1) who noted that the phrase kol Yisrael, which appears eleven times in Deuteronomy, exists nowhere else in the Mosaic books. Until now the Israelites have been described as bnei Yisrael, “the children of Israel”. Now for the first time they are no longer the children of Israel – they are simply Israel.

What does this signify? It means that the Israelites were about to become something they had not been before. Until now, they had been linked vertically, by biological descent. They had a common ancestor: Jacob, who was given the name Israel. They were his descendants. They were part of the same family tree. They were his children.

With the subtle shift from bnei Yisrael, the children of Israel, to Yisrael, Moses was preparing the Israelites for a new mode of existence. Now they would be linked horizontally, to one another. They were no longer children. They were about to become moral adults. Their unity was no longer simply a matter of a common past. They were about to create a shared future. They would no longer exist in a state of dependency – relying on Moses and through him, G-d, to provide for their needs, welfare and safety. Henceforth they would have to take responsibility for one another.

Through this subtle linguistic shift, Moses is indicating that once the Israelites crossed the Jordan they would have to become a nation, not just a family. They would have to learn to function collectively. They were about to create a society. They would have to fight wars, defend themselves, institute systems of justice and welfare, and learn the necessity for, as well as the limits of, politics.

None of that had been necessary in the wilderness. G-d provided their needs, fought their battles, sent them food and water and gave them shelter. G-d would still be with them in the future, but only rarely in the form of miracles. No longer would it be G-d serving the people – giving them all they need. It would be the people serving G-d. That was to be their new identity. The nation would be defined by the covenant their parents had made at Mount Sinai. It would be their constitution, their mission, their task, their destiny. They were about to become, not just individuals, but a people:

Then Moses and the priests, the Levites, said to all Israel, “Be silent, Israel, and listen! This day, you have become a people of the Lord your God. Obey the Lord your God and follow his commands and decrees that I give you today.” (Deut.27: 9-10)

Hence the intense peoplehood dimension of Judaism. Today’s secular culture is highly individualistic, and contemporary forms of spirituality reflect that fact. Nowadays we often think that G-d is about me, not us. Nor is this new. Religion has often been thought of as a private engagement of the soul. Dean Inge defined it as “what a person does in his solitude”. Walter Savage Landor called solitude the “audience chamber of G-d.” Octavio Paz spoke of it as “the profoundest fact of the human condition”.

Judaism holds the precise opposite. “It is not good for man to be alone.” The sedra of Devarim is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’av – and there is a verbal connection between the sedra and the opening of the Book of Lamentations: the word eichah, “how”. Moses says:

How [eichah] can I bear alone your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels. (Dt 1: 12)

Lamentations open with the words:

How [eichah] lonely lies the city, once so full of people!

Immediately we hear that eichah is not only the word these two verses have in common. They also share the word levadi / vadad, meaning “lonely, alone, solitary”. To be alone is not something to celebrate but to mourn. Judaism is a religion not of individuals but of a people. Faith does not belong to the private recesses of the soul. It belongs to the life we live together. Where people meet is where G-d is to be found.

Sickness and bereavement force us in upon ourselves. Yet in Judaism, we pray for healing for those who are ill “in the midst of all the other sick of Israel”. We offer consolation to mourners with the words, “May G-d comfort you in the midst of the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”. We specifically emphasize the not-aloneness of the ill and the bereaved. They are part of a people – and that is part of the healing, the consolation.

Likewise at a wedding, one of the seven blessings (sheva berakhot) says: “Bring great happiness and joy to one who was barren [Zion], as her children return to her in joy. Blessed are You, Lord, who gladdens Zion through her children.” It is as if the entire Jewish people, past, present and future, were present at the wedding, taking delight in this new couple.

So deep does this idea go that the word for human “life” in Judaism – chayyim – is in the plural, as if life alone were not a life. The word simchah in Hebrew is impossible to translate precisely. It does not mean “happiness, joy, rejoicing” – because each of these emotional states can be experienced by someone alone, whereas simchah in Judaism always refers to a collective celebration. Simchah means “the happiness we share with others”.

Jewish law tells us to make the blessing (shehecheyanu), “Who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this time” on seeing a friend whom we have not seen for at least thirty days. Why specifically this blessing? Because, as Honi ha-me-agel says in the Talmud (Taanit 23a): “Either companionship or death”. A renewal of friendship is therefore nothing less than a renewal of life itself. Life alone is not a life. Hence the remarkable ruling of Maimonides (Hilkhot Teshuvah 3: 11):

One who separates himself from the community, even if he does not commit a transgression but merely holds himself aloof from the congregation of Israel, does not fulfil the commandments together with his people, shows himself indifferent to their distress and does not observe their fast days but goes on his own way like one of the nations who does not belong to the Jewish people — such a person has no share in the world to come.

This is so strange a law that we have to go back and make sure we have understood it correctly. The person concerned has committed no sin – except that of holding himself apart from his people. Yet that is sufficient to rob him of the world to come. Judaism is a collective faith – the faith of a community, a people, a nation.

This is all the more striking because Judaism is a faith that ascribes radical value to the individual: “One who saves a single life is as if he had saved an entire universe”. Judaism values the individual without being individualistic. That is a very subtle distinction, and few cultures have ever managed it. I once asked Paul Johnson, a Catholic and the author of the superb A History of the Jews, what he found most impressive about Judaism. He replied: “It has managed, better than any other culture known to me, the delicate balance between individual responsibility and social responsibility”.

That is the deep significance of the shift in the book of Deuteronomy / Devarim from “the children of Israel” to “Israel” – from a group of individuals with a common ancestry to a nation bound by collective responsibility. G-d did not choose, nor did He make a covenant with, individuals as individuals – the righteous, the holy, the pure, the innocent, the upright. He made a covenant with an entire people, righteous and not-yet-righteous alike.

Why? Because that, we believe, is where G-d lives: in interactions, in the life we share. That is what we seek to sanctify: the relationships between husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and disciple, employer and employee, leader and follower, friend and stranger. That – as against the hyper-individualism of our late capitalist society – is a lesson worth re-learning. We find G-d in the “we” not the “I”.