Parashat Devarim: Telling and Retelling the Story

And, like that, we are back in the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. It is called Devarim in Hebrew, which means “words” or “things.” Our first portion of the book, also called Devarim (Deuternomy 1:1-3:22), notes that these final speeches from Moses are being delivered on the other side of the Jordan River, just before we are finally going to enter the Land of Canaan. We are in the fortieth year of our wandering, and Moses knows that his life is coming to an end. He feels the need to review his history with the Israelites, as well as deliver reminders about God’s teachings and commandments.

Our portion this Shabbat includes:

  • Moses begins his final words of instruction to the Children of Israel, focusing first on recounting their physical journey. (1:1–21)
  • Moses reviews the people’s reactions to the negative reports of the spies and the appointment of Joshua to succeed him. (1:22–45)
  • Moses recounts that all of the Israelite warriors who left Egypt died, as God had intended, and the people continued their wanderings and defeated their enemies. (2:14–3:11)
  • Moses reiterates that the Land of Israel was allocated to the Israelite tribes. (3:12–22)

We are going to focus on Chapter 2, and its emphasis on military conquest. Parashat Devarim often falls close to the observance of Tisha B’Av (please consider joining us for a study session on Monday night, 7:00 pm). Rabbi Reuven Firestone points out:

It may seem ironic then, that the reading for the Book of Deuteronomy always begins on or near Tishah B’Av because right here in this Torah portion, D’varim, we encounter the the divine sanction to commit genocide against our enemies. “Sihon with all his troops took the field against us at Jahaz, and the Eternal our God delivered him to us and we defeated him and his sons and all his troops. At that time we captured all his towns, and we doomed every town — men, women, and children — leaving no survivor” (Deuteronomy 2:32-34). The same fate awaited the people of Bashan a few verses later: “So the Eternal our God also delivered into our power King Og of Bashan, with all his troops, and we dealt them such a blow that no survivor was left. . . . We doomed them as we had done in the case of King Sihon of Heshbon; we doomed every town — men, women, and children — and retained as booty all the cattle and the spoil of the towns” (3:3-7).

The term used to denote the total annihilation of these communities is the Hebrew word, cḥerem, and it first appears in Deuteronomy in our parashah. Cherem is unambiguous in these verses. Its meaning is to exterminate.

As readers in the 21st century, this is one of the toughest themes in our text. How do we reconcile commands like this to our prayers of peace? It becomes even more troubling when we then read the exhortations from Isaiah in our Haftarah portion (Isaiah 1:1-27). Our Haftarah portion lends itself to the special name for this Shabbat, known as Shabbat Chazon, or the Shabbat of Vision. Our final Haftarah of Rebuke urges us to stop our acts of evil and turn, instead, to lives of goodness. But, then we have to ask, what is evil? What is good?

Let’s wrestle through all of these tough discussion together on Shabbat. Wishing you a wonderful day of rest and renewal!

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