By Rabbi David N. Goodman
JERUSALEM — The teeming streets of the Holy City testify to the diversity of its people — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, religious and secular. A flight delayed by a bout of COVID-19 led me to spend an unplanned Shabbat in Jerusalem and an opportunity to reflect on the last book of the Torah a scant 20-minute walk to the place where it was first proclaimed.
According to Kings II, the Judean king Josiah was commissioning a renovation of the first Temple when the chief priest, Hilkiyah, reported the discovery of a “scroll of the Torah/teaching in the house of Adonai.” [II Kings 22:8]. All this was happening about 2,600 years ago, in what would be the final decades before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple.
The priest Hilkiyah gave the scroll to the king’s scribe Shapham, who read it to himself and then recited it to Josiah. This scroll is believed to be the core of the book we now know as Deuteronomy, or Devarim.
The story in Kings says that it was immediately clear that Jewish practice had drifted far from the firm monotheism of the Sinai covenant. Some scholars give Josiah himself credit with firmly establishing the worship of Adonai alone as the foundation of the Judaism we recognize today — ethical monotheism. Kings II tells of Josiah purging the Temple and the kingdom of shrines to other gods, Baal and Asherah. It says he and the people committed themselves to observing all the laws that the new scroll proclaimed.
As we have it today, Deuteronomy presents itself as a series of addresses from Moses to the Israelites. They are about to enter the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness following their liberation from Egypt. He is about to die because of his own failings as a leader. Deuteronomy recapitulates the stages of the Exodus and restates the laws that Moses received at Sinai.
It’s fascinating to think how Deuteronomy might have sounded to those who first heard it in those last decades of the kingdom of the House of David. Then, as now, the Jews were living in a tough neighborhood. Imperial powers were making it difficult, if not impossible, for a medium-size kingdom to maintain its independence. In fact, the Assyrians nearly overran Judea before the Babylonians conquered it less than four decades after Deuteronomy’s reported discovery.
In fact, the promises and warnings that Moses gives the Israelites have remarkable resonance for the Jews who were hearing them 2,600 years ago — as they do for us, today, in the far-off land of Pennsylvania.
This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Eikev, opens with a triple-ask and a triple-promise: Moses tells the people that if they “listen to … and observe and carry out” the teachings, God will “love, bless and multiply” them and grant them prosperity and rich crops of wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates, as well as healthy and growing flocks of livestock.
They shouldn’t be afraid, Moses tells them, of their inferiority in numbers and strength to other nations they may face. If they do their part, God will do God’s part — as in the liberation from Egypt, when a great imperial state fell to the power of the Holy One. This is quite a pep talk for the people of seventh century BCE Judea, facing the menacing power of neighboring empires.
But what exactly is the Holy One asking of the people? Several things, all following under the heading of showing respect and giving obedience to the Creator of All.
The first it mentions is expressing gratitude: “When you eat and you are satisfied, then you shall bless Adonai, your God, for the good land that God has given you.” [Deuteronomy 8:10]. This is the basis in traditional Jewish law for the obligation to recite a blessing after a meal.
The second it mentions is refraining from worshiping false gods — false doctrines, one might say — and coveting their dazzling pageantry. The third is staying humble. When you get financially comfortable, don’t take personal credit or think it’s all because of your own work. Prosperity is a gift of the Divine. What one achieves is a result of what one has received and not (solely) the fruits of one’s own labor.
In fact, it is despite and not because of the conduct of the people that God is rewarding them. Moses reminds the people of how much they rebelled against the Holy One, practically from the moment of their liberation from Egypt, crowned by the worship of the Golden Calf. It is only because of Moses’ pleas for God’s mercy that the people weren’t destroyed in the desert.
The fourth ask is that the people to mirror the Holy One in the way that they treat those who are socially vulnerable. Adonai “enforces the rights of orphans and widows and loves immigrants/strangers, giving them food and clothing.” [Deuteronomy 10:18].
“And you [too] must love the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Moses tells the people. [Deuteronomy 10:19].
Who is a ger or stranger? The Bible uses the term to refer to non-Israelites or non-Jews. One might take it to refer to anyone who comes from a culture or religion or nationality other than one’s own. In a broad sense, an American in Jerusalem can easily see those around them as “strangers” and to be seen as such by them.
What we can take from this week’s Torah reading is that “stranger-ness” is relative, and that we should treat those different from us as we would want to be treated — whether in Pharaoh’s Egypt, Biden’s America or contemporary Jerusalem.
Rabbi David N. Goodman is the rabbi at Nafshenu Community in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.