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Light from the Sidra

Devarim

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22.Haftarah:Isaiah 1:1-27

Next Monday evening at sunset, one of the most solemn days in the Jewish calendar begins. Tisha B’Av, the Fast of the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av is a day of mourning in remembrance of the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on 9th Av.

The Mishnah, in tractate Ta’anit 4:6, explains: “Five misfortunes befell our fathers ...On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the Promised Land, the Temple was destroyed the first and second time, Bethar was captured and the city of Jerusalem was ploughed up.”

Tonight, Shabbat Chazon (the “Sabbath of foretelling”), the last Sabbath before Tisha B’Av, begins and the Isaiah 1:1-27 will be read in synagogues as the final of the “three of affliction,” readings. Rabbi Mendel Hirsch correctly points out that Isaiah the prophet did not mourn because the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed; he lamented over the underlying causes of that destruction.

Twentieth century archaeological discoveries cast a good deal of light on the Hebrew Scriptures. In 1963, the biblical scholar Meredith Kline published a landmark commentary on the book of Deuteronomy called The Treaty of the Great King, in which he showed conclusively that the structure of Deuteronomy closely resembles that of ancient Middle Eastern suzerain / vassal covenants that had recently been uncovered.

In almost all cases covenants between suzerains and vassals contained a Preamble in which words are spoken by the suzerain, or great king, in terms intended to inspire awe and fear in the vassal. Like those covenants, Deuteronomy begins “These are the words…” Moses is speaking to Israel as the mouthpiece of Israel’s suzerain, Yahweh.

In the ancient covenants, the Preamble is followed by a Historical Prologue, which surveys the previous history of the relationship between the suzerain and vassal. Deuteronomy 1:9 – 4:43 is a review of the history of the relationship between Yahweh and Israel from the time of Abraham to their present position on the plains of Moab.

The Historical Prologue was followed by the largest section, a list of stipulations which spelled out in detail the obligations of both parties. The stipulations of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel run from Deuteronomy 4:44 to 26:19, and consist of an exposition of the Ten Commandments (which is why the book Devarim – “Words” – is called Deuteronomy in English Bibles: “The Law Repeated”).

Sanctions are then listed: blessings for obedience to the covenant and curses for disobedience. A list of Sanctions is found in Deuteronomy 27:1 to 29:1.

There follows in most ancient covenants a Statement of Display in which an oath is inscribed on a tablet as a tangible display of the covenant. A Statement of Display is found in Deuteronomy 27:1-4. When the Israelites cross the Jordan river, they are to erect a series of large stones, coat them with plaster and write on them the words of the covenant as reminder of their obligations to their God.

An Oath of Allegiance was taken by the vassal. This feature is found in Deuteronomy 29:2 - 30:20.

A Witness Clause called on the gods the bear witness to the treaty. An ancient suzerain treaty between Mursilis of Hatti and Duppi-Tessub of Amurru calls on “the mountains, the rivers, the springs, the Great Sea, heaven and earth, the winds [and] the clouds” to be “witnesses to this treaty and this oath.” In Deuteronomy 31:1 – 32:47, there are three witnesses to the “treaty of the great King”: the Torah, the song composed by Moses and Joshua, and heaven and earth.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaks of the Jews making a covenant with God. No one ever made a covenant with God. No one can strike a deal with Yahweh. Covenants are always established on his initiative. Isaiah, a prophet who was keenly aware of that the people of his day had broken the covenant, sees Israel’s misery in terms of Israel’s unfaithfulness:

“Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers, children that deal corruptly; they have forsaken the LORD, they have contemned the Holy One of Israel, they are turned away backward. On what part will ye yet be stricken, seeing ye stray away more and more? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint; from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and festering sores: they have not been pressed, neither bound up, neither mollified with oil. Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by floods. And the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city” (Isaiah 1:4-8, JPS Translation)

 

Tisha B’Av is the result of Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant. But all is not lost. Israel’s restoration will not depend on her efforts. God promises:

“I will turn My hand upon thee, and purge away thy dross as with lye, and will take away all thine alloy; and I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning; afterward thou shalt be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness” (Isaiah 1:25-27, JPS Translation).

 

The attempts by the Lubavitch movement to usher in the era of redemption will never work because Israel’s redemption is entirely the work of her God. To attempt to purge away Israel’s dross with charitable deeds is no better than attempting to pull yourself off the ground by your own shoe laces. Israel’s hope lies in repenting of self effort and looking to the God of their salvation who redeems with perfect justice and true righteousness.


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