Light from the Sidra

Devarim ('Words')

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

Cause and effect

Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai got himself into a heap of trouble last January when he dared to suggest that in the Second Lebanon War the Israel Defence Forces failed because they didn’t ‘raise their eyes to God’ and pray. Relatives of soldiers who died in the conflict were outraged by his remarks, and the Orthodox politician was forced to apologise, saying that his comment had been ‘taken out of context’.

The interior minister was quoted as saying that the IDF victory in the 1967 Six Day War was due to the soldiers putting their faith in God, whereas in the Second Lebanon War the soldiers had trusted in their own abilities. In the Six Day War,’ said MK Yishai, ‘every Jew, and every Jew that went to battle, raised their eyes to the Creator.’ But in the Second Lebanon War, Mr Yishai was quoted as saying, the IDF relied on its own strength.

In 1967, said the Interior Minister, Israel was the weakest army in the Middle East; they had no chance of defeating their better armed foes but they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. At the time of the Second Lebanon War, according to Yishai, Israel was the strongest army in the Middle East but they left Lebanon in defeat. ‘What will save the Jewish people,’ the Interior Minister concluded, ‘is study of the Torah.’

I have no insights into the religious lives of individual IDF soldiers but in the light of the today’s parasha, Mr Yishai might not have been so far short of the mark.

Chapter 3 of Deuteronomy recounts Israel’s defeat of Sihon king of the Amorites and Og the giant king of Moab. Moses reminds Israel of their victories over the Amorites and Moabites to encourage them to trust in their God and to go into the land and wage war against the inhabitants of Canaan. Israel defeated Sihon because ‘YHWH our God gave him before us’ (Dt 2:33, The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes, Everett Fox). The giant Og fell before Israel because ‘YHWH said to me: Do not be afraid of him, for into your hand I give him and all his fighting people . . . And YHWH our God gave into our hand Og king of Bashan as well, and all his fighting people, we struck him until there was not left him any remnant’ (Dt 3:2-3, The Five Books of Moses). The parasha concludes with the rousing command: ‘You are not to be afraid of them, for YHWH your God, he is the one who wages war for you!’ (Dt 3:22, The Five Books of Moses).

Nothing that happens to Israel happens by chance. Every effect has a cause. Obedience to YHWH results in blessing, and victory in warfare. In the haftarah, Israel is ‘a wasteland . . . Fair Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a hut in a cucumber field . . . Had not the LORD of Hosts left us some survivors, we should be like Sodom, another Gomorrah’ (Is 1:7-9, Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures. The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text).

Israel’s lamentable state in Isaiah 1 was no accident. Even though the nation was outwardly devout, even though the priests presenting Yahweh with his prescribed daily offerings, and though the festivals, New Moons and Sabbaths were observed, justice was absent. In Deuteronomy 1:16-17 Moses charges Israel’s judges to ‘Hear out your fellow men, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgement: hear out low and high alike (Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures).

In Isaiah 1, however, Israel was desolate because she had not devoted herself to justice by upheld the rights of the orphan or defended the cause of the widow (v17). Israel’s condition was a result of cause and effect.

Shabbat this week falls on the ninth day of the month of Av, the annual day of mourning for the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, many of which occurred on the 9th Av. Ta’anit 4:6 in The Mishnah explains: ‘Five misfortunes befell our fathers . . . on the ninth of Av . . .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.’

How, we should ask, do the tragedies of Tisha B’Av fit into the Torah’s teaching of cause and effect? What did Israel do to deserve such disasters? Do those judgements indicate God has abandoned his people? Is there hope for Israel?

It is interesting that most of the haftarot linked to Deuteronomy are from the second section of the book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66 of Isaiah are prophecies addressed to a generation in exile, a generation experiencing the effects of Israel’s rebellion. In those final 27 chapters, the prophet sets forth in graphic detail Israel’s future hope and redemption. Astonishingly, according to Isaiah, Israel’s redemption will not result from Israel’s study of Torah. Israel’s redemption will not be self-caused. The Jewish people will be redeemed because they have a God who had the power to turn them – even if their sins are like crimson – snow white.

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