Moses' Last Stand
Parashat R’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
by Jonathan Roush, Beth Messiah, Montgomery Village, MD
I’ve never really connected with Deuteronomy. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is because so much of it is a repetition of the Law which we’ve already read previously, and so I’ve glossed over it.
However, when revisiting this portion I felt the words leap off the page. I felt a sense of passion in I was reading. At first I couldn’t figure out what was causing it. Then I realized: this is Moses’ last stand.
There he stands in front of the people whom he has led for 40 years. The people he has loved and cared for . . . people he has been furious with . . . people whom he pleaded with God to spare. These people in particular are the ones whom he has witnessed growing up in the desert.
Here they stand on the precipice of the land promised to them long ago, of a brave new world.
Knowing that he won’t be going with them he gives one last discourse entreating the people of Israel to remember their covenant with Hashem; to not become lazy and to turn away from God’s commands.
Knowing that his death is imminent, this is his legacy to the Israelites. Deuteronomy therefore stands as his final address.
This week’s passage opens with a jolting exclamation: the word R’eh, which means “See!” In other translations it says “Behold!” or “Look!” This reminds me of the Shema, “Hear!”—and now we have “See!” or “Look!” The 19th century educational reformer Horace Mann once said that observation was an activity of both eyes and ears, and here we have Moses calling Israel to observe—to hear him as he speaks and to see, or recognize, what he is laying out to them.
See! I set before you (all) this day a blessing and a curse:”
Would that cause your ears to perk up? It certainly would mine. The blessing I like; what’s the deal with the curse?
. . . the blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.” (Deut. 11:26-28)
And what is that blessing?
He will give you rest from all your enemies surrounding you, and you will dwell securely.” (Deut 12: 10b)
This is later bookended in chapter 12:28:
Be careful to obey all these words that I command you, that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God.”
There are consequences for each choice: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks eloquently said that if the Jewish people obey, “then we can do great things. . . . We have been commanded to create a just society that honors human dignity and freedom . . . to create a just, generous, gracious society.” (http://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5772-reeh-the-politics-of-freedom/)
If Israel chooses to disobey the covenant they made with God then the rest and protection from their enemies mentioned in chapter 12 will be removed, leaving them to be subjugated and scattered by their enemies.
So the Jewish people must remember to keep the commandments given to them. For Jews, religious observances are a way of remembering and a way of turning beliefs into actions. It isn’t enough for intellectual assent to say “Yes! I agree.” Moses makes it clear that mere agreement does not satisfy the covenant, but rather that deliberate and thoughtful obedience is the only proof of the recognition of this holy covenant.
Moses was standing in front of the entire community of Israel, yet talking about things that pertain to the behavior of each individual.
Historically, this is unique. Never before had every person in a nation been given such a stark choice. On one hand they are presented with the ultimate freedom, being free individually to choose what they are going to do. But there is a catch!
Theologian Dorothee Sölle observed: “We are afraid of religion because it interprets rather than observes. Religion does not confirm that there are hungry people in the world; it interprets the hungry to be our brethren whom we allowed to starve” (The Inward Road and the Way Back, p. 26).
The portion this week addresses this example specifically:
The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do. (Deut. 14:29)
Each relies on the others to adhere to the commandments of the covenant either to mutual benefit or mutual suffering. This reminds me of the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:
The Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
The answer is yes, I am my brother’s keeper, my sister’s keeper, as are you.
This extends not only to the Jewish people, but to all who claim to follow Yeshua. Each of us has entered into a covenant with God through Yeshua’s example, his life, his death and his resurrection. However, it is not enough to just “understand” this idea. Our future will be shaped by our choices.
Robert Kennedy once said: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” (http://www.rfksafilm.org/html/speeches/unicape.php.)
I would make one change: “in the total of all those acts will be written the history of the people of God.”
Even today, we each have a choice. To act on what we say we believe and to change the world around us, or to not act.
The choice is individually and collectively ours.