In the parashah D’varim the Israelites are admonished not to provoke the children of Esau, Ammon or Moab on their way to their homeland. In that connection, the Torah digresses into complicated pre-histories—of the territories in question and of obscure nations who previously inhabited them.
Regarding the Moabites it says in Deuteronomy Chapter 2:
10The Emim dwelt therein in times past, a people great, and many, and tall, as the Anakim;
11Which also were considered Repha’im [“giants”], as the Anakim; but the Moabites called them Emim.
Then, when telling about the land of Seir or Edom it says:
12The Ḥorim also dwelt in Seir previously; but the children of Esau succeeded them, when they had destroyed them from before them, and dwelt in their stead; as Israel did unto the land of his possession, which the Lord gave unto them.
Similarly, with respect to the land of Ammon:
20That also was considered a land of Repha’im: Repha’im dwelt therein in old time; and the Ammonites call them Zamzummim;
21A people great, and numerous, and tall, as the Anakims; but the Lord destroyed them before them; and they succeeded them, and dwelt in their stead:
22 As he did to the children of Esau, who dwelt in Seir, when he destroyed the Ḥorim from before them; and they succeeded them, and dwelt in their stead even unto this day:
23And the Avim which dwelt in Ḥazerim, even unto Gazah, the Caphtorim, who came forth out of Caphtor, destroyed them, and dwelt in their stead.
The commentators were divided about why the Torah chose to include all this arcane trivia about ethnic groups that had already disappeared from history and have no direct bearing on the the history of Israel, which is the Torah’s normal concern.
Most of the traditional interpreters read these passages in connection with the competing claims of Israel and the other nations over those territories.
Much of their discussion focuses on the Repha’im, who made a previous appearance in B’reshit (ch. 15), in the context of the B'rit bein ha-Betarim, the “Covenant between the Pieces” where they were included in the list of nations whose lands were promised to Abraham’s descendants. That pledge seems to contradict what it says here: that the Israelites are advised to keep away from Ammon and Moab — who presently have possession of the Rephai’im’s former domains — and we are to make no claims on their land.
Rashi resolves these apparent inconsistencies by proposing an interpretation that contains an implied reassurance to Israel: He says that all those conquests and displacements have altered the political status of those places, and therefore the Repha’im and other nations as they exist in his time are not the same ones whose lands had been promised to Abraham. The territories of Ammon and Moab can therefore legitimately be left in the hands of their current inhabitants without implying that the promise to Abraham has been annulled or diluted.
Other authorities—including Ramban, Abravanel and Malbim — took issue with Rashi, maintaining that his explanation had no convincing basis in the actual wording of the Torah. Some argued that in fact the children of Esau and Lot (that is: Ammon and Moab) were included in God’s original promise to Abraham when he was told: “To your descendants I give this land”; and that Moses here is explaining that our “cousins”’ right to their territory should therefore be respected as part of that original divine mandate to Abraham’s descendants.
In the context of the book of D’varim, which describes Moses’s instructions to the people on the threshold of their entry to the promise land, this detail could also serve as a morale-booster: If those heathen peoples were allowed to retain their claims on their territories by virtue of their link to the covenant with Abraham — even though their possession was preceded by that of great and powerful nations — then the children of Israel are surely entitled to feel confident that they will also be successful in inheriting their land in spite of the apparent military advantage enjoyed by its current inhabitants.
It would indeed be nice to think that Moses was trying to boost morale and offer reassurance to his flock. Unfortunately, as we shall be seeing in the coming weeks, this is not the dominant mood of his discourses in the book of D’varim.
He is much more concerned with rousing the people out of their complacency in the wilderness, where they have been living under the direct guidance of God and Moses; and with making sure that the routines of daily life in a normal society will not blunt their commitment to the ideals commanded by the Torah.
I am therefore inclined to favour the reading proposed by Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a cantankerous Israeli thinker whose tirades against the moral lapses of his society very often resonate with those of his biblical namesake. He argues that the real reason why the Torah provides so much superfluous detail about forgotten foreign nations — how each one vanquished another and was subsequently overthrown by yet another -— is precisely in order to remind us that, from the standpoint of what is conventionally regarded as observable “history,” there is no essential difference between Israel and the other nations of the earth. The cycles of political triumphs, military conquests and eventual defeats that Israel experienced over the ages — were no different from those that were experienced by the Repha’im, the Emim, the Ḥorim, the Zamzumim, the Avim and those other undistinguished Near Eastern tribes. They conform to Voltaire’s well-known definition of history as: “a collection of crimes, follies, and misfortunes among which we have now and then met with a few virtues, and some happy times.”
“If Israel is special,” writes Prof. Leibowitz, “it is not because of its having conquered the land or having inherited it or having taken the place of other nations, but because of the duties imposed upon it in this land : in the obligations which it was given and which were not given to other nations, for whom, too, God displaced other nations, so that they might inherit their lands.”
Israel’s right to the land and to its holy city is not founded on its military, economic or technological supremacy. Rather, it is made conditional upon fulfilling the duties and obligations to which we are committed under the covenant that defines our mission as a people.
What are those duties and obligations that define Israel’s right to inherit the its land?
As the prophet Isaiah rages in today’s hafṭarah (ch. 1), what is of primary importance is not so much how we observe kashrut, shabbat, holy days or prayer.
On the contrary, God cries out:
11To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?
13... incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies...
14Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.
15...when you make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.
What is really crucial is the establishment of justice, of maintaining a society that deals compassionately with its most vulnerable segments:
17Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
What sealed Jerusalem’s doom was the corruption of its leaders:
23Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves: every one loves gifts, and follows after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither does the cause of the widow come unto them.
A society that does not aspire to these basic ethical standards has no more guarantee of durability than those ancient states that rose and faded into oblivion.
Indeed, in God’s original covenant with Abraham, it was foretold that his descendents would return from their exile only in the fourth generation “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” The implication is that the Almighty cannot displace even a heathen nation until they have brought the defeat upon themselves through their iniquity. Although the omniscient God knew perfectly well that this would eventually happen, that could not justify the removal of the Amorites and Canaanites — even for the sake of his beloved Abraham — until they had corrupted themselves enough to deserve removal from the land. As the prophet tells us in today’s hafṭarah, the same principle applies to the nation of Israel itself.
Unfortunately, Isaiah’s distressing assessment of his own society sounds jarringly like our own reality, whether in Israel or in North America. Some of us can still recall, as recently as 1987, how Sen. Gary Hart, a promising contender for the American presidency had to withdraw his candidacy because he was involved in an extra-marital affair. Six years later, when Bibi Netanyahu confessed to a similar indiscretion, that fact did not have any visible effect on his political career. The vices of su—bsequent officeholders no longer even succeed in raising an indignant eyebrow.
And sad to say, those sleazy politicians can often count on the endorsement (or at least the silence) of “religious” leaders in return for support for their institutions or partisan causes. Rabbis and politicians are likely to be rubbing shoulders in Israeli prisons where they serving sentences for embezzlement, accepting bribes, welfare fraud money laundering and other assorted mitzvot.
All of this sounds disturbingly similar to the situation that was decried in our hafṭarah, of a community that was infected with corruption and with indifference to the suffering of the most vulnerable segments of their society: “Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves: everyone loves gifts, and follows after rewards.”
As citizens of democratic states we have both the ability and the responsibility to do our parts in correcting these moral blemishes. As committed Jews, we are equally obligated to putting our own house in order and to holding our leaders to standards of uprightness. Tonight, on Tish’ah beAv, as we listen to Eikhah and the Kinnnot, we will be reminded of the horrible price that was paid when the prophets’ admonitions were not taken to heart.
If we content ourselves with being no better than any other nation, then our destiny might well end up the same as that of the Repha’im, the Emim, the Ḥorim, the Zamzumim or the Avim.”
At this point, we may be longing for those messages of reassurance that Rashi and Ramban were able to extract from the Torah text.
There is in fact something in that spirit that may be found in the words with which we conclude reading the book of Lamentations (5:21), that we sang just now as we placed the Torah in the ark:
הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם.
21 Make us return to you, O Lord, and we shall return; renew our days as of old.
Even with all the gloom that seems to dominate our moral horizons these days, we are enjoined not to despair. With a little help from the Ḳadosh Barukh Hu, we can be transformed, and help transform this dismal-looking world into one that is worthy of our hopes for moral renewal.
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*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, July 21, 2018.