Circumcision, Zionism and a Global Legal Order

Circumcision, Zionism and a Global Legal Order

by

Howard Adelman

We are into anniversaries – the 50th year since the Argentinian Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevara, was captured in Bolivia and the signing of The Outer Space Treaty bringing modern law of the open seas into space law. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, but also the Bolshevik Revolution and the defeat of German troops by the British in the Battle of Broodseinde signally the eventual defeat of Germany. It is the 150th anniversary since Charles Darwin published his theory of natural selection in On the Origin of the Species, and since Canada was created as a country. Finally, this is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing or gluing his 95 theses on a church door signalling the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

But what did we study in our Torah study group last week – God’s covenant of the promised land with Abraham and the circumcision of Abraham and his entourage as a sign of that covenant. (Genesis 17: 1-14, the ending of the parsha, Lech-Lecha – see below) This week – Vayeira, Genesis 18-22 – begins with the controversy over who were the three individuals who appeared at the opening of Abraham’s tent and asked about the well-being of his wife, Sarah.

Strangely, all of the above events are connected. Let me begin with the most absurd claim, that the ritual of Jewish circumcision had any relationship to the above momentous historical events. In the Torah, circumcision is not recorded as an act of health to reduce the chances of venereal diseases and of AIDS and, in modern parlance, to ensure the survival of the fittest. Although Talmudists depict the act as removing a defect and the ritual an act of human intervention to advance the cause of perfection, circumcision is much more significant as a sign.

From the ancient Hellenistic-Roman world, when circumcision was regarded as a barbarous act, to the modern world when circumcision is seen to conflict with a reverence for “the natural” and inflicting pain on a child regarded as an abuse of rights, circumcision was connected with misanthropy. In response, circumcision has been defended by Jews as an improvement over a natural defect that, without correction, led to disease and sometimes even death. The link to a deficiency is reinforced when Moses referred to his stutter as “having uncircumcised lips.”

However, Ezekiel viewed circumcision, not as a minor flaw to correct an imperfection, but as a major transformation. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26) He was not talking about cleaning out the coronary arteries, performing a valve replacement or even using surgery to correct a thickening of the walls of the heart in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, but a transplant operation wherein one obtains a new heart. Circumcision is a sign of a covenant between God and his people that will give them a new spirit. Circumcision is not, as it was for Philo, the excision of an unwanted and even evil presence, literally a catharsis, an excision of desire and vanity, but a process of being reborn with a new name and a new mission. Possessing a foreskin is not a mark of Cain; it is not a defilement. However, its removal is an opportunity.

Christians took the revolutionary transformational rather than reform version of circumcision a step further. One did not even have to imprint the revolution in one’s flesh, for faith in Jesus alone would bring about the transformation. One merely needed to surrender oneself to Christ. As Paul said, the “true” Israelites are “not children of the flesh…but the children of the promise.” What does such a debate have to do with the Cuban revolution and with Outer Space as a realm for the whole human race and not just for the powerful? What does it have to do with the Bolshevik Revolution, the British defeat of Germany in WWI and the instantiation of Zionism into international law with the Balfour declaration? More significantly, what does it have to do with Darwin’s theory of natural selection and with Martin Luther?

The Darwinian connection, ironically, is the easiest to answer, though only in a simplified form; natural selection is the scientific inversion of the theological doctrine of divine election. Circumcision certainly has a great deal to do with election and promise. For God promises Abraham, of which circumcision is a sign, two things – that he will be the forefather of many nations and that his direct descendants, the Israelites, will be a nation that will possess the land of Canaan. Christian Zionists, who preceded Jewish Zionists, married the two tracks of the Abraham covenant by viewing their own nation in the Enlightenment world as one of many nations chosen to fulfill the covenant, but that the Jews had a unique role for they had to be restored to their land for the covenant for all nations to be fulfilled. For some Christians, this also meant that all Jews had to be converted to a belief in Christ in order to bring about the Second Coming. For other Christians, these millenarian beliefs were independent and not linked to restorationism.

When I was entering my teens, there was a storefront just north of Bloor Street on Markham Street in the City of Toronto that offered an outreach to Jews. I recall distinctly going into their small office and receiving a nickel (5 cents) if I promised to read the pamphlet they handed me. Much later in my life, I would host a television program for twelve years on a Christian evangelical station which, contrary to widespread belief in the Jewish community, did not expect or push Jewish conversion to Christianity, or even expect that mass Jewish conversion to happen as a precursor to the Second Coming, but instead believed in restorationism, in a resurrected Israel as the precursor to a resurrected Jesus. Further, the term Israel was also detached from its specific association with the Jewish people and linked to a self-definition of one’s own nation as one also descended spiritually from Abraham.

Between these two periods, in 1980 I undertook an investigation of the source of the promise of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1979 to move the Canadian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a promise that turned into a fiasco. My link began with a meeting in early spring of 1979 convened by the Canadian Jewish lobby group to solicit the advice of Irving Abella, Harry Crowe and myself, about whether the Canadian organization advancing the cause of Israel in Canada should act on Prime Minster Begin’s request that Canadian Jews lobby the Canadian government to make such a move. The three of us thought it was a bad idea, very unlikely to happen and likely would result in a terrible backlash.

In the 1979 Canadian election, the Tories adopted such a program and the Jewish lobby was riven with suspicion and divisions over whether the professionals in the Jewish organization had betrayed the board of directors by advancing such an effort even though the board had deliberately not adopted such a program. I knew the executive had not been responsible. But then why did the Tories adopt the platform? When I was in Israel that winter, I heard a bizarre explanation. Before the election, Joe Clark and his wife, Maureen McTeer, in the company of friends, a Jewish couple without a close connection to the organized Jewish community or Zionism, had visited Israel and Jordan. They were feted in Israel. While in Jordan, the king had made them wait for two hours before granting them an audience. Maureen was particularly stirred up by this insult that so contrasted with the way they had been treated in Israel; she pushed Joe to adopt the policy of Canada moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

I thought the Israeli explanation was far-fetched at the very least and ill-fitted my knowledge of the extraordinary norms of hospitality of Arabs in general and of the royal household in Jordan more particularly. In any case, how could such an intemperate fit, itself incredible, result in the Tories adopting the decision? When I returned, I determined to research the issue and publish my findings – which I did. The results of the scholarship had virtually no impact on the widespread belief in the Jewish community that the Tories had been influenced by some of the Jewish community’s professional staff, in spite of an absence of any authorization to lobby for such a move, and by the goal of winning ridings in which Jews were a significant presence.

The truth was both more mundane and far more fascinating. A 5-person Tory policy committee dominated by Christian Zionists and led by Lowell Murray, a policy advisor to Joe Clark, (Murray was named a senator after Joe Clark took power on 4 June 1979) had met prior to the election campaign and adopted as part of the Tory program the promise to move the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem. Thus, the Canadian Conservative policy in 1979 had a kinship with the Balfour declaration and the efforts of David Lloyd George to implement what he had learned in Sunday school.

This interpretation of the significance of Britain’s imminent defeat of Germany, creating political space for the realization of restorationism, was deeply entrenched in British history, not simply in the Christian Zionist writings of the Earl of Shaftesbury, but in the theology of John Calvin versus that of Martin Luther. Both Calvin and Luther were “literalists” opposed to the manifold treatment of the biblical texts via metaphor, allegory (as in preterism, the belief that prophecies were merely allegories for actual historical events that had already taken place) and analogy. Both believed in the necessity of a Jewish mass conversion preceding the Second Coming. However, Marin Luther became enraged by Jewish resistance and became openly and strongly anti-Semitic. Calvin never abandoned his belief in Jewish restoration.

In America, Calvinism became associated with an obsession with God’s chosen people, a national belief in American exceptionalism and the singular mission of the American nation as well as the Protestant ethic and a reverence for individualism. It was also rooted in hermeneutics. John Winthrop in his well-known “City upon a hill” speech in 1630 as the Puritan Governor of Massachusetts described the Puritans in America as persecuted refugees who had inherited a special covenant with God and a special mission in history. This Christian Zionism was also put forth by John Cotton and his disciple, Increase Mather, who became president of Harvard.

When did the Jewish return to Palestine, restorationism, get divorced from the belief in mass Jewish conversion as a prerequisite for the Second Coming, with millenarian hopes? I believe it came about by the creation of what my colleague, Sanford Levinson, depicted as the Constitutional Faith that underpins the American view of the world and their place in it. For unlike Winthrop, who resisted the expansion of civil and political rights and refused to codify the laws governing the colony, the Constitutional Faith emerged as a belief in a civic religion rooted in the rule of law that can be established without any requisite preconditions, least among them, mass conversion of the Jews. It was this civic religion that painted King George III as the anti-Christ and provided the theological foundation for the Revolutionary War even though Cromwell a century earlier had believed in restorationism and had allowed the Jews to once again reside in Britain. Bringing freedom and democracy to the world had been adopted as the American vision.

However, Christian Zionism, globalization and the rights of free passage across the seas and through space had even earlier roots in Hugo Grotius’ On the Law of War and PeaceDe Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres as long as one does not rely on Louise Loomis’ 1949 translation which leaves out most of the Jewish references. Grotius was a seventeenth century Dutch Arminian. He read Hebrew and Jewish exegetes rather than relying on the Latin text of the Bible. He was a follower of the Dutch Reformed theologian, Jacobus Arminus, who grew up immersed in Calvinist theology but, along with his Remonstrant colleagues, emphasized election and the role of grace in freeing men as well as the freedom of the individual to receive or deny that grace. They believed in biblical scriptural interpretation as the mode of determining who can be saved. Grotius as a Remonstrant opposed the Calvinism of the Gomarists.

Grotius was a nationalist who opposed Spanish domination, but a nationalist who believed that nations could live in peace and prosperity if they all abided by a universal law binding all humanity. Hence, the Just Theory of War. He, along with Thomas Goodwin and John Wycliffe, viewed the Jewish restoration to their covenantal land as a sine qua non for the full flowering of international law.

Grotius, along with John Owen and Joseph Mede, Oliver Cromwell and John Milton, were restorationists rather than revolutionaries, and realists rather than millenarists. America, as its national belief system evolved, had a special mission. Under Abraham Lincoln, Americans fought a war for the universal rights of man rather that the particularist rights of slave holders. When Abraham Lincoln met the Canadian, Henry Wentworth Monk, in 1863, they discussed the unique role of each of their nations, one in gestation and the other engaged in a bitter fight between twins.

Lincoln had joked about his Jewish podiatrist who had been the source of his ability to stand without pain on his own two feet and joined with Monk in lauding a new moral order, with Monk stressing the prerequisite condition of restoring Jews to their own land in Palestine which, for Monk, was a precondition for Christ’s second advent. Lincoln, though he admired Monk, signed the Emancipation Proclamation and expressed sympathy for the ideal of restoring the Jews to Palestine, but was never allowed time to implement that dream. In light of the controversies this past week over John Kelly’s remarks on the secessionist, General Robert E. Lee, and the issue of compromise or no compromise with advocates of slavery, Monk took up both positions and impossibly urged compromise on secession, but only if the South agreed to free its slaves and abolish slavery.

Monk advocated a world government based in Jerusalem and globalization rooted in the age of railways and steamships, telegraphs and newspapers. Unlike Hugo Grotius, who died as a result of the injuries and ill heath resulting from his shipwreck, Monk was restored to health in spite of coming close to death in the wreck of his ship off the cost of Massachusetts. He survived for several decades living on his family farm in the Ottawa Valley and promoting not only restoration of the Jews to Palestine, but the creation of an international court to ensure world peace, a vision adopted by the Conservative leader, George Moffat, and eventually developed by the Dutch heirs of Hugo Grotius that led to the founding of the international court in The Hague.

Thus are great international innovations and nationalist visions a by-product of debates over circumcision.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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God’s Coercive Power

God’s Coercive Power: Va-eira Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

by

Howard Adelman

This is not a segment of the Torah about influence, either the influence of ideas or the influence of material attractions, either of which can impel an action. Nor is it a segment about authority, either the authority of expertise or of a foundational document, a type of authority Donald Trump seems to be dedicated to ignoring, nor the authority of an office or position, that which is often called formal authority. God does not say, let my people go because I am the one true God. Nor does he insist they be let go because their rights were being abused. The authority of the Ten Commandments, yet to come, was not invoked, only the coercive power of the ten plagues.

God does not ask for compliance because he is the Lord on High. This parshat is all about power, not any kind of power, but coercive power. Genesis started with the power of God as a creative being. Exodus gets into the dramatic action with a display of coercive power, power that brings about change through physical intimidation.

Last week, God announced that he was Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (Exodus 3:14), a name never heard before nor since attributed to God. That segment ended with verse 6:1:

  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, עַתָּה תִרְאֶה, אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה לְפַרְעֹה:  כִּי בְיָד חֲזָקָה, יְשַׁלְּחֵם, וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה, יְגָרְשֵׁם מֵאַרְצוֹ.  {ס} 1 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Now shalt thou see what I will do to Pharaoh; for by a strong hand shall he let them go, and by a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land.’

Because of God’s strong hand, Pharaoh will be forced to let the Israelites go and then they will only be let go with Pharaoh’s armies hot on their tail. This week’s portion is a tale of two sources of coercion battling, not just for a people, but for their allegiance.

This parshat begins with the first two verses of chapter 6 (my italics):

ב  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה. 2 And God spoke unto Moses, and said unto him: ‘I am the LORD;
ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם. 3 and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name YHWH I made Me not known to them.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God, accepted God as the Almighty, but not one of them ever asked for that might to be really demonstrated. And it could not be. How could one prove one was all-powerful? One could only demonstrate that one was more powerful than another, having greater coercive capacity and able and willing to exercise that power. God, who now has a personal name, YHWH, will display that might, that coercive power. God promises: “I will deliver you from their [Egyptian’s] bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments.” By judgement, God does not mean the edicts of a judge who is the supreme authority in a court of law, but judgment that follows wrath and a display of power. This segment is all about strong hands and outstretched arms.

No longer will obeisance to God be simply a matter of tradition, simply a matter of a habitual response and fealty. It is under the shadow of coercive power that the Israelites will now become God’s people. I will be to you, the Israelites, a God in a very different way, says the Lord. The text makes very clear that this was going to be a very tough task, not because it would be hard to display that mighty power, but because the Israelites had become suspicious, had become cynics, had lost the ability to have faith, to trust. Because of the cruel bondage that they had suffered for years, the people were impatient of spirit” (6:9), מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ. They were in anguish. Further, God Himself had admitted that He had forgotten them, forgotten the Israelites, forgotten the covenant to deliver them to the land of Canaan that He had made with their founding fathers. But now he remembered his covenant. (6:5) God was not exactly the paradigm of reliability, but God in Egypt would prove to be a great transformative power.

Moses was instructed to go to Pharaoh and say, “Let my people go.” But Moses asked querulously, why would the Pharaoh listen to me when I am “of uncircumcised lips” עֲרַל שְׂפָת (6:12 and 6:30). My body may have been transformed through the covenant of circumcision, but not my thoughts, not my words, not the language that springs from my mouth. It is with an outstretched arm and a powerful hand that Moses will be transformed, in good part, to a political leader of a nation that knows and exercises power, from a shepherd of a nation in bondage to a warrior nation with generals in charge, a nation governed by the fundamentals of coercive power – as much as the rule of law to manage that power will be introduced at a later date.

Chapter 7 begins with God reiterating that the Egyptians will learn, not because they respect God, not because they recognize God, but because they will learn to fear God. It is as if God was telling Moses that the only thing the Egyptians understand is force. More importantly, it is through the exercise of that force that the cynical unbelieving and untrusting Israelites will once again come to know and recognize God as their saviour and protector.

The first round is a competition of magicians. When Aaron threw down his rod, it became a serpent. But the magicians in Pharaoh’s court could match that magic act. Thus, Pharaoh was even more disinclined to pay any attention to the words of Moses spoken by his brother Aaron. God had to up the ante and the plagues followed. In the first plague, Aaron lifted his rod and caused the water in the Nile River to turn blood red so that the fish died. But the Egyptian magicians were also able to replicate that act and Pharaoh became even more sceptical of the power behind the threats of Moses and Aaron.

Then the second plague – frogs, swarms of frogs – but once again the magical act was replicated. Nevertheless, this time Pharaoh entreated Moses to ask his God to let up. Pharaoh offered Moses a deal. Let up and I will let the Israelites go. So Moses did let up, withdrawing the frogs from the clothing and the houses, from the courts and from the field, while still letting the streams and rivers team with them. But Pharaoh double-crossed Moses. “(W)hen Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken.” (8:11) At this point, God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart; Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

God then delivered the third plague. gnats or lice or sand flies. And this time, He did so without forewarning the Egyptians. According to scholars, Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir) in the 12th century was the first to notice this 2 then 1 pattern of each cluster of three plagues. Further, in the first cluster, it is the last of the plagues that will be delivered by the hand of Aaron. (Bahya ben Asher, 13th century; Don Isaac Abravanel, 15th century.) In the medieval period, structural analysis had come to the fore.  The Egyptian magicians could not replicate the third plague. The pattern included the agent, the response and the mode of communication of the coming of the plague. We are introduced to intellectual rhythmic patterns overruling those of nature.

Why did Pharaoh not recognize God’s power at that point? To understand that, we have to first understand the clustering of the plagues and their significance. We also have to recall that God was not trying to prove that he was all powerful, that He was Almighty, but only that He was more powerful than all the Egyptian gods. This was the character that God had to establish to go with His name. God for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been Shaddai. For Moses, God was now Ehyeh.

Further, the Egyptians, unlike the Israelites later, were not being punished because they had fallen away from their faith in God. The Egyptians were not being hit with an intifada, with terror attacks, with extreme hunger, with a disease like tuberculosis, with defeat by their enemies or with crop failure, let alone wild beasts that devour their children. (Leviticus 26:14-26) These were acts of magic and, at this point, just unbearable nuisances rather than killers.

There is another distinction between the first six plagues of this segment and the final four. The first six could possibly take place and be explained by extreme climate and ecological changes. They were not cosmological in character like hail, locusts and darkness that came from the heavens above even though the first plague was indirectly a product of heavy rains, the observed consequences were earthly. Water changes to blood when the red clay is swept down the Nile after intense and huge rains in the Upper Nile in Ethiopia killing all the fish in waves of mud. The poisoned rotting fish forced the frogs to leave the river en masse and invade the countryside. Their rotting carcasses in turn introduced swarms of flies. The next three plagues were again consequences of the first three, beginning with the death of cattle from the diseases spread by the flies which in turn produced an economic disaster equivalent to when mad cow disease was diagnosed in western Canada. Finally, humans were affected with boils on their skin.

However, the main pattern was not the clustering, nor the differentiation by agent, nor whether there was forewarning, not whether there was resistance or temporary and partial compliance, nor the naturalistic sequence, but the individual target of each plague, the power of one of or more gods in the Egyptian pantheon. The one God of the Israelites had to prove that he was more powerful than all of the Egyptian gods. The target of turning water into a blood red fluid was Hapi.

Hapi was the Egyptian God of the Nile, a water bearer, a source of change, but in the Egyptian experience, change came with a pattern. Change was not a matter of creating something new. Change was cyclical as illustrated by the flooding of the Nile. The first plague introduced a unique event that disrupted the whole pattern of control of Hapi. The significance can be further developed in reference to the Admonitions of Ipuwer, a hieratic papyrus from the chaotic period in Egypt before 2050 BCE or by others ascribed to the period 1850-1450 BC. The papyrus is located in the Dutch National Museum in Leiden. However, what is important is the reference and not the time of composition or the historical events that may have given rise to this composition, or whether or not the poem provides a proof text of the historicity of the Exodus story.

Ipuwer is a poem of a world turned upside-down when the Lord of All was active in destroying his enemies, the noble gods, each responsible for a different aspect of human experience. It is a period of desecration, of chaos, of disrespect for the law. This is a political ethical treatise akin to Machiavelli’s Prince that insists that the first responsibility of a ruler is to maintain order and not sow disorder, even though disorder may be a requisite to establishing a new order. When two mighty powers fight it out, like two roosters fighting to be head of the pecking order, only one can prevail and order be restored. This is even truer when a God of All fights to suborn lesser gods. This is the tale of the first battle against Hapi when, “the River [Nile] is blood. If one drinks of it, one rejects (it) as human and thirsts for water,” or against Osiris whose bloodstream was the Nile.

God’s second battle is with the Egyptian god, Heket, the wife of the creator of the world, the goddess of childbirth represented as a frog, the symbol of fertility and creation as well as harmony. The frog’s life cycle is characterized by radical transformation in a life form from what appears to be a little fish into a land animal living on the periphery of water and land. In the plagues, that animal is driven from the waters of the Nile into the countryside and once again the whole natural order is disrupted, no longer just the natural order of the seasonal cycle, but the natural order of species transformation. Thus, the issue is not the specific god being undermined – after all, the Egyptian pantheon included about a hundred gods – but the type of order being turned topsy-turvy to demonstrate the power of the One God.

The third plague of lice or sand flies or fleas – from the Hebrew root meaning to dig (under the skin), was the challenge of the One God to the great Egyptian god of the earth, Geb. After the third plague, the One God proved that he could defeat and overturn the order established by the natural cycle of the seasons brought about by water, the god of fertility itself symbolized by the frog, of organic transformation. In the third plague, the One God now was really getting under the skin of the Egyptians and proving that what was taking place was not just a shift in power, but a radical transformation. Khepri, the Egyptian God of creation governing the movement of the Sun and ruling over rebirth, had the head of a fly.

In the fourth plague, the mechanism of the way fertility worked was itself attacked. The fourth plague of “swarms” now made the turmoil and disorder no longer confined to a specific and limited time, but became incessant. In Egypt, Amon-Ra is represented by the head of a beetle, a dung beetle that guarantees that decaying matter with be recycled and provide the mechanism for fertilization. The systematic order of the Egyptian world was being undermined a step at a time.

Hathor was the Egyptian Goddess of Love and Protection usually depicted with the head of a cow. The fifth plague was an attack on Hathor. Hathor personified joy, feminine love and motherhood. In the war of the One God against the many, the very foundations of stability and experienced natural order in the family was itself attacked and overturned. Mothers, young children and babies now became the target of this one all-powerful God filled with wrath.

What is a boil, the sixth plague, the plague of shechiyn? The fight for power was no longer just getting under the skin, but bubbling that skin into enormous balloons. The body is the foundation of material pleasure and satisfaction. With an eruption of boils, you can no longer sleep. Discomfort and pain wracks the body. The plague may even have referred to leprosy and the unremitting burning sensation of that then incurable disease. This was a direct attack on Thoth, the ibis-headed god of medical research, the foundations of Egyptian science.

Next week we will return to the celestial plagues and the plague about killing the first born, but this portion of the text clearly establishes a tale about the mightiest political struggle of all time, the one between the One and the Many, the one most powerful God and the many lesser gods. The Israelites were merely the tokens in this war, the symbols of whether a group of humans would be in bondage to a system in which there were a multitude of sources of power versus one in which power could be traced to a single source. It is a struggle between established and repetitive order to a new transformational order governed by God named Ehyeh, one who transforms “I am that I am” into “I shall be he who I shall be.” It is a war to make orderly change rather than orderly stability the ruling ethos of the world.

From Generation to Generation Vayeilech Deuteronomy 31:1-30

From Generation to Generation
Vayeilech Deuteronomy 31:1-30

by

Howard Adelman

This section is read between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Most commentators focus on the need for repentance, the need for confessing one’s sins to God and one’s fellow humans, and to ask for forgiveness of those sins. But the text is largely about passing the torch from the generation of nomads and desert dwellers to those who now would become settlers in the promised land. Nine and one-half of the twelve tribes will cross the Jordan led by Joshua and settle in that land. Moses will not go with them. It is not only because he was very old, but because God said he could not. He was not permitted. His mandate had been taken away and transferred to Joshua.

But who is the greatest sinner by far? And He does not have to confess. For it is a promise that He has also already demonstrated that He can exercise on the east bank of the Jordan River. He now promises that He will do the same after crossing the river. Just as He destroyed the Amorite kings, Og and Sihon and the members of their tribes – men, women and children – so will he do after the Israelites cross the river.

גיְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ ה֣וּא | עֹבֵ֣ר לְפָנֶ֗יךָ הֽוּא־יַשְׁמִ֞יד אֶת־הַגּוֹיִ֥ם הָאֵ֛לֶּה מִלְּפָנֶ֖יךָ וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֑ם יְהוֹשֻׁ֗עַ ה֚וּא עֹבֵ֣ר לְפָנֶ֔יךָ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהֹוָֽה:
The Lord, your God He will cross before you; He will destroy these nations from before you so that you will possess them. Joshua he will cross before you, as the Lord has spoken.

God promises to wipe out a nation, to kill every man, woman and child still living on the land. God promises to commit the ultimate in ethnic cleansing, genocide. Then the spoils will be divided among the nine-and-a-half other tribes. In accordance with God’s command, the Israelites not only will carry out these acts but they will not be “dismayed” in doing so – וְלֹ֥א תֵחָֽת. However, in spite of how God acts on behalf of the Israelites, in spite of His keeping His promise not to forsake Him, they will forsake God. God Himself makes this prophecy. God will keep His covenant with His people. But they will fail to reciprocate.

This nation will rise up and stray after the deities of the nations of the land, into which they are coming. And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant which I made with them. (31:16)

How will God respond? He already knows and so prophesizes. God will then abandon his people. God will hide His face from them.

My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, ‘Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us? (31:17)

What sin would they commit? They would become idolaters, self-evidently far worse than being a géenocidaire. It is the people’s duty to obey and participate in genocide. Is God punishing his people because they care more about public opinion than God’s will? Have they lost the faith and the courage to carry out His commandments? That is one possibility. I suggest another. God perhaps hides his face because he was ashamed of what He did. He is even more ashamed that he cannot own up to such a horrible deed. So he takes the irresponsible option and blames the other, his own chosen people.

Yom Kippur is not only the time to own up to one’s own sins, but a time of waiting, waiting each year to see if God will confess His own transgressions. That time will not come as long as biblical commentators ignore these damning sections of the text. Rashi, for example, says not a word about the genocide. He elaborates on the meaning of words but cannot even spend a bit of time on a horrendous deed. Rabbis have generally followed that lead and pivot to other much less troubling sections of the Torah.