The book of Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ last discourse to the Israelites as they are assembled across the Jordan River from the land they are to possess. In large part, it recapitulates the content of earlier books of the Torah, but there are differences. For example, in this opening section, Moses reminds the people how he set chieftains over groups of 1000, and 100, and 50, and 10. However, in the book of Exodus when this first appears, it is Moses’ father-in-law Yitro who impresses the idea on him. Moses also reminds the people that they declined to enter the Land of Israel despite the favorable report of the spies; in the book of Numbers only two of the 12 spies deliver favorable reports.
There are other curiosities in the text. After the introduction that summarizes the route they took to arrive at the point from which they will cross the Jordan, Moses begins his discourse. The first thing he says is not some wise teaching or fundamental commandment; rather, Moses relates God’s words, “You have stayed at this mountain long enough.” (Deuteronomy 1:6) Rather than remind the Israelites of the great teachings of Torah (reminders do form much of the content of Deuteronomy), or even of the Revelation at Sinai that bound the people to a national covenant with God, Moses begins by reminding the people that God had sent them on their way.
The next section describes the previously mentioned setting of wise leaders above groups of the people. Moses charges those leaders: “Listen [to disputes] among your brethren and judge them righteously … Do not show favor in judgment; hear the small and the great alike. Do not fear any man, for justice belongs to God.” (Deuteronomy 1:16-17) Midrash Sifrei Deuteronomy (16:1) explains that the judges are to be deliberate and consider each case carefully, even if a similar case has already come before the judge. As with other sections of Torah regarding the system of justice we are to establish, the instructions here emphasize impartiality and thoroughness in all aspects of judgment.
We can learn something interesting from the juxtaposition of these two accounts. In Exodus, following our liberation from slavery, we stood at Sinai to receive all of God’s instructions. Here, however, the narrative begins with leaving Sinai. The message is that we cannot remain in the ivory tower of learning and study (crucial though they may be to Jewish life). Rather, we must go forth from the academy to use what we have learned to bring justice to the world. The establishment of the covenant between Israel and God is only the beginning of our journey. That covenant only has meaning when we live up to the obligations it imposes on us.
When we observe injustice, we are obligated to speak up and come to the defense of the one who has been wronged. We must be impartial; it must not matter what the victim’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation are. It must not matter what the victim’s political persuasion is, or whether or not they agree with us. All that matters is that the person has been wronged, and we are obligated to rectify that wrong. Only then will we be able to enter the Promised Land that is a just and peaceful world.
Shabbat shalom. PJC
Rabbi Howie Stein is the rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.