Parashat Devarim - July 29th

דברים Devarim

Deuteronomy 1.1—3.22

“’Command the people’ (Deuteronomy 2.4). God said to him, ‘I do not command only you, but you must give this command to your children.’ God said to Moses, ‘You must command the heads of the generations, those who lead honorably, and command the people.’ R. Samuel bar Nahman said, ‘When Esau stood with Jacob, Esau said to him, “Jacob my brother, let us walk together in this world as one.” Jacob said to him (Genesis 33), “Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant” (Genesis 33.14). What does it mean, “Let him pass”? Grasp your world first. And what is meant by “I will lead on slowly, according to the pace” etc.? He replied to him, “Until now I have to find a place for Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, of whom it is written, ‘youths without blemish’ (Daniel 1.4).” Alternatively, he said to him, “Until now I have to find a place for the Messiah, about whom it is written (Isaiah 9.6), ‘For unto us a child is born.’” (Midrash Deut (Vilna), Parashat Dvarim A)

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Haftarah: Isaiah 1.1-27

Isaiah 1.21-31 (T)

Sanh. 98a: “R. Simlai said in the name of R. Eleazar, son of R. Simeon: ‘The son of David will not come until all judges and officers are gone from Israel, as it is written, “I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first.”’ (Isaiah 1.25-26).”

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This parashah, Dvarim, is also called “parashat Hazon” from the first word of the reading from the prophets.

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord” (Isaiah 1.18). God is inviting his people for a talk. And what is the subject that God wants to speak on with his people? If God invites his people for a talk, he must have something very important to speak with them about. The Prophet Isaiah declares here in the name of God that the subject of conversation at this meeting will be sin, a very practical and important subject, because sin has a very great influence and effect on the relationship between man and his Creator. In order to create a normal, healthy relationship between God and man, it is of prime necessity to deal with the question of sin.

“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1.18).

When you stand before God, sin—your sin—will be your first and principal problem. This was Isaiah’s problem, as he himself tells us in chapter six of his book: “In the year that King Uzziah died,” he says, “I saw the Lord. . . .” Isaiah saw the Lord (in vision, of course) and when this happened, there burst a bitter cry from his lips, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips!” (Isaiah 6.5).

We do not know what Isaiah thought of himself before this en­counter with the Holy One of Israel. It is likely that he thought of himself as much better and holier than the people he was called to speak to and to reprimand. Surely he was right in this, but in the situation he was in at the moment—when he saw the Lord in his glory and holiness—he felt miserable, lost, and from the depth of his heart he cries, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips!”

Such was the experience of Isaiah, but let us return to our text: “Though your sins are like scarlet”—the color of blood, symbol of the most ter­rible sin. What happened here? Did the people truly sin before God in such a terrible way? Had they entirely abandoned the worship of God, his law, his commandments?

Actually, they had not abandoned their religious observances at all. On the contrary, they did marvelously well as far as external obser­vation of religious practices was concerned. Sacrifices? “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats.” Attendance at the Temple? “When you come to appear before me, who requires of you this trampling of my courts?” Sabbath? Feast days? “Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1.11, 12, 14-15).

And so they kept all the externals of divine worship, yet without worshipping God in spirit and in truth, without knowing God.

In this area, of knowing God, according to the prophet Isaiah, the people and their leaders have shown a lesser understanding than that of the ox and the ass. “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand.” (Isaiah 1.3).

In this there is no difference between the orthodox Jew and the atheist. The atheist would say: “The crib is a creation of nature; wherever there is an ass, there must be also a crib; it is a work of nature.” The religious person says: “No, no, God is the one who prepared the crib, God is the real owner of the ox.” He acknowledges in theory the right of God’s owner­ship and his supremacy, but very often he ignores God in his practical life. “Israel does not know, my people does not understand.”

If we stand before God and begin to feel the sin that is in us—feel guilty, condemned, hopeless, lost—there is always God’s stretched out arm of grace, the arm of forgiveness: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”

On the one hand, the very fact of our appearing in court is, as it were, our recognition of his right to judge us. On the other hand, we must acknowledge our sinfulness and turn to God. These are the things that move his heart—the heart of a merciful, loving father—to show mercy, to forgive, to justify, to set free.

It was thus with Isaiah himself after he had acknowledged his uncleanness: “Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’” (Isaiah 6.6-7).

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Shabbat Shalom!

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