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Parashat D’varim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

“Do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who will battle for you.” (Deuteronomy 3:22)

D’varim, or Deuteronomy, the fifth and last book of the Torah documents Moses’ final words to the Israelites (comprising five long speeches) in the last year of their desert wandering. They are encamped on the steppes of Moav, waiting to cross the Jordan River and enter Canaan, finally.

The Israelites are the primary power in the region, being both young (the older generation has died), numerous (600,000+ strong), and have God on their side. Being strong is still new and tempting for the Israelites, though. Moses reminds them three times of God’s command to demonstrate restraint in dealing with Esau’s descendants, the Moabites, and the Ammonites (Deut. 2: 4-6, 9, 19). But God does command the Israelites to attack Sihon, king of the Amorites. Moses, surprisingly, disobeys and sues for peace (Deut. 2:24-29). What gives?

Midrash Tanchuma (9th Century collection of rabbinic homilies) explains: some commandments are contingent; only if certain things happen must you perform them (e.g., when your enemy’s ox falls down you must help it up (Ex. 23:4). But peace is different. God’s command, “Shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” (Ps. 34:15) means not only to establish it in your own place (seek peace), but also to advocate for it in other places (pursue peace). Peace requires deliberate action. So Moses isn’t disobeying God; he’s simply fulfilling the larger moral imperative.

The Israelite’s entry into Canaan is prefaced by calls for restraint and diplomatic forays for peace. The new generation’s test is to learn, “Who is mighty? One who conquers his impulse.” (PIrkei Avot 4:1) It’s a lesson no less applicable today.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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