Redemption Redux: Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29-33)

Sep 15, 2017 | Judaism

Deuteronomy 29:3but the LORD hath not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.
This day takes place when the Israelites are on the verge of entering the land of Israel. It is also the day on which Moses transfers the responsibility of leadership to Joshua; military leadership, often identified with blind obedience, is about to become primary rather than political leadership. Why, then, is such a time chosen for the Israelites to obtain “a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear”?
Why, at this point in their history, are the Israelites about to acquire the tools of empathetic understanding, the ability to see into and grasp the heart of another? Why, at this point, are the Israelites about to acquire “eyes to see,” the ability to make distinctions and acquire objective consciousness of what is before their eyes? Most importantly, why, at this point, are they about to acquire the ability to listen – to really listen – in such a way as to raise empathetic re-enactment and objective consciousness to a whole new level of comprehension?
Why, on this day, does God establish the Israelites as a people, as a nation? Have they not been a nation all through their travails in Egypt and their years in the desert? Why on this day does the God – who has been the God of their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – become a God for all of Israel?
Part of the explanation is that on the voyage from there to here, they have learned to abstain from idols and reification, for their God is, and shall remain, a “living God,” a God who grows and develops along with and through His people.  The people will be truly free from the shackles of slavery because they will put away the politics of resentment, “a root that beareth gall and wormwood,” (29:17) something that eats away at your innards and results in jealousy, rage and resentment, a deformed behaviour totally absent of a loving heart and an objective mind.
God is revelation. That does not mean there are no secrets. The universe will always possess mysteries yet to be revealed. But what has been revealed becomes our heritage and that of our children that we are obligated to pass on. When we forsake that memory, when we betray that past, it is incumbent that it be recovered, that the Israelites “shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and hearken to His voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul.” (30:2) The people shall be saved by once again learning to listen. And to learn to hear once again, they must bring to the table not only “eyes to see,” but a loving and empathetic heart.
Only then will the enslavement in which the individual finds himself and the nation finds itself be escaped, will the gates of the prison in which the individual and the nation have encased themselves be opened, and will they all once again be open to revelation and hearing the words of the Lord. For redemption follows revelation and is preceded by return. That is what it means to have a circumcised heart, a heart from which rage, resentment and revenge are excised so that one and one’s seed can live “to love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul” (30:6)
The answer will not be found in heaven, in an imagined utopia, in another world.

It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ (30:12)

Nor will the answer be found in grass that looks greener on the other side. Return will not be a message from abroad, a new belief held by others that one may feel impelled to adopt to give meaning to life.

Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ (30:13)

Rather, the answer is near at hand, in your own heart, in your own mind and in your own ears if you but open them to hear.

But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. (30:14)

If one listens, then the choice becomes clear. And there is a choice. There is freedom. It is a choice between the death of an imprisoned self, an enslaved soul, a heart brimming with rage and resentment, and a life of openness, of discovery, of empathy, comprehension and, most of all, of listening.

I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore, choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed. (30:19)

To choose life is to choose to listen, to hear what can be revealed, and to follow the lead of what one hears instead of the results of anger and resentment. That is what it means to live in a land of milk and honey. That is what it means to live the life of a nation which listens to its God. That is what it means to work to ensure that the blood of the innocent not stain one’s nation. That is what it means to do what is right.
Do NOT oppress the poor and the needy. Thou shalt not pervert justice. Make sure that there is enough and sufficient for all to partake. Under the conditions of justice only will one be able to possess the land. One may conquer the land with the right combination of strength and courage. But one may not possess it unless it is ruled with justice. But conquer one must just as one conquers and defeats and exiles the anger and resentment in one’s own heart. For there is the enemy, whether within or without. The enemy is rage and resentment. The aim is jealousy and exclusive possessiveness.
In opting for a military solution and a military means, one does not opt for blind obedience, but for a choice of life over death, justice over injustice, sensitivity to the Other rather than the egotistical love of oneself. So how can God become enraged? How can God desire revenge if the people forget the covenant they made with their God? Because rage and resentment is the natural response to betrayal. But God does not answer any longer by being the hand that punishes the people for their betrayal, but by hiding in shame at the evil wrought.
Tomorrow evening is slichot when Jews unite in song to sing the praises of the Lord. Because they have been closest to the recent experience of slavery, no peoples have shown a greater ability to unite in song. For only in making music together are people able to express their freedom in words and hear others at the same time. Only in song do we say and hear, see and understand, simultaneously.
To be children of faith is to be children who live in hope, listen to the still lone voice among the chorus of voices, put away feelings or revenge and revulsion, and who hide away resentment and recrimination, which undermine and destroy the will to victory – not victory over the other, but victory over any evil inclinations that will make victory over another a worthless prize. For such a true victory must be guided by the light of revelation, the light of a living God rather than one dedicated to death and destruction, one driven by the venom of vengeance.
Let us have a God who gathers all anger, all rage, all jealousy, all resentment into His own heart that they may be taken and hidden from us. Then why does the Torah read:

Sing aloud, O ye nations, of His people; for He doth avenge the blood of His servants, and doth render vengeance to His adversaries, and doth make expiation for the land of His people. (32:43)

Because vengeance is the Lord’s, not properly assigned to humans. History will judge evil. We can only pursue the good even if we sometimes have to resort to the use of the might of arms. But in so doing, it is even more important to preserve life, to preserve choice, to choose life even in victory. And to choose life is to choose forgiveness, to choose redemption instead of destruction.
To choose life is NOT to choose everlasting life. Moses dies. From dust we all arose and to dust we all shall return. Only God is everlasting. Only the spirit which reveals itself over time is eternal. Not in the sense of being an idol, reified forever, but in the sense of remaining an ever-present presence of promise and a future of freedom rather than the repetition of a period of slavery.

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