Parashat D'varim

From Reaction to Action

Hope exists in the recognition that the world is changeable.

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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

God decided 40 years before the D'varim narrative that, with few exceptions, former Israelite slaves would not enter the Promised Land. It would be a land to be inhabited only by their descendants. This decision came out of an unfortunate incident involving spies, giants, and grasshoppers. There is a mere handful of Israelites who have known slavery that will enter Canaan. It is this generational passing that opens of the book of Deuteronomy. 

Poised to enter and conquer the land, Moses gives a long speech to the next generation. This new generation of Israelites is reminded of the history they carry with them. It is a history of battle. Of all the events that occurred during the 40 years of wandering in the desert, it is the battles that Moses chooses to retell here.

It is a list of the nations that were kind to us, and those that were hostile, those that offered us safe passage, and those who were violent. It is these stories of how nations treated us that are the foundation for how we are meant to treat them in return. They are stories of reaction.

The Moabites were good to us, so we must be kind to them (Deuteronomy 2:9). The Bashanites, however, were not good to us, so we are to take their land as an inheritance (Deuteronomy 3:3). How they treated us sets the precedent for how we are to react to them. This paradigm of acting out the behavior of others back onto them is an old one, and one we are quite familiar with.

Two Perspectives

This reactivity based on how other nations treated us is akin to holding children accountable for the sins of their parents. By enacting reciprocity on the nations of Canaan, Moses is seeking to play back the actions of the parents' generation onto the children of that nation. In Moses' speech, the conviction with which he delivers this idea is striking, and one that is later overturned by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 18:20).

Taking into account the experiences of slavery and the outlook that brings on the future, we can identify with Moses' fervor. At the same time, we identify with Ezekiel who advocates limiting punishment to those who have wrought it. 

For Moses, the urge to act on the memory of the past is dominant. As survivors of centuries of persecution, we know this feeling well. After how they treated us, why should we be nice to them? This is a question Jews can ask about many groups.

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Sarah Margles

Sarah Margles was an Education Officer at American Jewish World Service. She earned her Masters Degree in Jewish Education at the Hebrew University and completed a Certificate of Advanced Jewish Study at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.