Friday, August 5, 2011

Parashat D'varim, Deut. 1:1-3:22

Today we begin to read the last book of the Chumash, Deuteronomy. Perhaps feeling his end is near, too, Moshe starts this last book – D’varim, in Hebrew (meaning “the things,” or “the statements”) – with a summary of all that has happened in the past forty years: What was done, where it took place, what was achieved, and, in particular, what is still in need of repair.

At first glance, this portion does not seem to reveal much new material, in particular to those who carefully followed the portions thus far. Accordingly, most commentators tend to virtually ignore it, emphasizing, instead, the fact that it is read on the Shabbat before Tisha’h Be’Av (the Ninth Day of the month of Av, the “saddest day in the Jewish calendar,” in which both Temples were destroyed).  From there those commentators proceed to discuss the meaning of that special day and its implications, instead of dwelling further on the portion itself.

But the portion – put under a magnifying glass, admittedly – does provide some gems. I want to focus on two today – one from the portion itself, and one from its Haftara.

The Legal Systems and Rewriting History

As you may recall, back in the day (Exodus, 18:14) we read on Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, who came to visit him and was struck by the fact that Moshe alone deals with all legal matters, small and large.

“And Moshe’s father-in-law saw all that Moshe is doing to the people, and he said: What is that which you do to the people; why would you sit all alone and all the people stand upon you from morning to night … [And Yitro said:] Not good is that thing that you do; you shall wither away, and so would the people, as this task is too heavy for you – you may not do it on your own. Now listen to my advice – I shall advise you and God shall be with you…”

Yitro then provided his famous “advice” to Moshe – to nominate lower courts, intermediate courts, even supreme courts, and only then to bring the most serious challenges personally to him, to Moshe (see last portion and the story of Zlophchad’s daughters as an example). And Moshe complies: “And Moshe heeded his father-in-law’s advice, and Moshe has done all that [Yitro] said.” (Ex. 18:24)   

I have quoted in length from Yitro’s speech, as this story – the creation of a multi-layered, fully functioning legal system – takes center stage in Moshe’s summary in today’s portion. Yet, astonishingly, both Yitro’s name and contribution are completely missing from the story, as if he had nothing to do with the creation of this judiciary system. Instead, the summary goes something along the following lines: Moshe tells, in the first person, about his experience with the people. You, he explains, became too many, “as many as the stars in the sky.” (Deut. 1:10) I (Moshe) therefore couldn’t handle all of you anymore, and so I have asked that you nominate political leaders to each of your tribe – a move you have all agreed too; I have also (claims Moshe) devised this hierarchical systems of judges – from the smallest matters to the largest – and have asked them to resolve all cases and controversies between you.

So, copyright on this McKinsey-scale advice aside, why did Moshe completely ignore the (major) role played by his father-in-law in this story? The simple answer – this is just another example of re-writing history after the fact (a practice copied, and then perfected, by leaders of all stripes in the thousands of years since) – is especially troubling in this case. This book is called “Mishne Torah” – it should serve as the summary of everything that has happened prior. Every first-year practicing lawyer knows that if his Closing Arguments would misrepresent the facts as were revealed during trial, the judge may disqualify his argument (or even call for a mistrial, in extreme cases).  Why would Moshe want to recreate history in this way?

But something good does come out of this second version of the story. Moshe takes this opportunity not only to rewrite history (again, it’s “his-story”), but also to improve upon it (another practice emulated by many a leader since).  Here he provides a short essay on legal philosophy, which is extremely important, though not necessarily grounded in fact. Moshe claims that he has instructed the judges he nominated  (nothing like this appears in the original version) as follows:

Hear out your fellow men and brethrens, you shall judge justly between a men and his fellow Israelite, and a men and his gentile. You shall not partial in judgment, one law you shall have; you shall listen to the small people as you have to the large; you shall fear no one, because the judgment is for God. And those matters that are too hard for you, you shall bring those to me and I shall hear it. (Deut. 1:16-18)

These always-timely principles should guide our lawyers, our judges, and all of us – even today.

The Beauty of the Text

Today Haftora, the beginning of the Book of Isaiah (1:1 – 3:22), may remind many readers one of the main reasons for the Bible being the biggest best-seller of all times: It is simply written beautifully.  The text is truly sublime. 
Thus, many years after the Bible was written, we find William Shakespeare (a noted bible scholar, as you all aware) putting these iconic words in the mouth of Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar: 
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.”
Long before that, we find a humble prophet, Isaiah, who begins the Book carrying his name with a stunningly similar tone:

Hear O heavens, and give ear O earth, For the Lord has spoken:
“Children I have raised and cherished, and they have sinned against me,”
An ox knows its owner, and an Ass his master’s crib;
[But] Israel refuses to know; my people refuses to observe.”

Though the content is almost unimaginably harsh, surely the sublime manner in which it is presented made it a great read then – and now, thousands of years later.

Shabbat Shalom,


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