This Week’s Torah Portion Is Devarim (Deuteronomy 1-3:22)

* Deuteronomy has a completely different literary style than the previous four books. Even traditional commentators will say these are Moshe’s words not God’s (though they will say they are Moshe’s words inspired by God, but not dictated by God as is the case with the previous four books). The narrative ends with Numbers.

* The Book of Deuteronomy is Moshe’s farewell address to the Jews. He’s not happy with them. He’s not able to bear up under their quarrels. Jews are a difficult people. This picture of Jews constantly complaining rings true today. Jews, like other Middle Eastern people, are much more emotional than northern Europeans. Jews tend to see Protestants as fake nice while Protestants who meet Jews often feel scorched by their intense emotional expression. There is a dramatic difference in intensity between Jews and northern Europeans. In their open emotions, Jews are often more like Iranians, Egyptians, and other Arabs than they are like northern Europeans.

* I can’t think of any other religious text that is as self-critical as Torah. The Jews don’t look good in Torah and the gentiles frequently appear heroic.

* At the end of Numbers, Moshe commands the Jews to drive out the original inhabitants of the land under the theory that allowing a few of them to live in your midst could be corrupting. Any ethno-nationalist can understand this POV. In this week’s parasha, we learn about how to treat the resident alien — so Torah allows for non-Jewish residents of the Jewish state.

* When I read these texts as a Christian youth, they were religious works. When I read them as an adult Jew, I felt like I was learning about my ancestors. Studying the texts became more visceral. I could identify with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moshe. They seemed more real. Christians study these texts for the stories, Jews for the laws.

* Texts are mediated by their readers, who have a particular genetic code, a culture and an environment. If you want to understand Jews, understanding Torah is important, but it is not the only factor, just like if you want to understand Muslims, the Koran is important but it doesn’t work in a vacuum.

* What is the gentile equivalent of daf yomi? Tens of thousands of Jews get up early every morning and study the same page of Talmud together all over the world. I can’t see goyim doing this.

* When you study Torah, with all of its laws, you can see why so many Jews go into the legal profession.

* Det. 2:24. God tells the Jews to provoke war with Sihon king of Heshbon. It seems like every country that has ever gone to war has developed the rationale that they were provoked.

* Det. 2: 25: God says to Moshe: “This day I shall begin to place dread and fear of you on the peoples under the entire heaven, when they hear of your reputation, and they will tremble and be anxious before you.” With such a prediction, it is strange that certain countries did not want to let the Jews pass through. Sihon king of Heshbon was not willing to become multicultural (Det. 2:26-34) but if Heshbo did not become multicultural, it would not survive. Jews were going to play a leading role in making Heshbon multicultural and they were going to be resented for it. So the Jews slaughtered everybody in Heshbon, even the women and the children. Is there a moral difference between this genocide and what the Nazis did to the Jews?

* Det. 3:3: “Hashem, our God, gave into our hand also Og king of the Bashan and his entire people, and we smote him until no survivor was left of him.”

* Det. 3:6: “We destroyed them…the women and small children.”

So why would the Israelites slaughter the small children? Because small children grow into big adults and look for revenge.

I am sure these goyim got slaughtered for their own faults. They provoked the Jews and got what was coming to them. The Torah does not seem concerned that not all members of the slaughtered groups were bad people. They just got wiped out perhaps for the sins of a few.

* Do we need museums commemorating the victims of these crusades? Do we need genocide education about the slaughter of Bashan and Heshbon? What about museums for the victims of communism?

* Bible believers are supposed to derive lessons from these texts. So what are the lessons from these genocidal texts?

* As a goy, how does it feel reading these genocidal texts? Do you think these texts are saying it is ok to slaughter your enemies or it is only ok for Jews to slaughter their enemies? Or are these texts simply reflecting the reality of war in ancient times?

* The thought of an angry God disturbs Christians much more than it does Jews. Deuteronomy refers to God’s anger 26 times. It seems like just as Jews are more emotional than northern Europeans, the Jewish God is similarly more emotional than the Christian God. IN the Flood, God wipes out the entire world.

* Does the Torah represent a moral advance? Does humanity morally advance?

* When the Torah refers to God as the “God of hosts” that means the God of armies. Pacifism is rare among Jews when facing genocidal threats.

* John Updike wrote in his novel SEEK MY FACE: “Or perhaps, if she is Jewish, she is unable to put the question of God quite the way a Christian would put it, in urgent terms of either/or. For the chosen people, the relation has evolved beyond the possibility of dropped acquaintance into that of a familiarity that breeds contempt…”

* * So why do we read repeat the Torah every year? Rabbi Berel Wein: “I think that the review is always necessary for even though the words of the Torah are the same and are unchangeable, the person studying those words is constantly undergoing change.”

* Rabbi Berel Wein: “Moshe addresses eternal faults and problems that are inherent in the Jewish people and in fact in all human society. People are by nature nudniks, burdensome and quarrelsome. By making us aware of this ongoing human failing, Moshe intends to lead us out of the wilderness that such attitudes create.”

* Judaism enjoins a positive mental attitude. One should develop a “good eye” aka the ability to see the good. The Rabbis of the Talmud taught us “Even if there be a sharp knife held at your throat do not despair completely.” Not all successful people have a positive mental attitude in all areas of their life, but in those areas of their life where they are successful, they do have a PMA.

Rabbi Berel Wein: “Despair, merciless criticism, pessimism, bitterness, cynicism – none of these traits and attitudes is acceptable Jewish behavior.”

* This week’s parasha reminds me of my blog. It is an ongoing recapitulation of my sins.

* When God asks Moshe to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, he says: “I am not a man of words or speech.” Yet in Deuteronomy, Moshe talks for a whole book. That’s what anger and frustration can do to an otherwise reticent man. Much like me. Words don’t come easy to me. I’m just a music man. Melody’s so far my best friend. But my words are coming out wrong and I reveal my heart to you and hope that you believe it’s true ’cause words don’t come easy to me.

* Christians often negatively contrast the angry (vengeful, killer) God of the Old Testament with the loving God of the New Testament. Anger is morally neutral. Hatred is morally neutral. There’s good anger and bad anger. Good hatred and bad hatred. How are you supposed to react to rape, torture and murder?

* Deut. 2:33 says God gave victory to the Jews and then the Jews killed everybody (men, women and children) of Sichon. Did God intend this genocide? It does not say God commanded this genocide. It says the Jews did it.

I think Moshe’s exaggerating because later in the Bible we get commandments against intermarriage with these people (Canaanites). Why would we get this instruction if they had been wiped out?

In Deuteronomy, Moshe gives laws about how you treat captives in war.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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