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Ancient Debate

Wow, Moshe - that's a lot of stuff in this Parsha.

As I read through it I can almost hear Moshe and the people talking and debating - we have the summary. For example, in the part about not learning the ways of the other nations, Moshe warns that the other nations "listened to soothsayers, and to diviners; but as for you, YHVH your God has not given you these ways." Torah doesn't report the debate, except in the "answer" trope used in the next verse where Moshe says "The One will raise up a prophet like me among you". I can here the people asking "So, Moshe, how are we supposed to know what the Holy One wants us to do?"

Can you hear the ongoing exchange?

"Why?"
"Because that's what you asked for."
"So how's the prophet going to know what to say?"
"God will put the words in his or her mouth and force those words to be spoken."
"What if he says something that God didn't make him say?"
"If he does that or claims it is from another god, then he is leading you astray and deserves to be ignored (die of embarrassment)."

And then there was silence, probably with exchanged glances.... so Moshe says "If you say in your heart, How will we know?, then test the message by seeing of the prophecy comes true."

The end of that pasuk (verse) is usually translated as "do not be afraid of him", meaning the prophet - the Hebrew is "tagur", which might mean not to dwell on his words or be haunted by them.

After this last exchange, the subject changes again and the next set of discussions is about cities of refuge. The discussion about what constitutes accidental homicide versus murder is clearly based on the intention. The accidental homicide is one of being responsible, even in the case of a clear accident, such as an ax head flying off a handle. The responsibility means that the person must flee to a city of refuge for safety - much like being in prison. However, a person who has a history of hating someone and then "lies in wait to strike him" does not get the benefit of a safe place. He is to be retrieved from there by the elders of his own city and delivered into the hand of the "blood redeemer" and will die. Torah doesn't specifically say how this is to happen. It is not necessarily the public event that stoning would have been. At one extreme, it could even be "life imprisonment" to provide slave labor to make up for what the slain person would have provided in the way of labor. That would surely qualify as a form of death.

Whatever happened to that person, it was to be considered just and we
are not to pity him - he caused his own fate.

The wrestling with these issues is to me one of the more significant aspects of the Parsha. Throughout this Parsha I can hear the ongoing discussion and debates - what's fair, what's just, how much retribution is appropriate. These are discussions between Moshe and the people - about who does what and who is responsible for what. These are not black and white arbitrary rules and nowhere here is it said that YHVH said to Moshe to say these things. And answers are to come from due diligence - studying and investigating to seek out what is true. Do not condemn on the word of just one person - require two or three eye witnesses with evidence. Don't use diviners who kill innocent animals and decide the fate of the guilty by whether or not some part of their entrails turn up or down. Israel, a spiritual nation, a holy nation, can do much better than that. And we err on the side of letting the guilty go free.

Our teachings have always been away from rumor and innuendo - the false
accuser is so vile that he is to suffer the fate proposed for the accused. And if that person should swear falsely, that is a capital offense for it violates one of the ten commandments. Wow - that's pretty serious - but what are we worth if our own word is not truth? One needs to recognize the power we have to destroy or injure others with our words.

Do not learn the ways of the other nations in the Land when you come into it. Do not be people who pass their sons and their daughters through fire. What an image. Hard for Americans to imagine - or is it? I wish I could say that we don't burn our children today, but I would be ignoring the suffering of many children. Is there really any difference if the fire is only figurative? How many children are "sacrificed" in our idolatry to monetary gods or in fights with others?

Other forbidden activities include listening to cloud-makers and magicians - the things a child might do. The age-old struggle with superstition - thinking that things happen either by chance or because a person utters a spell. The Hebrew for smoke and mirrors. The universe is very complex and still very simple, but sometimes we don't "get it". We think we can control that which is beyond our control and so we lose control of the one thing we can hope to control part of the time - our own response to the world around and through us.

Smoke and mirrors hide us from ourselves and everything else. We choose every day, every minute, every second whether to acknowledge that control is the ultimate illusion or whether to acknowledge our own humanness.

What happens when we do these things? There is a tremendous struggle within us. We fight with our Selves and then with others. Prophets arise. Sometimes they arise within us, from our own midst. Sometimes we choose to listen and sometimes not. And their words haunt us, whether we listen or not. Can we tell when this inner prophet speaks the words of YHVH?

Why are these things the way of the other nations? Because they are things that distance us. They alienate us from ourselves and from everyone else. We are instructed to be "tamiym" with YHVH - "wholeness, integrity, perfection, completion, innocence". It is interesting that this instruction is WITH and not before or in the eyes of YHVH. We were with YHVH at Sinai and we distanced ourselves out of fear of the close contact.

That actually gives us more free will, for if we can hear the Voice directly and then drift it would be much harder on us. As it is, we know when we drift.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah