Sunday, January 3, 2016

Deuteronomy: Chapter 31

What continues  when you can no longer come or go?
Who crosses to the other side ?

Write the words 
and make them live 
on the ears 
on the tongue...

[For full chapter, click here

"Behold, the day approaches that you must die." With this chapter, we arrive at the final section of the book: the death of Moses. Again and again, the word tum'am, "closing, ending, completion" is repeated. We have come to the final day of  Moses' life: "I am one hundred and twenty years old today. I am no longer able to come and go."

With Moses unable to "cross" ('a'v'r--another key word of the chapter), he now "goes" to attempt to provide for continuity. First, he passes the mantle on to Joshua, who can "cross before you."  Joshua will be the emissary who will "come with you" into the land, a physical continuation of Moses leadership. The next tack of preservation is writing. If the Book of Numbers focused on learning how to speak, this Book of Words (the literal meaning of the Hebrew name, Devarim) ends with a focus on how to write: "And Moses wrote this teaching (torah) and delivered it to the priests and the sons of Levi...and the elders of Israel" (31:9). This is a writing that is meant for reading, a code being lain down for public transmission: "you will read this teaching before all of Israel, in their ears. Gather the people together: men women, and children and the stranger within your gates, that they may hear and may learn... so that their children, who do not know, may hear and learn" (10-13). Through this writing, Moses' teaching will live on, to be heard by later generations who do not "know" Sinai.

God responds to Moses' "going" by calling him to come "stand" by the Tent of Meeting with Joshua.  God too sets out to provide for a transition from Moses, and His vision both reflects and departs from Moses'. The message at the Meeting is harsh: "Behold you will sleep with your fathers, and this people will rise up and go astray." For naught, Moses, desperate entreaties and plans to teach "the fear of God." Regardless of all teaching, the people will inevitably stray, like a fact of nature, like the sea will rush and the sky will rain. Nature itself, the earth and the heavens, will stand witness to this.

Continuity does not imply avoiding disaster. It is finding a way back after disaster. God, like Moses, appoints Joshua to lead the people. Yet Moses sees Joshua as a mirror of the people,  who like them must be told to "be strength and take courage,"   who like them, is dominated by "fears": he will "come" with the people, not lead them. By contrast, God empowers Joshua, seeing him as the new leader, "standing" in place of Moses, the two of them side by side: "you will bring the people." 

In a similar fashion, God also echoes Moses' need for writing, yet this is writing of a different kind. Moses focuses on recording "teaching / law" (torah), which would be entrusted to the national leadership of priests, Levites and elders. The teaching would be sounded out to the people, laid on their "ears" as they imbibe and listen. The act of reading and of listening is collective, God, by contrast, commands to "write for yourself this song, and teach it to the children of Israel, put it in their mouth." Not a "teaching/law" but a "poem"; not for the leadership, but for the people; not for passive listening, but for speaking; not for the collective, but for each individual. Just as He empowers Joshua, God empowers the people. Yet the purpose of this writing is different. It will not control the future, and make distant generations "fear God." Rather it will be a "witness," placing this history-that-will-inevitably-unfold within the specific context context of God's words. "Not [to] be forgotten from the mouth of your seed," it will shape the meaning of their experiences.

The chapter closes with the intertwining of both the human and divine vision of continuity. Joshua is appointed as leader to "bring" not to "come"--yet Moses strengthens him. Moses "writes the whole teaching / law to its completion" and gives it over to the leadership. Yet he also "writes the words of this song and teaches it to the children of Israel." Finally, Moses, as per his original vision, speaks into the "ears" of the assembled people. Yet this time, he calls heaven and earth as "witnesses." It is not simply a teaching, but an act of testimony.]

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