Not a Third Time — Dvar Torah in Memory of My Dad

Haim Watzman

An English translation of the dvar Torah in memory of my father, Sanford (Whitey) Watzman, that appears in this week’s issue of Shabbat Shalom , the weekly Torah portion sheet of the religious peace movement Oz VeShalom, on the third anniversary of his death.

The dawn of sovereignty and the end of sovereignty, divine providence and divine concealment, standing on the verge of the Land of Israel and gong into exile—the first chapters of the book of Deuteronomy, which we read this week in the annual cycle of Torah readings, seem to mirror and contrast the themes of the fast of the Ninth of Av, which always falls in the week after it is read. The cycle is deliberately arranged so that we always begin our reading of Deuteronomy on Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the fast that mourns the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the beginnings of the Babylonian and Roman exiles. The most commonly cited connection between the fast and the Torah reading is that the word “eichah,” the exclamation that means “how can this be endured!” (The word also appears in the week’s haftarah from Isaiah and is a refrain in the Scroll of Lamentations read on Tisha B’Av.) But there is much more. The clear message conveyed by the days between Shabbat Hazon and Tisha B’Av is that the Jewish nation was given a chance to establish an independent and moral society, one acting in the name of heaven and not for its own aggrandizement—and that we failed the test badly.

My father worked for many years as a journalist out of a sense of mission and a firm belief that a free press is one of the cornerstones of democratic society. And he believed that democracy was the best (if far from perfect) way of establishing and maintaining a moral human society. Democracy requires citizens to take responsibility for themselves. On the face of it, that seems to be the opposite of what the Torah demands.

In a simple reading of this week’s Torah reading, Moses speaks to the Israelites at the Plains of Moab, just prior to their entry into the Promised Land and promises them that the direct guardianship and care that God has provided for them in their years of wandering in the wilderness will continue when they enter the Land. He recounts the victories that God has given them, the punishment God meted out after the sin of the spies, and presents his heir, Joshua, as the leader who will continue to lead a nation that enjoys God’s unconditional support:

I also charged Joshua at that time, saying, “You have seen with your own eyes all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings; so shall the Lord do to all the kingdoms into which you shall cross over. Do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who will battle for you” (Deut. 3:21).

But later in the book it turns out that this promise is not unconditional at all. It depends on how the people living in the Land behave. A series of blessing and curses stresses that God’s providence will end if the people does not keep God’s commandments, and most of the curses apply to social crimes, involving relations between members of the society. These are the same sins that the prophets decry, the ones that lead to the end of Jewish sovereignty with the destruction of the two Temples.

The root of these sins is confusion between means and symbols on the one hand and goals and things themselves.
“What need have I of all your sacrifices?” Says the LORD. “I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, and suet of fatlings, and blood of bulls; and I have no delight in lambs and he-goats” (Isaiah 1:11)

Sacrifices and prayers are meant to be a symbol of the connection between God and his people, but the people have turned the symbol into an end in itself, forgetting its real purpose. A similar thing happens in the connection between the people and its government. The government is meant to be a means, but instead of fostering a moral society, the kings of Israel and Judah sought to exalt themselves, and the people preferred kings who provided them with wealth and military power, at the price of social injustice.

The minute God places conditions on his promise, the keeping of the promise is no longer in God’s hands. Divine providence ends; God withdraws. The condition for all intents and purposes transfers moral responsibility from heaven to earth. At the end of Deuteronomy, the Jewish people stands on its own. As in a modern democracy, the nation bears full responsibility for its actions.

A little more than a hundred years ago, a Jewish thinker wrote something similar. Emile Durkheim was the son of a rabbi who abandoned Jewish observance but devoted his life to the study of human society. He was profoundly disturbed by the influence that unrestrained economic activity was having on Western culture. At the time he wrote, many in the West—liberals committed to democracy—thought that the power of government should be limited to every extent possible so as to provide maximal individual freedom. Individuals acting to increase their wealth would, they believed, produce a wealthier society for all. Durkheim warned that this type of liberalism confused means with ends:

It is forgotten that economic functions are not their own justification; they are only a means to an end; they constitute one of the organs of social life, and that social life is above all a harmonious community of endeavors, a communion of minds and wills working toward the same end … If industry can only be productive by disturbing that peace and unleashing warfare, then it is not worth the cost (Steven Lukes, Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, a Historical and Critical Study, Stanford University Press, 1985, p. 267).

Modern democracy and the tribal society that Moses established at the Plains of Moab seem to have something in common. In both cases, the people and their leaders face a challenge: to remember that the goal is a just society and not wealth and impressive rituals and the glorification of rulers. We’ve already failed twice at that, as the fast of the Ninth of Av reminds us.