In his 120th year Moses faces his people and gives them a series of messages to take with them into the Promised Land, to guide their lives there. One miracle never mentioned in this context is how a couple of million Israelites all heard one man’s words. Granted, he also wrote them down, but still – no p.a. system. No TV. No internet. Just Moses. Those 120-year-old lungs – gevalt!
Reminding his people of their progress through 40 years in the desert, he also reminds them of the wrong behavior that prolonged that journey. Starting in verse 1, we read references to several geographical spots. “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel, beyond the Jordan.” Of course that’s where they were. Then we read “in the desert, in the Aravah (the Dead Sea valley), across from Suph (“yam suph,” the Red Sea) and 5 more places. No, these words were not delivered in all those places. Moses and his people were camped on the east bank of the Jordan. But he spoke about those other places. Each place reminds him of a problem. Loss of faith, active rebellion, idolatry, even the “let’s go back to Egypt” movement. Despite all their mistakes, here they are, ready to cross the Jordan and take possession of the Land. Moses encourages them to follow Joshua on this mission, describing vistas extending as far as the Euphrates River. He praises the chiefs and judges who will help guide the people, and he stresses what policy they must follow: Justice, to each other, to men and to women, to “your brother and to the stranger.”
Reviewing their recent experience, particularly their defeat of Og, the giant king of Bashan, Moses celebrates the victory. Symbol of all fearsome enemies, Og is identified as the last of a race of giants called Rephaim. His bedstead (or cradle, or coffin, depending how you translate it) was still on display in the Ammonite city of Rabbah. Made of iron, since wood would not hold his weight, it measured 9 cubits long and 4 cubits wide – approximately 13.5 by 6 feet.
Moses reinforces his message, his words of guidance to the people who will have to fight for their land without him. With justice as your goal, with your faith in G-d to strengthen you, it won’t matter if your enemies hide their weapons behind children like today’s Hamas. It won’t matter if their leader stands 13 feet tall like Og. Moses concludes this week’s section with a ringing charge: Do not fear them, for the L-rd your G-d is fighting for you!
So may it be.
We talk a lot about peace today. Any peace worth having is peace through justice. That means justice both for the Israelite and for the stranger. The alien, the “stranger” in Biblical Israel was expected to follow just the seven Mitzvot of Noah, basic laws of decency – like not eating the flesh of a living animal. He was not required to embrace Judaism, although he could be admitted if he chose to. A Christian stuck in any territory ISIL conquers today faces a dire warning: convert to Islam, flee, or die. That ultimatum, no doubt, applies to a Christian Arab. An American can expect a much narrower choice. And a Jew had better not plan to survive any conquest by ISIL or Hamas.
Wartime tests human concepts of justice, in every part of the world. Moses still has plenty to tell us.