Almost the entirety of this week’s Torah portion is a poem that Moses spoke to the nation of Israel in the final days of his life. Opening with the words, “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth” (Deut. 32:1), Moses lays out his goal in composing this poem:
As I proclaim the name of the Lord: ascribe greatness to our God. The Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He. – Deuteronomy 32:3-4
Moses tells us that the purpose of these verses is to show that God is perfect, righteous, and just in all His ways. This is no small issue. After the preceding chapters described in great detail the suffering and exile that would befall the people of Israel in the future, the topic of divine justice is certainly relevant in context. But Moses does not merely declare that God is perfect, just, etc. In this poem, He gives us a roadmap to understand and experience God’s righteousness.
Beginning in verse 8, the thirty-six verses that follow tell the story of history. To sum up:
- God separated the world into nations and peoples (v. 8)
- He chose the Children of Israel and looked after them with special miraculous providence (v. 9-14)
- Israel rebelled against God (v. 16-18)
- God responds with fury, punishment, and exile (v. 19-26)
- God withholds destroying Israel because Israel’s enemies are arrogant and faithless (v. 27-33)
- God vows to take vengeance on the enemies of Israel for their excess cruelty and lack of faith (v. 34-36)
- False beliefs will be proven wrong (v. 37-39)
- God enacts vengeance and judgment on the enemies of Israel (v. 40-42)
- In God’s punishment of the nations, He avenges the evils done to Israel, bringing atonement for His land and His people (v.42)
It is important to note that nowhere in this poem do we find the people of Israel repenting of their sins. God does not avenge the cruel treatment of the Jews because the Jews have earned it. In this narrative of history, God punishes the evil enemies of Israel to protect His own honor, not for the sake of Israel.
Considering this last point, that God’s redemption of Israel and His punishment of the nations are not dependent on any repentance by the Jewish people, we must ask a basic question about this entire chapter. What exactly is the lesson that Moses was trying to teach?
I’d like to suggest that the message of this entire poem is stated by Moses in the verse just before the narrative that began in verse 8:
Recall the days of yore, examine the years of each generation. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will speak to you. – Deuteronomy 32:7
In other words, Moses commands us to study history. The Hebrew word olam is translated here as “yore.” Many other translations have “Remember the days of old.” Both “yore” and “old” imply only looking back at the past. But olam does not have any past-tense connotation. Olam appears over 400 times in the Bible. While there are a few verses in which olam refers to the past, most of the times that olam is used refer to the future, best translated as “eternity.” For example:
The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. – Genesis 9:16
for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. – Genesis 13:15
Olam does not mean “the past.” Neither does it mean “the future.” Rather, olam is the totality of time: eternity. So in this verse in Deuteronomy, Moses tells us to “Recall the days of olam.” In other words, we must look at the events of the world through the widest possible lens. We must look at the totality of history.
As I quoted at the beginning of this teaching, Moses opened by declaring that all God’s ways are perfect, just, and righteous. He then instructed us to study the full scope of history. These two ideas are inextricably linked. If we look at history through a narrow lens, we will misunderstand what is happening. Injustice will be more apparent if we don’t take the long view. Individual events, even specific eras, can easily give the impression of terrible injustices within God’s running of the world. It is only when the fullest view of history is considered that we can clearly see what God is doing. Only then can we see the justice of God’s ways.
In his poem, Moses tells us that the entire arc of history has one purpose; to reveal God to the world. All nations, all events, all the ups and downs in the story of Israel, everything is part of a single narrative. As human beings living in the present, this perspective is not natural to us.
Imagine you are flipping channels and happen upon the middle of a movie. You watch a few scenes. There’s an argument, a car chase, a fistfight. Then you flip away to another channel. What happened in the movie? Who was the good guy? Who was the bad guy? Was justice served? Drawing conclusions from a few scenes in the middle is a recipe for misunderstanding. The same is true here on God’s earth. Our lives are fleeting moments in the great story of history. To expect to see divine justice work itself out during our short lifetimes is unrealistic and impossible.
Here, near the end of his life, Moses tells us how we can begin to understand God:
“Recall the days of eternity, examine the years of each generation. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will speak to you. – Deuteronomy 32:7
Widen your lens. Study the entire story, beginning with Adam, Abraham, and Moses and ending with the future as described in the Bible. Examine the generations. Seek the wisdom and perspective of those who came before you. This is how we see God in History.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast