In this week’s portion, Moses continues his farewell speech to the people. Here, he repeatedly warns the people against falling into the trap of idolatry. He reminds them of the incident at Ba’al Pe’or, in which the people sinned and a plague wiped out thousands, and of the revelation at Mount Sinai. He tells the people they must teach their children God’s laws because He took them out of the bondage of Egypt to serve Him.
A Warning Against Idolatry
The portion opens with Moses recounting how he beseeched God to allow him to enter the land of Israel, but was denied. The Israel Bible points out that Moses was motivated not by arrogance or a desire to continue leading the people, but rather by a desire to step into the Holy Land and breathe its air.
Moses then goes on to warn the people of the dangers of idolatry. As witnesses to the incident at Ba’al Pe’or, the Israelites standing before him should understand the gravity of such a crime. He tells them to heed the law which he has taught them, and to pass it on to their children when they dwell in the land, for it will make them seem wise in the eyes of their neighbors.
When they stood before God at Mount Sinai, Moses reminds them, their fathers did not see any image. Why, then, should they or their descendents create graven images to worship? They should also refrain from imitating the sun, moon, or any creatures in heaven, earth or the sea. No other nation has merited to hear God’s words directly, and the people should appreciate the magnitude of that honor.
Should the Israelites fail to live up to God’s expectations on the matter of idolatry, Moses warns, they will be removed from the land which God has given them. They will suffer in exile until such time as they return to God and He brings them back to their land.
Moses reminds the people of their unique heritage. No other nation was ever taken by God from the midst of another and brought close to Him. The Israelites were shown all these wonders that they may know God. As the Israel Bible indicates, the Hebrew word used for “knowing” here is da’at, a word that connotes intimacy. Thus, Moses tells the people they are meant to forge an intimate connection with God.
Moses then sets apart six cities of refuge for accidental killers, three on each side of the Jordan river. These cities, first mentioned in Numbers 35, are to be used by manslayers to escape the wrath of their unintended victims’ families.
Points to Ponder
Twice during this passage, Moses notes that he was forbidden from entering the Promised Land because of the people (3:26, 4:21). Yet in Numbers 20, it seems Moses and Aaron were punished for failing to sanctify God’s name. What do you think Moses means when he holds the people responsible for his punishment?
The Ten Commandments Reviewed
Next, Moses reminds the people of the events that took place at Mount Sinai. He begins by telling the people it was an event which happened, not to their forefathers, but to they themselves. Although in reality the generation standing before him was not that which left Egypt, Jewish tradition teaches that all Jewish souls of all generations were present at Mount Sinai.
Moses then repeats the ten things God recited at Sinai:
- I am the Lord your God
- You shall not serve idols
- You shall not take My name in vain
- Keep the Sabbath
- Honor your parents
- Do not kill
- Do not commit adultery
- Do not steal
- Do not bear false witness
- Do not covet anything belonging to your neighbor
Moses reminds the people that they were overwhelmed by the enormity of facing God directly, and asked Moses to carry God’s word to them instead. Here, God appears to find this awe praiseworthy, as He hopes they will maintain this level of fear in the future.
Certain commandments given may only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel, but the Israel Bible tells us from Deuteronomy 5:28 we learn that even those that can be enacted outside the land gain greater significance when performed in Israel.
Points to Ponder
There are subtle differences between the Ten Commandments as they appear in Exodus 20 and here (e.g. Remember the Sabbath vs. Observe the Sabbath). Why do you think that is?
A Credo to Live By
This portion contains one of the most significant passages in all the Torah: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord in One.” (6:4) This declaration of faith, known as the Shema, has served as the deathbed statement of many a persecuted Jew throughout the centuries. The entire passage emphasizes the importance of our faith in the One True God.
Here, Moses instructs the people to love God with all their hearts, all their souls and all their possessions. They should keep these words close to their hearts, teach them to their children, bind them upon their arms and between their eyes, and post them on their doorposts. In fact, these words appear in the phylacteries that Jews tie upon their arms and heads for morning prayers and in the mezzuzahs hung on Jewish doors worldwide.
In declaring that God is One, there lies a special message. The Israel Bible explains that using the time-honored Jewish tradition of gematriya, where each Hebrew letter is transposed by a number, the value of the word echad, or one, is 13, equal to that of the word ahava, meaning love. Thus, we are reminded that the single greatest love in the world is the love of the One and Only God for mankind.
When they enter the land, Moses tells the Israelites, they will be inheriting homes they did not build, fields they did not plant and cisterns they did not dig. He warns them not to forget the source of all this bounty — God. He is the one that took them out of bondage in Egypt and is bringing them to the land of plenty. One day, Moses says, their children will ask them why they keep the Torah. He tells them to answer it is for the sake of God Who brought the Israelites out of Egypt to serve Him that they do these things.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think this declaration of faith must be kept on the arm, forehead and doorpost specifically? What is their significance?
‘When God Brings You into the Land…’
When the Israelites enter the land, Moses continues, they will find nations who have been living there for many years. Moses instructs the people to drive those nations out of the land without mercy, not to make treaties with them and not to intermarry with them, lest they influence the Children of Israel to stray from the service of God. Instead, they are to smash their idols and any signs of their foreign worship, thus eradicating any influence they might have.
Moses tells the people they were not chosen by God because they are a great nation, but rather because He loved them and swore to their forefathers that He would take them out of bonadge. As He has proven to be a faithful God, Moses entreats the people to remain faithful to Him, keeping His statutes and observing His commandments.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Moses spends so much time and energy warning the people against idol-worship?