This week's portion is the first from the book of Devarim, or Deuteronomy.
The dictionary definition of Deuteronomy is "fifth book of the [Bible],
derived from the Greek words deuteros ("second") and nomos ("law")...it is
a repetition of previous laws with an urgent appeal to obey them." Before
the Torah begins its review of the laws, it starts with Moshe's review of
the history that brought the Jewish Nation to that point in history, their
waning weeks in the wilderness. As they circumvented the lands of Mount
Se'ir, the possessions of their cousins, the Children of Esav (Esau), G-d
told them, "Enough of your circling this mountain; turn yourselves
northward (in Hebrew: "tzafona")...You shall not provoke [the children of
Esav] for I shall not give you of their land - even the right to set foot -
for as an inheritance to the Children of Esav I have given Mount Se'ir."
Yalkut Shimoni (most comprehensive Midrashic anthology, covering the
entirety of the Tanach (Bible); attributed to Rabbi Shimon HaDarshan of
Frankfurt of the thirteenth century) conveys the Oral Tradition of a deeper
message embedded within G-d's words to Moshe. "If you see that [the
Children of Esav] want to provoke you, hide ("hatzpinu") yourselves from
them. To where do you flee? To the Torah, for there is no protection other
than Torah, as stated, 'He has secured ("yitzpohn") the eternal Torah for
the upright' (Mishlei/Proverbs 2:7)"
Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman; 1135-1204; native of Gerona,
Spain, he was one the leading scholars of the Middle Ages and successfully
defended Judaism at the famed debate in Barcelona in 1263) expounds that
the confrontations our forefather Yaakov (Jacob) had with Esav are the
model for the destiny of the Children of Israel in our continuing conflict
with our cousins, as the generations of the Jewish People will continually
experience history repeating itself. Therefore, we must take hold of and
follow the lesson of our righteous forebear and prepare ourselves with the
same three tools he utilized: prayer for success, gifts of appeasement and
preparations for war and escape.
Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan of Radin; 1838-1933; author
of basic works in Jewish law, philosophy and ethics and renowned for his
saintly qualities) notes that Ramban's guidance of 750 years ago is no less
relevant today in our confrontation with our oppressors. Throughout Jewish
history, our utilization of the armaments of our forefather - prayer and
faith with a non-aggressive defensive posture - has led to our survival
through millennia of persecution. Yet when we embraced the strategies of
our enemies - reliance on the sword with conquest defining success - and
abandoned the successful formula of our forefathers, we have met with
misery and great hardship. Rabbi Kagan closes with a simple prayer: May G-d
have mercy on us and restore our Judges to their former positions (i.e.
bring the Messiah speedily, thus restoring the religious institutions of
old which inspired the masses to maintain their dedication to the Divine path).
One of the great miracles of Jewish history is that no nation has ever
survived as an identifiable group after close to 2000 years of exile,
dispersion and persecution. But the actualization of this impossibility
should not surprise us. Just as the Torah warns us of exile and persecution
as the consequence of our misdeeds - commemorated with this coming week's
Tisha B'Av observance of the anniversary of the destruction of our Holy
Temples in Jerusalem and most of the great tragedies that have befallen our
people - the Torah comforts us that G-d will never forsake us. And to
arouse the Divine mercy that will end this misery, the Torah offers further
instruction: renew our faith in G-d and flee to the Torah.