Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 30th Av 5775, 15th August 2015
Preparing to enter a land and take control is serious business. It requires forethought and consideration for situations that don’t exist in the desert. With each parsha we read in Devarim, we see Moshe expanding the scope of his discourses from words of dire warning to what to do when they enter the land. Two of the issues he gives voice to today have concerned nations at all periods of history – then, now and forever. The poor and the leaders.
These elements will become more pronounced in the coming weeks, and most of the steps outlined today regarding the poor are intended to maintain a certain economic balance that most countries find very hard to preserve even today. We read about the ma’aser sheni, the second tithe. Sometimes it goes to the priest, sometimes to the Levite, sometimes to the poor and sometimes to the owner of the land, who is encouraged to bring it to the temple, or, if that is too distant, to sell it and use the gold and silver to buy whatever it is he wants to eat and drink and be merry with. It’s almost as if the Torah is telling us, Look, I know it’s a hardship to give part of your crops and your earnings to subsidize people who simply don’t have what to eat. But I’m thinking of you too. Here, have fun. Enjoy, and as you enjoy, give praise to the God who has given you enough to splurge on yourself. I don’t look out only for those who don’t have but also for those who have enough to give to others. L’chaim.
We also mention the shmitta year, the cancelation of debts, the warning not to become tightfisted towards the poor before shmitta or yovel but to be bighearted. We have the law concerning Jewish slaves who must be freed after six years and showered with gifts as they go free. We have the return of the land to its original owners so that you can amass a lot of land and money, but not so much that you overshadow everyone else. This is a plan of action for what we’d call a socialist market economy.
I don’t think there are too many parshot that place as much emphasis on being expansive and happy as we do here. It’s true that we have to sift through all the warnings and lists of dire consequences if we don’t shape up and follow the law. But the larger picture is a welcome change from the generally chilly atmosphere that enshrouded Moshe’s first two discourses to the people. And when we get to the end of the parsha, with the list of holidays and are told to “be happy in your festival” – our cups just runneth over with joy.
Also hidden in this week’s parsha is a hint about the type of person the people should follow in the future – after Moshe, after Yehoshua. The prophet. He’s the leader (later Moshe will talk about kings too). Beware the false prophet, Moshe says. The prophet who is able to pull off a magical sign or even a miracle – but then tries to lead the people away from God. Such a person should be stoned. And if there’s a whole city of people who follow such a leader, they too should also stoned, the city should be razed and all that’s in it should be destroyed. Don’t take anything from the spoils. Don’t get any benefit from it.
Who are these false prophets who can pull off miracles, predict the future accurately or perform other acts of sorcery that make it seem they have divine inspiration? Some commentators say these are people who started out as real prophets and whose heads were turned for whatever reason and now spout apostasy. Others say they simply have the gift – perhaps like Bilaam, who was a true prophet but also a gold-digger.
It’s not really hard to understand why people follow such false leaders. We want someone who knows the way and promises to take us to safety and health. Often we are willing to overlook small discrepancies between what is offered and what will be given, such as the promise of divine protection with the minor proviso that the protective divinity is not the one who has been covering our backs since the days of Egypt.
In this approach to leaders, Moshe is saying, “Don’t be taken in by pyrotechnics and miracles. Like every offer made by a huckster, if it’s too good to be true, it isn’t.”
Yet we, the nation of the Lord, like other nations of the world, fall for hucksters time and again. In the past we had Shabtai Zvi, for example. There are those in the ultra religious camp who say that Zionism is a form of false messianism. Today, most of our misled beliefs are concentrated in politics. And there, we, like the goyim, are always – but always falling for false prophets.
There are the economic prophets. We’re going to change the economy so that it serves the middle class. That was two elections ago. We’re going to change the economy so that the tycoons and banks don’t rule and the poor get a fair shake. That was the last election. Prophets? Hucksters.
Fortunately, the damage they do is usually reversible (and is usually reversed by the next government, as we recently experienced). But there are others, whose preachings lead us not into economic temptation but into ethical and moral quagmires that not only show us the wrong way, but also encourage us to reveal our deepest & darkest & ugliest faces. And this is what we have been seeing day in, day out from north to south.
But there are signs of change. The important rabbis who this week began a revolt in regard to conversions is not something to just shrug off. And today is wake-up time, the call for internal change, as we enter the month of Elul and see Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur galloping towards us relentless. There’s still time. Let’s hope we meet the holidays ready and willing to be purged of at least some of our follies.