Drash on Parashat Devarim 2019
Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Victoria
This week precedes Tisha b’Av, when we commemorate one of Judaism’s great tragedies – the destruction of the Temple and the downfall of the nation state. In the time of the Temple, corruption within the priesthood and the national leadership led to its ultimate destruction. It is interesting timing that this week in our world, two mass shootings took place in the US again and the response is as ever, one of inaction and platitudes.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses reiterates the major themes and events from the Torah; in one section, we note that the story of the spies who were dispatched to investigate the Promised Land, is changed. Unlike in the original text where it is the spies who come back and say the land is unconquerable, in the account from Moses in Devarim, it is the people Moses blames for not entering the promised land: “You refused to go up and flouted the command of the Eternal your God” (Deut 1:26). It’s a small change but the result is that Moses transfers the culpability of doubt from the spies to the people, making the entire community of Israel responsible for not entering Israel as God had commanded. Adding to this, it’s not to the original group that Moses places the blame but having waited out an entire generation, so it would not be slaves but free people who entered the Promised Land, Moses is addressing this blame to this next generation – in essence, the sins of their fathers (parents) are transferred to the children.
As readers or scholars, we can’t speculate on who changed this story – was it Moses or a biblical redactor (editor)? We also can’t know why it was changed but we can see the discrepancy clearly and are left to speculate about the reasons: was it to fit a political agenda? In inspiring this generation to learn from the error of the past – changing the story sacrifices its truth in the pursuit of a narrative to serve an objective.
After a few days now of ‘thoughts and prayers’ for small children orphaned when their parents were murdered while shopping for their house warming party and shielding their children, a six-year-old murdered on a jumping castle, and dozens of others, is it minor changes to the facts of these murders and their murderers that is crippling our ability to respond when action is needed? When there is no trust in the facts, those who disagree can always claim it is just ‘fake news’.
In an era where truth in reporting is taking on new importance, there are lessons we can learn from Moses in this parshah. Is changing the facts just a little the predecessor to offering ‘thoughts and prayers?’ From where does this hatred start and then fester to the point that they dehumanize their victims to the point of murder? Even this far back in our history, we’re specifically cautioned by this Torah portion to hear out those with conflicting views, to listen to the great and small alike, the Israelite and the stranger and that we should not be unduly influenced by anyone. We are called upon to become informed, then to make an impartial and independent judgment – it’s advice that is every bit as relevant today as it was in Moses’ time.
Today, algorithms can select our news sources based on what they think we want to hear; exacerbating the problem of existing in an echo chamber where the only residents are those who think like us – or in some cases, hate the same way. We need to actively seek out people who disagree with our world view – to try to understand them and where they are coming from, even if we will never agree with them. We’re not being told to give equal weight to fanciful or spurious reports, in fact, we’re specifically cautioned against it, but we are told to think critically.
The events in the US this week are a good example of a modern-day narrative changing to suit a political or other agenda. Was the El Paso shooter a white-supremacist and domestic terrorist? Was he mentally-ill? It’s not that the two must be mutually exclusive, but it is that for some groups, the decision about what descriptor to use is coloured, and that word is chosen carefully, by the political agenda of the person speaking.
If the mass murderer who traveled to El Paso from near Dallas to carry out his act of terrorism, was not a young, white, male, would people be so hesitant to apply the label of terrorist? He was inspired by other racist (mass) murderers to carry out his own act of terrorism. He posted his hatred online in a document for the world to see and in the hopes that as he had been inspired, so would he inspire others who hate like he does. There has been a lot of discussion about how these labels are applied and how quickly and the impact this has on how people think about these acts. We can say it is a time when ‘facts matter,’ but facts always do.
It is important that we identify changes to the ‘facts’ and call out the possible motive and ramifications of these subtle yet important changes. The historic destruction of our Temple and nation, scattering us to the winds, stemmed from corruption, greed and envy. In reading these messages of hate, we see envy and fear but note it is also often encouraged by corrupt leaders who ring the bell of racism to distract and foster disunity. It is incumbent upon us all to recognize these attempts to benefit politically from amplifying conflict and fear rather than focus on ways to foster harmony and to call it out.