Change is Always Possible

Parashat Dvarim Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

presented July 2002 at the Newton Centre Minyan, an egalitarian Jewish congregation in Massachusetts

This is one of a series of drashot (Torah talks) in which I argue that the Rabbis chose Haftorah readings (supplemental readings from the Prophets or Writings) that undermine or subvert themes in the associated weekly Torah reading. The traditional view is that the Haftorah elaborates upon the Torah reading, but I wonder if the Rabbis, like us, found some of the Biblical text problematic.

This parasha includes an interesting retelling by Moses of the 38 years in the wilderness (after the Israelites left Egypt and before they entered the land of Israel). Like any retelling it is an interpretation. Moshe (Moses) doesn’t tell every single thing that happened – that would have taken years to tell. Rather, he picks out certain events and incidents that fit into a larger picture that he is trying to paint or point he is trying to make.

Moses recounts the big event that happened 38 years earlier – God told them they could take the land of the Amorites, but they were frightened and did not do what God told them to do. He reminds his audience how he tried to convince them that God would go with them so that there is no reason to be afraid. And then the next verse: Deuteronomy 1:32 “When the Lord heard your loud complaint, He was angry. He vowed: Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers …”

What I see in this exchange is a static image: The people of Israel don’t do what God says. Whether or not Moshe tries to convince them to change their minds and behavior is irrelevant. God does not believe that they can change. By vowing that this entire generation will have to die out before Bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel) can enter the land, God is essentially proclaiming that there is no possibility for this generation to change – they cannot repent, grow, become braver or more trusting. They are what they are, and that is that.

Interestingly, God is quoted as saying (Deut. 1:39) that “Your children who do not yet know good from bad, they shall enter the land, to them I will give it and they shall possess it.” In other words, there is this one category of people – those who do not yet know good from bad – who can still develop and grow and change and evolve. But that is not possible for those who do know good from bad.

Moshe then goes on to tell the story of what happened next. The people of Israel actually do change their minds. They say: “We stand guilty before the Lord. We will go up now and fight, just as the Lord our God commanded us.” And what does God reply: They should not go and fight because he will not go out in their midst and so they will be crushed by their enemies. And what did the people do? Again, they did not listen. In other words, they were truly incapable of deep, existential change.

The notion that people’s character traits are set in an essential way is made clear in another string of anecdotes recalled by Moshe. Parts of the territory that God wants Bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel) to either go through or to conquer is inhabited by people whom God tells them to deal fairly with, pay them for their food and water, and avoid quarreling. But other of the people God tells them to completely wipe out. For example, the people of Heshbon and the people of Bashan: “We doomed every town – men, women, and children – leaving no survivor.” Again, I would suggest that God insistence that everyone be killed suggests a highly essentialist world view in which human nature is pre-determined and static. The people of Heshbon and Bashan are inherently no good, and every last one of them must be killed.

In short, Moshe’s story – his selection of these particular events and anecdotes – which surely are only a small number of the events and anecdotes he could have chosen to talk about – paint a pretty consistent picture of people who are either good or bad, either us or them. People who cannot change their inherent nature. The concept of tshuva (repentance, turning, changing one’s ways) is simply not there.

In contrast, the Haftorah – Isaiah Chapter 1 – is all about tshuva – change.

The Prophet Isaiah begins by relating the vision he has had in which God admonishes Israel, saying that even though he himself has reared them, they have rebelled against him. Interesting, a contrast is made between animals and the people of Yehuda and of Jerusalem.: The ox and the beast know their owner and keep going back to their home barns. The animals do not change – they keep doing what they have always done. The people of Yehuda and Jerusalem, on the other hand, does not “know” God anymore, that have “forsaken” God, even though God reared them and brought them up.

The portrait of human nature, then, already, in the opening sentences, is dynamic.

Isaiah then goes on to describe all of the terrible suffering that has been inflicted upon Israel. And then here is where the entire world view diverges dramatically from the one of Deuteronomy. God tells Israel, through Isaiah, that they are capable of change – that they can stop their bad behavior. They do not have to die and be replaced by another generation for tshuva to take place.

What does God say?: ?Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doing from before my eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

And then the next verse makes the possibility of human growth and change even more clear: “Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord. Through your sins be like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be white as wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the Land.”

And what is the alternative: If Israel does not change its ways voluntarily, God will make the change for them, and it won’t be such a nice one. The strong one will be brought low and the mighty one will be made weak.

When we juxtapose these two readings, one level of understanding may be that by the time of Isaiah the relationship between God and Israel has become more complicated. There is more room for negotiation. There is a longer history to be reckoned with, a more complex social organization to deal with. The leaders that Moshe recounts having appointed in a pretty straightforward way, for example, have screwed up pretty badly by the time of Isaiah.

A second level of interpretation suggests that even God has become more complicated – more willing to listen to Israel and to understand their motives – for good and for bad.

Yet for me personally the most powerful message in the “correction” that the Haftorah brings to the Parasha concerns humans and the possibility of change. The image of human nature suggested by Isaiah is a compelling one: No matter how low one has sunk, there is always the possibility of tshuva, or change. Death is never the only solution. Even the worst sinners can become kind, decent human beings. And, in Isaiah’s vision, this kind of deep tshuva can happen both at the level of the individual and at the level of society as a whole. What I take from this vision is the imperative that becomes clearer later on in the writings of the Prophets: We are obligated to never give up working to build a just society.