Last week, as we finished B'midbar (Numbers), the Israelites are just about to enter the promised land. This week, as we begin Devarim (Deuteronomy), Moses stops the narrative. He says, before you move forward into the Promised Land, we have to recall our journey that got us here, we have to review our laws, and we have to reflect on our covenant with God.
And that last part is what I want to focus on, because Deuteronomy acknowledges human free will. It acknowledges that we have the choice to be good, or to be bad. We have the choice to enact God’s will or ignore it and allow evil to flourish.
(1) אלה הדברים THESE ARE THE WORDS — Because these are words of rebuke and he is enumerating here all the places where they provoked God to anger, therefore he suppresses all mention of the matters in which they sinned and refers to them only by a mere allusion contained in the names of these places out of regard for Israel (cf. Sifrei Devarim 1:1; Onkelos and Targum Jonathan).
(23) Your rulers are stubborn rogues
And cronies of thieves, They all love bribes, And are greedy for gifts;
They do not judge the case of the orphan,
And the widow’s cause never reaches them.
This word is similar to the Talmudic תַּשְׁלוּמִין. Jonathan paraphrases: One man says to another, Do me a favor in my case, and I will repay you in your case. This refers to a judge who was a robber, and the robbery victim complains about him before another judge. This one says to him, Declare me innocent today, and I will repay you when they complain about you before me. This is the meaning of running after payments.
The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
(יט) אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר כָּל הַתּוֹרָה תְּלוּיָה בַּמִּשְׁפָּט, לְכָךְ נָתַן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא דִּינִין אַחַר עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת, לְפִי שֶׁהַבְּרִיּוֹת מַעֲבִירִין עַל הַדִּין וְהוּא נִפְרַע מֵהֶם וּמְלַמֵּד אֶת בָּאֵי עוֹלָם, שֶׁלֹא הָפַךְ אֶת סְדוֹם עַד שֶׁעִבְּרָה אֶת הַדִּין, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (יחזקאל טז, מט): גָּאוֹן שִׂבְעַת לֶחֶם וְשַׁלְוַת הַשְׁקֵט. וְאַף יְרוּשָׁלַיִם לֹא גָּלְתָה עַד שֶׁעִבְּרָה אֶת הַדִּין, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה א, כג): יָתוֹם לֹא יִשְׁפֹּטוּ וְרִיב אַלְמָנָה לֹא יָבוֹא אֲלֵיהֶם, וְלָמָּה נָתַן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא כֶּתֶר לִיהוּדָה, וַהֲלוֹא לֹא לְבַדּוֹ הוּא גִבּוֹר מִכָּל אֶחָיו, וַהֲלוֹא שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי גִבּוֹרִים וְהָאֲחֵרִים, אֶלָּא שֶׁדָּן דִּין אֱמֶת לְתָמָר, לָכֵן נַעֲשָׂה דַּיָּן הָעוֹלָם. מָשָׁל לְדַיָּן שֶׁבָּא דִין שֶׁל יְתוֹמָה לְפָנָיו וְזִכָּה אוֹתָהּ, כָּךְ יְהוּדָה בָּא דִין תָּמָר לְפָנָיו שֶׁתִּשָֹּׂרֵף וְהוּא זִכָּה אוֹתָהּ מִפְּנֵי שֶׁמָּצָא לָהּ זְכוּת. כֵּיצַד הָיוּ יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב יוֹשְׁבִים שָׁם וְכָל אֶחָיו וְהָיוּ מְחַפִּין אוֹתוֹ, הִכִּיר יְהוּדָה לַמָּקוֹם וְאָמַר אֲמִתַּת הַדָּבָר, וְאָמַר (בראשית לח, כו): צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי, וַעֲשָׂאוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא נָשִׂיא. וְכֵן הָיָה בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר וְדוֹרֵשׁ נִתְבַּיַּשְׁתָּ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה אֵין אַתָּה מִתְבַּיֵּשׁ מִן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא שֶׁהוּא אֵשׁ אֹכְלָה, לָמָּה, שֶׁאֵין בָּשְׁתּוֹ שֶׁל הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה כְּלוּם אֶלָּא בּשֶׁת עֲמִידָתוֹ שֶׁל הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים לב, ו): עַל זֹאת יִתְפַּלֵּל כָּל חָסִיד אֵלֶיךָ וגו'.
(19) R’ Elazar said: the whole Torah hangs on judgment. That is why the Holy One gave the laws of justice after the Ten Commandments - because people cross the line of justice, are punished and this teaches the whole world. Sodom was not overturned until it crossed the line of justice, as it says “…pride, abundance of bread, and careless ease…“ (Ezekiel 16:49) Even Jerusalem was not exiled until she crossed the line of justice, as it says “…the orphan they do not judge, and the quarrel of the widow does not come to them.” (Isaiah 1:23) And why did the Holy One give the crown to Yehudah? He is not the sole mighty one from among his brothers, are not Shimon, Levi and the others mighty as well? Rather, it was because he gave true judgment to Tamar, therefore he was made judge of the world. This is like a judge before whom an orphan’s judgment comes and he finds in her favor. So too Yehudah – Tamar’s judgment that she should be burned came before him, and he found in her merit because he found merit in her. How? Yitzchak and Yaakov were sitting there, and all his brothers were covering for him. Yehudah acknowledged Gd (HaMakom) and spoke the truth of the matter, saying “She is more in the right than I…” (Bereshit 38:26) and the Holy One made him prince. So Ben Zoma used to say and explain: if you were ashamed in this world, you will not be ashamed of the Holy One, who is a consuming fire, in the coming world. Why? Because the shame of this world is nothing other than the shame of one’s standing in the coming world, as it says “For this let every pious man pray to You…” (Tehillim 32:6)