The book of Deuteronomy—Moses’ dying valediction—is framed in space and time by the number eleven: The Israelites are encamped an eleven days’ journey from Horeb (Sinai) (1:2), and Moses begins to speak on the first day of the eleventh (ashte asar) month (1:3). (Note how ashte asar is reinforced by another temporal marker: The speech begins after the conquest at ashterot. [1:4]). In a world dominated by the number twelve—the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve spies, the twelve stones of the breastplate, etc.—the number eleven strikes a discordant note. I take it to signify an impending end: If twelve marks completion, summation, then eleven indicates its approach.
Deuteronomy is a book that foresees an imminent end.
But the end of what? Deuteronomy marks the end of the wilderness wandering, of course, and as such, that end is a happy one, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to settle his children in the land of Canaan. Yet Deuteronomy is replete with rebuke; indeed, rebuke is arguably the book’s raison d’être.
In the opening chapters of the book, Moses will recall Israel’s sins in the wilderness, and warn throughout of new prospects for sinning in the land. Especially in the latter third of the book, these sins will serve as grounds for imagining a more distant future of foreign invasion and exile.
This is the paradox of the book of Deuteronomy: It offers a vision of Jewish life on the land even as it envisions the end of such life. From the perspective of the book of Deuteronomy, national existence in the land of Israel is intrinsically fragile.
This complex vision has obvious resonance for a Jewish present that counts the State of Israel as its most prominent center. But the book of Deuteronomy, so conceived, should speak likewise to people as such, inhabitants of the Anthropocene. To live in this era is to appreciate that, in the most profound way, “He has given the earth to human beings” (Ps 115:16).
We are the makers of this world, and its biggest threat.
Let us, then, at the eleventh hour, begin to explicate the Torah of the Anthropocene that is implicit in Deuteronomy. Chapter 1 is a meditation on the relationship between leaders and led. Leadership decisions that in Exodus and Numbers were the result of private conversations among elites—between Jethro and Moses about the appointment of judges (Exodus 19), between God and Moses about the appointment of the spies (Numbers 13)—emerge in Deuteronomy 1 from negotiations between Moses and the people.
Likewise, Moses is barred from entering the land of Canaan not because of his private transgression against God, as in Numbers 20, but because he heads a generation that will itself not inherit the land. The very juxtaposition of the judges and the spies—a vital and enduring leadership institution, on the one hand, and a short-lived and disastrous one, on the other—underscores the sense that leadership is an epiphenomenon, and that reality and power lie ultimately in the people.
Moses opens with a first and fundamental lesson for the end time: There is no delegating responsibility.
Tzvi Novick holds the Abrams College Chair of Jewish Thought and Culture at the University of Notre Dame
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