A Textual Time Capsule

In Moses’ view, the only problem that might arise in the wake of the Israelites’ sinful actions is the possibility that in forgetting God, they might also forget their own inherent potential for conducting themselves righteously.

Moses wants to shape the future. The lofty speeches he delivers in the Book of Deuteronomy is full of exhortations, entreaties, warnings, threats and requests because his main objective is to persuade the Israelites to choose the straight path of righteousness. If they heed his exhortations and remain loyal to God, an aesthetic circle will be closed, with the presentation of the first fruits, as described a few chapters ago. In that ceremony, the Israelite farmers are meant to essentially return the first fruits of the land to their source, by laying them before God. If the people do not heed the words of Moses, their fate will be a bitter one.

Moses makes a supreme effort to exert his influence over a period of time in which he will no longer be able to exert any influence, to be a guiding light at a time when he will in fact no longer be a guiding light. In last week's Torah portion, he repeats the two options from which the Israelites can choose - "See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil" (Deuteronomy 30:15 ) - and declares what the right choice must be: "therefore choose life" (Deut. 30:19 ).

But in this week's portion, God reveals himself to Moses and discloses what the future will bring at the End of Days: "And the Lord said unto Moses: 'Behold, thou art about to sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and go astray after the foreign gods of the land, whither they go to be among them, and will forsake Me, and break My covenant which I have made with them. Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods'" (Deut. 31:16-18 ).

Moses' fears are justified, and it emerges that his long, eloquent speech was made in vain. He had warned the Children of Israel, "But if thy heart turn away, and thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them" (Deut. 30:17 ). And they do indeed stray from the righteous path. Moreover, they will interpret God's hiding his face as his absence, whereas God himself, in his sorrow, will continue to hide it.

With this revelation of the future, it becomes clear that in fact the Israelites don't have two options from which they will genuinely choose: Their future is predetermined, fixed. But oddly enough, Moses does not appear to be very surprised by this revelation. Furthermore, the fact that the Israelites will with certainty sin against their Creator in the future does not obviate the need to grant them choices. In Moses' view, the only problem that might arise in the wake of the Israelites' sinful actions is the possibility that they might forget that they have another choice: that in forgetting God, they might also forget their own inherent potential for conducting themselves righteously. To remind them of this latter option, God gives Moses the following counsel: "Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach thou it the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel" (Deut. 31:19 ).

Accordingly, Moses condenses all the Book of Deuteronomy's exhortations and warnings into a single poem, which is different from the long speech he delivered: The speech is in the second person, is aimed directly at a specific audience and has a direct, didactic message: Through it, Moses seeks to teach the Israelites the correct path to follow. His epic poem, however, which is characterized by a more removed, impersonal, linguistic tone, aims to "activate" Moses' audience in a different way: "then it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed" (Deut. 31:21 ). Thus, while the speech might be forgotten, the poem will survive the Israelites' sins, including that of forgetting God, and it will continue to be studied by the Children of Israel.

The poem in Deuteronomy is like a textual time capsule: It preserves the very essence of Moses' words. In its condensed form it presents the option of choosing between good and evil, and in essence preserves the possibility of that option during the era when the Israelites choose evil. At that juncture it will remind them that they still retain the option of choosing the path of righteousness, that their distancing from God is simply a mirror image of his own actions: They will learn that it is incorrect to say, "Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?" (Deut. 31:17 ), and will realize that, because they have hidden their face and turned away from the Almighty - he is also hiding his face and turning away from them. Thus, conversely, if the Children of Israel return to God, he will return to them.

The situation that will emerge in the future will be an ironic one. Again, according to Moses, there are two options: good and evil. The revelation that the Israelites will certainly sin does not paralyze him, does not make him abandon his attempt to teach them that they actually have options. The fact that Moses is not at all surprised to learn that his people will surely sin in the future proves that making the choice between good and evil is not a single, irrevocable event that will occur upon entry into the Promised Land, but rather a permanent condition. Although the Israelites go astray, they will never forget the poem; it will always remind them that they have another option.

Whereas the prophecy to Moses reveals that the Israelites will surely sin in the future, the poem is a permanent reminder that there is always a choice. The knowledge that the Israelites will sin and the possibility of another path are intertwined, inseparable - and the same can be said about the prophecy and the poem. Whereas the prophecy informs Moses as to what will happen at the End of Days, the poem embodies the notion that this future can be altered. Yet, while all the options are placed at the disposal of the Israelites, they apparently cannot avoid sinning.

The dialectical passage in this Torah portion, which is in a way incoherent and embodies a subtle understanding of the incoherence of human behavior, is thus perhaps the most fitting one to be recited tomorrow on Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Repentance, which falls between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.