Devarim: Like the Sun and Stars

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim

This week we are reading the first parsha of the book of
Devarim, or Deuteronomy, the final book of the Torah, which is Moshe’s
final recounting and exhortation to the people before he dies and they
go on into the Land. Right at the beginning, Moshe reminds them that
his job of leadership has been difficult from the start, because the
people are numerous:

“Thereupon I said to you, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself.
The Lord your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous
as the stars in the sky . . . ‘ ” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:9-10)

Well, I can certainly understand how somebody with the responsibility
of caring for many others would feel overwhelmed- perhaps in its
simplest meaning, comparing the Israelites to the “stars in the sky”
simply reflects Moshe’s frustration at his inability to resolve all
the disputes of so many people without help. That, of course, is why
his father-in-law told him to delegate whatever he could to other
elders and leaders.

Rashi, on the other hand, takes Moshe’s words a little more literally
in order to make a different point. He points out that we actually
know how many Israelites left Egypt- about six hundred thousand,
according to the text- and while that’s a big number, it’s not an
infinite number like the stars in the heavens. So Rashi says Moshe
must have meant that the Israelites had a quality which made them like
the stars in the heavens:

“[This means] -you are compared to the sun, you will exist forever
like the sun, the moon, and the stars.”

Notice how Rashi takes a metaphor about numbers and turns it into a
metaphor about endurance, which makes sense in a historical context.
By the Middle Ages, when Rashi was writing, the people Israel were
small in numbers compared to their neighbors but would have derived
great hope from a promise that the people itself would always survive.

I like Rashi’s reading of the verse because it provides a bit of
perspective on current demographic debates in the Jewish community-
there seem to always be those who see the people Israel as on the
verge of disappearing. Rashi reminds us that we’ve never been a huge
people- “like the stars of the sky”- numerically. Rather, we are
“upheld” over the centuries- the literal translation of “exist”- which
to me means that the Jewish people will exist as long as we remember
to bring light into the world, as do the sun, moon and stars.

I certainly don’t meant to discount or ignore the many real problems
facing our world-wide communities, but I think Rashi reminds us of
something important: the people Israel has never been a numbers game,
but is instead about the enduring spiritual mission given to us at
Sinai. That mission includes compassion, justice, peace, and always
seeing human beings as made in the Image of God, with all the ethical
attention such a perspective demands. If we can do that, then I
believe we will be “upheld,” both as synagogue communities and as a
world-wide people.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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