September 20, 2007

Deuteronomy 30-31: Choose life

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 30-31 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers a promise to return the Israelites to their homeland if they repent; the offer of life or death; preparations for Joshua to succeed Moses; instructions for reading the law; a prediction of Israel's rebellion; and the prologue to the Song of Moses.

In today's readings we have one of the most poetic, moving portions of the Bible we have yet encountered. I am speaking about Deut. 30:11-20, in which Moses exhorts the Israelites to "choose life." It is a fitting culmination of the passage describing the punishments for disobedience and the rewards for obedience.

First, for my readers following along in the text, you will notice that I erred in the last essay. At that time, I noted that God doesn't give any hope after listing the punishments for disobedience. I was correct at the time: the chapter following the punishments did not contain any hope, but the beginning of today's readings (Deut. 30:1-10) does. There, God promises that after all their punishments, the Israelites will return to God and will will forgive them, bring them back to their homeland, bless them, and curse their enemies. All will be well again.

At this juncture, Moses steps back and sounds very much like a pleading parent: "Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach." (Deut. 30:11, NIV) He goes on to say that the law is not in heaven or beyond the sea, but "in your mouth and in your heart." (Deut. 30:12-14, NIV) It is as though Moses wants to remind the people that even though the task may seem monumental at first glance, the law isn't really that difficult to obey. If only the Hebrews listen and learn, they will be able to follow it, and all the punishments he has just described needn't come to pass.

The theme continues in Deut. 30:15-18; Moses notes that he has put two paths before the Israelites: one, the path of obedience, leads to "life and prosperity," while the other, the path of disobedience, leads to "death and destruction." Indeed, most of the book of Deuteronomy has laid out these two paths, going over them again and again in detail. Here, Moses finally sums up the argument to the Hebrews: these are the only two choices available to you: obedience or disobedience. You must choose.

Finally, in Deut. 30:19-20, Moses exhorts the Israelites to "choose life, so that you and your children may live." (NIV)

Moses, graced with divine insight, knows that the Israelites will rebel and choose the path of death. As I mentioned in the last essay, this text was probably written long after the destruction of the tribes of Israel. Despite that, the author still pleads with his ancestors to do the right thing, as though if he pleads earnestly enough he could change the past.

This theme is particularly fitting at this time of the year: the days between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. In fact, this is one of the few times over the past year when Daily Breadcrumbs has come close to the same readings as Jews the world over are presently reading in synagogue. This passage was read in every synagogue less than two weeks ago, on September 8, the weekend before Rosh Hashana.

What makes this theme, this exhortation to "choose life" so appropriate for this time of year? For the benefit of my non-Jewish readers, I offer a brief primer in Jewish theology: in Judaism, the most important holiday of the year is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This year, that takes place from the evening of Sept. 21 to the evening of Sept. 22. Ten days before Yom Kippur is Rosh Hashana, literally "the Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year's Day. Between these two days, Jews believe that God opens the Book of Life and Death, in which he writes everyone's fate for the upcoming year. As the title suggests, God writes in the Book whether any given person will live or die. On Yom Kippur, the Book is closed and the decision is final; whatever will be, will be.

However, on the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the book is open and in flux. During these ten days, Jews traditionally ask for forgiveness for any wrongs they have committed, repay debts, make restitution, and generally take care of any unfinished business they may have accumulated over the past year. They are attempting to be written in the Book of Life, to "choose life," as today's readings urge.

Whether this belief system is only so much superstition or whether it contains some kernel of truth is beyond the scope of Daily Breadcrumbs. Speaking personally, I like the idea that there is a time each year when we can sit back and contemplate whether we have wronged anyone over the previous year, whether there is any business left undone, whether we have been "naughty or nice" (to borrow a phrase from another religion's holiday).

To all my readers, I would like to take this moment to wish you a happy new year, and hope that you are written in the Book of Life. Whether you believe in the system or not, it's the sentiment that counts. Or, as the saying goes, "you may not believe in God, but he believes in you."

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