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Two Minutes of Torah: Devarim - Holding Back

For me it’s not really summer camp until I have played a game of football/soccer (delete as appropriate). As a participant I simply enjoyed playing the sport, when I became a Madrich (a counselor) at Shemesh summer camp, it became a little bit more complicated. By that point my size and age advantage meant that generally I was better (or at least stronger) than those I was playing with, but I never dominated the games. Being in a position of responsibility meant that I always saw my role as making sure that things were even and everyone was included. And then this summer I got to play, while visiting the URJ’s Kutz camp. I was much older than these campers, and it was no longer about holding back, it was about doing everything I could to keep up with them and avoid passing out from exhaustion.

This week we begin the final book of the Torah, Devarim as a whole is essentially Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites. Standing on the brink of crossing the Jordan and entering the Promised Land, Moses wants to impart his final message to the people, reminding them of where they have been and preparing them for the future.

The beginning of the speech, in this week’s Torah portion, focuses on their journeys through the wilderness and the interaction and engagement they had with other peoples along the way. Having spent time around Mount Seir (Deuteronomy 2:2), the journey continued, but God gave the people clear instructions: ‘You will pass through the border of your brothers, the sons of Esau, who dwell in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful that you do not provoke them, for I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on’ (Deuteronomy 2:4-5). Adding, as an extra caution, ‘You shall buy food from them with money, that you may eat, and you will also buy water from them with money, that you may drink’ (Deuteronomy 2:6).

God’s instructions to the Israelites were very specific. It was not just a warning against fighting with the people dwelling in the land of Seir, and taking possession of their territory; it also required they dealt fairly with them. When reading the Torah, the implication appears that the Israelites could quite easily have defeated the sons of Esau, and taken anything that they wanted while journeying through their land. God’s words therefore appear as an intervention to ensure that the Israelites did not abuse their strength and military power against a weaker nation.

Following on immediately from this instruction the Torah states: ‘God has blessed you in all your undertakings. God has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness; Adonai your God has been with you these past forty years, you have lacked nothing’ (Deuteronomy 2:7). The implication appears that the Israelites should be grateful for what they have, and not abuse their position, at the expense of others, to obtain more than what they need. This is not a commandment because of past negative experiences, it is a commandment borne out of the positive situation which the Israelites now find themselves in.

Sometimes people need to hold back so that there is space for others to grow and develop. Sometimes it’s when journeying through the wilderness and sometimes it’s on the football field at summer camp.

And if you want to listen to this Two Minutes of Torah: [audio]

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