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Justice First-- Rabbi Sam Cohon’s Torah Talk on Deuteronomy 5778

This week we begin reading Devarim, Deuteronomy, final book in the Torah. The name Deuteronomy captures a midrashic explanation of the essence of this Sefer—it means “a repeated text,” which in Hebrew is called Mishnah Torah. This reflects the fact that the whole book of Devarim is made up of a few long sermons by Moses recapitulating the events and commandments established over the previous three books. Not bad work for a man with a serious speech impediment.

A word about language in Devarim, which seems appropriate since the word Devarim means “words.” The Hebrew of the book is extraordinary: terse, strong, muscular in quality, conveying great purpose and power. Deuteronomy has the unmistakable feel of a true literary masterpiece, and the language itself conveys Moses’ message of God’s explicit direction as clearly as any text in the Torah. Sometimes the medium is the message, and so it proves here.

Deuteronomy begins at the end of the Israelites’ journey to the borders of Canaan, the Promised Land, soon to become Israel. Moses informs the people of Israel that he has now led them for forty years and they have now come to a place and time of the greatest importance. He recalls the time when the Israelites were beginning to organize and he appointed judges and magistrates to help him with the needs of the people. Moses remembers the instructions he gave those leaders: be fair and absolutely evenhanded in dispensing justice. Do not favor the rich. Do not favor the poor. Show no partiality, but simply seek that which is just and right in the world.

This is only the beginning of Moses’ long final orations, his last hurrah, so to speak. Although he is now by Biblical calculation 120 years old, though his control over his people has waned, although his speech is tinged by the bitter knowledge that he will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land, still he teaches us, yet again, the greatest lesson.

In this uncertain and often unjust world we Jews must be pledged to create acts and systems of ethics and justice. There is always the terrible danger, in every society, of justice being perverted by power. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, we Jews are commanded to work to restore and preserve justice. What greater calling can any people have?

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