Here is this week’s Dvar Torah:
September 9, 2023 | 23 Elul 5783
Torah: Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30 Triennial:
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10-63:9
The Moist and the Parched
Standing here, on the edge of the coming holidays and on the edge of Canaan, we look forward towards water. On Shemini Atzeret, we will begin to recite “who brings down the rain” in the Amidah, welcoming rain back into our lives also with the beautiful Tefillat HaGeshem. Looking out towards the Jordan in Deuteronomy, we reimagine our relationship with God using rain as both metaphor and reality.
As we enter a land where we will become farmers, our water needs will change dramatically. In order to receive the water we need to survive, we will need to recognize constantly that God is the source of all water. This land is “a goodly land, a land of brooks of water, springs and deeps coming out in valley and in mountain,” as opposed to our forty years in “the great and terrible wilderness… where there is no water” in which God has had to bring “water out for you from flintstone.” Unlike Egypt, in this land “from the rain of the heavens you will drink water.” That rain is, of course, contingent on heeding God’s commandments, “to love the LORD your God and to worship Him with all your heart and with all your being.” The Book of Genesis was replete with famine in Canaan, where lack of water may have caused mass starvation. Now that we are back in that land, God has given us the key to avoiding starvation, to avoiding having to leave the land in search of food. We just have to follow the commandments and God will grant us water and God will be to us as water.
This idea of God, goodness, and life itself as water is deepened in our parashah. We read of the secret sinner: “Should there be among you a man or a woman or a clan or a tribe whose heart turns away today from the LORD our God to go worship the gods of those nations, should there be among you a root bearing fruit of hemlock and wormwood, it shall be, when he hears the words of this oath and deems himself blessed in his heart, saying, ‘It will be well with me, though I go in my heart’s obduracy’ in order to sweep away the moist with the parched, the LORD shall not want to forgive him, for then shall the LORD’s wrath and His jealousy smolder against that man, and all the oath that is written in this book shall come down upon him, and the LORD shall wipe out his name from under the heavens.”
This passage seems to be saying, simply, that God will punish those who worship foreign gods in secrecy. Indeed, a few verses later we read “things hidden are for the LORD our God and things revealed for us and for our children forever to do all the words of this teaching.” We worry about the existence of such secret wrongdoers because from those individuals much wrongdoing can blossom, infecting the whole nation.
But the phrase “in order to sweep away the moist with the parched” demands to be interpreted. The word translated here as “sweep” likely comes from the root safah. In the Torah, it appears only in a few choice places. We meet it first in the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, both when Abraham asks, “Will you really sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” and also when the visitors urge Lot to get a move on it lest his family “swept away in the punishment of the city.” It occurs next in the mouth of Moses in response to the request of the Reubenites and Gaddites to stay on the far side of the Jordan. Moses recounts the story of the spies, explaining how their wrongdoing led to wandering in the wilderness for forty years, before concluding that the request of the Reubenites is even worse: “And, look, you have arisen in your fathers’ stead, a breed of offending men, to add still more of the LORD’s flaring wrath against Israel.” Here, “to add” is likely from the same root as the word we have been translating as “sweep.” The final time the word appears in the Torah is in the Song of Moses, as God describes all the terrible ways God will destroy us – “I will sweep disaster upon them, my arrows I will finish on them.” The idea of sweeping away in the Torah contains divine collective punishment for individual crimes. It is only too appropriate that it appears in our context of fear of individual wrongdoing.
The words “moist” and “parched” are more complicated. Some interpret these words as representing totality, two opposite ends of a spectrum encompassing everything in between them. “To sweep away the moist with the parched” becomes then another way of saying “to sweep away everything and everyone.” In the Deuteronomic scheme of water, the moist are surely the good, the followers of the commandments, and the parched are those who do not. The secret sinner is the parched and the community is the moist and God must figure out how to administer justice. The word translated here as moist is haravah. The precise meaning is unclear. It comes from ravah, meaning watered, soaked, satiated. Rashi will go so far as to interpret the meaning as drunk, God will sweep away the drunk with the thirsty or even the sober. The word translated as “parched” is hatzmeah. This word appears in the stories of great thirst, of need for water, in our desert wanderings.
Even as we enter the land, we carry those desert wanderings with us. We carry the memory of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We carry our entire history, our entire relationship with God, the entire array of human possibility and human error. The land we are entering is fundamentally different from anything we have experienced in recent memory. But we are the same. As we look towards water and look towards God, it is only through our recollections of lack of water, of drunkenness, of unjust destruction, that we can hope to change ourselves and our society in a way that will allow for water and goodness to flow.