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D’var Torah – Shabbat Shuvah ─ Vayelech ─ by Joe Nalven

Shabbat Shuvah ─ Vayelech ─ And he went 

September 15, 2018 / 6th of Tishrei, 5779

by Joe Nalven

Torah summaries[i] for Vayelech generally ignore the significant, yet terrible, verse Deuteronomy 31:3: The LORD your God Himself will cross over before you; and He Himself will wipe out those nations from your path and you shall dispossess them  .  .  .

Instead, the summaries for Vayelech[ii] (And he went) speak of Moses recounting his 120 years and his inability to lead the Israelites any longer, of Moses transfer of leadership to Joshua, of his completing writing the Torah and entrusting it to the Levites to keep in the Ark, of the Israelites ─ men, women and children ─ gathering every seven years to hear it read, and of Moses’ prediction that the people would turn away from their covenant with God, but that the words would not be forgotten by the people’s descendants.

Verse 3 is generally omitted from these summaries.

And yet, we cannot turn away from Deuteronomy 31:3. It is the polar opposite to the words of advice we often hear from the Rabbis – namely, to welcome the stranger since we also were strangers in the land of Egypt. Some say this mitzvah of ‘welcoming’ appears 46 times in the Torah, others say 36[iii]  times, and yet another calculation has it just 24 times. If we just went by counting alone, this mitzvah would be more important than the Ten Commandments[iv] since these appear just twice in the Torah. I suggest that we look at significance of these verses from a perspective of other than simply counting their occurrences.

A previous analysis of Deuteronomy 31:3

Two years ago[v], I examined the troubling aspects of this verse – that speaks of herem[vi], to destroy another people. While the word genocide is of recent vintage, the wiping out of nations to make way for the Israelites invokes the same thought. We[vii] might ask, “Is this who we are?”

In examining this verse previously, I came to several conclusions:  1) that many of the  nations (or tribes) in that area and at that time shared the same ethic of destruction;    2) that the practice was not as severe as what the text has us imagine ─ there was  hyperbole; 3) that pacifism, as an alternative, is a non-starter for modern Israel since it would lead to the nation’s suicide; and 4) that when there is conflict, the Israeli Defense Forces follow a different warfare ethic – to treat everyone with dignity.

The State of Israel today has yielded to the modern expectation of trying to live with their neighbors. Herem is no longer a divine premise.

The puzzle of Deuteronomy 31:3 Redux

Still, I am puzzled by this verse, especially when contrasted against other values in the Torah, such as to love or welcome the stranger. To be sure, as an invading nation, Israel was taking away land; we were certainly not welcoming the stranger, nor were the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites expected to welcome the stranger, such as the Israelites.

From the historical perspective when Deuteronomy was actually completed ─ in the 7th century BCE ─ during the reign of King Josiah in Judah, the issue was of gaining independence from Assyria[viii] – rather than the invasion of the Canaanite and others’ lands to  which the text refers. At the time of the writing of the Book of Deuteronomy, the Kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed by Assyria and now the Kingdom of Judah had become successful in liberation from Assyria. The Levitical priests of Judah needed to re-tell the story of its original settlement in Canaan with the ascendancy of the God Yahweh and of the covenant between Yahweh and the Israelites.

So, the Deuteronomic narrative in the 7th cent. BCE is a historical justification[ix] for the Hebrews to possess this land as a result of Yahweh’s divine dispossession.[x]  We note that the actual possession of the land from the Canaanites occurred several hundred years earlier than when the Book of Deuteronomy was composed.[xi]

My objective is to consider this verse ─ Deuteronomy 31:3 (of destroying the Canaanites) ─ from two frameworks of analysis:  first, from the perspective of linguistic emphasis in the Deuteronomic text itself and second, from a contrast of competing values:  the value of destroying another people versus the value of welcoming strangers. Both of these values, to be sure, are in the Torah.  Let us consider if they in conflict and in what way.

The linguistic emphasis of  / The Lord your God . . . [xii]

The verse begins with    the God Adonai (Yahweh) followed immediately by the God El ─ or stated as, “The Lord (God 1) your God (God 2).” In terms of Israelite history, God 1 and God 2 derive from different historical experiences and sources.[xiii]

First, let us look at the number of times this conjunction appears in Deuteronomy compared to the other four books of the Torah.[xiv]  The number of occurrences per 1000 words is exponentially greater in the Book of Deuteronomy than any of the other Books of the Torah:  308 such combined occurrences or 13.32 times per 1000 words. The second most common occurrence is in the Book of Leviticus with only 26 occurrences or 1.39 times per 1000 words.

YHWH+Elohim [suffix]

Total Hits      per 1000 words


Genesis                  1       0.03

Exodus                 27       1.04

Leviticus              26       1.39

Numbers                6       0.24

Deuteronomy   308      13.32

The Deuteronomic writers were making the point that not only were the Hebrews dispossessing the Canaanites[xv] from their land, but absorbing also their God (El). Here we have both physical and symbolic rationales for the Israelites to own the land. The people are gone and their God has merged with that of the new comers – Yahweh and El are now unified   / The Lord your God. Perhaps, my view is skewed from what the Deuteronomic writers were intending in verse 3 [The LORD your God Himself will cross over before you; and He Himself will wipe out those nations from your path and you shall dispossess them  .  .  .].

Perhaps I am wrong about my conclusion.  However, what is far more important is that ongoing research ─ both in terms of the Documentary Hypothesis and archaeological discoveries ─ invites us into an ongoing conversation about the prehistory and reconfiguring of the narratives of who the Hebrews/Israelites were.

Torah Values:  Destroy[xvi] vs. Love

How might we better understand the competing values ─ of herem, to destroy others, versus welcoming or loving strangers. One way is to adopt the pure emotional approach where “destroy” is the same as saying “boo” vs. “love the stranger” would mean  “hooray.” This is the boo/hooray doctrine[xvii]; such emotional justification[xviii] for ethical action may be tempting but doesn’t do more than rooting for the home team. Intellectually it proves unsatisfying. Something more is called for.

A different direction could be to follow arguments such as presented Rabbi Jonathan Sacks[xix] ─ a path that seeks emotion attached to reason in ethical decision-making – in effect, an emotional intelligence. Sacks follows the neurologist Antonio Damasio in his book, Descartes’ Error.[xx]  Descartes sought underpinnings from reason alone – I think therefore I am. But neurology and the wider human experience argues for a more robust decision-making process.[xxi]

That’s fine. But what is that something more beyond emotional condemnation of verse 3 or emotional congratulations for ‘welcoming the stranger.’ What is the rational component to which we wish to attach our emotional reaction?

I propose that one of the driving elements of how we act ─ whether in individual action or as a much wider response as part of societal or national action ─ is ‘numerosity.’ Simply put, what is important is: How many people are we talking about? This approach is similar to the view of sociobiologists advocated by biologists such as E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis which examines evolutionary mechanisms and how they affect social organization.[xxii], [xxiii]  The same can be said of evolutionary psychology.[xxiv]  Yes, these are reductionist approaches but are worth considering as a counterpoint to arguments taken from divine, legislative and other normative explanatory systems.

It seems that advice to ‘welcome the stranger’ would be diminished when there are large numbers of Others – that is, when there are many strangers, the action called for is much less welcoming.

Consider the Hebrews going into Egypt as the few, and then being in Egypt and becoming the many.

Example of ‘few’ in number:  Exodus 22:21: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[xxv] [xxvi] That proscription is stated in Moses’ setting out the laws to the Israelites about property, Hebrew servants, personal injuries, etc. These laws follow upon the more general Ten Commandments.

I propose that delving into the contrast between actions with respect to others is influenced by other than divine or legislative rules. As humans, we look to a different norm when called upon to engage with a few others or engage with a flood of others.

That proscription can be seen as part of the ‘fewness’ principle in Genesis 47:5-6: “Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Your father and your brothers have come to you. You can choose any place in Egypt for them to live. Give your father and your brothers the best land. Let them live in the land of Goshen.’”

Compare that kindly Pharaoh sentiment to a later time when the Hebrews became large in number: Exodus 1:9:  “Look,” Pharaoh said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too ‘numerous’ for us.”

Here is another example where the size of the adversary denotes fear:  Numbers 22:3:  “Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites.”

In Deuteronomy 31:3, the numerosity of the adversaries and the consequential fear is overcome by God: “He Himself will wipe out those nations from your path  .  .  .”

The view advanced here[xxvii] is that if the number of individuals concerned is small then the response is more likely to be ‘welcome;’ but when the concern is about numerous individuals, then ‘welcoming’ gives way to apprehension, fear and the like.


In reflecting on Deuteronomy 31:3 ─ the verse often skipped over by commentators or referenced as ‘that is not who we are’ ─ we might find that there are some valuable insights in this verse.

First, from a historical-linguistic analysis, the Deuteronomic writers were likely making a symbolic statement about a transformed God concept (Yahweh plus El) that supplanted both the Canaanite people themselves as well as absorbing the Canaanite god into the Israelite God as a make-over.

Second, from an ethical analysis, the contrasting values of divine possession of the land by destroying the occupants versus welcoming the other or of welcoming and loving the stranger requires more than a boo for the destruction of some and a hooray for the welcoming of others. That is simply a feel good justification for us and easy to repeat over and over.

Perhaps we might profit by looking at this contrast as a human reaction to ‘few’ versus ‘more’ Others. Perhaps this is not about who we are in terms of our heritage; it is not about having been strangers in a foreign land.  Rather, this may be more about the evolutionary context in which we are engaged with Others:  If there are few Others, far easier to be welcoming; if there are many Others, we are more likely to experience fear. That is a sociobiology or evolutionary psychology explanation rather than one arising in an uncritical historical commentary to be applied to current events.

Neither of my interpretations may be persuasive. That is not the point of this dvar. Instead, I am suggesting it would be more interesting if commentaries and arguments about what we do as humans, and what we do as Jews – with respect to treatment of the Other[xxviii] – state more than justifications from the divine or as we would want the world to be legislated.

[i] Some example of Torah summaries for Vayelech:  Chabad, Torah in a Nutshell: ; My Jewish Learning: ; Torah Portions (Messianic Judaism): ; see also, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Vayelech (5772) – The Heart, the Home, the Text, ; an extended analysis of this theme, however, is by Jeffrey Tigay, Jewish Interpretations of the Canaanite Genocide, , an invited lecture at Wheaton College.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Welcome the stranger: The advice appears various number of times.  24 times – Rabbi Akiva Eiger points to Tosaphot (Kiddushin 70b), ;  36 times (URJ –; 46 times – .  Also, Marc Lipshitz notes that the context restricts how ‘welcome the stranger’ should be understood and warns against a blanket or generalized interpretation (“Most of those refer to the convert that has become Jewish, not to others. Some refer to only a Ger Toshav- a non-Jew who appeared before a Jewish court and took vows to refrain from specific actions, some only refer to a Ger Tzedek- a non-Jew who kept specific laws. They do not refer to any stranger regardless of situation and especially do not refer to those who may attack or harm you.”) Ibid. Quora.

[iv] The Ten Commandments (or sayings) appear at Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:4–21

[v] Dvar, Shabbat Shuva, October 8, 2016.

[vi]  Herem (war or property)

[vii] I am dedicating this dvar to Sydney Wexler. He often asked at CBI’s Saturday morning Torah study sessions how such a verse could be in the Torah. The verse is mystifying, especially when what is sought is acceptance, not domination.

[viii] Book of Deuteronomy,

[ix] See, for example,

[x] See, ;

[xi]  Id. Herem first appears in Numbers 21:2 ; in Deuteronomy 31:3, the analogous word is yashid

 [xii] Hebrew text from right to left. If written for English literate audience, it would appear as יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ

[xiii]  From this view, the Hebrews originally were influenced by the Canaanite God El – hence, Isra-El. Also, Genesis 33:20 tells of Jacob constructing an altar in Shechem, and dedicated it to “El, god of Israel” (’el ’elohe yišra’el ).  Another view provides a different path to the merging of Yahwistic tribes with those following El.  In either narrative, there are different histories which both lead to a merger of these distinct Gods.

[xiv] Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel provided the statistical comparisons and a thoughtful challenge to the explanation for the differences proposed here. The responsibility for any errors of interpretation is that of the author.

[xv] The Canaanites were not totally destroyed. Recent research show that their DNA is prevalent among the Lebanese. The DNA of ancient Canaanites lives on in modern-day Lebanese, genetic analysis shows, LA Times, By Mira Abed Jul 27, 2017

[xvi] Herem (war or property) ; ; ; as reduced to excommunication,

[xvii] Logical positivism:

[xviii] A.J. Ayer argues that an ethical statement (for example, “that’s wrong”) adds nothing to its factual. Ayer states, “if I say to someone, ‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money,’ I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, ‘You stole that money.’ In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it.” So, Ayer would likely argue that sermons and other condemnations of Deuteronomy 31:3 would be to say, “That’s wrong” (or bad to that destruction of the Canaanites) without adding any factual support for why it is wrong. See further discussion in

[xix] Rabbi Jonathan Sack, Descartes Error – Chukat 5777

[xx] Antonio Damasio, Descartes Error,

[xxi] See also, The Role of Emotion in Ethical Decisionmaking by Sidney Callahan. The attempt is to rehabilitate emotion where reason and emotion would be mutually corrective resources in ethical decisionmaking.

[xxii] Edmund O. Wilson, Sociobiolgy: The New Synthesis, ; see also, Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, which provides a rationale for taking a biological ax to other disciplines, especially religion, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” as cited in, See also the classic response from Stephen Jay Gould Richard Lewontin and members of the Sociobiology Study Group from which the following position outlines opposition to sociobiological explanations:  “Wilson dissociates himself from earlier biological determinists by accusing them of employing an ‘advocacy method’ (deliberately selecting facts to support preconceived notions) generating unfalsifiable hypotheses. He purports to take a more solidly scientific approach using a wealth of new information. We think that this information has little relevance to human behavior, and the supposedly objective, scientific approach in reality conceals political assumptions. Thus, we are presented with yet another defense of the status quo as an inevitable consequence of ‘human nature.’”  [Emphasis added.]

[xxiii] A contrary view opposing sociobiology is Sociobiology: Evolution, Genes and Morality by Roy Bohlin,

[xxiv] Evolutionary psychology.

[xxv] See a discussion of this perspective in For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt, Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz. The Jewish Standard: Feb 10, 2017

[xxvi] Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible: Exodus (2018) provides several essays on this verse, pp. 322-326, emphasizing the importance of empathy as an impetus to moral behavior.

[xxvii] There may be other factors at work beside ‘numerosity’ in gauging the reaction to ‘strangers’ in the Bible.

[xxviii] A further analysis of ‘welcoming the stranger’ will lead into who the stranger is – guest or enemy.  An excellent treatment of this theme can be found in the essay: Guest or enemy? Welcoming the stranger, Richard Kearney ABC Religion and Ethics 21 Jun 2012, at : “The great stories of the biblical tradition that characterizes the three Abrahamic religions .  .  . [are] testaments to the paradoxical origins of religion in both violent conflict and peaceful embrace.” [Emphasis added.]

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the D’var Torah articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Beth Israel.





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