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D'varim/Deuteronomy 6:20 When your son shall ask you tomorrow to say, "What [are] the testimonies and the statutes and the judgements that the L-rd our G-d has commanded you?"
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Is this a time-limited commandment, using the word , 'tomorrow' to limit its application to the generation Moshe was speaking to? Reduced, perhaps, to the ridiculous, does it mean that parents must immediately obey all the commandments they can find today - in the very day when Moshe was speaking on the Plains of Moab - so that on the next day the children will ask about them? TheMekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael explains that "sometimes the word , 'tomorrow', means 'the day after today' and sometimes it means 'in time to come' or even 'some time in the future'" (Mekhilta Bo, 18). Rashi adds: "There can be instances of the word which mean 'after a long time'." So the answer to the question is 'no'; this is not a time-limited command. To the contrary, it is really intended to be a multi-generational commandment, following on - as it does - from the Sh'ma, starting in verse 4, surely the quintessential Jewish commandment. The NJPS universalises our text translating it as "When, in time to come, your children ask you ..." We should all be doing this!
Closely echoing Moshe's words to the Israelites on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt - "And when your children ask you, 'What do you mean by this rite?'" (Shemot 12:26, NJPS) and "And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, 'What does this mean?' you shall say to him" (13:14, NJPS) - both of which are referring to the specific ritual of Pesach, this more generalised question uses any of the Torah's commandments as a teaching possibility. Jeffrey Tigay explains that "Exodus expects children to ask questions about the ceremonies commemorating the Exodus. Here, Moshe assumes they will be curious about Israel's entire way of life. Deuteronomy sees all the commandments, civil as well as ceremonial, as opportunities for religious education." Peter Craigie points out that "the positive nature of the question is shown by the identification of the questioner with the G-d of the covenant, even though he was not present at the initial making of the covenant; thus he is asking about the commandments "which the L-rd our G-d commanded you."1
Well, what are they, then? How do we answer the question? Our text lists three categories of commandment: testimonies, statues and judgements. TheSforno asks what these are, providing the answer that the testimonies are the theoretical, analytical parts of the Torah, while the statues and judgements are the application sections of the Torah, those parts that demand action. Drazin and Wagner paraphrase Sforno's questions to, "Tell me about Jewish theology; tell me about the practical aspects of Judaism." Answering just the first of the questions, the Ramban takes its words literally and replies that "the testimonies are a reminder of the miracles to which they bear witness. This refers to commandments such as unleavened bread, tabernacles, the Pesach offering, Shabbat, phylacteries and the mezuzah."
Other classical commentators take one step back from the immediate question, "what are ...?" - to which they assume that any Jewish child would know the answer - in order to look at what the Torah is trying to do.Saadia Gaon suggests that instead of "what are the testimonies ...?" the real question is "what are the reasons for the testimonies?" As usual, Ibn Ezra goes a step further: "The point of this question is not 'what do they mean?' but 'why does their yoke apply only to us, of all humanity?'" Taking a strong rationalist position, Rabbi Hirsch proposes that what matters is teaching our youth about the signs HaShem did and used in our early history; because "just by the constant repetition of this heritage of our historical experiences make such signs, suspending the ordinary laws of nature, superfluous for all the succeeding times."
As Jewish and Gentile followers of Yeshua, we need to think carefully about the implications of this command for ourselves in this day. Christopher Wright observes that, "this passage envisages internal family teaching, in which parents answer children's questions regarding specific events, memorials, rituals, or observances. The child's question then becomes the springboard for explanation and teaching ... The first thing to notice is that such questions and teaching opportunities would arise only if the parents themselves were conspicuously observing the laws. What was true for Israel as a whole was true for each family - no observance, no questions."2 If we do not put our faith into practice, then there is nothing to see and no reason for a child - or anyone else, for that matter - to ask the question. How terrible would it be if the question is never asked - if we were just like everyone else and there was nothing distinctive about us!
At the beginning of Chapter 6, Moshe tells the people that their observation of the Torah when they cross over the Jordan into the Land of Israel is "so that you, your children, and your children's children may revere the L-RD your G-d and follow, as long as you live, all His laws and commandments that I enjoin upon you" (D'varim 6:2, NJPS), thus explicitly confirming that "the obedience of the parents is done 'so that' the children will fear and obey YHVH". Walter Brueggemann is adamant that "the tradition has no doubt that lived faith will evoke such wonder in an observant child."3 Our observance is no less critical. How will our children (or disciples, the principle is the same) learn the importance of, for example, reading the Bible or prayer, if they never see us doing it, are never invited to join in and see how it is done, never receive an explanation - other than personal taste or preference - for why we do it? Patrick Miller proposes that Moshe's last sermon, the book of D'varim, "can be seen as creating such a memory for the generation it addresses by painting pictures and telling stories, so that the children may receive as real what they did not experience."4
The Apostolic Writings assume that this is the natural way that disciples will learn and grow: by hearing the stories and participating in the commemorative events. As well as telling us about the miracles and teachings of Yeshua, all the gospels - to one degree or another - show us that Yeshua was a regular attender at synagogue and was frequently in Jerusalem for the festivals. These were times when He often spoke and taught; they provided the natural context for many of His miracles and signs. It is often impossible to understand the full meaning of what Yeshua said and did without recognising the way in which - although at the same time "doing a new thing" (Isaiah 43:19, ESV) - He maintained continuity with the Torah and the prophets, with all of Scripture.
Similarly, Yeshua enjoined the continued practice of G-d's ways upon His disciples. Early in His teaching ministry, He assured them that "I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17), stressing that the Torah will not change or pass away until "everything has happened" (v. 18). He made it clear that obeying and teaching the commandments was expected behaviour in the kingdom and concluded His earthly ministry with the instruction to "make disciples of all nations ... teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (28:19-20, ESV). Rav Sha'ul frequented the synagogue, taught from the Torah, participated in Temple ritual and recognised the priority of coming up to Jerusalem for the feasts. He too recognised the continuity of Yeshua's ministry and the Scriptures as Richard Hays' book Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul5 demonstrates.
We can see the same rhetoric at use in the Apostolic Writings as in D'varim: "The use of short historical summaries of the past as a demonstrative affirmation of the love of G-d towards Israel and the reason why this people were bound to respond to this love by obedience."6 In our turn, we too must stimulate natural curiosity in our children (friends, colleagues, disciples) by our normative obedience to and observance of Yeshua's commandments - "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15, ESV) - and His observance of Torah Father: "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love" (John 15:10, ESV). How tragic would it be if our children or grandchildren saw nothing in our lives that looked any different from the world and so failed to question us about our faith in Yeshua?
In his letter to the Corinthians, Sha'ul makes what at first sounds like an odd comment: "The unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy" (1 Corinthians 7:14, ESV). What can this be about? In the context of our text, it is quite simple. A believing spouse cannot 'save' their unbelieving partner or children, but by telling the stories, living the faith and offering participation, they can open the door and be an avenue for Yeshua's invitation to work. As Miller notes: "D'varim is always aimed at the next generation. It takes the present (next) generation back to the past and brings the past afresh into the present. The children are now the ones before whom all the choices are laid and some day their children will be there and the divine instruction will confront them. Can they learn afresh what it means to love the L-rd wholeheartedly?"7
1. - P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), page 174.
2. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 103.
3. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 88.
4. - Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 109.
5. - Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, (New Haven, CT: Yale Unviersity Press, 1989).
6. - Ronald E. Clements, "Deuteronomy" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 908.
7. - Miller, 107.
Further Study: Matthew 5:17-19; 2 Timothy 2:1-3
Application: How can you open doors and prepare the way for the next generation (or two) to experience and come to know Yeshua and the ways of G-d? Speak to the Boss about it today and see what hints and tips He has for reaching out and touching other in a practical and lived out way that will draw them into the kingdom of G-d.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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