As children’s brains develop and they learn to understand the world, they move from black and white divisions to more nuanced categories and combinations. I remember when I was a child myself how at first there were clear separations. People celebrated Hanukkah or Christmas. New friends were either boys or girls. People had curly hair or straight hair, or they were tall or short. You get the idea. At this young age, we’re not trying to exclude or narrow our world view. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We’re trying to understand as much of the world as possible, we simply don’t have enough context yet to understand all the complexities. But as children, these identifiers act as ways in which we do or don’t identify with people, and those who fit into a different category become “other.” As adults, we have enough experience to realize that every human being is different because that’s how we were created by God. When we run into problems is when we slip back into that “other” way of thinking.
Throughout the Torah we hear about the different tribes and groups of people that comprise the Israelites and the ones they meet along their journey. Usually this serves to differentiate the new nation from others, but occasionally, the Israelites are reminded of their commonalities.
This week in our parshah we enter into the final book of the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy). Devarim stresses the covenant between God and Israel and looks toward Israel’s future in a new land as they build a society that pursues justice and righteousness. The central theme of this section of text is monotheism – the belief in one God – and building a society around the laws we’ve been given over the course of the four previous books.
In chapter two, we read about the Israelites as they proceed to the Promised Land. Until now, Israel’s encounters with other nations have been mostly negative. From enslavement in Egypt to war with Amalek, Sihon, and Og, they’ve had a rough go when encountering other communities. However, in verses four and five, a different description is laid out: “And charge the people as follows: you will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to provoke them.”
This is the first time that another nation is referred to as “kinsmen” for the Israelites since they’ve left Egypt. Perhaps it’s because they need to learn to live at peace with others now that they will have their own land and established territories. Regardless of the specific reason, this is a clear sign of how Israel has matured as a people, and it hints at their capability of finally continuing on their own as a new nation in partnership with other people, and not just with God. As our connected world seems more and more divided, this week’s Torah portion reminds us that social progress is moving from stranger to kinsmen and not the other way around.