Parshat Devarim 2018
The prison sentence is almost over. Another couple of weeks and the Israelites will no longer be a desert-dwelling host of tribes but rather pretenders to rule at least part of the land of Canaan. The happiest – and the saddest – person in the whole Israelite camp is Moshe. Happy – because the 40 years have finally come to an end. Sad – because will be crossing to another world, not another country. Welcome to the world of Devarim.
What strikes us when we read Moshe’s exhortations to the people is that his version of their history is not exactly what we read in the books of Bamidbar and Shmot. In today’s jargon we would ask whether Moshe is feeding us fake news. Or, as some commentators have argued, is he simply interpreting the stories, adapting them to fit the message he wants to transmit. Do these differences really matter?
The answer is we’ll never know for sure which version is more accurate. And yes, there are ramifications.
Remember, the masses he is addressing have spent all or most of their lives in the desert. When he says that it was the people who refused on their own to continue on to Canaan – he is distorting the facts. It was the 10 spies whose report panicked the people.
When he says that not being allowed into the promised land was his punishment for the peoples’ actions, he is ignoring the punishment he received for hitting a rock instead of talking to it. When he says that he devised the idea of a judicial system of different levels, he is forgetting the contribution of his father-in-law Yitro.
What do all these changes have in common? Do they alter the narrative? The judicial system is what it is, no matter who instituted it. Moshe is not entering the land so it doesn’t matter if it’s because of sin A or B. And the people refusing to enter the land 38 years earlier was an inevitable result of circumstances. They weren’t ready to enter in any case. So the spy story could have been a mere pretext.
But there is a pattern here. All the changes indicate an I-You relationship between Moshe and the people, and indirectly with God, of course.
The judicial system was genius, so thank you Yitro. But most of the people don’t know or remember Yitro. And it was Moshe who actually instituted the system, as a means of imposing order. This makes the people beholden to Moshe.
Moshe’s being punished by not entering the land is the most personal case. Moshe is, has been, a great leader for the desert where there is the nation, God, the desert and Moshe. Other factors are inconsequential or subordinate to one of the above. Would Moshe function as well when the people were scattered and building their own little pieces of land and forgetting even more of God’s ways than they did in the desert? But Moshe wants to use this as a lever to ramp up the guilt level among the people. It’s because of YOU that I am being punished.
And finally, the sin of the spies. Whether God came up with the idea to send them, or Moshe, or the people does not matter – except insofar as it can lay greater blame and guilt on the people. He is saying here: not only did you make me send the spies, when they came back with a good report you refused to listen and do what you were supposed to! Shame on you!
What is Moshe thinking? That making the people feel more guilty will make them more devoted to God later, when they enter the land? He’s not naïve. He knows – he says – that the people strayed even when he, Moshe was alive and that they are going to do even worse things later. So what does he want?
I think he simply can’t help himself. He has devoted 40 years of his life to leading a stiff-necked nation through the desert, protecting them from their God and from themselves through thick and thin – he cannot let up. He knows his days are numbered. He knows what will happen. But he must make this last ditch effort. Maybe, somehow, his words will penetrate and save one or two or a hundred Israelites from going off in the wrong direction.
He has to do it for his own conscience. Not to aggrandize himself. Giving himself credit for something that Yitro did is merely part of his approach: keep it simple. It’s all about you the people, and me the leader. It’s personal.
Our prophets over the centuries had the same experience. They knew that they had to warn the people and they knew that in most cases their words would go unheeded. Yet they continued to preach, and true to our history, the people continued to sin, and the punishments continued to come.
Tonight we commemorate one the harshest of all the punishments, the destruction of two temples. But here we also find the light at the end of the tunnel. Just as we ignored the words of the prophets who sought to save us, and were punished, we also continued to rebound, to rebuild ourselves eventually, and regain our place. Let us hope, on this Tisha B’Av eve, that we will finally be wise enough to heed the warnings and choose the right road.