Parshat Devarim 2017
You want to summarize 40 years of intense interaction with the Israelites, your people. Where do you start? What do you include, what do you omit and why? Can you put a different slant on the events that happened? Can you avoid a slant? These are some of the questions that niggle at us as we enter the book of Devarim, the last of the five books of the Torah, the book that purports to present Moshe’s side of the story.
As in the rest of the Torah, but especially because this is a personalized view of events, the rabbis pay attention to details, small and large. When we read Moshe’s complaint, almost at the outset that he can’t bear the burden of sole responsibility for the nation. “God has multiplied you,” he says, “and here you are today like the stars in the sky.”
We all remember that God’s promise to Avraham and Yitzhak and Yaacov is that their progeny will be as multitudinous as the stars in the sky and the sands on the seashore. So why did Moshe choose the star analogy here rather than the sand analogy?
According to some commentators, as cited by Rabbi David Silverberg, the stars, as large and majestic as they are, stand separate from one another. Each shines brightly but their distance neutralizes the overall illumination they produce. In contrast, a particle of sand is insignificant in itself – but when millions bond together they can block the movement of the oceans.
Therefore, it is suggested, Moshe’s choice to compare the Israelites to the stars – each shining brightly and each an individual doing it his own way – indicates a lack of unity among them. This is what made life hard for Moshe and required what comes next – a description of the judicial system, to deal with a brilliant but contentious population. (Note that he also takes credit for the system without mentioning Yitro, who actually laid out the plan.)
The next big subject that Moshe addresses is what he seems to consider the greatest sin of the people in the desert – and it is not the Golden Calf, but the treachery of the spies.
Really? Is the sin of the spies greater than the sin of the Golden calf? Maybe. Both of them go against God. Worshipping a calf is an absolute no-no, but the injured party is God and the punishment that the people receive is between them and God. But the sin of the spies, in addition to ignoring God’s promise that they will indeed conquer the land, was also a deep affront to Moshe. And this connects to the stars and the judicial system.
Moshe appointed judges. In Shmot it says he chose upright men to serve as lower and intermediate level judges (he himself was the high court of appeals). In our parsha it says he chose the princes, the leaders of the tribes as judges. In other words, these were the trustworthy honest people he could rely on.
Who are the spies he sent to Canaan? In the book of Bamidbar, we read that he sends the leaders of the tribes. People of the same caliber as the judges. But wait. There’s a discrepancy here. While the original story places the blame equally on the spies who discouraged the people from entering Canaan – the Canaanites are too strong, the cities are too fortified – and the people who were ready to listen to them – here we read that the spies gave a good report – but the PEOPLE refused to go into Canaan.
What’s going on here? Is Moshe’s memory failing him? Or does he have an ulterior motive? Obviously the second option is more likely.
Remember that his audience is the next generation, not the former slaves who were airlifted out of Egypt. Moshe wants to rub in the insult that he (and God) felt when the Israelites point blank refused to take the land meant for them. If he mentions the spies and the majority report (not to enter), the nation could say, “Hey, that was a small group of cowards. They’re the ones who turned the nation against Canaan. Don’t throw their sins on us! We’re a new breed.”
So Moshe takes out the middle men, the spies, quoting only their first words, that the land is good, and omitting their hesitations. “It was you – your parents – who chickened out,” he is saying. You keep that in mind. Learn from their mistakes, don’t let it run in the family.”
This can also explain many of the other adjustments Moshe made to the story. Perhaps he didn’t mention Yitro because Yitro was an outsider. Why should the people accept advice from a Midianite priest?
Whatever the rationale, Moshe’s aim here is to berate the people and whip up a feeling of remorse in them, one that will hopefully (but not likely) remain after Moshe is gone. Moshe, ever the teacher, is getting in his last licks.
Devarim marks the end of the three weeks and of the nine days. On Monday night we commemorate Tisha B’av, anniversary of more miserable events in our history than any nation should have to undergo.
Not that we don’t have our own tzores today – the mini-intifada sparked by efforts to control the introduction of weapons onto the Temple Mount, the murders in Halamish, the increasingly hallucinatory calls by Muslim leaders and the Muslim street to march on Jerusalem. May we have the strength of character that Moshe wanted to instill in us, to stand up wisely for ourselves, and the physical strength to continue to protect ourselves.