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Bnei Yisrael's Journey Through the Plains of Moav

  • Rav Tamir Granot




Dedicated in memory of Cvi ben Moishe Reinitz (Nagykallo, Hungary) - whose yahrzeit is on 2 Tammuz, from those who remember him.



A. Introduction

1.         Demise of the Leadership

In Parashat Chukat, the children of the generation that left Egypt start out on their journey towards the conquest of Eretz Yisrael.  The journey starts at the same point where it was halted 38 years previously – at Kadesh.[1] This is a new beginning, with a new nation.  Only the leaders of the older generation – Moshe, Aharon and Miriam – are still alive.  These three venerable leaders will not enter the land.  We are accustomed to thinking that Moshe and Aharon are barred from entry because of their sin at Mei Meriva.  However, the introduction to the journey towards Eretz Yisrael, with the death of Miriam – which was not result of this sin – may offer a different perspective.  Miriam died because she was a hundred and twenty years old, and because she could no longer lead this new generation.  Perhaps Aharon and Moshe, too, were no longer capable of leading this generation, owing to their age and to their psychological distance.  They, after all, had been Among those who left Egypt; the new generation had not.  But if this were so, then both of them should have died together with Miriam.  And if both were punished for the same sin, then why did Moshe not die at Hor Ha-har together with Aharon?

It would seem that we need to take another look at the story of the partings of the leaders of Israel from the nation, and of their deaths, in order to understand why Miriam died while still at Kadesh, Aharon – at Hor Ha-har, and Moshe only on the plains of Moav, just prior to the nation entering the land.[2]

2.         The difference between the first journey and the second

On top of our questions regarding the deaths of the leaders of Israel and their relationship with the generation that was going to enter the land, we must also address a more fundamental question concerning the second journey to enter the land.  There are many differences between the journey undertaken in the second year (from Mount Sinai) and the one begun in the fortieth year.  The most central of them concerns the route.  The first journey saw Bnei Yisrael standing at the gateway to Eretz Yisrael, in Kadesh-Barne'a, planning to enter from the south and move northward; for this reason the spies were sent from there.  Indeed, this was also the route followed by the spies: "They went up through the Negev, and came as far as Chevron." The intention to enter from the south northward – i.e., in the direction of the mountains of the Negev – arises also from the report of the spies: "Amalek dwells in the land of the Negev, and the Chittites and the Jebusites and the Emorites dwell in the mountains, and the Canaanites dwell at the sea and along the Jordan." First they mention the Amalekites, who are closest to the Negev; then they talk about the inhabitants of the mountain range – in order: the Chitties in Chevron (as we recall from the story of Avraham), the Jebusites in the Jerusalem area, and the Emorites – throughout the rest of the mountainous area.

The second journey follows an altogether different route.  Bnei Yisrael follow an extensive by-pass to the east, arriving in the plains of Moav, and ultimately entering the land to conquer it from east to west.  In three places the second journey is described: in our parasha (chapters 20-21), in the order of the stations in Parashat Masei (chapter 33), and in Moshe's narrative in Sefer Devarim (chapter 2).  In none of these places is there any mention of the reason for the change in route.  The first plan is simple and natural: to enter by the shortest way.  The second journey, in contrast, involves a route that seems quite illogical, for two reasons:

1)         It is extremely long, with no reasonable reason, and in difficult desert terrain.

2)         It requires passing through the territories of several kingdoms, thereby creating political and defense complications, as set out in our parasha.

The question of the route cannot be simply a matter of strategy or geography, and we need to seek a direction for solving the mystery.  Below, we shall attempt to answer the question by comparing the three descriptions of the journey with one another, attempting to arrive at the various significances of the journey by addressing the different descriptions.  A central question that arises upon reading the description of the journey concerns the status of the nations on the eastern side of the Jordan, and their lands.  We shall devote attention to this question too, although it is an issue worthy of more extensive study, which we hope to undertake on another occasion.

B. Description of the journey in Parashat Chukat

The early commentators, and – even more so – the later ones, especially those scientifically inclined, attempted to trace the exact route followed by Bnei Yisrael.  The three descriptions give rise to contradictions that cannot easily be resolved.  A fundamental problem that becomes apparent is the identification of a great many of the places mentioned.  Nevertheless, there are enough stations of whose location we can be certain, that allow us to reconstruct the route according to each of the three descriptions.  In the discussions over the contradictions between the accounts, what is emphasized is mainly the geographical issues.  We shall attempt to examine the differences from other perspectives, too, and address the unique nature and unique purpose of each of the descriptions.

The journey according to Parashat Chukat (Bamidbar 20-21):

1.         Point of departure: Kadesh.  Events at Kadesh: death of Miriam, the sin of Moshe and Aharon, the dispatch of messengers to the King of Edom.

2.         Planned route: via Edom.  In other words, Bnei Yisrael's original intention was to move eastward, and to enter the land from the east, since Edom lies to the east of Kadesh.

3.         Actual route: from Kadesh to Hor Ha-har, which lies east/north-east of Kadesh, close to the border of Edom.

4.         Death of Aharon at Hor Ha-har.

5.         War with the Canaanites dwelling in the mountains of the Negev by the way of Atarim; the victory, and the destruction of their cities.  It is possible that this war preceded the war at Hor Ha-har, since from there Bnei Yisrael journeyed southward, and the Canaanites attacked them apparently out of concern that they intended to head northward.

6.         From Hor Ha-har deeply into the south, in the direction of the Reed Sea, in order to circumnavigate the kingdom of Edom, following its refusal to allow Israel into its border – from the east.  Somewhere there, during the journey south (some suggest in the Timna region) the episode of the serpents took place.

7.         Journey northward to by-pass the land of Edom and Moav on the other side of their eastern border (Ovot – Iyei ha-Avarim).

8.         Arrival at the east side of Arnon: dispatch of messengers to Sichon, with the hope of reaching the Jordan via the land of the Emori, which lies to the east of the northern part of the Dead Sea, and perhaps north of it, up to – at most – Yabbok.

9.         War with Sichon and the conquest of his land at Yahatz, up to the border of Ammon, which was not conquered because it was strong.

10.       Conquest of the land of Ya'zer and the Gil'ad, war with Og and victory against him at Edre'i, which is east of Beit She'an in the Bashan.  Conquest of the Bashan.

11.       Return southwards to the plains of Moav – facing Jericho.

A general summary of the main points of the journey, according to Parashat Chukat:

a.         The nation had originally intended to head due east, perhaps with an attempt to go up from the south, but this never happened because of the threats of the nations dwelling on the southern outskirts of the land and the threat of Edom.

b.         The entire route is presented as a collection of political and defense-related necessities: "Edom came out to meet them with a great many people and with a strong arm, and Edom did not allow Israel to pass through their border"; "And the Canaanites heard… and they fought against Israel and took some of them as prisoners…"; "They took possession of his land from Yabbok as far as the children of Ammon, for the border of the children of Ammon was strong."

c.         The sole purpose of the journey was to arrive – with due consideration of political conditions – at the border of Eretz Yisrael.  The conquest of the Emori and the land of Ya'zer were not part of the plan; they were the result of a lack of choice.  When Bnei Yisrael reached the Arnon Pass in the desert, they were forced to journey westward, in the direction of the Jordan, since the powerful kingdom of Ammon lay to the north.  It was only Sichon's refusal to allow Bnei Yisrael to pass that forced them into war and the conquest of the land of Sichon, later completed with the conquest of the Emori in the land of Ya'zer.

d.         Our parasha gives no indication that there are other nations who have special rights to their lands, or that Bnei Yisrael are barred from waging war against them for reasons of principle.

e.         Finally, only the ascent northward to Bashan and its conquest are not the result of pure necessity, since according to the original plan the intention was to enter from the region of Jericho; what, then, were they doing in Bashan? Here, apparently, the intention was to conquer – as we shall explain below.

f.          The deaths of Miriam and Aharon occur within the framework of the description of the journey and the progress towards the borders of Eretz Yisrael.  As noted, had we not already read of Aharon's sin, his death would seem natural alongside that of Miriam and the journey towards the land.

C. Order of the journey according to the list of stations in Parashat Masei (Bamidbar 33)

Here the description is laconic, devoid of explanations.  This allows us to grasp a general idea of the route[3] and a few of the events that take place during its course.

The journeys of the second year include places that are known to us – Refidim, the wilderness of Sinai, Kivrot Ha-ta'ava, Chatzerot – and then a host of stations that are not familiar to us from previous descriptions in the Torah.  We come back to familiar sites with the verse, "And they journeyed from Etzion-Gever, and encamped in the wilderness of Tzin, which is Kadesh."

1.         Bnei Yisrael reach Kadesh from the south, apparently at the end of the wandering; it is not clear how long before this.

2.         From Kadesh to Hor Ha-har, where Aharon dies.

3.         A hinted reference to the war with the Canaanites, after Hor Ha-har, as in Parashat Chukat.

4.         The next places on the list are Tzalmona, Punon, Ovot, Iyei Ha-avarim, and the plains of Moav.  Iyei Ha-avarim is familiar to us from Chukat; this refers to a region to the east of Moav.  Our most pressing question, then, concerns the locations of Tzalmona and Punon.  The omission of Etzion-Gever, which is close to the Dead Sea, and the way of the Arava and Eilat, which are mentioned in Devarim, with the estimated location of these places in the northern part of the kingdom of Edom, all add up to the impression that the Torah is skipping over the journey from the south, and sending Bnei Yisrael directly eastward, as in Moshe's original plan.  On the other hand, the mention of Etzion-Gever prior to their reaching Kadesh may indicate that the journey southward is to be regarded as part of the punishment of wandering for forty years, rather than representing part of the final journey.

In general, the description of the journey and its details largely parallel those of Parashat Chukat, except for the omission of the circumnavigation of the land of Edom from the south.

D.  The journey according to Devarim 2

The crux of Bnei Yisrael's wandering in the wilderness moves here to the journey around the land of Edom which, according to Sefer Bamidbar, took place only in the fortieth year, and took no longer than a few months.  Following the description of the war of the ma'apilim, we read:

Then the Emori, who dwelled in that mountain, came out against you, and they pursued you as bees do, and smote you at Seir, as far as Chorma.

So you remained at Kadesh for many days, according to the days that you abode there.

Then we turned and journeyed into the wilderness via the Sea of Reeds, as God had spoken to me, and we went around the mountain of Seir for many days.  (Devarim 1:44 – 2:1)

The journey from Kadesh comes after "many days" – in other words, a long period of habitation in that one place.  As in the description in Parashat Masei, the turn southward happens earlier, rather than after Israel's arrival in Kadesh in the fortieth year.  But according to Sefer Bamidbar there is a return to Kadesh – or, more accurately, Kadesh is not mentioned previously, while according to Sefer Devarim the journey from Kadesh southward, which took a long time, continues with a circumvention of Moav and Edom from the east, with no return in the direction of Kadesh:

(2) And God said to me, saying:

(3) You have compassed this mountain long enough; head yourselves northward.

(4) And He commanded the people, saying: You will pass through the border of your brethren, the children of Esav, who dwell in Seir; they will be afraid of you, and you shall take great care….

The same idea arises from the verse summarizing Israel's wanderings in the wilderness:

(14) And the days that we walked from Kadesh-Barne'a until we passed over Wadi Zered were thirty-eight years, until all of the generation of the men of war had died out from the camp, as God had promised you.

The rest of the journey may be reconstructed as follows:

1.         From Eilat and from Etzion-Gever the nation journeys to the border of Edom; from the children of Esav they head in the direction of the wilderness of Moav - apparently the region to the east of Moav.

2.         From there to Arnon: "Arise, journey on, and cross over Wadi Arnon"; this develops into the war against Sichon and Og.

The general route here is reminiscent of the description in Sefer Bamidbar.

Let us now address the description of the nature of the journey, according to Moshe's recollection of it in Sefer Devarim, which is significantly different from the description in Sefer Bamidbar.

With regard to Edom – according to Bamidbar, Bnei Yisrael requested permission to pass through the land, from west to east, but Edom refused.  Owing to their threats and their strength ("with a great many people and with a strong arm"), Bnei Yisrael withdrew and circumnavigated their borders instead, by journeying southward.  According to Devarim, on the other hand, the journey southward took place long before, as part of the journeying in the wilderness, and the encounter with Edom started in the east.  There was no necessity to enter the land of Edom; they simply passed along its outskirts.  In contrast to Sefer Bamidbar, Moshe describes the Edomites as fearing Bnei Yisrael, not as a great and mighty nation.  The reason for Bnei Yisrael not entering their land, and for having to pay for food and water, is not fear of their attack, but rather protection of their rights: "For I have given the mountain of Seir to Esav as a possession." This justification goes back to the end of Parashat Vayishlach and the inheritance of Esav, and explains why Bnei Yisrael were forbidden in the first place from harming their political rights.  It should be added that concerning Edom the Torah also says, "Your brethren, the sons of Esav" – an expression that is not mentioned in connection with Ammon or Moav later on.

As for Moav and Ammon – here too, Bnei Yisrael are forbidden to provoke them, for they will be passing through their borders and there is a danger that war will break out.  This is something that God does not want.  The reason:

(9) And God said to me: Do not harass Moav, nor provoke them to battle, since I will not give you of their land for a possession, for I have given Ar to the children of Lot for a possession. 

In the description in Parashat Chukat, there is no mention at all of any rights of these nations to their respective lands.  Am Yisrael refrain from entering Ammon and Moav for tactical reasons.  Proof of this lies in the story of Balak: "Balak saw… all that Israel had done to the Emori, and Moav was greatly afraid of the nation, for they were numerous…." If the prohibition on entering the land of Moav had been on ideological grounds, why would Moav need to fear? Bnei Yisrael had already passed by them, and they had already seen that their intention was not to conquer.  However, according to Sefer Bamidbar, there was no such prohibition.  All the decisions were made on tactical grounds, and therefore from the moment that Sichon was defeated, Moav was afraid that Bnei Yisrael would gain confidence and calculate that if Sichon had defeated Moav, and they had defeated Sichon, then Moav would be an easy prey for them.  According to Devarim, however, there was no basis for any fear Amongst Moav.

Similarly, Bnei Yisrael are prohibited from provoking the children of Ammon:

(19) When you come near, opposite the children of Ammon, do not harass them, nor provoke them, for I shall not give of the land of the children of Ammon to you as a possession, for I have given it to the children of Lot as a possession.

Here, too, the contrast to Bamidbar is stark.  There, the hinted reason for refraining from entering the land of Ammon was their strength: "For the border of the children of Ammon was strong." But here, in Devarim, Moshe asserts that the lands of Edom, Moav and Ammon belong to them by right, as a possession from God, and therefore Bnei Yisrael may not violate their rights.

On the basis of the verse in Devarim, the rights and process of taking possession of the respective lands of these nations parallel the possession of Eretz Yisrael by Am Yisrael:

(12) The Chorim had previously dwelled in Seir, but the children of Esav succeeded them, and they destroyed them from before them and dwelled in their stead, as Israel did to the land of their possession, which God gave to them.

There is no point to this comparison if it merely reports the fact of the conquest itself, since it is self-evident that one conquest resembles another.  What the verse is saying is that it has the same legal standing: it is an inheritance, by right.  It seems that the Torah is speaking here of the conquest of the eastern side of the Jordan, since at the time of Moshe's speech on the plains of Moav, the conquest of the western side could not be spoken of in the past tense ("as Israel did to the land of their possession").

In contrast to these nations with a legal right to their lands, Sichon and Og, and their respective peoples, have no right to theirs.  Here in Devarim, unlike Bamidbar, the conquest of Bnei Yisrael is described as the course of first preference.  The request to Sichon provides the excuse for a war whose purpose is the possession of the land by Bnei Yisrael:

(24) Arise, journey onward and pass over Wadi Arnon; see, I have given into your hand Sichon, king of Cheshbon, the Emorite, and his land; start to possess it, and contend with him in battle.

(25) This day I will start to put the dread of you and the fear of you upon the nations that are under all the heaven, that they will hear of you and will tremble and quake before you…

(30) But Sichon, king of Cheshbon, would not let us pass through his land, for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, in order that He could deliver him into your hand as this day.

The war of Sichon is described as the beginning of the conquest of the land.  As we noted at the beginning of the description in Devarim, the journey southward had been planned in advance; it was not the result of ad-hoc adjustments.  And why was this supposed to happen? Because Israel had to inherit the eastern side of the Jordan, too! Let us examine the alternatives facing the nation as the leave Kadesh, according to Devarim:

a.         To move northward, in the direction of the mountains of the Negev – this would mean that they could not conquer the eastern side of the Jordan (the lands of Sichon and Og)

b.         An easterly movement via Edom – prohibited, owing to the political rights of the children of Edom over the land, given to them by God.

c.         A southward movement and then a turn northward, from Mezer to the land of Edom and Moav, leading up to the conquest of the Emori – as was actually carried out.

Admittedly, it would have been possible to enter from the south, and to leave the conquest of the eastern side of the Jordan for a later stage.  The disadvantages of this course of action would include, most prominently, the exclusion of Moshe from having any part in the journey of conquest.  If Bnei Yisrael were to go up to the mountains of the Negev, Moshe would have to remain behind.  This requires the clarification of a further point: if the conquest of the eastern side of the Jordan is considered part of the inheritance of the land, then surely Moshe is barred from participating in it, since he is forbidden from entering the land! We shall elaborate on this further in the next shiur, but the crux of the answer may be stated as follows: apparently, even though the eastern side of the Jordan is given to Bnei Yisrael as an inheritance, the Torah does not describe its status as being equal to that of the land to the west of the Jordan, which is referred to throughout as "the land of Canaan." In other words, Bnei Yisrael's rights to the eastern side of the Jordan parallel the rights of Ammon, Moav and Edom to their lands of possession, but these are on a lower level than the right of Bnei Yisrael to Eretz Canaan.  We may also say that the sanctity of the land that lies to the west of the Jordan is fixed and permanent; it is not dependent on conquest and sanctification.  The sanctity of the eastern bank, on the other hand, is dependent on conquest – and perhaps not only the conquest of this territory, but the conquest of Eretz Canaan in its entirety (see Ramban on Bamidbar 32).  Therefore, Moshe is able to take part in its conquest, and this does not contradict the prohibition on him entering the land.  Still, we must ask – even if there is no prohibition, why is there any need for Moshe to lead the nation in the conquest of any territory of inheritance at all, whatever its status may be? Why are the reigns of leadership not handed over to Yehoshua already at this stage? We shall leave this question open meantime for reflection; hopefully we will return to it in one of the future shiurim.

E. Summary thus far – relationship between the three descriptions

1.  As we have seen, Bnei Yisrael's journey on the eastern side of the Jordan is described in Parashat Chukat as arising from tactical necessities.  According to our parasha, the original plan had not included this area; the intention had simply been to find the most convenient and least dangerous route for entry into the land.  First Moshe sent messengers to Edom in order to investigate the possibility of access to the Jordan – perhaps based on the assumption that this would be an easier and safer passage, or out of concern lest the memory of the spies' description of the giants dwelling in the mountains of Chevron and the fortified cities there, or that the memory of the burning defeat in battle against the Amalekites and Canaanites would make the people reluctant to go up.  When it became clear that there was no possibility of passing through Edom without engaging in a major battle, Bnei Yisrael journeyed around Atarim to Hor Ha-har.  Rashi, commenting on 21:1, explains: "The way of Atarim – [this is] the way of the Negev, which the spies had followed, as it is written (Bamidbar 13:22), 'They went up through the Negev.'" I believe that Rashi is proposing a very simple explanation for the choice to head towards the mountains of the Negev (i.e., eastward or north-eastward) once the Edomites had conveyed their refusal: Moshe was trying to return to the original plan.  In other words, he wanted to investigate the possibility of going up via the mountains of the Negev, as the spies had done previously.  At this stage no decision had yet been made to journey southward, around the land of Edom.  However, the attempt to enter from the south and move northward was met with the opposition of the Canaanites living in those mountains, and their first encounter in battle had not gone well: "And they took some of them prisoners." Bnei Yisrael then made a vow and God helped them to achieve victory.  However, this momentary victory notwithstanding, Moshe apparently decided that entering the land from the mountains of the Negev would be difficult and traumatic, and that there would be growing opposition.  Therefore, he decided to adopt the round-about route from the east and the south.

The plan to enter the land from the north and head southward was abandoned as a tactical decision after this possibility had been examined; it was not an original change in plan.  The description in Parashat Masei does not offer us enough information for us to understand its significance, but the description in Devarim takes a different view of the entire episode: Bnei Yisrael, as we have seen, intended all along to journey on the eastern side of the Jordan, in order to conquer that territory first before proceeding to the western side (Eretz Canaan).  To the question of why this was not done during the first journey (during the second year), we may answer: firstly, that the original intention had been to make the journey as short as possible and bring the nation to Eretz Canaan quickly.  A journey along the eastern side of the Jordan would prolong the journey by several months.  After forty years of wandering, this extra time made less of a difference.  Secondly, during the first journey Moshe was still supposed to lead the nation into the land; by the time the second journey was undertaken, he was prohibited from doing so, and therefore it was significant that he be able to participate in the conquest of the eastern side of the Jordan, before the rest of the nation entered Eretz Canaan.

2.  According to the description in Bamidbar, the nations of the region had no special rights to their lands, and the relations between them and Bnei Yisrael were simply the result of tactical and political considerations.  It was only the might of Edom and Ammon that precluded their conquest, and there was no reason to provoke Ammon – even though they feared Bnei Yisrael, as described by Balak.  According to the description in Devarim, the reason for avoiding any provocation of Edom, Moav and Ammon was their God-given right to possess their respective lands – and perhaps also the friendly relations between them and Bnei Yisrael.

3.  The conquest of the eastern side of the Jordan, according to Parashat Chukat, was born of necessity: Bnei Yisrael had to reach the Jordan, and this could be done only by crossing through the land of Sichon (since they were fearful of Edom).  From this perspective, the conquest has no religious significance; it is a purely tactical matter.  Apparently, the conquest of Og was a continuation of the same tactical move.  In several places, the Torah refers to Sichon and Og as two kings of the Emorites, binding them together.  Og seems to have been the more senior and the stronger of the two, and his kingdom was an ancient and powerful one: "For only Og, king of the Bashan, was left of the remnant of Refaim; behold, his bed is a bed of iron; is it not in Rabba of the children of Ammon." It appears that a mutual defense pact existed between Og and Sichon, such that the conquest of Sichon necessarily entailed a conflict with Og and his army.  Going up via the Bashan represented a sort of preventive war, meant to protect the northern part of Israel.  The conquest in Devarim is described as a battle that had been necessary from the outset, for the sake of territory that was part of Bnei Yisrael's inheritance.  We may say that according to Bamidbar, Bnei Yisrael conquered territory that lay outside of their land, in order to be able to pass through and enter Eretz Canaan.  According to Devarim, the conquest of Eretz Canaan began with the conquest of the eastern side of the Jordan, a territory that was given to Bnei Yisrael as an inheritance – the land of Sichon and Og.[4]

F.  The death of Aharon

We asked above why Aharon died here, at Hor Ha-har.  It appears that this represented the crossroads for the decision as to the direction of the journey.  At Hor Ha-har, Bnei Yisrael reached the closest point to Eretz Canaan – prior, according to the order of the verses, to the possibility of traveling via the way of Atarim being considered.  Aharon, who had no role in the political and military leadership of the nation, had to die here, since the next step would be to enter the land from the mountains of the Negev, tracing the route of the spies, and Aharon had been forbidden from entering:

(24) Aharon shall be gathered to his people, for he shall not come to the land which I have given to Bnei Yisrael, because you disobeyed Me at Mei Meriva (Bamidbar 20).

This represents further proof for our contention that at this stage Moshe still meant to travel from the south northward, and that it was only after the battle against the Canaanites that he made a tactical decision to circumvent the land of Edom.  Moshe needs to live a little longer since, as we learn from Sefer Devarim, and as logic dictates, he had to complete the nation's preparations, both tactical and spiritual.  Afterwards, however, it became clear that the route for entering the land would have to be made longer.  From the point of view of Aharon's function, this made no difference.

In Parashat Masei, where Aharon's death is described for the second time, another possibility is hinted at:

(33:37) They journeyed from Kadesh and encamped at Hor Ha-har, at the edge of the land of Edom.

(38) And Aharon the kohen went up to Hor Ha-har, at God's command, and he died there in the fortieth year of Bnei Yisrael's departure from the land of Egypt, in the fifth month, on the first of the month.

(39) And Aharon was a hundred and twenty-three years old when he died at Hor Ha-har.

Here the Torah emphasizes Aharon's age.  Miriam had died previously, at a very old age.  Aharon remained alive - even though he had passed the age of 120 – so that he, as a leader of Bnei Yisrael and as Moshe's partner in leading them out of Egypt, could take them all the way to their land.  His sin brought him back within the reaches of a normal lifespan.  His death at Hor Ha-har ensured that the nation would part from him at the next place after Kadesh, so that his death would not be bound up forever with the memory of his sin.  The sin proved that he was no longer worthy of leading the nation.  Hence, the "extra time" that had been granted to him was no longer justified, and therefore Aharon died at Hor Ha-har, immediately after the journey from Kadesh.  Even if Moshe had not intended to try to enter the land via the mountains of the Negev (and indeed this intention is not stated explicitly in the description in Masei), Aharon could not have lived any longer.[5]

Moshe, who has not yet lived a full hundred and twenty years, lives a little longer, until he, too, passes on.  According to the Torah's description in Parashat Vayelekh, Moshe, too, dies of old age, rather than because of his sin: "I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no longer go out and come in, and God has said to me, You will not pass over this Jordan." The implies that the reason for his death is his age, and perhaps also his unsuitability as a military leader at this stage, but not his sin.

G.  Significance of the difference between the description of the journey in Bamidbar and the description in Devarim

It would seem that the description in Bamidbar reflects, principally, a national perspective, with the journey as a whole taking place in the shadow of the sin of the spies, and with a desire to avoid repeating mistakes.  The trauma of the episode of the spies arises explicitly in Moshe's harsh reaction to the request submitted by the tribes of Gad and Reuven that they be permitted to settle the eastern side of the Jordan, but its shadow is felt all along.  The failure of the spies arose from a lack of faith in God, but its roots go back to the expectation of a miraculous entry, with no regard for the actual conditions.  Yehoshua and Kalev believe in God and are certain of Israel's victory, but the nation is not sufficiently confident to enter and face the children of the giants in their huge, fortified cities. 

The journey of the fortieth year is calculated to avoid repeating this mistake.  Here, the entry will be careful and tactically sound.  Moshe seeks the safest and most convenient route, and ends up choosing what he believes to be "the seemingly long road that is actually the shortest." He proceeds carefully and with restraint so as not to face the nation with a test that will be too much for them.  This point, too, may be hinted at in Rashi's words about the "way of Atarim" – "avoiding the way of the 'tarim'" ('tarim' meaning the spies).  Moshe understand that he must not repeat the route of the spies.

In Sefer Devarim, this route, undertaken as a result of tactical necessities, assumes a new significance.  This is a perspective that is central to Sefer Devarim in its entirety (as we shall see in the shiur on Parashat Devarim).  From a distance in time, in the summarizing narrative, it becomes clear that what had appeared to be a collection of coincidences and ad hoc necessities happened because that was what had to happen.  The idea from the outset had been for the eastern part side of the Jordan to be conquered as part of the greater territory that rightfully belonged to Am Yisrael.[6] A further significance of the journey relates to the role of Moshe himself.  In Sefer Devarim, Moshe presents his own story.  From the perspective that he presents – and which, ultimately, is part of God's Torah[7] – he participates in the first part of the inheritance of the land! This is the central reason for the journey passing through the eastern part of the Jordan: not just because Moshe wants to fulfill, personally, the commandment of settling the land, but because this creates a most significant connection between the Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the land.  In the shiur on Parashat Shelach we discussed at length how the sin of the spies divided the Torah into two separate stories: the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah, on one hand, and the story of the entry into the land, on the other.  There is a fundamental chasm that separates the miraculous, heavenly Exodus from Egypt from the earthly entry into Eretz Canaan.  The fact the Moshe does not enter the land is the most profound expression of this chasm: the person who is entrusted with leading the great process of leaving slavery for freedom, establishing the nation of Israel, creating the covenant with God, and entering the land, eventually remains outside of it.  According to Sefer Devarim, this was perhaps the primary objective of the conquest of the eastern side of the Jordan: Moshe himself initiates the process of conquering the land.  While it is true that most of the conquest will be carried out by Yehoshua, his work will now be considered a continuation.  Through Moshe's action the various elements of Israel's redemption – freedom, nationalism, Torah and covenant, and the land – are brought together.

Translated by Kaeren Fish




[1]  Some commentators draw a distinction between Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, mentioned in our parasha, and Kadesh-Barne'a, mentioned in the story of the spies and in Devarim 2, in the wilderness of Paran (see Ramban and Chizkuni).  However, it would seem that these are the same place, as Rashi maintains, along with many of the later commentators (see Da'at Mikra on the story of the spies, and in our parasha concerning "Kadesh").

[2] We must assume that the occasions of their deaths are not arbitrary.  In the case of Moshe and Aharon this is clear, since they are informed in advance that they will die.

[3] Since the location of many of the stations is not known to us.

[4] Both views have far-reaching ramifications with regard to the story of the children of Gad and the children of Reuven, and their request to settle in this area.  We shall address this at a later stage.

[5]  Aharon's death is described in Devarim 10:6-7.  There the location is different, and it seems that his death came during the journey southward – the journey described in Sefer Devarim as having been long and tiring.  The reason for his death is not mentioned, although it is clear that he is very old.  In other words, there is no definitive reason, but there may be a hint at a connection to the Sin of the Golden Calf.  We shall not elaborate here.

[6]  Over the course of the shiur we have hinted at various perceptions of the borders and status of the land.  Rav Yoel bin-Nun elaborates on this subject in his article, "Ha-Aretz ve-Eretz Canaan," Megadim.

[7]  This accords with the view of Ramban and Abarbanel, among others, who maintain that Moshe uttered his speech of his own volition, and God awarded it the validity of Torah.