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Devarim's Diverted Journeys

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Dr. William Major, z"l.


In honor of the birth of our daughter, Maya Margalit,

 שנזכה לגדלה לתורה, לחופה ולמעשים טובים

-David and Shifra Waxman




Devarim's Diverted Journeys


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



What are we to make of the first three chapters of Sefer Devarim?  They lack the profound discussions of belief and the intricate details of the commandments that comprise the majority of the book (as recapitulated here by Moshe for the new generation); at the same time, they do not have the sense of closure and anticipation that define the last chapters.  Instead, Chapters 1-3 appear to be no more then a random and disconnected collection of historical events from the forty years of wandering.  In his first comments to Sefer Devarim (1:1), the Ramban suggests the following rationale for the book's opening:


"These are the words" — the allusion is to all the precepts found in the whole of the book, beginning with the Ten Commandments (5:6-17)…


After Moshe declares his intention to expound the Law (1:5), he introduces here a digression which continues until the verse (4:40), "And you shall keep His statutes…" 


The reason for this is that he wishes to indicate that the Jewish people receive the order to go up and conquer the Promised Land immediately after getting the Torah, but their sins lead to various setbacks.  After this digression, however, Moshe reverts to his original purpose, calling all Israel together and saying, "Hear, Israel, the statutes," (5:1).  He then begins to expound the Law, the Ten Commandments… and then he explicates for them the Unity of God — "Hear, Israel, Lord our God, Lord is one" — and then all the commandments in this book.  That is why it is explained that all of the Jewish people are present (1:1, 5:1), since the Torah and its precepts are to be expounded before all the people, just as it was during the Revelation at Mount Sinai.  Because he makes such a lengthy introductory digression, Moshe has to begin again from the starting point, and he thus reverts to his main topic (4:44-45), "And this is the Law which Moshe set before the Jewish people.  These are the testimonies and the statutes…"


Similarly, at the beginning of Parashat Va'etchanan (3:24), the Ramban notes:


He concluded his words of reproof on this note: though your fathers, by their disobedience, forfeited the Promised Land, you – the children – will enter it and possess it, as long as you do not follow your fathers' example by rebelling against G-d.  Therefore, Moshe prefaces [the main discussion] with a warning (4:2) not to add to or diminish from any of the commandments.


Using the Ramban's introduction as a guide, we can outline the structure of Sefer Devarim as follows:


(A)  Words of reproof (1:6-4:40)

(B)   Fundamentals of faith; the statutes and the ordinances (4:41-26:15)

(C)  Renewal of the covenant; the coda (26:16-end)


Apparently, the three opening chapters, with their selective restatement of the events of the previous forty years, provide a necessary and purposeful lesson for the Jewish people, without which Moshe cannot address the fundamental issues of faith and belief that comprise the main section of the book.  The pointed and charged retelling of the history of the Jewish people in the desert serves the following function: to bring the nation to the edge of the Land of Israel, while simultaneously placing them on the edge of a historically and theologically fateful decision.  Without these two factors, the geographical and the historical/ theological, Moshe's sermonizing for the remainder of the book would be devoid of context and meaning.  Chapter 4 outlines the theological stakes of the decision that the people have to take, and it will be discussed next week.  This week, we will study the first three chapters of the book and outline how Moshe cleverly interweaves time and special markers to accomplish these ends.


Looking at the first three chapters of Sefer Devarim in accordance with the idea that they create the historical and geographical context for the remainder of the book, we quickly identify two major categories: points of failure and roads to success.  Chapter 1 describes the places where the Jewish people fail in their mission.  The tone changes from Chapter 2 onwards: Moshe contrasts the past missteps with the victory of the second generation in conquering Transjordan. 


The book begins by declaring, "These are the words which Moshe spoke…"  Immediately, the Torah hits us with a salvo of apparently irrelevant geographic and historical details, and Moshe's speech only begins five verses later.  From a theological standpoint, however, these details recall well-known junctures in the history of the people.  The digression of 1:2 — "Eleven days from Chorev, by way of Mount Se'ir, to Kadesh Barne'a" — appears to provide a mundane and insignificant geographical fact.  However, it serves to draw the reader's attention to the significance of the time and place of the message, by bringing the national failure at Kadesh Barne'a to mind. In contrast to that catastrophe stand the expectations and demands of Chorev.  The Plains of Mo'av, where the Jewish people are presently located, can potentially become another Chorev, should they choose to reaffirm the covenant; or they may become another Kadesh Barne'a, another place fated to be remembered as a national failure.  Indeed, this is how the midrash (Sifrei 1:1-2, paraphrased by Rashi) understands the underlying message of the book's beginning.  Had the Jewish people behaved meritoriously, they would have entered the land in a matter of days.  However, because they foul up, God turns the forty days of the Spies' exploration into forty years of wandering.  Thus, Moshe rebukes them for their sins, from the first murmurings at the Sea of Reeds, through the making of the Golden Calf, lusting for meat at Kivrot Ha-ta'ava, the rebellion of Korach, disrespectful speech about the manna, and the debacle of Ba'al Pe'or.


With this understanding, we now can see the reasons for what Moshe chooses to include in the opening chapter and the order of its presentation.  The short speech of 1:6-8 sets up a paradigm for how the Jewish people are to progress into the land.  This creates the effect that the rest of Chapters 1-3 is nothing but a diversion from the ideal, to which Moshe returns only in Chapter 4. 


Afterwards, we come across the section of appointing judges for the nation (1:9-18).  This awkward inclusion appears to be disconnected from the rest of the chapter.  However, given the chapter's thrust of placing the blame for the setbacks at the feet of the entire people, we understand that the inclusion of this section serves to diminish Moshe's culpability in what will follow.  By verse 18, the focus of the text has been moved from the charismatic Moshe to the new national heads.  In the narrative of the Spies that follows, the people's initiative (v. 22) leads to sending the Spies.  The choice that is placed before the nation is stark – either to enter the bountiful land, with its overtones of Garden of Eden, or to remain in "the vast and dreadful desert" (v. 19).  Despite the cajoling, it is the people who opt to remain in the wilderness.  The drastic consequences of their decision can only be fully appreciated with historical hindsight.   The sole survivors of the entire generation, Kalev and Yehoshua, come to symbolize the unrealized potential of the generation and its leaders.  Kalev is cast as the anti-Israel – he represents what the ideal Israelite should have done (vv. 35-36).  Yehoshua becomes the anti-Moshe, leading God's nation into the Promised Land, while Moshe himself shares the fate of the generation he led out of Egypt (vv. 37-38).  Due to the nation's failure, he will not enter the land; leader and people remain united.  The chapter concludes with the ill-fated attempt to enter the land despite God's disapproval (vv. 41-45), stressing that the decree not to enter the land cannot be reversed.  For the reader, Kadesh Barne'a symbolizes the nascent people's greatest failure. 


In Chapters 2 and 3, the Jewish people begin to move forward again.  At first glance, these chapters only provide insignificant additional details of the historical events hat occur in Israel's fortieth year in the wilderness.  However, several themes emerge from this retelling, which demonstrate that the purpose of this recounting is theological, not historical.  First, they travel at God's command; their tacit obedience contrasts with the rebellion at Kadesh Barne'a a generation earlier.  For their efforts, they begin to meet with some success.  Second, throughout the narrative, the Jewish people either "go forward," "pass through," or "move back."  Unlike in the static Chapter 1, the people are portrayed here as they should be: dynamic, always moving forward (at least, while in the desert).  Historical events recorded earlier (see Bamidbar 20-21, 32) are given a different twist to advance the theological points that Moshe is making.  No failures are mentioned.  Even the argument between the tribes of Reuven and Gad with Moshe over settling Transjordan is excised from the retelling; instead, the conquest of Transjordan is presented as a prerequisite for conquering Kena'an proper. 


Another distinct theme emerges from the retelling: throughout, Moshe ironically contrasts the failure of the Jewish people to occupy the territory presented to them for the taking at Kadesh Barne'a with the success of other nations in conquering their lands – even if it involved wresting them away from giants (see 2:10-12, 2:20-23)!  A parenthetical passage, 2:13-16, informs us that the time in the wilderness has removed all the members of the recalcitrant generation from the Jewish people; this passage is then followed by a further Divine directive to continue advancing.  The removal of each impediment to arriving at the Land is noted, with the corresponding imperative to move.


In the next stage, we encounter the campaigns against Sichon and Og.  Again, the motif of moving on towards the Land of Israel dominates (see 2:24, 3:1).  Indeed, the casus belli for war with Sichon is his refusal to allow the nation to pass through on its way to Kena'an.  In this context, the battles serve as a rehearsal, a dry run for the untested Israelite army before they go to war in Kena'an proper.  Their success should only encourage the people to make the proper choice in Chapter 4.


In conclusion, the first three chapters describe the journey of the Jewish people towards the Land of Israel not from the historical vantage point, but from the theological.  They are a people who are meant to move – beginning in Egypt and ending in Israel.  The course of their journey mirrors their faithfulness, or lack thereof, to God and the commitment they make at Chorev.  Standing now on the plains of Mo'av, the people are not just observers, but participants. They are to decide how the journey will progress.  Through the retelling of their history, Moshe hope to emphasize the lessons of the past, so that they can be absorbed into the national consciousness and thereby influence the decisions that the people will make in the future.