Address to the Nation

  • Rav Zvi Shimon

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

 

PARASHAT DEVARIM

 Address to the Nation

by Zvi Shimon

 

   

 

 

            The book of Deuteronomy is unique amongst the five books of the Torah in one notable manner.  While the rest of the Pentateuch is written in the third person, Deuteronomy is written in first person.  We no longer read the familiar opening, "The Lord spoke to Moses saying”.  Instead, in Deuteronomy, we read "These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel...The Lord our God spoke to us at Choreb..." (Deuteronomy 1:1,6).  Deuteronomy is, for the most part, comprised of three long addresses made by Moses to the people of Israel in their fortieth year in the desert.  This week's Torah reading covers the majority of the first of these addresses.  While Moses' powerful oratory skills and eloquence are clearly evident in this address, its structure and logic is more elusive.  We will attempt to understand the major ideas and purpose of the first of Moses’ addresses in the book of Deuteronomy.

 

(In order to facilitate comprehension of this lesson, it is advisable to read Deuteronomy chapters 1-3 before continuing).

 

            After Moses recounts the appointment of officers for the nation (1:9-18), his address continues with a summary of a select number of incidences from the forty-year sojourn of the Israelites in the wilderness:

1.    The sin of the scouts (1:19-40).

2.    The sin of the 'ma'apilim' - the Israelites who attempted to conquer the land of Israel against the command of God (1:41-2:1).

3.    The prohibition of provoking or attacking the nations of Esau, Moav and Amon (2:2-2:23).

4.    The conquest of Sihon King of Heshbon and Og King of Bashan (2:24-3:22).

 

            These four events may be divided, based on their chronology, into two sections.  The first two episodes, the sending of the spies and the sin of the unsanctioned invasion of the land of Israel take place in the second year of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt.  The last two events, the nations which Israel is prohibited from attacking and the conquest of Sihon and Og, take place in the fortieth year of the wanderings in the desert.  The thirty-eight years between the incidents are not mentioned in Moses' opening address at all!  Surprisingly, this is not distinctive to Moses' first address.  The Torah itself recounts little of this extended period.  The overwhelming majority of the Torah narrative takes place in the first two years and the fortieth year in the desert.  Why does the Torah ignore the intervening thirty-eight years?

 

            It would appear that the majority of the important events indeed took place in the beginning and at the end of the desert sojourn.  The in-between years were not part of the original plan.  Were it not for the tragic sin of the scouts, the Israelites would have immediately proceeded in the second year with the conquest of the land of Israel.  The thirty-eight years are a consequence of sin; they are a punishment which should not have occurred, and the Torah, therefore, does not dwell on them.

 

            This may explain the chronological gap, the jump from the second to the fortieth year, in Moses' first address.  However, the criteria determining which episodes in the first two years and the last were included in this address remain to be discovered.  Why did Moses decide to recount specifically these four episodes?  Why did he recount the sin of the scouts, yet ignore important events such as the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai or the sin of the golden calf?  Is there a common thread uniting the cited episodes?  In order to answer this question, we will analyze the episodes individually and then attempt to determine their interrelationship.

 

 

Sin of the Scouts

 

            Moses begins by recounting the sin of the scouts, the sin for which the Israelites were condemned to wander in the desert for forty years:

 

"Then all of you came to me and said, 'Let us send men ahead to explore the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to' ... You refused to go up, and flouted the command of the Lord your God.  You sulked in your tents and said 'It is because the Lord hates us that he brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Emorites to wipe us out' ... When the Lord heard your loud complaint, He was angry.  He vowed: Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers ... You must now turn around and head into the desert by way of the Sea of Reeds" (Deuteronomy 1:22,26,27,34,35,40).

 

            The Israelites lack faith in their capacity to conquer the land.  The report brought back by their scouts frightens them to the point that they dread entering the land.  They speak out against God and are consequently prohibited from entering the land.  The generation that left Egypt is condemned to wandering in the desert for the rest of their lives.

 

 

The Unsanctioned Invasion

 

            The next episode, the unsanctioned invasion of the land of Israel, is a direct response to the punishment resulting from the sin of the scouts:

 

"You must now turn around and head into the desert by way of the Sea of Reeds.  You replied to me, saying, 'We stand guilty before the Lord.  We will go up now and fight, just as the Lord our God commanded us.'  And you all girded yourselves with weapons of war and ventured to the hill country.  God said to me, 'Warn them: Do not go up and do not fight, since I am not in your midst; lest you be smitten by your enemies.'  I spoke to you, but you would not listen; you flouted the Lord's command and willfully marched into the hill country.  Then the Emorites who lived in those hills came out against you and chased you like bees, and they crushed you at Chorma in Se'ir" (1:40-44).

 

            At first, the Israelites were terrified about invading the land of Israel.  Now, they wish to atone for their lack of faith.  They courageously take arms and charge.  One thing, however, is missing - God.  They go to war but God is not with them.  Their enthusiasm is belated.  They do not acquiesce to God's verdict, they are unwilling to accept their punishment.  As expected, their rebellious invasion ends in total defeat.  Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888) summarizes the attempt at conquering the land of Israel against the command of God as follows:

 

"Each one girded on his weapons and took that to be sufficient or more than sufficient for going up the mount.  So that you went from criminal cowardice to criminal conceit.  That which you doubted you would be able to accomplish with God, you then believed you could do without Him.  You imagined your swords were more than sufficient to conquer the land."

 

            The sin of the unsanctioned invasion of the land of Israel is the inverse of the sin of the scouts.  The scouts lacked confidence and faith in their capacity to conquer the land.  The unsanctioned invaders, by contrast, were overconfident; they believed they could overcome their foes even without God's help.  The Israelites swing from one extreme to the other, and are punished for both.

           

 

Esau, Moav and Amon

 

As stated, the last two episodes cited by Moses take place in the fortieth year of wandering in the desert.  The third incident consists of the prohibition of provoking or attacking the nations of Esau, Moav and Amon:

 

"You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Se'ir.  Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to provoke them.  For I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Se'ir as a possession to Esau.  The food you eat you shall obtain from them for money; even the water you drink you shall procure from them for money" (2:4-6).

 

"We marched on in the direction of the wilderness of Moav.  And the Lord said to me: Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war.  For I will not give you any of their land as a possession; I have assigned Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot" (2:8,9).

 

"The Lord spoke to me, saying: You are now passing through the territory of Moav, through Ar.  You will then be close to the Amonites; do not harass them or start a fight with them.  For I will not give any part of the land of the Amonites to you as a possession; I have assigned it as a possession to the descendants of Lot" (2:17-19).

 

            God commands the Israelites to take extra precautions not to provoke the nations of Esau, Moav and Amon.  We are forbidden to instigate a war against them and we may not take any of their lands.  Their lands were given to them by God as an inheritance.  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) elaborates on this prohibition:

 

"For I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on" - "[I will not] even [allow you] the benefit of crossing [on foot].  I will not permit you to pass through their land without permission."

 

            Not only will the Israelites not inherit the lands of these nations; they have no right to even enter there without permission.  They have no privileges whatsoever on these lands.  What distinguishes these three nations from the other peoples of the land of Canaan whom the Israelites conquer?  Rashi offers the following explanation:

 

"A possession to Esau (2:5)- From Abraham.  Ten nations I gave to him [to Abraham], seven for you ... one of them for Esau and the other two for the sons of Lot as a reward for his going with [Abraham] to Egypt" (see Genesis 12:5 and 19:36 ff.).

 

            The rights of these peoples stem from their connection to Abraham.  The same right bestowed upon the people of Israel also applies to Esau, Moav and Amon.  The Israelites may not encroach upon these land rights, for they are also the basis of Israel's rights to their land.

 

            Why does Moses choose to relay these prohibitions in his address in the fortieth year?  What importance do they have that they merit being mentioned in Moses' address to the nation?  The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160) offers the following explanation:

 

"For I will not give you of their [Esau's] land" (2:5) - So it is written regarding Moav, 'Do not harass the Moabites' (2:9) and so too regarding the Amonites, do not harass them (2:19).  It was necessary for Moses to relate these warnings at this juncture, lest the people become faint-hearted and say 'if it was the will of God to bequeath to us a land inheritance and this was within his power, why did he not conquer those nations that we passed along the way.'  He [Moses] therefore informed them that God did not desire [conquering these nations] since God gave them [those lands] as is written regarding all of them, 'I have given the hill country of Se'ir as a possession to Esau' (2:5), 'I have assigned Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot' (2:9) and also with regard to Amon, 'I have assigned it as a possession to the descendants of Lot' (2:19) since they were relatives of Abraham, as He did regarding Israel.

Moses also wrote [these prohibitions] in order to demonstrate to them that they have no reason to be fearful.  If God provided these nations with lands by virtue of our forefathers, he will certainly bequeath to Israel the lands of the other nations as he promised our forefathers."

 

            The Rashbam offers two reasons for the mention of the prohibition against attacking the nations of Esau, Amon and Moav in Moses' first address.  The first reason is to negate any possible mistaken conclusion from these past prohibitions.  An Israelite might erroneously infer from the prohibition, that God was incapable of conquering these nations, and therefore evaded conflict with them.  Moses, therefore, stresses that the prohibition of waging war with these nations is due to God's bequeathing them territory by virtue of their kinship to Abraham.  They have no reason to fear their future conflicts with the nations of Canaan.  God will conquer the nations that he wishes to vanquish.

 

            The second reason is also directed at encouraging the Israelites.  The fact that God bequeathed lands to other nations and consequently prohibited their invasion is not reason for fear or lack of faith.  To the contrary, it proves that God lives up to his promises.  If God fulfilled his promises to other nations, he most certainly will towards Israel.

 

            Both of the Rashbam's explanations deem Moses' mention of the prohibition against waging war with these three nations an attempt at encouraging the Israelites and strengthening them towards the impending invasion of the land of Canaan.  Rabbi Hirsch takes a totally different approach in explaining the role of these prohibitions within Moses' address:

 

"Be very careful not to provoke them" (2:4) - "Be very careful not to take any liberties with them.  They fear that they may have to suffer a great deal at your hands; they imagine that you must be starved after your long wandering in the desert where you were deprived of everything, and now when, for the first time, you enter inhabited regions you will greedily jump on everything.  CONTAIN YOURSELVES, and show them just the opposite of what they fear."

 

            According to Rabbi Hirsch, the ultimate purpose of the prohibition against attacking the nations of Esau, Amon and Moav  is to demonstrate self-restraint.  After years of wandering in barren deserts and living an austere existence, one would anticipate that the arrival to inhabited land would induce a mad dash for the fertile fields and plantations.  God prescribes a different type of entry into the Promised Land.  The Israelites will not charge like wild, hungry animals.  Similar to the obligation to distinguish between permissible and prohibited foods (Leviticus 11), they will have to distinguish between lands which they are to inherit and lands which are off limits to them.  Self-restraint will have to be demonstrated in the conquest of the Promised Land.

 

 

Sihon and Og

 

The fourth and final episode mentioned by Moses is the conquest of Sihon King of Heshbon and Og King of Bashan:

 

"Behold, I have given over Sihon, the Emorite king of Heshbon, and his land, into your hands.  Begin the occupation!  Provoke him into war!  Today I begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under heaven, so that they shall tremble and quake because of you whenever they hear you mentioned ... Sihon with all his men took the field against us at Jahaz, and the Lord our God delivered him to us and we defeated him and his sons and all his men ... The Lord our God also delivered into our power Og king of Bashan, with all his men, and we dealt him such a blow that no survivor was left.  At that time we captured all his towns" (2:24,25,32,33; 3:3,4). 

 

            Why does Moses decide to include in his address the great victories over Sihon and Og?  The answer to this question is provided by Moses himself at the end of his account of the wars:

 

"I also charged Joshua at that time, saying, "You have seen with your own eyes all that the Lord your God has done to these TWO KINGS; so shall the Lord do to all the kingdoms into which you shall cross over.  Do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who will battle for you" (3:21,22).

 

Similarly, at the end of the book of Deuteronomy:

 

"The Lord your God himself will cross over before you; and He Himself will wipe out those nations from your path and you shall dispossess them ... The Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, kings of the Emorites, and to their countries, when he wiped them out" (31:3,4).

 

            The recounting of the victories over Sihon and Og are, by no means, for self-glorification.  They are aimed at the young generation about to embark on the mission of conquering the land.  The two victories are paradigms of the might of God and serve as models for God's future involvement in conquering the land of Israel.  They allay the fears of the Israelites and invigorate them towards battle.  The Israelites are reminded of the mighty hand of God and can be confident that, with divine backing, they will be victorious.

 

A Mosaic Puzzle

 

Thus far, we have analyzed each of the four episodes included in Moses' first address separately.  What remains to be investigated is how these four episodes coalesce into one coherent address.  What ties these four episodes together?  (Take a few moments to review our analysis of these events and to contemplate this question.)

 

            The common denominator of the four episodes is their connection to the conquest of the land of Israel.  The first two deal with the failures in conquering the land in the second year.  The last two recount the limitations on the war of conquest and the two successful battles fought on the eastern bank of the Jordan river in the fortieth year in the wilderness.  The speech is aimed at preparing the Israelites for the imminent invasion of the land of Canaan.  Moses recounts some of the successes and failures of the Israelites in previous endeavors.  Is there a specific idea that Moses wishes to convey?  The Abrabanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508) offers the following interpretation:

 

"Moses, in his wisdom, saw that the generation of the desert, who saw all the miracles, had expired and he was concerned that their children would doubt their [the miracles] having occurred and would not believe in personal divine providence.  This would be as a result of two peculiar events that they heard had transpired to their fathers.  The first was the delay of their fathers for forty years in the desert.  The young generation would ask, how is it that God was incapable of bringing them more quickly into their land?  Was He fearful of the strength of the nations which resided then in the land, as stated by the scouts? ... Moreover, the fact that the Israelites fell to the sword of the Emorites, and passed the territories of the sons of Esau, Amon and Moav but were fearful of waging war against them.  Even though they had just battled Sihon and Og and inherited their lands, they would construe this to be an outcome of natural developments - occasionally they win, occasionally they lose, and sometimes they are to fearful when the enemy is deemed too powerful.  It is therefore not by the hand of providence, but rather a natural or haphazard result ... In order to refute this misconception from the hearts of those listening, he decided to precede the elaboration of the commandments with an elaboration of these peculiar events.  [He explained that] the forty-year delay in the desert was not accidental, nor due to the incapacity of God to bring them to the land, but rather a result of their sins ... For this reason he began with the episode of the scouts; not only to inform them about the delay but also about its cause.  This followed with the story of the Emorites who chased the Israelites and killed many of them; Moses informed them that this was due to their sins and that he had warned them.  But they did not heed him and they were then defeated due to their sin.  [Moses] also explained to them that the reason why their fathers did not wage war with the descendents of Esau, Amon and Moav was not because they feared them; for these nations, themselves, feared Israel.  Rather, God commanded the Israelites not to provoke them to war and protected these nations by merit of their ancestors.  Furthermore, the war against Sihon and Og was not a natural war but it was God who delivered these nations into the hands of the Israelites ... This proves that these events were a product of divine providence."

 

The Abrabanel's interpretation attempts to reveal an underlying theme to Moses' first address.  According to the Abrabanel's approach, the main idea behind Moses' first address is to refute any misconception that the conquest of the land was solely a natural phenomenon devoid of divine intervention.  Both the past successes and failures of the Israelites were products of divine decrees.  Their failures were a consequence of their sins and their victories due to divine assistance.  Moses' main purpose is to explain the reasons for previous failures and successes.  Jewish history can not be explained solely on natural terms.  It is also the product of divine intervention.

 

An analysis of the structure of Moses' address leads to an alternative explanation.  As stated earlier, the first part of Moses' address consists of four episodes, two from the second year and two from the fortieth.  The first two are sins, failures of the people, and the last two are examples of compliance with the commandment of God and victorious accomplishments.  It is plainly apparent that we do not have four individual episodes but rather, two groups of two.  These groups are not disconnected; they are actually closely interrelated.  The second group, the two examples of commendable behavior, is a correction of the faults described in the first group.  Fascinatingly, each fault found in the first group of episodes, has a counterpart episode in the second group which rectifies the original failure!  We may summarize this structure as follows:

 

1A. The sin of the scouts (1:19-40).

 

1B. The sin of the Israelites who attempted to conquer the

       land of Israel against the command of God (1:41-2:1).

 

2B. The prohibition of provoking or attacking the nations of

       Esau, Moav and Amon (2:2-2:23).

 

2A. The conquest of Sihon King of Heshbon and Og King of

       Bashan (2:24-3:22).

 

            As discussed above, the sin of the scouts (1A) involved a lack of faith in God and in their capacity to conquer the mighty inhabitants of the land of Canaan.  The nation lacked faith, confidence and courage.  The victory over the powerful nation of Sihon and the mighty Og (2a) amends for the earlier cowardice evinced in the sin of the scouts.  The Israelites prove their willingness and capacity to wage war.  They believe God's promise that He would deliver these nations into their hands and they attack as commanded.  Without scouts and without doubts, the Israelites attack with faith and courage.

 

            The sin of the Israelites who attempted to conquer the land of Israel against the command of God (1B) is the opposite of the sin of the scouts.  It involves overconfidence, a willingness to go to war without the assistance or consent of God.  They attacked when they were explicitly told by Moses not to: "Do not go up and do not fight, since I am not in your midst ... but you would not listen; you flouted the Lord's command and willfully marched into the hill country" (1:42,43).  This sin is rectified by the strict obedience to the prohibition against attacking the nations of Esau, Amon and Moav (2B).  In the fortieth year, the Israelites go to war only when commanded by God.  When commanded not to attack, they comply and avoid altercations. In doing so, they atone for the sin of the unsanctioned invasion in the second year.

 

            Moses addresses the nation at the end of the fortieth year, in anticipation of the impending invasion of the land of Canaan.  As leader, he prepares the younger generation for the awesome challenges that await them.  He presents them with two models, one of failure and one of success.  If they lack faith in God or do not comply with his commands, they will suffer a similar fate to that of their parents' generation.  However, if they continue that which was begun in the fortieth year, if they evince faith and courage coupled with self-restraint and humility, they will be victorious.  Moses will not accompany the nation in their conquest of the land; he will die in the wilderness, as did the rest of the generation of the desert.  However, although he will not be there, his words will accompany and guide the younger generation to glorious victory.