This Nation Will Rise Up

  • Rav Yair Kahn

 

PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

PARASHAT NITZAVIM-VAYELEKH

 

This Nation Will Rise Up

By Rav Yair Kahn

 

 

I. Divine Foreknowledge

 

As Moshe nears the end of his life, Hashem summons him to enter the Ohel Mo’ed together with his disciple and successor, Yehoshua. Upon entering the Ohel Mo’ed, Moshe receives the following prophecy:

 

And Hashem said to Moshe: Behold, you are [about to] lie with your ancestors, and this nation will rise up and stray after the deities of the nations of the land into which they are coming. And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant which I made with them. (Devarim 31:16)

 

These pesukim played a pivotal role in the annals of Jewish philosophy. The Rambam refers to this prophecy specifically in his discussion of free-will, as he discusses the proper approach to various sections in the Torah that seem to imply divine foreknowledge and determinism:

 

There are many pesukim in the Torah and the prophets that seem to contradict this principle [free-will], and many people stumble upon them and consider the possibility that Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu decrees that man should do evil or good and that a man's heart is not his to turn it in the direction of his choice … Is it not written in the Torah, “And they [the Egyptians] will enslave and oppress them [Avraham's descendant's],” which indicates that [Hashem] decreed that the Egyptians should do evil? And is it not written [in Parashat Vayelekh]: “And this nation will rise up and stray after the deities of the nations,” which indicates that [Hashem] decreed regarding Yisrael that they should worship idols? So why did he punish them? (Hilkhot Teshuva 6:1-5)

 

In quoting these specific pesukim as an indication of divine foreknowledge, the Rambam is building on a beraita quoted in Sanhedrin:

 

The Romans asked R. Yehoshua the son of Chanina: From where is it known that Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu resurrects the dead and knows what will occur in the future? He answered them: Both are derived from this verse, as it is written: “You are to lie with your ancestors and rise and this nation will stray.” [According to this reading, "rise" refers to Moshe and thus indicates resurrection.] They said to him: Perhaps it means this nation will rise and stray? He answered them: We can at least take half into our hands – that He knows what will occur in the future. (Sanhedrin 80b)

 

II. Free Will

 

Why was this particular section chosen as proof of divine foreknowledge? After all, this is not the first biblical indication that Hashem knows what will occur in the future. Already at the beginning of Sefer Devarim, there is a section that seems almost identical to the one in our parasha:

 

Ki tolid banim (when you beget children) and children's children, and you will be long established in the land, and you become corrupt and make a graven image, the likeness of anything, and do evil in the eyes of the Hashem your God, to provoke Him to anger – I call as witness against you this very day the heaven and the earth, that you will speedily and utterly perish from the land to which you cross the Yarden to possess; you will not prolong your days upon it, but will be utterly destroyed. (4:25-26)

 

Why then, did the Rambam, following the lead of R. Yehoshua ben Chanina, quote the passage from our parasha?

 

The answer to this question is found in the Ramban, who claims that the phrase “ki tolid banim” is ambiguous. The term “ki” can be translated as "when", but also may be interpreted to mean “if.” According to the second meaning, the Torah is merely warning as to what might happen, not divining what will happen. If so, this section is similar to the kelalot found in last week's parasha, in which Moshe detailed the calamities as a warning and deterrent to prevent those tragedies. In fact, the section in chapter 4 ends with the following pasuk:

 

And you shall keep His statutes and His commandments, which I command you this day, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and lema'an (so that) you may prolong your days upon the land that Hashem your God gives you forever. (4:40)

 

In other words, the conclusion derived from this section is to observe the Torah so that exile will be avoided.

 

According to this interpretation, the earlier section in Devarim is consistent with the concept of free-will. Yisrael have a choice; they might stray from the path and suffer destruction and exile, but they might observe the Torah and prolong their days on the land in peace and tranquility. Hashem allows man the ability to choose, as it is written in Parashat Nitzavim:

 

Behold I have placed before you life and good and death and evil; that which I have commanded you today to love Hashem your God to follow His path and to observe His mitzvot, statutes, and His ordinances so that you shall live and multiply and Hashem your God will bless you in the land that you enter to inherit. But if your heart turns away and you do not listen and you shall be drawn away and you shall prostrate yourselves before other gods and worship them I tell you today that you shall surely perish … I call heaven and earth to testify before you today that I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, and you should choose life so that you and your descendants shall live. (Devarim 30:15-19)

 

The Ramban comments:

 

He [Moshe] repeated to warn them again in order to inform them that the two paths were in their hands and it is within their power to travel on whichever one they wish and nothing will prevent or restrain them. (Ramban ad loc.)

 

In other words, in these verses, Moshe is explicitly outlining the idea of free choice.

 

            Similarly, the Rambam refers to the aforementioned pesukim in Parashat Nitzavim when he formulates the idea of free will:

 

Every man has been given choice; if he wishes to prompt himself to the good path and be righteous, the choice is in his hands, and if he wishes to prompt himself to the bad path and be evil, the choice is in his hands … This is an important principle, and it is a foundation of the Torah and the mitzva, as it is written: “Behold I have placed before you life [and good and death and evil]" (Hilkhot Teshuva 5:1-3)

 

Returning to the earlier passage in Devarim; "ki tolid banim", the Ramban notes that the term "ki" is deliberately ambiguous. On the one hand, it may mean “if”, but if also might mean “when,” implying that the events described will certainly take place. Therefore, after the described events came true, it is possible to retrospectively understand that section as prophecy, not just a warning. Nevertheless, since the term “ki” is vague, this section cannot be a source for divine foreknowledge. It is only in the prophecy that Moshe received in the Ohel Mo’ed, "Behold, you are [about to] lie with your ancestors," that Moshe is explicitly informed that Yisrael will eventually fail.

 

It is noteworthy that only after receiving this prophecy, Moshe says:

 

For I know that after my death you will surely become corrupted and deviate from the way which I had commanded you. Consequently, the evil will befall you at the end of days, because you did evil in the eyes of Hashem, to provoke Him to anger through the work of your hands. (31:29)

 

III. A Dramatic Moment

 

As we noted, this prophecy is philosophically challenging and has generated a great deal of debate. However, I would like to focus on an aspect of the parasha that is usually overlooked. In order to appreciate this aspect, it is critical to recall that throughout Sefer Devarim, Moshe has been focusing on two major objectives. The first and most immediate aim is to ensure that the current generation, under Yehoshua's leadership, will successfully inherit Canaan. However, Moshe also invests much energy to achieve a second goal – to strengthen the future generations in an attempt to prevent destruction and exile.

 

In a previous shiur (Parashat Eikev), we noted how the term “lema’an” is used by Moshe to indicate these objectives. There are many examples of when this term is used in the first sense, regarding the initial possession of Canaan (see 4:1, 6:18, 8:1, 11:8, 16:20, 27:3). However, we also find numerous cases of this term referring to future generations remaining in the land (see 4:40, 5:15, 6:2, 11:9, 11:21, 25:15). 

 

Up until this point, Moshe thought that he might succeed in preventing destruction and exile. All the prophecies referring to exile were warnings aimed at avoiding the ravages of exile. All of a sudden, as Moshe approaches the end of his life, he is summoned to the Ohel Mo’ed and informed that Yisrael will stray from Hashem and worship idols and as a result, Hashem will desert them, and they will suffer terrible calamities.

 

Sefer Devarim is not usually noted for its dramatic content. Nevertheless, let us try to imagine the profound emotional turmoil which resulted from this prophecy. Let us try to envision the deep religious frustration. Place yourself in Moshe's shoes and consider that devastating moment. How would you feel? How do you think Moshe felt? Did he become paralyzed by depression or frustration, or did he find some inner strength to continue?

 

Not only did Moshe continue, but the Torah seems to go out of its way to give the impression of immediate and forceful action. Without delay he wrote the shira (the song of ha'azinu, which contains the devastating prophecy):

 

And Moshe wrote this shira on that day, and taught it to benei Yisrael. (31:22)

 

In fact, the Torah mentions Moshe reading the shira to Yisrael three separate times (31:22. 31:30, 32:44). Moreover, the Torah describes how Moshe reacts to the devastating prophecy by commanding that the entire Torah be placed alongside the ark as a witness to benei Yisrael (31:25-27). Moshe does not act reluctantly, but finds inner strength to respond energetically to a new reality. What might have been the source of that strength?

 

IV. Two Types of Humility

 

The most obvious explanation of Moshe's ability to overcome his profound disappointment and sense of failure is his famous humility. The Torah testifies that Moshe was the most humble person on the face of the earth (Bamidbar 12:3). Perhaps, in his profound humility, Moshe was not troubled by his personal disappointment. Bowing to God, he humbly accepted the inscrutable will of Hashem.

 

However, I believe that when the Torah refers to Moshe's humility, it is referring to something else. The Torah noted this character trait of Moshe when Aharon and Miriam claimed that they too, like Moshe, were prophets. Hashem outlines the objective differences between the prophecy of Moshe and that of all other prophets. However, Moshe is silent, because he believes that he is not special. In his humility, Moshe thinks that anyone can achieve his level of nevu’a.

 

The Aharon and Miriam episode is prefaced by the story of Eldad and Meidad, who prophesize in the midst of the camp. Yehoshua demands that they be silenced. Moshe's characteristically humble response is that everyone can achieve prophecy: "Are you zealous for my sake? If only all Hashem's people were prophets, that Hashem would bestow His spirit upon them!" (Bamidbar 11:29). 

 

In the shiur on Parashat Yitro, we explained that Moshe thought that the purpose of the Sinai revelation was that the entire nation should receive the Torah directly from Hashem. Following the Ten Dibrot, when the people requested that Moshe receive the rest of the Torah, Moshe was upset. "You made me upset and weakened my hands for I saw that you were not impassioned to approach Him out of love and you did not prefer to study directly from the Omnipotent as opposed to through me" (Rashi, Devarim 5:24). Hashem, however, tells Moshe that the people reacted properly: "And Hashem heard the sound of your words when you spoke to me, and Hashem said to me, ‘I have heard the sound of the words of this people that they have spoken to you; they have done well in all that they have spoken’” (ibid. 5:25).

 

Moshe's deep personal humility is already apparent when Hashem first appeared to him at the burning bush. He is very uncomfortable with his appointment: "But Moshe said to God, 'Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take benei Yisrael out of Egypt?'" (Shemot 3:11). He expresses his conviction that others are as capable as him: "But he said, 'I beseech You, O Lord, send now [Your message] with whom You would send'" (ibid. 4:13).

 

From these examples, it is clear that Moshe’s famous humility is a personal one. Moshe thinks that he is no better than his peers. However, Moshe's ability to continue, in the face of Hashem’s disclosure that Yisrael will sin and suffer exile, is rooted in another type of humility – the religious humility of man vis-à-vis Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu.

 

The prophet Mikha said: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what Hashem demands of you; but to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk with modesty with your God” (Mikha 6:8). Man must humbly submit to Hashem’s will, even if it defies human comprehension.

 

Moshe thought that Jewish history would be realized by avoiding destruction and exile. He invested tremendous energy and passion to instill within the nation the commitment necessary to avoid exile. Nevertheless, Moshe, whom the Torah refers to as "eved Hashem" (“servant of Hashem;” Devarim 34:5), was acutely aware of man’s inability to totally comprehend the divine plan. With profound humility and submission, he internalized that the road to redemption was much longer then he originally imagined. He now understood that there would be many turns and detours along the way.

 

V. Redirecting the Message

 

Sefer Devarim records Moshe Rabbeinu's efforts to prepare Yisrael for their journey to Canaan. Moshe, who will not join the campaign, must prepare the nation for the future that awaits them. He successfully readies them for the critical initial phase, when they will encounter the Canaanites militarily, culturally, and religiously. He also informs them regarding the behavior necessary in order to remain in Eretz Yisrael. He warns them of the possibility of exile, but hopes that this alert will serve as a preventive measure.  

 

Shortly before his death, Moshe is informed that Yisrael will eventually fail and suffer destruction and exile. In a display of profound emuna (faith) and religious humility, Moshe responds by redirecting his message so that Yisrael will survive the galut and once again return. Moshe writes Ha'azinu and teaches it to Yisrael so that they should be prepared for the eventuality of exile and annihilation and so that they should know that even from that abyss, Yisrael can and will return.