Place and Time

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT DEVARIM

Place and Time

By Rav Michael Hattin

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

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INTRODUCTION

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Yarden, in the wilderness, in the plain, opposite Suf, between Paran and between Tofel, and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di Zahav. Eleven days’ journey from Chorev by way of Mount Se’ir, until Kadesh Barne’a. And so it was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moshe spoke to the people of Israel in accordance with all that God commanded him to convey to them. This was after he had struck down Sichon the King of the Amorites who dwells at Cheshbon, as well as ‘Og King of the Bashan who dwells at ‘Ashtarot in Edre’i. On the other side of the Yarden in the land of Moav, Moshe began to explicate this Torah by saying: “God our Lord spoke to us at Chorev saying ‘it is long enough that you have dwelt at this mountain. Turn and travel forward and come to the mount of the Amorite and to all of his neighbors – those that dwell in the plain, the hills, the lowlands, the dry lands and the coast of the sea – the land of the Canaanite and the Levanon, all the way until the great river the Euphrates’. Behold, I have given you the land, come and possess the land that God pledged to your ancestors, to Avraham to Yitzchak and to Ya’acov to give it to them, and to their descendents after them…” (Devarim 1:1-8).

Thus begins Sefer Devarim, the final book of the Torah. In soaring and often exhortative language, aged Moshe sketches out the indistinct features of his people’s future while lucidly recalling their past. Forty years have elapsed since the time that he took them out of Egyptian bondage, a generation has lived out its allotted years and has perished, and now the people finally stand ready to possess the new land. Encamped with them on the Yarden’s eastern side, Moshe spends his final months reviewing the teachings with his flock, explicating what had been obscure and introducing the suddenly relevant, inspiring them to be devoted to their God while impressing upon them the grave dangers of idolatry that lurk just beyond the rushing waters.

THE OBSCURE OPENING OF THE BOOK

The milestones of their journey, its great triumphs as well as its crushing setbacks, are now recalled by the lawgiver. Not unexpectedly, Moshe instructively highlights some features of those events while downplaying others, so that the effect of the whole is not a rewriting of Israel’s history but rather a profound meditation on its implications. And always hovering over his words, like some vivid vision of the painfully unattainable, is the land of Canaan, its windswept, rocky peaks and its verdant vales, its dry and foreboding wastelands and its fertile and terraced slopes, all of them proximal and immediate yet just beyond the reach of the dying leader.

The preamble to the Book’s first section – those opening chapters that contain Moshe’s urgent admonitions – is the series of puzzling verses with which our Parasha begins. As we shall see, some of the place names mentioned, such as Tofel and Di Zahav, are otherwise unknown, while concerning the rest it is unclear whether they come together in order to designate a very specific location or rather are an extended list of different places. This much, however, is clear: it is with an unequivocal sense of place and time, geography as well as chronology, that Moshe offers his measured words to the people. Thus, our first few verses mention a plethora of exact place names as well as a series of at least four time markers to introduce the matter of Moshe’s speech:

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the YARDEN, in the WILDERNESS, in the PLAIN, opposite SUF, between PARAN and between TOFEL, and LAVAN and CHATZEROT and DI ZAHAV. ELEVEN DAYS’ journey from CHOREV by way of MOUNT SE’IR, until KADESH BARNE’A. And so it was in the FORTIETH YEAR, on the FIRST DAY of the ELEVENTH MONTH, that Moshe spoke to the people of Israel in accordance with all that God commanded him to convey to them. This was AFTER he had struck down Sichon the King of the Amorites who dwells at Cheshbon, as well as ‘Og King of the Bashan who dwells at ‘Ashtarot and at Edre’i. On the other side of the YARDEN in the land of MOAV, Moshe began to explicate this Torah by saying: “God our Lord spoke to us at Chorev saying ‘it is long enough that you have dwelt at this mountain…” (1:1-6).

RASHI’S EXPLANATION – WORDS OF CENSURE

But what of these places and these times, why all of the specificity surrounding the matter of Moshe’s final addresses, as if we do not know that the people are encamped at the eastern banks of the Yarden (BeMidbar 33:48-49) or that the forty years of wilderness wandering are about to come to an end (BeMidbar 33:50)? Would it not have been sufficient to indicate that Moshe offered his homilies on the eve of his death as the people were poised to enter the new land? Predictably, the commentaries offer a number of approaches to explain the matter, and the implications of their theories are profound. This week, we will consider the explanation of Rashi (11th century, France):

These are words of rebuke. The text recounts all of the places where Israel angered God and therefore the events are recalled only in general terms out of deference for the honor of Israel…(commentary of Rashi to 1:1).

As Rashi understands it (and his explanation here is drawn from much earlier Rabbinic sources), these opening lines of Sefer Devarim are intended to set the tone for the whole book. Moshe’s final addresses to the people are underscored by the need to guide and to exhort, to caution and to warn, and therefore he begins by briefly and obliquely referencing all of the locations where Israel betrayed a lack of trust in God or else showed themselves ungrateful for His blessings. For example, in the WILDERNESS after crossing the Sea of Reeds they cried out impatiently for food (Shemot 16:3), and at the PLAIN they disastrously strayed after the daughters of Moav (BeMidbar 25:1), etcetera. As Rashi quotes the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai concerning a number of the more obscure geographical references:

We have reviewed the entire text of the Torah and have found no mention of places by the names of TOFEL or LAVAN. Rather, Moshe meant to rebuke them concerning their impetuous words (from the root TiFLa) about the manna that was white (from the root LaVaN), as they said: “our souls are sick of the meager food!” (BeMidbar 21:5)…as for DI ZAHAV, he rebuked them for the calf that they fashioned from the masses of gold (from the root ZaHaV) that He had bestowed upon them…

And similarly for Rashi, the time reference, in particular the mention of the “ELEVEN DAYS’ journey from Chorev by way of Mount Se’ir, until Kadesh Barne’a” (1:2), is an allusion to the people’s greatest failure – the sin of the spies:

Moshe said to them: look what you have done! There is no shorter route from Chorev to Kadesh Barne’a than the route of Mount Se’ir, and it too takes eleven days. You, however, traversed it in three days’ time…for God was so anxious to bring you into the land. But because you failed, He therefore caused you to circle round the environs of Mount Se’ir for a period of forty years! (commentary to 2:2).

Rashi’s explanation therefore relates to these place names and times as references to events, thus dispensing with the need to identify either obscure locations (“Tofel, Di Zahav”, etc.) or else durations of time (“eleven days journey from Chorev”) that are not mentioned elsewhere. The straightforward reading of the text is of course otherwise, but let us, for a moment, accept Rashi’s approach. Let us consent to the external controls that Rashi imposes in order to focus upon his internal consistency. If in fact these are episodes rather than locations, it is nevertheless curious, according to Rashi, why there should be a need to recount Israel’s setbacks by way of allusion only. Are all of these places and times veiled references to failures that have been intentionally obscured only in order to preserve Israel’s dignity? After all, doesn’t Moshe later go on in the book to dwell on many of these very ignominies at length, squarely placing the blame where it deserves to rest, namely on his people Israel? Doesn’t he say concerning their role in the affair of the spies that “you did not want to enter the land, and you rebelled against the word of God you Lord… and did not have trust” (1:26,32)? Doesn’t he exhort them (6:16) not to test God as they did at Masah, when they cried out for water (see Shemot 17:1-3)? Won’t he later exclaim with exasperation, before going on to describe the sin of the golden calf in great detail, that “you are a stiff-necked people! Remember and do not forgot how you angered God your Lord in the wilderness, from the very day that you left the land of Egypt until you have arrived at this place, you have been rebellious with God!” (9:7)? Why then the need at the outset to speak in circumlocutions, to mention places and times that refer only obliquely to Israel’s infamy but that anywise will later be elaborated upon at great length?

UNDERSTANDING RASHI

The answer, of course, relates to the essence of Rashi’s argument and to his characterization of the Book of Devarim as a whole. While there is much technical information in the book concerning the commandments, much emphasis, elaboration and even innovation, the purpose of the lawgiver is not simply to review the known or else to introduce the novel. Moshe’s Divinely-mandated objective, as the people prepare to become a nation in their own land, is to warn them concerning potential pitfalls and to guide them towards greater accomplishment. While Rashi speaks of “rebuke”, what he means to suggest is more akin to constructive criticism. Moshe’s words of admonition are not proffered out of a spirit of vindictiveness or disappointment by an old man made bitter by his tragic fate, but rather out of concern and care for his people and with the benefit of hindsight that years confer, so that Israel might heed his heartfelt remarks and understand from their setbacks to strive for more. Moshe is never resentful or indignant and he nowhere bemoans his own downfall with impetuosity. This is to say that Moshe’s final addresses to the assembled multitudes of Israel are not offered in order to fulfill the disillusioned leader’s need for self-justification as the end of his term draws close. Rather, Moshe’s parting words reflect the existential need of the genuine pedagogue to teach and to instruct, to guide and to direct, to unleash in his listeners the painful process of self-awareness so that they might learn from their mistakes and go forward. The essence of Sefer Devarim, then, is didactic, and its varied content, be it legal or homiletic, whether it is expressed in poetry or prose, is for the sake of impressing upon Israel not only the gravity of their mission but also their unique potential with which they might realize it.

It is for this reason that Moshe dare not begin his remarks with explicit references to downfall, with a litany of obvious failures, with Israel’s tragic mistakes plainly spelled out for all to see. The true teacher (and we all are teachers in various aspects of our lives, whether or not we so desire) must engage his listeners, drawing them close with words of genuine love even as he indicates that his message may be painful to hear. The true teacher points out errors only so that success may yet be aspired for and ultimately achieved. He does not set out to devastate in order to impose his own vision of what is right, but rather gently guides his adherents towards a more enlightened understanding so that they may appreciate on their own what needs to be addressed and discover themselves how things might yet be rectified. What a difficult task to be a teacher and a leader!

And so, according to Rashi, does Sefer Devarim begin, by implicitly stating its goal and the core of its message. Our review of the Torah as sketched out by Sefer Devarim contains, therefore, not a recounting of Israel’s past but really the key to their future transformation. But being successful in achieving that transformation is very much a function of the approach utilized. Will it be punitive or rehabilitative, a recounting of ruin or a vision of restoration? As we begin this final book of the Torah and draw closer to the completion of the whole, let us bear Moshe’s method in mind.

Shabbat Shalom

For further study: see the comments of the Rashbam (12th century, France, and Rashi’s grandson) on 1:1 who understands these place names to be references to the same actual location, with all of them coming to pinpoint with increasing degrees of precision the exact site of Moshe’s final addresses. One must consider, according to the Rashbam, why such specificity is necessary.