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Devarim | Avoiding Another Kadesh Barnea

Rav David Silverberg


     The Book of Devarim consists almost entirely of the oration of Moshe shortly before his death, as Benei Yisrael stood on the brink of their long-awaited entry into the Land of Israel.  In these presentations, Moshe combines historical review, direct warnings and admonitions, and halakhic discourses.  Parashat Devarim, which opens Moshe's address to the people, is unique to the entire book in that it features only historical data.  On the surface, Moshe speaks here as a historian, rather than a preacher or halakhist.  Although later, too, Moshe recounts past events, in Parashat Devarim he does so without any commentary or instruction other than what is implicit from the bare facts.


     Undoubtedly, however, this historical survey a didactic tool intended to convey an educational message to the nation from whom Moshe will soon depart.  As the commentators have discussed, Moshe is very selective in the events he chooses to recall, and, far more surprisingly, his account often differs sharply with the parallel accounts earlier in Chumash.  However one resolves these contradictions, Moshe's choice to present the events, such that they seem to conflict with the original narrative, reflects Moshe's didactic intentions.   By framing these incidents from a distinct perspective, he intends not merely to reinforce the memory of the past, but to extract from that memory the outlook necessary for Benei Yisrael as they make their historic journey across the Jordan into the Promised Land. 


Selective History


     As we noted, Moshe's survey of the past forty years in Parashat Devarim is far from comprehensive.  For one thing, he omits everything from Shemot: the Exodus, the difficulties Benei Yisrael confront on their way to Sinai, the Revelation, the golden calf, and the construction of the Mishkan.  Moshe includes some of these events later in Devarim, amidst his warnings and exhortations to remain loyal to God and His laws.  Here, however, he begins his story with the plans for Benei Yisrael's departure from Sinai: "The Lord our God spoke to us at Chorev [Sinai], saying: You have stayed long enough at this mountain.  Start out and make your way to the hill country of the Emorites [the Land of Israel]" (1:6-7). 


     The following list enumerates the events Moshe records in this speech:


1)     The establishment of a judicial system (1:9-18)

2)     The sin of the scouts (1:19-2:1)

3)     The nation's travels in the fortieth year, circumventing the nations of Edom, Moav, and Amon, with whom God commanded them not to wage war (2:2-25)

4)     The victory against Sichon and Og, and its aftermath (2:26-3:29; notice that this section continues into the first several verses of Parashat Vaetchanan)


     Leaving aside for a moment the first of the topics (the appointment of a judiciary), the thrust and primary purpose of Moshe's presentation seems clear: to reinforce Benei Yisrael's trust in God as they prepare for battle against the nations of Canaan.  Recall that this is not the first time Benei Yisrael prepare to enter Eretz Canaan.  Thirty-nine years earlier, Benei Yisrael arrived in Kadesh Barnea and stood on the threshold of their entry into and conquest of their land.  In fact, already here, in Kadesh Barnea, Moshe informed Benei Yisrael that "you have come to the hill country of the Emorites which the Lord our God is giving to us" (1:20).  Benei Yisrael had effectively reached Canaan, and all that was left was to "Go up" and "take possession as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you" (1:21). 


     Tragically, Benei Yisrael refused to "go up" and "take possession."  Before leaving Kadesh Barnea, they dispatched the twelve scouts who returned with a discouraging report as to the feasibility of the land's capture.  The nation refused to proceed further, and God decreed forty years of wandering in the wilderness until that entire generation died.  Their children, whom Moshe now addresses, will enter the land in their stead.


     We may presume that the tragedy of Kadesh Barnea weighs heavily on Moshe's mind here, in Arvot Moav, where Benei Yisrael once again prepare to once and for all enter Canaan.  He seeks to preempt a repeat of this debacle by infusing his nation with trust in the Almighty's ability and promise to assist them in their conquest of the land.  Moshe therefore reminds them that they could and would have entered the land much earlier if not for their mistrust exhibited upon the scouts' return from their mission.  Moshe then responds to the possible question as to why God did not shorten the nation's journey by having them cross westward through the countries of the East Bank - Edom, Moav and Amon.  Does this perhaps demonstrate God's "fear," as it were, of these nations, compelling Benei Yisrael to circumvent these nations?  How, then, can He guarantee them victory over the mighty nations of Canaan?  Anticipating this question, Moshe explains that due to Benei Yisrael's familial ties with these nations - Edom emerged from Esav, Amon and Moav from Lot - God forbade warfare with them.  Thus, when these nations refused to grant Benei Yisrael passage through their territory, they had no choice but to prolong their journey to bypass these lands.


     Moshe then proceeds to present an elaborate description of Benei Yisrael's stunning triumph over Sichon and Og, the two powerful monarchs of the East Bank.  The difference between Moshe's version of the background to this battle and the Torah's original account in Parashat Chukat (21:21:35) is almost astonishing.  In Bemidbar, Benei Yisrael capture these lands of Sichon and Og incidentally, over the course of a defensive war fought in response to an unprovoked attack by these empires.  Understandably, then, when the tribes of Reuven and Gad request permanent settlement in this region, Moshe responds with alarm and suspicion (see Bemidbar 32).  As Benei Yisrael were never intended to capture, let alone permanently settle, this territory,  Moshe interpreted these tribes' request as a rejection of the Promised Land. 


From Moshe's account in Parashat Devarim a much different picture emerges.  As Benei Yisrael cross the Arnon Valley, which formed the border between Moav and the Emorites, God informs them, "See, I give into your power Sichon the Emorite, king of Cheshbon, and his land.  Begin the occupation: engage him in battle" (2:24).  The conquest of this region seems to have been planned from the outset.  In fact, God describes this war as the beginning of the capture of Canaan: "This day I begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under the heaven… " (2:25).  Moshe later (3:12-16) recounts his distribution of this land among the tribes of Reuven and Gad (and half of Menashe), without any mention of his reluctance of which we read in Bemidbar.  After all, according to his version of the story, this battle began the conquest of Canaan; naturally, then, it is to be settled by Benei Yisrael.  (The status of this battle as the first stage of Benei Yisrael's conquest of Canaan is developed by Ramban, in his commentary to Bemidbar 21:21 and 31:23.)

     Although a thorough resolution to this apparent contradiction requires further study, it suffices for our purposes to detect the clear focus of Moshe's account.  In effect, he invokes the battle against Sichon and Og as a model of the success that awaits them across the river.  As he recalls here, Moshe explicitly predicted to his successor, Yehoshua, that his victories west of the Jordan will resemble the triumph over the powers of the East Bank:


"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). 


Benei Yisrael should not expect anything new, for the battle to conquer Canaan has already begun. 

     Incidentally, this would also explain why in Parashat Devarim, for the first time in Chumash, we find the Land of Canaan referred to as "the hill country of the Emorites" (1:20).  In all earlier references to the nations of Canaan, the Emorites appear alongside several other peoples.  Take, for example, Shemot 23:23: "When My angel goes before you and brings you to the Emorites, the Chittites, the Prizites, the Canaanites, the Chivites, and the Yevusites… "  Here in Devarim Moshe emphasizes that it is the Emorites, whom Benei Yisrael have already overpowered, who live in Canaan and whom Benei Yisrael must dispossess.  They therefore have no reason to fear.  Similarly, in his account of Benei Yisrael's wailing after hearing the spies' report, Moshe recalls them crying, "It is because the Lord hates us that He brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Emorites" (1:27).  This is perhaps meant as a subtle ridicule of the people's fears, as if Moshe said, "Your parents feared the Emorites - whom we destroyed in battle and on whose land we now reside in peace and tranquillity!"


     Moshe concludes this section in the beginning of Parashat Vaetchanan by recounting his own appeal to the Almighty for permission to enter the land.  He stresses that he has no fear of the nations of Canaan; he longs to enter the land, only is forbidden from doing so.  His expression of his desire to proceed further would hopefully prevent the people from refusing to move onward as their parents had thirty-nine years earlier.


The Appointment of Judges


     What remains for us to understand is the first of the events included in this historical overview: Moshe's establishment of a judiciary.  Why does this earn mention in this parasha, which omits seemingly formative events such as the golden calf and Kivrot ha-Ta'ava?


     Several commentators viewed this discussion of the judiciary as an introduction to the section that follows - the story of the scouts.  According to the Ramban, Moshe stresses that even the nation's leadership, the judges and officers he had appointed, contributed to the widespread demand for a scouting mission.  Ramban does not explain, however, how this particular point adds to the gravity of the incident or otherwise contributes to the message Moshe seeks to convey in this parasha.  Centuries later, the Netziv (in his "Ha'amek Davar") suggested a much different basis for associating the appointment of judges with the scouts.  Moshe recalls that the need for a broader-based leadership arose out of his inability to lead single-handedly.  The Netziv attributes Moshe's incapacity in this regard to a gap that had formed between him and his people.  Already at this early stage, Moshe detected that they did not follow and obey him unquestioningly.  This incomplete loyalty sowed the seeds of the debacle of the spies.  Whereas Moshe guaranteed Benei Yisrael of God's supernatural intervention in their battles in Canaan, they demanded a natural approach, which began with a scouting mission as a means of military preparation.  Moshe therefore introduces the story of the spies in order to emphasize that earlier Benei Yisrael did not sufficiently trust in his leadership, thus necessitating a more elaborate leadership network.


     Abarbanel advances an entirely different theory, one which requires us to drastically change our understanding of this section.  According to Abarbanel, Moshe appointed these leaders as part of his pragmatic preparation for Benei Yisrael's entry into the land.  Once in Eretz Canaan, no longer will all of Benei Yisrael live in close proximity to Moshe, such that he could adjudicate all their court cases.  Neither will he have the ability to personally supervise and govern local municipalities.  Furthermore, Abarbanel contends that these officers served as military leaders, as well.  The hierarchy Moshe describes here was required as part of the formation of a well-organized army in anticipation of waging war against the nations of Canaan.  Moshe tells all this to Benei Yisrael at this point to underscore their exclusive responsibility for the delay in the wilderness.  He was prepared and ready to go; only due to their unwillingness to proceed would they spend forty years wandering.  In this way, Abarbanel explains, the appointment of judges served to introduce the thrust of Moshe's speech - the sin of the scouts.


     Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch posits a diametrically opposite approach.  Not only does he deny any association between the appointment of these leaders and military planning, but he claims that Moshe intended specifically to emphasize that no such planning was necessary.  To the contrary, Moshe prepared for the nation's entry into Eretz Yisrael by establishing the religious leadership, to ensure a stable mechanism of determining and enforcing the law.  On the eve of the nation's planned march to confront powerful, hostile armies, Moshe does not train an infantry battalion; he instead trains the nation's rabbis.  He thereby reinforces the notion that Benei Yisrael's success in their land depends solely on their commitment to God's laws.


     Although Rav Hirsch does not address the possible association between the appointment of religious leaders and the following account, the sin of the scouts, this association flows naturally from his approach.  Moshe here stresses the supernatural means by which Benei Yisrael were to have entered and captured the land.  But they opposed this miraculous existence; they preferred instead working within the natural order: "Then all of you came to me and said, 'Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to" (1:22).  The Netziv explains (as briefly mentioned earlier) that the nation here calls for a fundamental change of direction in planning their entry into Canaan.  Rather than marching into Canaan with God leading their way, miraculously dispersing their enemies and crushing their foes, they chose military strategy and standard combat.  Moshe approved their request (1:23), the Netziv explains, only because he understood the difficulty involved in maintaining the spiritual level necessary for a supernatural existence. 


     The new plan failed when Benei Yisrael discovered the hopelessness of capturing the land within purely natural means.  The challenge of religious life is to acknowledge God's hand in everything - even in that which appears to occur by force of nature.  As Benei Yisrael were destined to live a natural life of agriculture and industry in their new land, they would first have to experience God's direct involvement in their victory over the Canaanite nations.  This would demonstrate God's power and supervision over His nation in Eretz Yisrael.  They were therefore expected to trust in God's promise and courageously wage their battle despite the military prowess of their foes. 


     Moshe includes in his brief survey the appointment of the religious leadership, since this event represents the functional relationship between the nation's compliance with God's commandments and their military success.  So long as they remain loyal to God, they have nothing to fear as they prepare for battle.  The generation of the spies lacked the faith and resolve necessary to look beyond the pragmatic prospects of the conquest and rely on God's promise.  It is this error that Moshe seeks to prevent as he delivers his final exhortation to the people.  On the brink of the nation's entry into the land, Moshe does not prepare them for combat.  He instead prepares them for the spiritual challenges ahead, reminding them that their success in meeting these challenges will ensure their ability to overcome the challenges posed by the armies of Canaan.

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