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Parashat Devarim - Shabbat Hazon
August 2, 2014 - 6 Av 5774

Annual (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22): Etz Hayim p. 981; Hertz p. 736
Triennial (Deuteronomy 1:1-2:1): Etz Hayim p. 981; Hertz p. 736
Haftarah (Isaiah 1:1-27): Etz Hayim p. 1000; Hertz p. 750

 Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Encamped in Moab (just across the Jordan River from the Promised Land) and one month away from death, Moses begins a series of lengthy discourses to the entire Israelite population. His first speech recalls the events that lead the generation of the Exodus to wander for 40 years rather than entering Canaan expediently. Unlike in the account in the book of Numbers, Moses says that the people, not God, insist on sending chiefs into the land, leading to the negative reports that cause the Israelites to panic and delays the conquest of Canaan.

The remainder of this portion details how the subsequent generation of Israelites, 38 years later, are able to make their way through their wanderings by either evading or defeating the other nations in their midst. This generation is far more ready and willing to follow God's instructions, and thus is deemed ready to enter the Promised Land.

 Theme #1: Hello Again

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan. -- Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab, it is 11 days from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea by the Mount Seir route. -- It was in the 40th year, on the first day of the 11th month, that Moses addressed the Israelites in accordance with the instructions that the Lord had given for them. (Deuteronomy 1:1-3)

The book of Deuteronomy sets the scene for the final speeches of Moses's life, with the Israelites on the precipice of entering the Promised Land without Moses.

In developing from a man of actions to a man of words, Moses imitates God. The Tanakh depicts God as becoming more and more hidden over the course of history. In the first books of the Bible God appears to humans, is seen and heard at Sinai, makes His presence known through miracles, angels, and the column of cloud and fire. But these visible signs of divine action in history disappear from the story one by one. And by the last books of the Tanak, there are no angels or miracles. The words “YHWH appeared to” and “YHWH spoke to” do not occur to anyone. Instead, the priest Ezra reads the Torah aloud to the people. In the place of the acts of God there is the word of God. When the Torah pictures Moses ending his life in words, he imitates and prefigures the transformation of the human experience of God that will occur in the Bible. -- Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

The date on the first day of the eleventh month in the fortieth year since the departure from Sinai/Horeb is deliberately contrasted with the eleven days that it normally takes to journey from Horeb/Sinai to the location in Moab. The contrast highlights the conflict between Israel and YHWH in the wilderness that called for a forty-year journey that would see the demise of the entire slave generation prior to entry into the promised land of Israel. -- Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible

Among the Israelites there were certainly many righteous people who did not sin to God through any of the ways that Moses would mention. … They could have thought, “Certainly the reason that Moses did not include us is because we have sinned.” Therefore, Moses included all of them to teach that they also have a portion in the sin, since if they would have spoken up and rebuked the sinners, they might have prevented them from doing wrong. -- Me’am Lo’ez

Questions for Discussion:

Friedman remarks that, as the generations change, the Israelites had to rely more and more on the written and spoken word to remember to live as God commanded. While technology removes so many of the barriers that may deplete our collective memory, there is still no replacing actual conversations and interactions with the people (and beings) who shaped our past. How does the change in communications technology impact the way we should approach our daily interactions?

Sweeney’s comments ensure that the reader will never be too far removed from the idea that, no matter how far the Israelites had come, it was their fault that they hadn’t gotten to their destination much sooner. When we think back on events in our lives, when is it helpful to dwell on what we should have done, and when should we focus on what we did right? Is the answer different when we learn about the lives of other people? When we think of the Israelites of the Torah, do we focus more on their achievements or their shortcomings?

Me’Am Lo’ez considers the so-called “innocent” Israelites as equal partners in the nation’s crimes against God. To what extent should we be expected to place pressure on our peers to act justly and with kindness? What risks do we run by speaking up? When, if ever, do those risks outweigh any benefit of refraining from silence?

Theme #2: A Dirty Job

May the Lord, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold, and bless you as He promised you. -- How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering! (Deuteronomy 1:11-12)

These two verses are indicative of Moses’s mixed feelings in his final days -- he feels genuine affection for the Israelites, and sincere frustration with them as well.

Why has this blessing [in verse 11] not come true? Because it was intended not for the present but for that future day of which the Prophet Isaiah says [60:22]: “The smallest shall become a thousand, and the least a mighty nation.” In that day the Jewish people, which is now “small” and insignificant, will grow a thousandfold in stature and importance, just as Moses foretold it in the blessing he gave the Children of Israel. -- Binyan Ariel

These terms [in verse 12] -- trouble, burden, and bickering -- refer to the three tasks of leadership which Moses had to fulfill. “Trouble” alludes to the responsibility given to Moses to study the Law with the Children of Israel, as he himself described it to his father-in-law Jethro: “And I make known to them the statutes of God and [God’s] laws” [Exodus 18:16]. “Burden” is a reference to the duty devolving on Moses to pray for any Israelite who might be in trouble; as he put it to Jethro, “The people come to me to inquire of God” [Exodus 18:15]. “Bickering” refers to the role of Moses as arbitrator and judge in disputes arising among the people: “I judge between a man and his neighbor” [Exodus 8:16]. These three functions are the principal responsibilities of the leader in Israel. -- Nachmanides

Moses begins his exhortation with a blessing in order to make his reproof more palatable. -- Itture Torah

Questions for Discussion:

Binyan Ariel reminds us to be hopeful that God’s blessings recorded in the Torah will one day come true. When we pray, is it reasonable for us to expect the fulfillment of our wishes during our lifetimes, or must we be satisfied if and when they are fulfilled during the lives of our descendents? If it is the latter, does this help explain why we pray most often in the plural, so that we are not insisting that blessings should occur for any one individual? Nachmanides feels the work of the Israelite leader mainly consists of study, prayer and bringing justice to the community. In our times, Jewish leaders take different roles (such as clergy, educators, politicians). How have these modern leaders' roles changed a leader’s role from Nachmanides's ideal? Would we better off if our leaders returned to his ideal? If not, what requirements should we look for?

Itture Torah compares the relationship of these two verses with the typical strategy that many of us employ; when we must criticize others, we find it beneficial to point out positives in their personalities or actions so that they will not feel demoralized by the critiques leveled against them. Is this a realistic understanding of human nature? Or is it disingenuous for us to "dance around" the negative things we have to say? Is it better just to be direct?

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