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Parashat Devarim - Shabbat Hazon
July 25, 2015 – 9 Av 5775
Annual (Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22): Etz Hayim p. 981; Hertz p. 736
Triennial (Deuteronomy 2:2 – 2:30): Etz Hayim p. 990; Hertz p. 743
Haftarah (Isaiah 1:1 – 27): Etz Hayim p. 1000; Hertz p. 750

Encamped with the Israelites in Moab (just across the Jordan River from the Promised Land), one month away from death, Moses begins a series of lengthy discourses to the entire Israelite population. His first speech recalls the events that led 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, insisted on sending chiefs into the land, leading to the negative reports that caused the Israelites to panic , thus delaying the conquest of Canaan.

The remainder of this portion details how the subsequent generation of Israelites, 38 years later, were 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: Generations

The time that we spent in travel from Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the wadi Zered was thirty-eight years, until that whole generation of warriors had perished from the camp, as the Lord had sworn concerning them. Indeed, the hand of the Lord struck them, to root them out from the camp to the last man. (Deuteronomy 2:14-15)

Moses notes that his audience at the end of his life is different than the one he led out of Egypt a generation ago.

Moses addresses the people on the plains of Moab, on the verge of entering the promised land. Most of the generation gathered there have never known any life other than a nomadic life in which worship was centered on the tent of meeting and in which the people experienced Yahweh’s presence in remarkable and dramatic ways. Now, however, the people are about to enter into the land itself, and corporate worship is to be at the central sanctuary. -- Peter T. Vogt, Deuteronomic Theology and the Significance of Torah: A Reappraisal

For during all the 38 years in which God was angry with Israel, He did not speak with Moses, as is said, “So it came to pass, when all the men of war were consumed and dead from among the people, that the Lord spoke unto me …”. Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai stated: I am not arguing against the words of my teacher, but would merely add to what he taught: It was not with Moses alone that God spoke solely because of Israel’s merit, but also with the other prophets -- all of them -- He spoke solely because of Israel’s merit. -- Mekhilta

[Even the hand of God] was on them to hurry and “to confound them” within the 40 years so that they should not again cause their sons to delay in the wilderness. -- Rashi on 2:15

Questions for Discussion:

Vogt indicates that the generation of Israelites in the book of Deuteronomy should prepare itself for more distant ritual experiences since its citizens will soon be spread out across the Promised Land, many of them living a long way from the central sanctuary. What kind of religious experiences are more fulfilling in a more intimate environment? In what circumstances is a larger group preferable?

The Mekhilta claims that Moses and God did not speak with one another for the vast majority of wandering in the wilderness. Give the depth of their relationship, do you think this is plausible? If we are to believe this claim, what kind of impact would this lengthy "silent treatment" have had on Moses? How might it have impacted Moses' tone and approach to his final speeches to the Israelites?

Rashi says that God's "invisible hand" guided the Israelites during their wanderings -- which means, if we also believe the Mekhilta's claim, that God's hand moved them without speaking to them. How often is non-verbal communication essential to get one's point across? What would happen if we were to spend an entire day without using words with those around us? Would it work better if we only have to interact with people we know well, or would it even be possible to succeed while dealing with strangers?

Theme #2: Everybody’s Got a Hardened Heart?

But King Sihon of Heshbon refused to let us pass through, because the Lord had stiffened his will and hardened his heart in order to deliver him into your power -- as is now the case. (Deuteronomy 2:30)

Just like the Pharaoh in Egypt, King Sihon refuses to acquiesce to Israelite requests due to God's intervention.

Literally, “did not consent [to let us pass through],” in contradistinction to the phrase in the parallel verse in Numbers 21:23, “did not let pass,” which sounds more aggressive toward and contemptuous of Israel. -- Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11

[It] provides another in the long series of passages wherein we discover our author’s conception of God. Here we are told simply that Yahweh hardened the spirit of Sihon, causing the latter to resist Israel. Such an idea is not easily acceptable to the modern mind. Yet the spirit of this Deuteronomic passage is reflected again and again throughout the Old Testament. The concept of a personalized evil force, such as we find later in Job or Chronicles, has not yet come into Israel’s thinking. Whatever happened to Israel came at the command, or at least without the forbidding, of Yahweh. Like other Semites, the Israelite identified his own fortune with the fortunate of his nation’s God. -- Interpreter’s Bible, Volume II

He who covers up his faults will not succeed; he who confesses and gives them up will find mercy. Happy is the man who is anxious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune. -- Proverbs 28:13-14

Questions for Discussion:

Weinfeld notes that Sihon's refusal to let the Israelites pass through his land is described less aggressively in the book of Deuteronomy than in the book of Numbers. Since the historical events in Deuteronomy are described in a more retrospective fashion, is it possible that the Israelites view of Sihon softened over time? As time passes, do we tend to look back more generously at the difficult memories in our lives, or do our remembrances take a more cynical tone?

The Interpreter's Bible suggests that the Israelites see God less as a character acting in history, at least in the book of Deuteronomy. When we pray, is it helpful for us to think of God as an individual? Or is it more beneficial to see God as a force in our lives that is difficult for us to pinpoint? Can we effectively pray to a God that we understand more in the abstract?

The quote above from Proverbs reminds us that the "hardening" of one's heart leads only to trouble. How do we harden our hearts today? What causes us to turn a blind eye to suffering and misfortune of others? Do we have the capacity to reverse the hardening of our hearts? How can Jewish observance enable us to make such a reversal?

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