This week's portion is the first from the book of Devarim, or Deuteronomy.
The dictionary definition of Deuteronomy is "fifth book of the Old
Testament, derived from the Greek words deuteros ("second") and nomos
("law")...it is a repetition of previous laws with an urgent appeal to obey
them. Jews use the first word or first significant word of the text of each
of the first five books of the Bible, or Pentateuch, as titles. Thus
Deuteronomy is known in Hebrew as Devarim ("words")." The editors at Encarta
are most likely not well versed in the writings of Nachmanides (R' Moshe ben
Nachman, 1194-1270, of Gerona, Spain, one of the leading Torah scholars of
the Middle Ages; successfully defended Judaism at the dramatic debate in
Barcelona in 1263) who wrote that the Book of Devarim is commonly known as
the "Mishneh Torah" (literally, the repetition/review or explanation of the
Torah), wherein Moshe explains to the generation that is to enter the Land
of Israel many of the commandments they will be needing. He does not
mention the Priestly Service or the Sacrificial Order; rather he clarifies
the commandments that will be performed by the nation time and time again.
The actual legal review does not begin until next week's portion. This
week's portion briefly reviews the highlights of the wanderings in the
wilderness over the past forty years. It starts with one of the lowest
points in the brief history of the new nation, the evil report of the spies
who scouted the Land (see below). With even greater brevity Moshe reviews
numerous other embarrassing historical moments. The Book begins: "These are
the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan,
concerning the wilderness, concerning Arava, opposite the Sea of Reeds (the
Red Sea), between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di-zahav." The
translation of the Hebrew "ba-midbar, ba-arava..." could be "within the
wilderness, within Arava..."; but it is translated as "concerning the
wilderness, concerning Arava..." based on the observation of Rashi and many
of his contemporaries who note that the Jewish nation was no longer in the
wilderness, they were in the Plains of Moav. Nachmanides further notes that
if the purpose of the verse is merely to indicate the Jews' actual location
then it is peculiar that it mentions "more landmarks and boundaries than one
who is selling his field."
Rather, they cite Targum Onkelos (authoritative Aramaic interpretive
translation by the Tannaic-era proselyte Onkelos, c.90) who explains that
Moshe refers to the misdeeds of the Jewish people at each of these stops in
their travels. "The wilderness" is the Wilderness of Sinn, where the Jews
first complained about starving in the desert; "Arava" is Arvos Moav (the
Plains of Moav) where they were seduced to sin with the Midianite women;
"the Sea of Reeds" refers to the moment when the Egyptians were closing in
and the Jews lost faith and asked "Are there not sufficient graves for us in
Egypt?"; "Paran" is the point of departure of the spies; "Tofel" and "Lavan"
(lit. calumny and white) are not references to places, rather to the manna
and complaints of the Jews of its inferior quality; "Hazeroth" is the
location of Korach's rebellion; and "Di-zahav" (lit. abundance of gold)
refers to the sin of the Golden Calf.
Why is this all here? What is gained by dredging up all the disobediences
of the Jewish people? Complicating this is the fact that these people were
not guilty of any of these transgressions: all the participants in the
seduction at the Plains of Moav died in the plague that followed, and all of
the other breaches of faith occurred at the beginning of the wandering
almost forty years previous when the generation being addressed were either
children or not yet born. Those who sinned all died out over the forty
years! Furthermore, why are the transgressions not spelled out? Why are they
encoded in the opening words of the chapter?
The Jewish nation was about to enter the Promised Land, which would mean an
end to the manna, the removal of the protective Clouds of Glory, and the
beginning of a more mundane existence. Maintaining a relationship with G-d
would be more of a challenge. Nachmanides explains they knew that every
person sins and they feared the immediate reprisal of G-d's divine justice.
Therefore, before Moshe reminds them of the commandments they will be
fulfilling on a daily basis he reminds them of G-d's infinite mercy and how
this mercy facilitates our service of Him. Through all of the past misdeeds
G-d gave those who failed the test a chance to repent. For the lesser
failures they were able to fully restore their relationship with G-d; for
the more severe transgressions there had to be a punishment. But none of
the lapses lead to a termination of G-d's relationship with His people. G-d
is the infinite giver and wants us to succeed more than we ourselves do.
The reminders of their parents ugly past was meant to build them, not break
them. Moshe was not seeking to humiliate the Jewish people. Rashi clarifies
that this is the reason Moshe spoke in veiled references, so that the people
would understand the lesson of the past without being disgraced by it.
Rosh Hashanah is almost two months away, but the "Rosh Hashanah season"
begins now, with the approach of Tisha B'Av, the day that both of the Holy
Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, almost 2000 and 2500 years ago. It
became a day destined for mourning when the Jewish people mourned all night,
3312 years ago this Saturday night, following the evil report of the spies
(see Rashi on Psalms 106:27). It is no coincidence that this Torah portion
always precedes Tisha B'Av. The Rabbis orchestrated this to remind us NOW
is the time to contemplate our relationship with the Almighty. We are
tempted to give up; we have done so much wrong. Moshe speaks to us today
and reminds us: G-d's patience is boundless, He waits for our return, He
wants us to succeed.