Parshat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22)

Rabbi David Stav 

This Shabbat, we will begin a new book of the Chumash, the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). The special name given to this Shabbat ­– Shabbat Chazon, which immediately precedes the fast day of Tisha b’Av ­– is associated with the first haftarah of the book of Deuteronomy, which begins: “The chazon [“vision’] of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, [and] Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” [Is. 1:1]

The imminent arrival of Tisha b’Av brings with it some of its sorrowful atmosphere to this Shabbat: many communities have the tradition of chanting the liturgical poem Lecha Dodi in a special mournful tune used for the Kinot (elegies). Additionally, the mournful tune from “Eicha”, the Scroll of Lamentations, will be heard when the person reading the Torah on Shabbat morning reaches the verse that reads, “How [“Eicha”] can I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by myself?” [Deut. 1:12], as well as during most of the haftarah.

Furthermore, the connection between our weekly Biblical portion and the destruction of the Temple is partially revealed in the first chapter of Deuteronomy. The book contains a number of long soliloquies that Moshe delivers to the nation just before he leaves the physical world, and the rest of the nation enter the Land of Israel.

The first part of his address highlights two events buried in the recesses of the nation’s collective memory. The first is the appointment of judges to lower courts, after which Moshe warns the judges to act fairly toward the public and not to give preference to the weak or the strong. Moshe did this in light of a hardship he foresees: “How [“Eicha”] can I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by myself?” Moshe struggles to address all of the people’s demands, of which some were downright annoying.

The second event that Moshe recalled was the Sin of the Spies, on account of which the nation was fated to spend forty years wandering in the desert. Conspicuously absent is the Sin of the Golden Calf, which will be mentioned several chapters later, though it actually predates the Sin of the Spies, and is seemingly a far graver sin than the latter, as the former is viewed as a one-time error made by ten spies who didn’t have faith in the nation’s ability to inherit the land.

Why did Moshe stress this particular failure and leave out the other?

Moshe uses a very unique and exceedingly strange style when speaking about the spies:   

“…The land that the Lord our God is giving us is good. But you did not want to go up…” [ibid., 1:25-26].

Is that truly what happened? Didn’t the spies say that the land was indeed a good land, but that it couldn’t be inherited because of its intimidating inhabitants, and that conquering it would be impossible? Why did Moshe make such a substantial change in the narrative?

Perhaps Moshe is not interested in the nation’s theological history when he gives his last address, and he does not go into the details of the spy affair and the exact circumstances that led to the nation’s decision that they did not want to enter the land. That wasn’t the purpose of his address. Moshe drew a very clear line between the burden he needed to bear and the quarrels within the nation, which led to the need to appoint an intermediate leadership level – and the issue of entering the land.

“You didn’t want to enter the land and you looked for a good excuse,” he’s saying. “The spies might have significantly buttressed your position, but it doesn’t matter, because it was no more than a pretext to justify the ubiquitous whining and bickering in the Israelite camp from the very beginning.”

In effect, Moshe is telling them that even before contemplating faith and compliance with Hashem’s will, a person needs to think about the quality of life he or she desires. Does the person want to just whine and focus on the negative, or believe in what’s good, and do whatever’s necessary to make it a reality?

Our rabbis determined that the Sin of the Spies occurred on Tisha b’Av. There is no textual source for this determination, but it is the prevailing rabbinic tradition. According to the Midrash, when Hashem’s nation refused to enter the land of Israel, Hashem said that “You cried in vain, so now, I will establish this day as a day of tears for generations.”

Presumably, this ostensibly historical determination in linked to a spiritual insight, according to which the source of the calamity faced by our nation throughout its existence lies in our conduct during the days leading up to the entry into the Land.

The nation and its leaders grew increasingly melancholy as they prepared to cross over the Jordan River, and bitterness and complaints filled the air. If this was the prevalent atmosphere, and if the nation was unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it had essentially cleared the way for a spirit of internal decay to infiltrate the camp, and it was only a matter of time until disaster ensued.

From this we see that everything begins with our manner of speaking, the quality of the interaction between people, and the types of words people use to describe whatever is occurring around them. This book is called Devarim for good reason: the devarim, the words and the discourse style are not merely descriptors of a given situation: they have the power to shape reality. Moshe associates a string of negative attributes with Israel: your trouble, your burden, rebellion, murmuring, etc. Each of these words is essentially a warning beacon to any society that cherishes life: destruction begins with words… but, thankfully, so does rebirth.

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