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

Rabbi David Stav

This Shabbat, we begin the fifth and final volume of the Five Books of Moses. This Shabbat is also commonly referred to as “Shabbat Chazon”, so named for the opening word of the Haftarah reading: “The vision (‘chazon’) of Yishayahu (Isaiah) the son of Amotz”. This Haftarah is always read on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av.

The connection between the Haftorah and the destruction of the Holy Temple is clear: the prophet is warning us that government corruption may end in the Holy Temple’s destruction: “Your princes are rebellious and companions of thieves; everyone loves bribes and runs after payments; the orphan they do not judge, and the quarrel of the widow does not come to them” [Is. 1:23].

It is obvious that this Haftarah was chosen due to the proximity of the events described to the day of the destruction of the Temple. But upon a closer look at the parsha, we will realize that it, too, is intrinsically linked to the destruction. In Parshat Devarim, Moses delivers a series of addresses over the course of thirty-seven days, from the first of the month of Shevat to the seventh of the month of Adar, the date of his death.

The incident Moses characterizes as the first and formative event is the Sin of the Spies. We might have expected him to dwell on the Sin of the Golden Calf, or perhaps, on the Jews’ intermingling with the daughters of Midian and Moab, but he did not. Why, of all of the events of the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert, would Moses have chosen to focus on the Sin of the Spies?

Our Sages tell us that five incidents occurred on the Ninth of Av, most notably, the destruction of the two temples [Mishnah, Taanit 4:6]. The first incident, however, was the Sin of the Spies. It stands to reason that when our Sages determined that this was the first event to take place on this ominous day, they understood that it laid the foundations for the misdeeds that would ultimately result in the subsequent tragedies.

Moses uses a unique format to describe the sequence of events. According to what he reports, the spies returned and said that the land was very good, noting that “you [the Israelites] did not want to go up, and you rebelled against the commandment of the Lord, your God.”

In other words, the main reason that the nation tarried in the desert for forty years was not the spies’ harsh intelligence briefing. Rather, it was because they simply did not want to enter the land. Moses continues, saying that “You murmured in your tents and said, ‘Because God hates us, He took us out of the land of Egypt…’” That is, once no one wanted to put any effort into conquering the land, they began whining and complaining.

Moses’ description does not fully correspond to the verses in the Book of Numbers that discussed the events that occurred when the spies delivered their report, and the nation’s response. There, alongside the spies’ praise of the land and its fruits, we find their conclusion concerning how hard it will be to defeat the inhabitants of the land, who, in their words, were valiant giants.

None of this is mentioned here, and not because someone had forgotten or attempted to conceal or rewrite history. The speech was intended to highlight the message that should have resonated concerning what occurred there. The main concept Moses was trying to teach the nation was that success and prosperity are rooted in a person’s will to put in the required effort, and the person’s faith in God and His promises.

Conversely, a person who does not embody these qualities sows the seeds of calamity and destruction. People could find dozens of excuses, from the price of chocolate pudding to Israeli bureaucracy, to justify their decision not to live in our land and prefer living in the diaspora with their families, and plenty of people do just that.

Yet these are only manifestations of what Moses calls “not wanting to go up” and “complaining”. You did not want to do it, and that is why you started fishing for drawbacks that could justify your hesitation to invest the required effort.

Our Sages were able to link the expression in this week’s parsha that begins with the word “eichah” – “How can I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by Myself?” – with the opening verse of the Book of Lamentations, which also begins with the word “eichah”: “Oh, how has the city that was once so populous has become lonely.”

If we reflect on the special word “eichah”, we may remember that this very word appeared when the world was created, at the moment Adam ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which was forbidden to him. Back then, God used another pronunciation of the word – ayekah – “where are you?”

“Eichah” is a very personal question. Since the days of Adam, the question has been directed at each and every one of us. It encapsulates not only the question itself, but also the challenge of coping with staggering phenomena, such as the solitude Moses experienced when forced to bear the burden of an entire nation, the desolation of a capital city, or any other difficulty we might encounter as we live our lives. These same difficulties give rise to the question to us posed by God: “Where are you? Have you managed to make the place you are inhabiting any better, despite the challenges?”

Shabbat Shalom 


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