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

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel“Zion shall be redeemed because of her moral justice and her children shall return to her because of her compassionate righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27).

The Shabbat before the bleak day of Tisha Be’Av, the fast commemorating the destruction of both Holy Temples, is called Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat of Vision. This title is based on the prophetic reading of that day which starts: “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz which he saw concerning Judea and Jerusalem…” (Isaiah 1:1).

But a “vision” usually refers to a positive sight intensified with a Divine revelation, a manifestation of the Divine presence as when “the elite youth of Israel… envisaged the Almighty” (Exodus 24:11). Likewise, in our liturgy, we pray in the Amida: “May our eyes envisage Your return to Zion in compassion.” Isaiah’s vision, however, is one of moral turpitude and religious hypocrisy: “Woe to the sinning nation, people heavy with transgression…My soul despises your festivals…your hands are filled with blood….” Where is the positive “vision” of Divine grace?

The answer may be found in last week’s portion, where we read about the journeys of the Israelites through the desert – perhaps a metaphor for the journeys of the Israelites through history. “And Moses transcribed the places of origin toward their places of destinations and these are the places of destinations toward their places of origin” (Numbers 33:2).

This verse contains an internal contradiction: Where do we ever find a point of destination leading to a point of origin?

If your point of origin is the place where you discovered your personal or national destiny, you must always return to it, no matter how many places you settle along the way, in pursuit of your original destiny.

Israel began her historic journey with Abraham in Hebron, where God charged the first Hebrew with our universal mission: “Through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:13). God, likewise, revealed what it was that Abraham was to teach the world: “I have known him in order that he command his children … to observe the path of the Lord, to do compassionate righteousness and moral justice” (Gen. 18:19). This is the Abrahamic mission and destiny, and so wherever Israel may travel, she must always return to her roots and purpose – being in Hebron, where her journey began.

It is fascinating that in Hebrew past and future tenses are inextricably bound together; a single letter vav can transform a verb in the past tense into the future tense, and vice versa.

Similarly, when used in the context of time, the word “lifnei” means “before” (as in “Simeon was born one year before [lifnei] Reuben”), whereas, when used in the context of space the same word means “ahead” (as in “Simeon is walking one step ahead of [lifnei] Reuben”).

Temporally, the Hebron experience came before our Babylonian experience, but Hebron and its message – as well as its geographic locus – was always in Israel’s future; the Cave of the Patriarchs is both the fount of Israel’s mission and the guide-post for Israel’s ultimate destiny. It serves both as a burial site (kever) and a womb (rehem) – and both of these words are used interchangeably by the Talmudic Sages.

Hence when Moses makes reference to God’s command that we inherit and conquer the land of Israel (Deuteronomy 1:8), it is immediately followed by the necessity to establish a proper moral, judicial system; and when Moses deals with the rebellion of the scouts, he excludes Caleb from punishment, since he was in favor of conquering the Land of Israel. What made him stand virtually alone with God, Moses and Joshua? Our Sages explain that he began the reconnaissance journey with a side trip to Hebron to garner inspiration from the patriarch who established the mission in the first place. Caleb went back in order to properly forge ahead.