Telephone Torah Study: The Beginning of Moses’ Final Words to the Israelites
This week on Telephone Torah Study (Thursday 4-5pm) we begin the Book of Deuteronomy with this week’s Torah portion, Devarim (Deut. 1:1-3:22).
One of the meanings of devarim is “words.” And, Moses has a lot of them. For 37 days, Moses talks, and talks, and talks. He recalls the journey out of Egypt and retells events during their wanderings in the desert. Although Moses’ memory is sketchy (his recollections sometimes differ from what was said in earlier chapters); his words poise the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. Like a concerned parent sending their children off to camp for the first time, he metes out warnings and rules; but also, encouragements and promises. This Thursday, we’ll study together the beginning of Moses’ final words to the Israelites.
To join in on the conference call, please dial 702-851-4044, when prompted punch in 2, then our pass code 22252#.
Suggested reading: In his Devarim commentary entitled ‘On History and Memory,’ Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky asks the question, “You can learn history, but how does one acquire memory?”
This portion begins the book of Deuteronomy. Its name in Hebrew is D’varim (literally, “words” or “things”–in this case meaning events). It is also the beginning of a series of last orations byMoses to the people of Israel before he leaves them. In the midst of his speech, Moses retells the story of the Israelites’ journey wandering through the desert. That is why the book is also called Mishneh Torah, implying a Torah repetition of sorts.
Beginnings of books are always full of promise. And with each step that Moses retraces, one has the feeling that the journey is beginning again. Perhaps that is part of Moses’ intent for rehearsing each event. As one relives the event, one can experience its impact and its lesson again. Moses stands at the place that he believes the Israelites forfeited years ago with their actions.
This portion is always read on the Shabbat prior to Tisha b’Av, that day of infamy in Jewish history on which both ancient Temples were destroyed (although at different times) and other calamities occurred. Part of the challenge of understanding the message of this portion is to understand its connection to Tisha b’Av.
“Indeed, your God Adonai has blessed you in all your undertakings. [God] has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness; your God Adonai has been with you these past forty years; you have lacked nothing.” (Deut. 2:7)
In the 40th year after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses addressed the Israelites on the east side of the Jordan River, recounting the instructions that God had given them. When the Israelites were at Horeb — Mount Sinai — God told them that they had stayed long enough at that mountain, and it was time for them to make their way to the hill country of Canaan and take possession of the land that God swore to assign to their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their heirs after them. Then Moses told the Israelites that he could not bear the burden of their bickering alone, and thus directed them to pick leaders from each tribe who were wise, discerning, and experienced.
Moses appointed the leaders as chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens. Moses charged the magistrates to hear and decide disputes justly, treating alike Israelite and stranger, low and high. Moses directed them to bring him any matter that was too difficult to decide. The Israelites set out from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea, and Moses told them that God had placed the land at their disposal and that they should not fear, but take the land.
he Israelites asked Moses to send men ahead to reconnoiter the land, and he approved the plan, selecting 12 men, one from each tribe. The scouts came to the wadi Eshcol, retrieved some of the fruit of the land, and reported that it was a good land. But the Israelites flouted God’s command and refused to go into the land, instead sulking in their tents about reports of people stronger and taller than they and large cities with sky-high walls. Moses told them not to fear, as God would go before them and would fight for them, just as God did for them in Egypt and the wilderness. When God heard the Israelites’ loud complaint, God became angry and vowed that not one of the men of that evil generation would see the good land that God swore to their fathers, except Caleb, whom God would give the land on which he set foot, because he remained loyal to God. Moses complained that because of the people, God was incensed with Moses too, and told him that he would not enter the land either. God directed that Moses’s attendant Joshua would enter the land and allot it to Israel.
God continued that the little ones — whom the Israelites said would be carried off — would also enter and possess the land. The Israelites replied that now they would go up and fight, just as God commanded them, but God told Moses to warn them not to, as God would not travel in their midst and they would be routed by their enemies. Moses told them, but they would not listen, but flouted God’s command and willfully marched into the hill country. Then the Amorites who lived in those hills came out like so many bees and crushed the Israelites at Hormah in Seir. The Israelites remained at Kadesh a long time, marched back into the wilderness by the way of the Sea of Reeds, and then skirted the hill country of Seir a long time.
God then told Moses that they had been skirting that hill country long enough and should now turn north. God instructed that the people would be passing through the territory of their kinsmen, the descendants of Esau in Seir, and that the Israelites should be very careful not to provoke them and should purchase what food and water they ate and drank, for God would not give the Israelites any of their land. So the Israelites moved on, away from their kinsmen the descendants of Esau, and marched on in the direction of the wilderness of Moab. God told Moses not to harass or provoke the Moabites, for God would not give the Israelites any of their land, having assigned it as a possession to the descendants of Lot. The Israelites spent 38 years traveling from Kadesh-barnea until they crossed the wadi Zered, and the whole generation of warriors perished from the camp, as God had sworn.
Then God told Moses that the Israelites would be passing close to the Ammonites, but the Israelites should not harass or start a fight with them, for God would not give the Israelites any part of the Ammonites’ land, having assigned it as a possession to the descendants of Lot.
God instructed the Israelites to set out across the wadi Arnon, to attack Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and begin to occupy his land. Moses sent messengers to King Sihon with an offer of peace, asking for passage through his country, promising to keep strictly to the highway, turning neither to the right nor the left, and offering to purchase what food and water they would eat and drink. But King Sihon refused to let the Israelites pass through, because God had stiffened his will and hardened his heart in order to deliver him to the Israelites.
Sihon and his men took the field against the Israelites at Jahaz, but God delivered him to the Israelites, and the Israelites defeated him, captured all his towns, and doomed every town, leaving no survivor, retaining as booty only the cattle and the spoil. From Aroer on the edge of the Arnon valley to Gilead, not a city was too mighty for the Israelites; God delivered everything to them. The Israelites made their way up the road to Bashan, and King Og of Bashan and his men took the field against them at Edrei, but God told Moses not to fear, as God would deliver Og, his men, and his country to the Israelites to conquer as they had conquered Sihon. So God delivered King Og of Bashan, his men, and his 60 towns into the Israelites’ hands, and they left no survivor. Og was so big that his iron bedstead was nine cubits long and four cubits wide. Moses assigned land to the Reubenites, Gadites, and half-tribe of Manasseh.
Moses charged the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh that even though they had already received their land, they needed to serve as shock-troops at the head of their Israelite kinsmen, leaving only their wives, children, and livestock in the towns that Moses had assigned to them, until God had granted the Israelites their land west of the Jordan. And Moses charged Joshua not to fear the kingdoms west of the Jordan, for God would battle for him and would do to all those kingdoms just as God had done to Sihon and Og.