Parshat Debarim

Finally we are reunited after months of separation! This week both Israel and the Diaspora will read Devarim on the Shabbat before 9 Ab.

Parshat Debarim opens the Book of Deuteronomy, written mostly in the 1st person, it contains 3 major speeches by Moshe expounded in the last days of his life. Debarim occurs at the plains of Transjordan, an 11-day journey from Horeb, on the 1st day of the 12th month in the 40th year.

Moshe orated how ‘G-d spoke to you at Horeb to go forward through the Emorite land to inherit territory promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You were so numerous I wasn’t able to look after the entire population; a judiciary and law enforcement were appointed to relieve my burden and I instructed them how to judge the people fairly.’

‘From there you journeyed to the Great Midbar until Kadesh Barnea, from whence we were to go up and inherit Canaan. But you implored me to send spies to report on the land, and I agreed, sending 12 tribal representatives. They travelled to the Valley of Eshkol, bringing back samples of its fruits. Then you rebelled against G-d, lamenting in your tents. And, though I told you not to be afraid, that G-d would carry you as a father carries a child, you wouldn’t believe.

Angered, G-d heard your self-pity and swore that none of that generation would enter the land, other than Kaleb. Even I was prevented from entering; Joshua would bring you in my stead. Told to turn away into the desert, you regretted your sin, insisting too late to go up into battle. And, though G-d forbade it, you rebelled again and were decimated by the Emorites returning to wail before the Almighty who heeded not your cries. We remained in Kadesh for a time, then turned to the Midbar and stayed near Mt Seir for many years.

Eventually, you journeyed through the borders of Seir but didn’t confront its inhabitants, for their land belonged to Esav. You could purchase food and water from them for silver; G-d blessed you these 40 years in the desert where you lacked nothing. And you passed through their land on the road from Eilat to Etsion Gaver.

We turned to cross through the land of Moab but were told by G-d not to disturb them either, for it wasn’t their land we would inherit – theirs was the inheritance of Lot.’ (Moshe added the history of conquest and settlement in those lands.) ‘Then we were ready to cross the Zared Valley. From Kadesh to Zared took 38 years until the previous generation naturally died off, some struck by the hand of G-d for other reasons.

And, when all of the previous generation were no longer, G-d told me to cross the border of Moab to the town of Ar but not to discomfit them for their land too was part of Lot’s inheritance.’ (Again Moshe added the history of conquest and settlement in those lands identifying tribes not previously mentioned in the Torah.) ‘Instead we were to cross the Arnon Valley and take land from King Sihon which G-d would place in our hands. From then on the Almighty would put the fear of you upon all nations under the Heavens.’

‘And I sent messengers to King Sihon to make peace, asking him to let us pass through his land, paying for our food & drink as was done with the inhabitants of Seir & Moab. But Sihon refused, massing his troops to war with you. G-d hardened his heart so you could conquer his land. You destroyed his cities and killed its inhabitants, leaving no remnant. Only the cattle and spoils did you keep – all of this given into your hands by G-d.’

‘Then we turned to the Bashan. King Og and his troops came out to war with you. And G-d told me not to be afraid, for Og too would be given into our hands. So it was, without any remnant, you captured 60 of his well-fortified cities.’ (Once again Moshe added a conquest and settlement history for those lands, tracing Og’s lineage back to the Refa’im giants, himself requiring an iron bed 9 amot long x 4 amot wide.) ‘Those lands on the Transjordan were given to the tribes of Reuben and Gad. The remainder of Gilead and Bashan was given to half the tribe of Menashe.

And I commanded you saying that G-d gave you this land on condition you go armed to help the tribes in their conquest of Canaan, while your wives, children and cattle could remain behind. To Joshua, I commanded saying you’ve seen what G-d has wrought upon these two kings, so will the Almighty do to all the kingdoms that lie ahead of you. Fear not, the Lord wars with you.’

Comment: Parshat Debarim – a remarkable Me’am Loez Midrash in Parshat Matot at the end of Bamidbar explained that the 42 journeys of Bnei Yisrael listed were as much relevant to their historical occurrence as to what we should expect of a future redemption. This week’s Parasha shows a continuing trend.

Moshe, standing before the leadership and people, needed to address their fears and to inspire their confidence for success in the upcoming battle to conquer Cana’an. The Book of Debarim is referred to by the commentators as Mishne Torah (a repetition or doubling of the Torah).

Comprised of 3 major speeches, in the first one Moshe aimed to invigorate Bnei Yisrael with examples of how the Almighty redeemed them from Egypt, cared for them in the wilderness, gave them victories over Kings Sihon & Og, and that despite the uncertain outcome awaiting them, G-d would also ensure their victory over the Canaanites.

This speech which somewhat oddly referenced in great detail the success of Esav and Lot’s descendant in securing ancestral lands in Seir, Amon & Moav, was meant also to give heart to Bnei Yisrael that G-d who provided countless miracles in their past could be trusted to fulfil the promises for their future. Just as Seir, Amon & Moav were given to Esav & Lot and protected against Bnei Yisrael’s incursion, so too should they trust the Almighty would fulfil the promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to possess the land of Canaan as their perpetual inheritance.

Perhaps today as well, we should understand that being unable to fathom the horrible and violent chaos occurring around us nor comprehend its intended outcome, through our faith in the Almighty, we must remind ourselves to trust G-d to fulfil the promise of safety, security and well-being made so long ago to our Patriarchs & Matriarchs.