Commentary for Devarim

12 Aug

In this week’s parshah Moses recounts to the Israelites the events of their journey through the desert, which is about to come to an end.  One of the events that Moses recounts is the Israelite’s reluctance to enter the Promised Land after the spies return from their mission with reports of giants living in heavily fortified cities.  While the traditional view of the Israelites words as presented in the Torah, both when they were first spoken as well as here in Moses’ recap has been that the Israelites were doubting God’s ability to defeat the Canaanites on their behalf, the Lubavitcher Rebbe takes a different approach.

Moses’ paraphrasing of the Israelites’ reaction to the spies’ report is found in Deut 1:28, which reads “To where shall we ascend?  Our brothers have melted our hearts, saying, ‘A people greater and taller than we, cities great and fortified to the heavens, and even children of giants have we seen there.”  The Lubavitcher Rebbe attaches a special significance to the final phrase, referring back to a midrash found in Yalkut Shimoni.  The “children of giants” in this verse are identified by Rashi as descendents of Shamchazai and Azael.  According to Yalkut Shimoni, Shamchazai and Azael were two angels who, upon seeing the wickedness of humanity in the time before Noah’s flood, asked God to let them dwell among humanity so that they can help bring humanity back its holy purpose of sanctifying God.  God assented to their efforts, but as soon as they came into contact with the material world, these two angels were corrupted by humanity’s wickedness.

While they were in the desert, the Israelites’ needs were all taken care of by God.  They had manna and meats to eat, water to drink, and protection from their enemies and from the elements.  They had no pressing needs to worry about, and were thus able to devote their entire lives to studying the laws Moses taught them and strengthening their relationship with God.  They feared that when they entered the Land of Israel and had to start farming their own fields and finding their own water and protecting themselves- both militarily and morally- against the other nations that lived there, they would not be able to maintain their devotion to God.  After all, if two angels who came to earth specifically to help humanity live in God’s ways were able to be led astray by other desires, then surely they as mere humans would be even more susceptible to such a downfall.

Though well-intentioned, the Israelites defeatist attitude turned the blessing of getting to enter the Promised Land into a curse which ultimately led them to rebel against G-d, resulting in the entire generation aside from Joshua and Caleb, who did not share this attitude, dying out in the desert.

Interestingly, earlier in his speech, Moses indicates that he himself seems to have faced a similar dilemma.  In 1:9 he tells the Israelites “Thereupon I said to you, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself.”  In 1:10 he goes on to talk about the great abundance of descendants that God has blessed the Israelites with, and in 1:11 he goes on to wish that this blessing will continue.  In 1:12, though, he laments “How can I bear by myself your contentiousness and your burdening and your bickering?”  As the number of Israelites has increased, so has Moses’ workload in his roles as chief Rabbi and arbiter of legal disputes, and thus the blessing has become a curse.

Rather than attempt to run away from the challenge as the Israelites had done, Moses instead worked to implement a solution.  Moses told the Israelites to “provide for yourselves distinguished men who are wise, understanding and experienced for your tribes, and I shall appoint them as your heads (Deut. 1:13).” The next few verses then explain the hierarchical court system that Moses set up for the Israelites, and which they continued to use through the time of Moses’ speech and long afterward.

If what seemed like a blessing has become a curse, we should not just mope around, resigned to suffer through the curse.  We must be like Moses and work to find a solution to the problem so that we can restore it to being a blessing.

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