Photo Credit: Ori Shifrin / IDF Spokesperson's Unit
The Book of Devarim opens with: “These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wilderness, in the Arabah, over against Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab.” Many of the nine places don’t seem to exist and if they did it seems extremely unlikely that Moshe would be speaking in all of them at once.
Perhaps we can understand by looking at these words not as place names, but as attributes. Borrowing the roots of the words, we can read: “These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel across the Jordan, in the desert, in the place towards the crossing, at the mila (circumcision) of the end, between the distinguished and the lacking in effort, pure, with open space and enough gold.” In other words, Moshe is speaking to a people who are across the Jordan, in the desert, about to cross into the land and thus complete the end of their journey like brit mila (‘circumcision’) completes the creation of life. It is like the creation of the nation is completed by the people just as the creation of a Jewish boy is completed by the mankind. And the people he’s speaking to are all pure, have open space and have enough gold.
The people are blessed and they are on the edge of history. The only variation among them is between those who lack effort and those who, because they do not lack effort, are distinguished.
Moshe’s speech would seem to be aimed at addressing this particular shortcoming.
The first part of the speech, this portion, delivers its lesson through a history of the growth of our national responsibility. It starts with recounting of the people choosing their judges. This act was required because the people needed to carry some of their own burden. This initial act of responsibility moved the people one step past slavery. It was followed immediately by the giving of the Torah.
Moshe continues with the story of the spies. In this version, the people are in their tents claiming Hashem hates them. This claim leads to devastation. But this act isn’t in the original telling. Here, it illustrates the importance of not blaming others for our shortcomings.
The history continues with a mystery. Moshe describes us circling the mountain of Seir until Hashem commands us to go through Edom. But Edom contains the mountain of Seir. If we were circling it, why did we need to go through it? As a literal word, seir is used to reference barley or hairiness or even goats. It implies something low and very physical. Seir is not our inheritance. But, in order to take our birthright, we must move from Kadesh (holiness) to a mountain of physicality. We must move from restful holiness to national action. We can see this necessary transition even in the modern nation of Israel.
This is followed by a history of lands and their assignment by Hashem. This gives us national context. We must fit into the divine plan.
In the sixth and seventh readings, we have a celebration of our national growth. Sihon, is described as having his heart hardened and is thus directly compared to Pharoah. But where Hashem crushes Pharoah and we are merely observers, here we take action upon the command of Hashem. And then our conquests continue and we begin to earn our lands.
But then parsha ends on an unusual note. In the Book of Bamidbar, the two and a half tribes ask to live across the Jordan. In accepting their request, Moshe doesn’t even consult Hashem.
Here, Hashem seems to gift them their lands without any request. In fact, it seems to be part of the original design.
By force of their vow, the two and a half tribes seem to have created a divine edict.
I can’t help but compare their action to Hashem’s request of Avraham. Hashem said to Avraham, “Walk before me and be tamim (‘perfect or unblemished’).”
On the cusp of entering the land, all tremendous national failures, that command seems to hold.
The two and a half tribes can walk in front of Hashem. They can take responsibility for our choices and seemingly change the plans of Hashem.
They can redefine the future.
And we can too. But when we do so, we must not forget the second part of Hashem’s statement to Avraham.
Unlike the two and a half tribes, when we walk in front of G-d, we must be perfect in our motivation.
There is a national progression in responsibility. We go from carrying our own burden, to not blaming others for our shortcomings, to taking national action, to remembering our place in Hashem’s plan and to fighting for ourselves. After all of that, we can walk in front of Hashem, but we must be unblemished in doing so.
This progression marks the steps necessary to becoming a nation. These are the initial steps in learning to become nationally distinguished, rather than being undermined by a lack of effort.
These steps apply as much today as they did when Moshe delivered them.
Indeed, they seem to describe the birth of our modern nation.