Table for Five: Devarim

Context is Key
July 20, 2023

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

So I [Moses] spoke to you, but you did not listen, and you rebelled against the command of the Lord, and you acted wickedly and went up to the mountain.

– Deut. 1:43

Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter

Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School

As Ol’ Blue Eyes once sang, “Regrets, I’ve had a few.” The final book of the Torah, sefer Devarim, opens with Moshe’s experiencing his Frank Sinatra moment of reflection. The end is near, and Moshe faces the final curtain. Remembering his history with Israel, Moshe is most pained by the sin of the spies. Just a few weeks ago, we read how the Israelites responded with despair to the bad report from ten of the twelve spies. Their pessimism and lack of faith in God doomed them to spend 40 years in the desert so a new generation born in freedom could ultimately conquer the Promised Land. 

In this verse, Moshe recalls the strange epilogue of that story. A group of Israelites, regretting their behavior, sought to enter the land and conquer it, only to be decimated by their enemies. But why should this have happened? Didn’t these people do exactly what Hashem originally intended? They recognized their error and tried to rectify matters by fulfilling God’s will! 

Moshe identifies the problem: Their supposed act of contrition was really rebellion against God’s will. Hashem had already rendered His verdict. Their remorse came too late. These people sought to circumvent God’s judgment, hoping to manipulate Him through their actions. As Moshe delivers his final instructions to Israel, he reminds them that they are not the arbiters of justice, nor can they substitute their own morality for that of the divine. In the end, we must do it His way.

David Porush 

Student, teacher, writer. 

Moses begins his rousing speech to the nation by reminding them of the sin of the spies 40 years ago. Shamed by Moses’ rebuke of their cowardice, their parents charged up the mountain to rectify it. But without G’d’s protection for their campaign, they were decimated in war and doomed to wander the wilderness until they die out. 

Now, the next generation have become a mighty military force poised by the Jordan River, ready to conquer Canaan. Deuteronomy 1:1 tells us precisely where Moses is giving his speech, “in the wilderness east of the Jordan — that is, in the Arabah — opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Di-zahab.” Nonetheless the exact place seems impossible for the Sages to pinpoint on a map, so Rashi says that these are not geographical coordinates but actually spiritual ones. They allude to times that the previous generation of Israelites provoked God. 

Yet they’re not only in a spiritual place. They have to be somewhere on the map, but where? 

Moses’ rhetorical genius — and the spiritual logic of the Torah at this climactic moment —  suggest an answer: They are exactly where their parents failed forty years ago. Could the moment be any more stirring or dramatic? Think of the emotions that filled the heart of the Israelites as Moses points to the very place where it all went sideways 40 years ago and fated them to decades in the wilderness. The unnamed place must have further inspired Israel to conquer the Promised Land and fulfill their forestalled destiny, now with God on their side.

Laya Saul

Award-winning author and international speaker

We messed up. It was not the first time nor the last time. Now we have to ask ourselves: How do we behave when we stumble — when we miss the mark — whether it’s intentional or accidental? Can we get humble and admit what we did? Are we willing to take responsibility for our missteps? Can we forgo the voice of the ego that wants to justify or rationalize (rational lies)? 

It’s not easy to admit when we’ve gone way off track. To make it even worse, when we see the truth of how we’ve fallen, it’s often downright humiliating. But, the pain of embarrassment can actually be a gift that saves us from more pain later if we can learn from our mistakes. You don’t know what “hot” is until you get burned at least once. Once we know and get the warning, can we pay attention and walk the walk of truth? Learning to deal with pain, then getting past it, and not wallowing in the gunk of it, to overcome and even thrive, is a strength that is worth developing even though it can be hard. 

In our verse, we’re reminded that we didn’t listen to Moshe. He wasn’t some politician or guru; he was the leader of the nation who spoke *directly* to the Eternal. Can we get past the growing pains? Will we listen to Eternal’s truth that the Torah is teaching, even daring, to allow ourselves to serve God in a state of joy?

Rebbetzin Miriam Yerushalmi

CEO SANE; Author, “Reaching New Heights” Series

What’s wrong with going up the mountain? The answer might be in Pirkei Avot 6:2, which apparently is based on this verse, as it says, “Every day a heavenly voice goes forth from Mount Horeb proclaiming: “Woe unto mankind for their contempt towards the Torah, for whoever is not occupied with the study of Torah is called nazuf … Like a gold ring in the snout of a pig is a beautiful woman bereft of sense … And whoever is regularly occupied with the study of the Torah is surely exalted, as it is said, and from Mattanah to Nahaliel; and Nahaliel to Bamoth”

Mattanah means “gift,” Nahaliel means “an inheritance from G-d,” and Bamoth means ”high places.” What’s the connection? 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that a bamah, platform, is something physically high that stands out as a separate entity from the ground it rests on. To ignore Hashem’s commands, for example, to disregard our obligation to pray and learn Torah every day, telling ourselves —  women especially — “I’m busy, Hashem knows what’s in my heart, He’ll understand,” or “it’s not my thing; I’m not good at it, He’ll understand,” is acting “bereft of sense.” If we don’t pray, learn, or do mitzvot, we create our own “bamoth” that separate us from Hashem. Hashem gifted the Torah to us; to accept it as our inheritance, we need to ascend, “go up the mountain,” to get closer to Him. Regularly occupying ourselves with Torah and mitzvos enables us to reach new heights in a holy way.

Rivkah Slonim

Education Director at the Rohr Chabad Center at Binghamton University

In an enigmatic passage the Talmud (Kidushin 31a-b) states: “It is possible for a son to serve his father a pasyoni (a delectable bird) and be punished for it. And for another son to put his father to work at a grindstone and be brought for this to the World to come.” Rashi explains: In the first case, the father asks his son where did you get this delicacy, and the son replies: “What do you care old man? Chew and eat!” While in the second scenario, when the king recruited the elderly father to work, the son said: “You stay here and grind and I will go in your place …” 

Simply put, context is pivotal. The value and meaning of what we do flows from why and how we do it. On the words: you rebelled … you acted wickedly … the Or Hachayaim Hakodosh comments: “You did not alight the mountain (to enter Canaan) in a show of faith in God, to rectify your previous sin of not hearkening on to the Divine command to go into the Land and conquer it. You went up in defiance, without humility, without seeking to redress your previous behavior. When God told you yes, you said no, and now when God says no, you say yes, we WILL go up.” 

It is not our actions alone but the intention that distinguishes the pedestrian from the mundane. It is tethering ourselves to the transcendent that makes the difference between going up and falling down.

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