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Looking Back to the Future – Rav David Milston
“These are the words which Moshe spoke to all Yisrael on the other side of the Yarden, in the wilderness, in the Arava, over against Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan, and Chazerot, and Di-Zahav.” (Devarim, 1:1)
The opening verse to Sefer Devarim is rather perplexing. Why does the Torah go to such lengths to pinpoint exactly where Moshe spoke? Would it not have sufficed to say he was on the other side of the Yarden, on the borders of Eretz Yisrael?
As always, Rashi is sensitive to the apparent difficulty. He begins by explaining that Moshe Rabbeinu delivered these words as a final rebuke to Am Yisrael moments before their entry into the Promised Land. Having established the theme of the speech, Rashi suggests the places listed are not referring to actual geographical locations but are rather allusions to events that had occurred over the past 40 years. Each one represents the people’s failing in some way and must therefore be studied in order to avoid similar lapses in the future:
“In the wilderness” alludes to events described in Shemot 17:3, when the people complained they had no water, accusing Moshe of having brought them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness.
“In the Arava” refers to the mass sin of overt promiscuity and worshipping Ba’al Pe’or at Arvot Moav. (Bamidbar, 25)
“Over against Suf” takes us all the way back to Am Yisrael’s unbelieving reaction as they stood on the banks of Yam Suf with the Egyptians closing in on them, prior to the splitting of the sea. (Shemot, 14:11) Again, we have an example of the people accusing Moshe of saving them from the cruelties of Egypt only to die at the hands of those very same oppressors in the desert.
“Between Paran” alludes to the spy scandal. The spies were sent from Midbar Paran. (Bamidbar, 13:3)
“Tofel, and Lavan” – Rashi here quotes a midrashic source suggesting these names refer to Am Yisrael’s general lack of gratitude demonstrated by their complaints regarding the manna they received every day. Manna was white, and the Hebrew word for white is ‘lavan’ (Bamidbar, 21:5). The word ‘tofel’ literally means to stick – Siftei Chachamim explains that the word here alludes to the people becoming stuck on this issue and argued about it.
“Chazerot” – Rashi offers two possibilities. His initial suggestion is that this refers to Korach’s rebellion.
His second suggestion is that “Chatzerot” refers to the fact that the people should have learnt from Miriam and Aharon’s Lashon Hara against their brother Moshe that took place at Chatzerot and not spoken badly about Eretz Yisrael. The sin being referred to here is once again the national transgression of Lashon Hara regarding the land of Israel through the spy scandal that could have been avoided if the people had learnt from recent episodes pertaining to their leaders.
“Di-Zahav” – alludes to the sin of the Golden Calf. (Shemot, 32) The Hebrew word ‘zahav’ means gold.
Although Rashi rationally explains the content of our verse in a novel manner, there is one particular issue that still needs to be addressed:
Most commentaries accept that Moshe Rabbeinu began his final speech to the people with a rebuke. Therefore, Rashi’s interpretation of this first verse seems more than relevant as an introduction. However, if we are already recalling the events of the last 40 years, why not mention them chronologically? Surely it would have made more sense to start from Yetziat Mitzrayim and work through the incidents in their order of occurrence?
The Maharal, in his commentary to Rashi, suggests the effectiveness of rebuke much depends on the way it is given. This entire exercise would be pointless or even counterproductive if the people felt embarrassed or even offended by Moshe’s words. The objective of the speech was to teach the people how to learn from their mistakes. So Moshe purposely lists the episodes in random order and only by implication. He also chooses to refer to the episodes as geographical locations, thus avoiding explicit mention of each event.
Perhaps we could extend the Maharal’s theme. Had Moshe listed the events chronologically, the cumulative pattern would have been extremely negative. The people would have been left with the impression that they and their ancestors had done nothing but sin for 40 years, and this may well have lead them to despair. By indiscriminately spreading the events over the entire 40-year period, Moshe is implying these were sporadic incidents. Most of the time the people displayed incredible obedience and commitment as they wandered faithfully through the wilderness.
The Be’er BeSadeh suggests another reason why Moshe Rabbeinu chooses to list the episodes out of order:
Moshe wants to relay some extremely important messages to the masses. It is crucial they pay close attention to everything he says. In order to keep everyone alert, he purposely jumps back and forth from event to event. The listener cannot predict the next item on the agenda and is thus ‘kept in suspense’ by his leader.
Just as rebuke becomes pointless and counterproductive if it embarrasses the listener, it is equally irrelevant if the rebuked individual loses interest in what is being said. By avoiding the chronological pattern, Moshe succeeds in keeping the people’s undivided attention.
However, even though the episodes are not listed chronologically, perhaps we can suggest a logical sequence to the order. Moshe may well have had some different themes in mind.
Progressive Religious Regression
Although each incident can be viewed independently, one can also learn from patterns of events. In this case, the pattern is progressive religious regression:
The first incident – “in the wilderness” – refers to the people’s panic after the splitting of the sea, when they realize their water supplies have run out. We can certainly appreciate their lack of faith at this moment. They have just seen miracles, but they have no assurance these miracles will occur on demand. They should have had faith, but with fear of dehydration and death, it is easier said than done.
The second incident – promiscuity and idol worship – is rather more serious. It occurs towards the end of the desert period, when the new generation is exposed to a very material and desire-oriented culture representing the complete antithesis of all they have been brought up to believe in. The temptation is considerable and we can understand why the people were lured to sin. It might not be a life and death issue but the attraction of a new culture combined with the desire to be accepted by others is a very powerful combination.
The third episode – “Suf” – happens before the splitting of the sea. The people are cornered, yet on the other hand they are already in the midst of a miracle. The event is a continuation of the Exodus; the pillar of cloud has moved to the back of the camp and is already defending them from the approaching enemy. This episode can be considered more serious than the previous two because there is no thirst or material desire involved. Although there is imminent danger, there is also startling blindness to Divine reality as it stares them in the face. A refusal to see revelation as it unveils itself.
When mentioning the spy scandal, we are no longer referring to a passive unwillingness to see the truth, but rather an active act of rejecting God and His commandments. The 10 spies and their supporters are knowingly rebelling against the Divine definition of Am Yisrael and their objectives. However, even though the regression is reflected by philosophical rebellion rather than passive blindness, it can still be rationalized. After years of slavery, fear and inexperience, the ultimate objective was perhaps still too hard to comprehend.
The next stage of regression involves utter ingratitude. In the case of the spies, we have proposed they were simply not ready for the task; their rebellion was unacceptable but nonetheless understandable. However, when they complain about their free food, there is absolutely no excuse. It is a metaphorical slap in the face; the act of a spoiled child who refuses to recognize the constant goodness his parents provide. Whatever he is given, he will always demand more.
Stage six of the process is Korach, an obvious extension of the ingratitude reflected in the previous episode. His attempted coup is not only an attack on Moshe and Aharon but a revolt against God Himself. He clothes the dispute in religious terms but it is anything but that.
And the final stage is of course the uninhibited idolatry of the Golden Calf. Having begun with human weaknesses, passive religiosity, rebellion with rationale, ingratitude and disguised heresy, the Golden Calf represents the pinnacle of the people’s regression.
By listing events in this order, Moshe is alluding to the dangers of spiritual regression if not dealt with at the earliest stages. As we have said, the first three incidents can be explained and even understood, but they will only lead to religious immunity, followed by rebellion; first through rationale, then by false pretense, and finally leading to the lowest of the low – idolatry.
Moshe is not interested in recalling these events for their own sake right now. Later in Sefer Devarim he will refer to some of them in much more detail. Here, his objective is to warn the masses against complacency. It is always better to address an issue during its early stages. If left to nurture and grow, weakness will ultimately lead to destruction.
Another possibly implied theme links two different but simultaneous battles – the physical struggle and the spiritual one:
The Fight with our Body
The initial four episodes represent spiritual challenges emanating from physical desires.
The sudden lack of water in the Midbar creates a panic prompted by real thirst. The body is lacking a fundamental need without which it simply cannot survive. The body’s immediate needs are stronger than the soul’s long-term faith in the Creator. The soul’s challenge is difficult because the body’s claims are both genuine and immediate.
The sexual desire described in the events of Ba’al Pe’or is a different type of physical need. On the one hand, it is certainly not essential, but it is still an urge that demands instant gratification. This confronts the soul with a serious challenge to placate and re-direct the burning physical desire to more positive purposes.
As the Egyptian army bears down on the people on the banks of Yam Suf, the fear is one of imminent re-enslavement or death. The challenge is neither to quench a physical thirst nor to re-direct an internal desire, but rather to calm an all-encompassing fear of destruction. Once again, the physical reaction is a perfectly normal one, providing the soul with a formidable task.
And when faced with entering Eretz Yisrael, the people’s physical fear is of years of war that surely await them. There is nothing unnatural about this, especially when the decision to go to war is theirs. In contrast to Yam Suf, the choice to conquer the Land of Israel was entirely in the hands of the people. Even if they had managed to overcome their fears at Yam Suf, would they have willingly initiated such a situation?
Each of these incidents reflects the animal within us presenting awesome challenges for our soul. They are all natural reactions that can only be overcome with genuine belief, yet we failed in each and every one of these episodes.
Only the real believer will sit calmly in the heat of the desert, patiently waiting for water as his body is slowly drained of fluids.
Only a strong-willed and loyal servant of Hashem will be able to withstand the temptations of Ba’al Pe’or as they pressurize him on all sides.
Only a committed member of Am Yisrael will stand upright and strong as the enemy closes in on him with no apparent escape at hand.
Only a person dedicated to an absolute Jewish experience of life will forgo the relative peace and tranquility of the desert for years of war and labor in Eretz Yisrael.
The Fight with our Soul
The last three incidents are challenges to our soul, not from our bodies but rather from within the soul itself:
The ingratitude reflected by the rejection of manna is a consequence of unawareness of the Almighty. This is not physical hunger but rather willing spiritual oblivion when faced with absolute good. The soul seems determined to deny what is clearly obvious.
The incident of Korach and his rebellion against the Divinely-chosen leaders of Israel is a confrontation with God Himself. When you reject the messenger, you lay down the gauntlet to the sender. And the most overt philosophical treachery is of course the idolatry represented by the Golden Calf.
In this opening rebuke, Moshe Rabbeinu outlines the enormous tasks that lie ahead for Am Yisrael, whether physical or spiritual. As the people enter the Land of Israel, they must be aware of a major change in their position. An independent nation living naturally in their own land will be faced with numerous physical challenges. They may have experienced isolated incidents in the wilderness but in the homeland this kind of thing will happen more frequently.
He must also make another point. Even though the goal of Eretz Yisrael, Am Yisrael and Torat Yisrael has now been realized, they will nonetheless continue to face spiritual challenges on a constant basis. If they were challenged by food being hand- delivered from Heaven, they will certainly be challenged by agricultural success. If they found it hard to accept spiritual leadership of the caliber of Moshe and Aharon, they would require even more resolve once each tribe was settled in its own mini-kingdom. And if they were so quick to return to the culture of Egypt in the middle of the wilderness, the challenge of the seven peoples and their inviting idolatrous cultures would be formidable to say the least.
The purpose of the 40 years in the desert was to prepare the people for the challenges that lay ahead. Moshe illustrates those challenges in his opening words to Sefer Devarim.
We have seen a number of interpretations to our opening verse but the common message is that we look back at our failures with the aim of moving forward. The criticism is constructive; there is nothing gained by recalling failures for the sake of it. As Chief Educating Officer, Moshe Rabbeinu wants to make sure past mistakes are not repeated.
Moshe Rabbeinu teaches us how to give constructive rebuke, and how to respond. We can be alert to our own weaknesses and stop before they destroy us, and we can learn to look back at our mistakes in order to go forward. No guilt. No embarrassment. Just knowing where we went wrong and growing in our faith for the future.
 A plain reading of the text raises a serious question on this comment. At the end of Parashat Beha’alotecha (Bamidbar, 12:16), after Miriam had been cured of her leprosy, the people journeyed on to “Midbar Paran from Chatzerot,” where all agree the spy scandal began. Parashat Korach is told after the spy scandal, and so if we read the Torah chronologically, we would have to conclude that Korach’s attempted coup took place in Paran after the spies had returned. Indeed, Rashi implies this (in his comments to Bamidbar, 16:4.) However, according to Rashi here, Korach’s revolt actually took place before the spies were sent from Paran, whilst still in Chatzerot. See Siftei Chachamim here.
 See Bamidbar, 12:15-16.
 Gur Aryeh.
 Commentary on Rashi by Rabbi Meir Binyamin Menachem Danon d.1855.
 See Shemot, 14:19 and Rashi there.
 For example: The Spy Scandal – Devarim 1:22-46; Baal Pe’or – Devarim 4:3; The Golden Calf – Devarim 9:6-21