DEVARIM 5775

Haftorah Yeshayahu 1:1-27

 

Introduction

 

In our parashat, Moshe delivers a speech in which he sums up Bnei Yisrael’s encounters with the nations on the eastern side of the Jordan River. As in the speeches that follow, he reviews events of the past, considering them from a different perspective and shedding new light on them. In view of the imminent confrontations with the inhabitants of the land, we might have expected this summary of the clashes thus far to take the form of a fiery military pep-talk. However, a review of Moshe’s words reveals a different picture. We will attempt to decode the unexpected spirit of his sermon.

 

You’re Brothers, the Children of Esau

 

And Yahweh spoke to me, saying: […] “And command the people, saying: You are to pass through the border of your brethren, the children of Esau, who dwell in Se’ir, and they shall be afraid of you. Take good heed to yourselves therefore; do not meddle with them, for I will not give you of their land, not even so much as a foot breadth, because I have given Mount Se’ir to Esau for a possession. You shall buy food from them for money so that you may eat, and you shall also buy water from them for money so that you may drink. For Yahweh your Elohim has blessed you in all the work of your hand. He knows you’re walking through this great wilderness; these forty years Yahweh your Elohim has been with you, you have lacked nothing.” And when we passed by from our brethren the children of Esau, who dwelled in Se’ir, through the way of the Arava, from Eilat, and from Etzion-Gever, we turned as passed by the way of the wilderness of Moab. (Devarim 2:2-8)

 

Moshe begins with a description of the encounter with the children of Esau and the Divine command in anticipation of it. The children of Esau are referred to first as “your brethren” and only afterwards explicitly by name. This expresses the closeness between the two nations, imposing the obligation on Am Yisrael to avoid harming them.

 

Beyond the family connection, there is another reason to avoid provoking them: “For I shall not of their land even so much as a foot breadth, because I have given Mount Se’ir to Esau for an inheritance.” There is no point in arousing or engaging in any hostility, since you will not receive any part of their land. Yahweh then goes on to impose more conditions: food and water are to be purchased from them for money. Finally, Moshe once again refers to the children of Esau as “brethren,” emphasizing the fraternity that remains even after the parting of ways: “And we passed by our brethren, the children of Esau, who dwelled in Se’ir…” (v. 8). Thereafter, “we turned as passed by the way of the wilderness of Moab” – Am Yisrael now approach the land of Moab.

 

Do Not Vex Moab

 

And Yahweh said to me: “Do not vex Moab, nor contend with them in battle, for I will not give you of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the children of Lot for a possession.” (Devarim 2:9)

 

In contrast to Esau, Moab is not a “brother” of Israel. Moshe’s words in their regard therefore include no expressions of closeness or sensitivity towards them, nor any warning to “take good heed.” What is common to the attitude towards Moab and Esau is the unequivocal command not to engage them in battle. Bnei Yisrael must not fight against Moab; Yahweh has given this land to the children of Lot.

 

In the verses that follow, Moshe speaks about the former inhabitants of the land of Moab:

 

The Emim had dwelled there in earlier times – a people that were great, and numerous, and tall, like the Anakim, who also were considered Refaim, like the Anakim, and the Moabim called them “Emim”. The Chorim had also dwelled in Se’ir previously, but the children of Esau succeeded them, and they destroyed them from before them and dwelled in their place, as Israel did to the land of his possession which Yahweh gave to them. (ibid. vv.10-12)

 

In addition to the Emim, the previous inhabitants of Ar, the land of Moab, and the Refaim, Moshe also speaks of two other populations who were conquered and taken over by others: the children of Esau had destroyed the Chorim and inherited Se’ir from them, while a similar conquest is carried out by Am Yisrael against the nations dwelling in “the land of their possession,” which Yahweh has given them.

 

What is the place of this historical description? What purpose does it serve? It seems that what Moshe presents here is a “bird’s-eye view” of Divine morality and world politics. In ancient times, there were tribes or nations – Emim, Chorim, Refaim, Anakim, Zuzim – that cast their terror on those around them (“a people great and numerous, and tall, like the Anakim,” “who also were considered Refaim, like the Anakim and the Moabim call them ‘Emim’ [literally, ‘terrors’]”). These nations represent a world of chaos, of aggression and terror; they are sometimes mentioned together with Amalek and the Emori, who represent immorality and corruption. With the progress of history, the “rules of the game” of civilization gradually changed. Morality and culture developed and became more firmly established among the nations of the world. Accordingly, the ancient peoples became “outdated,” and were forced to make way for others who were more moral and enlightened.

 

Attention should be paid to the structure of these verses. First come the facts: the Emim had previously dwelled in Moab, and the previous inhabitants of Se’ir, the Chorim, had been conquered by Esau. Then, the text compares these to Israel – “as Israel did to the land of his possession.” “Israel” serves here as a model; the Torah uses them as a sort of anchor for the attribution of other nations to their lands.

 

For the Sin of the Emori is Not Complete”

 

This moral principle concerning the succession of nations is not new; it is to be found already in Sefer Bereshit. In the Covenant Between the Parts, Yahweh promises Abraham that the land will be given to his progeny, but the realization of the promise is delayed by four generations because of the moral behavior of the inhabitants of the land, which does not justify their removal: “But in the fourth generation [Abraham’s descendants] will return to here, for the sin of the Emori is not yet complete” (Bereishit 15:16). Only when the Emori have lost all merit and entitlement to the land will the descendants of Abraham be able to inherit it.

 

This promise given to Abraham guides his conduct in the years that follow, and especially his attitude towards the process of inheriting the land. Again and again, the Torah describes his recognition of the Canaanites as the legal owners of the land. He wanders from place to place without settling anywhere, and only near the end of his life does he make the first move towards ownership of any part of the land: he purchases a family burial plot. He insists on buying this plot for its full price, thereby showing the Hittites that he considers them the “people of the land” – the rightful owners and inhabitants of the land. Yahweh has promised the land to his descendants, but that is a future promise that will be realized through a complex historical process, which Abraham has no intention of rushing!

 

Men of War”

 

The next station on the way to the land is Nachal Zered. After crossing it, Bnei Yisrael find themselves confronting the children of Ammon. Before describing the encounter, however, the Torah presents a sort of summing-up:

 

And the days in which we came from Kadesh-Barne’a until we crossed over Nachal Zered were thirty-eight years, until all the generation of the men of war were wasted out from among the host, as Yahweh had sworn to them. For indeed the hand of Yahweh was against them, to destroy them from among the host, until they were consumed. So it came to pass, when all the men of war were consumed and dead from among the people…” (Devarim 2:14-16).

 

The route described here is from Kadesh-Barne’a – the place from which the spies had been dispatched, thirty-eight years previously (Bamidbar 32:8) – to Nachal Zered. During this period, all of the previous generation had died out. The reader is struck by a sense of the strict justice meted out to this generation, who are twice referred to as the “men of war,” and of whom Moshe asserts that “the hand of Yahweh was against them, to destroy them.” What is signified by these descriptions? What is the context of this summing up of the journey through the wilderness?

 

The context would seem to be the same moral principle that we have been discussing. In order to understand its significance, we must go back to the three nations in relation to which the principle was established and pay attention to the differentiation among them:

 

The Emim had dwelled there in earlier times – a people that were great, and numerous, and tall, like the Anakim […]

The Chorim had also dwelled previously in Se’ir, but the children of Esau succeeded them and they destroyed them from before them […]

As Israel did to the land of his possession, which Yahweh gave to him. (Devarim 2:10-12)

 

Three different formulations are used to describe the transition from a previous nation to a successor nation. With regard to Moab, Moshe speaks of the Emim, who lost their claim to the land, but no mention is made of any conflict or war between them and Moab. With regard to Se’ir, Moshe speaks of the Chorim and of Esau, and records a confrontation during which the children of Esau succeeded the Chorim and destroyed them. In the third description, there is no direct reference to the Canaanites who dwelled in the land. The subject is Am Yisrael, who undertakes a conquest of the “land of his possession,” and Yahweh gives it to them.

 

This variety of descriptions of conquest creates a different focus in each case. In the first instance, the subject is the Emim, whose historical role has come to an end, such that the arrival of Moab in their land might be envisaged as a settling into a vacuum. In the second instance, we find a confrontation, in which the children of Esau prevail over the Chorim. Here the focus is the question of who will have to give way to whom. In the third instance, the focus is Am Yisrael and the land of its inheritance. By ignoring the Canaanites, Moshe points to Am Yisrael as the active party that takes possession. This perception, echoed in many places in Tanakh in different forms, entails an equation. The dwelling of Am Yisrael in its land is conditional: “If you will diligently hearken…” – then you will live your lives upon the land; if not – “you shall die off quickly from upon the land…”

 

We now return to our question about the “men of war” and the historical description of the journeys of Bnei Yisrael. It seems that through this description, Moshe imbues the thirty-eight years of wandering in the wilderness with new meaning. Over the course of this long journey, the “men of war” died out; they are no more. Who are these “men of war”? Why are they referred to by this appellation?

 

Men of war” is a reference to Bnei Yisrael, in the wake of the story of the ma’apilim. After it was decreed that the nation would not enter the land, they rebelled against Yahweh’s decision:

 

Then you answered and said to me, “We have sinned against Yahweh. We will go up and fight, according to all that Yahweh our Elohim commanded us.” And you girded on every man his weapons of war, and ventured to go up into the hill. And Yahweh said to me, “Say to them: Neither go up, nor fight, for I am not among you, lest you be smitten before your enemies.” So I spoke to you, and you would not hear, but rebelled against the commandment of Yahweh and went presumptuously up into the hill. And the Emori, who dwelled in that mountain, came out against you, and chased you as bees do, and beat you down in Se’ir as far as Chorma. (Devarim 1:41-44)

 

Moshe used these expressions of war in the previous chapter (Devarim 1) in his description of the ma’apilim. The essence of the situation that he describes is lack of acceptance of Yahweh’s decree. The people go out to war, thereby showing that they have not understood the fundamental equation that makes the inheritance of the land dependent upon the moral situation of the nation. The nation is not worthy; accordingly, Yahweh is not in their midst, and the result is the reaction on the part of the Emori, who live in that mountain and who fight and pursue them.

 

Further context for the expression “men of war” is to be found in the juxtaposition of the description of their death with the description of the appeal to the children of Ammon:

 

And it was, when all the men of war were consumed and dead from among the people, that Yahweh spoke to me, saying, “You are to pass over through Ar, the border of Moab, this day. And when you come near, opposite the children of Ammon, do not harass them, nor contend with them, for I will not give you of the land of the children of Ammon any possession, because I have given it to the children of Lot for a possession.” (Devarim 2:16-19)

 

The “men of war” are those who believe that inheritance comes by virtue of and as a result of war. They do not understand that the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael is a matter of their own moral standard, not one of military might. Thus, their deaths opens up the possibility of the nation drawing near to the children of Ammon and conducting itself in a proper and worthy manner in relation to them.

 

When You Come Near, Opposite the Children of Ammon”

 

Yahweh spoke to me, saying, “You are to pass over through Ar, the border of Moab, this day. And when you come near, opposite the children of Ammon, do not harass them, nor contend with them, for I will not give you of the land of the children of Ammon any possession, because I have given it to the children of Lot for a possession.” (That also was considered a land of Refaim; Refaim dwelled there in previous times, and the Ammonim call them Zamzumim – a people great and numerous and tall, like the Anakim – but Yahweh destroyed them before them, and they succeeded them, and dwelled in their place, as He did to the children of Esau, who dwelled in Se’ir, when He destroyed the Chorim from before them, and they succeeded them, and dwelled in their stead until this very day. And the Avvim who dwelled in Chatzerim, as far as Aza – Kaftorim who came from Kaftor, destroyed them and dwelled in their stead. (Devarim 2:17-23)

 

As in the case of Moab, Bnei Yisrael are warned not to vex or provoke Ammon, since their land is given as an inheritance to the descendants of Lot. Here, too, the land had previously been home to ancient peoples whom the children of Ammon referred to as “Zamzumim;” they had been annihilated and were succeeded by Ammon. Once again, Moshe describes the process of succession by means of a comparison (“as He did to the children of Esau”), but this time an example is also provided: Kaftorim had previously dwelled in Aza, which lies on the border of Eretz Yisrael, in place of the Avvim, who had dwelled there originally. This example is significant, since it moves into the boundary of Israel and awards status to a different nation in the cities of the Negev. This is not a coincidence, but rather part of the moral justice according to which Yahweh runs the world.

 

Words of Peace”

 

Rise up, take your journey, and pass over Nachal Arnon. Behold, I have given into your hand Sichon the Emori, king of Cheshbon, and his land; begin to possess it, and contend with him in battle. This day I will begin to put the dread of you and the fear of you upon the nations that are under the whole heaven, who shall hear report of you and shall tremble and quake because of you.” (Devarim 2:24-25)

 

Moshe is told here to launch a war against Sichon and to conquer his land. Yahweh does not suffice with a practical instruction, but also reveals the logic behind it. Israel’s battle against Sichon will be big news, and will create deterrence and fear.

 

Moshe’s reaction to the command is rather surprising:

 

So I sent messengers out of the wilderness of Kedemot to Sichon, king of Cheshbon, with words of peace, saying, “Let me pass through your land. I will go along by the highway; I will neither turn to the right hand nor to the left. You shall sell me food for money, that I may eat, and give me water for money, that I may drink; only I will pass through with those who follow me (as the children of Esau who dwell in Se’ir, and the Moabim who dwell in Ar, did to me), until I shall pass over the Jordan into the land which Yahweh our Elohim gives us.” (Devarim 2:26-29)

 

Moshe sends messengers to Sichon, king of Cheshbon, bearing “words of peace.” He appeals to Sichon to allow the nation to pass through his land, with the understanding that Bnei Yisrael will purchase food and water on their way. As a model for such an agreement, Moshe mentions the children of Esau and Moab. How are we to understand the discrepancy between the military command issued by Yahweh and the peaceful diplomacy undertaken by Moshe? The following midrash addresses this question:

 

Although Yahweh had told Moshe, “Begin to possess it,” Moshe did not [immediately] do so, but rather sent messengers. Although Yahweh had told him, “Contend with him in battle,” he sought peace. For so it is written in the Torah: “When you come near to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace to it” (Devarim 20:10). Therefore, he sent Sichon words of peace, as it is written, “I sent messengers out of the wilderness of Kedemot” – hinting: Out of words that preceded (kadmu) the Torah, the words of the Holy One, blessed be He. Therefore it says, “words of peace.” (Devarim Rabba, Devarim 28)

 

There is a discrepancy between the Divine command and Moshe’s action. Yahweh tells him, “Begin to possess it,” but Moshe did not do so; instead, he sends “words of peace.” In response to this discrepancy, the midrash points to a different unit that was guiding Moshe – the proclamation of peace, which Moshe preferred despite the explicit command to initiate a war against Sichon. We might have expected some Divine rebuke over this violation, but there is no hint of any displeasure in the verses, nor in the midrash. Moreover, the next verse records the result of Moshe’s initiative and Yahweh’s part in creating the conditions for Bnei Yisrael to fight and win:

 

But Sichon, king of Cheshbon, would not let us pass by him, for Yahweh your Elohim hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that He might deliver him into your hand, as is apparent this day.

 

Yahweh hardens Sichon’s heart, and thus Yahweh’s original plan is realized, along with Moshe’s proclamation of peace.

 

What leads Moshe to act differently from Yahweh’s command? The midrash cited above speaks of “words that preceded the Torah.” This brief expression begs a much broader and more fundamental question: what is Moshe’s stance vis-à-vis Yahweh? More broadly still – what is the stance of the Sages of the Oral Law, throughout the ages? How are they to obey Yahweh’s word and how much discretion can they permit themselves? The image that arises again and again in Tanakh is of Yahweh “making room,” as it were, and allowing man to weigh the situation as he sees it and to assume responsibility. This situation is depicted as a proper and legitimate ideal, not as a compromise. This idea is expressed in the midrash by means of the concept of “words that preceded the Torah” – meaning, in a sense, the “derekh eretz (way of the world) that preceded the Torah.” Through this upholding of those words, the Torah is imbued with new meaning. Yahweh does not come to contradict the way of the world or that which is self-evident; rather, He comes to add new levels to it and to imbue it with meaning. It is on the basis of that assumption that a profound and complex encounter takes place between man and Yahweh.

 

Conclusion

 

Sefer Devarim begins with Moshe’s speech in the fortieth year, just before Am Yisrael enter the land. He starts off by reviewing the events of the past, starting from when the nation started journeying away from the mountain of Yahweh in the second year after leaving Egypt (1:6). The subject at the heart of this introduction is the journey to Eretz Yisrael. The first chapter describes Moshe’s delegation of leadership (v. 9), followed by the story of the spies (v. 22), the punishment – that the generation would not enter the land (v. 35) – and the attempt by the despairing people to ascend the mountain (v. 41). Yahweh does not acquiesce to this initiative, and the decree of death in the wilderness remains in force (1:45-46). This rejection creates a new reality – a prolonged stay in the wilderness, and a long journey involving encounters with many nations. It is these encounters that have been the focus of this shiur.

 

The position presented in these verses is not self-evident. There is an emphasis on fraternity in relation to some of the nations, and an in-depth examination of the nature of the right of each of them to its land. It would seem that this focus, along with the deeper insights reflected in it, are a direct expression of the long route that the nation must now take on its journey to the land. They will not approach it directly, in a way in which the focus would probably have been one conquest after the next. Instead, the movement is the opposite: an encounter whose point of departure is awareness of the environment, of the other. On the way to the land, Am Yisrael encounter their brethren, the children of Esau, without assaulting their status. They meet Moab and Ammon without vexing these nations, which have received their inheritance from Yahweh. In the same spirit, Moshe sends a message of peace to Sichon, and even the war against Og is the fruit of his own initiative, rather than the initiative of the nation.

 

The unit we have examined here serves as a sort of preface, and it offers a conceptual foundation for the encounters with the nations of the land. The “sin of the Emori” is not complete. The nations of Cana’an have become corrupt, and therefore the mission of this generation of Israelites, and the generations that will follow, is to wage war, conquer, and take possession of the land. At this point, the nation might easily be drawn to a stance of “men of war,” without looking beyond that limited goal. In this sense, our unit creates a wider horizon; it broadens the perspective and reminds the nation of its greater story. This story began with Avraham, father of the nation, who is also “father of a multitude of nations.” His essence was the recognition that the nations of the world are not enemies and that Am Yisrael has a role in world history and a message for all of humanity. A long time will pass before the nation will mature, build its kingdom, and come to understand how closely its own story as a nation is bound up with the story of all of humanity.