Devarim: Blame

April 13, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Posted in Devarim | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on July 11, 2010.)

The book of Deuteronomy, known in Hebrew as Devarim (“Words”), opens with the children of Israel camped across the Jordan River from the promised land of Canaan.  This is the second time the people are poised to enter Canaan.  The first time, when they were camped at Kadesh-Barnea, they were discouraged by the fearful reports of eight out of ten scouts, and refused to go.  (Numbers/Bemidbar chapter 14).  After a talk with Moses, God decreed that the Israelites would wander in the wilderness for 40 years, until all the old generation had died—except for Caleb and Joshua, the two scouts who urged the people to trust God and go.

Forty years later, a new generation is waiting on the bank of the Jordan.  Before they cross, Moses reminds them of their history, and emphasizes their fathers’ reaction to the reports of the scouts.

But you were not willing to make the ascent, and you rebelled against (the command from) the mouth of God, your god. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:26)

And also God felt angry with me on account of you, saying: You also, you will not come there.  (Deuteronomy 1:37)

biglalchem = on account of you.  (But the root verb, galal, means rolling away or befouling.)

Moses appears to blame the behavior of the Israelites at the time of the spies for the fact that God told him he would die without entering the promised land.  Yet in the book of Numbers, God gave Moses the bad news 38 years after the scouts gave their report at Kadesh-Barnea.  And in Numbers, God appeared to be angry only at the men who did not believe God would make sure they survived in Canaan.

And God said to Moshe: How long will this people reject me, and how long will they not put trust in me, with all the signs I’ve made in their midst?  I will strike them down with plague, and I will impoverish them and make you a great nation, and you will be mightier than they.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:11-12)

Moses talked God out of the plague, and God came up with the 40-year plan instead.  Out of all the Israelite men over age 20, God exempted only Caleb and Joshua, not Moses, by name.  Yet clearly God was not angry with Moses at that time.

God became angry with Moses 38 years later, at Meribah, when Moses disobeyed God’s orders about speaking to the rock to get water.  (Numbers 20:12).  That’s when God told Moses he would die on the wrong side of the Jordan.  Yet Moses does not mention the rock at Meribah in this week’s Torah portion.

It sounds as if Moses is putting all the blame for his own mistake on the Israelites’ reaction to the scouts at Kadesh-Barnea.  In fact, by using the suffix for the plural “you”, Moses blames even the current generation of Israelites, not just their fathers.  Why does Moses assign blame this way?

Modern scholars note that any differences between Deuteronomy and the previous three books can be explained by the evidence that Deuteronomy was written later by a different author.  But I think it’s valuable to examine the five books of Moses as a whole, and look for insights in the epic series itself, regardless of who wrote it down.

Back in the 13th century, Nachmanides (Ramban) said Moses did not want to emphasize the misconduct of individuals; he wanted to reprove the public as a whole, stressing that the whole community is responsible for and suffers from any lack of faith in God.  That’s why Moses spoke more about the reactions of the people than about the eight fearful spies.  Following Ramban’s lead, one might say Moses did not want to emphasize his own individual misconduct either.  So he merely included the bad news that he would not be able to lead the people into the promised land as a general consequence of the people’s lack of faith in God.

I have a different theory.  At age 120, Moses is worn out.  That’s why he lost his temper and forgot God’s instructions when he hit the rock at Meribah.  And that’s why, in this week’s Torah portion, he fails to take responsibility for his own mistake, and instead puts all the blame on what the people did at a different time and place.  For more than 40 years, Moses devoted his whole strength to the nearly impossible job of transforming a huge and motley collection of ex-slaves and camp followers into a single people dedicated to a new religion.  Now his mental strength is fading, and he cannot keep all the relevant facts and principles in mind at once.

This leaves one question.  If you find that your mind can only follow one trail at a time, which trail do you take?  Is it more important for someone about to step down from leadership to warn his people that they must adhere to a basic principle (in this case, faith in God), even if he bends some facts?  Or is it more important for the retiring leader to stick to the truth, and admit his own shortcomings?



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