Devarim: Enough Already

July 24, 2015 at 12:37 am | Posted in Devarim, Va-etchannan | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

When Moses begins his book-length speech, God sounds different.  I notice it every year when I read the first Torah portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim (“Words”).

Cloud over the portable sanctuary

Cloud over the portable sanctuary

For example, when the Israelites finish all their preparations and leave Mount Sinai in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, God does not need to say anything; the Israelites simply follow the divine cloud:

And it was in the second year, in the second month, on the 20th of the month, the cloud was lifted from over the sanctuary of the testimony, and the Children of Israel pulled out from the wilderness of Sinai for their journey.  And the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran. (Numbers 10:11-12)

Here is how Moses describes the departure in Deuteronomy:

God, our god, spoke to us at Choreiv [Sinai], saying:  Rav-lakhem sitting still at this mountain!  Face about, pull out, and come to the highlands of the Emori and…the land of the Canaanite… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:6-7)

rav (רַב) = abundant, plenty, huge, many, much, too much.

lakhem (לָכֶם) = for you, to you, belonging to you.  (“You” is plural in lakhem.  The singular is lakh.)

Rav-lakhem (רַב־לָכֶם) = Too much for you!  You have too much!  (Or in Yiddish-inflected English, “Enough already!”)

Not only is God giving verbal orders, instead of merely using the pre-arranged signal of the lifting cloud; God also sounds impatient and a little crabby.  God protests that the people have spent “too much” time “sitting still at this mountain”.

I can see why the Israelites might want to linger at the foot of Mount Sinai.  When they first arrive in the book of Exodus/Shemot, they make the Golden Calf instead of trusting that Moses will return from the mountaintop with God’s instructions.  Thousands are killed as a result, first by Moses’ Levite tribe and then by a plague from God.  Moses talks God into giving the people another chance, and they spend a year at Sinai living on manna and fabricating all the components of the portable sanctuary for God. The food is sufficient, the work is pleasant, and no one bothers them, neither human nor divine. Naturally they are reluctant to change their comfortable way of life.

And naturally God, whose grand plan requires the conquest of Canaan, gets impatient with them and says, “Rav lakhem!  Too long for you!”

God snaps Rav lakhem! again later in Moses’s story, when the Israelites set out from Kadeish-Barnea to make their second attempt to enter the “promised land”. (The first one fails when fear paralyzes the people and they refuse to cross the southern border of Canaan in the desert.  God makes them wait in the wilderness for 38 years, until most of the old generation has died, and then lets them try again by a different route.)

Detour of Israelites

Detour of Israelites

In both Numbers and Deuteronomy, the second time that the Israelites head toward Canaan they go east first, hoping to pass through the kingdom of Edom and then continue north along the shore of the Dead Sea opposite Canaan, finally crossing over at the Jordan River.  But the king of Edom refused to let the people go through his country.

According to Numbers, Moses simply leads the Israelites south, so they can circle around Edom. Two things happen on the way:  At Mount Hor, Aaron dies and the people pause to mourn him for the traditional 30 days; and at a sea of reeds (different from the one between Egypt and Mount Sinai) they complain about the manna, so God lets poisonous snakes bite them. (See my post Chukkat: Facing the Snake). As soon as they reach the wilderness east of Edom, they head north.

The story sounds different when Moses tells it in Deuteronomy.  In this version, the people head toward the sea of reeds south of Edom, but they wander around the skirts of Mount Seir in Edom until God scolds them.

And we turned and we pulled out toward the wilderness on the way to the sea of reeds, as God had spoken to me, and we circled around the mountain of Seir many days.  Then God said to me, saying:  Rav-lakhem, circling around this mountain!  Face about, tzafonah!  (Deuteronomy 2:1-3)

tzafonah (צָפֹנָה) = northward. (From the root verb tzafan, צָפַן = hid; stored treasure.)

Once again God gets impatient with the Israelites for delaying.  But there is nothing safe or pleasant about the snake-infested wilderness around hostile kingdom of Edom.  The people are not lingering because they are comfortable where they are.  The only possible reason for delay is so that they can complain (and then recover from snake-bite).

Perhaps this time, God’s Rav-lakhem means “Too much complaining from you, as you circle around this mountain!”  Instead of grumbling and insulting God’s manna, they should turn and face the tzafan, the treasure God has stored up for them in the part of Canaan to their north.

In next week’s Torah portion, Va-Etchannan, God uses the phrase with a singular “you” to snap at Moses.

But God was cross with me because of you, and would not listen to me.  And God said to me:  Rav-lakh!  Do not speak to Me again about this matter!  (Deuteronomy 3:26)

In the book of Numbers, God declares the Moses will not enter Canaan because he says the wrong thing to the people at the Waters of Merivah; and Moses does not protest God’s ruling.

But in Deuteronomy, Moses blames the people for God’s anger at him, and says he begged God to let him cross over the Jordan after all.  God said Rav-lakh! because Moses tried to reopen a subject that should have been settled. Both God and Moses seem irascible in the passage from Deuteronomy. I think God’s exclamation could be translated: “You’ve said too much already!”

Why is God more impatient in Deuteronomy than in Numbers?

Modern scholars point out a number of differences between the language of the two books, and conclude that they were written in different centuries.  (For example, Richard Elliott Friedman dates much of Numbers to the P source in the 6th century B.C.E., after the fall of the first temple.  He dates Deuteronomy to the reign of King Josiah a century earlier, circa 640-610.  According to this dating, God snaps Rav lakhem! and Rav lakh! in the earlier account.  In the later account, God is silent.)

Traditional commentary generally ignores the differences in language between Deuteronomy and Numbers.  It addresses the small but telling differences in content by explaining that in Deuteronomy Moses selected the key events the new generation needed to know before they entered Canaan, and related them the way the people needed to hear them.

Sometimes we do need a god who reacts like an exasperated human being, a god like the one in the first two portions of Deuteronomy.  When we feel safe and comfortable where we are, the way Moses portrays the Israelites at Mount Sinai, we are likely to ignore a signal like a rising cloud.  We need to hear a divine voice saying Rav lakhem! to get us unstuck, so we will take on the next challenge.

When we get so caught up in our complaints that we forget the goal we are heading toward, like the Israelites in snake country south of Edom, we need to hear a divine voice saying Rav lakhem! to jolt our awareness back to the hidden treasure we need to find.

And when we keep trying to change what cannot be changed, the way Moses begs God to reconsider and let him go to Canaan, we need to hear a divine voice saying Rav lakh! to shut us up, so we can concentrate on making the most of the life that we do have.

The impatient God in the beginning of Deuteronomy can still serve a purpose!

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