Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Parshat Devarim

A 38 Year Perspective

In this week's parsha, Moshe begins the first of three speeches to Israel, in the last month of his life.

In it, he recalls much of the history of the past 38 years. He begins by bringing up the story of the spies, the reason why Israel wandered for forty years in the wilderness.

What is interesting is that he tells the story differently than the way that appears in Sefer Bemidbar. The story differs in three ways:

Whose idea it was to send the spies – here Moshe says: "all of you approached me and said, 'Let us send men ahead of us…'" (Devarim 1:22), i.e. the idea to send spies came from the people. However, in Sefer Bemidbar, the initiative comes from God: "The Lord spoke to Moses saying: 'Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan'" (Bemidbar 13:1-2)

In Devarim, Moshe blames the people for rejecting the conquest, not the spies: "They…brought us back word, and said, 'The land the Lord, our God, is giving us is good.' But you did not want to go up, and you rebelled against the commandment of the Lord, your God" (Devarim 1:25-26). However, Sefer Bemidbar puts the emphasis of the blame on the people.

In Devarim, Moshe describes himself as the one who argues with people and begs them not to be frightened, while in Sefer Bemidbar Calev ben Yephuneh, and to a certain extent, Yehoshua, take on that role.

How doe we come to tems with the fact that the Torah describes the same event totally differently in different books?

Modern scholars do not have a problem with this issue. They say that that Torah records different traditions of what happens, and so Sefer Devarim recalls one tradition of how the events ensued, while Sefer Bemidbar recalls an alternative tradition.

I would like to suggest a different response.

First we must understand the purpose of these two books. Sefer Bemidbar describes why Israel did not conquer Canaan immediately after leaving Sinai. However, Sefer Devarim is Moshe's farewell to the people and his message to them for the future. He is less interested in the past, but interested that Israel learns from the past's mistakes.

He therefore, tells the story from a different perspective and emphasizes the issues more relevant to the new generation.

Whose idea was it to send the spies? Within the account of Sefer Bemidbar, it is clear that the spies had two missions. One: to spy for military intelligence; two: to see the quality of the land (see my blog on Parshat Shelach The mission for military intelligence came from God, while the mission to see the land came from the people. It was that part of the mission that failed. Therefore, in Devarim, Moshe emphasizes the people's error, rather than God's command.

Concerning the blame for the failure, the spies themselves are long dead. There is no point discussing their personal failure. It is far more important that the people learn from their own error.

Finally, while calve might have the prime defender of the mission, he was clearly an agent of Moshe's. It was right Moshe to use him to defend the mission, as he was one of the actual spies and therefore, his perspective was far more important. However, 38 years later, Moshe is more interested in stressing God's role in conquering the land. For that he does not need a spy. For that, it needs his leadership to tell the people not to fear but to trust God.

Therefore, there is o contradiction between the accounts of Devarim and Bemidbar. They are simply told from a different perspective.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Devarim, entitled: " Fighting in the Mountains" appears at l.

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Devarim, entitled: "Devarim, Chazon and Tisha Be'Av" appears at

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