This Shabbat we begin reading the final book of the Torah, D’varim (Deuteronomy) 1:1 – 3:22.[i] While some consider the book of Deuteronomy to be simply a recapitulation of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, the Keil and Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary sees it as much more.
The book of Deuteronomy contains not so much “a recapitulation of the things commanded and done, as related in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers” as “a compendium and summary of the whole law and wisdom of the people of Israel, wherein those things which related to the priests and Levites are omitted, and only such things included as the people generally required to know”.[ii]
In other words, Moshe is not only reiterating the Torah but emphasizing those things that are most important for Bnei Yisrael to know and understand. All the while he recognizes that the people to whom he is speaking are not those who came out of Egypt and received the first giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, but their children who were born during their wandering in the wilderness.
How many of us have lived through a most memorable situation and when we recounted that situation or episode decades later, the telling seemed to be a little off or maybe our perception of the situation or episode changed over time. It would appear that such is the case early in Deuteronomy. While addressing those who are now on the banks of the Jordan, awaiting to go into the Land, Moshe remembers a time, more than three decades before, when he spoke to the fathers of those currently standing before him. First affirming HaShem’s promise,
See, ADONAI your God has set the land before you—go up, take possession, as ADONAI God of your fathers has promised you. Do not be afraid or discouraged. (Deuteronomy 1:21)
Then explaining the first entry into the land by the original twelve spies.
Then all of you came near to me and said: ‘Let’s send men ahead of us to explore the land for us and bring us back word about the way we should go up and the cities we will enter.’ The idea seemed good to me, so I took twelve men from among you—one man for each tribe. (Deuteronomy 1:22-23)
But there is a problem with Moshe’s recap. He charges Bnei Yisrael with approaching him with the desire to spy out the land and determine if it is actually as HaShem had promised and that they would indeed be able to conquer and subdue it and its people. However, in Parasha Shelach we read what appears to be a different story.
ADONAI spoke to Moses saying, “Send some (sh’lach l’kha) men on your behalf to investigate the land of Canaan, which I am giving to Bnei-Yisrael. Each man you are to send will be a prince of the tribe of his fathers, a man from each tribe.” (Numbers 13:1-2)
Here it would appear that the idea to send the spies into the land was not that of the people but of HaShem Himself. Is this an error of memory or a contradiction in Scripture? The rabbis found the answer to this seeming contradiction in the understanding of the Hebrew phrase שְׁלַח-לְךָ, (sh’lach l’kha; English “Send some …).” The phrase literally means “send for yourself” implying that the sending of the men it is not HaShem’s purpose but that of Moshe or the people. Numbers Rabbah 26:8 explains that God seems to be saying,
“I have told you already that the land is good and that I will give it to you. If you need human confirmation of that, go ahead and send the scouts.”[iii]
Here, I believe, is a lesson for us today. Many times in our lives we know what we are to do; the Scripture is quite plain and the rules or guidelines of our chosen life style are also fairly clear cut. However, we experience times when we don’t want to follow the pattern or keep the system of observance. Then, though knowing what we ought to do, we attempt to find other ways to live out or to get around what we know we ought to be doing. Sometimes, things do not go far array. Other times, as with the scouts, there are dire, possibly long-lasting consequences. Maybe this is why Moshe is clearly stating to the people before him that it was their fathers’ desire and decision to go “spy out the land” and not HaShem’s prompting. Subtly he was forewarning them as Yaacov (James) would warn his readers,
Therefore whoever knows the right thing to do and does not do it—for him it is sin. (James 4:17)
This week is also Shabbat Chazon, the last Shabbat before the remembrance of the atrocities that have befallen the Jewish people on Tisha b’Av. It is called Shabbat Chazon because the reading is from Isaiah’s first vision of accusation and discipline (Isaiah 1:1-27). It begins with HaShem’s charge, “Sons I have raised and brought up, but they have rebelled against Me.” (Isaiah 1:2)
However, as a loving Father, who disciplines His children, He also provides the opportunity for restoration and recovery.
“Wash and make yourselves clean. Put away the evil of your deeds from before My eyes. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17)
As Jan Uhrbach notes in her commentary on this passage, “The prophet warns that society can be healed, and his terrifying vision of complete destruction avoided, only by care and concern for the most vulnerable members of society.”[iv] In other words, it is not ritual observance or piety that is the fruit of returning to the LORD but rather the concern and care for those who are most needy in the society that needs restoration—the oppressed, the orphan, the widow. Again we turn to Yaacov’s words of encouragement to his community,
Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)
It is said about Tisha b’Av, with its sorrowful contemplation and mournful time of fasting, that two things can come out of mourning and fasting. First is a state of depression as we remember all of the horrors of the past. However, the second option is that in light of the past atrocities we can make the decision to make our part of the world a better place in hope that the past will not repeat itself. Making the decision to assist in the local soup kitchen or homeless shelter is a good way to care for the physically oppressed. Another opportunity is provided by Rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman who is the Executive Director of Chevra USA,[v] which is a humanitarian organization that feeds elderly Jews, particularly holocaust survivors, in the former Soviet Union and Israel, as well as mentoring Messianic Leaders in Eastern Europe. However we choose to exercise “pure and undefiled religion before our God,” it is one step closer to ensuring that the atrocities of the past are not repeated in the present or the future.
[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
[ii] Keil & Delitzsch OT Commentary, Introduction to the Fifth Book of Moses (Deuteronomy), Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 1966. Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc., Version 2.5.
[iii] Information drawn from Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary,’ David L. Lieber, Senior Editor, New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001, p 840.