Finding Inspiration From Our Past
Deciphering Moses' Final Address To Israel
In Devarim, Moses gives a grand final address to Israel that at first glance seems like a boring history lesson with the least inspiring stories! But underneath Moses' last words is an unbelievable message that the nation of Israel needed to hear right before they entered the land.
What we come to find is that the messages of Moses speech are still applicable and inspiring to us, today. Join us as we try to tackle the mystery of Moses's speech.
Welcome to Parshat Devarim. So, it's Shabbos morning, you're walking home from synagogue, and your friend Sam runs up to you and says, "Ah! I slept through Torah reading this morning! Can you give me a recap? What did I miss?"
Well, you say, Moses gave a speech. Oh, right, Sam says. Devarim is the introduction to the Book of Deuteronomy, which is mostly Moses's final speech right before the people enter Israel. It must be inspirational, epic! But, I don't exactly remember how it goes. Remind me, what are the highlights?
What Was Moses' Final Address to Israel About?Well, you respond, Moses reviewed a few stories from the desert. Right!, Sam says back. It must have been the major ones, like revelation at Sinai, the Golden Calf, Korach's rebellion?? Well, no, you say. Moses did mention the sin of the spies, but he also talked about a few other stories from the book of Numbers. Like...when the nation avoided the land of Seir and Moav, when they went through the lands of Sichon and Og, and when Moses appointed new judges. Ummm...Sam says, those seem a little random. But sum it up for me. Like, what was the speech actually about? And then, you realize, you don't really know.
You know the stories Moses brings up, but you're not exactly sure why. Is Moses just giving a history lesson of the nation in the desert? Probably not, right, because if it were, he would have told the big stories – and not this seemingly-random collection. Or, maybe it's an inspirational speech for the people of Israel. But the stories he picks don't seem particularly inspirational! No one is going to put "Remember how we avoided the land of Seir" on an inspirational poster anytime soon.
So, what is this introduction to the epic speech of Devarim really about? This week on the Parsha Experiment.
Hi, I'm Imu Shalev, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment.
Let's take a deeper look at the four stories Moses mentions, and maybe that will give us insight into what his speech is actually about.
Understanding the Stories in Moses' Last WordsLet's start with the most well-known story of the Israelites' time in the desert – the sin of the spies. Spies went to Israel to scout the land, and when they returned, they reported how strong the Canaanite nations were. The people were terrified and lost their resolve. Moses recounts what he told them: לֹא-תַעַרְצוּן וְלֹא-תִירְאוּן, מֵהֶם – don't be afraid! God will fight for you, just as He did in Egypt, and in entire time in the desert, like a father carrying his son.
But, that's not how the story happened!! Back in Shelach, after the spies gave a negative report, and the people lost resolve: וַיִּפֹּ֥ל מֹשֶׁ֛ה וְאַהֲרֹ֖ן עַל־פְּנֵיהֶ֑ם, Moses and Aaron fell on their faces. Moses is silent – he doesn't say a thing! And then Caleb and Joshua, two of the spies, stepped forward. They rip their clothes, קָרְע֖וּ בִּגְדֵיהֶֽם, and give a whole speech – it will be great in the land, אַל־תִּירָאֻֽם, don't be afraid!
What kind of history lesson is this? Back in Shelach, Moses was completely silent, while Joshua and Calev give the nation an encouraging speech, but in Moses's retelling, he's the one giving the speech! Did he just want to give himself the credit? What's with these changes? And, why does Moses bring up this story in the first place?
Does he not remember that the sin of the spies is the biggest failure in Israel's national history?? This is the reason the nation didn't enter the land 40 years ago!! Wouldn't this just bring up their deepest insecurities, make them feel like they might fail again? What's going on here?
Now let's look at the next story Moses tells in his speech. Moses says that God told me: אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים בִּגְבוּל אֲחֵיכֶם בְּנֵי-עֵשָׂו, הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּשֵׂעִיר – you are about to pass the border of your brothers, the children of Esav, who dwell in Seir. אַל-תִּתְגָּרוּ בָם–כִּי לֹא-אֶתֵּן לָכֶם מֵאַרְצָם – do not contend with them, because I am not giving you their land. Why not? כִּי-יְרֻשָּׁה לְעֵשָׂו, נָתַתִּי אֶת-הַר שֵׂעִיר – because I gave this land as an inheritance to Esav. And, Moses continues, God said the same about Moab and Amon: Don't contend with them. כִּי לֹא-אֶתֵּן לְךָ מֵאַרְצוֹ, I'm not giving you that land, כִּי לִבְנֵי-לוֹט, נָתַתִּי אֶת-עָר יְרֻשָּׁה, because I gave them as an inheritance to Lot. Inheritance for Esav and Lot? I don't get it – why do we hear about any of this?
Moses even goes into excruciating detail about how Esav's and Lot's descendants took hold of those lands. Before Esav, Horites dwelled in Seir… Esav destroyed them and settled there. And before Lot's children got to Moav and Amon, Rephaim lived there, עַם גָּדוֹל וְרַב וָרָם, – a nation of giants.וַיַּשְׁמִידֵם יְהוָה מִפְּנֵיהֶם, וַיִּירָשֻׁם וַיֵּשְׁבוּ תַחְתָּם – God destroyed those giants, and Lot's children took over.
I thought we finished talking about Esav and Lot back in Genesis? Why is the Torah randomly bringing them up again, telling us that we're avoiding their lands? And not only that, why is this story even important enough to be included in Moses's speech? This story doesn't even appear earlier in the four books of Moses – and now it's told, brand new, in this speech? Why??
The next story Moses talks about is Israel's defeat of the mighty Amorite kingdoms of Sichon and Og. Moses says: וַיֵּצֵא סִיחֹן לִקְרָאתֵנוּ הוּא וְכָל-עַמּוֹ – Sichon came to battle with his entire nation. And yet, וַיִּתְּנֵהוּ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, לְפָנֵינוּ – God delivered him into our hands. We destroyed the people and their cities. לֹא הִשְׁאַרְנוּ, שָׂרִיד – not a thing remained. And then, the same thing happened with Og. וַיֵּצֵא עוֹג מֶלֶךְ-הַבָּשָׁן לִקְרָאתֵנוּ הוּא וְכָל-עַמּוֹ – Og came to initiate battle. But, Moses told the nation: וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֵלַי, אַל-תִּירָא אֹתוֹ – God said to me, do not fear him! And we destroyed him, just as we did Sichon. And we're given so much detail. הִנֵּה עַרְשׂוֹ עֶרֶשׂ בַּרְזֶל – Og's bed was of iron – תֵּשַׁע אַמּוֹת אָרְכָּהּ, וְאַרְבַּע אַמּוֹת רָחְבָּהּ – it was nine cubits long by four cubits wide. That's about 13.5 feet by 6 feet… that's huge, a bed made for a giant! And the cities, they were terrifying – כָּל-אֵלֶּה עָרִים בְּצֻרֹת, חוֹמָה גְבֹהָה–דְּלָתַיִם וּבְרִיחַ – all these cities that were destroyed were fortified cities, with high walls, and gates, and bars.
Why does Moses include all the detail about these stories? Do we really need to know the size of Og's bed?
Let's look at one last story – actually, the first one Moses brings in his speech – and I think this one will help us to put together the pieces. Moses opens with telling the nation about when he appointed new judges for them. He reminds them, וָאֹמַ֣ר אֲלֵכֶ֔ם בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹ֑ר, I said to you at this time, לֹא־אוּכַ֥ל לְבַדִּ֖י שְׂאֵ֥ת אֶתְכֶֽם, I can't carry you all alone anymore. Why not? יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם הִרְבָּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֑ם וְהִנְּכֶ֣ם הַיּ֔וֹם כְּכוֹכְבֵ֥י הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לָרֹֽב׃, because God has multiplied you, and today, you are like the stars in the sky. So Moses has a solution, הָב֣וּ לָ֠כֶם אֲנָשִׁ֨ים חֲכָמִ֧ים וּנְבֹנִ֛ים וִידֻעִ֖ים לְשִׁבְטֵיכֶ֑ם, pick for yourselves wise men, וַאֲשִׂימֵ֖ם בְּרָאשֵׁיכֶֽם, and they will judge you, and share the burden with me.
The original version of this story had happened back in Parshat Beha'alotecha – but, like the others, the original is told a little differently. The people had been complaining – they wanted new food, they were sick of manna. And Moses just gives up on them. He says to God, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָ לְעַבְדֶּךָ, why have you done this evil to me, your servant, וְלָמָּה לֹא-מָצָתִי חֵן, בְּעֵינֶיךָ, and why haven't I found favor in Your eyes, לָשׂוּם, אֶת-מַשָּׂא כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה–עָלָי, that you place this burden of the people on me? לֹֽא־אוּכַ֤ל אָנֹכִי֙ לְבַדִּ֔י לָשֵׂ֖את אֶת־כָּל־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֑ה – I cannot carry all this people by myself, כִּ֥י כָבֵ֖ד מִמֶּֽנִּי׃, for it is too much for me. And God responds, okay. Gather respected elders from amongst the tribes. וְנָשְׂא֤וּ אִתְּךָ֙ בְּמַשָּׂ֣א הָעָ֔ם, they shall share the burden of the people with you, וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א אַתָּ֖ה לְבַדֶּֽךָ׃, and you shall not bear it alone.
So why does Moses open his speech with this story? It definitely fails the inspirational test – hey guys, remember that time I was fed up with you? And it also seems to fail the history test. Is this story of the judges so important, that it needs to open up Moses's speech?
The reason the Judges story – and all of Devarim, for that matter – is so confusing to us is because we're reading with the end in mind. We tend to read Sefer Devarim as Moses's "wrap it up" book, filled with repetitions and details that are an epilogue to the first four books. But that's because we know how this story ends. They people go into the land, and build a successful kingdom.
But there's one thing we're missing.
Seeing Moses' Final Address from Israel's EyesThis speech? It was given on the eve of the invasion of Canaan. The people...they were about to go to war. And if it were me in the crowd, I'd be terrified. God has been providing for them completely for 40 years – He's been vanquishing their foes in battle. But in Israel, that's not going to happen anymore. We're going to have to fight, conquer land. God's going to be with us, but He won't be as actively present. What will that look like? Will we have to do this on our own?
This speech was William Wallace in "Braveheart," it was every major half-time locker room speech. Moses wasn't recapping anything, he was telling them: you can do this.
He carefully selects his stories, each with a particular argument as to why the people should be courageous. He begins, remember when we appointed new judges? I know it seemed like I was mad. And it's true, I was frustrated. I couldn't handle you. But think about why you were too much for me to handle. יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם הִרְבָּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֑ם וְהִנְּכֶ֣ם הַיּ֔וֹם כְּכוֹכְבֵ֥י הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לָרֹֽב׃, God has multiplied you, and today, you are like the stars in the sky.
Moses doesn't bring up that story to berate them, he brings it up to encourage them. What could have been remembered as a disheartening episode, a time that they were put down by their leader, Moses shows them that they were actually lifted up by the only leader that matters, their Father in Heaven.
Yes, you were too much for me, but what a blessing, that you've become too numerous for any one man to carry. I know you're scared. But remember, God follows through on his promises. He fulfilled the promise about making you a vast nation, He will also fulfill His promise to protect you in the land. He'll be with you the entire time.
Then, Moses talks about the sin of the spies, again, not to dishearten them, but to give them renewed courage. Israel is now in the exact same position facing the exact same test as the generation of the spies. They're about to face the Canaanites, the very mighty nations their ancestors were terrified to confront. How can we do, what they didn't have the courage to do?
Moses recognizes that fear, understands that – and, in this speech, addresses it. He isn't interested in telling them history. Instead, he takes them back in time, and gives them the speech that they need to hear. Moses focuses on how God was with them, and would continue to be with them. Remember, like I told your parents then, הוּא יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם, God will fight for you. כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אִתְּכֶם, בְּמִצְרַיִם–לְעֵינֵיכֶם – just as He did for you in Egypt before your very eyes. וּבַמִּדְבָּר, אֲשֶׁר רָאִיתָ, אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, and in the desert, you've seen how God carried you, כַּאֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא-אִישׁ אֶת-בְּנוֹ, like one carries his son,בְּכָל-הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר הֲלַכְתֶּם, everywhere that you've gone, עַד-בֹּאֲכֶם עַד-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה, all the way up until you go to this place. He has never abandoned you; and as you enter the land of Israel, know that He won't abandon you now.
But you're still scared – maybe God will be there with us, but we still have to conquer all of these nations! So now, Moses brings up Esav and Lot. Why does Moses tell us about this?
Well, think about how these stories must have sounded to Israel. Remember your cousins Lot, and Esav? God promised them that they would receive an inheritance – and that promise came true. Now it's your turn. Remember how years ago, mighty nations dwelled in those land, nations filled with refaim, anakim, filled with giants? Esav and Lot were able to utterly obliterate them. How? Because God promised those lands to Esav and Lot – and God fulfills His promises. He conquered those lands for them, just like He'll help conquer the land He promised to you.
The detailed stories of Sichon and Og, now, also makes sense in this pep talk. Sichon and Og had been the leaders of strong, mighty nations. The cities were so fortified, and they were giants – look at how huge Og's bed was! We had every reason to fear… and yet, with God's help, we utterly wiped them out. As if Moses is saying to them: Hey, you've done this already. With God's help, you succeeded last time, and you will again. God is with you, don't be afraid.
The Deeper Meaning Behind Moses' Final WordsOver and over, Moses is building them up, giving them courage. God has blessed you, just like He promised! God is with you, like He has been in Egypt, and in the desert. God has given people land – and He's giving you this land. And, with God's help, you have succeeded in miraculous military victories before – and you will again.
In his speech, Moses retells specific stories in a way that highlights this particular message – that God will be with them in this next step. Even though God's presence won't be all around you, as it has been up until now, don't fear. He's right there, and He'll never leave you.
Sefer Devarim is referred to by Chazal as Mishneh Torah, a book of repetition. But if we take it at face value, as repetitive stories, then we lose its meaning.
We're meant to read this book, not to relive the story of the spies, or of the judges, but to put ourselves in the shoes of a people who didn't know how it all would end. We're meant to draw courage from the miracles of our past, and draw strength from God's promises about our future.
When we, as a people, don't know the end of our own story, will we draw strength and maintain our own faith? Join us as we continue to explore Mishneh Torah, next week on The Parsha Experiment.