Thursday, August 4, 2022

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Dvarim – Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 1 – 3:22

 “Dvarim” is the book of Deuteronomy and lends its name to our Parasha. “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan…” (1:1).D’varim” (singular - “davar”), of the root d.v/b.r (dalet, bet/vet, resh) which is also the root for “midbar” that we encountered in the opening Parasha of the book of Bamidbar - Numbers - refers to “words”. Thus, the names of the books of Bamidbar and Dvarim (as well as their respective contents) are connected by the root d.v.r, alluding to the Word (“davar”) spoken in the desert (“midbar”). Dvarim is also known as “Mishneh Torah”, mentioned in Dvarim 17:18 as part of the instructions for a future monarch. This term suggests copying since “mishneh” originates with the root sh.n.h, (shin, mem, hey) meaning to “repeat” (and hence copy). However, “mishneh” also means “secondary” (with “two” – “sh’na’yim” - sharing the same root, thus being related to “second”). This may indicate that the book at hand is a “secondary Torah”, as it is a kind of synopsis of the three previous tomes (not including B’resheet).

In 1:5 we read: “On the other side of the Jordan Moses began explaining this law”, but more literally it says that Moshe was “willing to undertake” (“ho’eel” of the root y.a.l, yod, alef, lamed) to expoundba’er - the Torah”, thus summing up the essence of this fifth book of the Pentateuch. Referring to this summary as… “expounding the Torah” lends (once again) a broader meaning to this term.  The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament sheds more light on “ho’eel”: “The primary meaning of this root is ‘to make a volitional decision to commence a given activity…’  This volitional decision to begin an act clearly indicates the function of one’s mind to initiate… The verb concentrates on the volitional element rather than upon emotional or motivational factors. It stresses the voluntary act of the individual’s will to engage in a given enterprise, not what may have brought him to that decision… Theologically this verb strongly supports the concept of man’s free will, for man can make decisions to initiate any given action (within human control), but God holds him responsible for that volitional decision”.[1] This is not the first time that the verb “ho’eel” is ‘attached’ to Moshe. After having rescued Re’u’el’s (Yitro) daughters at the well and accepting their father’s invitation, it says that “Moses was content – va’yo’el – to live with the man, and he gave Zipporah his daughter to Moses” (Ex. 2:21. Another example is found in 1st Samuel 12:22, where for “ho’eel” the translation is “pleased” – although not totally accurate.)

Back to the present. Moshe is exercising his will, resolving to “ba’er” (expound) the Torah to the People of Yisrael. “Ba’er” (b.a.r. bet, alef, resh) is to make distinct, declare, make plain”, and shares its root with “be’er” which is a “well or cistern”. Although it is not altogether certain whether there is an etymological connection between “making plain” and “well”, the fact that the word for “eye” and “water spring” is one and the same in Hebrew (“ayin”), indicates that while water is connected to the act of seeing, it may also be related to ‘understanding’, which is another form of ‘seeing’. By expounding on YHVH’s words, Moshe was certainly providing the Israelites with clear, thirst-quenching, well-drawn living water in the dry desert.

In 1:9,12, Moshe uses the familiar verb “nasso”, to carry, lift, bear a burden”, which has been used particularly in Bamidbar (Numbers), with even a Parasha by that name (Num. 4:21…). From Moshe’s speech, we learn how heavy of a burden this people was for him at times, although the One who had truly carried and cared for them was their Elohim. Thus, Moshe himself admits, in 1:31, that, "in the wilderness… you saw how YHVH your Elohim carried you, as a man carries his son, in all the way that you went until you came to this place" (emphases added).

When Moshe stresses just judgment (in 1:17) he says: “You shall not respect persons in judgment…” which in Hebrew is, “you shall not acknowledge, or know, or recognize [anyone’s] face in judgment” (ha’ker panim), as “recognizing” one person above another does away with an impartiality which is indispensable for meting out justice. Thus, one is not to prefer one’s relatives, friends, or associates over strangers.  “Recognize a face” - as presented here – appears in other places as “carry a face” (having the same meaning as recognizing a face), such as in Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:15, regarding the prohibition to show partiality to the poor. Yet in spite of the usage of the theme of “carrying” used in the present passage (as we saw above), when ‘carrying out’ justice is mentioned (in 1:17), this common idiom of “carrying/lifting a face” (that is, being partial) is strangely omitted, and instead “recognizing a face” is the idiom of choice.

Recently we have been noticing that the word used for “tribe/s” has been “ma’teh/matot” (“rod/rods”), in contrast to the more common word shevet” (sh.v.t, shin, vet, tet, which also means “rod, staff, club, scepter” and also a live branch). The “rod and staff [which] will comfort me” (of Psalm 23:4) are, respectively, “shevet” and “mish’e’net” (which is a staff specifically for leaning on). In chapter 1 the references to the tribes (vs. 13, 15) are couched in the term “shevet”.  “Shevet” is also the rod that if a father spares, may earn him the reputation of one who hates his son (ref. Prov. 13:24). The usage of “shevet”, refers to didactic reproof (as preparation before entering the land and starting out a new life), is therefore quite appropriate in this 5th book of the Pentateuch! ("I will make you pass under the rod..." in Ezekiel 20:37, where “shevet” is used, is a key verse regarding Yisrael’s restoration.) But what is so striking about this monologue to the younger generation, most of whom would not have participated in the events which Moshe is mentioning, is that he is addressing his audience in the second person as though all of them had been responsible and had participated in those events. It seems that at this particular juncture Moshe is using this as another educational tool (even with the view of its relevance for future generations).   

Continuing in chapter 1, we see that one of the lessons that Moshe wishes to draw from is the story of the spies (v. 22ff). “Why did he not also refer to the sin of the Golden Calf? “Why did he select the sin of the spies and omit all the other historical experiences?” These are questions posed by Nechama Leibowitz. She then goes on to cite Hoffman who, “illuminatingly points out that Moses wishes to refer to an exactly parallel situation. The children of Israel were once again on the threshold of the Promised Land, just as their ill-fated parents had been, thirty-eight years previously. Let them not forfeit the Land once again…” Moshe, therefore, issues a warning to “the children of Israel against once more forfeiting the land by their lack of faith…” [2]

The spies’ story truly serves to illustrate accurately the Israelites’ skepticism. In 1:22 we read: “And you came near to me, every one of you, and said, 'let us send men before us, and they shall search out the land for us…'” It is significant that the request for a surveillance report of the land by “every one of you… coming [or drawing] near” is interpreted (in the above quote) as a lack of faith. (This, is in contrast to the original story in Parashat Sh’lach Le’cha, Bamidbar – Numbers: 13:1-2; 32:8, where YHVH is presented as being the initiator of the plan). Another “drawing near” is mentioned in the next Parasha, when Moshe recalls the scene at Chorev (Horeb). “And it happened, when you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain burned with fire, you came near to me, all the rulers of your tribes, and your elders, and you said… ‘If we hear the voice of YHVH your Elohim anymore, then we shall die. For who of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living Elohim speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and has lived? You go near and hear all that YHVH our Elohim may say, and you shall speak to us all that YHVH our Elohim may speak to you…’” (5:23-27, italics added). We see that at the time of the giving of the Torah, the elders and leaders of Yisrael had a real concern about “drawing near” to YHVH, and instead “drew near” to Moshe and asked him to act on their behalf. If this was the leaders’ attitude, it is no wonder that sometime later the entire nation (“every one of you”) displayed a similar apprehension regarding YHVH’s promises, which is why that whole generation was condemned to die in the wilderness.

Moshe goes on to recount the sad episode, all those years back, recalling that the ones who had displayed unbelief, insisted later to go up and fight the enemy (ref. 1:41) against YHVH’s wishes (as if to make up for their former attitude). YHVH declared, therefore, that they would be “struck” before their enemies (ref. v. 42). The word used for “struck” is “tinagfu” of the root n.g.f (noon, gimmel, fey). “Negef” and “mage’fa” mean “plague or pestilence”, and are usually divinely ordained for the purpose of discipline, such as in the case before us.  In Bamidbar (Numbers) 16:46, 47 we read about the plague (“magefa”) which followed the rebellion of Korach and his band. Later, in Vayikra 25:8,9, mention was made of the “magefa” that plagued the Israelites in the wake of the Baal Pe’or episode and the daughters of Mo’av, whereas in Sh’mot (Exodus) 12:13, it was the Egyptians who were “struck” while the Israelites remained untouched.

Back to our chronology as is recounted by Moshe: In spite of YHVH’s warning, Yisrael “rebelled and … acted proudly and went up into the hills” (Deut. 1: 43). “[you] acted proudly” reads here (va)taz’du" (root zayin, dalet). Back in B’resheet (Genesis) 25, in Parashat Toldot, Ya’acov was seen “cooking a stew”, which in Hebrew is “va'ya'zed na'zid" (v. 29). We learned there that although “stew” is “nazid”, the root "zed” also means “pride, rebellion or presumptuousness”. Thus, Ya'acov was cooking up a non-too healthy stew for his brother, and according to the present passage, his progeny’s conduct even surpassed that of their forefather's.

The ensuing result of this failed attempt to go to battle is reported in Dvarim 1:44: “And the Amorites who lived in that hill country came out to meet you and they chased you, as the bees do, and drove you back from Seir to Hormah”.  In Shmot (Exodus) 23:28 it says: “And I will send hornets before you which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite before you”. However, because of disobedience and rebellion, the Israelites incurred defeat and they were chased by so many (proverbial) bees, being “driven back” all the way from Se’ir and Chorma.  The latter happens to stem from the root ch.r.m (chet, resh, mem), rendered “cherem” which in this case means “destruction”.  In Bamidbar (Numbers) 21:1-3, we read: “And the king of Arad the Canaanite… heard that Israel had come… and he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow to YHVH, and said, ‘if You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy [(ve)he’cheramti] their cities'. And YHVH listened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites, and they utterly destroyed [(va)yacharem] them and their cities, and the name of the place was called Hormah [Chorma]” (italics and emphasis added). However, Moshe’s narration here lets us know that destruction was also the lot of the Israelites, who at that point “sat and wept before YHVH, but YHVH would not listen [to them]” (Deut. 1:45) following the episode recounted above (in verse 44).

Chapter 2 contains Moshe’s reviews of some geographical and historical facts. As part of preparing the young Israelites for their relocation, he wants them to have a geographical and historical orientation and perspective. This is particularly true in 2:9-12, 18-23. Some of the names of the peoples mentioned are rather revealing. In 2:10 we read about the “Eimeem” (Emims). “Eima” is “fear, dread or horror” (for example, in the Covenant Between the Torn Pieces it says: “… and behold a terror – “eima” – of great darkness,” Gen. 15:12). These “Eimim” are compared to, or regarded as the Anakim (Deut. 2:11) who are the giants described by the spies (Num. 13:28). Mention is then made of the “Rfa’eem.” The root r.f.a. (resh, fey, alef) is used several times to describe the dead, or dwellers of She’ol.  In Yisha’yahu (Isaiah) 14:9 we read: “Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come; It arouses for you the spirits of the dead (“rfa’eem”)….” The Rfa’eem were also considered among the giants (and are mentioned in B’resheet 14:5). According to 2:20, the giants were also called “Zam’zumeem”, and lived in the land that was “considered the land of the Rfa’eem” (literal translation). This latter fact may have rendered that land the “land of the dead”, perhaps subtly hinting that YHVH will “begin to put your dread and your fear on the face of the people under all the heavens, who will hear your fame, and will tremble and writhe because of you” (2:25 italics added).

Appropriately the Parasha ends with the following: “Do not fear them for YHVH your Elohim, He shall fight for you” (3:22). But these descriptions of the vanquishing of the former dwellers of the lands of Seir (Edom), Moav and Ammon for the sake of Esav-Edom ((Yitzchak’s son) and Lot’s grandsons serve also as encouragement to the Israelites, as to their awaiting land of promise.  

Before concluding, let us examine a leitmotif which is repeated a number of times in our Parasha and is first seen in 1:8 (and then in 1:21): “See, I have placed the land before you (lit. “to your faces”) go in and possess [“r’shu” – wrest it by impoverishing its present residents] the land which YHVH swore to give to your fathers… and to their seed after them” (italics added). This repeated declaration is preceded, in verse 7, by the imperative “p’nu” (turn) which stems from the same root as “face” (see also 1:40, 2:1, 8). It seems that before YHVH will “give/place” the land before His people, they are required to make a “turn”. Last week we examined briefly “yerusha” as one of the words for an inheritance, which is rooted in the verb “roshesh”, used here by YHVH in its imperative form. YHVH declares that He has already “given/placed” – “natati” - the land before His people (1:20, 21, 39), but that it was incumbent upon them to do their duty. First, they had to “turn” and then “see”. That is, they had to realize, by exercising faith, what their heavenly Father had already accomplished. Secondly, they had to go and take/wrest the land, based upon the former realization and premise, and act, again, in faith. In 2:5,9,19, respectively, YHVH likewise declares that He “has given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession” and “has given Ar (Mo’av) to the sons of Lot as a possession” [“yerusha” – the same term He uses for Yisrael’s inheritance or possession), and the same regarding the Ammonites. However, “before them” is significantly missing. Thus, although YHVH is sovereign over all peoples, even the ones whose possessions He is protecting, He is notably treating His own in an exceptional manner.

In 2:31, YHVH declares again to His people (literal translation): “See, I have begun to give/place – “natati” – Sihon and his land over to you. Impoverishing begin to impoverish his land”. In the case of Sichon and his people, Yisrael’s Elohim also announces that it is He who has “hardened his [Sichon’s] spirit and made his heart obstinate” (2:30), having “mercy on whom He will, and whom He wills He hardens” (ref. Rom. 9:18).

Thus, as just mentioned, while YHVH is totally sovereign and controls all people groups, we notice that He places certain expectations upon Yisrael, who are to apply their conscious will (like Moshe, at the beginning of the Parasha) and act volitionally in faith and obedience to their Maker and King, with the Land of Promise being the venue for such actions. "To whom much is given…" (Luke 12:48).

1. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago, 1980

2. New Studies in Devarim, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh   Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.

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