Mayanot Parshat Devarim: How to Look for Holiness
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Devarim(Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

How to Look for Holiness

"These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the Arabah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tofel, and Laban and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab; eleven days from Horeb, by way of Mount Seir to Kodesh-Barnea." (Deut. 1:1)

This description of the venue of Moses' speech cannot have been intended to guide us to the actual location - there is far too much confusing detail, and a lot of the places described are not even near each other.

For this reason, the rabbis interpreted this verse as being a description of the content of the speech itself rather than a description of its location; it informs us that Moses' speech contains a message of chastisement. In his final speech to them, Moses chastised the Jewish people and pointed out their shortcomings during the forty-year desert sojourn that was coming to its conclusion with his death. Each place mentioned in the verse refers to the venue of a transgression.

In the same breath, the Rabbis also stress that this was the only occasion that Moses ever chastised the entire Jewish nation as a group, and they cite several reasons for this. (See Rashi's commentary for the details.)

But there is something very perplexing about this interpretation. If he was indeed delivering the only speech of chastisement during his tenure as the leader of the Jews, Moses was addressing the wrong audience. Most of the sins and shortcomings he refers to in his speech - such as the sin of the Golden Calf, or the sin of the spies - were committed by people who had passed away in the desert. How can we relate to the idea of chastising a later generation for the sins committed by their parents or grandparents?

But this is not the strangest aspect of this speech of chastisement. On the surface, almost the entire Parsha is dedicated to the simple recounting the sin of the spies in all its detail and describing its aftermath without any apparent commentary. If this was a speech of chastisement, where are the words of chastisement? What is the point of recording the speech and omitting the chastisement?

 

* * *

 

NON-SEQUITUR

The answer is obviously that the chastisement is there to see if we search for it. If we delve beneath the surface a bit, we find that Moses made two major points. We can uncover the first of these points by analyzing what appears to be a glaring non-sequitur. (See Deut. 1:6-8.)

Following the introductory statement referred to, Moses begins his discourse by relating how God told the Jewish people to leave Mount Sinai; they had tarried there long enough and it was time to go and conquer the land. Right after this beginning, Moses makes an apparently bizarre digression that takes up ten full verses (Deut. 1:9-18). He describes the implementation of Jethro's advice (offered in Exodus 18:14-27) concerning the appointment of judges as a means of reducing his [Moses'] workload to manageable proportions. Then (ibid. 1:19) he returns once again to the theme of the conquest; the verses that follow describe the sending of the spies and the issuing of the edict against the Exodus generation that was its consequence.

What is the story of the appointment of the judges doing here? What connection does it have to the story of the spies?

 

* * *

 

THE LESSONS OF HISTORY

The maxim states; a wise man should always learn from history. Only a fool repeats mistakes that have already been committed and suffers needlessly thereby. This seems like good advice, but it is one of those bits of conventional wisdom that are difficult to apply in practice. History is easy to understand but difficult to interpret. The true causes of historical events are often quite obscure, and this makes the lessons of history difficult to decipher. The task is even more daunting if you subscribe to the prophetic view of history followed by Jewish tradition.

For example, historians offer many sound economic and social reasons for the rise of the Babylonian Empire. But the Jewish prophets take a different view. Jeremiah repeatedly refers to Nebuchadnezzar as God's agent of destruction. Prophetic theory attributes the rise of the Babylonian Empire to the need to create an agency that had the power to destroy the Temple and send the Jewish people into exile.

The emergence of a superpower was a pre-requisite of the destruction. No simple enemy raider could destroy the Temple. The Jewish people fought like lions displaying great courage and self-sacrifice to protect the physical symbol of their connection to God. Indeed, both Temples were destroyed by the superpowers of the time, which were compelled to dispatch enormous armies to accomplish the task and subdue Jewish resistance.

The major theme of Jeremiah's prophecies concerning the rise of Babylon is related to the destruction of the first Temple, but Jewish tradition advances the same theory concerning the rise of Rome and the destruction of the second Temple. The Talmud associates the rise of Rome with Solomon's marriage to Pharaoh's daughter, and to the establishment of idols by Jeroboam (Talmud, Shabbat, 56a).

 

* * *

 

JEWISH HISTORIC CAUSE

If the theories of Jewish tradition are accurate, Jewish sin is the true cause of all the enormous upheavals that took place in the ancient world. Jewish sin is the true cause of all the suffering caused by the exercise of the immense power of these great empires and is also responsible for the positive cultural effects of their existence on human history and culture. Rebellion against God by the Jewish people renders the continued existence of the Temple impossible and its destruction mandatory; this makes it mandatory to create an aggressive force with a sufficient concentration of power to carry out the task of destruction; the world ends up with imperialistic superpowers such as Babylon and Rome.

According to the theory, the economic and social factors that apparently led to the rise of these great powers would have been entirely ineffective in the absence of Jewish sin. It is clear that if we accept this view, we are forced to conclude that the secular historians who study these events and extract "scientific" principles that can be applied to related situations are barking up the wrong tree. The factors that secular historians interpret as causes of great historic movements are not causes at all. They are actually effects.

It follows that only the prophets can teach us the true lessons of history because it is only they who understand them. In a Divinely directed world only God's spokesmen are able to explain His actions in an authoritative way.

 

* * *

 

BACK TO THE NON-SEQUITUR

It is in this vein that we should regard Moses' apparent digression. Moses was not interested in merely retelling the story of the sin of the spies; he was interested in pointing out its underlying causes. If we accept the Torah view that Jewish sin is the underlying cause of all historic upheaval, then it makes sense to attempt to unravel the underlying causes of sin itself. Learning the causes of sin is the way to avoid repeating the mistakes of history. If you know the cause of sin you can learn to avoid sins in the future and avoid the upheavals they cause. This is the lesson that Moses wanted to teach the next generation. This is what needs to be corrected so we do not fall once again into the pit.

He was not addressing the wrong audience. He did not wish to merely chastise. He wanted to teach the Jewish people how to avoid the errors they committed during his tenure as leader. He called them all together to teach them the dynamics of history as they must be understood by Jews. To learn from the mistakes of the past you have to understand them first. His primary concern was the successful settlement of the land of Israel, the chief failure of his tenure as leader. It is understandable that the problem he focused on first in his final address was the sin of the spies, the main topic of the Parsha.

If we look at the 'digression' from this perspective, Moses was saying that the sin of the spies was caused by the same underlying factor as the failure to object to the loss of Moses' own direct leadership. For the Jewish people did not protest the setting up of the hierarchy of courts. They did not tell Moses, "Why are you telling us to hear the word of God second hand? You are our major link to God. If we insert layers of authority between you and ourselves, we are in effect distancing ourselves from God's word. We don't want it."

The definition of efficiency is to accomplish the same result more effectively. But as the object of Torah observance is to bring people closer to God, the implementation of a system that increases the distance between God and the Jewish people can hardly be termed efficient. The court system may function more efficiently but the Jewish system of justice is only a means to an end. The goal it is directed to reach, a greater closeness to God, would actually recede with the implementation of the hierarchy of courts.

 

* * *

 

REPEATING THE MISTAKE

This same mistaken attitude was responsible for the misunderstanding that led to the sin of the spies. The true object of the conquest of Israel and the attainment of a Jewish homeland is to enable the Jewish people to demonstrate to themselves and to the world that even everyday secular life can bring one to close to God when it is properly conducted. The attainment of holiness does not require the abandonment of ordinary existence in favor of a life of contemplation and asceticism. The path to holiness leads smack through the house, the farm and the factory.

The goal of Jewish nationalism must be to demonstrate that Jews can remain as close to God even as they occupy themselves with building and maintaining all the trappings associated with the modern secular state as they were when they were eating manna in the desert and were engrossed in full time Torah study. Moses himself makes this point later in his speech.

"Then I said to you: Do not be broken and do not fear them! The Lord your God, Who goes before you - He shall make war for you, like everything he did for you in Egypt, before your eyes. And in the wilderness, as you have seen, that the Lord your God bore you, as a man carries his son on the entire way that you traveled, until you arrived at this place..." (Ibid. 29-33)

The Jews obviously felt that life in the land of Israel would be fundamentally different than life in the desert. As long as they were in the desert, the fact that they were forced to rely on God to conduct their affairs miraculously did not cause them anxiety. They were up to living with miracles because they were leading very holy, unmaterialistic lives. But settled in Israel, living a secular life of comfort and materialism, they did not believe that it would be possible to maintain the same sort of spiritual intimacy with God. Secular life is inherently lacking in holiness. Israel was beyond their reach because they needed miracles to live in Israel and once they left the desert miracles would be beyond their reach.

Moses was countering their argument by teaching them that the entire point of their settling in Israel was the maintenance of the same relationship and intimacy with God they had in the desert in the midst of an outwardly secular life; the commandments of the Torah were designed specifically to enable them to do this. He was using the story of the appointment of the judges as a teaching aid. No gain in efficiency is worthwhile if you have to sacrifice your major goals in order to attain it.

The Covenant of Sinai was about establishing an intimate relation with God. The entry into Israel could not possibly jeopardize such intimacy otherwise it would never have been contemplated. Their parents weren't willing to listen to this message and he was pleading with them not to commit the same error. If they failed to realize and appreciate the goals of Jewish nationalism they were headed for disaster.

 

* * *

 

THE SECOND LESSON

The first lesson of Moses' speech concerns the factors behind the commitment of sin. If it is important not to repeat the mistakes of history, it is just as important to learn how to fix these mistakes in case they are committed once again. Moses' second lesson concerns the proper way to correct sins after they have been committed. A full account of how to remedy the failures of the desert generation must include a lesson about the proper way to repair the damage to the relationship with God in the unfortunate event that it has been allowed to occur. For the desert generation attempted to remedy their error:

"Then you spoke up and said to me, 'We have sinned to God! We shall go up and do battle according to everything that the Lord, our God, has commanded us!' Every man of you girded his weapons of war, and you were ready to ascend the mountain! God said to me: Tell them, 'Do not ascend and do not do battle, for I am not among you; so that you will not be struck down before your enemies.' So I spoke to you but you did not listen. You rebelled against the word of God and you were willful and climbed the mountain." (Ibid. 41-43)

The Ohr Hachaim asks: Why did God reject this act of collective repentance? Surely, by readying themselves to conquer the land once again the Jewish people demonstrated that they had remedied the defect of the lack of faith in God. Chastised by God's anger they returned to Moses fully ready and willing to gird their loins and go into battle. They had obviously overcome their fear of the nations of Canaan and renewed their faith in God. What did God find unacceptable about their repentance?

The key is in God's own words: "Do not ascend and do not do battle for I am not among you." For anyone whose interest in conquering the land of Israel is based on a true desire to enter into a state of intimacy with God, this Divine statement should have functioned as a bright red light. For God Himself was stating in the clearest terms 'that I am not among you'; there is no point to making the conquest now; the spiritual land of Israel is simply not there to be conquered under the circumstances. Even if the Jewish people could somehow acquire the physical Israel by the force of arms, in their present state of sin, living in Israel would not provide the means of establishing the state of intimacy with God that was the purpose of the whole enterprise.

The situation demanded true repentance first; obedience to the original command would no longer serve the purpose. God's chief concern was not the act of disobedience itself; the cause of His powerful reaction was the underlying reason behind the sin. He did not want the Jewish people in Israel unless they fully understood that the goal of their entry was to maintain the level of intimacy with God in the context of ordinary life that they enjoyed in the desert. As soon as God declared, "I am not among you," they should have abandoned every other project and focused on repairing the damage to the relationship with God. They focused on correcting their disobedience instead. Had they gone about repenting correctly, God's edict against them would surely have been revoked.

 

* * *

 

A FAULTY JUSTICE SYSTEM

We generally read this Torah portion on the Shabbat immediately preceding the 9th day of Av, the day of the anniversary of the commission of the sin of the 'shedding tears in vain' whose consequence was the issuance of the edict of death in the desert against the Exodus generation. The shedding of these vain tears caused the need to shed real tears through Jewish history. The 9th of Av is also the anniversary of the destruction of both Temples as well as many other major tragedies of Jewish history such as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, from England, and the outbreak of the First World War.

The Haftorah reading is taken from Isaiah 1, a chapter that prophetically warns of the impending destruction of the first Temple. An examination of the details reveals that the Jewish people had not yet internalized the lessons of history that Moses had attempted to teach them. A reading of the Haftorah shows that the Jews of the period were diligently observing their duties toward God. They were offering the Temple sacrifices as proscribed, they were faithfully observing the tri-annual pilgrimage to the Temple, and they were being diligent in their prayers. Something else was missing, and it was this missing factor that caused the destruction:

"How the faithful city has become a harlot! She had been full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your heady wine diluted with water. Your princes are wayward and associates of thieves; the whole of them loves bribery and pursue illegal payments; for the orphan they do not do justice, the cause of the widow does not come unto them." (Isaiah 1:21-23)

The prophet brings us right back to Moses' non-sequitur. Once again it is a faulty justice system that is highlighted as the underlying cause of destruction. The Jewish justice system is the ultimate expression of the Jewish people's public attitude towards Torah observance. When the Jewish justice system reduces to no more than a method of settling disputes, it reflects an attitude towards the laws of the Torah that is similar to that of all law-abiding citizens observing any secular system. Torah law is like any other law. It must be observed in all particulars and all disputes must be settled according to its dictates. But this attitude misses the point of Torah law entirely.

The laws of the Torah were given to us as a means of attaching our everyday lives to God by investing life's mundane details with significance and holiness. The Jewish judicial system is intended to bring God's justice into the world and to reflect the workings of a society that conducts its business affairs in the light of holiness. When it takes no notice of the oppression of the widow and the orphan, when it tolerates bribery and corruption, it indicates that it is nothing more than the Jewish method of settling human disputes. A society that has such notions is fundamentally lacking in holiness; it does not require the land of Israel or God's Temple within it.

Jewish nationalism must be goal directed. Its aim can never be simply to live peacefully and securely within a Jewish secular state. It must be focused on the establishment of an intimate relationship between man and God, to teaching how you can live a normal life in this world and still be obviously God's holy people. The normal life patterns of everyday living in a Jewish state must be imbued with spirituality and reflect holiness. The aim of Jewish life is not the attainment of holiness through the performance of acts of devotion. The aim is not to step out of life into holiness; it is nothing short of the elevation of life itself.

Each generation of Jews has to grapple with the same spiritual problems, and must aim to attain the identical goals. God constantly readjusts the circumstances of the struggle to conform with the capacity and cultural orientation of the particular generation of Jews living at the time, but it is never the historic task that changes, only the circumstances under which it needs to be carried out. If ever any generation fully succeeded at the task of demonstrating the potential Godliness in everyday life, the aim of Jewish history would be attained and the Messiah would finally come.

The lessons of Moses apply to all Jews at all times. We must still correct our historic mistake. There cannot be a viable Jewish state in the Land of Israel that doesn't concern itself with connecting the secular trappings of statehood to God. In whatever fashion appropriate to the times, God must be somewhere in the picture.

Published: July 27, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Yehudith Shraga, July 10, 2013 7:42 PM

Very good article

Thank you so very much, Rav N.Weisz, for your outstanding ability to explain the main aspects of the world aroud, the history and the role of the Jewish People in it.



(4) David Braunstein, July 25, 2009 1:37 PM

I hope this lesson changes my life

I liked your analysis vey much. Of course, we need to see the holiness in everything in life. This raises our meaning of existance. Since Jews are to be the example, this message is for everyone in the world to share.

(3) Natan, July 28, 2006 12:00 AM

We are the center of all historic events

Though we know this to be true, it is very hard for a non-jew to swallow that all of history is simply "reaction" to a tiny fraction (less than one percent) of the world population. You can't really blame them - from a strictly "logical" perspective it's ludicrous. It's only when you believe that the world was created for (and through) Torah that you can believe that its quintessential adherents (Jews) are the primary force of history.

(2) Shari Kark, July 26, 2006 12:00 AM

Today's War underlines the need to correct past mistakes.

As we pray forour brothers and sisters in Israel, the words of Rabbi Weisz must be the basis of our every interaction during each and every day. Hashem will help us when he sees that we are deserving of the help.

(1) Alejandra, July 23, 2006 12:00 AM

Rabbi your so right

Come on people, put your history together once and for all, put God in the picture!I want to be in this world to see the Messiah, don´t you?Alejandra

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