Devarim: Finding New Forms of Leadership

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Devarim: Moshe Rabbenu and the People He Had to Lead

Torah for the New Generation

Ramban thinks the whole book was Moshe’s idea and initiative. He knew the new generation of Jews, none of whom had been twenty at the Giving of the Torah, needed to hear it from a living witness, so they could enter the Land certain they possessed a Torah given directly by Gd at Sinai.

Moshe presented the essential ideas of Torah, mitzvot they would need most frequently in Israel, especially the prohibition of avodah zarah, worshipping any power other than Gd, with new details of the old mitzvot, and sometimes mitzvot not previously taught.

Although Moshe had been taught almost all of it at Sinai, was now sharing material he had long known but not yet shared, Ramban thinks there were also some new ideas, taught to Moshe on the plains of Moav (including a new covenant between Gd and the Jewish people, recorded at the end of the book).

He thinks most rules regarding kohanim were not repeated or expanded in Devarim, because kohanim have always been known to be zerizim, punctilious about their areas of halachah, so it was not needed. He implies the other Jews needed a new presentation, in a new form, since the first books of the Torah were not enough.

Key takeaways for me here are the idea Moshe refrained from sharing some pieces of Torah until they were going to be relevant, felt the need to strengthen the sense of Torah as Gd-given, and knew a new generation needed their Torah expressed in a way appropriate for them.

Above all, Ramban, 1;5, says it was Moshe’s idea and initiative. Obviously ratified by Gd, but the starting point was Moshe, who had reached a level where his ideas were so close to Gd’s, they could make it into the Torah itself.

On the Way to Becoming the Speaker of Devarim

Moshe himself tells us ways he might have grown to this point. When he recounts the runup to the war with Sihon and Og, 2;26, he says he sent them messengers offering to pass through their land peacefully. Rashi notes Gd had not commanded this, Moshe inferred it from Gd’s having offered the Torah itself to all nations of the world (as a tradition in Gemara Avodah Zarah has it).

Just as Gd knew those nations would not take it (I think he means most likely, rather than absolutely, since otherwise it’s purely symbolic and implies a lack of freewill) and yet offered it to hold out the hope for a more peaceful resolution (were all nations to accept the Torah, the world would be a better place), Moshe held out hope for a peaceful passage, even as he knew it most unlikely.

[To me—neither Rashi nor Ramban make the connection—Moshe’s conscious emulation of Gd’s behavior would certainly be a path to his being able to take steps similar enough to what Gd would want for his words to be worthy of inclusion in the Torah itself.]

Left to His Own Devices

Rashi’s idea that he reached back to Sinai fits with another comment of Rashi’s, 2;16-17, where Moshe says Gd spoke to him after the generation of the desert passed away. Rashi says for all the time since the sin of the spies, thirty-eight years, Moshe had not enjoyed the best form of prophecy, where the Word comes in a language of affection, face to face.

It’s a surprising idea, since Gd had only recently told Miriam and Aharon of these characteristics of Moshe’s prophecy, yet it seems Moshe had to struggle along without it for the overwhelming majority of his time leading the Jewish people.

[I haven’t seen anyone say this, but I find it interesting that the word involved is dibbur, a verb Rashi elsewhere takes as a harsh form of Gd’s speech. I think it plausible the higher forms of prophecy come as a harsh form for a human to experience—because of the gap between the divine and the human—and yet are also the form of prophecy of affection, face to face.

Nor Was It Easy

Moshe himself reminds us of how hard it was to guide the Jewish people. He early on takes on elders and judges to assist him, 1;12, because he could not bear torhachem, masa’achem, or rivchem. Rashi thinks each of the words informs us of a negative quality of the people’s, an idea I will leave for our next sections, on the nature of the Jewish people.

Rambam takes the first two as difficulties Moshe would have had regardless of any negative qualities of the Jews. Torach, their toil, was the challenge of teaching Torah to the entire nation, when each student has to be taught in his/her own way. The Jews could have been perfect, it would have been beyond Moshe (or any person) to teach the Torah to the entire nation.

Masa referred to prayer, in Ramban’s reading, the obligation for a leader to bear the people’s load as a matter of praying for them. I think the burden again lies in seeing the individual within group; were Moshe the only leader praying for them, he would have had to pray for each Jew individually as well as for the whole. The leaders of tens, fifties, etc., (an idea he heard from Yitro, but was too humble to repeat, Ramban says, I think meaning not to brag that even his father in law had ideas worthy of inclusion in the Torah), could pray for some of the necessary matters, while he took on more general ones.

By the beginning of Devarim, Ramban sees Moshe as an innovative leader, alert to the new needs of the next generation, presenting them a Torah they can carry with them into Israel, having come through a lengthy period of being left mostly to his own devices, to find himself at a level where he had thoughts close to those of Gd Himself, as it were. Who needed judges to help with this people.

The People Were No Picnic

Rashi puts more blame on the people for the need for judges. He thinks torhachem meant litigants would find loopholes to drag out court cases (by lying about having new evidence, for Rashi, or by pretending they wanted the improved justice of more judges, a valid concern but only if it was really their concern, where they did it to drag out the case, according to Ramban).

They also made Moshe’s life specifically harder, looking askance at anything he did. His leaving home early sparked talk of marital problems, leaving late led the people to claim he was plotting against them.

Perhaps more surprising, Rashi thinks Moshe left his full review of the people’s sins for this point to avoid their rejecting it. Were he to have admonished them before he conquered Sihon, they would have taken his words as pre-emptive excuses for why he could not bring them to the Land.  For Rashi, all Moshe had done for them in Egypt and the desert did not yet give him enough credibility with the people to also point out where they had gone wrong.

The Needed Remonstration

Onkelos and Ramban agreed to Rashi’s larger point, the opening of Devarim takes a trip down the unfortunate parts of memory lane. Onkelos preceded Rashi in taking the place names in the first verse of the book as references to where they had sinned rather than identifiers of where Moshe’s speech was delivered.

Ramban thinks part of the point of the review was to remind them of Gd’s patience, Gd’s having waited out all these sins, having continued to give them good in the desert, and now being ready to take them into the Land. Comfort within the rebuke, the comfort of knowing of an unbreakable bond with a Creator who gives people time to qualify for more goodness.

The Judges of the People

In Moshe’s appointing judges, 1;13, Rashi saw another failure of the people. Yitro told Moshe to look for nevonim, judges who could draw accurate new insight from existing material, yet Moshe did not find, because 1;15 says he selected hachamim and yedu’im, wise and known.

Worse, Ramban thinks the judges were the ones who had the idea to send spies. He thinks it explains why chapter one puts the story of appointing judges before the Jews leave Sinai and Moshe tells them it is time to go to Israel. Their response, let’s send spies, came from their newly appointed leaders. If we remember Ramban was the one who thought there were valid reasons for these judges, we see he also thought they brought a great downside, misleading them into thinking spies were a good idea.

Instead, the spies sapped the people’s will and readiness to enter the Land, Onkelos says. The Jews use the phrase hemasu et levavenu, melted our hearts, 1;28, and Moshe urges them lo ta’artzun, do not fear or dread them. In both cases, Onkelos has a version of the verb tevar, to break.

The judges the people needed and wanted were not of the quality Moshe had hoped, and became a pivotal reason the people—not easy to lead in the first place—turned away from the remarkable Moshe Rabbenu in favor of spies. Putting Moshe in the position of being denied the highest form of prophecy, leaving him to work on himself throughout the time in the desert, reaching a point where he could know on his own what this next generation needed in terms of Torah and faith as they entered the Land.

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