A Message for Parashat Devarim 2017
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Parashat Devarim presents the opening remarks of Moshe’s final address to Am Yisrael. The generation that left Egypt had deceased, and Moshe was now facing their children, who were poised to soon enter the Land of Israel. Though a cursory reading of the parashah’s general narrative seems to set forth several disparate past experiences which were haphazardly presented by Moshe, a sensitive analysis may instead reveal a pervading theme of confidence and inner strength.
The parashah begins by setting the context. The location: “Across the Jordan in the wilderness in the Aravah opposite Suph between Paran and Tophel and Laban and Hazeroth and Di-Zahav…” (1:2). The date: “It was in the fortieth year in the eleventh month on the first of the month…” (3). And the temporal relevance: “After he had struck down Sihon king of the Amorite who dwelled in Heshbon and Og king of the Bashan…” (4). Following their success in recent battles, Am Yisrael raised their eyes to the horizon and excitedly gazed upon the edge of the Land of Israel. And in that moment Moshe began to feel the nervous pangs of déjà vu.
He immediately recalled the days following Ma’amad Har Sinai:
Hashem our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying, “Long enough you have stayed at this mountain. Turn and journey onward…See I have given the land before you. Come and take hold of the land that God swore to your fathers, to Avraham, to Yisshak and to Yaakov…” (6-8)
As Moshe beheld the optimistic group of young men and women standing before him, he couldn’t help but remember the nearly identical situation which he had experienced nearly forty years earlier. And he then realized that he must now encourage this new generation to learn from the mistakes of their forefathers.
Where should he begin? What point in the nation’s history would best highlight the dangers inherent in their current situation? The incessant complaints of the first generation? Their sin of the golden calf? Moshe had a different plan. He first recounted his personal thoughts from back at the beginning of their journey:
“Oh, how can I carry by myself your trouble and your burden and your disputing? (12)
He then remembered his solution:
And I took the heads of your tribes, wise and knowing men, and I made them heads over you… (15)
What was the relevance of this historical event to Am Yisrael at this time?
Without any explanation, Moshe continued:
And I said to you: “You have come to the high country of the Amorite which Hashem our God is about to give us. See, Hashem your God has given the land before you. Go up, take hold, as Hashem God of your fathers has spoken to you. Be not afraid nor be dismayed.” (20-21)
He then admitted that those words of inspiration never took hold:
And you came forward to me, all of you, and you said, “Let us send before us that they probe the land for us and bring back word to us of the way on which we should go up and the towns into which we should come.” And the matter was good in my eyes… (22-23)
He recalled the punishment for the sin of the meragelim – death to the entire generation, took pause to note the exception of the spies who had set themselves apart – Yehoshua and Calev, and then continued with the highlight reel of their history.
What was Moshe’s core lesson at this time? What was the specific relevance of the judge appointments at this juncture? And what were these people supposed to learn from the sin of the meragelim?
When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable. (Madeleine L’Engle)
Our society lives with the constant thoughts of “never enough.” Global activist Lynne Twist in fact noted that our first waking thought of the day is usually “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is generally “I don’t have enough time.” And the “never enough” syndrome often continues to plague us throughout the day.
In her best-selling book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown posited that the counterapproach to living a life of “never enough” is not about abundance. It is rather what she refers to as “Wholeheartedness.” At the core of Wholeheartedness is vulnerability and worthiness. It is about “facing uncertainty, exposure and emotional risks and knowing that I am enough.” Acknowledging the grim reality, confidently facing the ensuing feelings of vulnerability while still believing that you can achieve is to dare greatly.
* * * *
As Moshe gazed at the fresh generation of Am Yisrael on the brinks of entrance into the Promised Land, he recognized that look in their eyes. He had seen it in their parents’ eyes forty years earlier. It was a look that mixed the excitement of a new adventure with the doubts of uncertainty. Though they truly wanted to conquer the land that had long been promised to their forefathers, they didn’t actually believe that they could do it.
Clearing his throat, Moshe began his lesson by reviewing the past. He validated their feelings of vulnerability, but urged them to achieve something that their forefathers were unable to do. He tasked them to dare greatly.
Typifying his greatness as a leader, Moshe began by professing his own past mistakes in this regard. He first recalled that God’s initial message to the people consisted of words of encouragement – “See I have given the land before you...Come and take hold of the land!” But he then admitted his own feelings of “not enough” at that time, describing how he had felt overwhelmed by the “burden” of single-handedly leading a nation of such magnitude. And he recounted that he had succumbed to the pressure and feelings of incapability. He had complained about the difficulty and then sought to deflect it by delegating the judicial responsibilities which were previously his own.
Moshe continued his story, remembering that as the nation continued their journey he had attempted to raise their confidence by exclaiming: “See, Hashem your God has given the land before you. Go up, take hold…Be not afraid nor be dismayed!” But his message had fallen upon deaf ears. The people couldn’t find the inner strength to overcome their feelings of weakness, so they turned to Moshe and begged him to send scouts ahead of them to Israel. The return of the meragelim furthered the people’s submittal to anxiety. Moshe remembered how they had cowardly “grumbled in their tents” (1:27), as they doubted their ability to conquer the land.
He now revealed to the people standing in front of him why the members of the past generation were unfit to enter the Land of Israel. He subtly explained that a soldier who lacks courage and conviction cannot be trusted to conquer a country. But Moshe reminded them how two men had stood out at that time: Calev and Yehoshua. Possessed by an inner strength to dare greatly, they stared down the fear and overcame their feelings of vulnerability by declaring “We will surely go up and take hold of it, for we will surely prevail over it” (Bemidbar 13:30). Moshe now assured the people that those two men were indeed suited to enter the Land.
The sermon continued. Moshe told how God had several times averted the previous generation from battles with the encountered nations. He contrasted the past to their present situation, reminding the people of their recent success at battle with Sihon and Og. As his talk of encouragement winded to an end, Moshe revealed to the people the content of his recent talk with their future leader, Yehoshua. It was an identical message:
And I charged Yehoshua at that time, saying: “Your own eyes have seen all that Hashem your God did to these two kings. So shall God do to all the kingdoms into which you are about to cross. You shall not fear them, for it is Hashem your God Who does battle for you.” (3:21-22)
As the lesson ended, the message was clear. Moshe advised the “new generation” to stand up to the feelings of weakness and vulnerability in a way that he and the previous generation had failed to do. He encouraged them to “not fear.” And he urged them – and us – to dare greatly.