This portion marks the beginning of the final book of the Torah. After leading the Children of Israel valiantly through the desert for forty years, Moses prepares to part from the people. What follows in the book of Deuteronomy is his farewell speech, delivered over the final six weeks of his life.
As the Israel Bible points out, Moses’s speech touches on a variety of topics he feels are important to review before the nation enters the Promised Land. There is something in this book for everyone — young and old, rich and poor, priest and layman — demonstrating that everyone has a place in the Land of Israel.
The portion of Devarim focuses on a number of incidents which took place during Moses’s tenure. It deals with the division of leadership responsibility first mentioned in Exodus 18; the sin of the spies which took place in Numbers 13-14; a number of battles and interactions with foreign states; and the inheritance of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh, on the east bank of the Jordan River, which we first learned about last week, in Numbers 32.
Journey in Review: Leaving Mount Sinai
Moses speaks to the people of Israel in the final weeks of their sojourn in the desert. He reminds them of God’s promise to their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give the land to their descendants.
He then begins with a review of the leadership structure put in place during his father-in-law Jethro’s visit, although Jethro’s name is not mentioned. Instead, Moses explains that the nation had become too numerous for him to deal with the problems of individual. He tells of how he had turned to the nation to propose a multi-tiered system of courts, where leaders of the communities would sit in judgment over tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands. According to Moses, the people accepted his proposal, and he instructed the newly-appointed judges to serve righteously, showing no favoritism, and coming to Moses himself when a matter was too complex or unclear.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Jethro’s name is not mentioned in this retelling of events? In Exodus 18, where the story is first recounted, Jethro plays a significant role in this proposal, and it is Moses who needs to be convinced of its benefits!
The Spies Revisited
Moses now turns to discuss the reason the Israelites are still in the wilderness. 38 years earlier, Moses reminds them, the people had approached him asking to send spies to check out the land they were about to inherit, ostensibly to form a battle plan. Moses had selected 12 leaders from among them for the task, who he says brought proof of the glory of the Promised Land, but the people rejected God’s gift, saying it would be impossible to conquer a land inhabited by giants.
According to Moses, he then tried to calm the people, assuring them that with God’s help, they could accomplish anything. The people did not believe him, though, and despaired of ever reaching the Land of Israel.
God heard the complaints of the people, Moses continues, and decided to wipe out the generation that slandered the land, save Caleb and Joshua, who alone spoke well of the land. Upon hearing the news, Moses reminds the people, the generation of the desert regretted their rejection and tried to enter the land anyway, but it was too late. God did not help them, and those who tried were wiped out. The survivors were destined to wander the desert for forty years, slowly dying out, so only their children, those now standing before Moses, could enter the land.
The Israel Bible points out that this account emphasizes how special the Land of Israel is. Even the spies, who came back with slander, determined to bad-mouth the Promised Land, could not help but praise its bounty.
Points to Ponder
There are many discrepancies between the account of the spies described here by Moses and that recorded in Numbers 13-14. Why do you think that is? Why might Moses have opted to modify the details for this audience?
New Neighbors and Enemies
Moses notes for the people a number of nations with whom the Israelites had various interactions over the years. First he speaks of the descendants of Esau and of Moab, whom the Children of Israel encountered early in their journey. God at the time instructed the Israelites not to wage war against either nation, as God would not be giving them their land. Rather, they were to pay for the food and water the nations provided.
38 years later, after the generation of the desert had perished, the Israelites encountered the Ammonites, whom Moses also told them not to attack. Moses also points out that each of these three nations is not the original inhabitant if its current homeland. Rather, different giant nations lived there and were driven out by God for the benefit of these three nations.
Not every encounter with other nations turned out to be peaceful. Moses reminds the Children of Israel of their recent battles with Sihon and Og, powerful kings who refused to allow the Israelites to cross their land. Instead, with God’s help, the Children of Israel conquered their lands.
The Israel Bible explains why God instructed the Israelites not to engage the Moabites in war. Both they and the Ammonites are descendants of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. When Abraham and his family fled Canaan in a famine and came to Egypt, he asked Sarah to pretend to be his sister so that he would not be murdered so she could be taken for her beauty. Lot knew the truth, but protected his aunt and uncle’s secret. The Israelites’ respect for his descendants’ borders is the result of this act of nobility. From here we can appreciate that the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel is based on friendship, kindness and brotherhood.
Points to Ponder
Moses seems to be jumping from topic to topic in his address. Why do you think these exploits would be among the first things he would want to raise with the people?
Reuben, Gad and Half of Manasseh
The portion ends by reiterating the establishment of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh’s portion on the eastern side of the Jordan River. The two and a half tribes were given the lands of Sihon and Og in Numbers 32. However, Moses reminds the nation, at the time, he instructed these tribes to build homes for their families and pens for their animals, then enter the Promised Land ahead of their brethren to lead the charge of conquest. Until the rest of the land is conquered, the tribes on the eastern side of the river will not be able to settle down, either.
Moses also tells the nation what he told Joshua: God will be with the nation, just as they saw He was until now. They need not fear their enemies, for God will fight their battles.
The Israel Bible points to the similarities between Moses’s call to the tribes of Reuben and Gad to serve their nation and Israel’s modern-day army. To this day, Israel drafts its youth, at age 18, into the IDF, typically for three years of service. The State calls on the Jews of the diaspora to do their part, too, asking them to contribute to Israel’s vitality, growth and security.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Moses reminds the people of an event that just happened?