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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Devarim: Words and Things

Moses stands on the bank of the River Jordan. His journey has ended. He isn't going to cross over to the promised land. But before he dies, he addresses the people in a series of sermons, or classes. These final speeches summarize his career, and the laws that he's bequeathed to the nation. These teaching become the book of Deuteronomy.

The official Hebrew name for the book is Devarim. In Biblical Hebrew, Devarim is a fascinating word. It means words. But it also means things. Philosophers like me are obsessed about the relationship between words and things; between language and the world; between the things we represent and the symbols we use to represent them - and yet both sides of this fascinating relationship, both words and their referents, are called, in Hebrew, Devarim. To me this raises a fascinating question. When Moses speaks these devarim to describe his life, is there any sort of gap between the words he uses and the way things really were? To what extent are we learning the facts, and to what extent are we merely hearing one person's perspective on those facts (even if that person is God's most trusted servant)? The very title of the book leaves these questions hanging in the air.

In this week's reading, those questions about the book of Devarim are particularly salient. Moses tells us the story of the ten spies - a national calamity that led to forty years of wandering in the wilderness. And yet the account we hear from the mouth of Moses differs from the account we just recently read in the book of Numbers. We are straightaway caught in the ambiguity of devarim: are these words or are these things? Is this how Moses saw things, or is this the way things really happened? Moreover, is there some way to reconcile the conflicting narratives of Deuteronomy and Numbers? Is there some way to make peace between devarim and devarim; words and things?

Let's just list some of the most stark differences between the story of the spies as we find it in the two books.

  1. In the book of Numbers, sending spies to scout out the land is presented as God's idea. But, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells us that it was the people's initiative, and that Moses decided to endorse it. Nothing to do with God.

  2. In the book of Numbers, as the spies deliver their pessimistic report, and the people fall into panic, it is Calev and Joshua who speak up. Moses and Aaron remain silent. Indeed, they fall on their faces, seemingly in despair. But, in the book of Deuteronomy, we're told that Moses was vocal.

  3. Finally, in the book of Numbers, God expresses no anger at Moses over the incident of the spies. Moses is punished, later on, for a completely different incident: the mysterious event with the rock that he hit. But, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is prevented from entering the promised land, not because he hit the rock, but because he sent the spies.

I am not interested in critical scholarship that puts these differences down to the theory that the Torah was written by multiple authors over multiple generations; only later to be woven into a single text. If that's really what you believe, then the final editor did a very bad job. These discrepancies are blatant, and the conflicting narratives are not separated by very much intervening narrative. We've only just read this story in the book of Numbers, and now we're hearing it again. If the editors were trying to create a coherent whole, they could have done much better.

In line with my Orthodoxy, I relate to the first four books of the Torah as the closest possible approximation to the unmediated word of God. This fifth book records the words of Moses, but then again, God included this book in His Torah. So, I cannot allow that there are outright contradictions between any two books of the Pentateuch. Moreover, even if the book of Deuteronomy reflects the perspective of Moses, we have to give that tremendous weight, because Moses was the greatest of all prophets, and because his perspective was ultimately included in the Written Torah itself; in other words, his perspective was endorsed by God.

Rashi cites a Midrash to solve our first point of conflict. Careful attention to God's commandment in the book of Numbers reveals that it wasn't necessarily a commandment at all. God says "שלך לך", which literally means, "send for yourself." Rashi reads this as, "send if you want to send." Indeed, Rashi goes to some lengths to demonstrate that this is no Midrashic fancy, but a plausible way to translate these words.


Accordingly, we can say, in line with the book of Deuteronomy, that the idea of the spies came from the people, and received Moses' endorsement, and we can also say, in line with the book of Numbers, that God told Moses that he could, indeed, send the spies, if he really wanted to. But if Rashi is right, why does the book of Numbers hide from us the extent to which Moses was involved in sending the spies, and why does the book of Deuteronomy hide the fact that God signed off on the plan? To these questions we'll return.

Now for the second point of conflict. If the book of Numbers had been suppressed, and all we had was the book of Deuteronomy, then Moses could be fairly accused of air-brushing out the brave speeches of Calev and Joshua. Indeed, one could accuse him of rewriting history; pretending that he hadn't fallen silently on his face. But, in actual fact, the book of Deuteronomy sits in the very same scroll as the book of Numbers. Moses was silencing nobody. He knew that we would have just read the account of Calev and Joshua and their eloquent words in the book of Numbers. He knew that we would have read already about his face lying silently on the ground. And so we have to come to the following conclusion. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses explains to us what his very dramatic act of falling face first to the ground was supposed to say.

In this book of words and things, Moses wants us to understand that a person can speak without using words at all. He is teaching us to be sensitive to the multiple modes of communication in which people speak, not merely with words or sounds. Moreover, perhaps he is teaching us that a teacher speaks through his disciples. When Calev or Joshua speak, Moses speaks through them too.

All of this Moses teaches us, in the book of Deuteronomy, by repackaging his silent actions, and by repackaging the speech of his students, which we read in black white just a few weeks ago, placing words in his own mouth.

I also have a suggestion as to how we should resolve the final point of tension.

I'm not the first to think that God seems overly harsh, in the book of Numbers, for punishing Moses so severely regarding the incident with the rock. Moreover, it's not even clear what he did wrong. Was it that he hit the rock, when he should have spoken to it? If so, it's a little bit odd that the verses don't tell us, explicitly, that he didn't talk to it. Even if he also hit it, for all we know, he spoke to it too. Moreover, he had been told to hit a rock to bring forth water in the past. And now it becomes such a terrible crime? Or was it because he shouted at the Jewish people? It just isn't clear, and it doesn't seem fair.

In what follows, I tie together a number of suggestions from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Hirsch, the Abarbanel, and something of my own. Perhaps the real reason why Moses was punished was because Moses needed to be replaced. And, perhaps the reason why Moses had to be replaced was because a new generation had arisen which had its own distinctive needs.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Sure, a generation of Egyptian slaves will be happy to see water beaten from a rock. They only understand the language of force. But the new generation were born into freedom. They had to learn and they had the ability to understand a different kind of language; the soft power of verbal persuasion. They had to see that water could be spoken out of a rock. But Moses was better at teaching the lesson that had to be taught to the first generation. Just as he hit the rock in the past, he hit it again in the second generation. Perhaps he wasn't cut out for this newer breed of student. Moses wasn't really being punished for what happened at the rock. Rather, what happened at the rock was a manifestation of the fact that the people required new leadership.

Had it not been for the sin of the spies, Moses could have led the first generation into Israel - the generation for whom the leadership style of Moses was so well cut out. But as soon as he allowed the spies to scout out the land, and deliver their pessimistic report, he had, in a sense, sealed his own fate. And that's why God's anger at the behavior of the people in the incident of the spies spilled over onto Moses.

Why do the two accounts differ so much? I would suggest the following: God doesn't want to tell us explicitly what Moses did wrong. In God's narration of the story, in the book of Numbers, God doesn't tell us (at least not explicitly) that it was up to Moses whether or not to send the spies. God takes some of the blame. Moreover, God doesn't tell us why Moses was to be punished. Instead, we're told that it had something to do with the rock, but we're not told what. In fact, after the incident at the rock, God says, that Moses and Aaron won't enter the land, "because you did not have faith to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel".

But now we know what this means. Had Moses refused to spy out the land; had he counselled the people to have faith that the land was as good as God had promised, and that the conquest would be easy with the backing of heaven, then this incident, many years later, with the rock, which showed that Moses was no longer the right leader for the people, would never have occurred. God didn't need to make things clearer than that. It was between him and Moses. No need to air dirty laundry in public. Likewise, perhaps Aaron had failed to have faith and to sanctify the name of God in the eyes of the public with his involvement in the Golden Calf. But in actual fact, the reason for their punishment is none of our business.

But Moses, when he talks to us directly, is forthright and honest. He made a mistake. It had nothing to do with God. He could have talked the people out of the mission of the spies. But by sending them in, by giving this mission his blessing, he made it the case that a new generation would arise in the desert, and so he sealed his own fate. God might not volunteer this personal information. But Moses does.

And now we have a coherent story. But one question remains. If the only issue was that Moses lacked the style of leadership required by the new generation, then why insist that he die in the desert? Why not simply ask him to retire? This question sheds new light on a sequence of verses that we mentioned last week. As soon as Moses was told that he was about to die, he immediately requested that God appoint a successor. Last week, we explored the suggestion that this request was a manifestation of the love that Moses had for the Jewish people. He couldn't bare to die without the comfort of seeing, for himself, a new leader in place. But this week, another possibility emerges. Perhaps Moses thought that God would let him live, so long as he simply retired; so long as a new leader took over. And indeed, I end this week's post with a Midrash that makes just that suggestion.

We join the Midrash after a very long dialogue between God and Moses in which Moses pleads in many ingenious ways to live and to enter the land of Israel:

[God] said to him, “So has it come up in [My] mind, and so is it the way of the world: every generation has its expositors, every generation has its administrators, every generation has its leaders. Up until now it has been your lot to serve in front of Me, but now your lot is over and the time of your disciple Joshua to serve [Me] has arrived.” He said to him, “My Master, if I am dying because of Joshua, let me go and become his disciple! [He can be the leader!]” He said to him, “If you want to do that, go and do it.” Moses arose and went early to Joshua's door. Now Joshua was seated expounding [Torah], so Moses stopped to bend his stature and put his hand on his mouth [to stop him from interrupting Joshua]. But Joshua's eyes were hidden... When Israel came to Moses' door to study Torah, they asked and said, “Where did Moses our master [go]?” [Others] said to them, “He got up early and went to the door of Joshua.” [So] they went and found him at the door of Joshua, with Joshua sitting and Moses standing. They said to Joshua, “What has come over you that Moses our master stands, while you sit?” When he raised his eyes and saw [Moses], [Joshua] immediately rent his clothes. Then sobbing and weeping, he said, “O my master, my master! My father, my father and lord!” Israel said to Moses, “Moses our master, teach us Torah.” He said to them, “I am not allowed.” They said to him, “We are not leaving you.” A heavenly voice came forth and said to them, “Learn from Joshua.” [So] they took upon themselves to sit and learn from the mouth of Joshua. Joshua sat at the head with Moses to his right and with [Elazar and Ithamar] to his left. So he sat and expounded in the presence of Moses. Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said that Rabbi Yohanan said, “When Joshua opened [his discourse,] saying, ‘Blessed be the One who has chosen the righteous,” they took the traditions of wisdom from Moses and gave them to Joshua. Now Moses did not know what Joshua was expounding. After Israel arose [from the session], they said to Moses, “[Explain] the Torah [we have just heard] to us.” He said to them, “I do not know what to answer you.” So Moses our master was stumbling and falling. It was at that time that he said, “Master of the universe, up to now I requested life, but now here is my soul given over to You.”

Consistent with our reading of the story, Moses didn't have to die for what he did. Indeed, he did very little wrong. But each generation needs its own leader to relate to in its own way. God would have let Moses live as a leader emeritus. But Moses couldn't be a leader emeritus. His presence made life too difficult for Joshua, and the indignity of not being able to understand the Torah as it was expressed in the vernacular of the new generation was too painful to bear. A different version of the same story has a slightly different ending:

And Moses said to [Joshua], "My Rabbi, come with me." They went out for a walk. Moses walked on the left side of Joshua. They entered the tent of meeting. The pillar of cloud descended and it interposed between them. When the pillar of cloud withdrew, Moses went to Joshua and said, "What did the word [of God] say to you?" Joshua said, "When the word was revealed unto you, did I know what it had said to you?" At that moment Moses wailed and said, "[I would rather die] a hundred deaths and not [experience] one [moment] of jealousy."

The Rabbinic imagination knew that Moses couldn't be leader emeritus. This wasn't because Moses was too arrogant (God forbid) to follow another but, according to one tradition, it was because the words of the Torah were so dear to him that he couldn't bear to be estranged from them, failing to understand the Torah wisdom of a new generation; and, according to the other tradition, it was because Moses was too holy to want to feel pangs of jealousy for another. And so the book of words, devarim, was first spoken by a man so holy that he couldn't live without words of Torah and words of prophecy.

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