Fulfilling Our Potential

Devarim By :  Jonathan Milgram Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics Posted On Sep 28, 2012 / 5772 | Torah Commentary

When the end of the week arrives and we settle into our Friday night routine of rituals, I often try to encapsulate in a few short sentences what I think is the main thought or idea in the parashah so that my children leave the table with a “takeaway” lesson. I engage in this activity not only because the iPod generation prefers short explanatory messages as opposed to full-blown homiletic discourses on the weekly reading, but also because I honestly believe that the overarching theme of a weekly Torah portion—when clearly, concisely, and meaningfully explained—can have a potentially transformative impact on an individual, as the message of this week’s parashah has had on me over the years. While I admit that my discussion below is not just a few short sentences and the audience is not made up of children, the takeaway of my piece is (just in case the impatient contemporary reader wishes to stop now) that when opportunity knocks—and it seems that everything is in your favor and God is on your side—grab it and go with it. Don’t make the mistake made by the generation of the Exodus. For more details, keep reading . . .

First, a summary of some specifics: Parashat Devarim begins the fifth and final book of the Torah of the same name, in English known as Deuteronomy. It begins a series of discourses by Moses. The setting is the land of Moav at the end of the Israelites’ decades-long journey through the desert. The first part of Moses’s initial discourse, verses 1:6 to 3:29—comprising almost our entire parashah and the first verses of next week’s reading—is adequately described by Jeffrey Tigay in The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (Philadelphia, 1996) as a “Retrospective on the Forty-Year Sojourn in the Wilderness and the Lessons of that Period.” Moses’s address tackles the themes of submission to divine will versus rebellion against it, and the implications of each. He accuses the people of not having taken advantage of the opportunity set before them to conquer and settle the land of Canaan. They did not obey God’s word, a fact that led to the ultimate demise of the Exodus generation.

The address begins by Moses retelling how God commanded the Israelites to enter and conquer the “Promised Land,” stating, “See, I place the land at your disposal (natati lifneichem). Go, take possession of the land . . . ” (1:8). As pointed out by Tigay, the Hebrew “natati lifneichem” means to “‘place at your disposal,’ ‘deliver into your control’ . . . [t]he past tense of the verb implies that the giving is already complete, thus expressing certainty” (9). That is to say, the Israelites’ victory over the native peoples was already divinely promised. God was on their side. Despite this basic assurance, however, the Israelites refused to enter. Instead of capitalizing on the opportunity set before them to finally end their desert wandering and enter the land, they decided not to trust the word of God. They trusted the word of mere mortals, the scouts who spied out the land and gave a damaging report about the state of affairs there.

Significantly, the details of the negative report are not mentioned here. A comment here would incriminate the scouts, and Moses’s goal at this point in the narrative was to remind the people that they, of their own volition, did not follow God’s word; they rejected the Almighty’s benevolent gift of entry into the land. Accordingly, Moses only refers to the peoples’ response to the scouts’ report: “What kind of place are we going to? Our kinsmen have taken the heart out of us saying, ‘We saw there a people stronger and taller than we, large cities with walls sky-high, and even Anakites [giants]” (Deut. 1:28), thereby emphasizing that he faults them (Tigay, 16). Ultimately, this generation of Israelites missed their great chance to enter the land and rebuild the Jewish nation after centuries of Egyptian servitude.

God’s response—to have that rebellious generation of Israelites die in the wilderness instead of ever enter the land—engendered the peoples’ counterresponse: they attempted to enter the land without God’s support. They failed to conquer it on their own, however, and were defeated by the Amorites. They marched back into the wilderness with the realization that they had lost their opportunity. Despite the fact that God was on their side initially—and even though at the right time the generation of the Exodus would have conquered the land with relative ease—they did not, in the end, merit entering the land. The shortsightedness—they did not recognize when everything was perfectly in place—plagued the People of Israel and disabled them from seizing the opportunity placed before them.

All too often, we also do not recognize when we are offered opportunities for advancement, positive change in our lives, and redemption from our contemporary enslavements. Moving ahead requires not only having faith in oneself and in the path that God sets before him or her, but acting on it. Shakespeare’s character Brutus puts it aptly in his succinct statement when speaking figuratively of a “tide” in the life of humans in act 4 of Julius Caesar:

And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

For Brutus, capitalizing on the “current,” or the “high tide,” ensures that one will move on, advance, remain afloat, and travel on to great things; by not grabbing the tide when it comes, though, one misses opportunities and may even sink.

The major shortcoming of the Exodus generation was that it did not embrace what was set out before it to take. Although ultimately this generation’s descendants inherited and built up the Land, there remains something very tragic about the story of a generation that, although given opportunity, failed to fulfill its potential destiny. The generation of the Exodus died in the wilderness before accomplishing the goal that the People set when they initially escaped from Egypt. When I go over this week’s parashah with my children, it is this point that I will emphasize: take hold of opportunity when it comes around for not always will it ever present itself again.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.