Taking Two to Tango

Devarim By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jul 9, 2013 / 5773

This coming Shabbat, we begin the fifth and final book of Torah as we read Parashat Devarim, the opening of the book of Deuteronomy. Moses addresses the People in Moab, just as the next generation under the leadership of Joshua is about to enter the Land. It is both a time for retrospection and introspection. The narrative of the Israelites and laws of Torah are repeated as Moses delivers his final charge. Interestingly, one midrash from Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:6 compares the word devarim (words) to devorim (bees). Namely, Moses’s stinging critique of the Israelites is likened to that of a bee. Just as a bee’s sting causes its own death, so too does Moses trigger his own end in taking the People to task. One senses Moses’s frustration bordering on contempt as he laments both the People’s disobedience and his own inability to enter the Promised Land. Where is such a message conveyed most vividly?

Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor draws our attention to Deuteronomy 1:37–38, in which Moses declares, “Because of you the Lord was incensed with me too.” To what is Moses referring? The B’khor Shor writes,

Because you were people of little faith I should have explained explicitly that I [Moses] would bring forth water from the rock. Instead, I [Moses] said, “from this rock shall we bring forth water for you?!?” And you responded, one could not possibly think that water would flow from a rock—it is a coincidence! So for this reason God was strict. For if you had interpreted my words the way they were intended—namely, “that you would think that God will do a miracle like this for you and we will bring forth water from this rock”—just as God ended up doing. If so, then you would have seen it was done at the commandment of God. And God would not have been so strict. Because I didn’t explain carefully, God was strict [with me]. That is the meaning of “because of you.”

In the peshat (literal sense) of Torah, it seems Moses is blaming the People for his impatient response of striking the rock (rather than talking to it) and for the subsequent punishment of being denied entry into Israel. Our commentator, however, succeeds in giving us a more nuanced picture. Reading between the lines, he imagines Moses not only blaming the People but also himself. Moses, in the imagination of the B’khor Shor, reprimands himself for not being clear enough in his message. Had Moses explicitly said that the water would be the result of the command of God, it could have birthed a very different reality. God would have been sanctified in that moment, and Moses would have entered the Promised Land. Certainly, Moses’s bitterness and keen desire to take the People to task is justified. Our commentator, though, succeeds in painting a thoughtful and sophisticated portrait of an experienced and wise leader. Both the shepherd and the flock are responsible together. Neither can “go it alone.”

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