This shiur is
dedicated in memory of
Dr. William Major, z"l.
honor of the birth of our daughter, Maya Margalit,
ìâãìä ìúåøä, ìçåôä åìîòùéí èåáéí
and Shifra Waxman
By Rabbi Yaakov
What are we to make of the first three
chapters of Sefer Devarim?
They lack the profound discussions of belief and the intricate details of
the commandments that comprise the majority of the book (as recapitulated here
by Moshe for the new generation); at the same time, they do not have the sense
of closure and anticipation that define the last chapters. Instead, Chapters 1-3 appear to be no
more then a random and disconnected collection of historical events from the
forty years of wandering. In his
first comments to Sefer Devarim (1:1), the Ramban suggests the following
rationale for the book's opening:
"These are the words" — the allusion is
to all the precepts found in the whole of the book, beginning with the Ten
After Moshe declares his intention to
expound the Law (1:5), he introduces here a digression which continues until the
verse (4:40), "And you shall keep His statutes…"
The reason for this is that he wishes to
indicate that the Jewish people receive the order to go up and conquer the
Promised Land immediately after getting the Torah, but their sins lead to
various setbacks. After this
digression, however, Moshe reverts to his original purpose, calling all Israel
together and saying, "Hear, Israel, the statutes," (5:1). He then begins to expound the Law, the
Ten Commandments… and then he explicates for them the Unity of God — "Hear,
Israel, Lord our God, Lord is one" — and then all the commandments in this
book. That is why it is explained
that all of the Jewish people are present (1:1, 5:1), since the Torah and its
precepts are to be expounded before all the people, just as it was during the
Revelation at Mount Sinai. Because
he makes such a lengthy introductory digression, Moshe has to begin again from
the starting point, and he thus reverts to his main topic (4:44-45), "And this
is the Law which Moshe set before the Jewish people. These are the testimonies and the
Similarly, at the beginning of
Parashat Va'etchanan (3:24), the Ramban notes:
He concluded his words of reproof on
this note: though your fathers, by their disobedience, forfeited the Promised
Land, you – the children – will enter it and possess it, as long as you do not
follow your fathers' example by rebelling against G-d. Therefore, Moshe prefaces [the main
discussion] with a warning (4:2) not to add to or diminish from any of the
Using the Ramban's introduction as a
guide, we can outline the structure of Sefer Devarim as
(A) Words of reproof (1:6-4:40)
(B) Fundamentals of faith; the statutes and the ordinances
(C) Renewal of the covenant; the coda
Apparently, the three opening chapters,
with their selective restatement of the events of the previous forty years,
provide a necessary and purposeful lesson for the Jewish people, without which
Moshe cannot address the fundamental issues of faith and belief that comprise
the main section of the book. The
pointed and charged retelling of the history of the Jewish people in the desert
serves the following function: to bring the nation to the edge of the Land of
Israel, while simultaneously placing them on the edge of a historically and
theologically fateful decision.
Without these two factors, the geographical and the historical/
theological, Moshe's sermonizing for the remainder of the book would be devoid
of context and meaning. Chapter 4
outlines the theological stakes of the decision that the people have to take,
and it will be discussed next week.
This week, we will study the first three chapters of the book and outline
how Moshe cleverly interweaves time and special markers to accomplish these
Looking at the first three chapters of
Sefer Devarim in accordance with the idea that they create the historical
and geographical context for the remainder of the book, we quickly identify two
major categories: points of failure and roads to success. Chapter 1 describes the places where the
Jewish people fail in their mission.
The tone changes from Chapter 2 onwards: Moshe contrasts the past
missteps with the victory of the second generation in conquering
The book begins by declaring, "These are
the words which Moshe spoke…" Immediately, the Torah hits us with a
salvo of apparently irrelevant geographic and historical details, and Moshe's
speech only begins five verses later.
From a theological standpoint, however, these details recall well-known
junctures in the history of the people.
The digression of 1:2 — "Eleven days from Chorev, by way of Mount Se'ir,
to Kadesh Barne'a" — appears to provide a mundane and insignificant geographical
fact. However, it serves to draw
the reader's attention to the significance of the time and place of the message,
by bringing the national failure at Kadesh Barne'a to mind. In contrast to that
catastrophe stand the expectations and demands of Chorev. The Plains of Mo'av, where the Jewish
people are presently located, can potentially become another Chorev, should they
choose to reaffirm the covenant; or they may become another Kadesh Barne'a,
another place fated to be remembered as a national failure. Indeed, this is how the midrash
(Sifrei 1:1-2, paraphrased by Rashi) understands the underlying message
of the book's beginning. Had the
Jewish people behaved meritoriously, they would have entered the land in a
matter of days. However, because
they foul up, God turns the forty days of the Spies' exploration into forty
years of wandering. Thus, Moshe
rebukes them for their sins, from the first murmurings at the Sea of Reeds,
through the making of the Golden Calf, lusting for meat at Kivrot Ha-ta'ava, the
rebellion of Korach, disrespectful speech about the manna, and the debacle of
With this understanding, we now can see
the reasons for what Moshe chooses to include in the opening chapter and the
order of its presentation. The
short speech of 1:6-8 sets up a paradigm for how the Jewish people are to
progress into the land. This
creates the effect that the rest of Chapters 1-3 is nothing but a diversion from
the ideal, to which Moshe returns only in Chapter 4.
Afterwards, we come across the section
of appointing judges for the nation (1:9-18). This awkward inclusion appears to be
disconnected from the rest of the chapter.
However, given the chapter's thrust of placing the blame for the setbacks
at the feet of the entire people, we understand that the inclusion of this
section serves to diminish Moshe's culpability in what will follow. By verse 18, the focus of the text has
been moved from the charismatic Moshe to the new national heads. In the narrative of the Spies that
follows, the people's initiative (v. 22) leads to sending the Spies. The choice that is placed before the
nation is stark – either to enter the bountiful land, with its overtones of
Garden of Eden, or to remain in "the vast and dreadful desert" (v. 19). Despite the cajoling, it is the people
who opt to remain in the wilderness.
The drastic consequences of their decision can only be fully appreciated
with historical hindsight. The sole survivors of the entire
generation, Kalev and Yehoshua, come to symbolize the unrealized potential of
the generation and its leaders.
Kalev is cast as the anti-Israel – he represents what the ideal Israelite
should have done (vv. 35-36).
Yehoshua becomes the anti-Moshe, leading God's nation into the Promised
Land, while Moshe himself shares the fate of the generation he led out of Egypt
(vv. 37-38). Due to the nation's
failure, he will not enter the land; leader and people remain united. The chapter concludes with the ill-fated
attempt to enter the land despite God's disapproval (vv. 41-45), stressing that
the decree not to enter the land cannot be reversed. For the reader, Kadesh Barne'a
symbolizes the nascent people's greatest failure.
In Chapters 2 and 3, the Jewish people
begin to move forward again. At
first glance, these chapters only provide insignificant additional details of
the historical events hat occur in Israel's fortieth year in the
wilderness. However, several themes
emerge from this retelling, which demonstrate that the purpose of this
recounting is theological, not historical.
First, they travel at God's command; their tacit obedience contrasts with
the rebellion at Kadesh Barne'a a generation earlier. For their efforts, they begin to meet
with some success. Second,
throughout the narrative, the Jewish people either "go forward," "pass through,"
or "move back." Unlike in the
static Chapter 1, the people are portrayed here as they should be: dynamic,
always moving forward (at least, while in the desert). Historical events recorded earlier (see
Bamidbar 20-21, 32) are given a different twist to advance the
theological points that Moshe is making.
No failures are mentioned.
Even the argument between the tribes of Reuven and Gad with Moshe over
settling Transjordan is excised from the retelling; instead, the conquest of
Transjordan is presented as a prerequisite for conquering Kena'an proper.
Another distinct theme emerges from the
retelling: throughout, Moshe ironically contrasts the failure of the Jewish
people to occupy the territory presented to them for the taking at Kadesh
Barne'a with the success of other nations in conquering their lands – even if it
involved wresting them away from giants (see 2:10-12, 2:20-23)! A parenthetical passage, 2:13-16,
informs us that the time in the wilderness has removed all the members of the
recalcitrant generation from the Jewish people; this passage is then followed by
a further Divine directive to continue advancing. The removal of each impediment to
arriving at the Land is noted, with the corresponding imperative to
In the next stage, we encounter the
campaigns against Sichon and Og.
Again, the motif of moving on towards the Land of Israel dominates (see
2:24, 3:1). Indeed, the casus
belli for war with Sichon is his refusal to allow the nation to pass through
on its way to Kena'an. In this
context, the battles serve as a rehearsal, a dry run for the untested Israelite
army before they go to war in Kena'an proper. Their success should only encourage the
people to make the proper choice in Chapter 4.
In conclusion, the first three chapters
describe the journey of the Jewish people towards the Land of Israel not from
the historical vantage point, but from the theological. They are a people who are meant to move
– beginning in Egypt and ending in Israel.
The course of their journey mirrors their faithfulness, or lack thereof,
to God and the commitment they make at Chorev. Standing now on the plains of Mo'av, the
people are not just observers, but participants. They are to decide how the
journey will progress. Through the
retelling of their history, Moshe hope to emphasize the lessons of the past, so
that they can be absorbed into the national consciousness and thereby influence
the decisions that the people will make in the future.