“Schoolchildren” Parashat Devarim 5774

It happened to me when I went to see “Gallipoli”. In the last scene, the hero, played by a young Mel Gibson, charges into battle facing certain death. The final frame freezes on the hero being hit by bullets and falling backwards. After the lights went on, I sat there in the theatre, frozen, with my mouth open for what seemed like an eternity.

One can only imagine how Am Yisrael must have felt after they received the Torah at Mount Sinai. The revelation was a full frontal assault on every one of their senses. According to the Midrash, each time Hashem spoke the effect was so overwhelming that every person died, and they had to be miraculously resuscitated again and again. And like me after “Gallipoli”, Am Yisrael, could not bring themselves to “leave the theatre”. They remained camped at the foot of the mountain for nearly a year before continuing their journey to the Land of Israel. In Parashat Devarim Moshe recalls telling them that the time has come to move on [Devarim 1:6-7]: “Hashem spoke to us at [Sinai], saying, ‘You have dwelt long enough (rav lachem) at this mountain. Turn and travel towards [Israel]’”. Rav Shlomo Luntschitz, writing in the “Kli Yakar”, notes that Moshe’s words are eerily similar to words he uttered years earlier when Korach revolted against his leadership [Bemidbar 16:7]: “You have taken enough upon yourselves (rav lachem), sons of Levi”. The Kli Yakar  concludes from this analogy that just as Moshe was castigating Korach for revolting against his leadership, he was also castigating Am Yisrael for spending too much time at Mount Sinai. The Kli Yakar accuses Am Yisrael of “despising the Land of Israel”. The fact that Moshe had to push them to continue on their journey was a stain.

The explanation of the Kli Yakar is only one side of the coin. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [115b] comes to a conclusion that is the exact opposite of the Kli Yakar – that Am Yisrael should never have wanted to leave Mount Sinai! The Talmud accuses Am Yisrael of acting “like schoolchildren running out of class”. They could not get away from that mountain fast enough. “Good thing we got out of there when we did! I was afraid we were going to get another 613 commandments”.

The explanations of the Kli Yakar and of the Talmud both suffer from one critical flaw. During their forty-year sojourn in the desert, Am Yisrael camped wherever Hashem told them to camp. They were led by a pillar of cloud and they followed that cloud meticulously. Whenever the cloud moved, so did they. Indeed the prophet Jeremiah [2:2] lauds them for this blind obedience. Am Yisrael left Mount Sinai when the cloud left Mount Sinai [Bemidbar 10:11-12]: “On the twentieth of the second month in the second year, the cloud rose up… The Children of Israel traveled on their journeys from the Sinai desert, and the cloud settled in the desert of Paran”. Had the cloud left earlier, Am Yisrael would have left earlier. Had it stayed longer, they would have remained camped at Mount Sinai. How can the Kli Yakar blame them for overstaying their welcome, and how can the Talmud accuse them of “running away like schoolchildren”, when they were only following explicit Divine directions?

We can distil the above discussion into a famous Jewish Question: Was leaving Mount Sinai good for the Jews or bad for the Jews? Even the Kli Yakar isn’t sure of the answer. He brings the explanation of the Talmud and he attempts to explain why leaving Mount Sinai was simultaneously good and bad for the Jews. Luleh mistefina, I’d like to offer an explanation of my own, but first we need to ask one more question.

Let’s return to Parashat Devarim. Between the verse in which Hashem tells Am Yisrael to leave Mount Sinai until the verse in which Am Yisrael actually leave Mount Sinai, lie thirteen completely extraneous verses. These verses all pertain to judicial procedure, and include the appointment of judges and policemen and other related halachot, such as the prohibition of taking bribes. The commentators disagree as to when these laws were actually given. Some explain that these verses correspond to Yitro’s visit, which occurred immediately prior to the revelation at Sinai. Other commentators identifies these verses with the episode of the “Murmurers (Mit’on’nim)”, which occurred after Am Yisrael had already left Mount Sinai. It is not enough that these thirteen verses interrupt the flow of the story at hand. No matter which commentator you ask, these verses are completely out of place. Why do they appear at this particular juncture?

Before we proceed, it is vital to understand that the Book of Devarim is qualitatively different than the first four books of the Torah. The Book of Devarim serves as a sort of “last will and testament” of Moshe Rabbeinu. By reviewing his tenure as their leader, he prepares Am Yisrael for the next stage in their national development: a sovereign nation on their own soil. When Moshe juxtaposes in the Book of Devarim two topics in a way that is historically incorrect, he does so in order to teach a valuable lesson. Which lesson was Moshe trying to teach by inserting the laws of courts and judges in the story of the departure from Mount Sinai?

After the revelation at Mount Sinai, Am Yisrael were mesmerized by the mountain. The things that they had experienced there were indescribable. The problem was that that was all that Mount Sinai was: a mountain. A big rock. Immediately after the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, the mountain lost all vestige of holiness. Animals were permitted to graze upon it. Am Yisrael, however, were content to stay there forever. Hashem waited for them to become bored. He waited for them to become proactive, to tell Him “OK. We get it. Now let’s go to Israel”. But they never become bored. Hashem has to physically pull them away from the mountain by moving the cloud. Immediately after they leave Sinai, Am Yisrael complain in a way that unequivocally reveals their mindset. They complain Moshe [Bemidbar 11:5] “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic”. Ah, the nostalgia, the reminiscing of good times. Hold on a minute – these people didn’t want to go to Israel – they wanted to go back to Egypt! Wasn’t Egypt the place where they were brutally beaten and murdered, the place where their wives were mercilessly raped and their children thrown in the ocean? This is a clear case of what psychologists call “selective memory”, when a human remembers what he wants to remember, choosing to forget embarrassing or painful memories. Copious research shows time and time gain that memories are subject to change. And the problem was that after the revelation, Mount Sinai was also only a memory. By remaining at Sinai, Am Yisrael were clinging to a memory, one that could very well be fashioned or rewritten. And so Moshe weaves a message into the description of the departure from Mount Sinai: Judaism is not a religion about what was. Judaism is a religion about what is and what needs to be. It is religion that requires continuous action. It is a religion of never-ending rules and regulations. To enforce these rules it is necessary to create a judiciary system with rules and regulations of its own. Moshe does not only recall how Am Yisrael left Mount Sinai. He tells them why they had to leave Mount Sinai.

This explanation fits in smoothly with the explanations of both Kli Yakar and the Talmud. On one hand, Am Yisrael should have wanted to leave Mount Sinai. They should have wanted to make forward progress. And yet after they leave Mount Sinai, they move not forwards, but backwards, choosing Egypt over Israel. In the words of the Talmud, they are like schoolchildren running away from school. Only the school that they were running away from was not Mount Sinai, but, rather, the Land of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774

This shiur is dedicated to the soldiers of the IDF risking their lives in Gaza to make Israel a safe place for me to live. May Hashem cause strike our enemies down before them. May He preserve and rescue our fighters from all trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may He send blessing and success in their every endeavor.