154/929 Why Moshe Is Making Stuff Up. Devarim 1

The book of Devarim is not a work of historical facts. That might sound like a controversial statement, but it actually is not.

Commenting on the very first verse of the book, Rashi quotes a statement of Rabbi Yochanan that makes the same claim. “We have searched all through scripture, and haven’t found a place called Tofel or Lavan…” What seem like place names, Rabbi Yochanan explains, need to be interpreted non-literally, as a hint to the misbehavior of the people. The purpose of Moshe’s speeches is not to give an accurate historical accounting to the next generation; it is to provide them with moral guidance, with a narrative which will inspire them to right action.

In the service of this goal, Moshe takes far more drastic liberties with the facts than in the above example. The timing of the appointing of judges, the impetus for the sending of the spies, the role of the spies in the sin, all diverge from what we know from the original tellings of these stories. Most puzzling, and brazen, is Moshe’s claim that the sin of the spies was the reason for his own exclusion from the land, although the Torah has repeatedly emphasized that it was a punishment for Moshe’s behavior at the rock, which had just recently occurred.

The common thread that runs through all these alterations of history is the concentration of responsibility on the Jewish people, by downplaying the responsibility of other parties. But this can’t be understood as the mother of all Jewish guilt trips. No one in Moshe’s audience is actually guilty of the sins he enumerates; these are all ‘the children who did not know the difference between good and evil’. Moshe isn’t trying to depress them with guilt, he’s trying to impress upon them their responsibility. The Jewish people’s actions and choices determine their fate, for worse, or for better.

This powerful message is the same one that had us on the floor yesterday, mourning and fasting for a 2000 year old destruction. The main thrust of the day, explains the Rambam, is not meant to be depression over the past, but rather, introspection, and the assumption of responsibility for what can be. Every generation has the potential to radically change Jewish history, to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash. Yesterday was for introspection. Today, and tomorrow, are for action.

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.
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