Five Rashis, Devarim: Moshe’s Troubles, and Og

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

Dealing with Jews

William Goldman, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, tells of a time in high school where he couldn’t imagine succeeding at anything. A teacher helped him out of his funk by having him watch a classmate—the class idol, who was also kind, caring, and all that—carefully. He came to realize that this fellow had his challenges as well, leading him to realize that no one has it easy.

The beginning of Devarim makes clear for us, that even he, the greatest prophet ever, who worked with the most active and public input of God than at any other time in history, still had no simple task dealing with the Jewish people. In verse four, when the Torah times his end-of-life review (his exit interview, as it were) to אחרי הכותו, after he had defeated Sichon and Og, Rashi explains that Moshe felt he had to wait until he had begun the conquest of Israel before the people would accept any rebuke or even remonstration.

Had he done it earlier, they’d say: what’s he done for us?

Eight verses later, Moshe speaks of having been unable to lead alone, needing elders’ assistance. Defining two of the terms he uses for what made them a difficult nation, טרחכם ומשאכם (load and burdens), Rashi says that the Jews would extend court cases, claiming to have new witnesses or evidence, just to avoid losing. They would also find a negative interpretation for anything he did. If he left his tent early one morning, they’d gossip about the home situation he was obviously fleeing; if he came out late, they’d assume he was plotting against them.

No one has it easy. Not even Moshe Rabbenu, who led the Jews out of Egypt, through the Sea, to Sinai, through forty years in the desert, to the cusp of entering Israel.

Beyond Wisdom

The characteristics Moshe sought in leaders included נבונים, which Rashi defines (1;13) as מבינים דבר מתוך דבר, understanding one matter from another. By way of illustration, he distinguishes passive moneychangers, who can only respond to those who bring them money to inspect and evaluate, from entrepreneurial ones, who find ways to create business opportunities.

Wise people know how to react to situations brought to them. Insightful people build off the wisdom they’ve amassed to find productive ways to initiate further action.  Of course, that insight has to be accurate—it’s no great skill to assume one knows the next good move to make, and make it. The skill is in having good, accurate insight, and recognizing it.

A challenge Rashi thinks was beyond the Jews of the desert. Verse fifteen notes that Moshe took heads of tribes, men of wisdom, known to their tribes, omitting נבונים, -people of insight. Rashi comments that while Yitro had named seven characteristics of leaders, Moshe found only three. And נבונים, insightful people who understood wisdom and could extrapolate further (accurately), wasn’t one of the three.

Moshe’s Years Without Comforting Prophecy

2;16 mentions the passing of the last of the generation that left Egypt. The next verse says that Hashem spoke, וידבר, to Moshe; Rashi points out that the preceding verses, starting with Moshe’s recounting of the sin of the spies until this point, used the verb ויאמר , Hashem said.

That’s because, Rashi says, all thirty-eight years of wandering, Hashem was punishing the Jews; their somewhat shunned status meant that Moshe did not receive his highest possible level of prophecy, with affection, face to face, calmly.  For Rashi, that’s a reminder that prophecy only comes for the sake of the Jewish people.

That’s as far as Rashi goes, but I note that Rashi’s claim isn’t a necessary one.  It could be that some prophecy comes for other reasons, just that Moshe’s highest prophecy only came for the sake of the people. That would mean that when Hashem spoke of Moshe’s greatness as a prophet to Miriam and Aharon, that Moshe only achieved that because the people would benefit.

Second, and more interesting to me, is that Rashi elsewhere reads the verb דבר as indicating harshness (for one example, see Rashi to Shmot 32;7), difficulty in the communication. Yet here, he seems to see ויאמר, a simple verb for speech, as showing a lower level of prophecy.

I suggest that both are true: for all those years in the desert, Moshe only heard אמירה, simple communication, from Hashem, not the richness of the highest level of prophecy.  True, that level came with difficulties and a certain harshness for human beings to experience, but the experience of speaking with Hashem face to face, as it were, with affection and calm of spirit, was more than worth the efforts necessary to achieve it.

For thirty-eight years, Moshe Rabbenu was denied that. Because of the Jews.

Imitating Hashem

2;26 is where Moshe tells of having sent peace overtures to Sichon and Og before entering into battle with them. Rashi notes, on the words ממדבר קדמות, that Moshe had inferred this idea (showing his own תבונה, his own ability to be מבין דבר מתוך דבר, to get one insight from another) from the giving of the Torah. While Hashem intended to give it to the Jews, He first offered it to the other nations, knowing they wouldn’t accept it. So, too, Moshe sent peace overtures, knowing they’d be rejected.

That knowledge might have been complete knowledge, meaning there was in fact no way the nations would accept the Torah or that Sichon would agree to peace. If so, the point of the gesture seems to be to make that clear to everyone involved, so there cannot later be revisionist history—I offered it to you, and you rejected it.

Alternatively, Hashem’s “knowing” in that instance was similar to Moshe’s—the odds were greatly against the nations’ accepting the Torah and Sichon’s acceding to Moshe, not absolutely so. In which case, the lesson is to hold out and offer hope whenever possible, even if we have more than good reason to expect it will not lead anywhere.

The Value of Recursive Measurement

As this project begins to near its completion, I start to worry that I always seek out Rashis that touch on themes close to my heart, that when I review this after all is said and done, I will have found myself in Rashi, rather than found Rashi for himself. This week, I have gravitated towards Rashis that comment on Moshe’s troubles; the parts of the third chapter that are in this parasha have Rashis like that as well, but I decided to break free of that focus.

On verse eleven, Rashi makes a simple comment which actually forces us to rethink the point of the verse. Describing Og’s bed, the Torah says it was nine cubits long and four cubits wide, באמת איש, in the cubits of a man. Rashi explains that this was in Og’s cubits.

Before it became a standard measure, a cubit was the length from the tip of one’s middle finger to the bottom of the elbow. Saying that the cubits are Og’s means that we have no idea of the size of his bed. If Og was nine feet tall, his cubit was clearly more than the 18-24” we assume it is today, and that would affect the size of his bed. To measure his bed by his own measurements seems to tell us nothing, unless and until we know the length of his forearms, hands, and fingers.

Except that it tells us a great deal, just not about his height or size. If we translate into our cubits, Og’s bed was the equivalent for us of a bed that was 13½ feet long and six feet wide (or more, depending on the size of a cubit). Insisting on a bed like that tells us more than a little about a person.

That’s the aspect of Og the verse is telling us, according to Rashi, his insistence on space, not necessarily his size. He wasn’t just big, he lived big. In contrast to Moshe as we see him in this parasha, who lived with a people resistant to his leadership, ready to see wrong in him at the slightest excuse, who denied him thirty eight years of the prophecy that he could have had.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.