Our Torah reading begins with the news that upon the Jews’ arrival in Eretz Yisrael there will be a major assembly to be held in the valley between Mount Gerizim and Mount Eyval. Curiously, the actual content of the gathering won’t be revealed for another dozen chapters. Then comes a rather odd verse, ‘Are they not beyond the Jordan, west of the road (DERECH MAVO HASHEMESH), where the sun goes down, in the land of the Canaanites living in the Arava opposite Gilgal, beside the oaks (terebinths?) of Moreh? (Devarim 11:30).’ What are we being told in this verse?
There are actually some Bible critics that claim that this verse is ‘an editorial intrusion’. Balderdash! On the P’SHAT or literal level, this verse is actually giving directions. The Torah Temima points out that after the death of Moshe Rabbeinu there will no longer be the cloud to guide their journey. So, they are literally being told how to get to where they need to be.
For me, this approach was reinforced when I found out that there actually was a route called DERECH MAVO HASHEMESH. It rises from the Jordan Valley (the ARAVA) towards Shechem following Nachal Tirza. Today it’s called Route 57. Other Biblical routes still exist. The most famous is DERECH GAV HAHAR (the Moutain Peak Road), later called DERECH AVOT, the Patriarch Road by the Romans. Today that’s Route 60, and goes right by my apartment. Its noise is disturbing me as I write this.
Of course, there are many commentaries who find more esoteric hints in our verse. The Kli Yakar avers that this instruction was aimed at the more spiritual amongst the Jews, who would not leave the road or DERECH, because they are so busy in Torah study and teaching that they don’t venture into the surrounding fields and vineyards. That’s why the destination is called ALON MOREH, because this is guidance for teachers of the nation, MORIM.
The Radak stresses that it is important for the Jews to make their way to Alon Moreh, near Shechem, because that’s where Avraham first realized that he was in Eretz Yisrael, the spiritual land. They must follow in the footsteps of their revered ancestor, who foresaw these events centuries earlier. He also returned there after his, much shorter but also eventful, sojourn in Egypt. It’s right and fitting that they convene there.
But I’d like to highlight two Chassidic ideas on our verse. The first is from the Ohev Yisrael, the first Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, the Apter Rebbe, 1748-1825. He suggests that the road towards the setting sun is a metaphor for the power of the sun. The sun apparently shines equally everywhere, but upon closer examination different items or places absorb the sunlight differently, some cloths are bleached by strong sunlight, others are darkened. Today, we’re very aware that the effect of the sun is different on a paved road, a planted field or a solar panel.
The Rebbe then points out that we are told to go ACHAREI or beyond the road. He explains that going beyond here means that there are destinations and purposes that we don’t know or understand, but we must follow the road and see where God’s blessings (the ‘sunlight’) are manifest. I would like to think that means Eretz Yisrael, but the Rebbe says,
‘God should bless us to be vessels worthy and ready to receive the bounty of BERACHA which (like sunlight) is always flowing down upon us from on High. It should be beneficial to us all our days, so may it be His will, Amen’
Okay, that explains the Divine nature of the assembly between the hill tops in Shechem. However, the S’fat Emet sees this scenario, instead, as a life lesson. He bases his interpretation of the verse on a famous Midrash which appears here:
A parable: An elder is sitting at the crossroads, with two paths stretching before him, one, whose beginning is level and whose end is thorns, and one whose beginning is thorns and whose end is level. He apprises the passersby: This path whose beginning you see to be level — for two or three steps you will walk on level ground, and, in the end, on thorns. And this path whose beginning you see to be thorny — for two or three steps you will walk in thorns, and in the end, you will walk on level ground. All who were wise listened and ended B’SHALOM on the level path (Tanchuma, RE’EH 3).
That’s the lesson of following the road ‘towards the sunset’. Work hard in the morning of your life, and you will be rewarded with rest and tranquility at the end. It’s the famous message of delayed gratification (Stanford Marshmallow test, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment). But our context is telling it a bit differently. When we see good people suffering, they’re at the thorny part of the road. Don’t worry it will be fine at the end. The blessings go to those who heed the Mitzvot; the curses to those who don’t. Don’t be fooled by present ephemeral appearances.
We must follow our road through life in its proper path: start at the beginning (east or sun rise) and move methodically towards the appropriate ending (west or sunset). As in the Westerns of my youth, may we all be the hero who rides blissfully into the sunset.