Man of war: Parashat Devarim 5775

The Book of Devarim serves as a recap of Am Yisrael’s forty-year sojourn in the desert to prepare the people who were living forty years after the exodus for entering the Land of Canaan. The Torah begins by describing the reason for their forty-year sojourn: the sin of the spies, in which ten spies convinced an entire nation that entering Canaan was a suicide mission. Those forty years were unremarkable and most of them were spent in one place, Kadesh Barnea. But every year on Tisha b’Av[1], people who had turned sixty that year dug graves. They entered the graves, lied down, and waited. After Tisha b’Av was over they were dead. And so it happened each year until Am Yisrael entered the Land of Canaan.

The Torah describes the passing of those forty years in three verses [Devarim 2:14-16]: “The days in which we went from Kadesh Barnea until we crossed Zered Brook were thirty-eight years, until the entire nation of men of war had died (tom), just as Hashem swore. Hashem’s hand was upon them to confuse them from the midst of the camp until they died. And it was after the men of war had finished dying from the midst of the nation…” A number of questions must be asked: First, why are these people called “men of war”? They died in the desert because they were unwilling to wage war against the Canaanites! Next, why did Hashem “confuse” these people? Their punishment only specified dying in the desert. It said nothing about Hashem “playing around” with them. And precisely how did Hashem go about “confusing” them? Did He force them to solve difficult Sudoko puzzles? Finally, the translation of the Hebrew word “tam” as “die” seems incorrect. Nowhere else in the Torah is death described with this word. Further, in one of the above verses the words “tam” and “la’mut (to die)” appear in the same verse – “finished (tamu) dying (la’mut)” – meaning that the two words cannot share the same meaning.

Let’s begin with the word “tam”. This word has multiple meanings. It can mean “to cease”, “simple”[2], or “perfect”. Rav Yonatan ben Uziel translates the word into Aramaic as “pasak” – “to cease” – a translation that was shown to be, problematic. However, the translation of Onkelos uses the word “shlim”, which means “to complete”. Here is a translation of Onkelos’s Aramaic into English: “…until the entire nation of men had been completed, just as Hashem swore. Hashem’s hand was upon them… until they had completed. And it was after the men of war had completed dying from the midst of the nation…” Typically the word “completion” is used at the end of a process. Which process had been completed at the end of forty years?

Let’s try to answer this question by answering one of our other questions: who were these “men of war”? The Rashbam suggests that the “men of war” were the “ma’apilim”, a group of men who, when they heard they were going to die in the desert, told Moshe “We made a mistake and we’re going to capture the land right here and now”. Their attack was ill-advised and they were routed by the Canaanites. The problem with this explanation is that the “ma’apilim” were a small minority of people who were all killed in battle. The term “men of war” seems to be referring to an entire generation who slowly died out.

I suggest that two words in the translation of Rav Yonatan ben Uziel can clear the waters. The second time the term “men of war” is used, Rav Yonatan precedes the term with the Aramaic words “avrei bimata”. These words are difficult to understand. An anonymous commentary on the Rav Yonatan’s translation suggests the words are misspelled, and should be read as “avrei b’yama” – “those who passed through the [Red] Sea”. These words are the key to understanding the sin and the punishment of the spies.  When Moshe sent the spies it signified a quantum change in the way in which Hashem would be leading Am Yisrael. Until that time, when Am Yisrael had waged war they had won their battles with the help of overt miracles. But this war would be different. It would be a conventional war. The spies that Moshe sent were all soldiers and the instructions that Moshe gave to the spies were instructions that any officer would give to his scouts: check the topography, analyse the defence posture of the enemy, find their weaknesses, and verify their assets.

After hearing these instructions it dawned upon Am Yisrael that there would be no magical drowning of the Canaanites. Moshe would not sit perched on a rock with his hands held skyward while Hashem fought for them. There were going to be real wars waged with real weapons, and real people were going to die. Am Yisrael were simply not ready for this. Their entire lives were based upon daily miracles: Water flowed from a rock. They ate manna that fell from the sky. Their clothes never wore out. A cloud of glory and a pillar of fire protected them. How much of this was going to change, as well? The flaw of the spies, and that of those who believed their report, was that they were physically and emotionally unprepared to live a life without overt miracles.

Am Yisrael needed to understand that Hashem would still be waging war, only that the miracles would not be there for everyone to see – they would be cloaked in nature. Am Yisrael needed to realize that the necessity for overt miracles was temporary and that their existence would eventually cease. The Rambam teaches that if miracles were to occur as a matter of course then we would lose our free will. The Jews who had crossed the Red Sea needed “shock and awe” because after generations of slavery they had lost their will entirely. Tragically, these people would never be able to enter the Land of Israel and so Hashem had to wait until they died before bringing their descendents into the Land[3].

Let’s see how this hypothesis fits into the verses:

  1. Who were the “men of war”? After Hashem parts the Red Sea Moshe leads Am Yisrael in song – the “Shira” – in which they proclaim [Shemot 15:3] “Hashem is a Man of War!”. If Hashem was a “Man of War”, then the Jews who crossed the Red Sea were “men of war”.
  2. The Torah tells us that “Hashem’s hand was upon them”. Immediately before Am Yisrael sing the Shira the Torah tells us [Shemot 14:31] “Israel saw the Great Hand with which Hashem smote the Egyptians”. The same Hand that saved them was the Hand that required them to die in the desert. They could not live without that Hand.
  3. While Am Yisrael are crossing the Red Sea the Egyptians find themselves in a firestorm, complete with fog, fire, and lightning. The Torah tells us [Shemot 14:24] “Hashem confused the Egyptian camp”. Hashem did not only confuse the Egyptians. His shock and awe confused Am Yisrael as well, and they would never recover from their confusion.
  4. The “process” that culminated after forty years in the desert was the weaning from a life in which the laws of nature were regularly upset.

In one of the first shiurim I ever gave in the Gold Coast[4], I said that the exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea “scarred” Am Yisrael, and that one day the future redemption would correct that blemish. As the prophet Jeremiah writes [16:14-15] “Days are coming, says Hashem, and it shall no longer be said, ‘As Hashem lives, Who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt’, but, rather, ‘As Hashem lives, Who brought up the Children of Israel from the Northlands and from all the lands where He had driven them’”, and I will restore them to their land that I gave to their forefathers”. May we continue to merit seeing this new kind of miracles as they usher in our redemption, speedily in our days.

Shabbat Shalom and have a meaningful fast,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] See the Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit [30b]

[2] Some might recognize this translation from the four sons at the Seder table “Tam – ma hu omer” – “The simple son – what does he say?”

[3] See our shiur of Shelach 5761 for further explanation.

[4] Parashat Shelach 5760. This shiur exists only in a compact note form.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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