These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on that side of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav. [Deuteronomy. 1:1]
The Israelites have completed their trek in the desert and are resting in the Plains of Moab just opposite the Jordan River and Jericho. The last of the generation of more than 600,000 men who left Egypt had died months earlier. Moses is talking to the new generation — children during the sins of the Golden Calf and the Spies. They are going to need a refresher course in the Torah and particularly in divine faith.
Moses is a democrat and a believer in free speech. He has convened the entire nation for his final talk so that if anybody has a question, comment, argument — this is the time to speak. Let nobody say, “Had I been there, I would have given Moses a piece of my mind.”
“It is eleven days’ journey from Horeb by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh Barnea.” [Deuteronomy. 1:2]
That’s the message from the great leader? Without Google Maps, the Israelites would have known that on their own. They had crisscrossed the Sinai for decades and became familiar with just about every mountain and valley. They had shuttled between Canaan and Egypt and maybe even got close enough to see their former homes.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi, steps in. Quoting from the Talmudical commentary Sifrei, Rashi says Moses was providing a much deeper lesson than geography.
“See what you caused!” Rashi quotes Moses as telling his people. “There is no shorter route from Horeb to Kadesh-Barnea than the way through Mount Seir, and even that is a journey of 11 days. But you traversed it in three days!”
Moses’ message was that his people could have been in the Land of Israel 40 years ago. The entire trip through Sinai could have taken 72 hours. By now, he said, the Jews would have been living in comfortable homes, tending their fruitful fields and gardens and performing all of the 613 commandments given by G-d at Sinai.
Instead, Moses tells his flock, your fathers procrastinated. They complained. They embraced the agenda of other nations. They were recruited by the Egyptian emigrants to hold orgies and serve idols. They doubted G-d’s word to bring the Jews to the promised land. Some of them even rejected the land of the patriarchs and preferred slavery in Egypt.
So, says Rashi, what did G-d do? He gave you what you wanted. He brought you to the land of Edom, your eternal enemy, and made you circle Mount Seir for 40 years. You watched Edom dance before their idols and play the slot machines in their ancient version of Vegas. Some of the Israelites were disgusted; others were envious of the fun.
And to such an extent did the Shechinah [divine spirit] exert itself to hasten your arrival to the land of Canaan, but because you sinned, He made you travel around Mount Seir for 40 years.
How does it feel for a nation to be stagnant for 40 years — to walk around aimlessly without guidance, without hope? They can’t move forward and are prevented from retreat. They just mark time, and finally many people merely throw their hands up in disgust.
Sounds familiar? What is this except the state of the Jewish people today? They are needlessly divided, wrapped up in their own agendas, uninterested in survival let alone continuity. There is no short-term vision, let alone an end-game.
In Israel, the situation is more desperate. The increasingly violent demonstrations — known as “Day or Rage”– reflect hate, frustration and division at the worst time since 1973. The so-called leaders of the political, military and legal echelons are consumed with this foreign-funded campaign as Iran tightens its trigger finger on more than 300,000 missiles and rockets in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and who knows where else. All that’s missing is Nero.
We, too, have been circling Edom for decades. Some of us have simply said “The hell with it” and joined the other side, assimilating within the societies of Europe and the United States. Others dance at the edges, trying to catch some warmth from their culture, ideology, and particularly, their money. Still others struggle with the domination of Edom over our daily lives in Israel — whether the financial system, political system, military, police, legal system, academia. You name it. There are enough people here who when told to jump will ask “How high?”
In our weekly Torah portion, the Israelites were out of the desert and just a hop, skip and a jump from the promised land. Moses’ final task was to prepare them, reinforce their faith, teach them the Torah and give them the confidence to follow his successor Joshua.
But first Moses had to point out the mistakes of the last generation. They were given all the miracles imaginable and unimaginable. G-d was with them 24/7. The whole journey to Canaan would have taken three days. Instead, it took 40 years and left countless casualties. The Israelites eschewed the easy route and chose the hard way. And they got it.
Still, the generation of Canaan was lucky. Moses was a prophet, a leader, a sage, able to mobilize and guide the people. Today, we don’t have a Moses. We have disinformation. But we have the valuable lesson of hindsight — if we choose to learn.