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   by Jacob Solomon

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'… You did not go near to the land of the people of Ammon… as G-d had commanded us.' (2:37)

Parashat Devarim forms the opening of Moses' final address to the Israelites before his death, where he prepares them for their long-awaited entry to the Promised Land. That opening within the Parasha divides into three parts. Firstly, he presents them as a quarrelsome, litigious, and burdensome people who need a complex hierarchical system to survive. Even that, implies the narrative second section, was not sufficient to prevent the mass hysteria following the Spies' report - nearly forty years before Moses' final address. That fuses into the third and longest section, which on the face of it is puzzling. Moses recounts the course through the desert from the dying out of the generation of the Exodus, avoiding the lands of Edom, Moab, and Ammon which belonged exclusively those nations, and the wars and conquests of lands of those who attacked the Israelites en route - Sichon, King of the Amorites, and Og, the King of Bashan. But there are no words of rebuke, or warning, which only reappear at the beginning of the next Parasha, Va-etchanan.

What was the purpose of Moses recounting mere history? What message was that meant to convey to the Israelites? There is nothing in that account to show that they even did anything wrong. On the contrary. They respected the Divine-given and declared right of other nations to enjoy their own land, without billeting themselves on them, on the card that they are G-d's people. All their military conquests came out of defense, not gratuitous violence.

Only at the end is the relevance shown, and then only with the battles against Sichon and Og: 'You have seen everything G-d… has done to those two kings (Sichon and Og), He will do the same things to all the kingdoms when you cross over (to the other side of the Jordan)'. (3:21).

However, there appears to be a deeper thread running through Moses narrative.

There is no place in the Torah where the Israelites are openly praised for keeping G-d's commandments. They are rebuked, castigated, punished, and even decimated for their shortcomings. But praised? Even when Moses blesses the people before his death, the implication is that those good things will only happen if the Israelites live according to the great principles expected of them.

There is a Rabbinic principle that Rashi quotes in the context of Noah (to Gen. 7:1). One does not give unbridled praise to a person directly - even if he deserves it. Whereas G-d describes Noah as a perfect righteous person behind his back, he left out the 'perfect' when He spoke to him.

However, praise may be delivered indirectly, as well as to a person's face. To Noah, it was in G-d's narrative: 'Noah was a perfect righteous man in his generation' (Gen. 6:9). To the Israelites it was not behind their back, as with Noah, but by implication. Moses recounts a period of some thirty eight years where the Israelites did precisely what G-d required of them - represented by: You did not go near to the land of the people of Ammon… as G-d had commanded us.' (2:37).

Thus the Parasha may be seen as a balanced assessment of the Israelites. It draws attentions to their weaknesses (their quarrelsomeness), and their failings on specific occasions (represented by the sin of the Spies) - in 'red ink'. But it sets that in a background of praise - all by implication, in a much quieter tone. And it is on the merit of that, that G-d 'will do the same things to all the kingdoms when you cross over (to the other side of the Jordan)'. (3:21) - enabling the Israelites to inherit the Land…

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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