This Parsha begins the last of the Five Books of The Torah, Sefer Devarim. This Book is also called Mishneh Torah, "Repetition of the Torah" (hence the Greek/English title Deuteronomy). Sefer Devarim relates what Moshe told Bnei Yisrael during the last five weeks of his life, as they prepared to cross the Jordan into Eretz Yisrael. Moshe reviews the mitzvot, stressing the change of lifestyle they are about to undergo: from the supernatural existence of the desert under Moshes guidance to the apparently natural life they will experience under Yehoshuas leadership in the Land.
The central theme this week is the sin of the spies, the meraglim. The Parsha opens with Moshe alluding to the sins of the previous generation who died in the desert. He describes what would have happened if they hadnt sinned by sending spies into Eretz Yisrael. Hashem would have given them without a fight all the land from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates, including the lands of Ammon, Moav and Edom. He details the subtle sins that culminate in the sin of the spies, and reviews at length this incident and its results. The entire generation would die in the desert; Moshe would not enter Eretz Yisrael. He reminds them that their immediate reaction to Hashems decree was to want to "go up and fight" to redress the sin. He recounts how they wouldnt listen when he told them not to go, that they no longer merited vanquishing their enemies miraculously. They ignored him and suffered a massive defeat. They were not allowed to fight with the kingdoms of Esav, Moav or Ammon these lands were not to be part of the map of Eretz Yisrael in the meantime. When the conquest of Canaan will begin with Sichon and Og, it will be via natural warfare.
A bridge to Oblivion
“These are the words…” (1:1)
There once was a man who wanted to become an atheist but he gave it up because there were no holidays.
Being an atheist is a full time job. It requires far more faith than believing in God. And yet atheism is probably more widespread in our era than at any other time in history. Why?
The Talmud (Maccot 24a) says that when as result of the Jewish People's standing at Sinai they received 613 mitzvot. When King David saw that there had been a spiritual decline since Sinai, he advised that people should concentrate on eleven specific virtues: to walk in G-d’s ways wholeheartedly; to act justly; to speak the truth in one’s heart; not to speak lashon hara (slander); not to do evil to one’s fellow man; to be lowly in one’s own eyes; to honor those who fear G-d; to take an oath to dominate one’s evil inclination and to keep that oath; not to take interest, and not to take a bribe.
As time passed, so did the decline. The prophet Micha streamlined the focus from eleven principles down to three areas: to judge truthfully, to do acts of kindness, and to perform the mitzvot without ostentation.
Seeing yet a further decline, the prophet Yirmiyahu encouraged the people to focus on just two aspects: to do justice and to give charity.
Finally, the prophet Chavakuk distilled the focus for his generation into one principle: emuna – “belief” – “A righteous person will live by his faith.”(2:4)
So you might say to me “Okay Rabbi. I have faith. So now I can drive to the football game on Saturday afternoon – right?” Or “I have faith! I believe! By the way, do you think you could pick me up a Big Mac on the way home?” Doesn’t “just having faith” sound dangerously similar to certain well-known Brand X imitations of Judaism?
The section of the Talmud that we quoted above is not a licence to abridge the Torah into oblivion. It is like a drowning man grasping an overhanging branch in order to be able to climb onto the tree.
King David, Micha, Yirmiyahu and Chavakuk were all trying to connect the Jewish People to our Source by focusing on the mitzvot that were the key to that age, the branch of survival for that particular generation. In previous generations the attacks on Judaism took the form of forced conversion or crusade, or inquisition. The existence of G-d was never in doubt. Ours is an age of atheism. Nowadays the battlefield is emuna. The battlefield is belief.
It says in Parshat Vayelech, “I will surely have hidden My Face” (31:18). In the Hebrew language, the emphatic “to surely do” something is expressed by the repetition of the verb. In other words, the literal translation of the phrase “I will surely have hidden My Face.” is“Hide - I will have hidden My Face.” The very structure of the Hebrew language gives us an insight into this ‘hiding’.
There are two kinds of concealment. A concealment where you know that someone is there but you just can’t see him, and a concealment where you don’t even know if he’s there at all. In other words, the very fact of their hiddeness is concealed. This is the ultimate hiding. Where the very hiding is hidden. G-d has told us that as history draws to a close in the days of darkness that precede Mashiach, He will surely hide His Face
“The righteous person will survive by his faith.”
It was to such a world as ours that the prophet Chavakuk was addressing. We live in a world where even G-d’s is hiddeness is hidden. Our only hope is to reach out and grasp the branch called emuna.