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 hadn’t 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 wouldn’t 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.
“These are the words…” (1:1)
It’s always a refreshing experience to walk off the plane in London. I keep forgetting how polite the English really are. The wheels of English social intercourse are oiled through a millennium of homogeneous culture (the last invasion of the British Isles was in 1066), in which politeness is arguably the highest social virtue. Immigrants fast become more English than the English. When I grew up, someone who wore a turban, or a chador, or had different skin color, was guaranteed to carry along with that a heavily accented and foreign demeanor. Now when you speak to someone clearly ethnic, their accent could be as cockney as the sound of Bow Bells, or as a cut-glass as an ex-Etonian – but they are so polite. Yes, the English are so polite even when you can see they hate you.
As I was making my way through security on my way back home, we were all lining up to go through the scanner, our hats removed, our shoes and belts removed, our phones removed. “Everything out of your pockets, please!” “EVERYTHING OUT OF YOUR POCKETS PLEASE!” One by one we walked through the scanner, like sheep through a turnstile. “Please don’t come forward until you are called!” “Next, please!” A young blonde woman waved me into the scanner. Her two arms were raised, and after the scanner had finished, one of her hands came down, indicating that I should walk to the right. A chill ran down my spine.
“Pour into me now some of that red, red…” (Genesis 25:30) The word na, “now,” in this sentence can also be translated as “please.” Esav hates Yaakov. But he can be so polite in his hatred.
This week’s Torah portion of Devarim is always read in the week before the day of Jewish tragedy, Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av.
Some seventy years after the event we are still trying to come to terms with the destruction of European Jewry. How could the most cultured nation in the world turn to savage and merciless barbarism? How could the nation that produced Goethe and Beethoven produce monsters unrecognizable as human beings?
If the Germans prided themselves on anything, it was their politeness — “derech eretz” as it is called in Hebrew.
I once heard a lady who had been in Auschwitz recount her reception at that terrifying place. She was waiting to have her forearm tattooed with the number that would be her only identification in that hell. She was about to become a number. As she reached the man whose task it was to tattoo those numbers on her arm, she froze for a second in front of him, and he said to her mechanically, “Bitte!” Please!
Please hold out your arm! Please become a number! Please disappear from the face of the earth! Please!
How polite! In that hellhole of death and misery — “Please!”
“These are the words…”
Words can reveal, but words can also mask. May we soon see the great revelation of the Word of