This Torah portion 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 the Jewish People during the last five weeks of his life, as they prepared to cross the Jordan River into the Land of Israel. Moshe reviews the mitzvahs with the people, stressing the change of lifestyle they are about to undergo — from the supernatural existence of the desert under Moshe’s guidance, to the apparently natural life they will experience under Yehoshua’s leadership in the Land.
The central theme this week is the sin of the spies, the meraglim. This Torah portion opens with Moshe alluding to the sins of the previous generation who died in the desert. He describes what would have happened if they had not 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.
Moshe 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 and Moshe would not enter Eretz Yisrael. He reminds them that their immediate reaction to Hashem’s decree was to want to "go up and fight" to redress the sin. He recounts how they would not listen when he told them not to go, and that they no longer merited vanquishing their enemies miraculously. They had 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.
Hit By an Angel
“These are the words…” (1:1)
The Midrash says, "There is no blade of grass in the field that grows unless a malach (spiritual messenger/angel) stands over it, hits it, and says 'Grow!' "
Why does the malach need to hit the blade of grass? Wouldn't some less violent form of encouragement suffice?
In Hebrew the word for "earth" is Eretz. Eretz can be read as arutz — "I will run." This world is always running forward. Running to a place beyond this world. Eretz is also related to ratzon, meaning “will” or “desire.” What a person desires, what he wills, he “runs” toward.
This world is a world of trying, of striving to reach beyond this world. The word for "heaven" in Hebrew is Shamayim, from the root sham, which means "there." Literally, Shamayim means "theres,” in the plural. Sham-im. Heaven is the sum total of all the “theres” that we can ever run to.
In other words, Shamayim is the ideal, the perfect form of everything in this world. Things in this world are not in a perfected state — they are still in their inchoate form.
One of the most difficult things in this world is to change. To become more than we are. To realize our true potential. We don't want to change. We'd rather sit by the pool and watch the water-lilies float to-and-fro. Any true change is painful.
The realization of the discrepancy between what we are and what we could be is like being hit by a malach.
Rashi and Onkelos both teach that the place names in verses one and two of this week's Torah portion are “code words” for the sins that took place at those places. Direct rebuke is rarely effective. It is much better to hint at the problem and let the listener feel the angel hitting him.