Parashat Devarim (Shabbat Hazon)

August 12-13, 2016 – 9 Av 5776
Annual (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22): Etz Hayim p. 981; Hertz p. 736
Triennial (Deuteronomy 2:31-3:22): Etz Hayim p. 994; Hertz p. 746
Haftarah (Isaiah 1:1-27): Etz Hayim p. 1000; Hertz p. 750


Reckless Leaders and How to Handle Them
Matt Plen, is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK.  Read more at

Politics in the western world is witnessing an upsurge of demagogic, populist leadership.  In the UK, senior government leaders gambled with the fate of the country, tapping into popular feelings of resentment and alienation and leading the country over the brink of a decision to leave the European Union – all for the sake of political positioning and personal ambition.  The USA is heading into one of the most intemperate Presidential campaigns ever, in which a candidate with a very real chance of winning has whipped up popular support by using violent rhetoric along with xenophobic, Islamophobic and misogynistic slurs.  It’s tempting to blame irresponsible leaders for these crises, both the protagonists I’ve referred to and their opponents for failing to stand up to them more effectively.  Parashat Devarim, however, provides a more nuanced approach to this kind of political problem.

Devarim opens with Moses’ recounting of Israelite history since the Exodus from Egypt.  But his account of the sin of the spies (Devarim 1:22-28) differs from the version we read in Bamidbar (chapter 13).  There God commanded Moses to send princes from each of the tribes to spy out the land.  In our parashah, this initiative comes from the people themselves and the social status of the spies is not mentioned.  In Bamidbar the spies themselves return with a negative view of the Land, saying ‘we cannot go up against the people because they are stronger than we are,’ and actively spread pessimism among the Israelites.  This week Moses recounts that the spies brought a short but positive report of the Land; despite this, the people sulked in their tents, accusing God of bringing them out of the Egypt only to have them wiped out.

The story of the spies in Bamidbar reflects a top-down model of political leadership.  The policy decision comes from God (via Moses) and the protagonists are leaders of their tribes who use their position to influence the people for evil.  Devarim, in contrast, paints a picture of grass-roots politics: the people initiate the mission and are responsible for their own negative reaction to the spies’ largely positive report.

Nechama Leibowitz argues that rather than seeing these versions of the story as incompatible narratives, we should understand them in terms of the Torah’s own chronology.  Moses’ speech in Devarim comes 38 years after the sin of the spies, when, once again, the people of Israel are perched on the borders of the Land, ready to take possession.  Last time the people failed.  Moses wants to ensure this does not happen again.  For this reason, his address stresses not the sins of the leaders – which he surely cannot have forgotten – but the personal responsibility of each and every individual for their own behaviour.  Morality requires that we each take responsibility for our actions.  ‘The listener,’ says Leibowitz, ‘has the choice of turning a deaf ear to evil words or of allowing himself to be misled by them.  It is his duty to resist.’

This lesson applies not only to interpersonal morality but to wider social and political issues.  While the danger posed by manipulative populists should not be underestimated, those of us who live in a democracy are blessed with a unique opportunity: to resist demagoguery, to elect responsible leaders and, by holding them to account, to work for the common good.

A Vort for Parashat Devarim
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty

Rashi says that “Moses began to explain the Torah” (Deut 1:5) “in “70 languages.” On the one hand it reflects the universal side of Judaism (the rabbis saw the world as composed of 70 peoples). R’ Yitzchak Meir Alter (1799 – 1866, the first Gerre Rebbe, Chiddushei HaRim) took a different approach – Moses wanted to enable the Jews to follow the Torah wherever they live and to deal with claims by non-Jews skeptical about or hostile to the Torah.   In a related vein R’ Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Schreiber, the Ketav Sofer (1815–1871, Hungary), says it was to contradict those who claimed that Torah is to be kept only in the desert or in Eretz Yisrael, where Jews are the majority. Torah applies everywhere.

Table Talk
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty

We are starting the fifth and final book of the Torah! This book is Moshe’s final speech to the People of Israel, containing historic narratives, legal material, and Moshe’s take on what might happen in the future.

1)  Where and when is Moshe speaking to the people (1:1-3)?  What do you think that a leader of 40 years that has gone through everything that Moshe went through will tell the people on the eve of his death and their entry into the land?

2)  According to the narrative that Moshe tells the people, what was supposed to be the order of events once they received the Torah at Sinai (1: 6-8)? What message would that send to the people who left Egypt?

3)  As we read in Num. 13-14, the People of Israel wondered for 40 years in the desert because of the incident of the spies.  According to Moshe’s telling of the event here, whose idea was it to send the spies (1:20-22)? Compare it to Num. 13:1-3.  What are the differences?  How can we explain the existence of 2 narratives of the same event?

4) A few weeks ago we read that the Edomites refused to allow the people of Israel to pass through their land despite the Israelite offer not to walk in the fields nor drink the water, or to pay for it (Num. 21:14-21).  Now we get a different view point of the story.  Why did Israel not attack them, and why did they offer to pay for the water (2:2-8)?

5) The people, led by Moshe, did conquer the lands of Sihon and Og in trans-Jordan, and gave them to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh.  At this point Moshe has 2 instructions that are relevant for those entering the land.  What does he tell the trans-Jordan tribes (3:18-20)?  What did he tell Joshua (3:21-22)?  Why does he tell Joshua this?