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Torah Commentary
D'varim (July 28, 2012)

Dr. Mark Weisstuch, Administrative Vice President

IN D’VARIM, the eponymous first portion of the last of the five books of the Torah, Deuteronomy, Moses begins by recapitulating the recent history of the people in their desert wanderings and then describes the battles waged by the Israelites against several Trans-Jordan fiefdoms. The Israelites are on the threshold of entering the Promised Land. This is a new generation. The generation that left Egypt and received the Torah at Mount Sinai committed the grievous sin of lacking faith in the power and promise of God. After being commanded to invade the Land, they hedged, they doubted — they became pragmatic. They strategized that it would be advantageous to send scouts into the unknown territory to reconnoiter the terrain and assess the strength of the enemy. The scouts reported — with two notable dissenters, Caleb and Joshua — that the land was inhabited by undefeatable giants, next to whom they felt like grasshoppers. (Deuteronomy 1:28; Numbers 13:32-33) The people’s resolve wilted; they hemmed and hawed; the grand vision clouded over; they demonstrated that they were inadequate partners to God in the great enterprise of securing the Land of the Covenant.

Now the situation is different. After 38 years, the faith-flawed generation is superseded by their zealous children. Under Moses’ direction and impelled by the knowledge that God is with them, this new generation embarks on a mission of conquest. Like Sherman marching his troops to Atlanta, the Israelites pulverize each successive kingdom they traverse on their way to the Jordan River, where the leadership will be transferred from Moses to Joshua and the people finally will enter the Land. Moses describes the victory over King Sihon of Heshbon, then the defeat of King Og of Bashan. In both cases the enemy is vanquished with unremitting finality. The Amorite men, women and children of every town are slaughtered, and their cattle and spoils are captured as booty. (These God-sanctioned genocidal events raise troubling questions about the nature and objectives of religious war, but that is a story unto itself.)

A puzzling exception to the scorched-humanity tactic is King Og. The text informs us, “Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim.” Then, bizarrely, the text adds, “His bedstead, an iron bedstead, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit.” In the midst of this chronicle of murderous warfare, pillage and plunder, we have a brief excursus on a piece of domestic furniture and a kind of tour book notation that this Ripleyesque, outsized bed is on view in Rabbah (present-day Amman, Jordan; but, alas, the bed is gone now).

The bed is emblematic of the size of its user. According to our understanding of the length of a cubit — 18 inches — the bed is 13.5 feet long and 6 feet wide! It is made of iron because a wooden construction would have collapsed under his enormous weight. The message here is that Og was a very tall, formidable hombre. Moses is making the point that this land, much like the scouts had reported 38 years earlier, is indeed populated by fearsome giants. But this time the Israelites are undaunted. Because God has commanded the assault, they are confident of victory, certain of divine protection.

Taking its cue from the mega-bed, the Midrash underscores and amplifies Og’s gigantic stature. Abba Saul tells us of a gravedigger who once pursued a deer for three parasangs (one parasang=one league=3.75 miles) along the side of a human thighbone that was later established to belong to Og. (Talmud Nidah 24b) Og was a stowaway on Noah’s Ark, Noah having to punch a hole in the vessel’s roof to accommodate him. (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 23) (Not only was Og tall, he also was long-lived!) One early, misty morning while the Israelite troops are encamped on the border of Edrei, Moses sees a figure in the distance. It is none other than Og, sitting Humpty Dumpty-like on the wall of the city with his feet touching the ground. Momentarily feeling a pang of dread, Moses is reassured by the voice of God — “Fear him not” — that this seemingly invincible figure will fall before him. (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:24)

Sure enough, the Midrash has Og and Moses ultimately confronting each other in a clash of titans worthy of the Marvel Comics adventure series:

Og said: How large is the camp of Israel? Three parasangs in circumference. I will go and uproot a mountain of the size of three parasangs and cast it upon them and kill them. He went and uprooted a mountain of the size of three parasangs and carried it on his head. But the Holy One sent ants which bored holes in it, so that it slipped around his neck. He tried to pull it off, but since his teeth projected on each side of his mouth, he could not pull it past them….The height of Moses was ten cubits. He took an axe ten cubits long, leapt ten cubits into the air, and struck him on his ankle and killed him. (Talmud B’rachot 54b)

An essential feature of this portion is the contrast between the behaviors of two generations. One loses its compass of faith and suffers a protracted extinction; the other puts its trust in God and thereby prevails, even against enemies of gigantic strength. This portion traditionally is read during the week of Tisha B’Av, no doubt because it reinforces the importance of faith and confidence in God in the aftermath of punishment for faithlessness.

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