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Torah Commentary
D'varim (July 25, 2015)

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

THE BOOK OF DEUTERONOMY, the final book of the Torah, begins 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites are encamped across the Jordan River from Israel and are preparing to follow Joshua into the Promised Land. Nearly all of Deuteronomy consists of the farewell address that Moses delivers at this climactic moment. His speech recounts the history of the people’s journeys through the Sinai wilderness, emphasizing the many defining experiences and decision points along the way that have shaped them as a nation.

Moses begins by reminding the Israelites that as soon as they were given the Torah at Sinai (here referred to as “Horeb,” an alternate name), God instructed them to make their way to their ancestral homeland. Yet, here they are, 40 years later, and still they have not fulfilled this commandment. Perhaps out of a concern that the Israelites might delay once again, Moses exhorts the Israelites by retelling the words God spoke when it was time to depart: Rav Lachem Shevet Bahar Ha-Zeh! (Deuteronomy 1:6)

The standard translation of the verse is, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain.” This seems to highlight God’s impatience for the Israelites to set off on their journey. God is eager for the Israelites to fulfill their destiny and enter the Promised Land as soon as possible. The implication is that God did not intend for the Israelites to spend 40 years in the wilderness. Had the Israelites trusted in and obeyed God, they would have crossed the Jordan a generation earlier.

At this pivotal moment, Moses is warning the Israelites not to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. Even if they find things comfortable here on the far side of the Jordan, this is no time for complacency and procrastination. They must take the risk of leaving behind what is familiar and setting off into the unknown, trusting in God that a better future awaits them in the Promised Land.

Rashi, the famous medieval commentator, calls this translation the “pshat” or obvious meaning of the text. But he is not satisfied by this interpretation.

Rashi proposes an alternate way of understanding the verse, translating it instead as, “You have had much dwelling at this mountain” — or in other words, you have accomplished a lot here. Rashi goes on to explain: “You made the Tabernacle, Menorah and holy implements; you received the Torah; you appointed Sanhedrin (courts) for yourselves, composed of leaders of thousands and leaders of hundreds.” The Israelites accomplished all of these great achievements not despite the time that they spent at the mountain but rather because of it. In this interpretation, it was not that the Israelites were unmotivated but rather that they were attached to the place in which they had been so successful.

Taking the risk to make a change — no matter how promising the goal — always is hard. Rashi recognizes that it is especially difficult if your current ways of doing things have brought you success. Like the ancient Israelites, we must remember that as much as we have achieved in the familiar ways to which we have grown accustomed, before us lies a future of even greater possibility. We must trust in God and together cross the Jordan River to that better future that is our inheritance.

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