Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Devarim 5768/ August 9, 2008

Shabbat Hazon

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



The Double Message in Moses’ First Address


Mordechai Sabato

Department of Talmud

The Book of Deuteronomy contains three major addresses made by Moses. The first address starts with this week’s reading (Deut. 1:6) and continues into Parashat Va-Et’hanan, as far as chapter 4, verse 40.  This address includes an historical overview (chapters 1-3) and the conclusions to be drawn from it (chapter 4).  The historical survey includes both the events of the second year after the exodus (chapter 1) and the events of the fortieth year (chapters 2-3).   The review of events of the second year begins with      G-d’s command to journey from Horeb to the land of Israel and includes a detailed account of the sin of the spies (Deut. 1:22-40), a brief account of the sin of those who attempted to conquer the land (1:41-45), and the appointment of judges (1:9-18).

A Parenthetical Subject

The account of the appointment of judges is clearly a parenthetical remark, for three principal reasons:  

1)       Both in content and linguistic style this story interrupts the flow of the text, coming between the account of the command to journey to the land, in verses 7-8 (“Start out and make your way to the hill country of the Amorites…”), and the account of carrying it out, in verse 19 (“We set out from Horeb… along the road to the hill country of the Amorites, as the Lord our G-d had commanded us.  When we reached Kadesh-barnea …”).

2)       Chronologically, this narrative does not belong here, whether it refers to the appointment of judges, described in Exodus 18, or whether it refers to the appointment of elders, described in Numbers 11. [1]

3)       This narrative begins with the words, “Thereupon I said to you.”  In general, the Hebrew expression ba-et ha-hi, rendered here as “thereupon,” denotes a parenthetical remark. [2]

Purpose of the Overview

For all the above reasons we shall not deal with the significance of this passage or with the reason for its inclusion in Moses’ address. Instead, we shall confine ourselves to those subjects related to entry into the land.

The events of the fortieth year include an account of the various encounters with the five nations or kings living in Transjordan:   Seir, Moab, Ammon, Sihon, and Og.  Between the account of the second year and the account of the fortieth year are but two verses that describe the intervening thirty-eight years (1:46-2:1).

Several commentators have noted that Moses’ primary objective in this overview was to compare the first journey towards the Promised Land, during the second year, with the journey to the land in the fortieth year. [3]   This comparison is evident from the linguistic parallels between the sentences introducing each of the overviews:


You have stayed           long enough    at this mountain [Heb. har].   (1:6)

You have been skirting                                                         this hill country [Heb. har]     long enough (2:3)


Start out [Heb. penu] and make your way     to the hill country of the Amorites (1: 7)

now turn [Heb. penu]                                    north (2:3)


The comparison is between the first two chapters in Devarim. The first time we come upon the words “this mountain,” the reference is to Mount Horeb, and therefore it says “you have stayed,” for the Israelites remained there nearly one year.   The second reference to har (rendered in the New JPS translation as hill country), refers to Mount Seir, which they had been skirting a long time – “we … skirted the hill country of Seir a long time” – therefore it says “you have been skirting this hill country long enough.”  In this first set of three verses, the change is that they begin to journey, for until then they had remained at the mountain (Horev/Sinai), therefore the emphasis is on the words “make your way”; whereas in the second verse the new element is in setting them in the proper direction, for until then the people had been journeying, but they had been going in circles without direction, and therefore the command this time does not mention journeying but instead emphasizes the direction, “now turn north.”   The objective of this comparison is to teach the lessons of the past to the younger generation, who had participated in the second journey and was now about to enter the land, so that they not repeat the errors of their parents’ generation.

Below I wish to show that general lesson the Israelites learned was two-fold.  This can be seen both in the account of the events during the first journey and the account of the events in the second journey, as well as in the verses describing the intervening period of delay and in the description of the conclusions to be drawn. As we mentioned, the events of the second year included two subjects:  the sin of the spies and the sin of the people who attempted to conquer the land.   The similarity between the sins of these two groups is evident in Moses’ summation of each sin:


Yet you refused to go up [Heb. la’alot]   and flouted the command of the Lord your G-d

                                                                            (1:26, with respect to the spies)

You flouted the Lord’s command     and willfully marched [Heb. va-ta’alu] into the hill country                                              ( 1:43, with respect to the attempted conquest)


Note further the similarity between the beginning of the account of the sin of the spies – “Then all of you came to me and said” (1:22) – and the beginning of the account of the attempted conquest – “You replied to me, saying” (1:41), as well as the similarity between the people’s words in the sin of the spies – “Where are we going [olim] to?” (1:28) – and their words in the sin of attempted conquest – “We will go up now [ na‘aleh] and fight” (1:41).

The sin of the spies lay in not wanting to go up and conquer the land, and the sin of the attempted conquest lay in willfully attempting to go up and fight [when they had been instructed not to].  What both had in common was that they flouted the Lord’s command. [4]

The result of these sins and the thirty-eight year delay in entering the land are described in two contiguous verses (rendered as one sentence in the New JPS translation):

Thus, after you had remained at Kadesh all that long time (1:46), we marched back into the wilderness by the way of the Sea of Reeds, as the Lord had spoken to me, and skirted the hill country of Seir a long time (2:1).

The expression, “a long time,” that occurs in both verses indicates the element common to both:   a long delay due to the sins of the Israelites.  What is the significance of this repetition in these two verses?

Measure for Measure

The phrasing of the second verse is reminiscent of the Lord’s words that conclude His statement of the punishment for the sin of the spies – “As for you, turn about and march into the wilderness by the way of the Sea of Reeds” (1:40). [5]   Hence we conclude that this verse reflects the result of the sin of the spies.  We also learn that verses 41-46, intervening between the Lord’s words in verse 40 and this verse (2:1), are a self-contained unit.   So it turns out that the previous verse (1:46) concludes the story of the attempted conquest, and therefore it is the punishment for this sin.  According to our method, we see that due to their two-fold sin the Israelites were punished two-fold.  For the sin of the attempted conquest, in which the Israelites flouted the Lord by mounting an attack on the hill-country, contrary to His command, they were punished by having to stay at Kadesh a long time, and for the sin of the spies, in which the Israelites did not wish to enter the land despite the Lord’s command, they were punished by skirting the hill country of Seir for a long time. [6]   We observe that the nature of the punishment is measure for measure.

The account of the journey in the fortieth year and the encounter with the five peoples of the Transjordan also shows a clear distinction between two groups. With respect to the first three people – Seir, Moab and Ammon – the Israelites were clearly instructed not to “harass …   or provoke them to war. For I will not give you any of their land as a possession” (2:9), whereas they were ordered to go to war against Sihon and Og – “Begin the occupation:  engage him in battle… Begin the occupation; take possession of his land” (2:24-31).  

The command to avoid battle with the first three peoples encountered on the second journey parallels the command to not to march up to the hill country in the first journey, and the command to fight Sihon and Og parallels the command to the generation of the spies to go up to the hill country of the Amorites.   It should be noted further that it was explicitly said of Seir that “they will be afraid of you,” and presumably the same was the case when they came upon the Moabites and Ammonites.  So we see that the balance of power with these nations was in the Israelites’ favor, nevertheless they were commanded to refrain from going to war against them, even though this necessitated their taking a long detour. [7]   With respect to Og, however, they were told, “do not fear him,” from which we may conclude that the balance of power was in his and Sihon’s favor, nevertheless the Israelites were commanded to go to war against them.

Two Tests

Thus we see that the Israelites faced two tests in their second journey, and these paralleled the tests in which the Israelites had failed in their first journey.  They passed both tests on their second journey, thus making amends for the two failings of the previous generation.  The fact that the Israelites passed these tests paved the way for conquering the Transjordan and arriving at the gates of the Promised Land on the western bank of the Jordan River – “Meanwhile we stayed on in the valley near Beth- peor” (3:29).

The conclusions that Moses drew from his overview also contain a two-fold message (4:1-2):

And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the G-d of your fathers, is giving you.  You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it.

You shall not add – for the sin of the attempted conquest; you shall not take away – for the sin of the spies.

Moses’ conclusion served as the foundation for words of Scripture for all generations:  “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you:   neither add to it nor take away from it” (Deut. 13:1).


[1] The word “judges” (shofetim)   is not mentioned in the main part of this section, and occurs only in verses 15-18; so it seems that the story refers to the appointment of leaders (similar to what is described in Numbers 11).   This is not the place to discuss the precise relationship between this passage and its parallels in Exodus 18 and Numbers 11.

[2] For example, Deut 10:8-9; Joshua 11:21-22.  Cf. S. Loewenstamm’s remarks, “The phrase ‘At that time’ in the opening addresses of Deuteronomy” (Heb.), Tarbiz 38 (1969), pp 99-104.

[3] So D.Z. Hoffmann in his commentary on Deuteronomy (translated into Hebrew by Z. Har-Shefer), Tel Aviv 1960, p. 18, and following him, N. Leibowitz, Studies in Deuteronomy, Jerusalem 1994, pp. 9-13.

[4] The inner aspect of the sin was also similar in both instances.   With the spies, the Israelites sinned in thinking that the Lord did not have sufficient might to overcome the peoples of Canaan.  With the attempted conquest, the Israelites sinned in thinking that their own might was sufficient to conquer the land, for they had been told that the Lord was not in their midst.   Either way, the Israelites showed a lack of faith regarding the Lord’s part in conquering the land.

[5] This verse itself is formulated as the opposite of the command to journey to the promised land:  “Start out and make your way to the hill country of the Amorites” (Deut. 1:7).

[6] It is interesting to note the Sages’ remark (Seder Olam Rabbah ch. 8) that they spent 19 years at Kadesh, and an equal number of years skirting Mount Seir, thus equating the two punishments.

[7] Cf. Numbers 21:4:  “The set out from Mount Hor … to skirt the land of Edom.   But the people grew restive on the journey…”