Parashat D'varim

How the Israelite Nation was Raised

Were they masters of their own destiny?

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The Book of D'varim is the beginning of a transition in the lives of the people of Israel. About to cross over the Jordan to the Promised Land, Moses recounts the laws and life of the Israelites in their wandering in the desert. Moses recalls that the people have been carried by God through the wilderness, fought for by God, shown where to camp and when to move, fed with manna, and provided for in every way (Deut. 1:29-33). Yet in the transition from Moses to Joshua and from wandering in the wilderness to entering the Land, there is a sudden shift in tone. No longer catered to, the people must begin to fend for themselves.

What is the nature and cause of this transition and what changes does it produce in the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Land? The wanderings of Israel in the wilderness have hardly been a resounding success. As Moses spends the majority of the first chapter recalling, it was due to the sin of the spies that Israel was forced to wander for 40 years (Deut. 1:22-45). Along the way, the people continued to disobey and complain, and indeed their years in the desert are marked by grumbling and stiff-neckedness.

Responsibility & Helplessness

Perhaps the cause of this shift in responsibility can be found in the ultimate leadership of God. The Israelites are taken care of by God at every step of the journey through the desert. Though this protection is no doubt welcomed on the one hand, and is perhaps necessary in the first crisis-like weeks, months, and even years after their exodus from Egypt, during the 40 years in the desert the children of Israel are quite literally disempowered.

Never made masters of their own destiny, never allowed to truly take responsibility for themselves and never truly listened to by God, it is perhaps no wonder that their wandering through the desert is a series of disasters.

Indeed God, it seems, has difficulty making the transition from disaster relief to development, from the immediate aid that was necessary and appropriate in the initial crisis-mode post exodus to the mutual development work necessary to produce long-term sustainable success. Rather, throughout the 40-year journey, God leads paternalistically, giving the people no control of their destiny, setting them up for the fear, anxiety, and helplessness that leads to their repeated failure.

As the next story unfolds and the people prepare to enter the land, God seems to have learned from the desert years. Upon entering the land, the people are forced to take responsibility for their needs and defense in a much more direct way. Here they must find their own food and water in the normal human way, rather than rely on divine manna. Though God helps, the Israelites are not carried anymore, but rather must "be strong and of good courage to make their way to the Promised Land (Joshua 1:18)."

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Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.