The Responsibility not to be Misled

PARASHAT DEVARIM: Why does Moshe change some of the details when retelling the Sin of the Spies?

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, the fifth book of the Torah, which bears the same name as the parasha, commences. According to tradition, the entire book of Devarim was spoken by Moses during the last five weeks of his life. In this book, Moses offers his valedictory address to the people of Israel, whom he loves and has served faithfully.

Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tries desperately to convince the new generation of Israelites not to sin by recounting the failures of the previous generation. Moses convincingly argues that if the generation that left Egypt, who had seen all the miracles of G-d, could sin, then the new generation who have not shared those extraordinary experiences, must make special efforts not to stray.

Rather than rebuke the people directly, Moses employs indirect allusions to their sins by gently mentioning the locations where the previous generation had strayed. It is only when he reminds the people of the sins of the Scouts that Moses goes into great detail. It was, after all, the sin of the Scouts that resulted in the devastating punishment prohibiting the entire generation of men who departed Egypt to enter the Promised Land.

In recounting the story of the Scouts, however, Moses omits many details of the original story, while other, seemingly less pertinent facts, are emphasized.

There is a profound lesson to learn from these unexpected changes.

In Deuteronomy 1:22, Moses declares, “Va’tik’r’voon ay’lai kool’chem, va’tohm’roo, nish’l’chah ah’nah’shim l’fah’nay’noo,” all of you approached me and said, let us send men ahead of us and let them spy out the land and bring word back to us. However, in the original story reported in Numbers 13:1, the Torah states that it was G-d, not the people, who said to Moses, “Sh’lach l’chah ah’nah’shim, v’ya’too’roo et eretz Canaan,” Send for yourself men to spy out the Land of Canaan which I am giving to the Children of Israel. Instead of blaming G-d or the Scouts in retelling the story, Moses places the onus of the sin on the people.

A second prominent difference is that, in Deuteronomy, Moses omits the important status of the spies that is recorded in Numbers 13:3, “Koo’lahm ah’nah’shim ra’shay v’nay Yisrael hay’mah,” They were all distinguished men, heads of the Children of Israel, were they. Furthermore, in the original version, recorded in Numbers, it is clearly the Scouts who mislead the people and slander the land of Israel. However, in Deuteronomy 1:26-27, Moses instead blames the people saying, “V’lo ah’vee’tem la’ah’loht, va’tahm’roo et pee Hashem Eh’lo’kay’chem. Va’tay’rahg’noo b’aw’ha’lay’chem,” But you did not wish to ascend, and you rebelled against the word of the L-rd, your G-d. You murmured in your tents. Here, again, Moses clearly assigns the fault to the people, not the Scouts.

The late, great Nehama Leibowitz (famed Israeli Bible teacher, 1905-1997), in her brilliant Studies in Devarim, Deuteronomy, maintains that these changes were purposely made by Moses, with clear intent. Blaming the Scouts at this point would serve no purpose and would appear to the current generation as an exoneration of the people.

Nehama Leibowitz cogently explains Moses’ purpose in blaming the people:

Is the listener who was misled by the seducer [those who listened to the lies of the Scouts] freed from all moral responsibility? The Torah does not take such a view, but charges each man with responsibility for all his actions. The listener 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.

To support her conclusion, Nehama Leibowitz astutely cites the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where Adam blames his wife for his sinfulness, and she blames the serpent for her sinfulness. Clearly, Eve should not have listened to the serpent, and Adam should not have listened to his wife. They all should have listened to G-d.

Nehama Leibowitz points to the primary difference between the accounts in Numbers and Deuteronomy. The report in Numbers, which emphasizes the actions of the Scouts, was a chronicle of what had historically occurred. The account in Deuteronomy, as Moses completes his role as the leader of Israel, is intended to serve as a morality lesson to the people.

Every individual is responsible for the misdeeds of the group. Each one is obliged to resist evil and do good, and not to excuse himself on the grounds that he was influenced by his colleague or superior, or even leader. Each individual has ultimately to be his own leader, responsible for his every action and not just a cog in the vast machine of society. “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land” our festival liturgy states, and not because of the sin of Titus, the Roman emperor who destroyed the Temple.

Professor Leibowitz concludes her analysis by noting that parashat Devarim is always read on the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av because of the verse in Deuteronomy 1:12, “Ay’chah eh’sah l’vah’dee tahr’cha’chem oo’mah’sah’ah’chem v’reev’chem,” How can I alone carry your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels? The Hebrew word “Ay’cha parallels the first word of the Book of Lamentations, which is chanted on Tisha B’Av, “Ay’chah yash’vah bah’dahd ha’eer…” How does the great city of Jerusalem sit desolate?

Emphasizing, once again, the collective responsibility of individuals to resist evil, Nechama Leibovitz cites the Midrash Tehillim137:10, which states that “Any generation in whose days the Temple was not built, is reckoned by the Holy Writ to have destroyed it.”

This is the ultimate message of Tisha B’Av. Jews must not allow themselves to be seduced by other nations, other generations or other individuals. It is our responsibility to heed G-d’s admonitions and to act properly. Only in this way will our people be worthy to witness the rebuilding of the Temple.

May you be blessed.

Originally appears on Rabbi Buchwald’s website

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