Starting at the End / Dvar Torah, Parshat Devarim

Haim Watzman

This is an English version of the dvar Torah that appears in issue 1208 of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly portion sheet published by the religious peace movement Oz Veshalom. It is dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us seven years ago on 2 Av.

Many years ago, when I worked as a journalist, I attended a press conference at a conservative research institute in Jerusalem. I don’t recall exactly what the subject was, but I do remember that the institute’s director, who had served in an elite unit in the US Army, claimed that he could prove scientifically that the State of Israel had been in the right in a recent military action that had been loudly criticized by the rest of the world. After I and several other reporters settled ourselves in the small meeting room, he rose to speak. “I’ll start with the creation of the world,” he began. Realizing that the press conference would be very long and grueling. I mumbled an excuse of some sort, got up, and left.

The choice of the right starting point is part of the art of storytelling. Tracing the sequence of causes that led to any given event will always lead to the creation of the world, given that, at least according to the modern scientific view, every event is the consequence of a previous event, going back to the dawn of time. But it’s not only that beginning every story at the creation is tiring. It’s simply wrong, both literarily and in principle. Because the place where the story begins needs to foreshadow the end that the storyteller wants to arrive at.

The book of Deuteronomy opens with a speech Moses gives, in which he tells the Israelites gathered in the Plains of Moab the story of the journey through the desert. This is how you got here, he tells them, to the verge of the Promised Land. Surprisingly, at first glance, the story Moses tells them does not begin with the descent into Egypt, nor with the exodus from Egypt. He begins the story with the Children of Israel’s departure from Mt. Horeb (Mt. Sinai).

And what happened there? “The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying: You have stayed long enough [רַב־לָכֶ֥ם] at this mountain” (Deut. 1:6), he tells them. The Hebrew words “rav-lakhem” can mean either that they spent too much time there, or that they cannot remain there because they are too numerous. In either case, God commands them to set out on their journey to inherit the Land of Israel. But Moses immediately proceeds from the command to leave Horeb to another issue: his inability to handle, all alone, the burden of leadership over such a large nation. He goes on to remind his audience about how he appointed chiefs for each tribe. Then he tells the story of the sin committed by these tribal chiefs, whom he sent to scout out the Land as spies. The punishment is that the entire generation that was present at Horeb will not enter the Land of Israel.

Psalm 105 offers a different version of what happened to the Israelites before they entered Canaan. Here the story begins with Abraham and the covenant God made with him: “He is ever mindful of His covenant, the promise He gave for a thousand generations, that He made with Abraham, swore to Isaac, and confirmed in a decree for Jacob, for Israel, as an eternal covenant” (Psalms 105: 8–10). The exodus from Egypt is the subject of the psalm’s second half, which tells of Moses’s mission, the plagues, God’s protection in the desert, and the return to the Land of Israel.

In contrast with the story that Moses tells on the Plains of Moab, in Psalm 105 the Egyptian exile and the journey through the desert are presented as parts of a divine plan that was intended from the start, ever since the Covenant of the Parts between Abraham and God. There is no sin: “He spread a cloud for a cover, and fire to light up the night. They asked and He brought them quail, and satisfied them with food from heaven. He opened a rock so that water gushed forth; it flowed as a stream in the parched land. Mindful of His sacred promise to His servant Abraham, He led His people out in gladness, His chosen ones with joyous song” (39–43). The history of the people of Israel is not an easy one, but God’s providence is evident throughout it. The poet’s choice to begin his story with Abraham is deliberate. The point of the story he tells is that the Covenant was kept unconditionally and that the divine plan was realized.

Moses does not begin the story that way at the Plains of Moab. Neither does he begin with the creation of the world. At this point, the people need a different narrative. Moses needs to prevent this new generation of Israelites from repeating the error of the previous generation, and to ready them for new leadership.

At the beginning of Deuteronomy, Moses is preparing a new generation, one that did not experience personally either the time of the Patriarchs or the exodus from Egypt, and not even the sojourn at Mt. Sinai, for a new mission and new conditions. The mission is taking possession of and settling the Land, and the new situation is a different leader. That is why he begins the story at the departure from Horeb on the way to the Land, focusing on two errors that led to the postponement of the end of the story by an entire generation. First, there was his own poor choice of leaders, and the second was the betrayal of the mission by those leaders.

Moses tells a truncated story. It lacks details and the context we generally expect from a story. But the message is clear. Moses says to the people: We have left Horeb on our way to the Land of Israel. The deputies who worked under me betrayed my trust and led to a disaster. I thus had to appoint new leaders. You are now about to make another departure, like the one from Horeb. You have an opportunity to begin the story all over again. But a new story requires a new leader. As such, I will not be part of the story that you are now going to be part of.

Moses thus does not begin his speech at the Plains of Moab with the creation of the world, nor with the Covenant of the Parts, or the exodus from Egypt, or the giving of the Torah. A story of repair must begin where it went wrong, at the departure from Horeb.