This week we begin the book of Deuteronomy, described by some as Moses’ last words to the people before his death, and by some as at the Mishneh Torah the repetition of the entire Torah. Indeed much of this week’s portion reviews events from the book of Numbers.
In the book of Numbers there is a curious ruling. In Numbers 9:10-12 If someone cannot make the Passover sacrifice due to being defiled or too far away from a place to make a sacrifice, a month later, when they are now able to make that sacrifice, they do. They get a second chance.
As I wrote in Shlach Lecha 5769, I just passed my 30 anniversary of my bar mitzvah. For a lot of reasons, I was unable to do what I wanted to do to commemorate thirty years of personal responsibility for the mitzvot. My wish was to lead a Torah discussion in my Shabbat minyan. This week, Moses retells the story of the spies which makes up the bulk of Shlach Lecha. So it was with a bit of surprise and delight when I found out not only was Deuteronomy open to lead discussion, but our organizer of those discussions was desperate for someone to fill the spot. Slightly more than month later, I got a second chance.
While Deuteronomy repeats the Mitzvot and events of the Exodus from Egypt, it does not have a carbon copy. In next week’s reading we will read a different set of Ten Commandments. Exodus 20 for example commands to remember the Sabbath day, while Deuteronomy 5 commands to observe it. Similarly the setup for why the spies enter the land is different, if not contradictory.
1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2. Send men, that they may spy the land of Canaan, which I give to the people of Israel; of every tribe of their fathers shall you send a man, every one a leader among them.[Numbers 13]
But Deuteronomy reads:
22. And you came near me every one of you, and said, We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by which way we must go up, and to what cities we shall come. 23. And the saying pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one from each tribe; [Deuteronomy 1]
Numbers Rabbah XVI:7 does give a way of reconciling both texts. The people wanted to send the spies but God was reluctant, believing that the promise was good enough. God finally agrees and thus we start with God commanding to send spies into Israel. When the spies bring back a bad report the people begin to murmur and cry in their tents.
27. And you murmured in your tents, and said, Because the Lord hated us, he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. [Deut 1]
The Midrash then makes a rather startling statement:
For Israel had wept on the night of the Ninth of Av, and the Holy One, blessed be He, had said to them: ‘You have wept a causeless weeping before Me. I shall therefore fix for you a permanent weeping for future generations.’ At that hour it was decreed that the Temple should be destroyed and that Israel should be exiled among the nations; [Num R XVI:20]
Both temples were destroyed on the 9th of Av. The Expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 to Treblinka ovens lit for the first time, bad things happen on the 9th of Av. It is a day of sorrow where we read the book of Lamentations. Interestingly, the 9th of Av always occurs after this Shabbat reading, which the rabbis at least linked to the incident of the spies and the causeless whining of the people. It is clear that the Torah cycle is set up to read next week’s portion after the 9th of Av as the Sabbath of Comfort, with the Shema and Ten commandments read as consolation for that horrible day. Parshat Devarim and its stories may well be set here in that cycle to bring warning and a hint before the 9th.
For many moderns, the 9th of Av is rejected as a date in the Jewish calendar, and rarely commemorated. In their minds it speaks to a god who is heartless and cruel, a god who would say, as in the Midrash “I’ll give you something to cry about.” Yet, in my mind, the 9th of Av can be thought of as a second chance, and in that it is a blessing. Sometimes it is only in remembering tragedy, in some shock to the system that we wake up and realize what we are doing wrong. It should not be surprising therefore that the 9th of Av also marks the time where we begin to prepare for the High Holiday season. The repentance we do then starts with the soul searching of what we are doing wrong.
The Hasidic Master Levi Yitzchak or Berdichev went to bed every night thinking of all the mistakes he made. HE would then promise to correct them the next day, and then scold himself out loud “that’s what you said yesterday!!!” “I’ll try harder!!!” he would reply to himself. How much is that every one of us, except unlike Levi Yitzchak we don’t bother to admit our faults? Instead our faults become habitual and normative. We can be told what we are doing wrong or even understand but often we don’t listen, much like the people didn’t listen to the prophets.
Deuteronomy itself may have been a prophet too. In II Kings 22 there is the story of a discovery of an unknown Torah scroll in the Temple, which gives such a dire warning itself. Many scholars do believe that lost scroll was Deuteronomy. Given the differences in the stories, grammar, and tone some believe it was not written by Moses but by the scribes of King Josiah in order to substantiate his reforms and enforce centralized worship in Jerusalem. If written by the hand of Moses or a conspiracy of Josiah’s court, the content is the same. Bad thing are coming unless you change – it is your choice.
I’ve been given some incredible second chances in my life. But I wonder about this portion and the idea of a second chance. So I’ve been contemplating some questions to which I don’t have any definite answers.
I believe this portion, and indeed the rest of Deuteronomy is about getting another chance. But more to the point it is about those who don’t take second chances properly. My problem is I don’t know how to connect the dots. I found questions that hint at an answer, but not the answers.
- Why some of the content change in Deuteronomy? In particular why did the episode of the spies change in Josiah’s time. What was the point? If it was written by Moses, a participant in the event, why did he change the story? Or was it like the rabbis said two parts of a bigger story?
- Is there such a thing as second chances?
- What brings about second chances?
- Did the Israelites of Numbers get a second chance?
- If all that generation is dead, why does Moses keep saying “you?”
- Is the 9th of Av really a call for another chance?