2004This week's parsha begins the final book of the Torah — the Book of Deuteronomy. Nearly the entire book is composed of a series of speeches Moses delivered to the children of Israel shortly before his death and shortly before the children of Israel were to enter Canaan.
To Protest or Not To Protest?
Story 1: In the first chapter, Moses recounts the chain of events that led to the incident with the spies, in which Israelite spies returned to the people and told them they would not be able to conquer the land of Canaan. Nearly all of the Israelites took the spies' words to heart and did not have faith in God or Moses. God punished the Israelites by having them wander in the desert for 40 years.
1. Then you came near to me, all of you, and said, "Let us send men ahead to spy the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to." 2. [The spies] made for the hill country, came to the Wadi Eshcol, and spied it out. 3. They took some of the fruit of the land with them and brought it down to us. 4. And they gave us this report: "It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving to us." 5. Yet you refused to go up, and flouted the command of the Lord your God... 6. When the Lord heard your loud complaint, He was angry. 7. He vowed: Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give your fathers.
Story 2: Moses recounts that after hearing God's voice at Mount Sinai, the Israelites were overwhelmed and requested that Moses receive the laws from God on their behalf.
1. When you [the children of Israel] heard [God's] voice [at Mt. Sinai], while the mountain was ablaze with fire, you came near to me, all your tribal heads and elders, and said, "The Lord our God has just shown us His majestic presence... 2. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we will die. 3. You (Moses) go closer and hear all that the Lord our God says, and then you tell us everything that the Lord our God tells you, and we will willingly do it."
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, connects the two stories because they both contain the expression "you came near to me."
1. Here, (in the first story) it states: "You came near to me, every one of you..." 2. Later in Deuteronomy (in the second story) it states: "You came near to me, all your tribal heads and elders"— 3. This later "coming near" was done properly, children honoring the elders, sending them first, and elders honoring the heads of the tribes by letting them go first.
4. However, here (in story 1), "You came to me, every one of you," in an unruly crowd, children pushing the elders and elders pushing the leaders.
Your Rashi Navigator
1. In the first story, the Israelites were unruly — they were mob-like — and the story is one of sin and punishment. In the second story, the Israelites were respectful and the story is positive. Is there a connection between how the Israelites behaved when interacting with Moses and the events that took place afterward? 2. What is problematic about the Israelites' behavior in the story of the spies? Is it the fact that the Israelites were skeptical of God (content), and/or the fact that when they went to protest to Moses they behaved contemptuously toward one another (form)?
These stories present us with two models for interacting with authority figures. In the first story, the Israelites are skeptical about what their leader is telling them and they protest. But in their protesting, there is a breakdown in society and a breakdown in the hierarchy of the community. In the second story, the Israelites have unquestioning faith in Moses. While this was appropriate immediately following Mount Sinai, it is not a wise approach to take toward fallible human leaders. Ultimately, when thinking about our relationship to our leaders today, each of these models represents an imprudent extreme. We must ask ourselves, how should we respond to our leaders?
This question is especially relevant today, when the United States has fought a war in Iraq and continues to have a huge military presence there. In addition, the recent report of the Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded that "warnings about Iraq's illicit weapons were largely unfounded, its ties to Al Qaeda were tenuous, and that Saddam Hussein's military [did not] pose a threat to regional stability and American interests" (New York Times, Sunday, July 11, 2004).
The incidents in Iraq remind us that when it comes to politics we must be skeptical. We must be willing to ask difficult questions of our leaders. These stories in the Torah challenge us to ask ourselves: How do we act on our skepticism while safeguarding the principles that we hold dear as Jews and Americans?
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Mishkin, Executive Director, The Fiedler Hillel Center at Northwestern University.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Devarim at MyJewishLearning.com.