Beyond The Desert Generation


Shabbat Shalom
Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 6:47 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 26:1-29:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22
Havdalah: 7:44 p.m.

“You have seen all that God did in Egypt… Your own eyes saw the great miracles, signs and wonders. But until this day, God did not give you a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear” [Deuteronomy 29:1-3].

In stating that the Jewish people did not possess understanding prior to this day, Moses is saying that they needed 40 years of growth before they were emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually mature enough to enter the land and live there as a nation. The generation that entered Israel needed to age, to outgrow their youth, before they could live and lead in the Promised Land. This is a profound lesson, one that flies in the face of today’s youth culture mentality.

Often the 40-year story of the desert sojourn is recalled as a time when all that happened was that the old generation died out. There was an element of death that pervaded the desert air. Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik suggested that this is why the portion of the Red Heifer, dealing with death, appears in the middle of the tale of the desert years. Additionally, the Talmud presents a picture of Israelites annually digging their own graves and waiting to die on the anniversary of the sin of the spies — one Tisha b’Av or another.

But while one generation was dying another generation was being incubated. The story of the preparing of this new crop to enter the land is a story that Moses tells us is not to be missed. Moshe declares that this story has reached its zenith and that every second up to the moment of his pronouncement was needed to prepare the Jewish nation to properly see, hear, and understand.

It is reasonable to wonder if there is any textual indication that the people were ready to be a nation at this moment. What prompted Moses to decisively say now that they finally got it right? The evidence of the Jews’ readiness comes in a cryptic line that follows the lines cited above. Moses states that Jewish people have accepted that two and a half of the tribes are the rightful recipients of land on one side of the Jordan — Eiver HaYarden — before the land on the other side is conquered. This seemingly unnecessary statement of detail is a covert song of high praise for the Jews’ level at this time. The fact that they were willing to acquiesce some of the land to their brothers before all of the land was conquered showed unwavering faith in God that the rest of the land would surely become theirs as planned. This reflects a spiritual maturity that was lacking in the nations’ attitude until now.

Rashi comments that on this day Moshe presented a Torah to the tribe of Levi. The people protested, saying that one day the Levites could claim that only they had a share in Torah when it is a basic tenet of Judaism that Torah belongs equally to every individual. On the heels of this protest Moshe joyfully declares that they are ready. The appealing element of their words, to Moshe’s ear, was that they were thinking about the future. Their concerns indicated that they were looking forward to a full and strong Jewish people in Israel. They were ready.

There is an important paradoxical detail in Moses’ words. He gathers the Jewish People and tells them, “You have seen all that God did in Egypt before your very eyes,” while the fact is that we know that this is not true. The people that stood before him did not leave Egypt. That generation died out. Moses is now addressing the children of that generation. It is the new generation that survived the 40 years in the desert that will enter the land of Israel. So why does he say that they saw what they didn’t see?

The answer to this question rests within the following fundamental Jewish philosophical concept. The Jewish People is timeless, called in Hebrew “Knesset Yisrael.” At any given time since Sinai there has been a physical living group who are the Jewish people and yet there is something larger than any particular group of Jews and that is the eternal Jewish nation. Early in the Book of Devarim [Deut. 5:2- 3] Moshe makes this clear: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day.” He is here informing us unambiguously that the target audience of his parting words is every generation of the Jewish people.

In Moses’ entreaty at the end of this week’s parshah, he urges the Jews to hold on to their true wisdom, the kind gained only through age and experience. His words are relevant for us today because Moses was speaking to us all those years ago. May we be blessed to listen to what our beloved teacher Moses begged of us in the final words of Ki Tavo, to “keep the words of this covenant, so that you will succeed in all that you do” [Deut. 29:8].

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann, director of Torah guidance at The Frisch School, is the author of “In the Field: A Collection of Haiku.”