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Devarim | From Actions to Words

Rav Itiel Gold
31.07.2022

In Loving Memory of
Jeffrey Paul Friedman z"l
August 15, 1968 – July 29, 2012
לע"נ יהודה פנחס בן הרב שרגא פייוועל ז"ל
כ"ב אב תשכ"ח – י' אב תשע"ב

I. Not a man of words?!

And Moshe said to the Lord:… I am not a man of words… for I am slow [lit. heavy] of mouth, and of a slow [lit. heavy] tongue. (Shemot 4:10)

One of Moshe's primary concerns about accepting a leadership position related to his difficulty in speaking. The nature of Moshe’s difficulty is not at all clear – whether it was stuttering (as Rashi explains, ad loc.), difficulty in verbal expression, or emotional difficulty surrounding speech – but it is clear that he had a weakness in this area.[1]

In light of this, it is surprising to find that towards the end of his life, Moshe, who had declared himself "slow of speech,” spoke at length to the people of Israel. How did Moshe transform from “not a man of words” into the orator of “the book of Devarim (words)”?

If we read the intervening chapters closely, it becomes surprisingly clear that until the book of Devarim, Moshe did not speak very much to the people of Israel. Of course, he passed on to them the commandments that he received from God, but he rarely initiated personal speech to them. Most of Moshe’s communication was with God, and less with the people. Even at the dramatic events that took place in the wilderness, such as the parting of the Sea of Suf, the giving of the Torah, the sin of the golden calf, and the sin of the spies, Moshe said very little to the people on his own initiative.[2]

The book of Devarim brings a shift from one extreme to the other, as Moshe stops performing actions and instead initiates a long oration to the people. He is no longer merely a conduit for transmitting messages from God to the people, but rather he decides to begin a project of expounding the Torah:[3] “Moshe began to expound this Torah” (Devarim 1:5). What caused this change? What brought Moshe to step out of his previous mode of leadership?

An examination of our parasha, in which Moshe’s orations begin, may shed light on the entire objective of the book of Devarim, in which Moshe transitions to the avenue of speech.

II. The historical oration?

As is well known, the book of Devarim contains two separate orations delivered by Moshe: the first, which is commonly called the "historical oration," is found in our parasha (and at the beginning of the next parasha). The second, which is commonly called the "oration of the mitzvot,” spreads across most of the book (chapters 5-26).[4] In the historical oration, Moshe reviews the years of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness; the oration of the mitzvot deals with expounding the mitzvot.

However, calling the oration in our parasha a “historical oration” is misleading. Ostensibly, such a speech should include an orderly review of the major events that occurred from the book of Shemot until now. However, a look at the oration reveals that Moshe reviewed only a very specific portion of the events.

Chapter 1 discusses the events of the first generation: the appointment of judges (1:9-18); the sin of the spies (1:22-40); and the sin of the ma’apilim (1:41-46). The next two chapters deal with the events of the second generation: passing through the border of the descendants of Esav, and the prohibition to wage war against them (2:1-8); passing by Moav and Amon, and the prohibition to wage war against them (2:9-16); the war waged against Sichon and Og, and settlement in their lands (2:24-3:22).[5]

It is easy to see that this speech is not really an exhaustive historical overview of the events of the wilderness. If I had to summarize Israel’s journey through the wilderness, it is unlikely that I would have chosen these events as the main events.[6]

Moreover, most of the wilderness stories took place in the first generation, with only a minority in the second generation. Nevertheless, Moshe chooses to speak at greater length about the events of the second generation. This discrepancy is even more puzzling when one remembers that the second generation is standing before Moshe’s very eyes: what is the point of reviewing the events of the second generation to those who experienced them only recently in the flesh?!

III. Comparing the Generations

The solution to these questions seems to lie in understanding the nature of the events that Moshe chose to mention in his oration. If we try to identify one central principle that ties all these events together, we will see that this oration is essentially a hymn of praise about the second generation, which is more deserving of the Promised Land than the first generation.

The main stories that appear in the first chapter of Devarim are the sin of the spies and the sin of the ma’apilim,[7] revealing a focus on the first generation’s failure in its mission to inherit the land. This generation did not listen to God about anything related to taking possession of the land: it refrained from moving forward when it was so commanded (the sin of the spies), and then it pushed forward against the command of God (the sin of the ma’apilim.[8]

These two sins, of the spies and of the ma’apilim, describe two sides of the same mindset of the generation. The people of that generation act impulsively, based on their emotional state at the moment. When they are scared, they avoid going up to the land; when they are agitated, they rise up by force and are smitten in battle.

In contrast, the following two chapters describe at length how the second generation acts in a completely different manner. The second generation heeds the command to take possession of the land and moves forward with pride, daring to fight Sichon and Og and successfully taking their land. At the same time, it is also balanced and moderate and does not fight when it is commanded not to fight, against the descendants of Esav and Lot. The second generation shines against the background of the first generation’s failure in everything related to entering the land.[9]

IV. Communication Difficulties

On the surface, then, Moshe’s oration compares the two generations with respect to the conquest of the land. But a more careful analysis indicates that there is a deeper issue beneath the surface – the quality of communication between Moshe and the people.

Chapter 1, which discusses the first generation, is structured as a description of an ongoing dialogue between Moshe and the people, the purpose of which is to fulfill God's command to inherit the land. This dialogue is divided into two parts: the first part relates to the appointment of judges, and the second part is about the sin of the spies (and the ma’apilim). Each part begins with God’s general command to take possession of the land, followed by a dialogue between Moshe and the people:

Part 1 – Appointment of judges:

God’s command:

“The Lord our God spoke to us in Chorev, saying… turn you, and take your journey… Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land” (1:6-8).

The Dialogue:

And I spoke to you at that time” (v. 9) – the proposal to appoint judges.

“And you answered me, and said: The thing which you have spoken is good for us to do” (v. 14) – the people’s agreement to the appointment of judges. 

Part 2 – The spies and the ma’apilim:

God’s command:

“And we journeyed from Chorev, and went through all that great and dreadful wilderness… as the Lord our God commanded us” (v. 19).

The dialogue:

And I said to you:… Behold, the Lord your God has set the land before you; go up, take possession… fear not, neither be dismayed” (v. 19). “And you came near to me every one of you, and said: Let us send men before us” (v. 22) – sending the spies.

“And you murmured in your tents, and said: Because the Lord hated us, He has brought us forth out of the land of Egypt” (v. 27) – the people’s objection to entering the land after the spies’ report.

“Then I said to you: Dread not, neither be afraid of them” (v. 29) – Moshe’s attempt to persuade the people not to listen to the spies.

“Then you answered and said to me: We have sinned against the Lord; we will go up and fight” (v. 41) – the sin of the ma’apilim.

“So I spoke to you, and you hearkened not” (v. 43) – Moshe’s attempt to stop the sin of the ma’apilim.

The bolded words show eight expressions of communication between Moshe and the people over the course of the chapter.[10] The repetition of these words indicates that this is the central theme around which the whole chapter revolves.

The dialogues between Moshe and the people are intended to advance God's command to take possession of the land, which appears in the opening of each section. In the first part, Moshe appoints judges to help him lead the people while going to the land and conquering it.[11] This section illustrates good communication between Moshe and the people: Moshe proposes the appointment of judges, and the people agree to it. The second part also begins with positive communication: Moshe addresses the people and encourages them to start moving towards conquest of the land without fear; the people respond with a request to send spies, and Moshe responds favorably to their request.[12]

From that point on, however, communication collapses and a "dialogue of the deaf" begins. The people complain in the wake of the spies – Moshe offers words of encouragement – the people do not respond – God is angry and decrees that this generation will not enter the land – the people respond with a demand to go up to the land by force – Moshe attempts to dissuade them – the people refuse to listen and suffer a loss in war.

Not only does communication between Moshe and the people collapse, but communication between the people and God is destroyed as well. This can be seen in the poignant verse that concludes this section, which describes how the people wept but God did not listen (v. 45).

If we carefully read Moshe’s words to the people, we see that in the two verses that serve as a heading to each section, Moshe speaks in first person: “The Lord our God spoke to us… and we journeyed… and we went… as the Lord our God commanded us.” At the beginning of each section, Moshe sees himself alongside the people, facing God’s command to take possession of the land. God speaks to them together, and Moshe’s role, together with the judges, is to lead the people to the land. At the end of the chapter, however, Moshe has shifted to second person, separating himself from the people: “And you returned, and wept before the Lord; but the Lord hearkened not to your voice, nor gave ear to you.” The blocking of communication creates a separation between Moshe and the people, who become independent entities.

In this part of the oration, Moshe in effect links the failure of the first generation to the lack of discourse between him and the people. They started out as one body, with good communication which led to joint leadership, but later that communication disintegrated. Moshe thus presents the deep cause of the failure of the first generation: it was impossible to communicate with them. Such a situation is untenable, and they were forced to end their historical role in the wilderness.

This description of the difficulties of communication with the first generation provides the background for a completely different picture with the second generation, which Moshe describes in the next two chapters.

V. Moshe and the Second Generation

As mentioned, the second part of Moshe’s oration deals with the journeys of the second generation. It describes the wars fought by the second generation and their avoidance of fighting against peoples whom God commands not to provoke. Throughout this section, Moshe returns to using the first person:

Then we turned, and took our journey… So we passed by from our brethren the children of Esav… And the days in which we came from Kadesh-Barnea… But Sichon king of Cheshbon would not let us pass by him… And we took all his cities… (2:1-34)

The return to this wording indicates a reconnection between Moshe and the people, which took place in the second generation. Moshe sees himself again as part of the people and not as an outside observer. Moreover, throughout the journey with the second generation, there is extensive communication from God to the people, through Moshe. Unlike the first generation, regarding which only a general commandment to inherit the land is described, the second generation receives explanations of why not to provoke the descendants of Esav and Lot (2: 2-23), as well as words of encouragement to fight Sichon and Og (2: 24-25, 31; 3:2). These words are said to Moshe, and they are immediately followed by a description of how the people applied them with precision.

It seems that in the second generation, a new policy was created for God's leadership of the people: more words, less action.

As stated, in the first generation, God spoke little about matters related to entering the land, and only gave a general command. Moshe tried to create dialogues with the people, but mostly without success. The first generation had come out of slavery, but slavery did not come out of it. The people were accustomed to orders and commands, but not to religious discourse and dialogue. When they encountered fears, everything collapsed – the commandments failed to motivate them, as did verbal appeals to their hearts.

The second generation, on the other hand, was more attentive and open to discussion. Messages were delivered to them from God through Moshe, without objections. There is cooperation, which enables Moshe to see himself again as part of the people.[13]

This different picture shows a profound difference between the generations, in that the first generation was not well matched for leadership through speech.

VI. Words and Deeds

As mentioned at the beginning of this shiur, the interaction between Moshe and the people in the previous books is more characterized by deeds and less by speech. Moshe often performs miracles and wonders with his staff; he does less with his mouth. I wish now to suggest that this is his conduct specifically in relation to the first generation. With that generation, Moshe and God sometimes look like parents, who talk about their children without them hearing and go to them after already having made their decisions.

At this point, let us go back and remember that Moshe described himself as one who is slow (“heavy”) of speech and of a slow (“heavy”) tongue. His power was not in his mouth, which suited his leadership of the first generation. In the second generation, however, the situation is reversed: the leader of slow speech succeeds in communicating with the people of Israel. God’s words flow through him to the people, and the people listen. His difficulty of speech decreases, because on the other side there is a generation that is ready and willing to listen.

In light of this, it seems that Moshe’s difficulty of expression was an emotional issue and not a physical stutter. In such a situation, the identity and nature of the listening party can make a dramatic difference. The first generation was not open to listening – already in Egypt (Shemot 6:9), and so too throughout their journey in the wilderness. This situation shut down the slow-of-speech Moshe even more. However, with the second generation, something opens up.

In his opening speech, Moshe essentially compliments the second generation for opening a channel for dialogue. In doing so, he clarifies the basis for the entire book of Devarim. Now, with the openness of the second generation, it is possible to create the book of Devarim to expound the Torah to them, and to direct them towards entering the land.

This situation allows for a new approach. Leadership through words is not like leadership through actions. Leadership through actions is quite cumbersome, and based on rewards and punishments. Complex or delicate messages cannot be conveyed in this way. Indeed, such messages appear for the first time in the book of Devarim. Thus, for example, only in the book of Devarim do we find the commandment to love God (6:5), lofty conversations related to faith and providence (especially in Parashot Va-etchanan and Ekev), and discussion of repentance (Chapter 30). The book of Devarim deals for the first time with emotional and internal processes: the path to faith in God (4:32-40), fears that are liable to arise (7:17-26), and others. These issues can only be addressed through speech; leadership through actions would only touch the externals of these matters, and could not penetrate inside. Only the second generation, capable of listening and looking inward, is capable also of taking possession of the land. The first generation, which was less refined, was forced to die in the wilderness.

VII. Why did Moshe not enter the land of Israel?

The conventional explanation for Moshe's being denied entry into the Land of Israel is his sin at Mei Meriva, when he hit the rock, as described in the book of Bamidbar (20:13-14). However, in our parasha, we are surprised to hear that it was because of the sin of the spies:

And the Lord heard… and was angry, and swore, saying: Surely not one of these men, even this evil generation, shall see the good land… Also the Lord was angry with me for your sakes, saying: You also shall not go in there. (1:34-37)

Why was God angry with Moshe because of the sin of the spies? Ostensibly, he should have been judged positively, as Calev and Yehoshua were, for he too encouraged the people not to listen to the spies. Furthermore, how can this be reconciled with what is stated in the book of Bamidbar, that the decree regarding Moshe was issued because of the sin at Mei Meriva?

It seems that these questions can be answered in light of what we have stated above. In the end, Moshe belongs to the leadership of the first generation. Moshe's power lay in his staff, in his doing wonders on behalf of the first generation, in order to push them out of Egypt into the wilderness. But he is incapable of leading in the Land of Israel. The sin of the spies made this clear once and for all, when Moshe failed to create a dialogue with the first generation and dispel their fears. The lines of communication collapsed, and so it became clear that Moshe was no longer capable of advancing the people.

It is true that Moshe underwent a process together with the second generation and managed to "reinvent himself." Thanks to the openness of the second generation, he began to lead through speech and by engaging with more internal processes. This allowed him to begin the conquest of the east bank of the Jordan together with the second generation – which led Moshe to think that he had become worthy to lead the people into their land.  This explains why he then appealed to God that he be allowed to enter the land, as described at the beginning of the next parasha (which is a continuation of the oration in our parasha[14]):  

And I appealed to the Lord at that time, saying: O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness, and Your strong hand… Let me go over, I pray You, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country, and Lebanon. (Devarim 3:23-25)

God, however, does not accept his prayer. Despite the connection and dialogue with the second generation, Moshe is still too deeply rooted in the patterns of the first generation.

This explanation for Moshe's non-entry into the land also relates to the incident at Mei Meriva. Moshe's sin was in striking the rock, instead of speaking to it as he had been commanded. Many commentators had difficulty with this story: What is the big difference between striking the rock and speaking to it? Moreover, in the parallel story in the book of Shemot, Moshe is in fact asked to strike a rock (Shemot 17:6).[15] The Rashbam (Bamidbar 20:10) explains that Moshe erred in that he tried to reenact the miracle in the book of Shemot and strike the rock. He did not think that speaking to the rock would suffice. In light of the above, it may be understood that this is not a random mistake. The striking of the rock symbolizes the leadership of the first generation, who was led by force by way of the staff. Striking the rock hints to the people that they will be led by force, despite their objection to the journey and to entering the land. They are basically similar to the rock, which, if hit hard enough, will eventually release water.

The story at Mei Meriva, on the other hand, takes place with the second generation. Here, Moshe is commanded to use speech with the rock. The second generation must be led through speech. Moshe, however, is still deeply rooted in the first generation and therefore identifies the behavior that suited the first generation with the desired behavior for the second generation. Once again, Moshe strikes the rock and tries to lead by force – thereby demonstrating to God that he is no longer suitable for the leadership of the second generation. God therefore issues the decree that bars him from entering the land.

In our parasha, the same point is explained, but from a different direction; the collapse of Moshe's communication with the first generation, in the sin of the spies, symbolizes his difficulty in leading the second generation.

However, where you find the fall of Moshe, there you find his greatness. Despite God's determination that Moshe is not suitable for the second generation, he does not despair and tries to the best of his ability to change his previous mode of leadership, to open the channel of speech, to stand before the people and give them an invaluable gift – the book of Devarim.

(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Most commentators have interpreted the phrase "kevad peh" in this direction. The Rashbam, on the other hand, explains that Moshe means he never mastered the Egyptian language. According to the Rashbam, it would be impossible for God to choose a person who stutters as a prophet. It seems that the Rashbam, the great advocate of the plain meaning of Scripture, deviated on this point from his customary practice due to a theological difficulty – as the next verse, in which God answers Moshe, indicates that he was in fact talking about a speech defect: "And the Lord said to him: Who made man's mouth? Or who makes a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I the Lord?" (4:11)

God tries to reassure Moshe by pointing out that He can heal defects, including a speech defect.

[2] At the parting of the Sea of Suf, Moshe contents himself with a single statement to the people:  "And Moshe said to the people: Fear you not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will work for you today; for whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall see them again no more forever. The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace." (Shemot 14:13-14)

Moshe prepares the people for the assembly at Mount Sinai, but it is repeatedly emphasized that everything he says to them is what God explicitly told him to say (Shemot 20).

After the sin of the golden calf, Moshe once again makes just one brief statement to the people: "Moshe said to the people: You have sinned a great sin; and now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I shall make atonement for your sin" (Shemot 32:30). Moshe then speaks and prays to God extensively, but he does not speak to the people (Shemot 33-34).

At the sin of the spies, described in the book of Bamidbar, Moshe does not speak to the people at all. He only tries, unsuccessfully, to dissuade them from ignoring God’s decree and going up immediately to the Land of Israel (Bamidbar 14:41).

So too throughout the stories regarding Israel's complaints about wandering in the wilderness (in Parashot Beshalach, Beha'alotekha, and Korach), Moshe almost never speaks. When he does, it is always short statements that tend to have little influence on the people (see, for example: Shemot 16:6-8; Bamidbar 16:9-11).

[3] Admittedly, there is some ambiguity as to whether the book of Devarim was stated as the free speech of Moshe, or whether here too Moshe conveyed what he heard directly from God. The first verse in the book implies it is introducing a personal speech of Moshe: "These are the words that Moshe spoke." This also follows from v. 5, which describes the book of Devarim as Moshe's exposition of the Torah. However, v. 3 suggests otherwise: "… that Moshe spoke to the children of Israel, according to all that the Lord had given him in commandment to them." This question has been extensively discussed by the commentators to the Torah; see, for example, the Abravanel's commentary at the beginning of the book. The Gemara (Megilla 31b) already contains a hint of the approach that Moshe said the book of Devarim on his own. It seems that even those who insist that the book of Devarim was given from God would concede that it is different from the transmission of messages in the other books and contains certain adaptations by Moshe.

[4] Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman maintains that there is a third oration at the end of the book, the "oration of the covenant" (Chapters 27-31). Other commentators saw this section as an appendix to the oration of the mitzvot.

[5] The oration continues into the beginning of the next parasha, in Chapter 4 – not with an actual historical review, but rather general statements about the miracles that occurred in the past, as well as a description of processes that will befall the people of Israel in the future.  

[6] Rashi at the beginning of the parasha expounds the names of the places mentioned by Moshe in the first verse and shows how they allude to prominent events that took place during Israel's wanderings in the wilderness. It stands to reason that Rashi was aware of the difficulty in the fact that Moshe omits central events from his oration, and therefore he tried to show that Moshe at least alludes to them.

[7] The directive for the first generation to take possession of the land is mentioned twice over the course of the chapter: "Go in and possess the land" (1:8); "Behold, the Lord your God has set the land before you; go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has spoken to you; fear not, neither be dismayed" (1:21). This repeated demand, part of the description of the events of the first generation, emphasizes the message that Moshe is trying to present: what was asked of the first generation was to go and take possession of the land without fear, but they failed in this task.

[8] The appointment of judges, which is also described in this section, should be understood as an explanation of the first generation’s collective responsibility for the failure. Moshe's leadership was shared with the people from the very beginning, for tens of thousands of judges were appointed who were supposed to lead the people together with him. Therefore, the failure of the generation is not only Moshe's, but a joint failure.

[9]  See more about this in Rabbi Elchanan Samet's analysis of the first oration in his study of Parashat Devarim, "Ha-Mavo ha-Histori."  

[10] The first seven instances are of words derived from the root a-m-r. The eighth instance is a word derived from the root d-b-r: "And I spoke to you." In this way, a connection is created to the opening verse, "These are the words [devarim]" and to the name of the entire book. As I will explain below, this verse shows the depth of the fracture of the first generation. It alludes to the fact that the book of Devarim constitutes a repair, with the second generation, of the "speech" crisis that occurred in the first generation.

[11] The Abravanel explains that the judges are essentially military leaders – as indicated in the war against Midyan, where the military commanders are called "captains of thousands and captains of hundreds" (Bamidbar 31:14).

[12]  At this point, a connection is made between this part and the previous part: the people respond to Moshe's request for the appointment of judges with the phrase "the thing is good" (v. 14), and Moshe responds to the people's request to send spies with a similar phrase, "and the thing was good in my eyes" (v. 23). Hence, the sending of the spies is perceived as a positive event that took place while communication between Moshe and the people was still at a good stage.

[13] Throughout the second part of the speech, Moshe describes the word of God as having been spoken directly to him. Again and again, there appears the phrase, "And the Lord said to me" (2:2, 7, 31; 3:2). This stands in contrast to the command to the first generation to take possession of the land, which is formulated in the plural – to the people of Israel and to Moshe together. The model of communication in the first generation is that of a general statement of God, followed by Moshe’s attempt to persuade the people to fulfill the command. In the second generation, God speaks to Moshe, and from him the message is relayed to the people. This approach allows broader and more detailed communication, that passes through Moshe to the people.

[14] The division of the parashot causes confusion here, since it suggests that Moshe's prayer to enter the land begins, as it were, a new subject. The fact is that the division of the chapters is more reasonable: Moshe's supplication to enter the land is a continuation of Chapter 3, which deals with the connection between Moshe and the second generation. His plea to enter the land stems from this connection that was created and from the successful conquests that were achieved together with that generation.

[15] See Ramban, Bamidbar 20:7.

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