The Book of Devarim, or Deuteronomy, is essentially Moses’ review of the Israelites’ journey. Now, they stand at the threshold of the Promised Land. Moses retells the story and pulls out lessons by which the Israelites are to live as they move forward under Joshua, their new leader.
What we find as we read through these stories, however, is that Moses retells them differently. Moses begins by recounting the time in history when chieftains and magistrates were appointed. In Exodus, it was Yitro, Moses’ father in law, who saw that Moses was wearing himself out because he was the only appointed leader. Yitro tells Moses that it is too much, that Moses should be the intermediary between God and the people and that he should appoint others to settle the smaller disputes between people. Yitro instructs Moses, and Moses follows through. In this week’s portion, however, Moses explains that he was the one who realized what needed to be done, and he brought the idea to the people, whereupon the people agreed to the plan and then Moses chose the leaders.
A few verses later, we hear the retelling of the story of the 12 spies sent to reconnoiter the land. In the Book of Numbers, it was God who commanded that scouts be sent to the land of Canaan. When they came back, they said that the land, indeed, was flowing with milk and honey, but 10 of them said that the Israelites would never be able to defeat the people who lived there. Only Caleb and Joshua said that all would be fine if they trusted God. The community chose to follow the 10 and cried out in despair. God punished them for their lack of faith by ordaining that their generation would die in the wilderness and only their children, led by Joshua and Caleb, would enter the land. In this week’s portion, however, Moses explains that it was the Israelites who wanted to send the spies, not God.
Why the difference? Is it simply that, after 40 years, Moses doesn’t remember the details? Or can we glean more significance from comparing the stories side by side?
Perhaps Moses is attempting to teach the people that their fate has been and will continue to be entirely up to them.
The people never verbally agreed to have magistrates and judges appointed over them, but because they are participating in a new system, they take ownership of it. Because the system worked when leadership was shared, the people took responsibility for it, and should be recognized for taking such a beneficial step.
In the case of the spies, the people must also take direct responsibility for the entire episode. It ultimately makes no difference whose idea it was to send the spies into the land because the essential part of the story is the pessimistic response to what the spies saw. The people themselves must recognize the role they played in creating their situation. Perhaps Moses takes God out of the story altogether so there is no temptation to blame any aspect of their condition on God.
Moses’ lesson should ring true for us as well. Whatever the direction of our society and communities, it is the corporate body of the whole that bears the ultimate responsibility for what we do and what happens to us. We have a lot of which to be proud. The rights and the freedoms we enjoy in this country are essentially unprecedented in the history of humanity. And at the same time, we know there are serious flaws that undermine those freedoms, and that the restrictions are disproportionately felt. It is often tempting to blame our leadership, our politicians or some other external entity for the ills of our society, but it is our voices, our votes, our actions that create a path to move forward. If ever we are frustrated with our society, the answer is to become more invested, not less.
The Israelites are on the brink of the Promised Land, about to build a new civilization for themselves. Moses retells the story of how they got to this point in such a way as to reiterate the power the Israelites have in creating their own destiny. Their future is theirs to determine.
And so is ours.
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin is a rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.