Judaism: Shabbat Hazon: In Our Hands, In Our Hearts
The Book of Deuteronomy in Parashat Dvarim, read this Shabbat, opens with the words: “These are the words which Moshe spoke to all Israel in trans-Jordan, in the desert, in the plain, opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tophel and Lavan and Hatzerot and Di-Zahav” (Deuteronomy 1:1).
There is much that is puzzling in this brief geographic description. First of all, why does the Book of Deuteronomy have to tell us where the Children of Israel were encamped? After all, the Book of Numbers already told that the final journey of the Children of Israel’s forty-year desert trek was that “they travelled from the Avarim Mountains and they encamped in the Plains of Moab on the Jordan, by Jericho, and they encamped on the Jordan from Beit Yeshimot unto Avel Shittim in the Plains of Moab” (Numbers 33:48-49). We were still there when G-d gave us the final mitzvot in the Book of Numbers (Numbers 35:1), and the Book concludes by informing us that the Children of Israel were still encamped “in the plains of Moab, at the Jordan, by Jericho” (Numbers 36:13).
Second, the word the Torah uses here for “opposite” is “mol” (“mol Suph…”, “opposite the Red Sea…”). The word for “opposite” is “mul”; so why does the Torah say “mol” instead of “mul”?
Third, the implication is that “Suph” means “Yam Suph”, literally “the Sea of Reeds”, meaning the Red Sea. But the Torah invariably refers to the Red Sea as “Yam Suph”; why here does it uniquely omit “Yam”, and call it simply “Suph”? (Indeed many English translations render “Suph” rather than “the Red Sea.)
Fourth, describing the area facing Jericho on the east bank of the River Jordan as “opposite the Red Sea” is unexpected to say the least. Jericho is about 12 km (7½ miles) north of the northern shore of the Dead Sea; the region 12 km north of the Dead Sea on the east bank of the Jordan is hardly “opposite the Red Sea”.
Fifth, describing the area as “between Paran and Tophel and Lavan and Hatzerot and Di-Zahav” hardly helps to locate the vicinity. True, the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmu’el ben Meir, c1080-c.1160), a grandson and close student of Rashi, writes that “these are all places, following the simple meaning”. However Paran is in the south-western Sinai Desert, some 500 km (300 miles) south-west of where Israel was encamped; Tophel is an unknown location, mentioned here for the only time in the entire Tanach; Lavan is presumably a reference to Paddan-Aram, the hometown of Lavan, Rebecca’s brother, some 650 km (400 miles) north; the precise location of Hatzerot is unknown, beyond that it is in the Sinai Desert, north of Mount Sinai; and Di Zahav is an unknown location, mentioned here for the only time in the entire Tanach.
Clearly, the Torah is telling us something other than just a geographical location.
The Midrash Lekach Tov addresses this. “Said Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai: I have gone through all the places where Israel travelled to find out if Israel travelled in Tophel and Lavan, but all I found were words of ‘tiphlut’ (frivolity) which they said against the manna which is ‘lavan’ (‘white’)”.
The Targum Onkelos, which is usually a direct translation into Aramaic, paraphrases Deuteronomy 1:1: “These are the words which Moshe spoke with all Israel in trans-Jordan; he rebuked them for their sinning in the desert, and for having angered [G-d] in the plain, opposite the Red Sea, in Paran where they slandered the manna, and in Hatzerot where they angered Him by [demanding] meat and by worshipping the golden calf”.
The Targum Yonatan, as usual, has a much more Midrashic paraphrase: “These are the words of rebuke which Moshe spoke to all Israel who assembled to him when they were on the east bank of the Jordan. He responded to them by saying: Behold in the desert, at Mount Sinai, the Torah was given to you, and in the plain it was explained to you.
"How many wonders and miracles G-d performed for you, from the time you crossed the shore of the Red Sea, when He made a path for each Tribe! But you strayed from His decrees and angered Him in Paran with what the spies said, and you ascribed [‘tephaltun’, a reference to Tophel] to Him untrue words. You complained about the manna which He brought down for you white [lavan] from Heaven and you asked for meat in Hatzerot; you deserved to be destroyed from the world, had He not remembered for you the merit of your righteous forefathers, the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Covenant, and the holy vessels which you saw made of pure gold [zahav] which atoned for your sin of the golden [zahav] calf”.
The Sifrei (D’varim 1:1) has a similar analysis: “‘These are the words which Moshe spoke…’ – but did Moshe prophesy only these words? Did he not write the entire Torah?!... So what does ‘These are the words which Moshe spoke…’ mean? – It teaches that these were words of rebuke… ‘To all Israel’, teaching that they were all deserving of rebuke, and they could all cope with the rebuke… ‘on the east bank of the Jordan’, teaching that he rebuked them for what they had done there. ‘In the desert’, teaching that he rebuked them for what they had done in the desert… ‘In the plain’, teaching that he rebuked them for what they had done in the plains of Moab … ‘Opposite the Red Sea’, teaching that he rebuked them for what they had done by the sea when they rebelled by the sea and turned their backs on Moshe…
"Maybe he rebuked them only at the start of each journey? – ‘Between Paran and Tophel’ indicates that he rebuked them between journeys. ‘Between Tophel and Lavan’ refers to the words of ‘tiphlut’ (‘frivolity, obscenity’) when they slandered (‘tiphlu’) the manna … ‘And Hatzerot’ – he told them: You should have learnt from what I did to Miriam in Hatzerot (Numbers 12)! If I did not even show favouritism in judgement to Miriam who was so righteous, how much more so [will I not show favouritism in judgement] to other people! ‘And Di-Zahav’ – see that of all you did, the sin of the golden (‘zahav’) calf is worse than everything”.
Hence each of the place names in this opening verse of Deuteronomy (East Bank of the Jordan, the desert, the plain, Suph/Red Sea, Paran, Tophel, Lavan, Hatzerot, and Di-Zahav) is a coded allusion to one of Israel’s national sins during the 40-year desert trek.
We are still left with the peculiarity of the words “mol Suph” (which we have translated “opposite the Red Sea”), instead of the expected “mul Yam Suph”. The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the word “mol” appears only twice in the entire Tanach. The first is here, “mol Suph”. The second is two and a half months later, immediately after Joshua led the Children of Israel over the River Jordan into the Land of Israel. “At that time HaShem said to Joshua: Make knives of flint, and circumcise (‘mol’) the Children of Israel for the second time” (Joshua 5:2).
The Ba’al ha-Turim continues by citing the Talmudic ruling that there are five restrictions on the use of the stalk of a reed: it is forbidden to use it to slaughter an animal, to circumcise, to cut meat, to floss teeth, or to cleanse oneself (Hullin 16b). Therefore G-d told Joshua to make knives of flint, and not to circumcise them with the reeds. And this, concludes the Ba’al ha-Turim, is the inference of “mol Suph” – circumcise the Children of Israel.
It is of course significant that when the sages standardised the annual Torah-reading cycle in the late Second Temple period, they ensured that we would always read Parashat Dvarim, beginning with Moshe’s rebuke of the Children of Israel, on the Shabbat that immediately precedes or coincides with the fast of the Ninth of Av. It is a fundamental principle of Judaism that history is not random, that we have to learn from such disasters as come upon us.
Earlier, we cited the Sifrei, “that of all you did, the sin of the golden calf is worse than everything”. A parallel passage in the Talmud says: “‘…And Di-Zahav’ – Aaron said to them: Enough (‘di’) for you the sin of the gold (‘zahav’) which you brought for the calf. And Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov says: This sin is enough for Israel to be punished for it from now until the Resurrection of the Dead” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 34:1).
The sin of the golden calf and Moshe’s consequent smashing of the Tablets of Stone occurred on the 17th of Tammuz, the day of tragedy which begins the Three Weeks that lead up to the Ninth of Av. Indeed, we are still suffering the consequences of that sin, 3,325 years on.
And the sin of the spies – another sin whose consequences we are still suffering 3,324 years on – was on the Ninth of Av.
Parashat Dvarim, and the entire Book of Deuteronomy, is not merely rebuke. As the Sifrei quoted above says, the Children of Israel “were all deserving of rebuke, and they could all cope with the rebuke”. That is to say, they recognised the justice of Moshe’s rebuke, and they had the resources to improve their ways.
True, the Book of Deuteronomy is full of rebuke, both implicit and explicit. But it is also the address delivered to the nation on the very threshold of the Land of Israel, perched on the brink of redemption.
In these final days before the Ninth of Av, Parashat Dvarim exhorts us to internalise the rebuke of “the day which was predestined for disasters” (Rambam, Laws of Fasts 5:3; Mishnah Berurah, Laws of the 9th of Av and Other Fasts 549:1). On this self-same day we are poised on the brink of redemption: Mashiach was born on the day that the Holy Temple was destroyed (see for example Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:4, Eichah Rabbah 1:51, Midrash Abba Gurion, et. al.).
The choice to accept the rebuke, to rectify the sin of the golden calf and of the spies, to cross the River Jordan, and to enter the Land of Israel and bring the redemption is in our hands, in our hearts.