Commentary on Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22
God decided 40 years before the Devarim narrative that, with few exceptions, former Israelite slaves would not enter the Promised Land. It would be a land to be inhabited only by their descendants. This decision came out of an unfortunate incident involving spies, giants, and grasshoppers. There is a mere handful of Israelites who have known slavery that will enter Canaan. It is this generational passing that opens of the Book of Deuteronomy.
Poised to enter and conquer the land, Moses gives a long speech to the next generation. This new generation of Israelites is reminded of the history they carry with them. It is a history of battle. Of all the events that occurred during the 40 years of wandering in the desert, it is the battles that Moses chooses to retell here.
It is a list of the nations that were kind to us, and those that were hostile, those that offered us safe passage, and those who were violent. It is these stories of how nations treated us that are the foundation for how we are meant to treat them in return. They are stories of reaction.
The Moabites were good to us, so we must be kind to them (Deuteronomy 2:9). The Bashanites, however, were not good to us, so we are to take their land as an inheritance (Deuteronomy 3:3). How they treated us sets the precedent for how we are to react to them. This paradigm of acting out the behavior of others back onto them is an old one, and one we are quite familiar with.
This reactivity based on how other nations treated us is akin to holding children accountable for the sins of their parents. By enacting reciprocity on the nations of Canaan, Moses is seeking to play back the actions of the parents’ generation onto the children of that nation. In Moses’ speech, the conviction with which he delivers this idea is striking, and one that is later overturned by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 18:20).
Taking into account the experiences of slavery and the outlook that brings on the future, we can identify with Moses’ fervor. At the same time, we identify with Ezekiel who advocates limiting punishment to those who have wrought it.
For Moses, the urge to act on the memory of the past is dominant. As survivors of centuries of persecution, we know this feeling well. After how they treated us, why should we be nice to them? This is a question Jews can ask about many groups.
For Ezekiel, the assertion to not punish the children for the sins of their parents comes with hopefulness. Hope that pulls us out of the reactive and into the active. In some ways, it is the prime motivator behind activism.
But hope is not enough. As Moses tells the Israelites of their embattled history, it is the new generation to which he speaks. His warnings and conclusions come across clearly as those of the slave generation. It stands out that he himself will not enter the land. It is not Moses but the new generation that will create Jewish settled society.
Passing on the Message
The generation of slavery scouted the land and saw themselves as grasshoppers against giants. We also know this feeling well. As we look at the legacy of our parents’ generations, hope is often not the word that comes to mind. Yet it is precisely hope that enables us to enter the land.
As the Israelites stood on the cusp of entering a new era, so we are always on the cusp of a new generation and Promised Land. This land is not only a designated boundary — it is the world entire. We, every generation before us, and each generation that will follow, are eternally standing at the border between now and better-than-now. It is up to us to choose between reacting to how we’ve been treated or finding an alternative.
Hope exists in the recognition that the world is changeable. We live in a global environment that we inherited from our parents’ generations, but they are no longer the drivers of our destiny. We get to choose to be the new generation at every moment. We get to choose hope over reaction and thus cultivate a pathway out of the given paradigm of reaction and into a new one based on a fixed moral center.
Jewish history is filled with other nations treating us in kind and unkind (to be heavily understated) ways. We are now standing at the perpetual beginning with a new generation who has only known the wilderness. What stories will we tell them? What are the lessons of slavery we want to hold? What are the battles, won and lost, that we will remember? With what words will we steer the next generation into the Promised Land?
Provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.