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5758-5760

Thoughts on "Parshat Devarim"


Written by the rabbi

Dedicated to the speedy recovery of
Asher Ishayahu Ben Rivka

"These are the Words"
"These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel..." (Deuteronomy 1:1). It took an entire book to contain Moses' great discourse, a sermon that continued for an entire week. There is a distinct difference between the Moses of this passage and the Moses who God approaches for the purpose of sending him to speak with Pharaoh. At that time Moses said: "I am not a man of words...I find it difficult to speak and find the right language" (Exodus 4:10). How did Moses go from "not a man of words," to the author of "These are the words..."?
The Midrash answers this question by way of analogy. A man was walking down the street selling dye. "Dye for sale! Dye for sale!" he shouted. When the king heard his cry, he called him aside and asked him, "What are you selling?" "Nothing," said the man. "But I heard you shouting, 'Dye for sale! Dye for sale!' How is it that you now you say, 'Nothing,'" asked the surprised king? The man said, "True, I sell dye, but for you it as if nothing." Such was the case with Moses. Before God, the Creator of mouth and speech, he said, "I am not a man of words". Yet, before the Israelites, "These are the words."

When Moses stood before God, viewed himself in light of what was expected of him, and understood that of his own right it was difficult for him to speak and find the right language - he said, "I am not a man of words." Yet, here, in our Torah portion, Moses has already taken upon himself the mission assigned him by God, the one who, "Gave man a mouth." Now he knows that he is a "man of words" - not by virtue of his own qualities, but by virtue of what God has given him. Therefore the opening words of his "These are the words" speech, are: "God our Lord spoke to us at Choreb saying..." (Deuteronomy 1:6).

Words of Peace
After bypassing the lands of Edom and Moab, God informs Moses that he is now obligated to conquer the Land of Israel, "See! I have given over Sichon, the Amorite king of Cheshbon, and his land, into your hands. Begin the occupation! Provoke him to into war!
Astonishingly, though, Moses does not carry out the order. Instead of initiating war, he initiates peace talks. The masters of the Midrash, and even the Torah commentators express surprise at Moses' behavior. Why did he not fulfill God's commandment?

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, "Ramban," explains that Moses initially had no desire to conquer the eastern side of the Jordan River. He merely wished to receive safe passage on his way to the west side of the river. The divine command came only after Sichon's negative response. According to this interpretation, the verses of commandment serve as an introduction to all that is to follow, and it is the same commandment which appears again afterwards (Ibid. 2:31).
In addition to the difficulty one encounters in Ramban's manner of explaining the order of verses and events, almost all midrashic sources explain things differently. According to the Sages - and their opinions are brought in Rashi's commentary - the divine commandment preceded the sending of peaceful emissaries. The emissaries were sent at the initiation of Moses, despite the commandment. Yet, not only does this not anger God, but He even approves of Moses' behavior.

"I sent emissaries from "Midbar Kedemoth" [the Kedemoth Desert] to Sichon king of Cheshbon with a peaceful message..." Why did Moses behave as he did? Rashi explains, in keeping with the Midrash, that the words "Midbar Kedemoth" can be understood to mean: "In accordance with God's behavior," and, "In accordance with the giving of the Torah." Thus, Moses is really implying that his sending emissaries was an emulation of the behavior of God Himself. From these two aspects, we learn that one should offer peace before embarking on a war - even an obligatory one. "God's behavior" was revealed via the Egyptian Exodus. Though God knew perfectly well that Pharaoh would not agree to set the Children of Israel free, he first sent Moses to negotiate with him. The same principal held true with the Giving of the Torah: Though God was aware that none of the nations would agree to accept the Torah, He approached each nation in an attempt to negotiate their receiving it.

Here, then, Moses follows God's lead. Not only was the obligation of the divine commandment unmistakable here, but it did not even leave room for doubt that things would proceed according to God's desire. For this reason Moses turns to Sichon and offers the most generous terms for peace that he possibly can. He knew beyond all doubt that God would harden the king's heart and cause him to be stubborn. It was for this reason that he had no reservations about proposing a peace agreement that ran counter to the explicit commandment of God. And then, only after receiving a negative response, accompanied by a concentration of forces and a declaration of war, did Moses take to battle.

There is a very important moral here that can be applied to many areas in life. Each one of us faces many struggles in life. There are all sorts of evil and unjust people out there. Certainly anybody who is capable of waging war on these forces, is obligated to do so with all of his might. Yet, before engaging in this struggle - as just and as necessary as it may be - it is best to begin with words of peace, even if there is no chance that they will make a difference.


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