Parashat Devarim / History Does Not Repeat Itself

Yakov Z. Meyer
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“Moses and the Messengers from Canaan,” by Giovanni Lanfranco (c. 1621-24).
Yakov Z. Meyer

In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Children of Israel hear Moses’ version of the story of their wanderings on the way to the Promised Land. That story includes the episode of the spies whom Moses sends to gather information about the Promised Land, and who return with its fruits and with news: “Good is the land which the Lord our God giveth unto us” (Deuteronomy 1:25).

The Children of Israel hear the spies’ descriptions and cannot believe themselves capable of defeating Canaan’s inhabitants. Because they do not believe in their capacity to vanquish the Canaanites, they are punished: They will die in the desert and none will enter the Promised Land. Only their children – namely, those individuals who are now standing before Moses and listening to his long address – will be privileged to enter Canaan.

Although they are but the children of sinful people who were barred from the Promised Land, Moses does not spare his listeners. He speaks to them in second person plural, as if they themselves were the sinners: “Yet ye would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God; and ye murmured in your tents, and said: ‘Because the Lord hated us, he hath brought us forth out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. Whither are we going up? our brethren have made our heart to melt, saying: The people is greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim (or, the sons of giants) there’” (Deut. 1:26-28).

According to the Israelites who heard the reports at the time, 10 of the 12 spies claimed that the cities they saw were “great and fortified up to heaven.” Now, as they are about to enter the Promised Land, Moses reminds his listeners of the words of their parents who, in turn, quote the words of the spies. The result is a triple, if not quadruple “reverberation” of the spies’ experience of standing before the Canaanites’ fortified cities.

The spies’ description obviously does not reflect a realistic picture: How can a city reach the very heavens? Thus, the reader should understand that this image is intended to convey the personal impression made on the 10 spies, or, rather, the impression the spies’ description made on the parents of those in Moses’ present audience.

The image in question is an example of “exaggerated language,” as Rashi, who is citing the sages, notes in his commentary; it conveys the fear of the Israelites who heard the spies upon their return from their reconnaissance mission. On hearing the description of the Canaanite cities, the Israelites imagined the land to be a mass of mythological structures stretching to the very heavens.

Interestingly enough, Moses himself uses this exaggerated phrase later on in his long speech in Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: thou art to pass over the Jordan this day, to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than thyself, cities great and fortified up to heaven, a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim (or, the sons of giants), whom thou knowest, and of whom thou hast heard say: ‘Who can stand before the sons of Anak (or, the sons of giants)?’” (Deut. 9:1-2).

Moses informs the new generation of Israelites as to why they must now cross the Jordan River and explains what will happen thereafter. They must cross the river in order to capture the great Canaanite cities that are “great and fortified up to heaven,” so as to defeat the inhabitants who are the “sons of giants.” Although Moses repeats the phrase used by the parents of those whom he addresses, he has a different rhetorical reason for using it when he addresses the offspring, as can be understood from the context of the verses in Deuteronomy 9.

Moses cautions the Israelites that, although they will capture the Canaanite cities and defeat the sons of giants, they must avoid the sin of hubris: “Know therefore this day, that the Lord thy God is he who goeth over before thee as a devouring fire; he will destroy them, and he will bring them down before thee; so shalt thou drive them out, and make them to perish quickly, as the Lord hath spoken unto thee” (Deut. 9:3).

This exaggerated depiction of the fortified cities reflects the fears of the older Israelites, but Moses repeats it in this chapter of Deuteronomy to increase the motivation of the children who are about to enter the Promised Land. There is an element of sarcasm in the repetition of this image. It is as if Moses is saying to the new generation of Israelites: “This is what your parents felt with regard to Canaan’s fortified cities. They imagined that the cities could never be captured and they were therefore punished for their sin of disbelief: God barred them from entering Canaan and forced them to wander in the desert for 40 years. Today you are on the verge of crossing the Jordan, and the cities you will encounter on the other side will be the exact same cities that your parents saw either with their own eyes or with their imagination. The reality has not changed. Nonetheless, you will cross the river and will capture those cities.”

With respect to the incident of the spies’ sin, the Israelites of the older generation inflated the image of Canaan that had been presented to them and, what is more, they lacked the belief that they could defeat Canaan’s inhabitants. Forty years have passed and the problem of the fortified cities remains. “You will attain victory,” Moses tells the children of those Israelites, “not because you are stronger than your parents and not because the cities have become less fortified. You will attain victory only if you know what the true source of your strength is: “Know therefore this day, that the Lord thy God is he who goeth over before thee as a devouring fire.”

Moses uses didactic sarcasm to make the younger Israelites realize that their fate will indeed bring them before the very cities the spies saw with their own eyes, and which their parents imagined 40 years earlier. However, the fate of the new generation does not necessarily have to be that of their parents.

By repeating their parents’ views but using them for his own purposes, Moses seeks to cancel the power of the formative incident involving the spies’ transgression, and to nullify the historical experience that it generated.

“The passage of time does not solve problems,” Moses is telling the young Israelite crowd. “The problems you will face when you cross the Jordan will be precisely the same ones your parents faced, and your emotional reaction – namely, fear and an ardent desire to avoid confrontation with the enemy – may be identical to that of your parents. The Canaanite cities will always be ‘great and fortified up to heaven.’ People cannot deny their fears but they can overcome their will.

“Only if you, the new Israelites, realize that you cannot rely on the ‘privileges of your parents,’ only if you realize that history does not repeat itself and that what happened in the past does not have to be duplicated in the future – only then will you be able to alter the significance of your actions. Only then will you be able to cross the Jordan and succeed in your mission. What you need in order to succeed is the knowledge that your success will not be a product of your own efforts, but will be granted to you by God.”