Parashat Devarim / Ready for Rebuke

Yakov Z. Meyer
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'The Jews Gathering the Manna in the Desert,' Nicolas Poussin (1637-39).
Yakov Z. Meyer

This week’s Torah portion (Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22) opens with Moses’ address to the nation on the eve of its entry into the Promised Land: “These are hadevarim [the words] which Moses spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wilderness, in the Arabah, over against Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab” (Deuteronomy 1:1). This short exposition presents the reader with the speaker, the audience and the place or places where the words are being spoken. However, the sages interpret this verse in a non-literal manner.

“It is written, ‘These are the words which Moses spoke.’ Is this the entire extent of his prophecy? Did he not write the whole Torah, as it is written, ‘So Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it [to] the children of Israel” [Deut. 31:22],’ and ‘And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished’ [Deut. 31:24]? Why then does the Torah relate, ‘These are the words which Moses spoke’? To teach us that these were words of rebuke, as it is written, ‘But Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked’ [Deut. 32:15]” (Sifre Deuteronomy: 1).

The homilist is surprised by the verse’s declaration about Moses’ words – as if it is saying that he has said nothing to Israel in the previous four books of the Pentateuch. The solution that the homilist comes up with is a different understanding of “words”: that is, not simply utterances in general but, rather, words of rebuke. This interpretation is backed up by another homily – in Sifre Numbers and in the verse “And Miriam and Aaron spoke [vatedaber] against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married” (Numbers 12:1) – where it is written: “When the word dibur [speech, from the root dalet-bet-resh, which is also the root of vatedaber, [she] spoke, and devarim], the reference is always to words of rebuke” (Sifre Numbers: 99).

This interpretation is based on Parashat Haazinu, which appears toward the end of Deuteronomy and which describes how God escorted the Children of Israel through the desert, feeding them and providing them with sustenance, and how they turned against God, who then abandoned them and punished them severely. In the sages’ opinion, Parashat Haazinu can be regarded as the narrative frame in which Moses delivers his final address.

Just before the entry into Canaan, he pauses to reprove the Children of Israel for their evil acts, which were described in the Torah’s previous book, Numbers. This rebuke is a prelude to the punishment that will be described in detail later on, in Haazinu. The numerous geographical references in Deuteronomy 1:1 are interpreted by the sages as reminders of the specific sins for which Moses admonishes Israel. For example, “the Arabah [plain]” is understood as a reference to the Plains of Moab, where Israel committed the sin of idolatry in their worship of Baal Peor; “over against Suph,” as a reference to the Israelites’ turning their back on Moses on the shores of Yam Suph, the Red Sea; and so on.

Israel earns praise from the words, “unto all Israel”: “We can thus understand that they were individuals who knew how to utter words of rebuke and how to hear words of rebuke” (Sifre Numbers: 99). This characteristic is contrasted with that of the sages’ generation: “Rabbi Tarfon said, ‘Is there anyone in this generation who knows how to utter words of rebuke?’ Rabbi Elazar, son of Azaria, said, ‘Is there anyone in this generation who knows how to hear words of rebuke?’ Rabbi Akiva said, ‘Is there anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke?’”

These three Tannaim, who lived in the Yavneh era, complain about their generation, whose members are considered to be on a lower level than the Israelites in the Sinai Desert (i.e., cannot measure up to the moral standards of their ancestors), because, in the later era, there is no one who can play the role of Moses as he rebukes Israel, no one who can play the role of Israel and listen to words of rebuke, and no one who knows the technique of addressing such words.

But Rabbi Yohanan, son of Nuri, claims the precise opposite, saying: “I can attest before heaven and earth that I witnessed on five separate occasions Rabbi Akiva being beaten [in punishment] by Rabbi Gamliel in Yavneh. I had complained about Rabbi Akiva and he was punished with a flogging. Yet I know that he loved me all the more each time he was beaten, as it is written, “Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee. Reprove a wise man, and he will love thee” [Proverbs 9:8]’” (Sifre Numbers: 99).

Rabbi Yohanan found some fault in what Rabbi Akiva had said or done, and turned to Rabbi Gamliel in Yavneh, who thereupon had Rabbi Akiva beaten publicly in punishment. This contemporary testimony on the practice of rebuke and punishment in the Talmudic academy in Yavneh contrasts sharply with what the three Tannaim say about their generation. However, what one sees here is not actually a dispute, because all four Tannaim belong to the same academy and sit before their master, Rabbi Gamliel, in Yavneh. In fact, Rabbi Akiva, who claims that no one in his generation knows the technique of delivering words of reproach, personally heard Rabbi Johanan’s criticism and was accordingly punished.

According to a literal reading of the text, Deuteronomy contains more than words of rebuke. In addition to the words of reproof uttered by Moses, there is a repetition of the commandments; the presentation of additional commandments; a summary of Israel’s journey through the wilderness; warnings of the dangers Israel will face after entry into the Promised Land; and blessings for those will obey God’s commands. However, the sages insist on viewing Deuteronomy as a book-length diatribe.

The sages also view this diatribe as the rebuke preceding the punishment that their own generation is suffering: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem – the event that falls tomorrow, on the Fast of Tisha B’av (which has been postponed this year to Sunday because the fast day falls on a Sabbath). Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy is regarded by the sages as a prelude to the punishment he warns Israel about in Parashat Haazinu. Deuteronomy and the destruction that follows in its wake are interpreted as the implementation on a national scale of the protocol of punishment administered in the Talmudic academy in Yavneh.

The words of Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Akiva focus on such punishment on the national level. Their generation is on a lower rung than that of the Israelites. The connection with God has been interrupted, he no longer talks with his nation, he neither threatens nor punishes. Today there is no rebuke and there is no punishment, argue these three Tannaim, unless one enters the world of Jewish law in the academy in Yavneh where the words, “Reprove a wise man, and he will love thee” are constantly proven to be true.