Portion of the Week / Myth and Reality

Parashat Devarim: Why is Moses so frightened that he is in need of God's support?

Toward the end of Parashat Hukat, read a few weeks ago, there is a brief description of an Israelite war: "And they turned and went up by the way of Bashan; and Og the king of Bashan went out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. And the Lord said unto Moses: 'Fear him not; for I have delivered him into thy hand, and all his people, and his land; and thou shalt do to him as thou didst unto Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt at Heshbon.' So they smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left him remaining; and they possessed his land" (Numbers 21:33-35 ).

Why is Moses so frightened that he is in need of God's support? The Torah does not provide an answer. However, in this week's portion, as he reconstructs the Israelites' journey through the wilderness, Moses reveals some of what happened: He repeats the information conveyed in Parashat Hukat, elaborating on the description of Og's cities and concluding his remarks thus: "For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of the Rephaim; behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbah of the children of Ammon? Nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man" (Deuteronomy 3:11 ).

Og was a giant, judging by the dimensions of his bed, which was made not of wood, as was usual, but of iron. This bed was still "in Rabbah of the children of Amon" (modern-day Amman, capital of Jordan ) when those lines were written, serving as living proof of Og's monstrous dimensions. Not only was he huge, he also enjoyed longevity: He was the last surviving member of the "remnant of the Rephaim."

In Parashat Lech Lecha, from the Book of Genesis, the Torah describes the battle of the four kings against the five kings. It is written there: "And in the fourteenth year came Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him, and smote the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim" (Genesis 14:5 ). During the battles, Lot, Abram's nephew, is taken prisoner, and this information is passed on: "And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew" (Gen. 14:13 ).

The midrash in Genesis Rabbah identifies this survivor: "'And there came one that had escaped': Rabbi Simeon, son of Lakish, quoting Bar Kapara, says: That person was Og. Why was he called Og? Because when he came to Abraham, he found him busy preparing unleavened cakes. [According to Rabbi Simeon, Og is derived from the word for cake, uga.] His motive was not to serve God. He said to himself, 'Abraham is a zealot. When I tell him that Lot has been taken prisoner, he will go off to war. He will fall in battle and then I will take his wife Sarai.' God said to Og, 'I swear by your life that your reward for making this journey to Abraham will be that you will have a long life. However, because you plotted to kill that righteous person [Abraham], you will be fated to see a million of his descendants and be slain by one, as it is written, 'Fear him not; for I have delivered him into thy hand'" (Genesis Rabbah, 41:8 ).

Og survives, and indeed his name is derived from the fact that, when he comes to Abraham, he finds the latter in the midst of preparing unleavened cakes. Og's reward for informing Abraham about his nephew is long life, but the fact that he had unworthy intentions means he is doomed to a fate described in Parashat Hukat: Og will be slain by one of Abraham's descendants in belated retribution for having lusted for Sarai.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg of Og's extreme mythologization. Another midrash relates that he and Eliezer, Abraham's servant, are one and the same person, and also that Eliezer is Nimrod's gift to Abraham (Tractate Sofrim, Babylonian Talmud ). In another midrash, Og is present in Pharaoh's court when Joseph presents Jacob to the Egyptian ruler. Og thinks Jacob is actually Abraham because Jacob closely resembles him, which is why Pharaoh asks Jacob, "How many are the days of the years of thy life?" (Gen. 47:8; Midrash Hagadol ).

Og's longevity and his origins among the Rephaim gave rise to the following marvelous homily: Job says, "The shades tremble beneath the waters and the inhabitants thereof" (Job 26:5 ). From this, our sages understand that the Rephaim were a nation that existed before Noah's Flood. If so, how did Og, king of Bashan, survive the deluge? "The Torah relates: 'And he blotted out every living substance which was upon the face of the ground' with the exception of Noah and the ark's inhabitants, as it is written: 'and Noah only was left, and they that were with him in the ark' (Gen. 7:23 ), plus Og, who sat on the rung of one of the ark's ladders and who swore that he would be the servant of Noah and his sons forever. What did Noah do? He cut out a small hole in the ark's side and gave Og food every day. Og survived, as it is written, 'For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of the Rephaim'" (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer ).

Og is as old as the Torah itself. He survives the flood by "hitching a ride" on Noah's ark, and his family is destroyed by the kings. (Admittedly, there is a certain narrative lapse here: According to Pirkei Derabbi Eliezer, Og is the last remaining member of the Rephaim after the Flood. However, one should not expect total coherence in these various midrashim. )

Og seeks to rob Abraham of Sarai but fails, and later becomes Abraham's servant; subsequently, he appears before Pharaoh, and meets his end when he goes to war against Israel at Edrei. Why does Moses fear him? The midrash provides an answer to this question: Because Og is so old. Indeed, Moses says to himself, "He must have much in his favor in order to have reached such a ripe old age" (Tanhuma Buber, Numbers ).

The war with Og is also in essence a battle with the Bible's mythological history. That is, Moses fights not only Og but also the mythological "baggage" that is embodied by Og. The Promised Land, on whose threshold the Israelites now stand, is the stage on which formative myths are realized. Moreover, it is described in mythological terms as a "land flowing with milk and honey" (e.g., in Exodus 3:8 ), as a kind of giant organism: a cross between a mother of immense proportions who provides milk to her infant, and a honeycomb. And what will happen when the Israelites enter this mythic space?

The war against Og is a battle between reality and mythology; a war between simple reality, which is deciphered on the basis of what one can see, and the Promised Land's "giant," "Rephaim-based" reality, which is deciphered in light of ancient narratives. As long as the Israelites are in the wilderness, Canaan can stretch out in their imaginations as a mythic land populated by Rephaim and giants. But now, as they stand on the threshold of the Promised Land, Og sets off to wage war against them - and they slay him. The one element that remains and symbolizes the victory of reality over mythology is Og's iron bed - the physical reminder of the reality "in Rabbah of the children of Ammon."

Tomorrow will mark not only the beginning of a new book in the Pentateuch - Deuteronomy - but also the eve of Tisha B'Av, the fast that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Each year on this day, a cloud of vagueness hovers above the question of what is being mourned: Is it the physical destruction of the Temple, its walls and roof, or perhaps the metaphysical meaning of that event - that is, the exile of the Shechinah, the divine presence, and the world's bleak condition?

This vagueness is an inseparable part of the continued commemoration of this fast day, an integral part of the Jewish calendar, year after year. Metaphysics and mythology are intertwined with reality, to which they give order and shape; it is not always necessary to decide what is being mourned on Tisha B'Av.

In any event, another interpretation of this vagueness is encapsulated by the image of Moses standing on the threshold of the old-new land - Moses, who, in the name of reality, is ordered by God to confront and defeat the myth. Perhaps, in order to enter a new land, there is the need for a confrontation between those two entities, and for waiting to see which emerges triumphant.