Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’etchanan – D’varim (Deuteronomy) 3:23 – 7:11
If there is any one term that typifies D'varim, it is "transition" - or "avor" in Hebrew, stemming from the root. e.v.r, (ayin, vet/bet, resh) meaning to "traverse, cross over, pass by or through, transgress, get angry, side, for the sake of and fords, or passageway," being also the root for the word “Hebrew.” This term, with some of those derivatives, shows up many times in Parashat Va’etchanan, which is why we will follow it not only here, but also throughout the entire book of Dvarim (Deuteronomy). This excursion will also provide an opportunity to observe, once again, patterns of the Hebrew mindset and the compactness of the language, as well as the mutual effect of thought and language (on each other). We will see how “avor” lends D’varim its special character, and in turn how it expresses what the People of Yisrael has been called to.
In Sh'mot (Exodus) the Hebrews 'passed over’ from one state of existence (slavery) to another (freedom and redemption) and also to a new geographical location, by "crossing" the Sea of Reeds. Here, in Dvarim, they are about to experience another "crossing." This time, it is the Yarden, which is to become the passageway that will lead them into the land promised them by YHVH. They will, once again, go through a change of status, ceasing to be nomads. In the past, we have noted that "Hebrews"- "Ivrim" - are those who are destined for transitions of one form or another. This group of people is seen here (and throughout Scripture) fulfilling this very destiny, already alluded to by the name of their progenitor Ever (Eber) who is mentioned in B’resheet (Genesis) 11:14,15, six generations before Avraham. However, nowhere is the "passing" or "crossing" – designated by e.v.r - more evident than in D'varim, where the term is used in several connotations, forming, as it were, a series of milestones that enable us to follow the Israelites through their journeys as depicted in this book.
Already in the opening verse, we see Moshe addressing "all Israel on the side of the Jordan – Ever ha'Yarden" (1:1 italics added). Ever is one of the words for "side," thus rendering the Yarden's eastern bank, or shore, "Ever haYarden." It was also at "Ever ha'Yarden" where Moshe "began to explain the Torah" (1:5). Sometime later Yehoshua (Joshua) reminds the Israelites of another "ever," the place where their forefathers came from, saying: "Thus says YHVH the Elohim of Israel: `Your fathers Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side [ever] of the River in old times; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from the other side [ever] of the River, led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his descendants and gave him Isaac'" (Josh. 24:2,3 italics and emphasis added).
In recounting the wilderness journey and its adventures, Moshe says, "We came through [a'va'rnu] the nations which you passed by [a'va'rtem]… " (29:15 italics added). About these nations he comments, recalling YHVH’s words to him: "You are passing [ovrim] by the border of your brothers, the sons of Esau" (2:4). And as to the actual event: "And we passed [va'na'vor] beyond our brother the sons of Esau… and we turned and passed [va'na'vor] by way of the Wilderness of Moab" (2:8). “ And the time we took to come from Kadesh Barnea until we crossed over [avarnu] the Valley of the Zered was thirty-eight years, until all the generation of the men of war was consumed from the midst of the camp, just as YHVH had sworn to them" (2:14). Preceding the crossing of this river, YHVH exhorted the Israelites: “Now rise up, and go over [ee’vru] the river Zered! And we went over [va’na’avor] the river Zered” (2:13, italics added).
The next “crossing over" [over, in Hebrew] (2:18) was through Moav and Ammon, whose people, according to YHVH's word, were not to be disturbed. But the command to "cross [e'e’vru]" the River Arnon, was different! The land of Sichon, the Amorite king, was to come under Yisrael's dominion. The Amorites ignored the message, "Let me pass through [e'ebra] your land; I will keep strictly to the road, and I will turn neither to the right nor to the left. You shall sell me food for money, that I may eat, and give me water for money, that I may drink; only let me pass through [e'ebra] on foot, just as the descendants of Esau who dwell in Seir and the Moabites who dwell in Ar did for me, until I cross [e'evor] the Jordan to the land which YHVH our Elohim is giving us" (2:27,28 italics added). Instead, we are told that, "Sihon king of Heshbon would not let us pass through [ha'a'virenu]" (v. 30 italics added). Thus, the land of the Amorites was conquered. A similar fate awaited Og the king of Bashan, whose land was also conquered by the Israelites. Moshe recalls: "We took the land from the hand of the two kings of the Amorites who were on this side of the Jordan [Ever haYarden], from the River Arnon to Mount Hermon" (3:8 italics added). This was also the land requested by the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe, who had to meet one condition: "All you men of valor shall cross over [ta'avru] armed before your brethren, the children of Israel" (3:18 italics added), in order to help them take control of the Promised Land, while promising to Yehoshua, "YHVH will do to all the kingdoms through which you pass [over]" (v. 21), what He had done to the former kingdoms.”
In addition to the above promise, there is an even greater one, (preceded by "Sh'ma Yisrael - Hear O Israel" 9:1): "Therefore understand today that YHVH your Elohim is He who goes over [ha'over] before you as a consuming fire" (9:3 italics added). And moreover, "YHVH your Elohim Himself crosses over [over] before you; He will destroy these nations from before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua himself crosses over [over] before you, just as YHVH has said" (31:3 italic added). The "crossing over [ovrim] to possess" or "inherit" the land, is also an inseparable part of the description of the Land itself as everything about its conditions constitutes a major change-over and transition from the setting of the desert (ref. 11:10 -12).
And while Moshe is thus preparing the nation, which he has so greatly nurtured and has been willing to give up his life for, he does not hide from his listeners, and from posterity, the sad fact that he had "pleaded with YHVH at that time, saying: `O my Adonai YHVH, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your mighty hand… I pray, let me cross over [e'ebra] and see the good land beyond [ever] the Jordan, those pleasant mountains, and Lebanon. But YHVH was angry [va'yita'ber] with me on your account, and would not listen to me" (3: 23-26 italics added). Yes, "angry" in this context is also made up of the root ayin, vet/bet, resh! Thus, there is more than one way to 'cross over'. ‘Crossing over' to the 'wrong side' and 'crossing' YHVH's will, will incur His anger (“evrah”).
Moshe continues to relate his plight, as pronounced by YHVH: "Go up to the top of Pisgah, and lift your eyes toward the west, the north, the south, and the east; Behold it with your eyes, for you shall not cross over [ta'avor] this Jordan. But command Joshua, and encourage him and strengthen him; for he shall go over [ya'avor] before this people…" (3: 27,28 italics added). Just before Moshe's death on Mount Nevo (Nebo), called here “Avarim” (32:48) - the Mount of Crossing - he is once again reminded by his Elohim, "I have caused you to see it [the land] with your eyes, but you shall not cross over [ta'avor] there" (34:4 italics added). In Psalm 106:32 this story is repeated: “They angered him also at the waters of strife, so that it went ill with Moses for their sakes [ba’a’vu’ram]” (italics added). The singular form “ba’avu’r” comes from “a’vur”, which literally is “one who has been caused to pass over.” Thus, even a common preposition such as “for” is rooted in e.v.r, - “crossing or passing over” - pointing to the centrality of this term and to an active force, or agent, greater than one’s self, who acts as the Prime Cause.
In our text, the covenant and the commandments are not 'passed over' either. In his discourse, Moshe elaborates extensively on these issues. YHVH made another covenant with the Children of Yisrael "in the land of Moab besides the covenant which He made with them in Horeb… that you may enter [le'ov'recha] into covenant with YHVH your Elohim" (29:1,12 italics added). Thus, in “entering” this covenant, they were literally "crossing" into it. "Transgressing" YHVH's commandments, according to 26:13, is also referred to as "crossing" [a'varti – literally, “I transgressed/crossed”]. Some of these commandments are: "When a man has taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war or be charged [ya'avor] with any business…" (24:5 italics added), and, "There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through [ma'avir] the fire…" (18:10 italics added). "For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, `Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Nor is it beyond [meh’ever] the sea, that you should say, `Who will go over [ya'avor] the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it" (30:11-14 italics added). According to these words, it appears that fulfilling Elohim's Word does not necessarily require a physical crossing or passing over; it is simply a matter of turning inwardly, to that which had already been deposited there by the Almighty (ref. Rom. 8:11).
Finally, "And it shall be, on the day when you [plural] cross over [ta'avru] the Jordan to the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you, that you shall set up for yourselves large stones, and whitewash them with lime. You shall write on them all the words of this law, when you have crossed over [be'ovre'cha], that you may enter the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, just as YHVH the Elohim of your fathers promised you. Therefore it shall be, when you [plural] have crossed over [be'ovre'chem] the Jordan, that on Mount Ebal you shall set up these stones, which I command you today…" (27:2-4 italics added). Thus, the "crossing over" is to be marked by stones that were to be a testimony of a genuine "crossing over" and a “changeover” assumed by the Hebrews, the 'People of Transition'!
The root e.v.r, however, does not escape the enemies of the Hebrew people. Prior to the actual crossing, Yehoshua sent two spies to Yericho (Jericho). These two were pursued by men who themselves had to cross the Yarden’s "fords”. These “fords” are “ma’a’barot,” literally, “that which enables passage” (ref. Josh. 2:1-5).
In closing, let us pause briefly on “va’etchanan,” the name of our Parasha, which takes us back to the opening verse (3:23) where Moshe pleads with YHVH to let him cross the Yarden. “And I pleaded” or implored…” – va’etchanan – is of the root ch.n.n (chet, noon, noon), which means to “show favor or be gracious”; while “chen” (chet, noon) is “grace” (e.g. Zech. 4:7, 12:10). Thus, he who pleads with, and implores YHVH, knows he is invoking His grace, cognizant of the fact that even the pleading itself is linked to YHVH’s compassion and favor working in the one who pleads with an expectancy for a response.
Note: In the synagogue, the Torah scrolls are places in an ark called “teiva.” When the representative of the congregation who prays on behalf of the community, acting as a facilitator, stands before the ark, he “passes [over] before the teiva.”