Hebrew Insights into Parashat Dvarim – Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 1 – 3:22
Dvarim is the book of Deuteronomy and lends its name to our Parasha. “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan” (1:1)… These “words” are “d’varim” (singular - “davar”), of the root d.v/b.r, which is also the root for “midbar” that encountered in the Parasha by the same name (opening the book of Bamidbar - Numbers). Thus, the names of the books of Bamidbar and Dvarim (as well as their respective contents) are connected by the root d.v.r, alluding to the Word (“davar”) spoken in the desert (“midbar”). Dvarim is also known as “Mishneh Torah,” mentioned in 17:18 as part of the instructions for a future monarch. This term suggests the copying of Dvarim, since “mishneh” originates with the root sh.n.h, meaning to “repeat” (and hence copy). However, “mishneh” also means “secondary” (with “two” – “sh’na’yim” - sharing the same root, thus being related to “second”), possibly indicating that the book at hand is a “secondary Torah,” as it is a synopsis of the three previous tomes (not including B’resheet).
In 1:5 we read: “On the other side of the Jordan Moses began explaining this law,” but more literally it says that Moshe was “willing to undertake” (“ho’eel”, of the root y.a.l, yod, alef, lamed) to expound – “ba’er” - this Torah”, thus summing up the essence of this fifth book of the Pentateuch. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament sheds more light on “ho’eel”: “The primary meaning of this root is ‘to make a volitional decision to commence a given activity.’ … This volitional decision to begin an act clearly indicates the function of one’s mind to initiate… The verb concentrates on the volitional element rather than upon emotional or motivational factors. It stresses the voluntary act of the individual’s will to engage in a given enterprise, not what may have brought him to that decision… Theologically this verb strongly supports the concept of man’s freewill, for man can make decisions to initiate any given action (within human control), but God holds him responsible for that volitional decision.” Thus we see here Moshe’s volitional resolve to “ba’er” the Torah to the People of Yisrael.
“Ba’er” (b.a.r. bet, alef, resh) is to “make distinct, declare, make plain, make untreatable,” and shares its root with “be’er” which is a “well or cistern.” Although it is not altogether certain whether there is an etymological connection between “making plain” and “well,” the fact that the word for “eye” and for “spring” is one and the same in Hebrew (“ayin”), indicates that while water is connected to the act of seeing, it may also be related to ‘understanding,’ which is another form of ‘seeing’. By expounding on YHVH’s words, Moshe was certainly providing the Israelites with clear, thirst-quenching, well-drawn living water in the dry desert.
The passage comprising of verses 1:9-33 is characterized by a repeated term, one that we have encountered time and again, particularly in Bamidbar (Numbers). As a matter of fact, there is also a Parasha named after this tem (Num. 4:21-7), and that is the verb “nasso,” to “carry or lift, bear a burden.” From Moshe’s speech we learn how heavy of a burden this people was for him at times, although the One who truly carried them and cared for them was the Holy One Blessed Be He (compare 1:9,12, which is Moshe’s response to v. 31, and where the Father’s heart toward His people is described). When Moshe stresses just judgment (in 1: 17) he says: “You shall not respect persons in judgment…” which in Hebrew is, “you shall not acknowledge, or know, or recognize [anyone’s] face in judgment,” as “recognizing” one person above another does away with impartiality, which is indispensable for meting out justice. The term “recognize a face,” as it is presented here, many times appears in a different form (yet with the same meaning), as: “carrying or lifting of a face” [“noseh panim”], such as in Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:15, when reference is made to judging the poor. Yet for all the theme and usage of “carrying” in this passage, when reference is made to the ‘carrying out’ of justice, this common idiom of “to carry/lift a face” (that is, being partial) is strangely omitted.
Recently we took note of the fact that each of the references to the tribes was “ma’teh”, (“rod”), whereas the more common word for “tribe” (which also means “rod, staff, club, scepter” and also a live branch) is shevet (sh.v.t, shin, vet, tet). The “rod and staff [which] will comfort me” (of Psalm 23:4) are, respectively, “shevet” and “mish’e’net” (which is a staff for leaning on). In our Parasha every reference to the tribes is couched in the term “shevet.” The “shevet” is also the rod that if a father spares, may earn him the reputation of one who hates his son (ref. Prov. 13:24). The usage of “shevet,” which refers to didactic reproof (as preparation before entering the land and starting out a new life), is therefore quite appropriate in this 5th book of the Pentateuch!
One of the lessons Moshe wishes to draw from is the story of the spies. “Why did he not also refer to the sin of the Golden Calf? “Why did he select the sin of the spies and omit all the other historical experiences?” These are questions posed by Nechama Leibowitz, who then goes on to cite Hoffman who, “illuminatingly points out that Moses wishes to refer to an exactly parallel situation. The children of Israel were once again on the threshold of the Promised Land, just as their ill-fated parents had been, thirty-eight years previously. Let them not forfeit the Land once again…” Therefore Moshe is really concerned about warning “the children of Israel against once more forfeiting the land by their lack of faith…” 
The spies’ story truly serves to illustrate accurately the Israelites’ skepticism. In 1:22 we read: “And you came near to me, every one of you, and said, let us send men before us, and they shall search out the land for us…” It is significant that “every one of you” is mentioned as “coming [or drawing] near,” and requesting for a surveillance report of the land is interpreted as lack of faith. (This, in contrast to the original story in Parashat Sh’lach Le’cha, Bamidbar – Numbers -13-15; 32:8, where YHVH is presented as being the originator of the plan). Another “drawing near” is mentioned in the next Parasha, when Moshe recalls the scene at Chorev (Horeb). “And it happened, when you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain burned with fire, you came near to me, all the rulers of your tribes, and your elders, and you said… If we hear the voice of YHVH your Elohim any more, then we shall die. For who of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living Elohim speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and has lived? You go near and hear all that YHVH our Elohim may say, and you shall speak to us all that YHVH our Elohim may speak to you” (5:23, 24, italics added). We see that at the time of the giving of the Torah, the elders and leaders of Yisrael had a real concern about “drawing near” to YHVH, and instead “drew near” to Moshe and asked him to act on their behalf. If this was the leaders’ attitude, it is no wonder that some time later, the entire nation (“every one of you”) displayed a similar apprehension regarding YHVH’s promises, which is why that whole generation was condemned to die in the wilderness.
Moshe goes on to recount the sad episode, all those years back, in the course of which the ones who had previously displayed such unbelief, later insisted on “going up and fighting” the enemy (1:41), against YHVH’s wishes (as if to make up for their former attitude). YHVH declared, therefore, that they would be “struck” before their enemies (ref. v. 42). The word used for “struck” is “tinagfu” of the root n.g.f (noon, gimmel, fey). “Negef” and “mage’fa” mean “plague or pestilence,” and are usually divinely ordained for the purpose of discipline, such as in the case before us. In Bamidbar (Numbers) 17:13 we read about the plague (“magefa”) which followed the rebellion of Korach and his band, and later, in 25:8, mention was made of the “magefa” which struck the Israelites in the wake of the Baal Pe’or episode and the daughters of Mo’av, whereas in Sh’mot (Exodus) 12:27 it was the Egyptians who were “struck” while the Israelites remained untouched. Back to our chronology here as recounted by Moshe; In spite of YHVH’s warning, Yisrael “rebelled and … acted proudly and went up into the hills” (1: 43). “Acting proudly” reads here (va)ta’z’du" (root z.d., zayin, dalet). Back in B’resheet (Genesis) 25, in Parashat Toldot, Ya’acov was seen cooking a stew, which in Hebrew is: “va'ya'zed na'zid." We learned there that although “stew” is “nazid,” the root "zed” (z.d. zayin, dalet again) also means “pride, rebellion or presumptuousness.” Thus, Ya'acov was cooking up a non-too healthy stew (Gen. 25:29) for his brother, while his progeny’s conduct even surpassed that of their progenitor. It is no wonder, then, that Ya'acov's action and the behavior of his seed are presented with the same word.
The ensuing result of this failed attempt to go to battle is reported in 1:44: “And the Amorites who lived in that hill country came out to meet you and they chased you, as the bees do, and struck you in Seir, to Hormah.” In Shmot (Exodus) 23:28 it says: “And I will send hornets before you which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite before you.” However, because of disobedience and rebellion, they incurred defeat and were chased by so many (proverbial) bees, and were “struck” all the way to Se’ir and Chorma. The latter happens to stem from the root ch.r.m (chet, resh, mem), rendered “cherem” which in this case means “destruction.” In Bamidbar (Numbers) 21 (v. 1-3, Parashat Chu’kat) we read: “And king Arad the Canaanite…heard that Israel had come… and he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow to YHVH, and said, ‘if you will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy [(ve)he’cheramti] their cities’. And YHVH listened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed [(va)yacharem] them and their cities; and the name of the place was called Hormah [Chorma]” (italics and emphasis added). However, Moshe’s narration here lets us know that destruction (“chorma”) was also the lot of the Israelites, who then “sat and wept before YHVH,” but at that time He “did not listen to them” (1: 45).
In chapter 2 of the Parasha, Moshe reviews some geographical and historical facts. As part of preparing the young Israelites for their relocation, he wants them to have a geographical and historical orientation and perspective. This is particularly true in 2:9-12 and 20-23. Some of the names of the peoples mentioned are rather revealing. In 2:10 we read about the “Eimeem” (Emims). “Eima” is “fear, dread or horror” (for example, in the Covenant Between the Torn Pieces it is written: “… and behold a terror – “eima” – of great darkness”, Gen. 15:12). These “Eimim” are compared to the Anakim, who are the giants described by the spies (Num. 13:28). Following them, mention is made (v. 11) of the “R’fa’eem.” The root r.f.a. (resh, fey, alef) is used several times to describe the dead, or dwellers of She’ol. In Yisha’yahu (Isaiah) 14:9 we read: “Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come; It arouses for you the spirits of the dead (“r’fa’eem”)….” The R’fa’eem were also considered among the giants (and are mentioned in B’resheet 14:5). According to verse 20, the giants were also called “Zam’zumeem,” and lived in the land that was “considered the land of the R’fa’eem” (literal translation). This latter fact may have rendered that land as the “land of the dead,” perhaps subtly hinting to the fact that YHVH will “begin to put your dread and your fear on the face of the people under all the heavens, who will hear your fame, and will tremble and writhe because of you” (2:25). Appropriately, the Parasha ends with the following: “Do not fear them for YHVH your Elohim, He shall fight for you” (3:22).
Before concluding, let us examine a leitmotif that reoccurs a number of times in our Parasha and is first seen in 1:8 (and then in 1:21; 39): “See, I have placed the land before you go in and possess [“r’shu” – wrest it by impoverishing its present residents] the land which YHVH swore to give to your fathers… and to their seed after them.” Last week we examined briefly “yerusha,” one of the words for inheritance, which is rooted in the verb “resh,” used here by YHVH in its imperative form. YHVH declares that He has already “given/placed” – “natati” - the land before His people, but that first it was incumbent upon them to do two things. First they had to “see.” That is, they had to realize, by exercising faith, that their heavenly Father had already accomplished this. Secondly, they had to go and take/wrest the land, based upon the former realization and premise, and do so, again, in faith. In 2:9 YHVH, likewise, declares that He “has given Ar (Mo’av) to the sons of Lot as a possession” [“yerusha” – the same term He uses for Yisrael’s inheritance or possession). However, in this case, even though He has “given” – natan, again - them their land, “before them” is significantly missing. Thus, although YHVH is sovereign over all peoples, He is notably treating His own in an exceptional manner. In 2:31, YHVH declares again to His people (literal translation): “See, I have begun to give/place – “natati” – Sihon and his land over to you. Impoverishing begin to impoverish his land.” In the case of Sichon and his people, Yisrael’s Elohim also announces that it is He who has “hardened his [Sichon’s] spirit and made his heart obstinate” (2:30), having mercy on whom He will, and hardening [the heart of] whom He desires (ref. Rom. 9:18).
While YHVH is totally sovereign and controls all people groups, He puts certain expectations upon Yisrael, who are to apply their conscious will (as we saw Moshe doing at the beginning of the Parasha) and act volitionally in faith and obedience to their Maker and King, who uses the Land of Promise as a venue for applying these principles and for continuing to practice them..
1. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press,
2. New Studies in Devarim, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library,
Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc.,