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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Parshat D'varim: When Actions Become Words

This week we read Parshat D'varim the first parashah (portion) in the book of D'varim/Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22). The Book of D'varim consists primarily of three addresses that Moses makes to the people of Israel before he dies and they enter the Promised Land. These addresses are part spiritual preparation, part ethical will and part reminder and warning.

During his first address, Moses reminds the Israelites of  40 years earlier at Kadesh-barnea, when he sent 12 spies to scout out the Promised Land. However, the version he tells here differs greatly from the original telling in Be'midbar/ Numbers (13:1-14:45). In the original telling God commands Moses to appoint one scout from each of the 12 tribes to reconnoiter the land and bring back a report. When they return, they all agree that the land is flowing with milk and honey. However, 10 out of the 12 spies report that the people there are like giants and that they will not be able to conquer them. Only Joshua and Caleb remind the people that God is with them, so they will indeed be able to conquer and inhabit the land. Because the people follow the negative report of the 10 spies, rather than Joshua and Caleb, God decrees that none except for Joshua and Caleb shall enter the land. They are doomed instead to wander for 40 years until they entire generation of adults has died.

The version found in this week's parashah takes place at the end of the 40 years of wandering, and so is addressed to the children of those who had followed the negative report of the spies. When Moses recounts the story to them he makes some significant changes. To begin with, he states that the idea of sending the scouts came from the people, and not from God. Furthermore, when the scouts return, it seems that they brought back a positive report on the land. However, the people did not heed the words of the spies; instead they refused to follow God's command to conquer the land. They then returned to sulk in their tents and complain about the conditions in the desert. However, the result was the same, as they were still forbidden to enter the land.

This Hebrew word D'varim means both words and things. This reminds us that words are so powerful that they can easily become things or actions. Words can take on a life of their own and wreak havoc, just as easily as they can bring comfort and peace. In the incident of the spies, or scouts, words of fear, uncertainty and lack of faith take on a life of their own and bring about the punishment of the people. In both tellings of the story, it is the people's words which beget action and bring about God's harsh response. However, in the telling from Be'midbar/Numbers the 10 scouts, who are leaders of the community, begin the chain of events by their negative words. In the re-telling in this week's parashah, it is the community whose words bring about their own downfall.

We can argue, as have commentators past and present, as to why Moses has changed the words of the narrative, thereby changing the "things" or actions that the words become. I would like to suggest that this was intentional on the part of Moses (or, the author of D'varim) and not due to advanced age, chance or scribal error. For we must remember that Moses is speaking to the children about those whose words/actions had brought about the 40 years of wandering that are now concluding. None of the listeners was an adult member of the community when the incident occurred, save for Joshua and Caleb, so no one is going to contradict Moses.

Yet why, in this retelling of the story, does the responsibility belong  to all the members of community  and not to their leaders?  Perhaps this is meant to serve as a reminder that each community member is responsible for his/her words and actions.  Just as their parents' words and actions brought about 40 years of wandering for the entire community, so too their words and actions can bring about reward or punishment.

As they prepare to enter the land of Promise, 40 years after their parents were poised to do the same, they must each pay attention to their thoughts, words and actions. They must also remember that God has brought them to this point and it is God that will bring them into the land and settle them there. However, they are also told that this process of settling will not be easy. Before they enter they land, they will first need to battle the troops of Sihon king of Heshbon and Og king of Bashan. Only after these battles, guided by God and led by Joshua, will they be able to enter the land and conquer it without fear of its inhabitants.


At this moment, I would like to focus on one line that Moses speaks as he prepares the people for the battles that lie ahead, for I believe it holds a spiritual key to a hidden meaning to this parashah: "Yehoshua/Joshua, son of Nun, who stands before you, he will enter there [the land]; him (you are to) strengthen, for he will allot-it-as inheritance to [the people of] Israel" (Deut. 1:38, based on the Everett Fox translation).

This entire endeavor can be seen as a metaphor for what it takes to spiritually conquer that which stands in the way of reaching one's own Promised Land, or spiritual center.  The place where one is able to connect with the God within each of us. The people of Israel had to fight and struggle for 40 years to reach the border of the Promised Land, often ignoring, disobeying and struggling with God and Moses.  Similarly, each of us can only reach our own spiritual home after much struggle. In the process we get caught up in our words and actions, which are one and the same.  It is these word-actions that often impel us to change our route so that we take the long, difficult way towards our homem, rather than what may seem the simple, direct route. Sometimes we can bew led astray by the word-actions of others, as in the Be'midbar version of the story.  Sometimes we are led astray by our own word-actions, our own mind, our own ego, our own fears, as in the version in this week's parashah. Either way, we are led astray, we miss the more direct route and our wandering continues.

Yet eventually, after our circuitous and difficult journey, the Promised Land, our Spiritual Center, God, whatever you choose to call it and however we perceive it, seems within our reach. Our years of journeying, our prayers, our meditations, our words and our actions have all been worth it! Still, even then we must face other challenges, often from within us, from our egos, that want to stop us.

When this happens, who will lead us to defeat these forces that try to keep us from continuing on the joureny? If we rely on our ego, on our sense of pride and ability to 'do it alone,' we are doomed. Rather, it is rlying on the strength and ability that comes from the Divine within and letting go of our egos and our desire to be in control that ultimately enables us to prevail.

In the narrative, God helps the Israelites to prevail with the help of Yehoshua/Joshua, who is to be their new leader. The name Yehoshua means, "God will save." God, the source of salvation, ultimately will lead us to victory over the ego and help us to overcome the other stumbling blocks along our way. As the verse above states, Yehoshua, God's salvation, will stand before us as a guide and a beacon. Yet, we are the ones who must strengthen Yehoshua. It is as if, without humanity turning to God for salvation, God cannot have the strength to save. The relationship is entirely symbiotic. We need God, but God also needs us. Only through this symbiotic relationship can salvation ultimately be achieved. Only then can we receive our reach our spiritual "promised land," which is our rightful inheritance.

Yet, the inheritance is given to Yisrael/Israel, which means "one who has struggled with God." Of course, our people's history can be seen as one long struggle with God. The 40 years of wandering began with a struggle and continued as the people frequently complained about their lot and turned away from God. Yet, the land of Promise is the inheritance given to the entire nation of those who have struggled, and will continue to struggle, with God. In a way, the gift of the land – the spiritual home – is given as a reward for struggling with God. Yet, it is given by Yehoshua, who represents God's power of salvation and the symbiotic relationship between God and humanity.

The ultimate spiritual message of this is that the struggle with God is not wrong, but rather it is desirable, if not necessary. However, when we struggle with God from a place of ego and trying to defeat or even deny God, as did the generation of the spies, then the struggle brings pain and suffering. Yet, if the struggle is part of a symbiotic, inter-dependent relationship between us and God, then we ultimately can achieve salvation and arrive at our spiritual center, just as our forefather Jacob did when he struggled with the Divine being in order to become Israel - the God wrestler.

Therefore, salvation is not about receiving rewards in the "world to-come", but rather it is defined by the process through which it is achieved. For salvation is what occurs within each of us, and within our world, when we struggle in order to experience the Divine within us, others and the world.  This eventually leads to an understanding of the interconnectedness of all of God's created world. And it is this sense of connection and oneness that has the potential to create a world of peace, harmony and compassion.

The journey to this place is long and arduous. It is also eternal, for once we reach our goal we must begin the journey anew. It is a journey that we must take one step at a time, both alone and together with our community. Yet we must remember that ultimately it is the God,the source of Salvation, that gives us strength and that we must give back strength in return through our symbiotic, inter-dependent relationship. Only then can all of our struggles and battles bring us to our individual and communal Promised Lands and create the Promised World of which we all dream.

Shabbat Shalom.

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