Place and Displacement

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elliot Salinger

Moshe’s final speech to Benei Yisrael in Parashat Devarim possesses several remarkable features.

First, in describing Benei Yisrael’s journey from Mitzrayim through the desert, Moshe chooses to begin his address not at the story’s beginning but at its middle: ה’ א-להינו דבר אלינו בחרב לאמר: רב-לכם שבת בהר הזה. (Devarim 1:6). Moshe’s narrative begins with God’s command that Benei Yisrael leave their place, mirroring the narrative displacement of the events that follow from their proper order in the temporal sequence. Moshe narrates the story of chet ha-meraglim, then Benei Yisrael’s encounters with other nations in Transjordan, and finally the settlement there of Reuven, Gad, and chatzi shevet Menasheh. It is not until 4:10, in Parashat Vaetchanan, that Moshe describes Matan Torah, the events immediately prior to the departure from Sinai. Why does Moshe begin his speech in medias res?

Second, Moshe’s speech is punctuated by asides that offer information about other peoples and places mentioned in Moshe’s narrative. The first such aside comes after Moshe recounts how God warned him not to attack Moav, since God gave it to the descendants of Lot as yerushah. This triggers a rather odd aside about the history of Moav and Se’ir:האמים לפנים ישבו בה עם גדול ורב ורם כענקים. רפאים יחשבו אף הם כענקים והמאבים יקראו להם אמים. ובשעיר ישבו החרים לפנים ובני עשו יירשום וישמידום מפניהם וישבו תחתם… (Devarim 2:10-12). Abrupt in the narrative, these pesukim seem discontinuous with Moshe’s speech. In fact, they seem to be written not in Moshe’s voice, but in the voice of the Torah’s Narrator, like .אלה הדברים אשר דבר משה אל כל ישראל The Torah similarly notes the history of the next people that Benei Yisrael encounter, Amon, which was also yerushah to Lot’s descendants:ארץ רפאים תחשב אף הוא רפאים ישבו בה לפנים והעמנים יקראו להם זמזמים עם גדול ורב ורם כענקים וישמידם ה’ מפניהם ויירשם וישבו תחתם. כאשר עשה לבני עשו הישבים בשעיר אשר השמיד את החרי מפניהם ויירשם וישבו תחתם עד היום הזה (Devarim 2:20-22). And finally, after the victory over Og is discussed and Benei Yisrael’s control of the land between Nachal Arnon and the Chermon noted, the Torah writes,צידנים יקראו לחרמון שרין והאמרי יקראו לו שניר. כל ערי המישר וכל הגלעד וכל הבשן עד סלכה ואדרעי ערי ממלכת עוג בבשן. (Devarim 3:9-10). Why does the Torah insert these seemingly irrelevant details into Moshe’s speech?

Third, in Parashat Devarim the Torah’s narrative voice often sounds as if it were spoken far after Moshe gave his speech in Arvot Moav. To use a (perhaps strained) contemporary analogy, the Torah’s narrative voice sounds less like that of a journalist providing background to a recent speech than that of a historian providing scholarly commentary on an already famous address. The Torah’s narration engenders this literary distance in three places, two of which were noted by Ibn Ezra. The first instance comes in the Torah’s locating Moshe’s speech בעבר הירדן, a Cisjordanian perspective on Benei Yisrael’s encampment. Ibn Ezra (to 1:2 s.v. achad asar yom) links this phrase with others in the Torah (the famous “סוד השנים עשר,”) including the pasuk that concludes the aside about Og:כי רק עוג מלך הבשן נשאר מיתר הרפאים הנה ערשו ערש ברזל הלה הוא ברבת בני עמון תשע אמות ארכה וארבע אמות רחבה באמת איש (Devarim 3:11). This pasuk, the second instance of distancing, seems to reflect a temporal rather than merely geographic remove from the setting of Moshe’s address. Finally, the third instance is found at the close of the first aside we considered above, concerning the history of Se’ir. After noting how the descendants of Esav dispossessed Se’ir’s previous inhabitants, the Torah concludes,כאשר עשה ישראל לארץ ירשתו אשר נתן ה’ להם )Devarim 2:11). Why does the Torah write at a distance from the speech it records?  

I’d like to propose that these literary features serve to reinforce prominent themes of Moshe’s speech. Let us begin with the first feature we noted above, the displacement of מעמד הר סיני in Moshe’s narration. When  מעמד הר סיניis mentioned, it appears not as merely another event that occurred in the desert, but rather within the context of exhortations to follow the Torah:רק השמר לך ושמר נפשך מאד פן תשכח את הדברים אשר ראו עיניך ופן יסורו מלבבך כל ימי חייך והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך יום אשר עמדת לפני ה’ א-להיך בחרב (Devarim 4:9-10). In postponing the discussion of מתן תורה, Moshe emphasizes that מתן תורה was not simply an event with a beginning and end in historical time. It rather provides obligations continually, even to those who did not witness it.

The removal of מעמד הר סיני from the linear sequence to highlight its moral significance dovetails with the temporal and spatial dislocations within the Torah’s narration. Both serve to highlight the continual significance of the events in Moshe’s speech to future generations of Benei Yisrael living in Eretz Yisrael. These early perakim of Sefer Devarim oscillate between the perspective of the midbar prior to the conquest and the perspective of Eretz Yisrael years after. They collect events and facts from different places in time and space, engendering a perspective above historical time.

What is the supra-historical message that the Torah wishes to convey to us? The same message that Moshe wishes to convey to Benei Yisrael: that their presence in Eretz Yisrael is contingent upon their observance of the Torah. It does not take Moshe long to begin recounting chet ha-meraglim and the ma’apilim, those who did not understand the total dependence of Benei Yisrael’s existence in Eretz Yisrael as a function of their obedience to the Divine Will. And to underscore this message, Moshe punctuates his account with comments and laments concerning his own inability to enter the Land. In fact, Moshe’s beseeching God to allow him to enter Eretz Yisrael at 3:23-29, the start of Parashat Vaetchanan, marks the end of the historical narrative proper and the transition to discussing מעמד הר סיני.

The asides serve to remind the Torah’s readers of that space and time—future generations in Eretz Yisrael—whose fate depends on heeding Moshe’s message. If they disobey the Torah, they will be removed from their homeland and exiled. It is thus especially appropriate that the asides, which create a sense of literary displacement and dislocation, largely discuss the displacement and dislocation of other peoples by the nations whom Benei Yisrael have dispossessed. Just as other peoples were dispossessed, and just as Benei Yisrael dispossessed others, so too may Benei Yisrael themselves be dispossessed:כאשר עשה ישראל לארץ ירשתו אשר נתן ה’ להם.

May we merit this Shabbat Chazon and Tisha Ba’av, as we mourn our own displacements and dispossessions, to remember the lessons of Moshe’s speech.

Elliot Salinger (SBM ’12, ’14), a graduate of Princeton University, will begin an MPhil in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge this fall.


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