Devarim: A “Great and Fearful” Journey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim

This is the penultimate occasion upon which I can write: greetings from sunny
Swampscott! Amidst the sea of cardboard boxes in my office and the unnatural
neatness which my real estate agent has imposed upon my townhouse, I find this week’s
parsha to be quite topical, since it’s all about moving and journeys. We’re beginning the
book of Devarim (literally, “words”), known in English as Deuteronomy (which means the
“second telling.”)

Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, is Moshe’s valedictory review and
exhortation to his people; after 40 years in the wilderness, they will inherit the Land, but he will not. He urges them to be faithful to their Liberator, and in so doing recounts much of the history and many of the laws given since the Exodus. Moshe also recalls some of the
hardships of the journey- perhaps as a way of reminding the the people that they were not
abandoned in their most difficult hours. The journey from Egypt was not always fun, as
Moshe points out in Chapter 1, vs 19:

“And we journeyed from Horeb and went through all that great and fearful
desert, which you saw, by the way of the mountain of the Amorites, as the Lord, our God,
commanded us; and we came up to Kadesh barnea . . . .”

Horeb is another name for Sinai (well, it’s a little more complex than that, but
we’ll save the details for another time), so in this passage, Moshe reminds the people that
they came up from Sinai all the way to what we’d now call the Negev, south of the Dead
Sea. Moshe calls this route the “great and fearful desert,” a phrase which our teacher
Rashi elaborates with seeming hyperbole:

” `that great and fearful desert’. . . because in it were serpents as [thick
as] beams and scorpions as [big as] bows.”

OK, so the desert wasn’t Club Med, but where there really snakes as big as
alligators and science-fiction sized scorpions? Maybe a better question is: did Rashi mean for us to take this comment literally, and if not, what do we learn from it?

Rashi is quite aware that human beings perceive reality through the lenses of
their subjective experience: in his comment on verse 27, referring to the Israelite’s
feeling ofbthat God had abandoned them, he points out that what we have in our own hearts, we project onto others. So maybe he’s not really asking us to believe in humongous
mutant scorpions, but rather, he may be alluding to the fear that the Israelites felt
as they left the known world of slavery for the unknown world of building a national home. In other words, the snakes were not really as big as beams, but the people’s anxiety and insecurity was such that ordinary irritants seemed like extraordinary dangers.

A journey means that change will happen; a spiritual journey means becoming
something one doesn’t know how to be yet. That’s scary, because we have to leave behind
our comfortable ways of being in the world and act in new and different ways, ways
that reveal our higher and better selves.

That’s the metaphor of the wilderness- not the old place, and not the new place,
but the place in-between, where security is behind us and transformation ahead, and lots
of transitions in the middle. So the challenge of spiritual growth is: don’t let
the perceived challenges hold you back, don’t let fear become the lens through which you see the world, don’t let the snakes seem as big as beams nor the scorpions seem as big as bows- and you, too, can reach the Land of Promise, the place of blessing and covenant.

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