D’varim: The Lens of the Heart

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: D’varim

Greetings from the humid regions of tropical Boston! We continue to
hope for peace in Israel and the surrounding regions- may hatred give
way to generosity, speedily and in our days.

This week’s Torah portion, D’varim, begins the book of Deuteronomy,
literally the “second telling” (that’s what Deuteronomy means) of the
story of the Exodus, Revelation, and journey through the wilderness.
Moshe is just about to die, and the people are just about to cross the
Jordan river to the Land, making the entire book of D’varim an urgent
review of their history and laws.

The beginning of D’varim is a rebuke of the people for their lack of
faith and contentiousness along the way, including a reference to the
incident of the spies who go up to the Land (this is the story found
in parshat Shlach-Lecha). Moshe points out to the people that they
didn’t give God much credit for having overthrown Pharoah and split
the sea and provided the manna up till that time:

“Yet you refused to go up, and flouted the command of the Lord your
God. You sulked in your tents and said, ‘It is because the Lord hates
us that God brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to
the Amorites to wipe us out. What kind of place are we going to? Our
kinsmen have taken the heart out of us, saying, ‘We saw there a people
stronger and taller than we, large cities with walls sky-high, and
even Anakites.’ ‘ ” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 1:26-28, and see
Bamidbar/Numbers chapter 14 for the earlier story.)

Moshe condenses the long story of the spies into a few sentences, but
he names the emotional essence of the incident: the people seemed
overwhelmed by doubt and fear, and projected their negative feelings
onto God, whom they claimed took them out of Egypt only so they could
be slain by the sword. (Cf. the beginning of Bamidbar 14.) It’s quite
amazing to think that after the plagues upon Parsha, the splitting of
the Sea, the giving of the Torah, the battles, miracles, manna, water
from the rock and all the rest, that the Israelites could really think
that their journey was all a setup so they could be killed in the
desert by the Amorites!

Rashi understands that the people’s words are an indication of their
inner emotional state, rather than their rational beliefs:

“Because the Lord hates us. . . Really, however, God loves you, but
you hate[d] God. A saying of the common people is: What is in your own
heart about your friend, is in his heart about you.”

I understand this “saying of the common people” to mean: what is in
your heart is what you imagine or believe the other person is thinking
about you- you project your inner state onto others. In other words,
because the people were churned up with fear and anxiety, they
resented those (both Moshe and God, never mind Caleb and Joshua) whom
they associated with the fear-provoking changes, and imputed to them
the worst possible motivations, even to the point where they seemed to
ignore the manna and water than sustained them.

Framed this way, Moshe’s rebuke is not so much about bad theology (God
hates us!), but about lack of self-awareness, so much so that real
suffering resulted from the contentiousness and emotional projection.
Change is hard, and sometimes leaders make mistakes, but when we avoid
confronting fear or grief, naming them clearly, people who genuinely
care can become the casualties of anger and blame. It’s so hard to
always judge “l’chaf z’chut,” on the side of favor and goodwill, but
it’s an essential struggle, without which relationships suffer, hearts
are bruised, reconciliation is delayed, and love is diminished.

The people didn’t really hate God, but their fear prevented them
feeling God’s love for them at the moment when they needed it most.
The alternative to “sulking in your tents” is clear: open one’s eyes
and heart to faithful relationship, with God and community, and let
fear itself be open to a sustaining and transforming love.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, you can find a summary and additional commentary here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/dvarim_index.htm

and the text of the Torah and haftarah here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

Next week is Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, the
saddest day on the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting and mourning. For
more information about this day’s history and practices, here’s a
great start:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/TishaBav.htm

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