Devarim: Moses’s Worrisome Speech by Rabbi David Hartely Mark

Devarim (דברים)
Torah : Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1 – 1:27


“These are the Words that Moses proclaimed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan….’See, I place the land before you, to conquer and inherit, to plow and to plant. Go, take possession of the land that the LORD swore unto your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to pass it on to them and their children after them”

(Deut. 1:1, 8-9).


Joshua, gray-haired and gray-bearded, a man in his sixties—veteran of many a military campaign as his people marched, complaining, through the trackless Wilderness—entered the black goatskin tent. The air was foul—as though it had not been ventilated sufficiently for a long time. While he unbuckled his sword-belt and carefully stood his battered shield against a tent-pole, he squinted around the interior—


         My eyes are getting old, he thought, I cannot see as once I did. I was once able, when I was young, to mark a diving falcon in its flight; now, I can barely see a host of Amorites taking the field. But my shield-bearer, Yadid, has become my eyes and ears. Too bad about Caleb, my old friend and fellow warrior, though—I was too slow to push him aside when I saw that Moabite aiming his arrow! Ah, well—he is a tough old goat; Elazar, the Kohen, will heal him.


Finally, his eyes adjusted to the dimness of the tent. He saw the source of the sour smell: a cook-pot, left unattended, had boiled away its soup, and its contents—he saw a burnt piece of what might once have been chicken, along with a carrot and some scorched greens.


He heard a cough, and, like a flash, seized his sword; its ragged bronze edge caught the dim light—then, again pulling the same neck-muscle he had strained in yesterday’s battle with the Amorites, he cried, “Ow—my neck”—and dropped his blade. It clattered against the stones of the fireplace.


“Who’s there?” came a voice from the darkness, “Is that you, Young Joshua? Well and well again; I sent for you. My young wife, Zipporah, bless her, ran especially fast to find you—“


How many years is Zipporah dead, now? Joshua thought, And Miriam, Aaron, even Korach, Milord Moses’s old enemy? Alas, they live on, in his mind.


         “…and fetch you to me. I bless the LORD Most High! I must teach Torah to you, and to our misbehaving rabble Israelites—those tousle-headed good-for-nothings, how I love them!—before I die.”


The voice of Moses cracked like a wooden ox-yoke. Joshua could dimly make out, in the flames of the half-dead cooking fire, the Old Man, leathery hands clutched around his Shepherd’s Staff, slowly rising to his feet.


“I must stand, when I teach,” Moses creaked, “and there is no privilege like that of imparting the Wisdom of Torah. Write this down, Son of Nun—“


And Joshua was scrambling—the best he could, with a twisted neck—to

find a piece of charcoal from the fire, and a shard of broken pottery to write it down.


“Because of you Israelites and your sins the LORD was angry with me, Moses, and He said: ‘You shall not enter the Land. Joshua ben Nun, your disciple, will be imbued with strength—“


I could use some of that strength right now, smiled Joshua to himself, for we take the field against the Rephaim, those near-sighted Giants, tomorrow. Did Arpachshad do as I commanded him, taking two warriors to reconnoiter the Dry Valley of Zered? Otherwise, I fear we will face defeat at their hands—


“But your children, your little ones who do not know good from bad, they shall conquer it; to them will I give it, and they shall possess the Land. Therefore, guard ye all the Covenant which I made with you this day; for I—I—“


Joshua strode across the tent-space and held up the thin, aged prophet-teacher, hugging him so that he would not fall.


“Are you all right, Milord Moses, my rabbi?” he whispered into the Old Man’s ear.


“Oh, Aaron!” gasped Moses, “once again, you have come to my rescue—first, as spokesman after the Burning Bush, and afterward, all through the time of the Plagues, when you and I stood off Pharaoh Ramesses II, who called himself—

the Light—of the Nile—I….”


Joshua gently lowered his teacher to the old blanket on which he had been sitting. He reached into his leathern belt-bag, and pulled out a rolled-up pita.


Handing it to Moses, he asked, “Have you eaten today, My Rabbi?”


The Old Man shook his head. “I have been very zealous for the LORD. Since early dawn, I have neither eaten nor drunk. I worry, Joshua, that when I am gone, my people will backslide, and worship idols.”


“This will never happen,” said Joshua, happy to be recognized, at last, “for I and Caleb, and all the Kohanim and Levites, will teach them—in groups of ten, of twenty, of fifty, and so on, as your dear father-in-law Jethro taught us, so long ago. I was but a young man, then. I–”


“You are a comfort to me, my Joshua,” said Moses, chewing at the dry pita, and sipping at the canteen which Joshua had handed him.


“Eat, and get some rest,” said Joshua, “I will check on you later. We need you, Master.”


He quietly crept out of the tent, as Moses lay down on the blanket and closed his eyes.


“Glory to the Lord, Who made heaven and earth,” he whispered, “the sea and the land, and all that dwell therein….”


“God save him,” prayed Joshua silently, as he took up his sword and shield, “and stand by us, in our battles to come.”



Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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