The book of Devarim – Moshe’s farewell messages to his people – opens with gently-worded rebuke. He first examines why the Children of Israel did not enter their land directly, but instead traveled through the wilderness for forty years. This will bring him, of course, to the sin of the spies.
Let us examine the structure of the opening section of this lecture (Devarim 1:1-2:1): (1:1-5) Introduction: the time, place and circumstances of Moshe’s address. (1:6-18) At Sinai, Hashem commanded Israel to begin their journey towards Israel, but Moshe wanted others to help him share the burden, and so judges were appointed and given instructions. (1:19-2:1) After traversing the wilderness, the people demanded that spies be sent to investigate the land, but the spies’ disheartening report led to the decree that the generation would die in the wilderness. When some refused to accept this judgment, they tried to storm the land, but they were driven back. They have remained on the outskirts of the Land for a long time.
What is the central theme of this section? Is it to chastise the people for their backslidings, or to compliment them for their choice of officials? Why does Moshe introduce the sin of the spies with the appointment of the judges?
Haamek Davar (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, 1817-1893) says the way the judges were chosen indicates, and thus serves as a prelude, to the moral lesson to be learned from the sin of the spies.
At Sinai, Hashem told the people to begin the journey to the Land:
“Turn and travel toward the Mount of the Emorites
They would take the land with ease, miraculously. At that time, it never occurred to them to ask for spies, because in their self-analysis they deserved miracles. The truth of this analysis is irrelevant; the problem was that they arrived at it without consulting with Moshe.
And I spoke to you at that time, saying, “I cannot bear you all by myself. Hashem, your G-d, has increased you, and behold you are today like the stars of the heavens in abundance. May Hashem, the G-d of your forefathers, add to you a thousand fold yourselves, and may He bless you as He told you. But how (EICHAH) can I alone bear your trouble, your burdens and your conflicts?” (verses 9-12).
Moshe twice declares his inability to lead them unaided. First, he must attend to their basic needs, caring for them, as Moshe himself once said, as a nurse carries an infant (Bamidbar 11:12).
When an infant relies completely on the nurse’s judgment, it is easier for the nurse to satisfy the child’s needs. However, this is more difficult if the infant does not accept the caretaker’s assessment. Similarly, it is more effective when the people trust and follow the leader of the generation; but if everyone has a different view of what the people need, it is impossible to lead them.
Thus, says Netziv, Moshe understood,
even as far back as Sinai, that
Then, Moshe points to the second dimension of the difficulty in leading the people single-handedly: He must deal with their trouble — prayers they want him to implore Hashem on their behalf; their burdens — their own responsibilities, which he must supervise; their conflicts — the quarrels and tensions between them.
These are the burdens of leadership which Moshe was prepared to share. However, he would always be the only one to receive the teachings of Torah directly from Hashem.
Moshe therefore proposes the appointment of a hierarchy of judges.
Moshe wanted the people to select candidates they think suitable, and he would authorize them.
But, says Netziv, the people suspected Moshe of loving the honor of leadership despite its burdens, so they asked him to select the judges himself, which he did. Once again, the people are shown to be less than fully devoted to Moshe.
All of the aforementioned sets the stage for the sin of the spies, in which the people did not trust Moshe enough to follow him, but rather they tried to lead him: And all of you approached me and you said, “Let us send men ahead of us, and let them examine the land for us. And they shall bring us back a report, the way which we will ascend and the cities we will encounter” (verse 22).
Moshe agreed, but only because he knew that Hashem wanted the entry to the Land to be via natural means.
However, there was already a deeply-seated breakdown in the connection between the leader and the led.
The people wanted spies because by that time they had changed their self- nalysis: They no longer wanted their lives to be governed by the miraculous, because that imposes a great moral burden on them. Again, although it was Hashem’s ultimate plan to make their entry to the Land natural, they did not follow Moshe with complete obedience. Instead of deciding on their own whether or not they could continue to rely on miracles, they should have trusted in Moshe’s leadership.
But how (EICHAH) can I alone bear your trouble, your burdens and your conflicts? is read using the melody of Lamentations (Eichah), not only because it starts with the word EICHAH, but because it points to the fundamental flaw that led to the sin of the spies, which, like the destruction of both Temples, also occurred on the Ninth of Av. This flaw has two components: lack of unity in the people and lack of trust in our Torah leaders. It will only be when we address and correct this flaw in ourselves that we will merit to see the rebuilding of the Temple.