Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22; Isaiah 1:1–27; Mark 14:1–16
“These are the words [devarim] which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness.” (Deuteronomy 1:1)
Last week, the Torah portions in the Book of Numbers (Bemidbar) concluded with Parasha Massei, in which the 42 journeys and encampments of the Israelites in the wilderness are recounted as the people are poised to enter the Promised Land.
This week we begin Deuteronomy (Second Law), the last book of the five books of Moses. The Hebrew name of this book comes from the first important word in the text, devarim, which simply means words. This Hebrew word, however, also means things.
When we stop to think about both meanings of this word, we understand the power of words. Though most of us begin with the assumption that words have no material form or substance, there is a truth hidden in the Word of God (Devar Elohim): words have the power to create.
God, the Great Creator of the Universe, used words to form the world and all that is in it. He spoke and it was created.
We also can create life or death through the power of the tongue. We will either use faith-filled, constructive words to create life, or faithless, destructive words to create death:
“Death and Life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat is fruit.” (Proverbs 18:21)
Transformation Is Often a Process
Devarim comprises Moses’ three parting speeches to the children of Israel, just before he dies. He will not be crossing the Jordan with the Israelites.
He had faithfully led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, and now on the far side of the Jordan River, just before they enter into the Promised Land, he takes 36 days to deliver these three sermons that recount the law, stress the Israelites’ relationship with God, and emphasize the need for holiness.
In this Parasha, Moses lyrically and impressively sums up the major events that they have experienced while he was the leader of Israel for 40 years.
Here, Moses appears as an eloquent man of words—a powerful orator.
And yet, 40 years earlier, when God spoke to Moses in an extraordinary encounter from out of a burning bush, commanding him to go and speak to Pharaoh, Moses replied,
“Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)
Moses felt so tongue-tied when pleading with Pharaoh to let the Israelites go that Aaron needed to speak for him.
In fulfilling his calling as a leader of a nation, God transforms him. Over time, this man of few words becomes a passionate ambassador for God, capable of boldly and articulately addressing the nation.
Each of us can be transformed in a similar fashion. Though we may begin our walk with the Lord fully aware of our limitations, as we keep our desires connected with His, we become more and more like Him.
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
Putting Feet to Faith
At the beginning of this Torah reading, Moses recalls the great task that God assigned to Israel—possessing their Promised Land:
“The Lord our God said to us at Horeb, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighboring peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the Euphrates. See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them.’” (Deuteronomy 1:6–8)
At the beginning of our own journey, we might be overwhelmed by the size of the task assigned to us, seeing only the mountain—much like Moses was initially discouraged by what seemed like the monumental task of delivering Israel from Egypt.
But God is faithful.
If we stare at the mountain, we may never begin. But God has commanded us to put feet to faith and start climbing.
Our challenges and successes along the path as we follow the Lord will lead to the development of skills we may have initially thought impossible; but like Moses, over time we will find ourselves fully equipped to fulfill our calling—if we persevere in earnestly seeking Him.
Haftarah (Prophetic Portion): How We Miss Our Path to Promise
The Haftarah (prophetic reading) for this week is the third in a series of three “Haftarot of Affliction,” which are read between the fasts of the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz and the 9th day of the month of Av.
Today’s text is always read in the synagogue on the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av, which is a day of mourning and lamentation commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Holy Temples.
Both Moses in the Parasha and the Prophet Isaiah in the Haftarah ask the question, “How?”
Moses, in retelling the history of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, attempts to answer this question: How did an 11-day journey turn into a 40-year marathon?
“It is eleven days’ journey from Horeb by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh Barnea.” (Deuteronomy 1:2)
The answer, of course, lies in the faithless words from 10 of the 12 scouts sent ahead to inspect the Land. When they returned, they discouraged the hearts of the people with their negative report so much that the people were afraid to obey the Lord’s command to go up and possess the Land, as Moses recounted:
“Nevertheless you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 1:26)
The bad report of the scouts spread like a disease and resulted in the Israelites entertaining unbelief and speaking all kinds of ungodliness.
They lost heart, grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and rebelled against the Lord, despite having witnessed astounding miracles and an incredible deliverance from Egypt.
God heard their faithless speech and grumbling. By doing so, they were condemned to wander around in the wilderness until the entire generation died—all except Joshua and Caleb who followed God wholeheartedly.
“And the Lord heard the sound of your words, and was angry, and took an oath, saying, ‘Surely not one of these men of this evil generation shall see that good land of which I swore to give to your fathers, except Caleb.’” (Deuteronomy 1:34–36)
God is listening to us. He hears the sound of our words. We should ask ourselves, “Are they bringing Him pleasure?” Do they reflect faith and trust in His unlimited power and His amazing goodness?
How We Move Forward on Our Path to Promise
In the Haftarah, Isaiah also attempts to answer the question how: How did we come to this place of terrible judgment as a nation?
Both Moses and Isaiah answer honestly: the events that came upon the nation of Israel were not random; they were a result of their own sin.
Isaiah said, “Woe to a sinful nation, a people heavy with iniquity, evildoing seed, corrupt children. They forsook God; they provoked the Holy One of Israel.” (Isaiah 1:4)
These words might sound harsh to our ears. Isaiah calls the people harlots and murderers and even compared the Jewish leadership to the leaders of Sodom and Gomorrah!
“Hear the word of the LORD, You rulers of Sodom; Give ear to the law of our God, You people of Gomorrah.” (Isaiah 1:10)
Isaiah, however, does not end with words of condemnation and judgment but rather an encouragement to repent. He promises that if they are truly penitent, then God will forgive their sins, cleansing and purifying them.
“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the LORD, ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’” (Isaiah 1:18)
God never leaves us without hope. Through Isaiah, He extends the promises of redemption, justice, and righteousness to those who sincerely repent before Him.
“Zion shall be redeemed through justice and her penitents through righteousness.” (Isaiah 1:27)
When we assess our own journey to understand where we are and how we got here, we might realize there were times when we stopped moving forward and maybe even turned back due to fear, sinfulness, or a lack of faith in God.
The Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) may bring conviction into our hearts about that, not to condemn us but to reveal the truth so that we will be set free to resume our journey forward unrestrained.
When we sincerely repent and ask God’s forgiveness, He will not only forgive our sins; but will also cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
When we look back on our own journeys through the wilderness and promised lands, we will also see just how far the Lord has taken us and develop a new appreciation for God’s protective care.
We may also realize that He is more than able to fulfill all of His promises to us, if we will only keep moving forward.