Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Dvarim – Tisha B’Av 5775
It’s About Time
This week’s Torah reading is the first in a new book, but for the most part it is a book that tells an old story, a book whose very existence is born of tragedy. Moshe is close to death; he will not cross over the Jordan River to the Land of Israel, and he opens his final series of speeches with a retrospective. How did we get here? Where did we go wrong? Can we avoid such mistakes in the future?
These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel on the east bank of the Jordan, ... An eleven day journey from Horev to Kadesh Barnea by way of the Se’ir highlands. (Dvarim 1:1,2)
The Jews have arrived at the cusp of the Holy Land, at the banks of a river that the disciples will cross without their master. After forty years of wandering, Moshe reveals that the actual distance between the Land of Israel and Horev (also known as Sinai), the place the detour began, is a mere eleven-day journey. So many years wasted, so many lives lost, and it all could have been avoided.
How, indeed, had it come to this? At Horev, Moshe was first called upon to lead the Jewish People out of slavery. There, he saw a bush that burned but was not consumed, a symbol of eternity, of God’s existence beyond the confines of space and time. This personal revelation was later shared with the entire Jewish People at that very same spot, just as God had promised Moshe at the start (Shmot 3:12): The personal, micro-revelation was transformed into a macro-revelation, The Revelation, that would forge a nation and change the world.
At that same spot, Moshe climbed to the summit and received a physical manifestation of the Revelation, the Tablets of Stone – and, at that very same spot, things went awry. The people panicked; it seemed to them that too much time had passed, and Moshe had not survived his encounter with God. Rather than putting their faith in Moshe’s unique capabilities or in God’s express commitment, they allowed fear to overtake them; they sought out an alternative to Moshe – and the golden calf was formed. How quickly they regressed! They had heard God Himself speak to them only 40 days earlier, but they managed to forget both the experience of that Revelation and its content. The roar of the frenzied crowd, the beating drums and rhythmic chants of the idolatrous orgy, drowned out the sights and sounds of the Revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments.
Moshe’s descent from the mountain, with the Tablets in his arms, should have been cause for celebration; that day should have been known for all time as “Simchat Torah,” a day of rejoicing with the Torah. Instead, Moshe’s return to the camp went unnoticed by the people below, who were too busy worshipping the golden calf to pay any attention to him or to the gift he had brought down to them. And then, at that very same spot, Moshe, who had no part in the inconceivable sin, prayed and pleaded for forgiveness on behalf of the nation. At that very spot, the detour began, and it is the narrative of that detour that comprises the next two books of the Torah - a long, arduous, 39- year trek that should have taken only 11 days.
When we stood at Sinai, we had been heartbreakingly close to our destination, but we lost track of time. We concerned ourselves with Moshe’s tardiness, and paid no attention to the fact that we had, in fact, lost our grasp on time itself, and turned an eleven-day journey into decades of wandering.
Rashi offers a fascinating insight into this eleven-day distance: When we finally made the journey in earnest, it only took three days. (Rashi on Devarim 1:2)
In fact, this peculiar, kaleidoscopic time-line is more relevant to our lives than it might seem at first glance. Time is a strange and slippery concept: Often, there are life-lessons that normally take years to learn, which can be acquired in a flash, in a lightning-bolt of clarity, in what is known as an “ah-hah! moment.” On the long and winding road, a short and direct route is suddenly illuminated. Other times, we see the light yet repeatedly ignore the message; repeating the same mistakes over and over, we force ourselves to take unnecessary detours and to expend our emotional, intellectual and physical energy going around in circles.
Our normal perception of time is linear and constant; we are, by and large, “captives on a carousel of time,” unable to break through, to transcend. Yet there are some people (and some situations) who manage to break these boundaries. Unfortunately, it often takes a cataclysm to grab our attention. We are only shaken out of our reverie by personal or national crises – or worse. This is the lesson of the first few words of the Book of Devarim: It took the Jewish People thirty-nine years to achieve what we should have accomplished in eleven days, but when we were finally ready – spiritually alert, attentive, and willing to take step up to meet our destiny - the eleven-day journey was completed in three days.
All these years after the destruction of the Temple, it is clear to us that we have taken a two-thousand-year detour. But it should be equally clear to us that we are – and always have been – heartbreakingly close to our destination. The final distance can be achieved in days, minutes, perhaps even seconds – when we are finally ready to take those last few holy steps.
For a more in-depth analysis see:
Echoes of Eden