This Parsha begins the last of the Five Books of The Torah, Sefer Devarim. This Book is also called Mishneh Torah, "Repetition of the Torah" (hence the Greek/English title Deuteronomy). Sefer Devarim relates what Moshe told Bnei Yisrael during the last five weeks of his life, as they prepared to cross the Jordan into Eretz Yisrael. Moshe reviews the mitzvot, stressing the change of lifestyle they are about to undergo: from the supernatural existence of the desert under Moshes guidance to the apparently natural life they will experience under Yehoshuas leadership in the Land.
The central theme this week is the sin of the spies, the meraglim. The Parsha opens with Moshe alluding to the sins of the previous generation who died in the desert. He describes what would have happened if they hadnt sinned by sending spies into Eretz Yisrael. Hashem would have given them without a fight all the land from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates, including the lands of Ammon, Moav and Edom. He details the subtle sins that culminate in the sin of the spies, and reviews at length this incident and its results. The entire generation would die in the desert; Moshe would not enter Eretz Yisrael. He reminds them that their immediate reaction to Hashems decree was to want to "go up and fight" to redress the sin. He recounts how they wouldnt listen when he told them not to go, that they no longer merited vanquishing their enemies miraculously. They ignored him and suffered a massive defeat. They were not allowed to fight with the kingdoms of Esav, Moav or Ammon these lands were not to be part of the map of Eretz Yisrael in the meantime. When the conquest of Canaan will begin with Sichon and Og, it will be via natural warfare.
“Hashem, your G-d, has multiplied you and behold! You are like the stars of heaven in abundance.” (1:10)
The stars are only visible when the sky is clear. On a cloudy night, they fade from view and shed no light on this world.
A flame, on the other hand, shines through mist and cloud and fog. It penetrates the gloom to make itself seen.
Thus it is with the Jewish People.
When we dwell in tranquility we shine like the stars. However, when the storm clouds of history blacken our skies, then our luster is dimmed and fades to black.
This is the picture we see today.
Have you ever seen Orthodox Jews look anything other than weird in the media? Why is that? Why is it that only Muslims look exotic and picturesque against all those Lawrence of Arabia sand dunes? Why is it that the lens loves every Eastern cult, whereas the People of the Book are singularly unphotogenic? Why do we seem parochial and rather shabby when exposed to the glare of the TV’s gaze?
Our Sages teach that the Jewish People will experience four exiles. These exiles are hinted to in the very opening lines of the Torah. “And the Land was formless (Babylon) and void (Persia/Medea) and darkness (Greece) on the face of the deep (Rome).” Since the Torah is the blueprint of the world, something written at the very beginning of the blueprint indicates that these exiles are a fundamental process in the history of the world.
The first of these four kingdoms took the kingship from the Jewish People. Each empire has successively grabbed the mantle of power from its predecessor. Ultimately the fourth empire, the empire of Esav/Rome and its current heirs, will return kingship to the Jewish People. Until that time however, the fourth kingdom has the power of the kingship and all its trappings: It writes the songs of the world, for music is a scion of kingship: King David, the prototype of all kings, is called the ‘sweet singer of Israel’. But the lyre of David breathes the songs of majesty no more.
When the Jewish People went into this last exile, the exile of Rome, the Temple songs of the Levi’im were silenced. The Romans took that music and made it serve a new master. It resurfaced hundreds of years later as the Gregorian chants of the church.
If music and religion are but two aspects of imperial cultural domination, television is the ultimate form of this thrall. Television is the dream factory that allows the ruling power to foist its world-view on its vassal states. It places the minds of its subjects in a cultural iron mask. Wherever you can put up a satellite antenna and beam down a Big Mac from the sky — there the empire rules.
The Romans built the best roads in the world. But if they were alive today, they would be producing sitcoms. Television is an instrument of kingship. The kingship is not ours at the moment. This is not just a physical reality; it’s a mystical reality. It means that when we attempt, as the Jewish People, to take hold of the reins of kingship, be that music or the television, we must inevitably look ridiculous and fail.
The Kingdom of Heaven is mirrored in the kingdom of Earth. The Jewish People are in their darkest exile and the Divine Presence is in that exile with us. This is an exile of such totality that most of us don’t even realize that we are in exile. We have almost totally accepted upon ourselves the yoke of the empire, its icons and its ideas. We are glued to their visions. We wear their clothes. We think their thoughts.
Very soon, however, the Jewish People will be a torch; nothing will prevent our radiance from breaking through the gloom to light up the world. No power will be able to extinguish our light and no decree will be able stifle the brilliance of our love for our Father in Heaven.
- Sources: Based on the Midrash Rabba and Divrei Sha’arie Chaim