Standing in the desert of Moav, poised to send the Israelites into the Promised Land without his own titanic presence to lead the way, Moses begins his last and greatest speech.
The preliminary parts of his farewell address take up the entirety of this week's reading. He opens by recapping much of what the Israelites have been through over the preceding forty years. Oddly, he skips many of the most crucial parts of the biblical story: not just the creation of the universe and the tales of the patriarchs but the descent into Egypt and even the fact that they were slaves. Nor is there a word about God's most important miracles: the Ten Plagues, the escape from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, or the wonders leading up to Mount Sinai.
Rather, Moses starts with what for us is the middle of the story: "The Lord our God spoke to us [at Mount Sinai], saying, ‘You have dwelt long enough in this mountain: turn, and take your journey . . . behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to your fathers." (Deuteronomy 1: 6-8)
Why begin there?
First, we need to recall the audience. These were not the same Israelites who had been born and raised as slaves, cowering under the twin terrors of Pharaoh's edicts and God's miracles. Nor were they the anxious masses who balked at every military engagement and desert hardship, begging Moses to lead them back to Egypt. They were, rather, a new generation—a generation of warriors, schooled in self-affirmation and the art of survival. Most had been born in the desert, hardened shepherd-souls longing to fulfill their ancestral promise.
So Moses' unusual opening was tailored to the task at hand. Instead of dwelling on the parents' suffering and helplessness, it starts with how the children were launched out of Sinai like a rocket toward Canaan. From there Moses proceeds to recount their previous efforts at war and nation-building, from the Sin of the Spies to the latest victories against the Emorite kings Sihon and Og.
But there is more to it than that. Many nations are forged in war: struggles for independence that not only define their future mode of governance but also create the conditions of their national identity. Americans fought off the British in 1776 under the banner of freedom, but it took decades, perhaps a whole century, before their identity would be cemented as "one nation, under God." For the Israelites, by contrast, identity preceded independence.
Israel was founded not in war but in the revelation at Mount Sinai, where the people were transformed from a mass of slaves related by common ancestry into a nation bound by a covenantal vision. That vision was one not only of political independence and prosperity but of a "holy nation" that would serve as a light to the world. It was a vision, in other words, for all mankind.
Moses' unusual opening points us to the most important thing there is to know about Jewish identity. In many ways, leaving Mount Sinai was the real beginning of the national story, a journey that throughout history has embodied the foundational memory of Jewish peoplehood.
This is true not just for biblical literalists but even for those who understand the experience of revelation as a product of human genius. Even if you decline to view the events at Sinai as historically accurate, the myth-or-memory of the vision emerging from Sinai—more so than the experience of God's miracles or of Pharaoh's wrath—defines Judaism as a faith, and the Jews as a people, infused with divine content and with a promise for humanity.
The real core of Jewish identity, Moses teaches here, is the common experience not of suffering but of inspiration.
David Hazony's first book, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, will be published by Scribner in September.
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