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When Victory Is Assured

Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week we begin Deuteronomy, the last Book of the Torah, consisting of Moses's final words to the Jewish people before they enter the Land of Israel. In this week's parsha, Moses recalls certain infamous events of the previous 40 years, such as the incident with the spies. He repeats the words he spoke to the people at that time: "The Lord your God, has given ("natan") the land to you. Go up and inherit it" (Deut. 1:21).

This verse presents a few technical difficulties. First, why does Moses say that God has already given the land to the Jewish people? The Jews have not yet entered Israel, and thus have not officially taken possession of it. Why, then, is the verb "to give" in the past tense ("natan")? Furthermore, why does Moses say, "Go up and inherit [the land]" if he knows that the Jews will have to wage war before inheriting it? It seems that Moses should have said, "Go up and wage war"!

We could suggest a way of understanding the upcoming war based on the words Moses spoke to the nation immediately before the Splitting of the Sea: "God will wage war for you" (Exodus 14:14). When God promises to wage war for the Jewish people, there is no doubt as to the outcome. Therefore, even though the people are now facing an imminent battle, it is a battle that God has commanded them to fight, so it is already considered a victory.

This explains Moses's statement, "God... has given the land to you." The land is essentially already in the possession of the Jewish people, even though they have yet to go to war against the Canaanite nations. This also explains why Moses says, "Go up and inherit [the land]." If the war is as good as won, the Jews have only to inherit the land that God has promised them. Perhaps this is why Moses concludes the verse by saying, "Do not be afraid." The outcome of the battle is guaranteed; there is nothing to be nervous about.

A support to this interpretation appears later in the parsha, when Moses recalls the battle the Jewish people waged against Sichon, the Amorite king (Deut. 2:31-34). First, God told Moses, "Go and inherit [Sichon's] land" (Deut. 2:31). Then Sichon's army attacked the Jewish forces (Deut. 2:32), after which God gave the Jews the victory (2:33). The order of these verses illustrates our point. The Jewish people began to possess Sichon's territory even before Sichon attacked! When God does battle for us, victory is assured from the outset.

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At the end of the war against Sichon, the Jewish people utterly destroyed all of Sichon's cities, along with the men, women and children (Deut. 2:34). The word used for "men" in this verse is "m'tim," a very unusual term. Why does Moses use this word rather than the more common term "anashim"?

We could suggest that the word "m'tim" be read as "maitim," meaning "dead people." In other words, when the Jewish forces captured Sichon's cities, the inhabitants were already considered "dead." This hint in the text emphasizes that God's promise guarantees the ultimate outcome.

Maimonides explains at length that this is the Jewish perspective on every war we fight: "When the Jewish people enter into war, we rely on the Hope of Israel and its Savior [God], the One who redeems us from distressing times, and we know that we are waging war for the unification of God's Name. Place your soul in His hand and do not be afraid or panic... Anyone who wages war with all his heart and without fear, with the sole intention of sanctifying God's Name, will have no harm come to him and no evil will befall him..." (Hilchot Melachim, 7:15).

The Book of Deuteronomy is also called "Mishneh Torah," implying a repetition of previous events. Similarly, Jewish history repeats itself. We don't know how current events in the Land of Israel will continue to unfold, but we know that, throughout the ages, Jews have put our trust in God that we will be victorious.

May we all merit to witness the peace that comes from loving and respecting every human being, living in harmony, and serving God together.

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