Thoughts on Devarim, this week’s Torah portion, in memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us two years ago on 2 Av. This is an English version of the original Hebrew essay, published in Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah portion sheet published by Oz VeShalom/Netivot Shalom. The original Hebrew version can be read here .
There once was a city, somewhere in the Negev, whose name went down in biblical history as the site of a painful defeat for the children of Israel. The rout at Hormah took place in a war against the Canaanite nations, which followed the sin of the spies. For that sin, the Children of Israel were punished—their entry into the Promised Land was delayed by a generation. Their crime was the lack of faith displayed by the generation that left Egypt, their reluctance to fight the war that awaited them when they crossed from the wilderness into Canaan. The failure of conviction began at the leadership level, among ten of the twelve spies sent to scout the land, and quickly spread to the entire nation.
But the war fought at Hormah did not come in retribution for the sin of the spies. It was imposed subsequent to that sin and its punishment. After comprehending how grave and error they had made, a vanguard of the people to take the initiative to correct it. The Ma’apilim, meaning “the scalers [of the heights],” now understood that it was God’s will that the Israelites fight bravely against the Canaanite nations. They organized to take determined action, as Moses relates in this week’s Torah portion (Deut. 1:41): “We stand guilty before the LORD. We will go up now and fight, just as the LORD our God commanded us.” The call to arms grew out of profound remorse for the sin and a real desire to atone for it. But instead of accepting the heroism and good intentions of the Ma’apilim, God condemned them and meted out another heavy punishment, in addition to that of the sin of the spies: “Then the Amorites who lived in those hills came out against you like so many bees and chased you, and they crushed you at Hormah in Seir.” It is easy to imagine the shattered and bloodied survivors asking themselves: “What does God want with us? When we said we were scared of conquering the land, we were sentenced to die in the desert, and when we fervently set out to conquer the land, we died at Hormah.”
Human beings have a natural longing for sharp, binary definitions of good and evil. It’s much easier to get by in the world when the boundaries are clear. In that case, an act that is good is always good and must always be done; a deed defined as evil is always evil and must be avoided. But that is not how the world works. An act that is the right thing to do at a particular time and under specific circumstances might be the wrong thing to do at another moment, when the circumstances are different.
The story of the War at Hormah is retold in Parshat Devarim, read always before the fast of the Ninth of Av. There is a connection between the war and the destruction we commemorate on the fast day.
The phrase ad Hormah, translated “at Hormah,” might be better rendered “until Hormah” or “to the point of Hormah.” In modern Hebrew, it has come to mean “to the point of utter annihilation.” Dictionaries and websites devoted to the Hebrew language explain that this sense is, in fact, a distortion of the original meaning. Like the standard translation, they say that the phrase, as it appears in the Torah, simply means “at Hormah,” Hormah being the name of the city where the defeat occurred.
But according to the sages and commentators, the name “Hormah” is more than the name of a place. Like other stations along the trek through the desert, for example “Mei Merivah,” meaning “the waters of dissension,” the name of the place is taken from the event that occurred there. In other words, the city received the name “Hormah” as a result of the defeat of the Children of Israel. Rashi notes this in his commentary on the story of the Ma’apilim as it appears in Numbers 14:45. Regarding the words “ad Hormah,” he writes: “The place was named after the event.”
In other words, Hormah is not just a place, but an event, one with a meaning. The name the city received is derived from the root H-R-M, herem, which means something separated out, made distinct. A herem can be holy (“Everything that has been proscribed [herem, perhaps better translated here as “set aside”] in Israel shall be yours [for the priests],” Numbers 18:14). It may also be something prohibited, such as an excommunicated person, with whom it is forbidden to have contact. When the prophet declares: “I abandoned Jacob to proscription [herem] and Israel to mockery” (Isaiah 43:28), the meaning is that Israel will be banished, sent away, ostracized from all other nations. The city Hormah is the place where the Israelites learn to make an important distinction—that a deed that was a positive commandment at one moment is prohibited at another.
This points to the connection to the Temple and its destruction. Is the Temple a ritual and spiritual center appropriate for all times? Could it be that those who in the past and present have sought to rebuild it in our day, or to continue to place it at the center of Jewish spiritual life, commit the same error? Does the revival of the Jewish people in its land and its sovereign life there demand a reinstitution of the Temple rite or the idea of a Temple in Jerusalem? Maybe there is cause to consider whether we should take literally the passages in our prayers regarding the establishment of the Temple. Perhaps today’s circumstances require an answer different from that offered in the past?
The actions of the Ma’apilim, and the defeat they brought on Israel, serve as a warning for our day. I write this in the midst of the controversy set off by Rabbi Yigal Levinstein’s slander of Reform Judaism, homosexuals, and, in essence, against all Jews who think that questions of belief and values require rigorous deliberation, since distinctions that may have been clear once need not necessarily be obvious today. As much as we would like it to be easy to identify good and evil, that is not the real world. Every decision, by both individual and nation, requires careful study of the circumstances and consideration of people’s needs here and now. Many such decisions are difficult ones and the answers are not easily arrived at. That is the lesson to be learned from today’s portion, and from tomorrow’s fast.