These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness east of the Jordan—that is, in the Arabah—opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab. (It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.) — Deuteronomy 1:1–2
The Torah portion for this week is Devarim which means “words,” from Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22, and the Haftorah is from Isaiah 1:1–27.
Jewish tradition teaches that after a person passes away, he will look back on his life and see both how he lived and how he could have lived. A person will behold the choices she made and the choices that she could have made. Some Jewish sages suggest that the “fires of hell” are the painful feelings of regret for what was done and a longing for what might have been.
The sages make this cryptic comparison. They say that the righteous will look back on their lives and see that what they thought was a small hill to climb was actually a huge, treacherous mountain. The wicked, however, will have the opposite experience. They will see that what they thought was a massive mountain was actually a small hill.
The truth is that both the wicked and the righteous are seeing the same landscape, but since it’s only relative to their perspectives in life, each sees the view differently. The righteous went through life thinking, “This is a challenge, but with God’s help and my determination, it won’t be so hard to overcome.” In retrospect, the righteous see that what they accomplished in life was monumental. They climbed so far with that attitude!
In contrast, the wicked go through life looking at even an easy challenge as insurmountable. They say, “I can never do that or be like that!” In the afterlife, they look back and see that relative to how unattainable a goal seemed to them, it was really very much within reach. They easily could have reached their goal, but a bad attitude held them back.
The first two verses in this week’s portion give us examples of both types of perspectives. First, we hear that Moses is about to speak to the people. His words end up comprising 20 percent of the Hebrew Bible. Remember how Moses first started off? When God spoke to him at the burning bush, Moses said, “I’m not very good with words” (Exodus 4:10 NLV). But here he is — a man of many words. Moses rose to the challenge and was completely transformed.
The second verse tells us that “It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea . . .” In other words, the whole 40-year journey in the desert could have taken only 11 days! But the people had a bad attitude and saw the entry into Israel as impossible, the goal unattainable. They got stuck in their limitations, and so their growth and potential were limited as well.
We can learn much from the children of Israel. We should view every challenge as an opportunity and every obstacle as surmountable, and with the merciful help of the Lord, there is no challenge that can hold us back and no distance too far to travel.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President