The following is a tentative write-up of ideas which will hopefully be developed further, iy’’h.
The root ק.ר.ב—“close,” “closeness”—functions as a sort of leitwort in this week’s Parshah. It appears eight times in total, and throughout, Moshe uses it to highlight, explicitly or implicitly, various aspects of Hashem’s intimate relationship with the Israelites—be it His interest in the moral makeup of their society (Deut. 3:3); His investment within the land in which they shall reside (ibid. 4:5); His invitation, at Sinai, for them to enter into covenant with Him (ibid. 4:10-11); or His involvement (indeed, interference) in their historical fate (ibid. 4:35).
At his most overt, Moshe proclaims: For what great nation is there that has God so close [ק.ר.ב] to it as Hashem our God is at all times that we call upon Him? (ibid. 4:7). And again, in its negative iteration: Do not go after other gods, of the gods of the peoples who are around you—for Hashem your God is a zealous God, very close [ק.ר.ב] to you—lest the wrath of Hashem, your God, be kindled against you, and destroy you off the face of the earth (ibid. 6:14-15). Taken together, these verses underscore the notion of divine immanence: Hashem is a personal God, an accessible God, a “close” God.
Whether the Israelites themselves desire that “closeness,” however, is another matter. In fact, one who analyzes all the occurrences of the root ק.ר.ב in our Parshah discovers a most curious dichotomy: in each of the instances in which the root ק.ר.ב describes a state of “closeness” that was initiated by Hashem, the function of that “closeness” is, as expected, to draw the Israelites towards Him; yet in the single case in which the root ק.ר.ב describes “closeness” initiated not by Hashem, but by the people themselves, the function of that “closeness” is actually to draw the Israelites towards Moshe—and away from Hashem!
The “single case” being referred to here is that of mattan Torah: the theophany at Sinai, originally narrated in Sefer Shemot, and retold by Moshe this week in Sefer Devarim. Here is the section most relevant for us:
Only beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children, the day you stood before Hashem your God at Horeb, when Hashem said to me, “Assemble the people for Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.” And you drew close [ותקרבון] and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire up to the midst of the heavens, with darkness, a cloud, and opaque darkness. Hashem spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of the words, but saw no image, just a voice. And He told you His covenant, which He commanded you to do, the Ten Commandments, and He inscribed them on two stone tablets…
Hashem spoke these words to your entire assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the opaque darkness, with a great voice, which did not cease. And He inscribed them on two stone tablets and gave them to me. And it was, when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness, and the mountain was burning with fire, that you drew close to me [ותקרבון אלי], all the heads of your tribes and your elders. And you said, “Behold, Hashem, our God, has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we heard His voice from the midst of the fire; we saw this day that God speaks with man, yet [man] remains alive. So now, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we continue to hear the voice of Hashem, our God, anymore, we will die. For who is there of all flesh, who heard the voice of the living God speaking from the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? You draw close [קרב אתה], and hear all that Hashem, our God, will say, and you speak to us all that Hashem, our God, will speak to you, and we will hear and do.” And Hashem heard the sound of your words when you spoke to me, and Hashem said to me, “I have heard the sound of the words of this people that they have spoken to you; they have done well in all that they have spoken. Would that their hearts be like this forever, to revere Me and to keep all My commandments all the days, that it might be well with them and with their children” (Deut. 4:9-5:26).
As Hashem prepares to reveal Himself to Israel at Sinai, the people “draw close” to the mountain, per His instructions. Yet they soon deem themselves incapable of coping with the intensity of the encounter. Thus, they draw away from Hashem, and “draw close” instead to Moshe, urging him, in turn, to “draw close” to Hashem on their behalf. This subversive transition is artfully captured through the repetition of the key term ותקרבון, “and you drew close”—a term which initially portends closeness between Israel and Hashem, but whose ultimate effect is to cast space between the two, via Moshe the intermediary.
That term, תקרבון, is worthy of careful consideration. There are in fact only two other instances of this term in Tanach—both of them in last week’s Parshah, Devarim. In that Parshah, as in our Parshah, it is Moshe who employs the term; and there, as here, the term forms part of the larger phrase [ו]תקרבון אלי—“you drew close / shall draw close to me,” i.e., to Moshe. In both Parshahs, moreover, the effect of the people’s “drawing close” to Moshe is actually to draw away from Hashem. So it appears that we have stumbled upon an instructive phrase. Let us now examine each instance of this phrase, in turn.
The more recent example of the phrase ותקרבון אלי appears as Moshe recounts the sin of the spies, which was originally narrated in Sefer Bamidbar (Num. 13-14):
And I said to you, “You have come to the mountain of the Amorites, which Hashem, our God, is giving us. Behold, Hashem, your God, has set the land before you; go up and possess it, as Hashem, God of your fathers has spoken to you; you shall neither fear nor be dismayed.” And all of you drew close to me [ותקרבון אלי] and said, “Let us send men ahead of us so that they will search out the land for us and bring us back word by which route we shall go up, and to which cities we shall come.” And the matter pleased me; so I took twelve men from you, one man for each tribe. And they turned and went up to the mountain, and they came to the valley of Eshkol and spied it out. And they took some of the fruit of the land in their hand[s] and brought it down to us, brought us back word, and said, “The land Hashem, our God, is giving us is good.” Yet you did not want to go up, and you rebelled against the commandment of Hashem, your God. You murmured in your tents and said, ‘”Because Hashem hates us, He took us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand[s] of the Amorites to exterminate us.” Where shall we go up? Our brothers have discouraged us, saying, “A people greater and taller than we; cities great and fortified up to the heavens, and we have even seen the sons of giants there” (Deut. 1:20-28).
In this episode, as in that of mattan Torah, the nation has been offered a degree of closeness with Hashem—in this case, it is offered to enter into and dwell upon the land “which Hashem, our God, is giving us.” As they do in our Parshah, however, the Israelites instinctively pull away from Hashem, “drawing close” to Moshe instead, and proposing to place intermediaries between themselves and Him. Those intermediaries, the spies, ultimately persuade their dispatchers that the land of Canaan is unconquerable. Thus, Israel once again forfeits an opportunity to “draw close” to its God.
There is a trend developing.
In fact, the origins of this trend can be sourced to the other passage in which we find our key phrase, תקרבון אלי. In that passage, Moshe recounts his appointment of judges over the Israelites, which was originally narrated in Sefer Shemot (Exod. 18):
See, I have set the land before you; come and possess the land which Hashem swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them and their descendants after them. And I said to you at that time, saying, ‘I cannot carry you alone… Prepare for yourselves wise and understanding men, known among your tribes, and I will make them heads over you. And you answered me and said, ‘The thing you have spoken is good for us to do.’ So I took the heads of your tribes, men wise and well known, and I made them heads over you, leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens, and officers, over your tribes. And I commanded your judges at that time, saying, “Hear [disputes] between your brothers and judge justly between a man and his brother, and between him and his litigant. You shall not favor persons in judgment; [rather] you shall hear the small just as the great; you shall not fear any man, for the judgment is upon Hashem, and the matter that is too difficult for you, bring it to me [תקרבון אלי], and I will hear it” (Deut. 1:8-17).
In this episode, as in the two we have already looked at, Israel is explicitly afforded the opportunity to forge a closer relationship with Hashem—in this case, by joining Moshe in the process of deciphering Torah law, and thereby identifying Hashem’s will. The idea of including the Israelites in this process is initially Yitro’s (see Exod. 18), and the people think it a “good” one. Yet listen to the way that Moshe—also upon Yitro’s advice—limits the scope of their mandate: “the matter that is too difficult for you, bring it to me [תקרבון אלי], and I will hear it.” Here again (or, really: here, for the first time), is that key phrase, תקרבון אלי. In this context, it serves to establish—formally, and in the imperative—the necessity of an intermediary between the people and their God; even as Moshe grants the nation a measure of theological autonomy, he implies that there are aspects of the divine relationship which they shall remain incapable of negotiating on their own. Willy-nilly, there will arise a “matter that is too difficult for you”—and, therefore, recourse to a go-between is inevitable. That, between-the-lines, is Moshe’s message to the Israelites.
So the Israelites internalize this message—indeed, they will return to it each time they find themselves on the cusp of attaining a heightened degree of “closeness” with Hashem. At Sinai, Hashem will offer to reveal Himself directly to them, but they will determine that “the matter is too difficult for us,” and so they will trade “closeness” with Hashem for “closeness” with Moshe. At the sin of the spies, Hashem will offer them to take possession of the Promised Land, but they will once again determine that “the matter is too difficult for us,” and they will once again trade “closeness” with Hashem for “closeness” with Moshe and the rest of their leaders. In one case, they will earn praise; in the other, condemnation. Yet in both cases, they will have acted precisely as Moshe indicated they should.
Meanwhile, Moshe will pass through most of his life blissfully unaware of the far-reaching impact that his remark has registered on the religious attitude of the nation. He, after all, had never intended for his words to apply outside of a judicial context. But four decades later, there will arise a judicial context in which Moshe will be forced to revisit those words. It will come at the end of Sefer Bamidbar, in the form of Zelophehad’s daughters, who will pose a complex question about the laws of female inheritance. The answer to this question will elude Moshe. So the leader who once guaranteed אשר יקשה מכם תקרבון אלי, “the matter that is too difficult for you, bring to me,” will have no choice but to acknowledge that some matters are too difficult even for him. He will have to bring this particular matter before Hashem, and defer to His judgment. That, our sages teach us, is how Hashem rebuked Moshe for the modicum of conceit evinced by his earlier remark: Said R. Hanina: because of the remark, “the matter that is too difficult, bring to me,” Moshe was punished with “and Moshe brought the matter [of Zelophehad’s daughters] before Hashem” (San. 8a).
By no coincidence is it the case of Zelophehad’s daughters—and its epilogue, wherein the tribal heads of Menasheh challenge the terms of these daughters’ inheritance—which, together, form the immediate backdrop of our Sefer, Devarim. Look closely at the details of this narrative:
The daughters of Zelophehad… came forward…. They stood before Moshe and before Eleazar the priest, and before the chieftains and the entire congregation at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, saying, “Our father died in the desert… Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father’s brothers.” So Moshe brought their case before Hashem. Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly. You shall certainly give them a portion of inheritance along with their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer their father’s inheritance to them… Hashem [then] said to Moshe: “Go up to this mount Abarim and look at the land that I have given to the children of Israel. And when you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, just as Aaron your brother was gathered. Because you disobeyed My command in the desert of Zin when the congregation quarreled, [when you were] to sanctify Me through the water before their eyes; these were the waters of dispute at Kadesh, in the desert of Zin” (Num. 27:1-14).
The paternal heads of the family of the sons of Gilead the son of Machir the son of Menasheh of the families of the sons of Joseph approached and spoke before Moshe and before the chieftains, the paternal heads of the children of Israel. They said, “Hashem commanded my master to give the Land as an inheritance through lot to the children of Israel, and our master was commanded by Hashem to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother to his daughters. Now, if they marry a member of another tribe of the children of Israel, their inheritance will be diminished from the inheritance of our father, and it will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry, and thus, it will be diminished from the lot of our inheritance…” Moshe commanded the children of Israel according to the word of Hashem, saying, “The tribe of Joseph’s descendants speak justly. This is the word that Hashem has commanded regarding Zelophehad’s daughters. Let them marry whomever they please, but they shall marry only to the family of their father’s tribe (Num. 36:1-16).
The central elements in these passages should by now be familiar to us. The episode opens on the theme of inheriting the land of Israel. A group of Israelites “approach” Moshe proposing an innovation. The “heads of the tribes” are intimately involved in the ensuing proceedings. The proposed innovation is ultimately approved. At some point, mention is made of Moshe’s impending death. Where have we seen this before?
In fact, all of these elements—plus a couple of others—feature prominently in the three episodes we have been studying. Consider:
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What emerges, then, is that the “תקרבון” episodes are connected to each other not only conceptually, but also literarily, through cleverly constructed parallels of language and plot. Many of these parallels also point, faintly, back to the Zelophehad episode. And it was Moshe who put this picture together, at the start of Sefer Devarim: no sooner had the ordeal of Zelophehad’s daughters prompted Moshe to “connect the dots,” Moshe planted those dots back into his valedictory address. In the twilight of his life, and with the burden of התאנף בי—Hashem’s disappointment in him as a leader—weighing heavily upon him, Moshe returns to those critical junctures in his career at which he had inadvertently encouraged the dangerous dependence upon human intermediaries (and, concomitantly, the deliberate distancing of the self from Hashem) that ultimately led to so many of the sins that his people would commit over the course of their forty year sojourn in the desert. He returned to these episodes, and he claimed responsibility for his mistakes—even though Hashem had never chastised him for his conduct in any of these episodes—because he had understood Hashem’s tacit reprimand, delivered to him through Zelophehad’s daughters, in the final chapters of Sefer Bamidbar.
Nor did he end there. Now merely a month away from taking leave of his people for the final time, Moshe made every effort possible to clarify his misconstrued message from a generation prior. In the words תקרבון אלי, Israel had heard “Hashem is far;” so, in the time he had remaining, Moshe preached, “Hashem is close.” He did so repeatedly in our Parshah. And he will do so again a few weeks from now, in one of the most memorable speeches he would ever deliver:
For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Rather, the matter is very close to you [קרוב אליך… מאד]; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it (Deut. 30:11-14).
At Sinai, Israel had in fact sent Moshe “up to heaven” to “fetch” the tablets for them. Perhaps that was how it had to be. But now, as his people set out to write the next chapter of their covenantal destiny, Moshe informs them that the law lies within reach; without obviating the need for erudite and experienced leadership, Moshe emphasizes that Hashem’s word is no longer beyond the grasp of the nation, no longer “too difficult” to attain. The Torah, Moshe tells his people—and the God who gave it—are “very close to you,” indeed.
Note: R. David Fohrman has also pointed out similarities between the “judges” and the “spies” episode, in a series of online videos. He does not mention the תקרבון parallel or the relationship between these two episodes and the Sinai/Zelophehad episodes. Instead, he focuses on the motif of “carrying the nation,” which I had not noticed on my own. R. David Fohrman also focuses on the question of which sin it was that ultimately prevented Moshe from entering into the land of Israel. He suggests that it was the sin of Merivah which prevented Moshe from entering the land as the leader of the Israelites—indeed, Hashem states so explicitly in that passage—but that it was Moshe’s indirect role in the sin of the spies which prevented him from entering as even a private citizen.