The Power of Words
אלה הדברים אשר דבר משה
“These are the words that Moses spoke.” (Devarim 1:1)
There is a mystical idea that the content of the parsha read each Shabbat is connected to the events of the coming week. It is interesting to note that Parshat Devarim is traditionally read on the Shabbat preceding the fast day known as Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av), which commemorates the tragic destruction of both Temples. What could be the connection between them?
One day in Jerusalem, two old friends encountered one another on the bus. Excited at the opportunity to catch up with one another, they sat down together and began talking. In the course of their conversation, one of them casually mentioned the name of an old friend. The other replied, “You didn’t hear? She just got engaged last week to so-and-so!”
This news left her friend both elated and shocked. “That’s so wonderful that she finally got engaged…but to him!? Who would have ever thought that she would settle for a person with so many problems?” Taking the bait, the one who shared the news agreed and proceeded to list problems not only with the groom, but also with his family’s reputation. The conversation went back-and-forth, with each of them heaping more and more question marks on the match.
After five minutes, a woman who was sitting behind them turned to them and remarked, “I know you didn’t realize this, but I’m the aunt of the bride you’ve been discussing. We obviously didn’t know about these serious allegations against the groom and his family. As soon as I get home, I’m going to call my niece to convince her to break the engagement.”
Aghast at the unexpected turn of events, the friends begged her not to do so. They explained, “We were just innocently chatting about recent events. We didn’t mean many of the things that we said, and most of them were exaggerated. Please don’t break-up this engagement because of our poor judgment.” Just then, the bus reached the woman’s stop. The wise woman paused before exiting and taught them an invaluable lesson. “You have nothing to worry about. I’m not really her aunt…but I could have been!”
The Talmud (Yoma 9b) teaches that one of the reasons for the destruction of the Temple was the sin of baseless hatred between Jews. Many times such hatred has its origins in forbidden forms of speech, such as gossip and painful words. Many people who speak negatively justify their behavior by rationalizing that mere words cannot cause any real damage to other people, a mistake made by the two women in our story.
Since the outcome of such erroneous thinking led to baseless hatred and eventually, to the destruction of the Holy Temple, we allude to the importance of rectifying this sin by beginning the week in which Tisha B’Av falls with the reading of Parshat Devarim, as “Devarim” means “words”. As Tisha B’Av draws near, it would be appropriate to use the days ahead to contemplate this lesson about the significance of our words and to attempt to rectify the sins which caused the Temple’s destruction.
The Value of Respect
אלה הדברים אשר דבר משה אל כל ישראל בעבר הירדן במדבר בערבה מול סוף בין פארן ובין תפל ולבן וחצרת ודי זהב. אחד עשר יום מחרב דרך הר שעיר עד קדש ברנע
“These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, concerning the Wilderness, concerning the Arabah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab; eleven days from Horeb, by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea.” (Devarim 1:1-3)
This week’s parsha begins the Book of Devarim, which recounts the final discourses Moses delivered to the Jewish people in the last five weeks of his life.
One of the key issues Moses addresses is the decision to send spies to report on the Land of Israel nearly 40 years earlier. At the urging of the people, Moses sanctioned the plan, but the results were tragic: Ten of the spies declared that the Land was impossible to conquer. The people accepted the report, despaired of entering the Land of Israel, and caused G-d to decree that their generation die in the desert.
In recalling the events surrounding this national tragedy, Moses, states: “You approached me, all of you, and said, ‘Let us send men ahead of us and let them spy out the land’” (Devarim 1:22).
The commentators note that the phrase, “all of you,” is superfluous. Moses could simply have stated, “You approached me and said, ‘Let us send men…’” What was the purpose behind the addition of these three words?
Rashi explains that the extra words are Moses’ way of emphasizing that the Jewish people failed to show proper respect when they presented their request. Instead, they approached him “like an unruly mob, the young pushing aside the elders, and the elders pushing aside the leaders.”
Rabbi Chaim Ickovits (1749-1821, Poland/Russia), popularly known as Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, and considered by many to be the father of the yeshiva movement, asks why Moses went out of his way to point out this relatively small misdeed. Certainly, the episode of the spies included more severe transgressions than failing to show proper respect for each other and for Moses!
Rabbi Ickovits answers that Moses was indicating that the very manner in which they raised the issue revealed a deeper problem regarding their true intentions. If the desire to send spies had been driven by proper motivations, the Jewish people would have conducted themselves in a calm and respectful manner. Instead, as events bore out, they had an ax to grind against the whole idea of entering the Land of Israel. Sending the spies was a pretext, and approaching Moses as an unruly mob proved this from the outset.
This shows how vital it is to maintain an atmosphere of respect, especially when dealing with important or potentially contentious issues. Once the air becomes poisoned with disrespect, the ramifications can be tragic.
The opposite is also true. Maintaining proper respect for another person, even in a charged situation, can have tremendously positive effects, as the following story illustrates:
One of the towering figures of the Lithuanian Torah world was Rabbi Yosef Zundel of Salant (1786-1866). Rabbi Zundel once approached a wealthy individual in his town to donate funds for the benefit of the poor. Unfortunately, the wealthy man also had a notorious reputation as a miser.
Although Rabbi Zundel spoke in a friendly and pleasant manner, the wealthy man answered him with anger and disrespect.
“I have never given my money away to another person before, and I will not do so now!” the wealthy man declared.
Upon hearing this, Rabbi Zundel stopped trying to persuade him. Instead, in the same friendly manner, he said, “I like to hear such honest words. I dislike people who make big promises but don’t follow through with them. I respect you very much. You don’t want to give, and so, in a forthright and honest way, you make it clear that you won’t give.”
With that, Rabbi Zundel parted pleasantly and went on his way.
The Rabbi’s words exerted a tremendous influence on this wealthy miser. He had expected to hear an angry rebuke, but instead he found himself on the receiving end of honest and sincere praise. From that day on, the wealthy man’s attitude changed, and he would even seek out Rabbi Zundel to donate money to the poor. (From Stories My Grandfather Told Me, Mesorah Publications)
Next week, we will mark Tisha B’Av. This was the day the generation that left Egypt was punished with forty years of wandering, as well as the day the First and Second Temples were destroyed.
At their root, these tragedies began when the Jewish people failed to conduct themselves with proper respect for each other, and we continue to suffer from the effects of this attitude to this very day. Pursuing an atmosphere of respect with the people around is one way each of us can help to correct this flaw and create positive and lasting change in its place.
Bums or Wise Guys?
הבו לכם אנשים חכמים ונבנים וידעים לשבטיכם ואשימם בראשיכם
“Provide for yourselves distinguished men, who are wise, understanding, and well-known to your tribes, and I shall appoint them as your heads” (Devarim 1:13).
The book of Devarim begins with Moses’ review of the forty-year national history from the time of the Exodus until the present. Rashi (Devarim 1:3) notes that much of the Torah portion this week revolves around Moses’ rebuke to the Jewish nation for sins they committed during this period, in an attempt to ensure that they wouldn’t continue in these mistaken ways.
What is curious to note is that in our verse, Moses seems to digress from his harsh criticism to stress that the Jewish people are distinguished, wise, and understanding. Why did he interrupt his focus on reproaching the people with this point, which is hardly a message of rebuke?
King Solomon writes, “Do not reprimand a scoffer lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8). Why would the wise Solomon advise rebuking a person who seemingly shouldn’t need it, and ignoring a scoffer whose ways need correcting? Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz (known as the Shelah Hakadosh) suggests that the erudite Solomon is actually talking about only one person. The Torah obligates a person who sees another Jew engaged in inappropriate activities to rebuke him and attempt to inspire him to change his ways and return to the proper path (Vayikra 19:17). In order to do so successfully, a bit of wisdom is required.
King Solomon advises that talking condescendingly to the scoffer will be useless and cause the sinner to hate the one attempting to reprove him. However, talking to him as if he is wise and respectable will likely move the sinner to accept his words and feel they are meant for his benefit.
A modern-day application of this lesson is offered by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, a well-known contemporary psychiatrist and author. He writes that when growing up, he was a typical child who got into his share of trouble. However, his father taught him a priceless lesson in how to raise well-adjusted children by the manner in which he was rebuked. All too often, we hear parents screaming at their children, “You good-for-nothing bum! How could you have been so foolish and lazy?” A child who grows up repeatedly hearing this message slowly absorbs the belief that he truly is foolish and lazy. Not surprisingly, he will likely go on to make decisions in his life which will reflect this self-image.
Rabbi Twerski’s father, on the other hand, used to scold his children in Yiddish, “Es past nisht” — “What you did isn’t appropriate for somebody as wonderful and special as you!” The message which was constantly driven into him was that he was an amazing child with tremendous potential who simply needed to maintain his focus on channeling his energy properly.
With this introduction, Rabbi Horowitz explains that before fully launching into his criticism of the Jewish people, Moses first built them up by emphasizing their many good qualities and tremendous potential, which would in turn allow his message to be well received. The lesson to us is clear: whenever we may need to correct a family member or even a co-worker, we should do so in the respectful manner taught to us by Moses and King Solomon.
Making Time for What Counts
ותענו אתי ותאמרו טוב הדבר אשר דברת לעשות
“And you answered me and said, ‘The thing you have spoken is good for us to do’” (Devarim 1:14).
In this week’s parsha, Moses began his final, month-long discourse to the Jewish people. His goal was to prepare the Jews for their entry into the Holy Land, which would herald a whole new way of life for the nomadic Jews. He began by alluding to some of the drastic mistakes they made in the hopes they would learn from their errors.
One of the mistakes they had made was that they readily accepted an education system whereby they would no longer be taught by Moses himself, but through a series of intermediaries. Moses was intimating that instead of readily accepting this system, they should have implored him to continue teaching them himself (Rashi, Devarim 1:14). Moses calculated that their acceptance of this system must have been based on the supposition that they could bribe or sway lesser teachers than Moses. They should have said, “From whom is it better to learn, from you or your student? Is it not better to learn from you who pained yourself over it?”
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Darash Moshe) asks why the last part of the question is necessary. Does it make any difference that Moses pained himself over the Torah? Why shouldn’t they simply have said, “We would rather learn from the teacher than from the student”?
Rabbi Feinstein answers that Torah study is unlike any other discipline, in that true understanding of Torah is not based on one’s intellectual acumen, nor on the amount of classes one attended or even taught, but rather on the amount of effort one invests in his Torah study. There have been many students who became much greater scholars than their teachers because they put more effort into their Torah study, and sacrificed more to delve into the Torah. This is because the Torah, being Divine, is greater than any individual’s intellect or effort. Moses was telling the people that they should have demanded that he continue teaching them, not due to his brilliant mind or extraordinary deductive skills, but because of the effort he expended in studying Torah, the greatest qualification a Torah teacher can have.
Indeed, throughout Jewish history, the greatest rabbis and scholars have been the people who were completely immersed in and dedicated to their Torah study, not necessarily the greatest intellects. Rabbi Eliyahu from Vilna (the Vilna Gaon), one of the greatest leaders of the last 500 years, was once approached by a man who had been his classmate throughout cheder (elementary school). The man asked him what it was that caused the Vilna Gaon to be so great, while his classmate, who had done better in school, lived a life of mediocrity. The Vilna Gaon responded, “Are you familiar with the Mishna that says that one who learns something 101 times is much greater than one who learns it only 100 times? I took that Mishna literally!”
For many of us, it is a struggle to put aside time for learning, be it on the phone with our partner or otherwise. But it’s comforting to know that when we push ourselves and make the effort, the reward is incomparable!
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
Q: Parshat Devarim begins with the words אלה – and these are (the words which Moses spoke). Which other Torah portions begin with the letter א, and what is the significance of this fact?
A: There are 5 books in the written Torah, and 6 sections of the Mishnah – the Oral Torah. The Paneiach Raza writes that there are 6 portions in the written Torah which correspond to the Mishnah, each of which begins with the letter–א:
אלה תולדות נח, אלה פקודי, אם בחוקתי, אלה מסעי , אלה הדברים, אתם נצבים . This is because the spelling of the letter “אלף– ”א – comes from the root meeting to study, and the word Mishnah also means to learn. Of the 6 portions, four begin with the word אלה, which alludes to the four sections of the Mishnah on which we also have Talmudic commentary, as the gematria (numerical value) of the word אלה is 36, which is also the number of tractates in the Babylonian Talmud! The last book of the Torah, Devarim, begins with one of these four portions in order to teach that in reviewing the Torah and its laws with the nation before his death, Moses reviewed not only the written Torah but the entire Talmud and Oral Law as well. Similarly, there are 5 tractates in the Mishnah which begin with the letter א, which hint to the 5 books of the written Torah and teach that every component of Torah is deeply intertwined. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Rashi writes (Devarim 1:3) that Moses waited to rebuke the Jewish people until close to his death. As it is a mitzvah to rebuke a fellow Jew, why would Moses have waited so long to perform this mitzvah? (Sifsei Chochomim)
Why would Moses devote significantly more time to rebuking the Jewish people for the sin of the spies than for the sin of the Golden Calf?
In this week’s parsha, Moses recounted and expanded on the episode of the spies forty years earlier. At the time, the Jewish people declared that G-d’s intention to bring them into the Land of Israel was actually a sign of His hatred for them, as opposed to His love. According to Rashi, their reasoning was that the Land of Israel was inferior to Egypt. In Egypt, the crops were regularly irrigated by the Nile. In the Land of Israel, the crops had to rely on rainfall to grow.
The people assumed that if G-d truly loved them, he would have simply driven out the Egyptians and allowed the Jewish people to live in peace and prosperity in the land of Egypt. (See Devarim 1:27, and Rashi’s explanation) According to the spies’ report, however, the Land was in fact, good – “flowing with milk and honey.” (Devarim 1:25; Bamidbar 13:27-29) They were convinced that G-d would not help them conquer the land.
1) If their chief concern was that G-d would not allow them to conquer the Land, what relevance is the agricultural quality of the land?
2) The main sin in the episode of the spies was that the Jewish people did not believe G-d would bring them into the Land of Israel. Ironically, they were punished with forty years of wandering in the desert, essentially proving their point! Instead of imposing this sentence then, wouldn’t it have been more advantageous to miraculously bring them into the Land of Israel before the eyes of the whole world, thus proving to all that G-d was fulfilling His promise?
Moses’s rebuke was delivered after all the people who committed those sins had already died. What purpose could have been served by rebuking people for sins committed by their parents and of which they themselves were innocent?
Rashi writes (Devarim 1:1) that because of the honor of the Jewish people, Moses didn’t want to elaborate on his rebuke and only hinted to the places where they had sinned, without dwelling on their actual sins at length. Why did Moses then proceed to focus on the sin of the spies and spell it out in great detail (Devarim 1:19-46)? (Paneiach Raza by Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah HaLevi)
In Bamidbar chapters 13 & 14, we read about the sin of the spies (or scouts) who issued a negative report about the Land of Israel. All but Caleb and Joshua, who wholeheartedly followed G-d, were punished by being denied the chance to enter the Land of Israel.
In chapter 20 (verses 1-13), we read how G-d instructed Moses “to speak to the rock… so that it shall give its waters.” Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses hit the rock. As the Torah relates, G-d said, “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, you (Moses) will not bring this congregation to the Land of Israel.”
In our parsha, after Moses recounts the episode of the spies (Devarim 1:22-36), he says: “With me, as well, G-d became angry because of you, saying: ‘You, too, shall not come there (i.e. the Land of Israel)” (Devarim 1:37).
1) As Moses’s punishment was unrelated to the sin of the spies — he was punished for hitting, instead of speaking to the rock, 38 years later — why does he seem to associate his punishment with a sin that he did not commit?
2) What do the two sins have in common that would warrant them carrying the same punishment?
Q: In the middle of his rebuke of the Jewish nation, Moses blessed them that G-d should increase their numbers 1000-fold. On this verse, the Medrash cryptically comments that our verse is what King David had in mind when he wrote (Psalms 5:8), “And I (David), through Your tremendous kindness, will come into Your House, and I will prostrate myself toward Your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You,” a verse which has no apparent connection to Moses’s blessing. What is the meaning of this Medrash?
A: Rabbi Elyakim Devorkes notes that the Talmud (Yoma 22b) rules that it is forbidden to count the Jewish people, even for the purpose of performing a mitzvah, as doing so could make them subject to an ayin hara (evil eye) which may reduce their numbers. Although one may not perform a head-count of Jews, it is permitted to count them via proxy, as was done in the desert when the census was taken by counting the half-shekels contributed by each person. Before beginning the daily prayer services, one often must look around the room to make sure that a minyan (quorum) of ten adult men is present. However, it is forbidden to do so by counting the individual people present. Rather, it has become customary to choose a verse which has ten words and to recite one word of the verse when pointing to each person present in the room. If one is able to finish the entire verse, this is an indication that the required quorum is present. One such example of a verse with ten words is the aforementioned verse in Psalms which is quoted by the Midrash. Rabbi Devorkes explains that when Moses blessed the Jewish people that they should become numerous, the Medrash questioned how this blessing can be fulfilled. Since Jews are required to pray with a minyan, one who performs a head-count to see if the required ten men are present will inadvertently invite an ayin hara to strike the people and reduce their numbers, thereby nullifying Moses’s blessing. The Medrash resolves this dilemma by answering that instead of counting the individual Jews present, one may count them using the words of the verse in Psalms, which will spare them from the threat of the ayin hara and indeed allow Moses’s blessing to come to fruition! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: Looking around at the state of Judaism today – decreasing numbers of religiously-educated or even self-identifying Jews combined with a skyrocketing rate of intermarriage – can lead a person to depressing conclusions about its future. As the Torah is the guidebook for every generation, what does it have to say about this matter, and what message of hope and optimism can we find in it?
A: In the 1930s, European Jewry was under attack from all directions. The twin dangers posed by physical annihilation and spiritual ruin seemed to threaten the future of the Jewish people. In a major address at that time, Rabbi Shimon Shkop (1860-1940), dean of the yeshiva in Grodno, Poland, and one of the preeminent prewar Torah scholars and leaders of European Jewry, delivered words of comfort based on the prophecies of the Torah, a message which is even more applicable today than it was then. He reassured the audience that although Judaism seemed at that time doomed to physical and spiritual extinction, the children and grandchildren of those abandoning their traditions would be brought back in an unprecedented spiritual awakening. He prophetically suggested – some 70 years ago – that this is the intent of a verse in this week’s parsha(1:39): “and the little children, regarding whom you said, ‘they will be taken (spiritually) captive,’ and the children who (aren’t educated to) know the difference between good and evil, those very children of whose futures you despaired will be the ones to come to the land of Israel, and to them will I give it and they will possess it!” (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: There is a mystical idea that the content of the parsha read each Shabbos is connected to the events of the coming week. It is interesting to note that Parshat Devarim is always read on the Shabbos preceding Tisha B’Av. What is their connection?
A: The Talmud (Yoma 9b) teaches that one of the reasons for the destruction of the Holy Temple was the sin of baseless hatred of one’s fellow Jews. Many times such hatred has its origins in forbidden forms of speech, such as gossip and painful words. Many people who speak in this manner justify their behavior by rationalizing that mere words cannot cause any real damage to others. The word “Devarim” means words. As the end product of their erroneous thinking was a widespread hatred powerful enough to destroy the Temple, we allude to the importance of rectifying this sin by beginning the week in which Tisha B’Av falls with the reading of Parshat Devarim. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
LETTERS OF COMFORT
“These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, concerning the Wilderness, concerning the Aravah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan, Chatzeiros, and Di Zahav.” Devarim 1:1
These are the words – Because these are words of rebuke, and because Moses intended to recount here all the places where they angered the Almighty, he therefore said these words in an obscure manner and only intimated that they sinned in these places. This was done in order to uphold the honor of the Jewish people. – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, commonly known as Rashi
In addition to serving as a model for how to offer effective rebuke, there may be another reason behind the indirect presentation. Perhaps Moses was pointing out that some of these sins were not nearly as deliberate and overt as one may be led to believe from the Torahs’ earlier accounts of them. Sometimes a sin can be a deliberate act of defiance, and sometimes it can be as subtle as an improper thought, motive, or attitude. While the latter is certainly undesirable as well, in terms of severity, they are nevertheless, a far cry from the more blatant forms of sin.
The Vilna Gaon shares with us an incredible insight into the entire concept of the Torah’s rebuke. The Book of Devarimbegins with rebuke of the Jewish people and maintains that tone throughout a large portion of the volume. Some very strong admonitions are delivered along with a hefty dose of potential consequences should we fail to meet the lofty standard expected of us. Traditionally we are taught that when we do satisfy the required standard, instead of suffering these consequences, these tragic situations are reversed into blessings (brachah). A hint to this can be found in the fact that if one counts from the first time the letter beis (the first letter of the word brachah) appears in this book 613 letters, the next letter he will encounter will be reish (the second letter of the word brachah). If he counts another 613 letters from that point, he will encounter the letter chaf (the third letter of brachah), and another 613 letters from that point will lead him to the letter hey (the fourth and final letter of brachah). This teaches us that all of these tragic consequences can be reversed into blessings if we are careful to adhere to all 613 mitzvos of the Torah.
FROM RAGS TO RICHES AND BACK AGAIN
FROM RAGS TO RICHES AND BACK AGAIN
“These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, concerning the Wilderness, concerning the Aravah…and Di Zahav.” 1:1
And Di Zahav – He admonished them about the golden calf they made because of the abundance of gold they had accumulated, as it is said, “I gave them silver and gold in abundance, they made it into a Baal [Hoshea 2:10].” – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, commonly known as Rashi
A large portion of Parshat Ki Tissah was devoted to discussing the complex attitudes and motives behind the sin of the golden calf. In this verse, Moses introduces us to yet another contributing factor for their failure. This excuse, while not as complex as the others, also played a significant role in inspiring their failure. In short, Moses explained that they were overwhelmed by their new found wealth. Within a matter of days they went from rags to riches, and were wholly unprepared to deal with their new reality and its attendant temptations. Certainly there were philosophical motives for their actions as well, but this factor is one that could not be ignored. Interestingly, while many of their initial struggles no longer pertain to us in their original form, the illicit inducements of excess materialism still plague us to this very day.
“I then said to you at that time, ‘I cannot carry you all by myself. Hashem, Your G-d has increased your numbers and you are today as many as the stars of the sky.’” Devarim 1:9,10
As many as the stars of the sky – Were they really numerous as the stars that day? They actually numbered only six hundred thousand at the time. What then does “you are today” mean? You are compared to the day – you are as eternal as the sun, the moon and the stars. – Rashi
Afikei Yehudah notes that there are times when the Torah compares the Jewish people to the dust of the earth and times when it compares them to the stars of the heaven. The difference between these two comparisons is that whereas particles of sand tend to stick to one another, the stars are separated by vast expanses. When referring to the Jewish people in united fashion, they are compared to the dust of the earth. When referring to them in a fragmented state, they are compared to stars, for they are distant from one another. In expressing his frustration with the Jewish people, Moses said, “Presently you are like the stars in the heaven in that there exists much animosity among you instead of unity. When you behave in this manner, it is difficult for me alone to bear your burdens and quarrels and lead you effectively
SUM-THING TO CONSIDER
“Show no favoritism in judgment, small and great alike shall you hear; you shall not tremble before any man, for the judgment is G-d’s…” Devarim 1:17
You shall not tremble before any man – Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha said, “From where do we derive that a student who is sitting before his teacher and sees a point in favor of a poor man and a reason to indict a rich man, that he must not remain silent? Because it is written, ‘You shall not tremble before any man.”’ – Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin
For the judgments is G-d’s – You must not tremble before any man, even a powerful one, and rule in his favor unjustly, because ultimately the judgment is G-d’s, and He will ensure that justice is done in the end. You, in the meantime, will have perverted G-d’s judgment, sinned against Him, and accomplished nothing. – Rabbeinu Bachya
Small and great alike – You must not favor a litigation that involves large sums of money over one that involves minimal sums. Each must be accorded the same reverence and diligence to ensure that the judgment is exact. – Rashi
Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch zt”l explains that the reason to be as exacting in the judgment of a small sum as in a large sum is not because the two are indeed equivalent. One simply cannot compare the loss of a few cents to that of hundreds or thousands of dollars. Rather, our sages write that one who renders judgment with meticulous care and exacting diligence causes the Divine Presence to rest upon the Jewish people. Thus, when rendering a judgment, any judgment is in fact, not merely a matter of ensuring that the money reaches the true owner, but also that the Divine Presence should see fit to dwell among us. The stakes are very high even when the actual sum in question is hardly significant.
“And you approached me all together and you said, ‘Let us send men before us and they will scout out the land.’” Devarim 1:22
And you approached me all together– All of you came before me in a panicked and agitated state, and with a complete lack of decorum. Children pushed aside their elders, and the elders jostled the leaders. – Rashi
And you all approached me all together – You had leaders who were supposed to handle such requests on behalf of the people. Instead, you completely ignored their presence and took matters into your own hands. – Sforno, Toldot Yitzchak
Although Moses’s point was certainly correct, why didn’t he stick to criticizing only their disastrous plan and feel a need to rebuke them for their faulty approach, as well? Certainly when viewed as part of the larger story, this aspect of the tragic incident of the Spies would seem to be rather minor and unworthy of mention? Rabbi Yitzchak of Volozhin zt”l explained that had they approached Moses respectfully, and in a properly arranged fashion, that would have been an indication that their intentions were pure and that the blame lay with the spies for corrupting their mission. By reminding them of their thoroughly disrespectful attitude from the onset of this plan, Moses was hinting to them that there was something rotten about it from the start, even before the spies were chosen. When the situation later went completely sour, they could not point to the spies and lay all the blame at their feet. Everyone was guilty, and bore the blame equally.
NO STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
“They took in their hands some fruit of the land and brought it down to us. They brought back word to us and said, ‘Good is the land that Hashem, our G-d, is giving us.’” Devarim 1:25
Good Is The Land That Hashem…Is Giving Us – Who were the ones who said this? Joshua and Caleb – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, commonly known as Rashi
Good Is The Land – If Joshua and Caleb alone spoke well of the land, why should the people have listened when all the others spoke negatively of the land, and they too, were reputed to by righteous and trustworthy people? The answer is that originally they all spoke well of the land. The other spies however, argued that while the land was indeed wonderful, the natives were too strong to vanquish. Joshua and Caleb contended that this was not so, and almost succeeded in convincing the people. It was at that point that the ten spies began to speak negatively of the land when not in the presence of Joshua, Caleb, and Moses. Based on their earlier positive reports, the people should have maintained their desire to enter the land and retained their faith in G-d’s ability to help them overcome the inhabitants of the land. – Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (1194-c. 1270), better know as Nachmanidies or Ramban
Principal among the numerous lessons worth extracting from the tragic story of the Meraglim (spies), is the idea that when a Jew knows the truth, he must not allow himself to be swayed by the masses who advocate otherwise. Human nature tends to place considerable weight on numbers, whereas Judaism teaches that rarely are numbers reliable indicators of right and wrong. Joshua and Caleb’s opinion may have been in the minority, but the people knew the truth and should not have allowed themselves to be swayed by the popular opinion.
JUST TRUST US
“And they took in their hands from the fruit of the Land, and they brought them down to us, and they brought back word to us and they said, ‘The land that G-d give us is very good.’” 1:25
They said the land is very good – Which of the spies spoke kindly of the land? Only Joshua and Caleb. – Rashi
They said the land is very good – If only Joshua and Caleb spoke kindly of the land, how could the people possibly be expected to believe their words over the words of the other ten spies? – Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Nachmanides)
Maharal Diskin explains that the reason Joshua and Caleb should have been believed over the other ten spies is because the course of action they were proposing would have immediately proven whether they were right or wrong. Had their advice to proceed to the land been heeded, they would soon be proved charlatans if the land was not what they claimed. The others, however, insisted that the people return to Egypt, a plan that eliminated any possibility of being proven wrong, since they would never actually see the Land of Israel to determine whether it was as bad as they claimed. When a person issues a claim that cannot be disproved, his credibility is not nearly as strong as one who is willing to put his words to the test. Only Joshua and Caleb laid their credibility on the line, which should have convinced the people that they were confident in their assertions.
MONEY WELL SPENT
“You are crossing into the border of your brothers, the descendants of Esau who reside in Seir…Food you are to buy from them with money and eat; water you are to purchase from them with money and drink. For Hashem, your G-d, has blessed you in all your handiwork; He has been involved with your traversing this great wilderness. It is now forty years that Hashem, your G-d, is accompanying you, and you have lacked nothing.” Devarim 2:4-7
For Hashem, your G-d, has blessed you – Therefore do not show ungratefulness by behaving as if you’re poor, but show yourselves to be rich. – Rashi
Blessed you in all your handiwork – In the desert, their situation was so ideal that there wasn’t even handiwork to be blessed. To what then, could this verse be referring? Although they weren’t engaged in life-sustaining activities or building homes, they did depart from Egypt with cattle and other forms of wealth. Not only did the Almighty provide for all their basic needs, but He even made their livestock prosper and they accumulated much wealth thanks to this. – Ramban
You have lacked nothing – Therefore, there isn’t even anything that you would actually need to purchase from them. Nevertheless, go out of your way to do so in order that they should sense friendship on your part, and so that through their interactions with you, they will perceive the amazing kindness and miracles that the Almighty performed on your behalf. – Sforno
Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor adds that the blessing granted to them by the Almighty was unique in another way as well. Usually, a person who bestows kindness upon another, starts out being very generous, but over time he slowly diminishes the amount and quality of his gifts. Throughout our forty years in the desert, the Almighty never restricted the quality or quantity of his blessings. Long after we were already capable of being self-sufficient, the largesse continued to pour forth as before.
“We then turned and traveled along the road to the Bashan, where Og and his troops came to confront us in battle at Edrei. G-d said to me, ‘Do not be afraid of him, since I have turned him over to you along with all his people and his land. You will do the same to him as you did to the Amorite king Sichon, who lived in Cheshbon.’” Devarim 3:1, 2
Do not be afraid of him – Concerning Sichon, it was not necessary to say, “Do not fear him,” But concerning Og, Moses was troubled that he not benefit from the merit of having been of service to Abraham, as it is said, ‘the one who escaped came,’ and that was Og. – Rashi
Hundreds of years prior to this incident, Og had escaped from the four powerful kings who’d waged ward against the five kings, and he informed our Patriarch Abraham of the capture of his nephew, Lot. Our sages tell us that his intentions at the time were anything but pure. He’d hoped that Abraham would die in battle and Sarah would be his to marry. Yet, when the time came for the Jewish people to defend themselves against Og many years later, Moses feared that the merit of this act would stand him in good stead and place the Jews in danger, and he had to be reassured by the Almighty that He would look after us and protect us from danger. Rabbi Reuven Grozovski zt”l would point to this incident and proclaim, “If this is the power of a selfishly motivated good deed – imagine how powerful our altruistic good deeds are! Is there anything that can stand in their way?”
“At that time we took the land from the possession of the two Emorite kings who were on the other side of the Jordan…All the cities of the plain and entire Gilad…cities of Og’s kingdom in the Bashan… From Aro’er which is on Wadi Arnon and half of the Gilad hills and its cities, I gave to the Reubenites and the Gadites.” Devarim 3:8-12
I gave to the Reubenites and Gadites – “Once the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menasseh were exiled [from the other side of the Jordan by Sancherib], the practice of observing the Jubilee year was discontinued. – Talmud, Tractate Eiruchin 32b
This section of the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) essentially records Moses’ rebuke of the Jewish people for their various sins during their time in the desert. That said, what sin is he discussing here in this verse, which seems to be nothing more than a history lesson of their conquests to date? HeEmek Davar explains that the fact that the tribes of Reuben and Gad insisted on living across the Jordan was itself a tragedy and an avoidable one, at that. Their absence from the land of Israel diminished its sanctity in some measure, and they were the first to sin with idolatry, a catastrophic misstep in the eyes of G-d. This is why they were the first of the tribes to be exiled, and as a result, important features of Jewish life, such as the Jubilee, were discontinued. How did all this come about? Because of the sin of the Spies when the Jewish people refused to enter the land directly, which would have avoided their later encountering the tempting lands on the other side of the Jordan. Moses wished to demonstrate to them the long-range effects of their earlier actions and how these too had to be factored into an honest reckoning of their time in the desert.
“And I instructed Joshua at that time saying, ‘Your own eyes have seen all that the Almighty, your G-d, did to these two kings [Sichon and Og], so shall the Almighty do to all of the kingdoms that you will encounter there. Do not fear them for Hashem, your G-d, He will wage war on your behalf.’” Devarim 3:21,22
And Joshua I instructed – Why would Joshua, of all people, have been fearful of the powerful kings in the Land of Canaan? Wasn’t he the one, along with Caleb, who reassured the people that they would have no trouble conquering the Land? Moses never grew comfortable with the request of the Reubenites and Gadites to live across the Jordan, for he foresaw the ease with which they could and ultimately would depart from the traditions. This suspicion never completely disappeared as is evident from numerous incidents in Scripture. Therefore, Moses feared that Joshua may have lost some of his confidence after witnessing the perfidy of the Reubenites and Gadites. He sought to reassure him that nevertheless, the Almighty would battle on their behalf and he need not fear. – HeEmek Davar
Your own eyes have seen all – There were still 31 kings that had to be vanquished in the Land of Canaan. Witness, however, how the Almighty enabled you to decimate Sichon and Og and understand that you will meet similar success against the rest of them. – Rabbeinu Bachya, Sifsei Kohen
The victories over Sichon and Og were no small triumphs. According to the Medrash, their armies were more powerful than that of even Pharaoh. Ideally, we should have sung a Song of Praise just as we did when the armies of Pharaoh were finally vanquished. Yet, since these conquests occurred during the fortieth year in the desert, just prior to the death of Moses, the mood was not conducive to sing songs. Nevertheless, King David later made up for the missing Song of Praise in Psalms [136:17-20], when he wrote his own Song praising this victory, “To He that smote great kings; for His mercy endures forever; And slew mighty kings, for His mercy endures forever. Sichon king of the Amorites, for His mercy endures forever; And Og king of Bashan, for His mercy endures forever.”
Hey, I Never Knew That
G-d commanded the Jewish people not to make war with the descendants of Esau, and to offer to buy food and water from them (Devarim 2:7). The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 35b) sees in the comparison of food to water a hint to the rabbinic prohibition against eating food cooked solely by gentiles. Just as water is basically unchanged by cooking, so too the food that the Jews would buy should be raw, i.e. unchanged by cooking. Three reasons are given for this prohibition: some explain that it is in order to avoid the possibility of a non-Jew putting non-kosher ingredients into the food (Rashi), others explain that it is in order to prevent a Jew from being tempted to eat non-kosher foods (Maimonides), and some maintain that the prohibition was created as a social barrier in order to prevent assimilation and intermarriage (Rashi).
Word of the Week
“On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses הואיל — ho’il — began to explain this Torah…” (Devarim 1:5). The Targum Onkelos commentary and Rashi both translate ho’il as began or started. Similarly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains it as “deciding to act” or “initiating an action” (Etymological Dictionary, Clark). Rabbi Saadiah Gaon maintains that the word means “spoke at length,” whereas Rabbi David Kimchi translates the word as desired or wanted. In Mishnaic Hebrew, ho’il always means since or because.
Moses bemoaned the burden of leadership of the Jewish people and said, “איכה—Eichah can I bear alone your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels?” (Devarim 1:12) Eichah is usually translated as “how” and is cognate with the word איך—eich, although with a greater emphasis on the wonder and shock of “how can this be?!” as opposed to merely an enquiry (Rabbi David Kimchi, Sefer Hashorashim). Rabbi Hirsch understands it as a composite of איה—ayeh—where and כה—koh—thus, producing a query of how, or a question on the condition of something (Etymological Dictionary). The Targum Onkelos translates it as איכדין—ichdin, meaning “how then?” (Jastrow Dictionary).
The Torah commands us to rebuke a fellow Jew who is sinning; however, we are prohibited from rebuking him in public so as not to embarrass him (Vayikra 19:17, Rashi, ad loc). Is it permitted to embarrass someone by our rebuke if it’s done in private? The Torah portion this week begins with a long list of place names, which Rashi explains as being hints to the sins of the Jewish people in the desert. Rashi explains that the reason Moses only hinted at the sins is to save the Jews from embarrassment. Here was a case where everyone was being rebuked together, and all were equally guilty, and yet, Moses was careful to avoid embarrassing them. Similarly, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan (Introduction, Be’er Mayim Chaim 14, Chafetz Chaim) rules that the prohibition against embarrassing someone applies even in private. The Zohar (Parshat Kedoshim) states explicitly that if the person will be embarrassed by rebuke, even in private, one should rebuke him in a roundabout manner, by hinting, or by setting up a “straw man” for rebuke (Avotot Ahavah p. 77, footnotes 44-45).
Parsha at a Glance
This week’s parsha opens as Moses began to deliver his last will and testament to the Jewish people. It was a unique moment in the history of the nation, the culmination of forty years of wandering in the desert, on the eve of the conquest of the Land of Israel.
This final series of discourses took place over the last five weeks of Moses’ life. During that time, Moses reviewed the laws he taught to the Jewish people and also rebuked them for certain significant sins and mistakes they committed in the desert.
Out of respect for the Jewish people in the eyes of the nations of the world, Moses introduced these topics with great sensitivity, hinting to the events, rather than overtly confronting the nation with its flaws.
Moses first pointed out that the very appointment of a judge and lower courts (Shemot 18:13-26) signaled a flaw in the Jewish people’s approach to Torah and Moses as their leader. He indicated that the people were too eager to put this system in place, and should have insisted on learning from Moses himself rather than through intermediaries.
The parsha continues with an extended and in-depth account of the incident of the spies, which led directly to the Jewish people being sentenced to forty years of wandering in the desert. That generation’s refusal to believe that G-d would take them into the Land of Israel as He had promised was a tragedy that has ramifications until this very day. Their purposeless tears occurred on the 9th of Av. In response, G-d decreed not only that the generation would perish in the desert, but also that this day would be a day designated for tears throughout the generations. Many future tragedies, including the Destruction of the First and Second Temples, have taken place on this day.
Moses then described the encounters with Esau, who dwelt in the land of Seir, Moab and Ammon. All three nations were not to be provoked or attacked at this time.
On the other hand, the response to provocations by Sihon, the King Heshbon, and Og, the King of Bashan, was immediate and overwhelming. G-d delivered these two kingdoms into the hands of the Jewish people, as well as their territory, their cities and their property.
The parsha concludes with Moses recounting his agreement to grant the conquered territory on the other side of the Jordan to the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Menashe. The agreement was conditioned on the tribes of Reuben and Gad fighting at the forefront of the Jewish people as they conquered the Land of Israel.
Finally, Moses reiterated his appointment of Joshua as the new leader of the Jewish people, who would lead them in the conquest of the Land of Israel, under G-d’s divine protection.