Watering Our Fields
יערף כמטר לקחי תזל כטל אמרתי כשעירם עלי דשא וכרביבים עלי עשב
“Let my instruction flow like rainfall, let my saying drip like dew; like storm winds upon vegetation, and like raindrops on grass.” (Devarim 32:2)
On the day he died, Moses related a beautiful and at times haunting song about the Jewish people and their relationship with G-d. Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, knows as the Vilna Gaon, asks why Moses described his teachings, the Torah, as being like rainfall.
Rain waters a field equally. However, what grows is dependent on what was put into that earth. If a person toiled to plant fruit seeds, he will soon have an orchard. If he planted nothing, having frivolously wasted the planting season away, he will find his field empty despite the prodigious rain. Worse yet, if he planted deadly foxglove, he will find that the rain helped secure a poisonous crop. Torah, the Vilna Gaon explains, has the same attributes. It is a receptacle of Divine wisdom given to humans to interact with and explore. What we get out of it, however, is dependent on what we put in. If we invest ourselves in Torah, expending time, energy, and emotion into capturing its truth, if we approach it with respect and are honest with ourselves as we study it — even when it calls upon us to make meaningful changes in our lives — then the Torah will lead us to levels of knowledge and spiritual joy we could not have imagined. On the other hand, if we don’t invest in Torah, then we leave our field of Jewish knowledge fallow. Likewise, one can also distort Torah or selectively find a Torah source to find license for distorted perspectives or to justify preconceived, inaccurate ideas. Our approach to Torah study makes all the difference. Rabbi Avigdor Miller was one of the greatest Torah teachers in America in the latter half of the twentieth century. His numerous fascinating books taught many the foundations of Jewish belief and philosophy. Tapes of his weekly Torah classes made their way all across America and allowed him to inspire many more than the thousands who attended his unapologetic, direct, yet uplifting Torah lectures. He even created the Telephone Torah Program, in some ways a forerunner of Partners in Torah, whereby one individual would learn portions of Torah and then would repeat them over the telephone to a partner on a weekly basis. Where did Rabbi Miller get his fiery love for Torah, Jews, and Judaism? While in his early twenties, Rabbi Miller left the U.S. to study in the famed Slabodka Yeshiva in Lithuania. There he dedicated himself to Torah study with an uncommon seriousness. During the first three hours of the day, he would talk with no one, dedicating that time purely to Torah study. Rabbi Miller planted seeds. Yom Kippur is a day when we try to remove the weeds that have prevented our growth in the previous year. It is immediately followed by Sukkot, an opportunity to commit to planting strong seeds of Jewish values and personal growth in our lives. Then we will surely have a year that flourishes with success.
Bonded with Our Forefathers
כי חלק ה’ עמו יעקב חבל נחלתו
“For G-d’s portion is His people, Jacob is the measure of His inheritance.” (Devarim 32:9)
In his explanation of this verse, Rashi comments that as a result of the dedicated observance of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a triple-stranded spiritual rope was created. This rope binds the Jewish people to G-d in an enduring way, just as the genetic bond eternally links family members to one another.
Earlier the Torah states regarding the mitzvah of repentance, “The matter is very near to you, in your mouth and your hearts to do it” (Devarim 30:14). Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv) asks why repentance is described as an easy commandment, which is in our hearts to do. True repentance often involves uprooting habits and deeply ingrained customs. The Netziv answers, no matter how far we stray from the true and just path of the Torah, we are still closely connected to G-d through the bond of our patriarchs. No matter how far a child strays from his parents, his journey back is eased by unbreakable familial bonds. So too, our eternal connection with G-d eases our return through true repentance. On Yom Kippur Eve in 1945, shortly after the end of World War II, Rabbi Yekusiel Halberstam, the grand rabbi of Klausenberg, addressed a group of Holocaust survivors in a DP camp. The rabbi himself had lost his wife and 11 children at the hands of the Nazis. He opened up a prayer book to the Confession Service (Vidduy) and asked, “What part of the confession is anyone in this room guilty of transgressing? Have we sinned? We did have time or energy to sin? Could we have slandered anyone? Who had breath to waste on slander?” The rabbi went through the entire list of sins and declared it impossible for anyone in the crowd to have committed any of them. “This confession is not written for us,” he proclaimed. After a few moments of silence broken by sobbing, the rabbi said, “There was one sin we all committed in the depths of the hell that was our lives. Each morning, we were envious of our brothers and sisters who did not wake up to another day of living hell. We lost our faith in G-d and said that He had forsaken us. This is our sin, and for this we must atone.” The Rabbi concluded with a prayer, “G-d, please restore our faith and trust in You, and help us establish new families to perpetuate this faith our future generations.” How did Rabbi Halberstam and his listeners have strength to return to G-d? They tapped into the strength of the 3,000 year-old connection between G-d and the Jewish people that was passed from father to son all the way back from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. At this time of year we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. It is both a solemn and joyous day. Solemn, because we face the task of recognizing those areas in which we, too, have allowed our troubles to cause us to lose faith in the innate connection we all have to G-d. The feeling that we are alone in facing our hardships brings its own consequences: disillusionment, apathy, and a sense that we are helpless to build a fresh start. But Rosh Hashanah is also a day of joy, because it allows us to pull ourselves out of those negative feelings. The introspection of the day compels us not only to reflect back on our tribulations, but also to think of new ways to overcome them by embracing our heritage with renewed vigor. Indeed, there may be no greater joy than knowing that even in the face of the most difficult challenges, we still have the ability to press the “reset” button on our relationship with G-d, with the people around us, and with our own personal mission in this world.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
The final verse in the parsha contains G-d’s farewell message to Moses, reminding him for the last time that he would see the Land he yearned for only from afar but would not enter the chosen Land of Israel.
- Since G-d had decided that Moses’ dream of entering the Land of Israel would not be fulfilled, why would He show Moses the Land from a distance before his passing? Wouldn’t that be like rubbing salt in his wound?
- In Divine Law, punishments are meted out midah k’neged midah — in a way that directly correlates with the sin. The sin was Moses’ failure to speak to the rock that was to bring forth water (see Bamidbar 20:10-13), and the punishment was that he would not enter the Land of Israel — the Jewish People’s national destiny. How are the two related?
Moses described the series of events that would lead the Jewish people to betray their covenant with G-d: G-d would help the Jewish people defeat their enemies, which would allow them to enjoy the spoils of victory as well as the great bounty of the land of Israel. The very luxury that the nation would enjoy, however, would lead to them to engage in idolatry. This would in turn cause G-d to punish the people for abandoning Him and exile them (Devarim 32:13-20). Moses later assured the Jewish people that G-d would punish their enemies and that this would cause the nations to praise the Jewish people for remaining loyal to G-d (Devarim 32:43).
- Since this G-d-given wealth was the source of the Jewish people’s downfall, why would G-d assist them in acquiring this wealth in the first place?
- It is certainly reassuring to know that our enemies will be defeated, but what is the value in the Jewish people knowing that our enemies will praise us as well?
Moses said, “This Torah… is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life…” (Devarim 32:47). The Hebrew words for “an empty thing for you” literally mean “it is not an empty thing from you.” If we consider a part of the Torah “empty” and fail to embark on a search for its meaning, it is “from you,” i.e. it is our failure, rather than a deficiency in the Torah.
- If someone has trouble understanding the relevance of certain words in the Torah, would it be better to first think about (or guess) their significance or to first examine what the Torah commentaries say on the subject?
- What is one to think if he or she made the effort, but could not find the educational value in the seemingly unnecessary words?
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
Come back next week for more Parsha Tidbits.
Hey, I Never Knew That
Ha’azinu contains the verse, “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you” (Devarim 32:7). Rav Elchanan Wasserman writes that this verse obligates us to study Jewish history and try to discern G-d’s justice and Divine Providence. He maintains that just as one is obligated to look into the Torah in depth, one is likewise obligated to look into history in depth. The verse goes on to tell us that the way to delve into history is to “ask your father and he will show you, your elders and they will tell you.” We are advised to utilize the traditions and teachings of our ancestors, the Sages, and the prophets as a means to understand our history (Rav Elchanan Wasserman, Kovetz Ma’amarim, Biur Agadot al Derech Hapshat, 12).
The Torah tells us that Moses wrote a Torah scroll and placed it in (or next to) the Holy Ark. This scroll was brought by the Jewish people into the Land of Israel and was eventually placed, together with the Ark, in the Temple in Jerusalem. During the reigns of the evil kings Ahaz and Menashe, many Torah scrolls were burnt, and so the priests hid the Torah scroll of Moses somewhere beneath the Temple to save it from destruction. This Torah scroll was found during the restoration and renovation of the Temple, ordered by the righteous King Josiah. As the verse states, “And Hilkiah the Cohen said to Shafan the scribe, ‘I found the Torah scroll in the House of G-d…’” (Kings II:22:8). The finding of the Torah scroll of Moses prompted Josiah to begin a campaign of repentance and Torah observance among the Jewish people (Malbim and Metzudat David, Kings ad loc).
“G-d will then take up the cause of His people and comfort His servants. He will have seen that their power is gone and they have no protection or help” (Devarim 32:36). On the eve of the Six Day War in 1967, when the world had abandoned the State of Israel and it was surrounded by hostile enemies about to attack, many Jews were in a state of despair. Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky spoke in a synagogue in the Jerusalem suburb of Bayit Vegan and told the people gathered there that Israel’s abandonment by the world, and the threats of destruction by her enemies, were not reasons to despair but reasons to hope. He quoted the verse in our parsha which states that when G-d sees that the power of the Jews is gone, “[A]nd they have no protection or help,” that is when He, Himself, “will then take up the cause of His people.” His words struck a chord in the crowd, raised them from despair to hope and people left with a certainty that G-d would intercede to save His people (heard from someone present at the speech).
Word of the Week
Shofar is the term for the ram’s horn that we are commanded to blow on Rosh Hashanah. The word however, has two other meanings. As a verb, שופר means to improve or beautify (Radak, Sefer Hashorashim, shafar), and the Sages write (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 29:7) that the message and purpose of the shofar is to inspire us to improve our deeds. The word שופר can also mean to harmonize and balance (see Bereishit 49:21). In that sense, the sound of the shofar is supposed to lend balance between confidence and trust in G-d on the one hand, represented by the long blast, and fear and trepidation of His judgment on the other hand, represented by the short blasts, reminiscent of crying and sobbing (see Rav Hirsh, Genesis ibid., Shem Mishmuel, Rosh Hashanah).
Moses told the Jewish people (Devarim 31:6) and Joshua (31:7), ואמץ חזק — chazak ve’ematz. The phrase is usually translated as “be strong and courageous” (Artscroll) or as “be strong and brave” (The Living Torah, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan). Both these translations reflect the understanding of the Aramaic translations (Onkelos and Yonatan ben Uziel) that see this as encouragement to the Jews and Joshua before they embarked on the wars to conquer Israel. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch translates the phrase as “be firm and strong,” and understands the exhortation to Joshua to “remain firm in taking the knowledge of your tasks from the Torah, and be strong in overcoming all obstacles in carrying them out. Firm in principles and strong in carrying them out are the first demands made on the leader” (commentary ad loc).
The deeds of the צור—tzur are perfect…” (Devarim 32:4). The Targum translates tzur as “Mighty One,” meaning G-d, Who is referred to as a Tzur, which literally means “rock.” In our prayers we find this expression as well, for instance, צור ישראל—Tzur Yisrael—Rock of Israel. Maimonides understands this to mean that G-d is the “rock from which all of existence is hewn and the source of all of existence” (Guide for the Perplexed 1:16). The Talmud (Brachot 10a) understands the word as related to צייר—tzayar—painter or artist, in that G-d is the “artist” Who created the world as His work of art.
The Ark containing the Torah scrolls is frequently opened during the Rosh Hashanah service, and it is customary to stand while it is open. If someone finds it difficult to stand so much or is simply tired, is there an obligation to stand? Some authorities maintain that it is a good thing to do, but certainly not obligatory, and they provide two reasons for this. One reason is that since the Ark is usually raised well above floor level, it is therefore considered a separate domain from the rest of the synagogue. The second reason is that the Torah scrolls themselves are in their appropriate places even with the doors open, and one need only stand when they are carried to and from the Ark (Taz, Yoreh Deah 242:13 and Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav 148:3).
The Torah commands the Jews to assemble in Jerusalem once in seven years to hear the king read from the Torah on the Temple Mount (Devarim 31:10-12). This assembly is known as Hakhel, which means “you must gather or assemble.” With the establishment of the State of Israel and the presence of large numbers of Jews in Israel, the question arose as to whether it was appropriate to create an assembly in memory of Hakhel. The Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Herzog, supported the idea and believed that not only would such a gathering fulfill the obligation to remember the Temple, but it would also inspire people to study and keep the Torah and raise the honor and prestige of Torah in the world. He noted that there was an old custom in Jerusalem for the students of the famous Eitz Chaim Cheder (elementary school) to go the Western Wall on Sukkot and read the sections of the Torah that the king would read at Hakhel (Responsa Heichal Yitzchak, Orach Chaim 58).
The question of disinterring a body buried in the Diaspora for burial in the Land of Israel is one which has been discussed extensively from Talmudic times until the present day. One of the central sources of the discussion appears in our parsha. The verse states, “[A]nd His land will atone for His people” (Devarim 32:43). The Code of Jewish Law allows the body to be disinterred in order to bury it in Israel (Yoreh Deah 363:1), and the commentaries cite as the reason that the “very earth of the Land of Israel atones” (Sifsei Cohen ad loc.). This verse is also the source of the custom mentioned in the Code of Jewish Law (ibid.) to place earth from the Land of Israel in the coffin when someone is buried outside of Israel.
Parsha at a Glance
This parsha is the “song” that Moses referred to in the previous chapter.