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SALT - Parashat Devarim 5782 / 2022

Rav David Silverberg
04.08.2022

 

In Loving Memory of
Jeffrey Paul Friedman z"l
August 15, 1968 – July 29, 2012

לע"נ יהודה פנחס בן הרב שרגא פייוועל ז"ל
כ"ב אב תשכ"ח – י' אב תשע"ב

 

Motzaei Shabbat

          In Parashat Devarim, Moshe recalls a number of events that transpired over the course of Benei Yisrael’s travels through the wilderness.  He tells that following the sin of the spies, Benei Yisrael journeyed around the mountains of Seir, until, in the fortieth year of traveling, God instructed Moshe, “You have journeyed around this mountain enough; turn now northward” (2:2).  He then commanded Benei Yisrael that as they traveled along the border of the nation of Edom – the descendants of Eisav – they were to refrain from instigating any hostilities toward the kingdom.

          The Midrash (Devarim Rabba 1:19) offers a symbolic reading of God’s command to turn northward.  The term “tzafon” (“north”), the Midrash comments, alludes to the Torah, as in the verse in Sefer Mishlei (2:7), “Yitzpon la-yesharim tushiya” – God “hides” the wisdom of the Torah, reserving it for the righteous who devote themselves to its study.  According to the Midrash, the instruction “…penu lakhem tzafona” (“turn now northward”) means that to avoid the dangers posed by the hostile kingdom of Edom, the descendants of Eisav, we should seek protection in the Torah, which is called “tzafon” – “hidden,” or “concealed.”

          Rav Shmuel Borenstein of Sochatchov, in Sheim Mi-Shmuel, offers an explanation for this obscure Midrashic passage, for why Torah is referred to as “concealed,” and how it offers protection from the forces represented by Edom.  One of the important characteristics of Eisav, as Chazal portray him, is externality.  The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 65:1), cited by Rashi (Bereishit 26:34), compares Eisav to a pig, which outwardly appears kosher – because it has split hooves, one of the two properties of a kosher species – but is, in fact, forbidden, because it does not chew its cud.  Eisav made a point of appearing upright and noble, but in truth was evil and corrupt.  The Midrash here urges us to combat this tendency to focus on external appearance, and to instead pursue the ideal of “tzafon” – bringing the Torah’s principles and ideals into the concealed, inner recesses of our beings.  Whereas Eisav sets out only to appear righteous, we are to make it our goal to be righteous truly and inwardly, without worrying about our external image.  Eisav’s concern is with form; our concern must be with substance. 

As Benei Yisrael began the final leg of its journey through the wilderness, and would now be encountering, for the first time in many years, other nations, it was imperative to reinforce this distinction, to make Benei Yisrael aware of the dangers of the vain, shallow preoccupation with appearance.  Nations such as Edom focus primarily on appearing impressive – and we are called upon to do just the opposite, to develop our characters so we are truly worthy of being called God’s chosen people, rather than concerning ourselves with our image and appearance.

Sunday

          In his address to Benei Yisrael in Parashat Devarim, Moshe recalls the sin of the spies, how the people were misled by the spies’ report and doubted God’s ability to vanquish the nations of Canaan.  God responded by decreeing that Benei Yisrael would spend the next thirty-nine years in the desert, during which time the adult generation would perish, such that only their children would enter and settle the Land of Israel.  In response to God’s decree, a group from Benei Yisrael decided to attempt to enter the land, despite the decree.  Moshe recalls how the Emorites “pursued…like the bees do” and killed them (1:44).

          Rashi, explaining this analogy to bees, writes, “Just as a bee immediately dies when it strikes a person. they, too, immediately died when they touched you.”  According to Rashi, the Emorites who killed those who tried entering the land died instantly, just as a bee instantly dies after stinging.

          What might be the significance of the Emorites’ immediate death upon killing the ma’apilim (those who tried proceeding to the land against God’s decree)?  Why, according to Rashi, did Moshe find it necessary to emphasize his point?

          Chizkuni explains that Moshe wanted to draw the people’s attention to the fact that the Emorites were weak and frail, so much so that they fell during battle.  Although the Emorites succeeded in eliminating the ma’apilim, they immediately perished, like a bee after it stings, testifying to their frailty.  Rav Yissakhar Ber Eilenberg, in his Tzeida La-derekh (a work on Rashi’s Torah commentary), questions Chizkuni’s explanation, noting that the nations of Canaan were actually very powerful, as the spies had described.  In his view, Rashi meant that God punished the Emorites for killing the ma’apilim.  Moshe noted this fact to emphasize to Benei Yisrael that they had no need to fear the people of Canaan, despite their strength, because God would supernaturally assist them, as evidenced by the miraculous deaths of the Emorites who attacked the ma’apilim.  Had the people not questioned God’s ability, He would have performed these miracles without any casualties among Benei Yisrael.

          According to Chizkuni, it would seem, Moshe was telling the people that the Emorites whom they feared were not nearly as powerful as they imagined.  Their strength and power were just an illusion.  They appeared invincible, but in truth, even when they succeeded on the battlefield, they fell.

          Many challenging undertakings appear intimidating, but are, in fact, within our reach.  Chizkuni’s understanding of Moshe’s analogy teaches that we should never immediately assume that a task which at first seems impossible is truly as difficult as it appears.  When we find ourselves feeling afraid to undertake a certain challenge, we should carefully consider if we are perhaps being misled by a deceptively imposing appearance, and the task is actually well within our capabilities.

Monday

          In the prophecy read as the haftara on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av, Yeshayahu bemoans the dreadful state of the Judean Kingdom, describing how “your land is desolate, your cities are burned down by fire; your land – foreigners are consuming it right in front of you…” (1:7).  Yeshayahu then proceeds to compare the city of Jerusalem to “suka be-kharem” – “a hut in a vineyard” (1:8). 

The Radak explains that just as the guard’s hut is a lone, small structure in the vast, open vineyard, Jerusalem likewise remained as virtually the only city in the kingdom.  According to the Radak, Yeshayahu here refers to the aftermath of the onslaught on Judea by the Assyrian kingdom, under its emperor, Sancheiriv, who captured all the fortified cities in Judea and then besieged Jerusalem, until the city was spared when God killed the Assyrian soldiers (Melakhim II, chapters 18-19).  Thus, Jerusalem resembled the watchman’s hut in a vineyard – a lone structure in a large, open expanse, as the rest of Judea’s cities had been turned to rubble and ash.

          Rashi, however, explains this verse not as a description of the kingdom’s current condition, but rather as a prediction of Jerusalem’s destruction.  According to Rashi, Yeshayahu here foresees that Jerusalem would become desolate and uninhabited – like the guard’s hut which is abandoned after the harvest.  Once there are no longer any grapes to guard, the watchman returns home, leaving the hut empty.  Yeshayahu warns that Jerusalem, too, would be desolate and abandoned.

          Rav Moshe Chaim Litsch-Rosenbaum, in Lechem Rav (Birchot Ha-shachar, 270), suggests an additional explanation for this comparison between Jerusalem and a watchman’s hut in an orchard.  A farmer constructs this hut not because this is where he, the watchman, or anyone else wishes to live, but solely for the purpose of protecting the produce.  The hut has no intrinsic worth; its value lay solely in the important role it serves to protect the fruit of the orchard.  Rav Litsch-Rosenbaum suggests that the prophet here condemns the people for treating the Beit Ha-mikdash the same way – as but a means to achieving prosperity.  Rather that looking to the Mikdash and the kohanim as a source of inspiration and guidance, as a place where they can encounter God and experience His presence, they instead saw it as a sort of “charm” through which to earn material success.  Indeed, throughout this prophecy, Yeshayahu excoriates the people for showing great passion for the offering of sacrifices while neglecting the most basic ethical norms, to the point where, as the prophet bemoans, “your hands are filled with blood” (1:15).  Benei Yisrael at this time were very enthusiastic about the Mikdash and the sacrifices – but only as a perceived means to attain wealth.  They viewed it as the watchman’s hut – something which they did not really want for its own sake, but rather for the utilitarian purpose of bringing them fortune.  Naturally, then, the experience of frequenting the Temple and offering sacrifices had no positive impact upon their behavior.  They viewed these pilgrimages as a “hut,” a way to maintain their wealth, and thus they did not seek guidance for living a life of Torah values and ideals. 

More broadly, perhaps, this analogy warns against turning religion into but a small, makeshift “hut,” something we do on the side, while focusing the bulk of our attention on the “vineyard” – our material aspirations.  Just as Yeshayahu bemoaned the people’s treating the magnificent Beit Ha-mikdash as a temporary, dilapidated shack, we are similarly warned that the Torah must always be made our highest priority and a matter of primary importance.  The “vineyard” – our material pursuits – must be seen as secondary to our Torah observance, and never be made into our highest priority. 

Tuesday

          The haftara read on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av is the opening chapter in Sefer Yeshayahu, in which the prophet condemns the Judean kingdom for its sinful conduct, primarily, the widespread crime and corruption that plagued the society.  Yeshayahu describes how the people prayed to God and offered an abundance of sacrifices, while committing serious crimes such as theft and murder, and how its leaders took bribes and ignored the plight of the poor and downtrodden.

          Amidst Yeshayahu’s censure of the people, he laments, “How did the faithful city become a harlot; righteousness had slept there, but they are now murderers!” (1:21).  Jerusalem had once been the model of a righteous, just society, to the point where it could be described as “hosting” righteousness, as the site where righteousness “slept” and found a home.  Alas, the society’s morals declined to the point where murder had become prevalent.

          Rashi offers a number of additional interpretations for the expression “tzedek yalin bah” – “righteousness had slept there.”  One explanation is that this refers to the practice of the courts to delay their decision when trying capital cases.  Rashi writes that when a court was unable to find a basis for acquittal to spare the defendant’s life, they would allow the case to “sleep” overnight; meaning, they would adjourn and then reconvene the next day, hoping that in the interim they would find a reason to acquit.  This is how far the leaders in Jerusalem would go to avoid taking a person’s life – even if a violator was seen committing a capital offense, and the judges who heard the testimony felt he should be convicted, they would delay their decision, in the hope of finding a reason to acquit.  The prophet laments that such a city has now been overrun by violent crime, plagued by sheer disregard for human life.

          According to this reading of the verse, one of the defining characteristics of Jerusalem, of the model society which we are to create, is working to view our fellow favorably, to avoid judgmentalism and an overly critical attitude.  A Torah society is one in which people – like the judges described by Rashi – actually struggle and take the time to find a reason to “acquit,” to view others positively, rather than rushing to criticize and condemn.  Just as the judges of Jerusalem patiently and diligently searched for a basis for acquittal, so must we work to come to the defense of our fellow Jews, to find their admirable and likeable qualities, so that “tzedek” will once again find a home within our communities, and we will once again set the gold standard of a just, moral, ethical, kind society.

Wednesday

          In the prophecy read as the haftara on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av, Yeshayahu laments the rampant corruption among the Judean Kingdom’s leadership, including the judges.  He accuses the leaders of “loving bribes” and “pursuing kickbacks,” and bemoans, “They do not judge the orphan, and the trial of a widow does not come before them” (1:23). 

Rashi explains that when orphan had a grievance against somebody who took advantage of him, the judges would ignore his cogent claims.  As the orphan returned home, disappointed, he would meet a widow, who would inquire about his hearing.  The orphan would inform her that his claims fell upon deaf ears.  The widow would then not even bother bringing her own grievances to the court, realizing that they would not help her.  And thus the prophet bemoans the judges’ failure to “judge the orphan,” to accept his legitimate claims against wealthy, powerful defendants, and that the widow’s trial “does not come before them” at all.

          Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, in Yesh Eim Mikra, suggests explaining on this basis the blessing of “Hashiva Shofeteinu” which we recite in the weekday Shemona Esrei prayer.  This blessing prays for the restoration of the Torah’s justice system: “Hashiva shofeteinu ke-va-rishona” – “Restore our judges like yesteryear.”  The text of this blessing is based upon God’s promise in this prophecy to eventually replace the corrupt judges of that time with honest, upright judges: “Ve-ashiva shofetayikh ke-va-rishona…” (1:26).  Immediately after making this request, we plead, “ve-haser mimenu yagon va-anacha” – that God eliminate our “yagon” and “anacha,” terms that denote anguish and torment.  Rav Sorotzkin suggests explaining this plea in light of Yeshayahu’s description of the helpless plight of the orphans and widows of his time.  A corrupt or otherwise ineffective justice system results in a great deal of “yagon” and “anacha.”  People are left without recourse, and must thus suffer the grief of victimization without any system in place to help them.

          This blessing continues by asking, “And You, O Lord, rule over us…with kindness and compassion…”  We might explain that after praying for a just legal system where grievances can be effectively addressed, we acknowledge that ultimately, our fate is determined by the Almighty.  Even in a state of “yagon va-anacha,” in times of anguish, when we feel we have nowhere to turn, we feel confident in God’s kindness and compassion.  Hence, while we pray for the return of righteous leaders and judges, we still place our faith in God, and rely on Him to provide us with the help and protection that our current leaders fail to provide.

Thursday

          We read in Parashat Devarim Moshe’s recounting of the sin of the spies, when Benei Yisrael wept upon hearing the spies’ frightening report about the powerful nations of Canaan.  Moshe recalls, “Va-teiragenu be-ohaleikhem” – how the people complained and protested in their tents (1:27).  Curiously, the people did not gather around Moshe to protest the plan to proceed into the Land of Israel, but rather complained at home, in their tents.

          Rav Nissan Hameiri, in Nitzanei Nissan, offers a creative theory to explain why these complaints were voiced at home, and not in front of Moshe.  The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 21:10) teaches that only the men of Benei Yisrael complained upon hearing the spies’ report; the women did not join their husbands in doubting God’s ability to lead the nation to victory over the Canaanites.  The Torah tells that “no man remained” from the generation of the sin of the spies (“ve-lo notar meihem ish” – Bamidbar 26:65), from which the Midrash infers that only the men perished in the wilderness, whereas the women did not commit this sin and thus remained alive.  Accordingly, Rav Hameiri suggests that when Moshe speaks of the men protesting “in their tents,” he means that they attempted to persuade their wives to join their campaign to oppose the plan to attempt conquering Eretz Yisrael.  Before confronting Moshe, they wanted to first garner the women’s support for their effort.  But the women, despite coming under enormous pressure from their husbands, refused to join the protest.  To their credit, they retained their firm belief in God’s promise to grant them the Land of Israel, and could not be convinced otherwise.  The refused to fall prey to their husbands’ attempt to frighten them and break their spirits, and remained fully confident in the guarantee they had received from the Almighty.

Friday

          In Parashat Devarim, Moshe recalls the time when he decided to appoint a network of judges.  He instructed the people to selected qualified candidates, “yeduim li-shivteikhem” – men who were well-known and well-reputed (1:13). 

Rashi comments that Moshe was telling the people, “If somebody comes before me wrapped in his cloak, I do not know who he is… But you know him, because you raised him…”  Moshe asked the people to bring him men whom they knew to be qualified for the position of judge, because otherwise, the person might come “wrapped in his cloak,” and Moshe would not know whether or not he is indeed eligible to serve as a judge.

          The Beit Yisrael (Rav Yisrael Alter of Ger), cited in Beit Yisrael Lehava, offered an allegorical reading of Rashi’s reference to a candidate coming before Moshe “wrapped in his cloak.”  He explains that Moshe viewed people favorably, from a positive perspective, constantly seeking to identify their fine qualities rather than finding fault.  When people came before him, they were in a sense, “wrapped in their cloak,” with their faults concealed, because Moshe looked to find only their positive traits.  When selecting public officials, however, it is imperative to assess candidates with a critical eye.  The responsibilities of leadership require some level of critical evaluation, to avoid the grave consequences of failed, corrupt leadership.  Therefore, Moshe insisted on appointing as judges only “yeduim li-shivteikhem,” those with a reputation for knowledge and integrity.  He did not want to rely on his own assessment, because he rarely found fault in others.

          The need for critical assessment when nominating or selecting public officials thus marks the exception, rather than the rule.  Normally, we are to follow Moshe’s example of favorable judgment, viewing our fellow positively, and refraining from criticism.  Rather than trying to find fault and looking for reasons to criticize, we should instead be trying to see all that is good in others and reasons to shower them with compliments and praise.

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