Sunday, July 15, 2007

Parshat Devarim (Rabbi Sedley)

"These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel ..." (Deuteronomy 1; 1). In the last few days of his life Moshe gathered the entire nation and spoke to them. Rashi and Onkelos explain that all of the place names in the opening verse are references to sins that the nation had committed. Moshe was chastising the people before his death, reminding them of their past iniquities, and the punishments that they suffered as a consequence. The Torah stresses that everyone gathered to hear his final words. For Moshe to speak to the entire assembled nation, of more than 600,000 men, as well as women and children, without a microphone or PA system was clearly miraculous. Since G-d only performs open miracles when absolutely necessary, why was this event worthy of such a miracle?
The Talmud (Eruvin 54b) lists the order in which Moshe explained the laws of the Torah to the nation. Moshe heard the commandments from G-d, then called Aharon to him, and repeated them to him. Aharon then stood to the left of Moshe, Aharon's sons entered, and Moshe repeated the Torah to them and Aharon. Aharon's sons moved to the side, the elders of the community entered, and Moshe again taught the Torah to all of them. The elders moved to the side, and Moshe repeated the laws again to the rest of the people. Then Moshe left, and Aharon repeated the commandments he had just heard from Moshe. After he left his sons repeated it, then the elders told it to the others. Finally everyone left and taught the laws to the rest of the nation. Thus each person heard the laws four times, and taught it at least once. Why was this system not also sufficient for the rebuke which Moshe delivered?
Rashi (ibid.) answers that had Moshe only rebuked some of the people directly, those who were not present would have said, "You heard all that from Moshe and didn't answer him back? You should have excused our behaviour in such and such a manner. If we had been there we would have justified ourselves." Therefore Moshe gathered everyone and said to them: "You are all here. If anyone has excuses for these sins, let them speak now."
Amongst the sins to which Moshe alluded as he reprimanded the nation were the building of the Golden Calf, and the incident of the spies. These are sins for which that generation suffered, and that we are still suffering the consequences to this day. Our mourning on Tisha B'Av is as much for the rebellion of the nation who refused to enter the Land of Israel, as it is for the destruction of the Temple, which was also decreed at that time. How could there be any excuse for crimes for which the verdict is so clearly 'guilty'?
Actually, Moshe himself found excuses for the nation, which prevented them from total and immediate destruction. He prayed to G-d after the Golden Calf, and said that the reason they had been tempted to build an idol was because of all the gold that G-d had given them as they left Egypt. The consequence of sudden prosperity is rebellion against G-d, as the verse states: Jeshurun (Israel) became fat and kicked and deserted G-d ..." (Deuteronomy 32; 15). Thus when Moshe alludes to that sin in this week's Torah reading, he calls it Di Zahav (overabundance of gold).
According to Rashi, Moshe alludes to the incident of the spies through the place name Paran. Perhaps this word also hints to the nation's possible excuse. The Talmud (Shabbat 89b) explains that Paran is another name for Mount Sinai, because there they multiplied and became great ('Paran' is related to 'Puru' meaning increase). The main reason that the people did not want to enter Israel is so that they could remain with Moshe in the desert, learn gin Torah directly from him, and thus becoming a spiritually great nation. After the tremendous 'highs' of Sinai, G-d could not expect them to give up that lifestyle and enter Israel.
This is why Moshe assembled the entire nation. He knew as well as they did that any behaviour can be justified with an excuse. However, an excuse is not a valid reason for escaping the consequences. The people knew that their actions were wrong. Had Moshe not rebuked them all at once, some would have deluded themselves that they were justified in their sins. This is worse than the sin itself, because this allows a person to continue to sin with impunity. The Talmud (Eruvin 19a) states that anyone who falls for the excuses of the evil inclination will fall into Gehinom. Therefore, Moshe gathered everybody together, and reminded them of their sins, and showed them the feebleness of their excuses, so that nobody would be able to come later and justify their sins.

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