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Torah Dialogue: Devarim

07/22/2020 02:16:06 PM


Rabbi Edward Davis

SHABBAT SHALOM. Today is 4 Av 5780, Shabbat Chazon, named after the special Haftorah for the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, which will be this Wednesday evening.

DEVARIM   Deuteronomy 1:1
Compiled by Rabbi Edward Davis

1. And Moshe spoke to “all of Israel” (1:1). This is the first message of Moshe Rabbeinu, when he is speaking to ALL of Israel. (Actually, I cannot even imagine how that occurred. One man speaking to 2,500,000 people without any electronic equipment.) The key element is that the people were completely united in listening to their leader. And his first message was to stay united. Make this a priority! When they arrived at Sinai 40 years before, they came as one person, completely united. This unity made them worthy of receiving the Torah (Vilna Gaon). When Moshe spoke now, he wished to reprove the people and admonish them. He spoke harshly to them. But when Moshe spoke to Hashem, it was always in a softer way (Berditchiver Rebbe). (I would take issue with the Rebbe’s remark. When leaving Pharaoh’s palace the first time, when Pharaoh got tougher on the Jews and said that they should get their own straw, Moshe was very strong in his language to Hashem. And Hashem reprimanded him for it.)

2. Moshe learned to reprimand the people right before he died from Yaakov Avinu (Rashi). But Yaakov addressed his sons on the actual day that he died. Moshe began speaking to the people five weeks before he died. Nonetheless we get the message. When a person is near death, he is definitely heard in a more serious fashion. There is no hidden agenda. There is no barrier in his approach to speak to his loved ones. And the line of communication is wide open. One Kol Nidre evening, I gave a “fire and brimstone” sermon to a packed crowd. They listened attentively to every word. I received big Yasher Ko’achs for my performance, but a clearer picture emerged when a congregant said to me “Rabbi, you really gave it to THEM.” I quickly realized that I had missed the target. I needed to tone down the message in order to get it across.

3. To admonish an audience, you also need standing. Once I asked a teenager to speak at Seudat Shlishit when he came home from attending an out-of-town Yeshiva. He gave Mussar, admonishing the audience, like he would hear from his rebbes at his Yeshiva. He missed the mark in a big way. I talked to him afterward. I told him that an adult audience would never be able to accept reproof from a sixteen year old teenager. When Moshe gave admonition to Bnei Yisrael, it was right after he killed Sichon and Og. Prior to these wars, Moshe was unable to speak to Bnei Yisrael in this authoritative fashion. But after killing the enemy, his relationship with the people changed radically. He was always the leader, the teacher, the Rebbe, but now he was the military warrior and victor. In this new status he gained the newfound admiration that was necessary in this new endeavor.

4. A judge is not permitted to show favoritism in court (11:17). Showing favoritism is a fine line of behavior. Once there was a Din Torah between two members of the Shul. The first congregant came into the court and took a seat. When the second congregant entered, he saw his opponent talking leisurely with one of the judges. This second congregant was disturbed at what he saw and quickly left the room in a rush. When I talked to him later, he said to me that he felt that the judge was a friend of his opponent.  I said that I see his point. A judge needs to be aloof from the plaintiff and from the defendant. The Talmud says that when the rivals appear in court, the judges should view each one as an evil person! This is not in opposition to the fact that each is innocent until proven guilty. It is a statement that prohibits a judge to even talk to either person before the proceedings begin.

5. And God heard the voice of their words (1:34). Hashem was listening to not only what the spies reported, but also their voice: how they communicated their report. In a written report there would be a deficiency in this matter. The spies had said that the Land was a good land. Immediately afterward they reported that the inhabitants of the Land were giants, and we were like grasshoppers in their eyes. And they had fortified cities. The words “the land was good” was not a convincing statement. The Torah was saying that this was recognizable in their voices (Rabbi Yitzchak Eliyahu Landa). (I was once in Israel when a lawyer called me from America and asked me if the judge could call me from his American courtroom and ask me some questions pertaining to the court case. Naturally I consented. The court called me the next day. The bailiff said “Rabbi, please raise your right hand.” I said yes, but didn’t raise my hand. I agreed to tell the truth. The judge asked me some questions, and I was dismissed. If my testimony was really important he never would have permitted it.)

6. When it comes to the Torah’s description of Og, we can hardly believe what we read: his bed was 9 cubits long. A cubit is the linear measurement that is defined by the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. And the Torah adds that it is “after the cubit of a man...” (3:11). This means that the length of a cubit was not uniform; it was determined by the size of that particular man. So we need to assume that Og’s bed exceeded 18 feet in length. Why does the Torah tell us this trivial information, however startling it is! It is to tell us that the victory that the Ammonites accomplished was only due to Hashem’s will. All the Rephaim were giants. (This is similar to the reasoning that some of the 19th century Rabbis concluded as to why Hashem allowed us to find the huge skeletons of dinosaurs. This is to tell us that there is no reason to understand how dinosaurs became extinct. It was solely due to the will of Hashem.)

7. “Yair ben Menasheh took (lands of Bashan)... and I (Hashem) gave the land of Gilad to Machir (the son of Menasheh)” (3:14,15). Why does it say that Yair took his land, but that Hashem gave Machir his land? The Rogachover Rebbe explained: The Talmud (Sanhedrin 44a) said that after the victory over Yericho, Bnei Yisrael attacked and lost the battle with the city of Ai. And they lost 36 men in that battle. The Talmud said that Yair was the only casualty, and Yair was worth the majority of the Sanhedrin (hence the number 36). These 2 1/2 tribes who settled east of the Jordan were required to lead the battle over Canaan. Yair died young and was unable to fulfill his vow. Hence he took that land before the war over Canaan was won. Machir, on the other hand, fought all the years of battle and earned his lands east of the Jordan. Hence it says Hashem gave Machir his land.


The majority of this haftorah portion is read in the tune of Eichah (Lamentations), depicting its close connection to Tisha B'Av and the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.  The prophet clearly depicts the nature of Israel's mission and its failure to fulfill the goals set for it.  Israel sinks to these depths and deserved to be destroyed.  This destruction will save Israel for an ultimate "return to Zion."  Using this text, one sees the true reason for a Tisha B'Av. The Jew does not mourn the Temple which was destroyed thousands of years ago.  The Jew mourns that the Temple had to be destroyed – we mourn the reason for its destruction.  Our minds are now set to the present time.  Have these causes disappeared?  Or do those reasons that existed then still exist today?  Is there observance to the Torah? Even among the Torah observant Jewish community, strong questions have to be addressed.  When an observant Jew today observes Shabbat and kashrut, prays daily, and gives charity, are these means for a Divine Service?  Does he perform in order to come closer to Hashem?  Or perhaps the means has become an end to itself.  And the observant Jew today is no closer to God than the non-observant Jew!  (Hirsch)

Wed, October 28 2020 10 Cheshvan 5781