Devarim (Deuteronomy) - Weekly Torah Portion
“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel across the Jordan” are the opening words of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of the bible and from which we will read from now and until Simchat Torah. The name of the book suggests that it is somewhat of a repeat of what has been said before, this times as a long speech delivered by Moses to the people. They are already ready to enter the Promised Land. He summarizes a period of national uprising, wandering in the wilderness, and the transformation of groups of people into a nation by providing them with unique rules and laws to for a social structure. He does not hesitate to talk about the difficulties, “I spoke to you, but you would not listen. Instead you rebelled against the command of the Lord, and acted presumptuously and went up into the hill country.” Referring to the golden calf incident. He is not afraid to mention the fears, “you were not willing to go up, but rebelled against the command of the Lord your God; and you grumbled in your tents and said, ‘Because the Lord hates us, He has brought us out of the land of Egypt to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites to destroy us. Where can we go up? Our brethren have made our hearts melt”, referring to the spies Moses send to visit tour the land. Moses does not fail to mention the consequences of not obeying the laws over and over again. “Then you returned and wept before the Lord; but the Lord did not listen to your voice nor give ear to you.”
In the Mishnah, Zeraim, Peah, chapter 1, the word דברים used as meaning “words” also means in Hebrew “things” and we find there that “the following are the things for which no definite quantity is prescribed: the corners [of the field], first fruits, [the offerings brought] on appearing [before the Lord at the three pilgrim festivals], the practice of lovingkindness, and the study of the Torah. The following are the things for which a person enjoys the fruits in this world while the principal remains in the world to come: the honoring of father and mother, the practice of charity, and the making of peace between a person and his friend; and the study of Torah is opposite all.” Words of Moses become things that are commentary and reference to everything that is said and demanded by Moses. These are all things that do not have a definitive size or measure but they can be sized or measured, but they are not fixed. It is possible to do more or less, give more or less, without departing from the spirit of the law. How big should a corner of a field be? How much of the first fruits should be brought? What is the expected extent of charity? Or for how many hours a day Torah studies should take? Each has its own quantity, or size, or measure, it is not fixed but cannot be avoided or voided for that matter.
There are things where we reap an immediate benefit from, enjoying their fruits. It can be the very pleasure of doing a good deed, or getting something else in return. Often the question is about the study of Torah – does it mean that we can abandon all in favor of resorting to only the study of Torah?! The answer is of course not, the meaning of “opposite all.” Is not instead but rather that our study of the Torah manifests itself in what we do. It is the practical demonstration of what we find in Joshua, chapter 1 verse 8, “you shall meditate on it day and night”. One cannot act properly without studying but it is meaningless to study without acting. They are there one opposite the other, supporting each other. Study and action, action and study.
As we approach the election day in Israel it seems that some have already lost their senses and have forgotten some of the words and things thought by Moses and our Elders. It has become almost normal to hear despicable language used against a political opponent, simply for being on opposite political sides. We must also admit that these positions may be transient and not before long switch sides. Politicians seem to have, unfortunately, gotten well accustomed to all of this. The problem is that many of the voters, the large majority, who will never sit on the luxurious chairs in the Knesset, adapts to this often violent and uncontrolled discourse. At times it seems that no debate can take place without one accusing the other with all of the world’s horrors.
It is therefore upon us, especially on this last day of The Three Weeks and before the ninth day of the month of Av, the fast of which postponed to Sunday because of the Shabbat, to remind ourselves of what is really important. In the words of the Mishnah, “making of peace between a person and his friend” as it is one of those things where “a person enjoys the fruits in this world while the principal remains in the world to come”. It is possible to ask questions about the afterlife world but my interpretation to this is the world that we leave behind us, the world of our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and thereafter. We enjoy the fruits and they are not deprived of anything because the principal is for them to enjoy once again for perpetuity.
By the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the 9th of Av fast, we will read yet again from Lamentations chapter 1 verse 1, “How lonely sits the city / That was full of people! / She has become like a widow / Who was once great among the nations! Who was once great among the nations! / She who was a princess among the provinces / Has become a forced laborer!”
Maybe if people then would have paid attention to the words and the things we would not be mourning this fate today, two thousand years later. It is the very reason that it is so important to take note of the ninth of Av, one way or another, as evidently the behavior of the group does impact the fate of every individual. Those who remember, those who study, and those who implement them in their lives can avoid falling again in that terrible trap as long as it is peace that is on our lips and within our hearts.
Reuven Marko, 9 August 2019, 9 Menachem-Av, 5779