Despite Holy Intentions, Ego Can Get in the Way



DEVARIM, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

More than 3,000 years ago, Jewish youth stood on the precipice. Triumphant in battle, they were about to enter the long-promised Land of Israel, but their leader, the man handpicked by the Almighty to transmit the Torah, had ascended the mountain to bid them farewell.

Before them, across the Jordan River, lay fertile fields, towering peaks and plunging valleys. Behind them lay the travails of 40 years of wandering and the bodies of their forebears, who, according to some commentators, were in effect too righteous for the Holy Land: Having tasted the sweet nectar of pure and utter holiness, they wanted to remain in the total spirituality of the pillar of fire instead of crafting perfection with their own hands.

The children of those who departed in the wilderness have a lot on their shoulders.

And so Moses begins this week's Torah portion — and the entire Book of Deuteronomy — with his final speech. It's his chance to inspire the young generation before him and he chooses … to rebuke them.

He mentions all the places where the Jewish people sinned in the past: the desert, where hungry, they exclaimed that it would have been better to have died in Egypt; Hazeroth, where Korah led his rebellion; and Di-zahab, a name playing on the Hebrew word for "gold" and alluding to the Sin of the Golden Calf. He chastises them for the sin of the spies, who convinced the people to refuse to enter the Holy Land.

What is it about a righteous person's rebuke that makes it so meaningful? Is it owing to the messenger or the content of the message?

Rashi notes that, with the exception of the sin of the spies, Moses only alludes to the previous generation's sins. He hints at their shortcomings by only mentioning the places where they erred. Far from a smack in the face, Moses' rebuke is more of a gentle reminder not to repeat the sins of the past.

But you can't strike someone down without building him or her back up again. And so Moses goes on "to expound this Teaching." A better translation of the Hebrew words is that Moses began to "explain this Torah," which the Midrash Tanchuma says he accomplished by translating the Torah into 70 different languages.

Making Torah Accessible

A keen observer of the human condition, Moses knew that despite all of one's holy intentions, ego can easily get in the way. In time, the Jewish people would split up and be dispersed; many would forget the language of their forefathers. And so he saw the need to make sure that Torah would be accessible in the darkest corners of the earth.

The message he gave that generation — and every generation since, including our own — is that Torah, like the Holy Land, is meant to be grasped by the hands. It's meant to be internalized. Torah "is not in the heavens," Moses will say later, it's down on earth.

Judaism shuns asceticism. Its laws govern everything from tilling the soil to studying a text until it consumes you, until it becomes your own. In perfecting the world, you can't rely on the merit of those who came before you, and you can't rely on generations to follow. You have to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of News. Email him at: [email protected]


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