1. Utilizing our Gifts Properly
At the beginning of Devarim, Moshe Rabbeinu recounts several locations
where the Jewish people had traveled - "Arabah, opposite the Sea of Reeds
between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahav....."
Rashi cites Chazal that Reb. Yochanan researched all of the verses in the
Torah and was unable to find the locations mentioned. Rather, the
references that are delineated by Moshe are allusions to various failings
of the Jewish people from the time of the Exodus until the present. One
of the references mentioned by Moshe is "Di-zahav (enough gold)," which
Rashi explains was in fact a rebuke to the Jews for failing with the
Golden Calf. Rashi cites the Midrash explaining that what Moshe actually
said to the Jews was that it was because of the Gold that the Jews failed
with the Golden Calf. As it is stated in the verse "I (Hashem) gave them
(the Jews) an abundance of Gold and Silver and they went and worshipped
The Gemara in Tractate Avodah Zarah tells us that there were two spiritual
failings, one on a communal level and one on an individual level. The
individual failing that the Gemara refers to is that of Dovid HaMelech
(King David) who asked G-d to test him. Although Dovid had totally negated
his Evil Inclination he wanted to be challenged with temptation in order
to overcome it. He was presented with the temptation of Batsheva (as it
is stated in Prophets) and he failed. The example of the communal failing
was that the Jewish people failed with the Golden Calf although they were
at the pinnacle of their spirituality. Logically the latter should not
have taken place given the spiritual level of the people at that moment.
How was it possible that after hearing and experiencing G-d as such a
reality, that the Jewish people could succumb to the Sin of the Golden
Calf. The answer is that despite their most advanced level of clarity,
Hashem allowed them to experience a degree of uncertainty regarding
their belief in His Omnipotent Power. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah) explains
that creating the setting for the failings of Dovid with Batsheva and the
Jewish people with the Golden Calf at Sinai was necessary. These
instances set an example for future generations to understand that
regardless of the degree of spiritual failing, on an individual or
communal level, if one is sincere and does teshuvah (repents) he will be
The Gemara in Tractate Berachos tells us that after the Golden Calf when G-
d wanted to destroy the Jewish people, Moshe Rabbeinu came to their
defense by saying "Di-zahav." This means that the Jews cannot be fully
faulted for the Sin of the Golden Calf and Hashem is partially
responsible. The Gemara compares Hashem's giving of the over abundance of
wealth which the Jews possessed at that particular time, to a father who
dresses his son in the finest clothing, provides him with perfume which
omits the most beautiful fragrance, places a purse of gold around his neck
and tells him to pass by the entrance of the brothel and not to enter. Is
it possible in that context for the son not to succumb to temptation and
enter into the brothel? Identically, Hashem who had given the Jews so
much wealth facilitated the state of mind for the Jews to be enticed by
the Golden Calf. As a result of Moshe's defense, Hashem agreed not to
eliminate the Jewish people.
It is interesting to note that the same words that Moshe used as a point
of rebuke, "Di-zahav," when he redressed the Jewish people, were the same
words that he used forty years earlier to defend the Jewish people. How do
we understand this?
The answer is that both interpretations of "Di-zahav" are valid. Being
given this level of overwhelming wealth is like walking a tightrope. On
one hand this gift of G-d was meant to be used for the building of the
Mishkan where an enormous amount of gold was needed. Being given so much
gold enabled the Jews to contribute to the building of the Mishkan without
great difficulty. However, simultaneously, there is a possibility that by
receiving such an abundance of wealth, the Jews could lose focus by
becoming intoxicated by all of this material. However, if one is given so
much blessing to facilitate his service of Hashem without great
difficulty, how does he use that blessing to bring about such failure? On
the other hand, that particular setting which Hashem created for the Jews
is the equivalent of putting one's son before a brothel.
The Talmud tells us in Tractate Megillah that Hashem always provides the
remedy even before the ailment takes place. As a result of providing this
over abundance of wealth for the Jews, Moshe had a basis of defense to
avert the destruction of the Jewish people.
Every person has his own test. The wealthy person's trials and
tribulations are different than the less fortunate person. The Klal
Yisroel had the choice to utilize the blessing in the service of Hashem
and the building of the Mishkan, or invest it in an enterprise that was
the antithesis of the Will of Hashem. The gift of genius can be used to
justify anything that a person chooses to justify. Or it can be used to
advance himself and the world around him.
2. What Causes One to be Appreciative and Introspective?
The Portion begins, "Ayleh HaDevarim...(These are the words of
Moshe...)." The Commentators explain that the word "Ayleh" has the
numerical value of thirty-six indicating that these were the last thirty-
six days of Moshe's life. During his last days, Moshe admonished the
Jewish people. Rashi cites Chazal that there are four reasons why a
person should only give mussar close to the time of his passing. One of
the reasons given for this is so the rebuke will not be repeated more than
Admonishment is no longer effective when repeated even if it is at the
time of the rebuker's passing. This is because the recipient would
say, "That is something I have heard before." People value and process
new information with more attentiveness than information which they
believe they already know. It is because of this that Moshe only gave
mussar to Klal Yisroel at the very end of his life.
The Torah relates to us that when Moshe told the Jewish people that they
needed to go to war with Midian, they resisted his request because they
knew that after the destruction of the Midianite people, Moshe was meant
to pass away. Rashi cites the Midrash, which states that we see from this
how beloved are the leaders of the Jewish people. When it became evident
to them that the passing of Moshe was imminent, they gained a new found
appreciation for him. A person only realizes how special something is when
he is about to lose it. Although over the forty-year period the Jews were
contentious with Moshe and many times behaved in a disrespectful manner,
they now understood that his days were numbered and therefore saw him in a
different light. Because of the special appreciation which the Jews had
for Moshe at this moment they were more attentive to his words of mussar.
Thus they were affected to a greater degree.
The Talmud tells us in Tractate Taanis that the three special gifts
(continuous flow of water from the wellspring, the Clouds of Glory, and
the Mann) that the Jews benefited from in their fortieth year in the
desert were in the merit of Moshe. Because of their reality the Jews
understood that when Moshe passed away their existence would be in
question. Therefore at that moment they were more attentive and receptive
to the words of Moshe.
Chazal explain that the Matriarchs (Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah) were
barren because Hashem desires the fervent prayers of the devoutly pious
(tzadikim). Even the greatest tzadikim, who are devout and righteous, pray
to G-d differently when they have that sense of need. Whatever we have is
continuously Willed by Hashem. Therefore if a person realized that his
present situation is not guaranteed and that at any moment it could
change, then he would be beholden and indebted to Hashem. The question
is - how can we put ourselves in a mindset that will allow us not to take
things that we have for granted? Unfortunately, it is only when we are in
need that we become appreciative and understand the value of what we had
just as the Klal Yisroel became attentive and appreciative of Moshe
Rabbeinu at the point they were going to lose him.
We must ask ourselves - "Do we have more abundance in our lives than
previous generations because of our worthiness? Are we more worthy then
they were?" Clearly, this is not the case. Hashem has His reasons for
providing us with such bounty, which is not based on our merit. The moment
we realize that the blessing we receive from Hashem is not due to us but
rather because of his Beneficence, then we would realize that the
affluence that our society experiences is not forever. Only then would we
become appreciative and beholden to Hashem for his Kindness.
As it is stated in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers) that a person
should do teshuvah on the last day of his life. Meaning, we should live
every day as if it were the last because then we would realize how
precious and ephemeral life truly is.
3. The Importance of Proper Judgment
In the Portion of Devarim, Moshe announces to the Jewish people that he
will be appointing judges to assist him in adjudicating their issues. He
said, "I cannot carry you alone. Hashem, your G-d, has multiplied you and
behold!...Provide for yourselves distinguished men, who are wise,
understanding, and well known to your tribes, and I shall appoint them as
your heads." Rashi cites Chazal who asks, "Is it possible that Moshe was
unable to adjudicate the issues of the Jewish people alone? He was the
one who took the Jews out of Egypt, Split the Sea on their behalf, and
provided them with the Mann and the sluv (quail) in the desert." Meaning
that Moshe had demonstrated that he was a person of unlimited abilities
and was able to function in a capacity that was beyond the norm.
Chazal tell us that the reason why Moshe appointed judges to assist him in
the adjudication of the Jewish people was because he wished to share the
awesome responsibility with other qualified individuals. It was not
because it was beyond his ability, but rather because "Hashem holds the
judge responsible to give the proper judgment." Shlomo HaMelech (King
Solomon), the wisest man to ever live says, "Hashem, who could judge your
people who are so difficult." Chazal explain that a Jewish judge is
different from a non-Jewish judge because if the latter is corrupt it does
not have serious ramifications. However, if a Jewish judge renders a
corrupt decision, then Hashem says he will take his life. The standard to
which the Jewish judge is held is far beyond that of the non-Jewish judge.
The question is why is the corrupt behavior of the Jewish judge so much
graver than that of his non-Jewish counterpart?
Chazal state," If there is justice below, there is no need for justice
from above. However if there is no justice below, then there will be
justice from above." Meaning, that if there is human justice issued by the
Court, then there is no need for Divine Justice. However, if the human
court does not render proper decisions, then there will be Divine Justice.
Rashi in his commentary at the beginning of Sefer Bereishis cites the
Midrash which says that Hashem wanted to create the world with the
Attribute of Justice. As it is stated in the Torah, "Bereishis bara Elokim
(In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth)." However G-d
recognized that the world could not survive the scrutiny of the Attribute
of Justice because it is an exacting level of continuous judgment.
Therefore He synthesized the Attributes of Rachamim (Mercy) and Justice
and thus established the Attribute of Mercy.
Although the world cannot survive the exactness of Divine Justice, it is a
necessity for existence because there must be accountability to maintain
order. Therefore Hashem communicated to Man that every society must have a
judicial system. If human justice is meted out by the earthly court, there
is no need for G-d to introduce His Divine Justice. However, if humankind
fails and becomes corrupt, then G-d is forced to institute His Justice to
With this principle we are able to understand the Gemara in Tractate
Sanhedrin, which states, " A person who renders a truthful judgment is a
partner with Hashem in the act of Creation. However if one renders a
corrupt decision G-d says - I will take your life." The question is - why
is the judge who renders a truthful decision considered G-d's "partner" in
creation? The answer is - if the court metes out proper Justice, then G-d
says "Since Justice is being implemented on the human level there is no
need for Divine Justice to be instituted." However if the converse is
true, G-d's Justice is activated and brings about holocaust and
destruction. Therefore, the judge who renders the proper and truthful
judgment is in fact maintaining the existence of the universe. G-d
considers this judge His partner in creation. Conversely, if he is
corrupt and deviates from Justice as much as an iota, he deserves to have
his life taken because (as slight as the deviation may be) he has
disrupted and undermined human justice - thus causing great hardship and
suffering for mankind through Divine Justice.
At the time of Sinai when G-d took the Jews as his people, they became
responsible for the existence of the universe. The world's ongoing
function is determined by the spirituality of the Jewish people. This is
why the Jewish people are held to a higher standard. For the same reason,
the Jewish judge who is responsible to maintain the standard of judgment
and accountability of the world is culpable if he compromises on the
standard of justice. This is what Moshe meant when he said, "It is too
difficult for me to carry this burden." He referred to the difficulty of
having sole responsibility of maintaining justice. Therefore he wanted
other qualified judges to be appointed to share in this responsibility.
There is a Positive Commandment that is incumbent on every Jew to judge
his fellow properly by giving him the benefit of the doubt. If a Jew does
not do this in cases where his fellow's actions are questionable, he is in
violation of this Positive Commandment. From this we see that the
obligation of rendering proper judgment has relevance even outside of the
judicial system. If Jews judge one another positively, then this is
considered proper Justice on a human level and there is no need for Divine
Justice. Consequently, mankind is a beneficiary of the Mercy of Hashem.
On the other hand if we do not judge our fellow properly, this is
considered a breach of Justice and then G-d forbid, it can bring about
4. To See or not to See - That is the Question!
The Torah tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu said to the Jewish people, "Re'eh
nasati lifnaychem ha'aretz (You should see, I have given before you the
land.)" It is important to note that the word "Re'eh (see)" is written in
the singular whereas the word "lifnaychem (before you)" is in the plural.
The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh asks - why is the word "Re'eh (see)" singular
while "lifnaychem (before you)" is plural? The Ohr HaChaim answers that if
multiple people are able to accurately "see" the same thing they will all
see it as the same object or event. However, understanding the
significance of what is being seen is based on each individual. We all
see the sun rising and we see its light; however, do we truly understand
and appreciate its significance? Each person understands this at his own
level. This is why "Re'eh" is singular and "lifnaychem" is plural.
It says in the Gemara Tractate Taanis,"When the month of Av enters one
should diminish his engagement in joy," because it is a month of tragedy
for the Jewish people. The greatest tragedies that ever befell the Jewish
people occurred during the month of Av. The Mishnah tells us that five of
the greatest tragedies in the history of the Jewish people occurred on the
ninth day of Av (Tisha B'Av). The First and Second Temple were destroyed
on the ninth day of Av.
The day of Tisha B'Av is devoted to grieving over the destruction of the
Bais HaMikdash and reflecting on the cause of its destruction. Through
introspection one hopefully will come to a level of realization that will
cause him to correct the spiritual deficiency that brought about its
destruction. The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that any generation in which
the Temple is not rebuilt, it is considered as if it was destroyed. This
means that each generation has the ability to correct the wrong which
brought about its destruction. If they do not make the correction, it is
considered that the Temple was destroyed in that generation.
Although many people acknowledge the ninth of Av as a day of tragedy, each
person has his own level of understanding of the true nature of the day.
Some may even say," True it is unfortunate that we do not have the Temple,
but thank G-d my family is doing quite well." If one would truly
appreciate and internalize the tragedy of Tisha B'Av, one could not feel
complete without having the Bais HaMikdash restored - regardless of one's
success and tranquility in life.
We may all be aware of not having the Bais HaMikdash and living in exile;
however, the actual comprehension of this tragedy is very individualized -
depending on one's perspective. The Mishna Brurah states that if a child
is too young to appreciate or understand what it means to mourn over the
loss of Jerusalem, then the parent has no obligation to condition the
child in the observance of Tisha B'Av (chinuch). If we today would have
Jerusalem under our own control and the Jews in Israel living in relative
peace with their Arab neighbors - how would one understand and relate to
the meaning of the mourning of the Bais HaMikdash and Jerusalem?
We find in the introduction to Midrash Eichah that when Titus (the Roman
Emperor) destroyed the Bais HaMikdash he prided himself that he destroyed
G-d's Temple. The Midrash tells us that when Titus was gloating over his
victory, Hashem said to him, "You fool! The only reason you were able to
destroy Temple was because My Presence left the Temple Mount. You were
only destroying stones and wood. It is the equivalent of grinding flour
that has already been ground." Meaning, that when the Divine Presence had
departed from the Temple Mount, the Temple itself was the equivalent of a
pile of stones and dirt. It is only the person who values his
relationship with Hashem who could truly appreciate and understand the
meaning of not having the Bais HaMikdash.
Dovid HaMelech (King David) in Psalms says, "Who could utter the strength
of Hashem to be able to enunciate all of His praise?" The Maharal of
Prague explains in the introduction to his work Gevuras Hashem what Dovid
is saying. Firstly, it is impossible to fully appreciate or understand (in
the quantitative sense) the strength of Hashem because there is so much
existence of which we are not aware. Even that which we are aware of, we
truly do not comprehend fully enough in order to enunciate the praise of
Hashem. Our perspective and understanding is so limited that we are out
of touch with most of existence. We see the ocean, but do we know what is
contained in its depth? We look up to the heavens and we see stars but do
we even begin to fathom the universe? The Mahral explains that there are
many things that we do not see and even the things we do see we do not
understand. If we "see" an apple, do we appreciate the genius in its
creation or the Godliness that is its essence?
This is why Moshe said to the Jewish people "Re'eh (see)" in the singular
and "lifnaychem (before you)" in the plural. We all "see" the same world
but we all understand it based on our individual capacity. The question
is how do we increase our capacity and develop a way to understand the
world in a more profound and meaningful manner. King Solomon says in
Mishlei, "Ner mitzvah v'Torah ohr (the mitzvah is the material which
provides the fuel and the Torah is the light)" meaning the study of Torah
gives one the depth and breadth of understanding to be able to appreciate
existence. The Torah itself illuminates and elucidates. If a person's life
is devoid of Torah study, then although he may be performing the mitzvos,
he is lacking in understanding of many things because he does not have the
Torah to shed light on his existence.
5. The Incalculable Value of a Mitzvah
The Torah states that Moshe addressed Klal Yisroel by saying," We turned
and ascended by way of the Bashan, and Og king of Bashan went out toward
us, he and his entire people, for war at Edrei. Hashem said to me: Do not
fear him, for in your hand have I given him and his entire people and his
land..." Moshe, because of his faith in Hashem feared nothing. When he
went to war against Sihon (also a giant), the son of Og, the Torah does
not say that Hashem told Moshe not to fear him. However, when Moshe was
to confront Og, Hashem assured Moshe with the words "Do not fear him."
This indicated that in this case Moshe had to be reassured. Why was Moshe
Rashi cites Chazal that the reason why Moshe was concerned about Og was
because he had a special merit. He earned this for doing a kindness with
Avraham Avinu (our Patriarch) hundreds of years prior to this moment. The
Torah tells us in Sefer Bereishis (Book of Genesis) that when the Four
mightiest Kings defeated the Five Kings, they took Lot, the nephew of
Avraham, captive. Og, who narrowly escaped the battle with the Four kings,
went to Avraham to inform him that his nephew had been taken captive. Upon
hearing the information from Og, Avraham immediately gathered an army of
318 men to rescue Lot. Chazal tell us that in fact 318 is the numerical
value of the name Eliezer, who was Avraham's servant. Meaning Avraham only
needed to take Eliezer into battle with him. Miraculously, Avraham
defeated the Four mighty Kings and rescued his nephew Lot. Since Og
provided the information to Avraham (which facilitated Lot's rescue), he
was rewarded with longevity and lived until the time of Moshe Rabbeinu.
Chazal tell us that Og's true intention was that Avraham should go into
battle and be killed so that he could take Sarah (our Matriarch) as his
wife. Og believed that because Avraham was a zealot that he would
immediately go into battle to save his nephew regardless of the danger,
ultimately causing his death. We see that regardless of Og's sinister
intent to have Avraham killed, the Torah tells us that his act of chesed
must be rewarded. Og remained alive for an additional 500 years because of
this merit. So when Moshe had to confront him, he was concerned that his
merit for the chesed (kindness) provided for Avraham was still in effect.
Hashem therefore reassured Moshe, "Do not fear him" because that merit no
We learn from this that despite the degree of deficiency in the
performance of a mitzvah it nevertheless has value. If someone benefits
from another's actions, there is merit in that action regardless of the
intent behind it. A mitzvah has incalculable value and this is the reason
why Mishnah Pirkei Avos tells us that we should even pursue the mitzvos
that seem to be of lesser importance.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Yosef Kalatsky and Torah.org.
Rabbi Kalatsky is the founder of the Yad Avraham Institute, a New York-based learning center whose mission is to disseminate Torah to Jews of all backgrounds and walks of life.