"Across the Jordan... Opposite Suf"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Parashat DEVARIM


"Across the Jordan … Opposite Suf"

Adapted by Dov Karoll


These are the words Moshe addressed to all Israel across the Jordan, in the desert, in the Arava, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, Lavan and Chatzeirot and Di-Zahav. It is eleven days' journey from Chorev, by way of Mount Se'ir, to Kadesh Barnea. It came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Moshe addressed the children of Israel, in accordance with all the commandments that God had given him. (Devarim 1:1-3)

What is the reason for this lengthy description of place and time? Rashi and Onkelos explain that the place names are hints of rebuke for the Jewish people. Rashi adds that they are cast in hints rather than coming explicitly as rebuke, "out of respect accorded to Israel."

On the other hand, the Rashbam explains that the simple understanding of the first verse is that these are all place names. But why do we need this lengthy description? Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that this description comes to enable Jews of later generations to find exactly where Moshe's speech was, and to enable them to identify with Moshe Rabbenu and the speech.

The more that every word of these last speeches … bears the stamp of the depth of feeling with which his heart clung to his people and their future happiness, the more the deep longing is expressed therein to give his whole spirit and soul to his people for the future so full of trials and tests which awaited them, and the less this spot in the wilderness is recognizable by any special characteristics of its own, all the more is the wish understandable to keep it in memory by the knowledge of its exact location….

We may ask a second question regarding these verses. Based on a midrash (Tanchuma Devarim 2), Rashi explains the phrase, "Moshe began to expound the Torah" (verse 5), as teaching us that Moshe expounded the Torah in seventy languages. What is the meaning of this midrash, and why does Rashi choose to bring it here? The idea is that the Torah is applicable to every language, to every different society. Applying this principle, the midrash and Rashi explain that in this sense, it is considered as if Moshe himself translated the Torah to be applied everywhere.

This idea is crystallized by the Rambam. In his ninth principle of faith (in the introduction to the last chapter of Sanhedrin in his Mishna Commentary), the Rambam explains that the Torah will never be replaced or exchanged. Similarly, in Hilkhot Melakhim 11:3 (in the uncensored edition) he declares: "The laws of the Torah will not ever change, and we neither add to them nor detract from them. Anyone who does so, or who changes mitzvot from their original meaning, is a wicked person and a heretic." In other words, the Torah needs to be applied to every generation and is not to be supplanted.


Beyond that, the Torah also needs to be applied to the precise circumstances in which one finds oneself. The Torah needs to be translated into the language of the particular culture where one is. It is for this reason that the Torah cites the exact time and place. Where exactly did Moshe deliver his message? "In the desert, in the Arava, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, Lavan and Chatzeirot and Di-zahav." When did he give this message? "In the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month." The application needs to be precise, to fit the audience one addresses as well as possible.

To conclude, in fulfilling the mitzvot, we also need to bear in mind the Rambam's advice (Hilkhot Shechita 14:16) regarding kissui ha-dam, the mitzva of covering the blood of a slaughtered animal:

When a person covers the blood, he should not cover it with his feet, but instead with his hands, a knife or a utensil, so that he will not treat it with disdain, and regard the mitzvot with scorn. For the honor accorded to the mitzvot is not for the mitzvot themselves. Rather, the honor is for He who commanded us to observe them, and thus saved us from groping in the darkness, and granted us a lamp to straighten crooked paths and a light to illumine the upright ways. And this is what the verse states, "Your words are a lamp to my feet and a light for my ways" (Tehillim 119:105).

[This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Devarim 5762 (2002).]



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