SALT: Parashat Devarim 2015/5775

  • Rav David Silverberg

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            The Midrash (Devarim Rabba 1), in introducing Sefer Devarim – which consists of several addresses delivered by Moshe to Benei Yisrael before his death, including some words of harsh criticism – comments: “If somebody else had reprimanded them, they would have said, ‘This person is reprimanding us?’  But Moshe, regarding whom it is written, ‘I did not seize even one donkey of theirs’ (Bamidbar 16:15) – he is worthy of reprimanding Israel.”

Moshe was deemed eligible for the role of tokhecha – reprimanding the people – because throughout his years as the nation’s leader, he never demanded compensation.  If somebody else had attempted to reprimand Benei Yisrael for the wrongs they committed, they would not have listened, and would have blithely dismissed the criticism.

            One of the vital prerequisites for effective criticism is unmistakable sincerity.  If a person assuming the role of critic or moral guide gives the impression that he fills this role for some personal gain, any words he speaks will fall upon deaf ears.  Had the people suspected Moshe of “seizing their donkeys,” of serving the role of leader for some kind of personal profit, they would not have accepted his criticism, and would have rather dismissed it as agenda-driven rhetoric spoken to advance his own, personal interests.  The same is true of criticism that comes across as intended for self-aggrandizement.  There is a certain degree of joy and satisfaction that we naturally receive from being in a position to criticize and point out other people’s mistakes.  It allows us to feel superior and accomplished, to overlook our own imperfections by drawing attention to other people’s faults.  If the listener senses any tinge of enjoyment on the speaker’s part, he will likely dismiss the words as an expression of arrogance and a self-serving attempt to feel superior.  It is only if the speaker genuinely seeks to help the listener grow and improve, and has no desire at all to assert or demonstrate superiority, that his words have a chance of effecting a change.

            This is what makes effective criticism so difficult – because very rarely are we able to rise above our innate desire to feel superior, and criticize with absolute sincerity.  The Midrash here teaches us that unless we can proclaim “lo chamor echad meihem nasati,” that we have no personal stake in the matter, and speak solely for the benefit of the person or people we address, we are best advised to remain silent, and leave the role of critic to the likes of Moshe Rabbeinu.


            The Midrash (cited by Abarbanel) comments that the word “devarim” (“words”) with which Sefer Devarim begins – “These are the words which Moshe spoke to all of Israel across the Jordan” – may be read as an allusion to a “devora” – bee.  The meaning of this allusion, the Midrash explains, is that just as a bee dies after it stings, similarly, Moshe died just after he concluded “stinging” Benei Yisrael.  Sefer Devarim consists of several discourses which Moshe presented to Benei Yisrael before his death, some of which included harsh condemnation for the  wrongs they committed over the course of their sojourn through the wilderness.  Once Moshe finished “stinging” the people with his occasionally harsh words, he left this world, and thus his addresses to the people are referred to as “devarim,” a term which alludes to a bee.

            Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, explains the Midrash’s comment to mean that Moshe felt pained when he criticized the people.  The fact that he, like a bee, died after “stinging” the people is symbolic of the fact that throughout the process he felt pained by having to reprimand the people whom he loved and cared for.

            The Midrash, then, conveys the message that words of criticism must be spoken with the utmost sensitivity and compassion.  Too often, when we need to criticize, we relish - to some extent – the opportunity to point out somebody else’s faults and present ourselves as superior.  We enjoy the role of moral guardian, which allows us to congratulate ourselves for being better than somebody else.  The Midrash teaches that when we need to “sting” a child, a student, or any other person, it must hurt.  We must recognize the shame and unease our words cause the other person, and, to whatever extent possible, try to feel the emotional pain that we are inflicting.


            The opening verse of Parashat Devarim lists the names of the places where Moshe addressed Benei Yisrael.  Rashi, citing Chazal, famously comments that these names are actually veiled allusions to the major sins committed by Benei Yisrael during their forty years journeying in the wilderness.  For example, “Mol Suf” refers to their angry complaints voiced at the sea (Yam Suf) when they were trapped by the pursuing Egyptian army; “Lavan” alludes to the people’s grumblings about the manna, which was colored white (“lavan”); and “Di Zahav” is a reference to the golden calf (eigel ha-zahav).  Rashi comments that these words of criticism spoken by Moshe are recorded in the form of subtle allusions out of consideration for kevodan shel Yisrael – the honor of Benei Yisrael.

            The Sefat Emet (5656) cites an insightful explanation of the Midrash’s comments from his grandfather, the Chiddushei Ha-Rim.  In Sefer Devarim, Moshe speaks to the generation that is poised to cross the Jordan River into Eretz Yisrael.  The sins which the Midrash says are alluded to in this verse were committed by the parents of this generation, which died in the wilderness because of the sin of the spies.  Seemingly, then, there was no reason at all for Moshe to mention these incidents, and certainly not to reprimand the current generation for these wrongs, which were committed by their parents.  The Chiddushei Ha-Rim explained that Chazal here are providing the reason for why Moshe mentioned these sins – because they are “alluded to” even in the current generation.  Meaning, these incidents left an impact that remained even in the younger generation, which had not yet completely corrected their parents’ mistakes.  Although they did not worship a golden calf, they were still plagued, to one extent or another, by pagan tendencies.  Although they did not protest at the Yam Suf, their faith was deficient.  This, the Chiddushei Ha-Rim explains, is what Chazal mean when they describe as Moshe as alluding to these sins – that these sins were still being repeated in some small measure, and therefore they needed to be addressed, even in the current generation.

            The Sefat Emet cites in this context the oft-quoted tradition that every generation in which the Beit Ha-mikdash is not rebuilt is guilty of causing its destruction.  We might not be guilty of the precise same wrongs committed by the Jews who lived at the time of the Temple’s destruction, but the fact that it remains in ruins testifies to our failure to completely correct those mistakes.  When we study and reflect upon the events that led up to the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash and our nation’s exile, we  must consider which elements of those generations’ mistakes continue to plague us today, and how we can best cure those ethical and spiritual ills so we can once again be worthy of having the divine presence in our midst with the rebuilding of the Mikdash.


            As we noted yesterday, Rashi, in his comments to the opening verse of Parashat Devarim, cites the Midrash’s interpretation of the verse as alluding to the various wrongs committed by Benei Yisrael during their sojourn through the wilderness.  Out of consideration for Benei Yisrael’s honor, the Midrash explains, Moshe’s censure of the people for these incidents is recorded through subtle allusions, in the form of names of places that hint to these events.  For example, when the verse says that Moshe spoke to the people in “Di Zahav,” it means that he reprimanded them for the sin of the golden calf (“eigel ha-zahav”).

            The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in his one of his published discourses, observed a common denominator between the names listed in this verse, which the Midrash understood as references to Benei Yisrael’s sins in the desert.  Namely, they all point to a factor which mitigates Benei Yisrael’s guilt.  For example, the first place listed is “Midbar” (“desert”), which the Midrash explains as referring to Benei Yisrael’s complaints over the lack of food before the manna began to fall.  This incident is referred to with the term “Midbar,” the Rebbe explained, because the people’s complaints become more understandable when we consider that they found themselves in a barren, infertile wasteland without any food, and thus panicked.  Likewise, the sin of Ba’al Pe’or is referred to with the term “Arava,” an abbreviated form of “Arvot Moav” (“the Plains of Moav”).  Benei Yisrael encountered the nation of Moav, which Chazal describe elsewhere as an especially promiscuous society.  This strong negative influence to which Benei Yisrael were subjected makes the sin considerably less severe, as they came under the lure of Moav which they failed to resist.  The people’s complaints about the manna are alluded to with the term “Lavan” (“white”), which speaks of its plain, bland appearance.  The manna was a miraculous source of sustenance, but when we consider that it was colorless and unexciting, and was given to the people day after day, we can understand their frustration and their cravings for culinary variety.  The final name listed in this verse is “Di Zahav,” which, as mentioned, alludes to the golden calf.  The Gemara comments in Masekhet Berakhot (32) that when Moshe defended Benei Yisrael before God after the sin of the calf, he noted that God was partially to blame, so-to-speak, for this tragedy, as He had showered the people with gold after the Exodus.  This newfound treasure is what led the nation astray and caused them to fashion an idol.  Thus, the term “Di Zahav” alludes not only to the sin of the golden calf itself, but also to the underlying cause which serves to mitigate the people’s guilt.  (The Rebbe notes how this point applies as well to the other names mentioned in this verse.)

            This insight reminds us that even when criticism is necessary, we must ensure to consider the broader context and view the incident in proper proportion.  Moshe understood that he needed to reprimand the people, but at the same time he made a point of acknowledging the complex range of factors that were at play.  Although Benei Yisrael acted wrongly in all these instances – negative pressures and influences do not justify wrongful conduct – nevertheless, it was important for Moshe to recognize and take note of the reasons why they acted as they did.  If a person on the receiving end of criticism feels that his position is not understood, that the critic does not see the entire picture or appreciate the kinds of challenges he had to overcome, he will not likely be receptive to the criticism.  Whenever we chastise, we must appreciate the broader context, make sure we fully understand the situation, and respect the difficult challenges faced by the individual which serves to mitigate his or her guilt.


            In Parashat Devarim, Moshe retells the story of cheit ha-meragelim – the sin of the scouts who frightened Benei Yisrael and warned that the nation could not defeat the powerful armies of Canaan.  The people wept and decided to return to Egypt, whereupon God decreed that the nation would perish in the wilderness, and only their children would enter Eretz Yisrael after forty years of wandering in the desert.  After Moshe informed the people of this decree, they suddenly changed their minds and decided they would proceed into Canaan and wage war: “You responded and said to me: We have sinned to the Lord our God!  We will go up and wage war, in accordance with everything the Lord our God has commanded us!” (1:41).  Moshe warned the people not to attempt to fight, as they stood no chance of victory without God’s assistance.  The people insisted, and they fell in battle.

            Many writers addressed the question of why the nation’s response did not qualify as valid repentance.  After all, they acknowledged their guilt – “We have sinned” – and sought to rectify their mistake by doing precisely what they had previously refused to do – courageously proceed to Canaan and take up arms against the Canaanite nations.  Why did God reject their repentance and allow them to be killed?


            The Imrei Shefer (cited in Rav Shemuel Alter’s Likutei Batar Likutei) suggests that the answer to this question lies in the fact that Benei Yisrael declared their confession to Moshe, and not to God.  As Moshe tells, “You responded and said to me: We have sinned…”  If the people were truly sincere, they would not have spoken only to Moshe; they would have turned to God and pleaded for forgiveness.  The fact that they made their confession only to Moshe indicates that their repentance was not genuine, and was rather a rash decision to shift gears without any internal process of remorse and change. 

We might suggest a comparison to another instance where somebody’s confession was ignored by God.  In Sefer Shemuel I (chapter 15), we read of the mistake made by King Shaul, who was commanded to annihilate the Amalekites as well as their possessions, but brought their animals back with him from war.  Shemuel approached Shaul just as he was celebrating his victory over Amalek, to reprimand him for failing to comply with God’s command.  After unsuccessfully trying to defend his decision, Shaul finally said to Shemuel, “I sinned, for I transgressed the word of the Lord and your words… And now, please forgive my sin, and return with me and I shall bow to the Lord” (Shemuel I 15:24-25).  Despite Shaul’s confession, Shemuel refused to join Shaul’s celebration, and God did not rescind His decree to terminate Shaul’s kingship.  Once again, Shaul voiced his confession to Shemuel, and not to God Himself, and it was rejected.

The Rambam, in the opening passage in Hilkhot Teshuva, defines the obligation of teshuva as requiring a sinner “to confess before God, may He be blessed.”  Confession must be made directly to the Almighty, and not to another person.  Interestingly enough, the verse cited by the Rambam as the source of the obligation of vidui (confession) makes no mention of this detail, and says simply, “Ve-hitvadu et chatatam asher asu” (“They shall confess the sin which they committed” – Bamidbar 5:7).  This might suggest that in the Rambam’s view, confession must, by definition, be directed toward God.  Acknowledging guilt to a third party cannot even be termed “confession.”  The entire concept of vidui is that one turns to God and speaks shamefully about his failure.  If one is truly sincere about his feelings of guilt, then he expresses them directly to God, not to intermediary, so that he experiences the shame that he should feel in the face of spiritual failure, and then humbly request forgiveness.  The Torah’s concept of repentance requires confession directly to God, and verbalizing vidui to somebody else falls short of the requirement of teshuva.


            In describing the events of cheit ha-meragelim (the sin of the scouts), Moshe tells Benei Yisrael in Parashat Devarim that when the spies returned from their tour of Canaan, they reported, “The land that the Lord our God is giving us is good” (1:25).  He then recalls, “And you refused to go up [to the land]…”  Curiously, Moshe omits the frightening report presented by the spies when they returned (as the Torah relates in Parashat Shelach), and states simply that they reported positively on the land’s properties – “the land…is good.”  He then immediately tells, “And you refused to go…”  The juxtaposition between these two verses suggests that Moshe here is saying, “Despite the scouts’ reporting on the good quality of the land, you nevertheless refused to go there.”

            The Imrei Shefer (cited in Rav Shemuel Alter’s Likutei Batar Likutei) suggests an insightful explanation (“al derekh derush”) of the juxtaposition between these verses.  The scouts reported, “The land that the Lord our God is giving us is good” – expressing satisfaction over the fact that they would be receiving the land.  They were enthusiastic about being given Eretz Yisrael, but they refused “to go up” – to take the measures necessary to obtain this special gift.  They wanted the land to come to them, not to have to go through the trouble of getting there. 

            This insight indeed captures the essence of cheit ha-meragelim.  The people acknowledged the benefits of living in the Promised Land, but they were frightened by the difficult process that would be entailed in taking possession of and settling it.  They were happy to receive this gift, but not to work toward obtaining it.

            One of the lessons of cheit ha-meragelim is that any important and meaningful achievement requires hard work and effort.  We cannot expect life’s blessings to be given to us without having to work to obtain them.  Like He did for our ancestors, God offers us many precious gifts in life, but, more often than not, we are called upon to work hard to get them.


            The haftara for Shabbat Chazon (the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av) is taken from the beginning of Sefer Yeshayahu, and in this prophecy God bemoans the nation’s excessive preoccupation with the offering of sacrifices.  The prophet exclaims, “Lama li rov zivcheikhem yomar Hashem” – “‘What do I need all your sacrifices for?’ says the Lord” (Yeshayahu 1:11).  As the prophet proceeds to describe, the society at the time was plagued by corruption and theft, with rampant lying, cheating and neglect of the underprivileged.  It seems that the people felt they did not have to act ethically as long as they offered sacrifices in the Temple, through which, they thought, they could earn God’s favor and grace.  God therefore proclaims that He has no interest in their sacrifices if their conduct outside the Temple runs in direct opposition to the most basic Jewish values and principles.

            Rav Azriel Kushelevsky, in his Ein Tzofim commentary to the haftarot, draws an analogy to somebody preparing a meat dish but does not know how to properly spice the food.  He might try compensating for his lack of skills by simply placing larger quantities of meat into the pot.  Clearly, however, this does nothing to solve the problem, as all the meat placed in the pot is flavorless.  A skilled chef, who knows the art of seasoning, can prepare a scrumptious meat meal with even modest amounts of meat, because he can add the perfect seasoning.  Similarly, Rav Kushelevsky writes, Chazal famously teach us, “Echad ha-marbeh ve-echad ha-mam’it u-vilvad she-yekhavein libo la-Shamayim” – whether a person gives a large sacrifice or a small sacrifice, the main thing is his noble intentions and sincere feelings.  If one brings a sacrifice with the proper “seasoning,” with genuine remorse for his wrongdoing and a sincere commitment to improve his conduct, then even a small sacrifice is meaningful and warmly accepted by God.   But if one is insincere, and has no intention at all to correct his behavior and grow, then there is no number of sacrifices which he can bring to compensate for the absence of “spices” – for his lack of sincerity.  And thus the prophet chastises the people for “rov zivcheikhem” – literally, “your abundance of sacrifices.”  The people brought large numbers of sacrifices thinking that this would offset their immorality and unethical conduct.  The prophet decries this practice, noting that an abundance of “meat” cannot possibly solve the problem of the absence of “flavor.”

            Yeshayahu’s prophecy warns us against the tendency to overemphasize one area of religious observance in an attempt to compensate for our shortcomings in, or neglect of, other areas.  “Rov zivcheikhem” – an “abundance” in one area does not absolve us of our guilt for being deficient in others.  We need to fulfill our obligations and meet our responsibilities in all aspects of Torah life, without feeling we can compensate for laxity in one aspect by paying special attention to other aspects.