Parshas Va’eschanan – The gift of being human

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BY: Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld

Moshe gives over the עשרת הדברות this week as part of his farewell speech, and although they only take up a few פסוקים, I think the entire פרשהis riddled with hints of a message that the עשרת הדברות are supposed to teach us.

In a פרשה full of inspirational recounts of what happened at הר סיני and how we are a special and chosen nation, there are two specifically dark pieces of texts. First, in middle of warning the people not to sin in the land we hear foreboding words, words that we just read on Tisha B’av. כי תוליד בנים ובני בנים ונושנתם בארץ והשחתם, when you have children [in the land] and you will be in the land a long time and you become corrupt. This is not a warning, Moshe is prophesizing here of what will happen. There is no השמר or פן here which would indicate that this is merely a warning, rather this is news of what will be in the future. But the ending is more encouraging, ובקשתם משם את יה-וה אלהיך ומצאת כי תדרשנו בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך, you will search from there for Hashem your God and you will find Him because you searched with all your heart and all your soul. But even with the nice ending, why would Moshe give such a bad report in the first place? Even if it will certainly happen, what would it help for them to know now? And, the language of בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך tells us that searching is not enough, you need to search with your whole heart and whole soul.

Second, we hear Moshe’s commandment to set aside 3 ערי מקלט on the east side of the Jordan river. This commandment was given after we defeated סיחון and עוג, which happened in פרשת חקת. So technically the details of these 3 cities could have been discussed anywhere from חקתuntil the end of דברים. And what’s makes the details of ערי מקלט here so much more perplexing, is that Hashem tells Moshe the הלכות of unintentional murderers in פרשת מסעי, so the perfect place for this piece of text from our פרשה would have been right there in מסעי! Why is it sandwiched in this week’s parsha in between all this talk of getting the Torah? And further, the story of the ערי מקלט isn’t great. The specific act in the story was done without intention but the גמרא tells us that the characters in this story weren’t the best of people. Both of them have murdered previously, one intentionally and one unintentionally, and both either ran away or were not able to be charged by a court of law.

So, we have 2 pieces of text which openly discuss sinners in middle of the פרשה of the עשרת הדברות. What could this mean for us? To answer I’d like to share a fairly well known גמרא from מסכת שבת.

The גמרא tells the story of what happened when Moshe went up to שמים to get the Torah. The angels were furious! “what is this human – born from woman – doing among us?” they cried. Hashem tells them that he has come to accept the Torah, they contest the idea of sending the Torah down to Earth, and Hashem tells Moshe to answer them as to why humans deserve to have the Torah. Moshe, using the עשרת הדברות, shows how the Torah is meant for those with a yetzer hara. He asked the מלאכים, do you have any temptations to serve idols? To honor your parents? To kill? To adulterate? To kidnap? Obviously, the Torah can only be for humans, and the מלאכים agree with his statement. As an aside, this is what חז”ל mean when they say לא ניתנה תורה למלאכי השרת. It means that the Torah was specifically not given to angels, rather to humans that struggle with right and wrong.

I think this is the deepest and most transformative message that we can know about the Torah. To know that Hashem and the Torah embrace the fact that we have a yetzer hara. That we are in a war with our יצר הרע and that even victorious wars have lost battles. Hashem loves us, and he loves our mistakes, because that gives us the opportunity to come back from it. I think therefore the stories of future generations straying and the ערי מקלט are in this פרשה. To show us that mistakes happen, and people go astray. But when we search for Hashem with all our heart and all our soul, i.e. with both our yetzer hara and our yetzer tov, that is where the magic happens and where we connect to the point of the עשרת הדברות.

I think this also explains a contradiction in what Moshe says regarding our Sinai experience. First, he says השמר לך … פן תשכח את הדברים אשר ראו עיניך, be careful lest you forget that which your eyes saw [at Sinai]. Then he says, ונשמרתם מאד לנפשתיכם כי לא ראיתם כל תמונה, be very careful with your soul since you did not see any picture. And earlier he also says, God spoke to you, a Voice of words you heard but you did not see a picture, only voice. Did we see or not?

We know it says that they saw sounds and heard sights at the mountain. But that was only at the mountain when Hashem came into the world and senses were intertwined into an inseparable experience. When Moshe is telling the people afterwards, he wants them to remember that as far as their reality is concerned now, all they experienced were sounds.

What’s the difference between sight and sound? Sight is whole, and sound is fragmented. When I see something, I am looking at an entire picture and my brain processes the whole picture at once, and then will break it down into elements if I continue to analyze. But when I hear something, I only get tiny bits at pieces at a time and my brain collects them all and slowly builds them into something I can understand and analyze. And if the source of sound goes away in middle I won’t be able to get the full experience. Moshe was imparting to the people that although the original experience was all senses intermingled, your takeaway is that you are meant to live in a fragmented world. Where the sum total of battles fought make up the war, and each lost battle with your יצר הרע is all part of the bigger picture that you are constructing. Even our failures are cherished in the hopes that we will be able to see them as a new opening that we can now access Hashem from.

There is something that I want to share on a similar note. When Yakov Avinu is born he gets the name Yakov, and after he battles with the מלאךhe gets the name Yisroel. ישראל. And this goes on to become out nation name. I would like to suggest that there are three variations wrapped into this one name.

There are no punctuation marks in the ספר תורה and many times the מדרש will say that there is another reading of a certain word with the same letters but different punctuation which brings out a deeper layer of the text. I always thought that the meaning behind the name ישראל was ישר א-ל, with a ש (shin), meaning the straight one of God. But our national name is not Yishroel, it is Yisroel, which would break down into ישר א-ל, with a ש (sin). And the translation of that is to struggle with God, which seems to indicate that the true meaning of our national mission is not necessarily to always be able to walk the straight path with Hashem, there is an element of the Jewish national identity that needs to struggle with Hashem.

But there is one more meaning that is more hidden, which I think uncovers an even deeper layer. There are many cases where the מדרש or Chazal will interchange the letter ש with a ס (the example that comes to mind first is from פרשת האזינו where it says כשעירים עלי דשא, and Rashi translates it as a storm over the grass, since the word for storm is סערה which is similar to שעיר. If this is the case, that means we have another layer to our national mission here. The name ישראל can also be read as יסראל or יסר א-ל, literally to stray from God. Part of our existence as a nation happens when we stray from Hashem since it gives us the opportunity to return to Him and come to an even deeper relationship.

I found this message extremely uplifting and comforting, and I hope you do too.

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