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Saturday 17th July 2021 8th Av 5781


Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22; Isaiah 1:1-27; Matthew 24:1-22


David Nichol, Congregation Ruach Israel, Boston

One of my favorite aspects of the Jewish interpretive tradition is the mileage the sages get out of the text of Tanakh. I recently heard Rabbi Ethan Tucker compare the way the rabbis of the midrash read the Torah to how one might read a love letter. A lover who receives a letter from their beloved will find meaning in the placement of a comma or an unusual word choice. If we read the Torah as a letter from God, the more lovesick we are, the more we read meaning into every pregnant pause, unconventional spelling, and unexpected phrasing. The rabbis of the midrash exemplify this approach, seeming to say, if we yearn deeply to hear the voice of God, we take even little details of the text very seriously; we read not just between the lines, but between every letter.

So it’s no surprise that the midrash finds something of note in the very first verse of Parashat Devarim:

These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel across the Jordan—in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Di-Zahab. (Deut 1:1)

It begins, “V’eleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe el kol Yisra’el,” “These are the words which Moses addressed to all Israel...” Immediately we might ask, why does it not just start with vayomer Moshe, “Moses said…,” or vaydaber el kol Yisra’el, “Moses spoke to all Israel”? Why does it start with, “These are the words”?

Of course, the sages asked the same question. Rashi, following the midrash (Sifrei Devarim) and targums (ancient Aramaic translations of Tanakh), reads “words” here as “words of rebuke.” After all, the midrash reasons, look at other uses of davar/devarim (“word/words”) in Tanakh. Many of those usages precede a rebuke or admonition, such as Amos 1 (“The words of Amos…”), Jeremiah 7 (“The word which came to Jeremiah...”), and others.

So if the (seemingly extraneous) use of devarim/words in the passage indicates rebuke, where is this rebuke? Read in full, Rashi’s comment explains:

Because these are words of reproof and he is enumerating here all the places where they provoked God to anger, therefore he suppresses all mention of the matters in which they sinned and refers to them only by a mere allusion contained in the names of these places out of regard for Israel [or “for the honor of Israel”].

It is the place names themselves that include the rebuke. Where Moses seems to be just listing a bunch of place names, he’s in fact alluding to the events that happened there. It’s like when I remind my wife about the late-night stop at the service area near Rochester, NY, on a car trip to Michigan. I don’t need to add, “You know, when both kids were vomiting in their car seats.” Believe me, she remembers. So the Israelites presumably cringe at the mention of these places.

This raises the question: why not be more explicit? Everybody knows what happened! Why does the text not just spell it out? Why not just say it? The first verse could have been like this:

These are the words which Moses spoke with all Israel beyond the Jordan, reproving them because they had sinned in the wilderness, and had provoked the Lord to anger on the plains over against the Sea of Suph, in Pharan, where they scorned the manna; and in Hazeroth, where they provoked to anger on account of flesh, and because they had made the golden calf.

In fact, that’s exactly how it’s rendered by the ancient Aramaic translation, Targum Onkelos (~4th century CE). However, the text of the Torah is much more subtle, not mentioning these specific events at all.

I propose two reasons that Moses might be circumspect with respect to Israel’s sins in the wilderness. First, the dignity of humans is a central Jewish value; conversely, public humiliation is a serious offense. The Talmud underscores the seriousness by stating that “anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as though he were spilling blood” (Bava Metzia 58b). Quoted above, Rashi attributes the circumspection to God’s concern for Israel’s honor or glory.

This leads us to ask why God is so concerned about Israel’s honor. Certainly human dignity is important; according to the Talmud, guarding the dignity of another takes precedence even over the observance of a prohibition in Torah (Berakhot 19b). But even more fundamentally, God loves Israel, and we care about the honor of those we love. “When Israel was a youth I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1).

The second reason is more practical. This speech from Moses isn’t about dwelling on the past. The sins of Israel aren’t decisive enough to fracture the relationship. No, Israel has a mission, a shelichut, something to accomplish. Just a few verses later, God tells the people that it’s time to get moving: “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn, journey on…” (1:6). It’s been forty years, and it’s not the time for rehashing old arguments, or bringing up failures of the past. That would be a distraction from the task at hand.

We can learn lessons from both of these reasons.

If you love someone, honor them, even at your own expense. Get in the habit of safeguarding others’ honor and reputation. The starting point for this is being in touch with your own infinite value; only one who is secure in their place, who has “reputation to give,” as it were, is able to guard others’ honor generously. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe put it well:

The beginning of all individual work is specifically the experience of man’s exaltedness. Anyone who has never focused on man’s exaltedness from his very creation, and whose only self-work is to know more and more about the bad sides of himself and to make himself suffer as a result—that person will sink deeper and deeper into despair, and in the end, will make peace with the bad out of sheer lack of hope of ever changing it. (Alei Shur, vol 1)

But our insecurities are in vain, since our value is beyond measure! As Yeshua said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them shall fall to the ground apart from your Father’s consent. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:30-31).

Once you are confident in your own value, you become free to turn toward reminding those you love of their intrinsic worth.

And who hasn’t rehashed old arguments, allowing themselves to focus on their own anger or unresolved feelings of betrayal, processing their own anger in the guise of rebuking another? There is always a temptation to reach into the bag and bring out old offenses, recycling the weapons that once hurt you, to hurl them back at their original owner. But to do so is rarely helpful.

I find this to be particularly relevant as a parent. Certainly some of the “rebukes” directed toward my children are for the sake of their edification and growth. But all of them? Hardly. Sometimes it’s more about me than about what is best for them.

On the other hand, Moses seems to anticipate Paul’s words: “Let no harmful word come out of your mouth, but only what is beneficial for building others up according to the need, so that it gives grace to those who hear it” (Eph 4:29).

And so in one verse, we find deep teachings about how to relate to each other by imitating the Creator. May he strengthen our hands to preserve each other’s honor, and when we must rebuke, to do so in proper measure, and out of love.

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