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Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Devarim

Hashem Elokei avoseichem yosef Aleichem kachem elef pe’amim (1:11)

In the middle of his rebuke of the Jewish nation, Moshe blessed them that Hashem should increase their population 1000-fold. The Medrash (Devorim Rabbah 1:11) cryptically comments that our verse is what Dovid HaMelech had in mind when he wrote (Tehillim 5:8) åàðé áøá çñãê àáåà áéúê àùúçåä àì äéëì ÷ãùê áéøàúê – And I (Dovid), through Your tremendous kindness, will come into Your House, and I will prostrate myself toward Your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You – a verse which has no apparent connection to Moshe’s blessing. What is the meaning of this Medrash?

Rav Elyakim Devorkes notes that the Gemora in Yoma (22b) rules that it is forbidden to count the Jewish people, even for the purpose of performing a mitzvah, since doing so could make them subject to an ayin hara (evil eye) which may reduce their numbers. Although one may not perform a head-count of Jews, it is permitted to count them via proxy, as was done in the desert when the census was taken by counting the half-shekels contributed by each person (Shemos 30:12-14).

Before beginning the daily prayer services, one often must look around the room to make sure that a minyan of ten adult men is present. However, it is forbidden to do so by counting the individual people present (Pri Chodosh Orach Chaim 55). Instead, it has become customary to choose a verse which has ten words and to recite one word of the verse when pointing to each person present in the room (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 15:3). If one is able to finish the entire verse, this is an indication that the required quorum is present. One such example of a verse with ten words is the aforementioned verse in Tehillim which is quoted by the Medrash.

Rav Devorkes explains that when Moshe blessed the Jewish people that they should become numerous, the Medrash questioned how this blessing can be fulfilled. Since Jews are required to pray with a minyan, one who performs a head-count to see if the required ten men are present will inadvertently invite an ayin hara to strike the people and reduce their numbers, thereby nullifying Moshe’s blessing. The Medrash resolves this dilemma by answering that instead of counting the individual Jews present, one may count them using the words of the verse in Tehillim, which will spare them from the threat of the ayin hara and allow Moshe’s blessing to come to fruition.

V’atzaveh es shofteichem ba’eis ha’hee leimor shamoa bein acheichem ushfat’tem tzedek bein ish u’bein achiv u’bein geiro (1:16)

Even in his youth, the great Rav Yonason Eibeshutz was known for his remarkable diligence in his studies. While his peers idly passed their free time playing games and acting their ages, Rav Yonason utilized every spare moment for the study of Torah. Somebody once asked him about his behavior, questioning whether he wouldn’t be happier if he spent at least a portion of his free time engaged in more age-appropriate extracurricular activities.

Rav Yonason, demonstrating the sharp mind for which he later became world-renowned, explained his conduct based on a Gemora in Sanhedrin (7b). One opinion in the Gemora cites our verse as the source of the law that a judge may not listen to the claims of one of the litigants if the other party isn’t present to challenge his arguments. This is hinted to by the words ùîò áéï àçéëí – you shall listen between your brothers – which teaches that a judge may only listen to the accusations of one party if the other is present.

The Gemora in Sanhedrin (91b) teaches that a person receives his yetzer hara at birth, whereas his yetzer tov doesn’t enter him until his Bar Mitzvah, at which point he is held accountable for his actions. Even a person who never becomes a judge in a Jewish court still serves as a judge every moment of his life, as he must constantly listen to the arguments of the two “litigants” inside of him – his yetzer hara and his yetzer tov – and sort them out to reach a judgment about the proper course of action to choose.

“While closing my books to indulge in the hobbies and games enjoyed by the other boys may seem quite tempting,” concluded the wise-beyond-his-years Rav Yonason, “this is the opinion of only one of the litigants – my yetzer hara. As a judge, I am forbidden to listen to his claims until my Bar Mitzvah, at which time the other party will be able to present its counter-claims, and I will be able to reach a judgment regarding the proper course of action. However, until that time, the ‘law’ gives me no choice but to ignore him and diligently continue with my Torah studies.”

V’tap’chem asher amartem l’vaz yih’yeh ub’neichem asher lo yad’u hayom tov v’ra
Heima yavo’u shama v’lahem et’nena v’heim yirashu’ha (1:39)

Looking around at the state of Judaism today – decreasing numbers of religiously-educated or even self-identifying Jews combined with a skyrocketing rate of intermarriage – can lead a person to depressing conclusions about its future. As the Torah is the guidebook for every generation, what does it have to say about this matter, and what message of hope and optimism can we find in it?

In the 1930s, European Jewry was under attack from all directions. The twin dangers posed by physical annihilation and spiritual ruin seemed to threaten the future of the Jewish people. In a major address at that time, Rav Shimon Shkop delivered words of comfort based on the prophecies of the Torah, a message which is even more applicable today than it was then.

In the beginning of Parshas Lech Lecha, Hashem commands Avrohom to leave his home and set out for the land of Israel, promising him, “I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” In his commentary on this verse, Rashi quotes the Gemora in Pesachim (117b), which explains: “I will make you into a great nation” refers to that which we refer to Hashem when praying as the “G-d of Avrohom;” “I will bless you” applies to our calling Hashem “G-d of Yitzchok;” and “I will make your name great” refers to our mention of Hashem as “G-d of Yaakov.” As one might think that he should conclude by invoking all three of the Avos, “And you shall be a blessing” teaches that we finish by mentioning only Hashem’s connection to Avrohom.

Rav Shimon explained that Avrohom grew up in a house of idolatry. He had no role model for proper belief in Hashem, and only came to that recognition on his own. In contrast, although Yitzchok added his own unique expression of serving Hashem, he nevertheless had a father who taught him to believe in Hashem, and Yaakov even merited two generations of teachers. One might have expected that throughout time, each succeeding generation would build upon the belief and accomplishments of the previous one until the generation of Moshiach would reach the pinnacle.

Chazal saw that the sad reality would be otherwise. There would come a time when the momentum would be reversed. Each successive generation would only decline further in its commitment to observing the Torah and believing in Hashem. However, just when the level of the Jewish people appears ready to disappear into a bottomless abyss, Hashem will allow the innocent and ignorant children to rediscover Him, just as their ancestor Avrohom did.

This phenomenon is alluded to in the words of Chazal, who suggest that one might have thought that “the end” (of the current era, not of one’s blessings) would come about through continuing to build upon the successes of the previous generations as did Yitzchok and Yaakov. In reality, “the end” will be brought about by an entire generation of those eager to rediscover and reconnect to the truth of their roots.

Rav Shimon concluded by reassuring those assembled that although Judaism seemed at that time doomed to physical and spiritual extinction, the children and grandchildren of those abandoning their traditions would be brought back in an unprecedented spiritual awakening. He prophetically suggested – some 70 years ago – that this is the intent of our verse: And the little children, regarding whom you said “they will be taken (spiritually) captive,” and the children who (aren’t educated to) know the difference between good and evil, those very children of whose futures you despaired will be the ones to come to the land of Israel, and to them will I give it, and they will possess it.

Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     Rashi writes (1:1) that Moshe mentioned the words Di Zahav – abundance of gold – to hint to the sin of the golden calf, which was produced because of the large amount of gold that they had. Rashi writes (Shemos 32:31) that after the sin of the golden calf, Moshe argued that Hashem had indirectly caused the sin by giving them so much gold when they left Egypt that they had nothing to do with it but sin. How can this be reconciled with Rashi’s comment (Bereishis 3:12) that in blaming Hashem for giving him Chava who caused him to eat from the forbidden fruit, Adam was guilty of a lack of gratitude to Hashem for all of the good that He had bestowed upon him? (Ayeles HaShachar Shemos 32:31)

2)     Masechta Sofrim (1:7) relates that the day King Ptolemy ordered five of the Jewish elders to translate the Torah into Greek was as painful and difficult for the Jews as the day on which they sinned with the golden calf. In what way was this worse than Moshe’s translation of the Torah into all 70 languages (Rashi 1:5), which presumably includes Greek? (HaK’sav V’HaKabbalah, Mishmeres Ariel, Shiras Dovid)

3)     Rashi writes (2:17) that for the duration of the 38-year period in which the Jewish nation was in Divine disfavor due to the sin of the spies, Hashem didn’t speak to Moshe in the manner in which He was accustomed. Did Hashem communicate with Moshe at all during this time, and if so, in what fashion did He do so? (Rashi Taanis 30b, Rashbam Bava Basra 121b, Rabbeinu Bechaye)

© 2011 by Oizer Alport.

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