Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Towards the end of the first aliyah of Parshat Devarim, Moshe states: “And I spoke to you at that time saying: I am not able to bear you alone. Hashem your God multiplied you and behold this day you are like the stars of heaven in abundance. Hashem, God of your fathers, should add to you a thousand fold and bless you as He declared concerning you.” (1:9-11).

There is a difference of opinion whether that last sentence was the end of the first aliyah or the beginning of the second aliyah. In any event, the Torah continues with seemingly the same theme stating: “How (‘אֵיכָ֥ה'’—eicha’) can I alone bear your care, your burden and your strife. Gather for yourselves men of wisdom, and of understanding, and of knowledge from your tribes and I will make them as your leaders.” (1:12-13). We must ask why was the foregoing split into two aliyas? The theme of the end of the first aliya and the beginning of the second aliya seems to be the same, in that the people have grown numerous and Moshe cannot bear it alone. Since a split was created, there must be a reason and a lesson to be learnt.

The split results from Moshe discussing two separate situations: In the first aliya, where Moshe states that the people are as numerous as the stars, he refers to a condition that is to Israel’s credit. Bnei Yisrael are analogized to stars when they are upright and ascending. (In contrast, when they become sinful and are downtrodden they are compared to the trampled upon dust of the earth. In contrast, when they become sinful and are downtrodden they are compared to the trampled upon dust of the earth.) Here, Moshe refers to a time when Bnei Yisrael are so numerous, and dispersed throughout the Holy Land, that even a single great sage such as Moshe would be insufficient for the propagation of Torah and its values. A righteous nation dispersed throughout the land of Israel — but fully engaged in Torah study — would need more than one sage to answer their questions and provide insight to Hashem’s will.

The second aliyah deals with less favorable circumstances. It is a time when, as Moshe’s own words suggest, the people are engaged in strife. This notion is further reinforced by the motions use of the “eicha.” The word “eicha” connotes loss, regret and disappointment. Indeed, that word is often rendered in English not simply as “how” or “why,” but as “alas” or “woe.” Moreover, in Bereishit, after Adam and Chava have sinned, Hashem calls to them asking “where art thou?” In Hebrew, the word used for this question is “ayeka —אַיֶּֽכָּה”. “Eicha” and “ayeka” have the same Hebrew letters, but different vowels. At that tragic moment found in the first book of the Torah, Hashem chose to use the word from which we can discern an expression of loss and disappointment.

When the people descend into a state of sin — a state of internal dissension — when strife is rife among brethren, even a leader such as Moshe cannot solve the problem alone. Teshuva — repentance, cannot be mandated by a leader. As is always the case, the desire to do teshuva must arise from within one’s own heart. Moshe is conveying that a leader alone cannot return the nation to Hashem. The people must desire it and strive for it themselves. That is the situation dealt with the second aliyah. Indeed, this idea is the very essence of this the fifth and final book of the Torah.

The book of Devarim is a collection of the speeches that Moshe uttered during the last 36 days of his life. As Rav Soloveitchik points out, this makes Devarim unique among the books of the Torah. It has both the status of the Torah She’Ba’al Peh and the Torah She’Be’Ketav — the oral and the written teachings. The book of Devarim begins as the words of a human being and then Hashem adopts those words as his own. It is a fitting conclusion to the Torah.

We begin the Torah with man being instructed to attend to the Garden of Eden (Bereishit 2:15). It was, and is, humanity’s task to bring the world to perfection. As Rabbi Akiva pointed out, (Midrash Tanchuma, Tazria, 5), Hashem did not design the world such that the earth gives forth loaves of bread. Rather, the earth produces wheat which man processes into bread. Here, we have Moshe elaborating on Hashem’s teachings with the result that human words become God’s words. Here, a man achieves a degree of perfection: Hashem does not simply approve Moshe’s work; he adopts it as his own.

The first book and first parsha of the Torah has man moving away from Hashem. In contrast, the last book of the Torah has man coming nearer to Hashem with the words of a man becoming the words of God. Moshe’s words could become Divine because Moshe bent his will to that of his Creator. From this, we should learn an important lesson. A lesson that is particularly important and appropriate at this time of year for the Day of Judgment, that is but two months away. A return to Hashem is possible. Moving towards perfection is possible. To do so we must substitute our will and our desires for the will and desires of the Holy One, Blessed be He.

Let us comfort ourselves that no more must the question be asked: “ayeka —wherefore art thou?” No more should be heard: “eicha — why, alas and woe.” Rather, “our devarim — our things, our actions,” will speak for themselves declaring as strongly as the piercing sound of the shofar, that we are with Hashem.

William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a Board member and officer of several orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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