A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.
What We Allow Ourselves to Treat Lightly
I try to spread the Rashis we study throughout the parsha; in chapter seven of Devarim, that led me to violate another rule of mine, the attempt to avoid well known Rashis (although I’m never sure which are which—one of the precipitating experiences to this series was my referring to a certain Rashi as well known, and a friend said, “Well, I didn’t know it!”). The Rashi that most stimulated my interest interprets the first words of the parasha, והיה עקב תשמעון.
Although literally the phrase clearly means “in return for listening (or, observing),” Rashi takes the word עקב hyperliterally, based on its also meaning “heel.” Moshe is promising us the rewards he’s about to lay out if we are careful to observe mitzvot people tend to tread with their heels.
It’s a reminder of the ubiquity and impropriety of picking and choosing observances. There are priorities in mitzvot, important if we are forced to choose among them, but that’s not what Rashi’s addressing (I took up the issue of priorities in our Jewish expression in my book We’re Missing the Point; if you enjoy these essays and have not yet read it, I implore you to do so);
Rashi’s talking about that which we dismiss as not worth our time, without support for so deciding. If we avoid that, if we treat all that God told us as important, even if it is occasionally outweighed by some other value or obligation, we can hope to merit the great rewards laid out in the continuation of that section.
The Right Attitude Towards God
8;2 refers to the forty years in the desert as partially Hashem’s way of humbling and testing us to see if we would observe His commandments. On the words התשמור מצותיו, Rashi writes שלא תנסהו ולא תהרהר אחריו, loosely translated as that you not test Him nor question Him (or, perhaps, wonder afterwards about the correctness of His ways).
The verse’s obvious referent is keeping mitzvot, yet Rashi reads it more expansively—perhaps because it’s not clear how our time in the desert demonstrated our readiness for observance, but does offer opportunities to accept or question Hashem’s ways. Obedience is not enough, Rashi is telling us; we need to know and accept that we cannot always understand what Hashem does, and that our job in those situations is not only not to rebel, but not to question and not to test.
That is so contrary to contemporary attitudes that I must say one more word. Rashi knew, better than any of us, of people in Tanach who did in fact question Hashem. In each case, I maintain, one or both of the following was true: Hashem indicated to the person beforehand that questioning was acceptable or welcome, and/or the questioning sought information and understanding, not to challenge the rightness of Hashem’s ways.
That fundamental acceptance, too, was part of the legacy of the desert, according to Rashi.
What Makes Us Liable for Death
9;20 has Moshe reminding the Jews that Aharon incurred Hashem’s fury, enough to bring annihilation (which Rashi understands as the deaths of his sons; Moshe successfully prayed, and it was reduced to only two—an interesting perspective, since the Torah seems to say those two were killed for their own sins). The first Rashi on that verse tells us what Aharon did to deserve this—he listened to the Jews.
When they came to him for a replacement leader for Moshe, he needed to answer, “no, Moshe’s coming back.” Even if we accept the tradition that Aharon had seen the mob kill Chur for saying something along those lines, he needed to either nonetheless refuse, or delay more effectively. Yielding to the people could not have been an option.
What’s true of Aharon is true for each of us at our own level and to our own extent. It’s not only where we go wrong that we get ourselves in trouble, it’s also where we go along.
The Unknown Civil War
10;6 refers to the Jews’ going from Bnei Ya’akan to Moserah, where Aharon passed away. Rashi notes that it doesn’t fit the flow of the text, and also contradicts the order in Bamidbar 33;31, where the Jews went from Moserot to Bnei Ya’akan.
His answer is that after Aharon passed away at Hor haHar, the Jews were thrown by the disappearance of the clouds of glory (tradition has it that those were in Aharon’s merit, much as the well of water was in Miriam’s, and therefore disappeared when she passed away).
Once those clouds no longer protected them, the king of Arad attacked, and the Jews decided to return to Egypt, going back eight spots on their journey. There, at Moserah, the Levi’im fought with and killed some of them (and the Jews killed some Levi’im in return—it’s not always easy to stand up for Hashem’s standards), until they got them back on the right road.
It’s a Midrash, so we don’t have to accept it as historical fact (although we do then have to explain the discrepancy between Devarim and Bamidbar, but there are other ways to do that). But it paints a picture of the time in the desert that doesn’t necessarily match our assumptions. At the end of forty years, faced with a battle, the Jews were still so tenuous in their reliance on God that they wanted to go back to Egypt, turned back only by an actual battle with fellow Jews.
But Rashi reports it. Meaning that one running assumption in Jewish thought was that Jews could get so attached to their viewpoint that they could not see how they were supposed to act. And, in this case, one side was right and one side was wrong. It’s not a lesson we can apply directly to our times, but it is a memory I think Rashi wants to inform our lives, that we have to be very careful about that which we become certain.
The Greatness of Israel
In chapter eleven, Moshe spends a few verses on how wonderful Israel is, distinguishing it from Egypt. On the words והשקית ברגלך, Rashi explains that Egyptians have to bring water to their fields from the Nile, their toil limits their sleep, and the lower lands get water more easily than the upper, since it’s so much harder to transport the water uphill.
Verse eleven tells us that Israel is different in that it is fed by rain, while we sleep, Hashem doing the work for us, the rain falling on highland and lowland, open and hidden, all at one. In the next verse, on the words אשר ה’ דורש אותה, that Hashem inquires after it, Rashi wonders how the verse could say that, since Hashem is concerned with the entire world. He answers that Hashem inquires after Israel, but that inquiry leads Hashem to inquire after all the other countries as well.
As John Donne said in Meditation 17, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were.” Rashi’s telling us that that all starts with Israel.
I remember being taught the underlying idea back in elementary school—it is an advantage to live off of rain and not the Nile, an advantage to be the focus of Hashem’s concern and attention. The Nile gives a false sense of security, since the water is always there, whereas waiting for rain can feel unsafe, insecure, and anxiety-provoking.
What Moshe Rabbenu is trying to help us realize is that we have it wrong—living as the center of Hashem’s attention brings benefits far greater than security. All we have to do is merit good attention and our lives will be easier and more comfortable than the Egyptians could imagine.