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THE RIDDLER

by Yoel Spotts    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

These are the words which Moses spoke to all of Israel beyond the Jordan River, in the desert, in the Aravah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di-Zahav (Deuteronomy 1:1).

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These are the words which Moses spoke to all of Israel beyond the Jordan River, in the desert, in the Aravah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di-Zahav (Deuteronomy 1:1).

Although this verse may represent the opening and introduction to Devarim, the last book of the Torah, at first glance the verse appears laden with problematic passages and phrases. The astute observer will immediately notice that not only were the Jews not located in the desert as the verse seems to suggests (they were actually in the plains of Moav), but nowhere in the Torah do we find mention of places such as Paran, Tofel and Lavan. Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, solves the puzzle with the explanation that in reality this verse has no intention of informing us of the location of the Children of Israel. Rather, these phrases are actually allusions to events and serve as a continuation of the first half of the verse. Thus, the verse should actually be read, "These are the words (of rebuke) which Moses spoke to all of Israel," with the verse proceeding to delineate the various sins committed by the Jews in the desert, each "place" referring to a different evil.

However we are immediately presented with another difficulty: Why should Moses need to hide his words of admonition in a shroud of disguise? Why not just come straight out and clearly delineate the crimes of the Jewish people? Once again Rashi comes to the rescue, explaining that Moses chose to hide his rebuke in hints and allusions so as not to risk insulting or offending a fellow Jew. If one were to spend only a moment of deliberation on Rashi words, he could easily dismiss them and move on. However the time invested to dig a bit deeper into Rashi's interpretation is well worth it, as it reveals an unbelievable treasure.

The Book of Devarim represents Moses' final achievements as leader of the Children of Israel. He has guided the Jews through the desert for forty years, acting at times as their parent, and at other times as their mediator and negotiator. He has seen it all. Now the time has come for Moses to deliver his final words of rebuke and encouragement. It's now or never; if the Jews don't get the message now, they never will.

Certainly, it should be expected that Moses would want his intentions to be made as clear as possible, so as not to leave any room for misunderstanding. However, we find the exact opposite as Moses cloaks his message behind a veil of cryptic allusions and references. And for what reason? So as not to offend or embarrass a fellow Jew which might lead to disunity among the Jewish people. Moses is willing to take the risk that his last words of admonition might be misconstrued and misapplied, so as to maintain harmony in the camp of Israel. The demand for peace is so great that it overrides even Moses' significant message in his final speech.

In fact, we find the same idea in the words of our sages concerning the reign of Achav, one of the most wicked kings Israel ever had. The Talmud (Yerushalmi Tractate Pe'ah) teaches that although the practice of idol worship had engulfed virtually the entire Jewish population in Israel at that time, the armies of Achav nonetheless were able to defeat their enemies in war. Why? Because the unity and harmony that prevailed among the Jews of the time overshadowed even the grave sin of idol worship.

The message is clear -- the necessity for peace and solidarity among the Jewish people is of utmost importance. Even Moses' last will and testament, or the evil of idol worship, cannot undermine the significance of unity. Although we certainly must be cognizant of this reality at all times, the period that we currently find ourselves in begs us to pay the matter even more attention. This interval between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av (Tisha B'av), known simply as "The Three Weeks" commemorates the events leading up to and the destruction itself of the two Holy Temples on Tisha B'av. The Talmud (Tractate Yoma 9b) teaches that the destruction of the second Temple was brought about by the evil of unwarranted hatred towards others. It was the failure of the Jews of that time to recognize the importance of respecting and honoring the needs of their fellow Jews that led to the fateful destruction of the Temple. It is up to us to rectify their omission by taking to heart the important lesson concealed in Rashi's words of this week's Torah portion. For just as the Temple was destroyed due to unwarranted hatred, so too it will be rebuilt through unwarranted kindness.

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Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is currently enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and the University of Maryland, both in Baltimore.

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