Singing the Mitzvot: Pedagogy with Moshe Rabbeinu

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Leah Sarna
When we teach people about Halacha, how do we best encourage observance? What about when the mitzvot we are detailing require time, effort and funding? In Parashat Vaetchanan, Moshe Rabbeinu models one answer to this question.
The book of Devarim is more or less a recording of lectures that Moshe presented to the Jewish people immediately before his death and their entrance to the land of Israel. Dr. Jeffrey Tigay in the JPS Commentary to Deuteronomy points out that our parasha, Parashat Vaetchanan, marks the end of Moshe’s first discourse and the beginning of his second. Tigay describes Moshe’s first speech as an “exhortation” about “obedience to [Hashem’s] laws as a way of life in the land.” The second speech is an “exposition of the laws.”
In between the two speeches, we have a short interruption.

(מא) אָ֣ז יַבְדִּ֤יל מֹשֶׁה֙ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ עָרִ֔ים בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן מִזְרְחָ֖ה שָֽׁמֶשׁ:

(מב) לָנֻ֨ס שָׁ֜מָּה רוֹצֵ֗חַ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִרְצַ֤ח אֶת־רֵעֵ֙הוּ֙ בִּבְלִי־דַ֔עַת וְה֛וּא לֹא־שֹׂנֵ֥א ל֖וֹ מִתְּמֹ֣ל שִׁלְשֹׁ֑ם וְנָ֗ס אֶל־אַחַ֛ת מִן־הֶעָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖ל וָחָֽי:

(מג) אֶת־בֶּ֧צֶר בַּמִּדְבָּ֛ר בְּאֶ֥רֶץ הַמִּישֹׁ֖ר לָרֽאוּבֵנִ֑י וְאֶת־רָאמֹ֤ת בַּגִּלְעָד֙ לַגָּדִ֔י וְאֶת־גּוֹלָ֥ן בַּבָּשָׁ֖ן לַֽמְנַשִּֽׁי:

41 Then Moses set apart on the east side of the Jordan three cities

42 to which a homicide could flee, someone who unintentionally kills another person, the two not having been at enmity before; the homicide could flee to one of these cities and live:

43 Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland belonging to the Reubenites, Ramoth in Gilead belonging to the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan belonging to the Manassites.

(Devarim 4:41-43)

I want to argue that this interruption is a purposeful, pedagogic tool.

The Bavli in Makkot 10a points out that Moshe did not need to set apart these three cities of refuge quite yet. The mitzvah of creating cities of refuge does not apply until all six, including the three on the not-yet-conquered west side of the Jordan River, could be established (Mishnah, Makkot 9b). But Moshe made these three now, because אמר: מצווה שבאה לידי אקיימנה. He thought, if the opportunity to do a mitzvah comes into my hand, I will do it. And this is no small mitzvah. If we feel that building a shul, yeshiva or mikvah is difficult– try building three cities.

But more than that, the Talmud compares Moshe to the money-lover criticized in Kohelet, אוהב כסף לא ישבע כסף– the one who loves money will never be satisfied with his money. The Talmud flips the critique into a compliment about Moshe who loved mitzvot, who was greedy for mitzvot, and who was never satisfied with his quantity of mitzvot, so he did more mitzvot than he needed to– like setting aside these three cities of refuge.

But Moshe was doing more than modelling an enthusiasm, a greed, for mitzvot. Devarim Rabbah tells us that Moshe had a special connection to this mitzvah.

אז יבדיל משה, מהו אז? זה שירה, שנאמ’ אז ישיר משה (שמות ט”ו א’), מי אמ’ שירה, משה אמ’ שירה. למה? שהוא הרג את הנפש.

When the verse says “Then Moses set apart,” what is meant by “then?” It is a song, as we saw “and then sang Moshe” (Shemot 15:1). And who sang? Moshe sang. Why? Because he had killed a person.

The Midrash continues:

ולמה אמ’ שירה? שהוא היה יודע צערו של רוצח

And why did Moshe sing a song? Because he knew the suffering of the murderer.

In Egypt, at the transition point between his childhood and adulthood, Moshe killed an Egyptian. Moshe fled and took refuge in Midian, because Pharaoh wanted to kill him. Although Moshe was not an accidental killer, he knew the suffering of the killer– and, the Midrash suggests, he was particularly passionate about mitzvot which address it.

Moshe, at the time when he designates the three cities of refuge, is about to begin teaching a massive halacha shiur, spanning 24 chapters until Devarim 28. Before he can teach the details, he needs to show the assembled Jews what a life full of mitzvot can mean. He needs to model a life of energetic, emotional shmirat hamitzvot to his audience. By singing as he designates the three cities of refuge, a mitzvah which did not even need to be performed yet, Moshe shows the people that mitzvot, even difficult ones, are personal and sweet. That they can speak to the very core of the Jew who performs them. This is Moshe taking responsibility for the Torah, by teaching it in a way that inspires connection and commitment.

Leah Sarna (SBM 2014) is a second year student at Yeshivat Maharat and a Wexner Graduate Fellow.

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