This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Betsy Morgan
Sefer Dvarim is Moshe’s address to Bnei Yisrael just before they enter Eretz Yisrael. Those being addressed are the children of the generation that G-d freed from slavery in Egypt. They are tasked with conquering the land and establishing a just society founded on the teachings Moshe has taught them. Moshe tries to prepare them by retelling their forbearers’ history, teaching laws, and reminding them that they can be successful in the Promised Land only by following the teachings of G-d.
Va’etchanan begins with Moshe retelling how God denied him the opportunity to cross into Israel, only allowing him to gaze down upon it from a distance. Moshe then addresses the people directly in 4:1:
שְׁמַע אֶל-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶל-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְלַמֵּד אֶתְכֶם, לַעֲשׂוֹת—
לְמַעַן תִּחְיוּ, וּבָאתֶם וִירִשְׁתֶּם אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם, נֹתֵן לָכֶם.
And now, O Israel,
hearken to the statutes and to the judgments which I teach you to do,
in order that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord, God of your forefathers, is giving you.
Moshe then offers a variety of reasons and motivations for following the laws. First he uses fear by reminding them of how God punished those who followed Baal Peor. Second is a positive take, that following the Torah makes the Jewish nation appear wise in the eyes of the other nations. Third are a set of rhetorical questions: does another nation have such a personal relationship with God? Does another nation have a compendium of just, right laws? Moshe ends with an emotional appeal, instructing Bnei Yisrael to remember receiving the Torah at Sinai.
However, as a practical man, Moshe also discusses the unfortunate possibility that despite everything he has said, Bnei Yisrael will in the future transgress God’s teachings. This should result in Bnei Yisrael being exiled from the land the current audience anticipates entering. Moshe promises that if in that sinful future, Bnei Yisrael search their hearts and return to God, He will hear their voice. This great ability for God to accept tshuva is emphasized in 4:31-34:
כִּי אֵל רַחוּם ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, לֹא יַרְפְּךָ וְלֹא יַשְׁחִיתֶךָ;
וְלֹא יִשְׁכַּח אֶת-בְּרִית אֲבֹתֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לָהֶם.
כִּי שְׁאַל-נָא לְיָמִים רִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר-הָיוּ לְפָנֶיךָ,
לְמִן-הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱ-לֹהִים אָדָם עַל-הָאָרֶץ,
וּלְמִקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְעַד-קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם:
הֲנִהְיָה, כַּדָּבָר הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה, אוֹ, הֲנִשְׁמַע כָּמֹהוּ?
הֲשָׁמַע עָם קוֹל אֱ-לֹהִים מְדַבֵּר מִתּוֹךְ-הָאֵשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַעְתָּ אַתָּה—וַיֶּחִי?
אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱ לֹהִים, לָבוֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶּרֶב גּוֹי, בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לָכֶם ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, בְּמִצְרַיִם לְעֵינֶיך?
For the Lord your God is a merciful God; He will not let you loose or destroy you; neither will He forget the covenant of your fathers, which He swore to them.
For ask now regarding the early days that were before you,
since the day that God created man upon the earth,
and from one end of the heavens to the other end of the heavens,
whether there was anything like this great thing, or was the likes of it heard?
Did ever a people hear God’s voice speaking out of the midst of the fire as you have heard, and live?
Or has any god performed miracles to come and take him a nation from the midst of another nation, with trials, with signs, and with wonders, and with war and with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesome deeds, as all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
The rhetorical questions listed refer to the creation of humanity, the mass revelation at Sinai, and the large-scale, public, and miraculous Divine intervention of the Exodus. These represent the archetypical divine acts: creation, revelation, and performing miracles. And yet, they are used as a kal v’chomer to explain God’s capacity to accept teshuvah. These verses give strength by teaching how mercy, too, is Divine and highlighting the awesome nature of God to welcome us back.
This is exactly what Bnei Yisrael need to hear at this momentous juncture. As they approach the land promised to Avraham so many generations before, they need to hear that enduring in the land is realistic. They are not entering on a permanent zero-tolerance probationary period. G-d will take them back, and let them stay, if they return after they stray.
We know what happened eventually. We just observed Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of Jewish destruction and exile as a result of the Jewish people’s transgression, and failure to return. In the wake of another Tisha B’Av, this is what we need to hear. Let us find comfort as we turn towards Rosh Hashana and remember the miracle of mercy.
Betsy Morgan (SBM 13′, 14′) works in the Philadelphia area as a Research Engineer and spends her time journeying through the wealth of Jewish learning in classic and Yiddish texts.