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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Devorim

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael... After he had smitten Sichon... On the other side of the Yarden in the land of Moav. (1:1,4,5)

Moshe Rabbeinu begins the fifth book of the Torah with an admonition to Klal Yisrael, reminding them of the myriad of sins which they had committed throughout the past forty years. Moshe spoke to all the people, not giving any individual the opportunity to say, "Had we been there, we would have refuted him." We can learn from Moshe's rebuke concerning the correct manner in which to reprove someone who has erred. Moshe waited until the last five weeks of his life to rebuke Klal Yisrael. He wanted to be sure that they would listen. The commentators offer a number of reasons for this approach. We simply suggest that at an emotional time, such as the end of one's days -- when life is coming to a close -- the speaker and listener are more attuned to another. Each one is particularly careful not to offend, not to embarrass. One does not want to make a mistake at a time like this.

The manner in which one presents his rebuke is critical. Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl, writes in the name of the Gaon m'Vilna that one should never rebuke using strong words. He should speak softly, in a mild, soothing tone to assure the listener that he is there to help him. He concludes that one who is not capable of speaking softly is absolved from the responsibility of rebuke.

The Torah adds that Moshe chose to rebuke Klal Yisrael "after he had smitten Sichon." Their triumph over the feared Emorite kings heartened Klal Yisrael to enable them to listen to Moshe. They could no longer say, "What right has he to rebuke us? Did he bring us into the Land as he had promised?" Timing - Moshe sought the appropriate time to maximize the effect of his rebuke. He wanted to make sure the people would listen to him. We are talking about the leader who sacrificed himself for Klal Yisrael. For forty years he endured their criticism, their rebellious nature, their ingratitude. He provided leadership for them through the splitting of the Red Sea, the Giving of the Torah, and every significant occurrence in the wilderness. Yet, he was still concerned that they might think he did not keep his promise! As Horav Moshe Reis, Shlita, points out, this is the way one rebukes. The evil inclination has the "habit" of covering up the wonderful things people do for us. It makes sure that we see only ourselves - not others who have done so much for us.

Moshe commences his rebuke by emphasizing his mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, on behalf of Klal Yisrael. When he concludes his words, he blesses the people. The mochiach, one who rebukes, should show his love and caring to the one whom he rebukes. The purpose of giving mussar, ethical reproach, is not to simply hear one's own voice; it is to effect a response, a change in the individual. This will occur only if the person knows that the rebuke is the result of someone's love.

It is important that the subject of the rebuke be in a proper frame of mind, tranquil and at ease, so that he will be able to listen, concentrate and integrate the lessons into his life. Sforno writes that the significance of "after he had smitten Sichon," is that the people would be predisposed to listen. Nothing was hanging over their heads, that which that they had most feared was now behind them. They were now able to listen to mussar. Rebuke does not simply place blame; it is an opportunity for bringing someone back, to correct their prior mistakes, to adjust their lifestyle to give it more meaning. The listener must be attentive and willing in order for the rebuke to meet with success.

I said to you at the time... Let yourselves - wise, understanding men, known to your tribes, and I will place them at your head. And you answered me and said, "This thing which you have proposed to do is good." (1:9,13,14)

Chazal view Moshe Rabbeinu's words as a critique of Klal Yisrael. They should have answered, "Moshe, our teacher! From whom is it better to learn: From you or from your disciple? Surely from you, who exerted yourself so over the Torah." Moshe understood what motivated their silence. They assumed that it would be easier to sway a judge who was one of them to their point of view. This type of attitude is not novel. Everybody wishes to face a judge whom they think will readily acquiesce to their point of view. One area of Moshe's critique needs explaining. It seems that it is better to study from Moshe because he exerted himself over the Torah. What advantage does exertion provide that it is the sole factor for studying from the master instead of the pupil?

Horav Meir Bergman, Shlita, suggests that it is human nature to attach greater significance to something for which one has exerted himself. As this is true in the area of materialism, how much more so regarding Torah insights. In his commentary on the Talmud Shabbos 99b, the Rashba suggests, "Take great care to understand this explanation fully, for only after great effort was it revealed to us!" Horav Eliezer M. Shach, Shlita writes in his preface to his Avi Ezri on Nashim/Kedushah, "Whoever studies these matters will see what a help this work can be, G-d willing, for I achieved it with much toil and exertion." Torah is acquired through ameilus, toil; it is ours, if we work for it. But, work we must. Moreover, our toil indicates our love and esteem for the Torah. In order to succeed in an endeavor, one must truly enjoy and love his work. One who enjoys what he is doing will exert himself -- joyfully -- in order to succeed.

Horav Bergman writes that he once heard from Horav Shmuel Rosovsky, zl, how Horav Shimon Shkop, zl, related a similar thought that he derived from a conversation with the Netziv, zl, Rosh Yeshivah of the famed Volozhin Yeshivah. Horav Shkop related that he never attended the Netziv's shiur, Torah lecture, feeling that he could accomplish much more by studying on his own during this time period. Late one night, he experienced a change of heart. It happened that he was studying Talmud Bava Basra, when he came across a difficult passage in the Rashbam's commentary. Try as he would, he could not make headway in understanding the depth of the commentary. He was about to give up, when suddenly the Netziv entered the Bais Medrash, as he was accustomed to do at all hours of the night. Rav Shimon went over to the venerable Rosh Yeshivah and asked him "pshat," to explain the Rashbam. The Netziv responded, "My child, I have several times visited the graves of tzaddikim to supplicate Hashem to reveal to me the meaning of this passage." This response so impressed Rav Shimon that from that day on he made sure to attend the Netziv's shiur.

We now have an idea of the effort which our gedolei Yisrael, Torah giants, expended in the study of Torah. It was not merely an exercise in mental gymnastics. It was Toras Hashem which must be understood. They gave their lives for the Torah - not only for its preservation and dissemination, but also to understand its profundities and hidden message. Is it any wonder that they attained the distinction of gadlus ba'Torah?

This was Moshe's admonition to Klal Yisrael: If they had really cared about knowing the Torah, if proficiency in it really meant something to them, they should have insisted upon learning from Moshe Rabbeinu, whose life was a lesson in exertion and devotion for Torah. By relinquishing their right to the master, they indicated their true attitude. A student respects the teacher who exhibits his own effort in acquiring the knowledge he transmits. This is manifest with the joy inherent in teaching and conveying the Torah's message. One is enthusiastic in transmitting that which he has toiled to master.

These are the words that Moshe spoke... All of you approached me. (1:1,22)

Moshe begins his rebuke of Klal Yisrael. He alludes to a number of sins, most of them by "remez," hinting. He does not want to embarrass the people. He seeks to preserve their dignity. Why should the Torah list all of the details? He does this for most - except for two sins. Twice Moshe goes into detail, describing their error, how it began and what the consequences were. He agonizes about how they requested new judges. They would rather appeal their litigation to Moshe's "students" than to the "teacher" himself. Moshe relates how his acquiescence to their request brought a joyful reaction from the people. They thought these leaders would be more predisposed to responding to their needs. In truth, they thought it would be easy to sway them.

Moshe also addressed the sin of the meraglim, spies, who returned from Eretz Yisrael and slandered the land. They incited the people against Moshe and Hashem, causing irreparable damage. This damage foreshadowed the decree against this generation's entrance into Eretz Yisrael. That night, Tisha B'av, was a night when the people overreacted. They cried and cried. It was a "bechiah shel chinam," unwarranted weeping. They had nothing to fear but fear itself. Their punishment is our punishment, a bechiah l'doros, weeping for generations. On this same date, many years later, the two Batei Mikdash were destroyed. Tisha B'av became our day for commemorating national tragedy. All this was a result of their unwarranted reaction to the disparaging comments made by the spies.

Before Moshe rebuked them for the sin of the meraglim, he told them what had preceded the sin. "All of you approached me." They all came. Chazal note that there was no order to the way that they came. They approached Moshe in a disorderly, disrespectful manner. The young pushed ahead of their elders, the elders pushed aside their leaders. This was in sharp contrast to the decorum that prevailed during the Giving of the Torah. When disrespect reigns, it is a sign that the motivation is not proper. They were not interested l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven. They sought to rebel, to undermine Moshe Rabbeinu's leadership, to repudiate the yoke of Heaven from controlling their lives.

Herein, says Horav Elchanan Sorotzkin, zl, lies the root of their sin. Two sins - one goal - one origin. They sought other judges, and they pushed their way disrespectfully, demeaning their elders and leaders. They fought for their goal. They pushed for their goal. Their goal represented the antithesis of Jewish values. Their intention was to find a way to revoke their present leadership. This is why the Torah details and emphasizes these two sins. They are the source of so much agony and tragedy for our People. We must understand the source of our problems: a lack of respect for our spiritual leadership; a disdain for their guidance; an indifference to their rendering of halachah - if it does not coincide with our way of thinking.

We read Parashas Devorim on Shabbos Chazon, the Shabbos preceding Tisha B'av. We are to study the underlying message conveyed by this parsha. The churban, destruction of the Batei Mikdash, began then, when our ancestors rejected Moshe Rabbeinu's leadership, when they rejected any form of leadership. A generation that repudiates its elders, that refuses to accept guidance from its spiritual leadership, is destined to be destroyed - by its own doing. The Midrash sums it up beautifully: There was once a snake in which the tail asked the head, "Why should you always lead?" Since the tail and the head of a snake really look similar to one another, it seemed like a fair suggestion. Thus, they changed positions, so that the tail was leading. We can imagine what transpired as a result of this change. The tail naturally did not know where to go. First, it went into a deep river where it nearly drowned. It then went through searing fire where it was almost roasted alive. Afterward, it dragged the head through an area that was strewn with rocks and sharp thorns. Finally, the snake came to its senses and realized that without eyes it cannot lead, without direction it will only die. Regrettably, by the time the snake learned its lesson, it was too late. Hopefully, we will take this lesson and integrate it into our lives before it is too late for us.

Enough of your circling this mountain; turn yourselves northward. (2:3)

After thirty eight years in the wilderness, Klal Yisrael was once again at Har Seir. The nation was now instructed to turn to the north. The Kli Yakar interprets the word "tzafonah," which usually means "north," in its alternative definition, "hidden." Accordingly, Hashem was telling Klal Yisrael, "Turn inward, hide yourselves." He was implying that a Jew should maintain a low profile among his gentile neighbors. There is no reason to arouse their envy. This is similar to what Yaakov Avinu told his sons when he sent them to Egypt to purchase food, even though they had food at home. Yaakov said, "Lamah tisrau?" "Why should you make yourselves conspicuous?" (Bereishes 42:1). Why should the pagans that surround us become jealous of the prosperous Jews? Let them think that we are in as bad as situation as they are.

It is not entirely foreign to hear such an accusation leveled at us. The Kli Yakar lived in the beginning of the seventeenth century. How much worse have things become? We live in a world that is far from sympathetic to the Jewish way of life. Is there any reason that some of us feel it is necessary to "shtech ois di oigen," "pierce out the eyes," of our neighbors? Do we have to have the fanciest homes or drive the fanciest cars? Would it be such a tragedy if we would not call so much attention to ourselves? Is it necessary to make the gentiles around us envious of the "prosperous Jews"? Furthermore, what about the insecure Jew who spends much more than he actually possesses just so that he can impress those around him?

Horav Matisyahu Solomon, Shlita, once cited a similar idea from Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl. In a number of places, Chazal compare Klal Yisrael among the nations to, "a single sheep among seventy wolves." Simply, the analogy is that as a sheep among so many menacing wolves is in a perilous position, so, too, is Klal Yisrael in a dangerous situation. We can rely only on Hashem to protect us. Rav Elchanan suggested an additional message to be derived from Chazal. If a sheep is attempting to hide from seventy wolves, it would certainly try to call as little attention to itself as possible. It would look for every avenue to remain inconspicuous. One thing it would surely not do: is to jump up and down, it would not make all kinds of noises in attempt to taunt and enrage the wolves. Hence, the Midrash is teaching us how to act as one sheep/nation among the many wolves/nations of the world. We should maintain a low profile, not acting in such a manner that those around us will be "incited" against us.

There are people who will read this and remark that such a statement might be appropriate for the shtetl in Europe, but in our progressive, modern society it would be demeaning to live simply and unobtrusively. We should take pride in our accomplishments, and let the world around us acknowledge us. To paraphrase Horav Solomon, "To live quietly is not a galus complex; it is rather a galus code of behavior." Our mistake is thinking that the gentiles have changed. They have not. They have only changed their methods. Eisav remains Eisav. Regrettably, some of us do not want to remain Yaakov.


1) Which place alludes to the dispute of Korach? 2) a) Against whom is the primary sin of a judge who perverts justice. b) Why is this? 3) Where do we find an exaggerated description of a place? 4) How many years did Klal Yisrael remain in Kadesh? 5) a) Was Klal Yisrael permitted to "start up" with Ammon? b) Why is this? 6) Did Moshe wage war against Og at night?


1) Chatzeiros.

2) a) Hashem will return the money to the rightful owner. The judge who perverts justice sins against Hashem.

3) "The cities are great and fortified up to Heaven" (1:28).

4) 19 years.

5) a) No.

b) They were the descendants of Lot's younger daughter, who exhibited a greater sense of tznius than her sister who named her son Moav, implying the identity of the child's father.

6) No. Miraculously, the sun did not set after Moshe defeated Og.


"tov shem mishemen tov..."
vekisrecha shem tov naaleh al gabeihen
niftar 7 Av 5755
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