Parshas Devarim

The bubble

Moshe tells the Jews that the Torah is the focal point of life and living, around which all other things revolve:

ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ דִּבֶּר אֵלֵינוּ, בְּחֹרֵב לֵאמֹר: רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת, בָּהָר הַזֶּה. פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם, וּבֹאוּ הַר הָאֱמֹרִי וְאֶל-כָּל-שְׁכֵנָיו, בָּעֲרָבָה בָהָר וּבַשְּׁפֵלָה וּבַנֶּגֶב, וּבְחוֹף הַיָּם–אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַלְּבָנוֹן, עַד-הַנָּהָר הַגָּדֹל נְהַר-פְּרָת – “Our God spoke to us at Sinai, saying, “You have dwelt long enough at this mountain. Travel to the mountain of Emori, and to all its neighbouring places, in the plain, on the mountain, and in the lowland, and in the south and by the seashore, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, until the great river…”” (1:6,7)

Sinai was a monumental event. Rashi notes how at that moment, the Jews were given Torah, mitzvos, the Mishkan, its utensils, government.

R Ahron Bakst notes that the opening mention of Sinai does not continue with further discussion of that incredible moment, but rather, that the Jews must move on. Moshe says that once Sinai is achieved and actualised, פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם – it’s time to get going.

The Torah is תורת חיים – instructions for living. R Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the Torah is given in the desert – a bubble, a vacuum of civilisation. Their economy was suspended for forty years – everything was free, easy, and abundant. Life was elemental. Life was stripped of its grandeur, power and glory; they were in the womb, so to speak. This is how the Torah is earned and acquired.

This is also the function of exile – a return to the wilderness, a return to the womb to reacquaint ourselves with our duties.

Moshe told the people that if the heights of the Torah can be retained, going out into the world is not scary; it is natural. This is the shining light we can be.

Going Places

The entire book of Devarim is one long event – Moshe’s parting words with the nation. It begins with Moshe listing the locations they travelled through, which Rashi notes are thinly veiled hints to the sins and tragedies that took place at each of them.

But if Moshe goal was to rebuke, the way to do that ought to have been through subtle references to the events. The locations were incidental to the events that took place – so why list the places at all?

Perhaps it is because the places themselves are central to understanding how they went wrong.

Teshuva – as delineated by the Rambam – is only fully achieved when the same person, in the same situation, in the same place, do not make the same mistake. The specification of the place is important – sin harms the atmosphere it occurs in, which is then rectified through repentance.

Moshe referenced the locations because they had been damaged by the impact of their behaviour. The Jews were on the cusp of entering Israel – he pleaded with them not to make the same mistakes that they had in the desert. The desert events had been bad, but not catastrophic. Israel would not be like anything they had experienced though, and their actions would have an effect on the environment. We testify this every day in the third paragraph of Shema.

The land of Israel is sensitive to the actions of its residents – Moshe hinted to them to take care of it.

Reverence for a Sage, and the Ten Martyrs

Every year, on Yom Kippur and 9 Av, we recall the death of the Asara Harugei Malchus – the Ten Martyrs

One of the reasons revealed about their death is in the prayer itself, quoting the Midrash that the Ten Martyrs died as an atonement for Yakov’s sons abducting Yosef. It’s a powerful notion; but the there were Ten Martyrs and only nine brothers who sold Yosef. Reuven had returned home, and Binyamin hadn’t left with them, and Yosef was not party to his own sale. What is the discrepancy; if the Martyrs were to absolve the brothers of their sin, there ought to only have been 9

R’ Shimshon Ostropolier answers that after the brothers sold Yosef they agreed a Cheirum – an excommunication order on anyone who revealed the truth to their father.

But, as mentioned above, there were only nine brothers present and for the order to come into effect there would need to be ten present – a minyan. The Midrash says that Hashem joined to be the tenth and to formalise the order. This is easily proven by the fact that Yosef’s outcome was withheld from Yakov, in spite of his prophecy.

Nine Martyrs gave up their lives as an atonement for the nine brothers. But one of the Martyrs gave up his life for the tenth member of the minyan to. R’ Shimshon tells us that it was R’ Akiva, but why was R’ Akiva in particular selected for this honour?

The Gemara in Bava Kama 41b discusses how there were two Tanaaim who expounded on all instances of the word ”את” appearing in the Torah. They hypothesised that את implies a secondary law. Their observation worked until they reached “את ה’ תראה” – ‘Hashem your G-d you shall fear’. They weren’t sure what to derive from this “את”. What is supplementary or secondary to God? They were unable to complete their project from lack of being able to expound upon this particular “את”.

Generations later Rabbi Akiva figured out the explanation. He said the “את” was including Talmidei Chachamim, that one must fear the Talmidei Chachamim as he fears G-d.

Rabbi Akiva demonstrably proved the importance of honouring Sages. Not that they are remotely equal or even similar, but to say that a Talmid Chacham must be revered just as we revere Hashem. By extending the honour of the Torah, he merited being the Tenth Martyr.