Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk

This spring I bid a very fond farewell to Stamford, CT. Rivka and I are moving to Jerusalem this August. On a few occasions I was called upon to say my good byes to the two marvelous organizations, Congregation Agudath Sholom and Bi-Cultural Day School, that I've worked for these 16 years. The message was short and simple each time: 1) Thank you for having me and 2) I loved the experience of sharing Torah with wonderful people. However, not everyone is so pithy. One of the most famous farewells in History was delivered by George Washinton September 19, 1796. Like me, however, he made two salient points: 1) Please, forgive me, 'I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend.' 2) Be Americans first, 'The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.' It took him 6090 words to do it, so my audiences came out fine. But this week we begin reading an even more famous, and, I fervently believe, more important farewell address, that of Moshe Rabbeinu. It takes up the entire book of Devarim or Deuteronomy. He used 14,249 words, translations are even longer.

Let me quickly clear up a problem. I just called this book Moshe's Farwell Address, but didn't God write the Torah? The Zohar (Devarim, 461a) claims that Moshe wrote Devarim, according to Maimonides (Laws of Teshuva 3:8) this is heresy. I'm going (at least this week) to rely on a compromise suggested by Don Yitzchak Abarbranel. That great 15th century scholar opined that, indeed, Moshe, spoke all these words of his own composition. Later, God commanded that this exact material be incorporated into our Chumash.

So, what is the point or points of this valedictory speech? Let's begin with a short survey of the material. The book contains three distinct parts. The first Section (parshas Devarim-Eikev) is musar or tochacha, ethical teachings and chastisement, for spiritual failures. The next material (Re'eh-Ki Tetze) is made up of mitzvot which will be needed for the new society to be built in the Promised Land. Finally, the last third of Devarim (Ki Tavo-Zot HaBracha) deals with the Covenant between God and Israel. The covenantal community was begun by Avraham and became a national covenant at Sinai. The end of Devarim informs us that this covenant will be renewed upon arrival in Israel and at some, as yet undetermined, time in the future.

This is a wonderful paean to our national connection to God, Torah and Israel. But, like in the farewell address of Washington, can we boil this long sermon down to a basic sound byte or two? Rav Yehuda Shaviv of Yeshivat Har Etzion thinks so, and I'm inclined to agree. He wrote, 'If we seek some unique feature of this Sefer we shall discover that one of its characteristics - if not the crux of its whole message - is the concept of a second chance...even if one has failed and sinned, there is always an opening for repair and improvement, for change and renewal...Teshuva is not presented here simply as a mitzva, but rather as a thoroughly

attainable possibility which holds a promise of hope.' Moshe's parting thought for his flock is the power of repentance. We're humans; we're prone to fail. But we're endowed by our Creator with the unalienable right of renewal.

Rav Shaviv's idea has a lot of merit based on the text, and, I think, it's a marvelous final message for any spiritual guide. I'd like to add that this emphasis on teshuva at the climax of the book is already foreshadowed in this week's parsha. A perusal of our Torah reading begins with a review of the sins of the Jewish people, with special emphasis on the sin of the spies. There is a lengthy review of that episode and the division of the parsha by our Sages brings the narrative literally to the threshold of Israel. It ends with an exhortation to Yehoshua, 'Do not fear those you will encounter, because it is the Lord, Who is fighting for you (Devarim 3:22).' In other words, the parsha ends with the Jews getting their second chance to enter Israel.

But there's also a special mention of teshuva in our haftorah. We all know that this week's haftorah is a prelude to this coming week's commemoration of Tisha B'av, day of national tragedy and anniversary of the sin of the spies. But we can't escape the fact that our haftorah also weighs in heavily on the concept of teshuva. This initial sermon of Yeshayahu is mostly about evil leadership. Leaders are comparable to the rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah when they are hypocritical in the spiritual acts, 'Who wanted you in my courts...when your offerings are in vain and your smoke is an abomination (Isaiah 1:12-13),' and when they don't 'aid the oppressed, act justly for the orphan, and plead for the widow (verse 17).' We demand sincerity and concern for those who can't fend for themselves, from our leaders. But then comes the greatest expression of repentance and its power, 'If your sins are like crimson, they can become white as snow; if they are red as scarlet, they can become as virgin wool (verse 18).'  

There you have it. Both as an introduction to the book of Deuteronomy and to commemoration of Tisha B'av, we must believe in the ultimate cleansing power of teshuva. The very name Deuteronomy comes from the translation of the rabbinic title of this volume: Mishneh Torah, which means a review or second reading of the Law. Moshe is emphasizing the importance of believing in second chances, 'do-overs'. Our ability to err is only superseded by God's potential to forgive.

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