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Torah Sparks

August 13, 2005 - 8 Av 5765

Annual: Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 981; Hertz p. 736)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 1:1 - 2:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 981; Hertz p. 736)
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1 - 27 (Etz Hayim, p. 1000; Hertz p. 750)

Prepared by Rabbi Daniel A. Ornstein
Congregation Ohav Shalom, Albany, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Where We Are in the Torah

This Shabbat we begin Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy. This first Torah portion includes Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22, and it always coincides with the Shabbat before the fast of Tisha B'Av.


Moshe begins his first speech to the Israelites before his death. (1:1-5) In this portion he reviews events which happened in the past: Moshe sets up a judicial system to handle the pressing needs of the people. (1:6-18) Scouts check out the land of Canaan for Moshe and the Israelites; the people complain about leaving Egypt and going up into the land; God angrily vows that the generation that left Egypt will never see Canaan, (including Moshe!); the people, without God's consent, seek to make up for their rebelliousness by prematurely entering the land, and they are roundly defeated by the local population at Hormah. (1:19-45)

God warns Moshe and the Israelites that they may not conquer or take possession of the land belonging to the people of Esau, Moav and Ammon. Their land is assigned to them by God. (2:1-25) Moshe seeks passage for the people through the land of Heshbon, but Sihon their king forbids this, goes to war with the Israelites and is defeated by the Israelites at the hand of God. The Israelites destroy that kingdom (2:26-37) God delivers Bashan and its king, Og, into Israelite hands. The Israelites destroy that kingdom, and they take over all of the land of both kings. (3:1-11).

All of that land, which is on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, is given to the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and the half tribe of Menashe. They are commanded to assist the other tribes with conquering the land of Canaan on the western bank of the river. (3:12-20) Joshua, who has been previously named as Moshe's successor, is charged by him not to fear the nations of Canaan when he enters the Promised Land. (3:21-22)

The First Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

"And I, (Moshe), said to you, (the Israelites) the following at that time, (when we left Mt. Horev): 'I cannot bear the burden of you by myself.'" (1:9)

  • From Rashi, (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, France and Germany 1040-1104) - Is it possible that Moshe, the man who led the Israelites out of Egypt, split the Sea of Reeds for them, and fed them manna and quail in the desert, was unable to be their judge? This is really what Moshe meant, (when he said to them that he could not bear their burden): THE LORD YOUR GOD HAS MADE YOU SO NUMEROUS, (1:10). God has caused you to overwhelm your judges by transferring liability for punishment for your wrongdoing onto their shoulders.
  • From Otzar Midrashim, (Digest of Minor MidRashic Works Compiled With Comments By J.D. Eisenstein, 1915), p. 12 - When Miriam, (Moshe and Aharon's sister) died, the well that accompanied the Israelites and gave them water in the desert dried up… Moshe and Aharon were weeping over her death within the tent of meeting while the Israelites wept outside. Moshe didn't realize that six hours had passed until the people came in and asked him, "How long will you sit there and weep? He replied, "Should I not weep for my sister who died?" They said back to him, "If you're going to weep for one person then weep for all of us!" "Why?" he asked. They answered, "We have no more water!" Moshe went outside, saw that not a drop of water was left in the well, and he began to fight with them: "Didn't I tell you that I can't bear the burden of you by myself?! You've got all sorts of leaders and elders, (that I set up for you), who will deal with you!" They replied, "All of this is your responsibility because you're the one who brought us out of Egypt into this evil place. If you give us water, great. If not, we'll stone you."
  • From Mei Hashiloach, (Hasidic Commentary On The Torah by Rabbi Mordechai Leiner of Ishbitz, Died 1854.) - When the Israelites were about to enter the land (of Canaan), Moshe our teacher, of blessed memory, sensed that God wanted to put Joshua, (Moshe's assistant), in charge of the conquest. Moshe wanted the people to pray to God that they didn't want any leader other than Moshe. He hinted at this to them when he said, "I can't bear the burden of you by myself!" (That is, I am going to need others to assist me when I take you into the land: RDO) Later, (3:23-25), Moshe even begged this of God explicitly.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Rashi teaches that Moshe's real concern was the existential, not the physical, burden of being a leader and a judge. In what sense can or should leaders and judges be liable for the culpability of the people they lead?
  2. Otzar Midrashim teaches that Moshe's real concern at that moment in his life was the emotional burden of leading the people in the midst of his grief. How much can or should a leader set aside personal needs to in order to lead effectively?
  3. Rabbi Leiner teaches that Moshe's real concern was his struggle with letting go of his role as leader and accepting his impending death without the fulfillment of entering the land. How, in our personal and professional lives, do we know that it is time to make painful transitions happen or to allow them to happen?
  4. Each of these commentators uses verse 1:9 to paint a different image of Moshe the leader, one image larger than life and two images all-too-human. What might the Torah and our teachers be telling us about the true nature of inspired leadership?
  5. What excesses might result from the power and burdens of leadership? What can communities do to control them?

The Second Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God's. And any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I will hear it. (1:17)

  • From Sifre Devarim on Deuteronomy 1:17, (a work of legal Midrash on Deuteronomy attributed to the School Of Rabbi Akiva, 2nd Century C.E.) - YOU SHALL NOT BE PARTIAL IN JUDGMENT: This is actually addressed to the person in charge of appointing judges to the bench. That person might think, "So-and-so is a nice person, I'll appoint him. So-and-so is valiant, knows languages well, etc., I'll appoint him." The result would be that they condemn the innocent and exonerate the guilty, not because any of these judges you appointed are bad people but because they lack requisite knowledge to be judges. Scripture would account them, (i.e., these perfectly nice but incompetent judges), as if they had been partial in judgment.
  • From Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, France and Germany 1040-1104) - HEAR OUT LOW AND HIGH ALIKE: You should be as concerned about a case that involves a small amount of money as you are about a case that involves a great amount of money. If the former case came to you first, you shouldn't push it off to be the last case. Also, HEAR OUT LOW AND HIGH ALIKE means that you should not say, "This litigant is poor, while his opponent is rich and is obligated to support him. I'll rule in favor of the poor man so that he can receive assistance under the presumption of innocence." It also means that you should not say, "How can I dishonor this wealthy and prominent man over a trifling amount of money? I'll rule in his favor now, then when we leave the courtroom I'll tell him to pay back his opponent who should rightfully have won the case."
  • From Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1270) - The meaning of FOR JUDGMENT IS GOD'S is this: Your work as a judge isn't to serve people, it is for the purposes of serving God who is with you in the midst of judging cases. It's God's job to execute justice between His human creations, whom He created to behave with integrity and justice, and to rescue the oppressed from the oppressor. God placed you, the judges, in God's stead. If you fear the power of human litigants and thus miscarry justice, you will have sinned against God by having violated your role as God's agent.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is judicial competence? Should a judge's political views or judicial ideology be a factor in determining his or her fitness to serve on the bench?
  2. Other passages in Jewish tradition assert that a person who wants to be a judge must be compassionate. If justice is supposed to be blind, allowing no consideration of circumstances beyond the facts and determining innocence or guilt, what role does compassion play in making judicial decisions?
  3. Note the way in which Rashi uses earlier rabbinic sources to emphasize that the judicial process should not be influenced by societal factors such as concern for the poor or the honor of a prominent person. Is this a realistic way of thinking about judicial process? Do goals such as preventing humiliation or helping the disadvantaged ever factor legitimately into a judge's decisions?
  4. As complex as the judicial process is, there are clear boundaries. Accepting a bribe, ruling in favor of a friend unfairly, making judgments on the basis of politics, or ruling in someone's favor because you fear his threats are all clear examples of miscarriages of justice. How can the judicial system foster a "fear of God," a sense of unwavering moral rectitude, in its judges?

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