By Joel E. Gimpel
July 28, 2001
Today we begin the fifth and final book of the Torah, Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy), which is known in rabbinic literature as Mishneh Torah, the review of the first four books of the Torah. Its contents were spoken by Moses to the Jewish people during the final five weeks of his life as the people prepared to enter the land of Israel. In it, Moses explains and elaborates upon many of the mitzvot that had been previously given, some of which were already mentioned explicitly in the Torah and others that appear here for the first time. He also continuously warns them to remain diligent and faithful to Hashem’s laws and teachings.
Parshat Devarim begins with Moses’ veiled rebuke in which he makes reference to the many sins and rebellions of the past forty years. He then continues by recounting several of the significant incidents that befell the Jewish people in the desert, shedding light on the Torah’s earlier accounts. Moses spends a significant amount of time discussing the failed mission of the spies: Ten of the twelve men sent to scout out the land of Israel had returned with a bad report, and because of the people’s lack of faith, Hashem condemned the entire nation to forty years of wandering in the desert during which time the generation of the exodus died out. Moses then skips forward to discuss their conquest on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, and the Torah portion concludes with words of encouragement for his successor, Joshua.
The word “Deuteronomy” taken from the Greek actually means “Second Law,” in essence a repetition of the Torah. It makes you wonder. What was the point? Why did Hashem include in the Torah an entire 5th book that primarily consisted of review? Weren’t the first four books enough?
Conceivably we can derive a significant lesson from the writing of this 5th, and seemingly superfluous, book. Perhaps, the following perplexing statement as told in the Talmud can shed a bit of light on the situation. The Talmud points out that when a person is reviewing something, he should review it 101 times. What is the difference between 100 and 101? The commentaries explain that, from a psychological standpoint, a person will review a concept 100 times simply to achieve such a lofty goal. The actual reviewing is being clouded by the person’s acclaimed achievement. Simply put, 100 is a nice round number. To review something 101 times shows the supreme nature of the character of the person involved. While reviewing 100 times says, “Ah, I’ve completed my mission. I can go out and play ball now,” reviewing 101 times says that you are going above and beyond the natural call of duty.
How often do we find ourselves at the end of a lecture saying, “Wow, that was incredible! I’m going to take these lessons and apply them to my everyday life.” How many times do we learn something in a class that really inspires us? How often do we read an article in thinking how illuminating it was? Yet, just a day later, the lessons and inspirations have simply disappeared. Jumping back into our jobs and daily routines has erased what we learned just a day earlier. If we would only take the short time out to review — to go over what we learned — imagine how much more of a lasting impact these lessons would have. By implementing even the slightest regimen of review, we can use the lessons that we learn in a class or read in a book to actually raise us to higher levels of awareness, and in this case, to Torah observance and practice without us even realizing it. Think of the consequences!! Think of the results!! It’s literally mind-boggling.
I’m going to digress for a moment or two to remind us that repetition doesn’t necessarily mean truth. We’re all familiar with the Nazi propaganda machine that perpetuated the “Big Lie” on the theory that a falsehood repeated often enough became a truth. I was reminded of the technique a few weeks ago when I read an Opinion piece in the July 19 issue of West Hawaii Today. The writer opposed the United Nations International Conference on the illegal trade of small arms on the grounds that any resolution coming out of the conference could infringe on our constitutional “right to keep and bear arms.” We’ve heard that argument before – many times, I’m sure, but let’s examine that so-called “right.”
First, what is often referred to as the “Bill of Rights,” the first ten amendments to our Constitution, is more accurately a Bill of “Don’ts.” The first amendment, for example, prohibits the government from making laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging freedom of speech or of the press, and so forth. And if you examine the second amendment carefully, you’ll find that it is unique. It, of all the amendments, states a reason for its existence: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Our Supreme Court has, reading the amendment as a whole (as required by the canons of statutory construction) correctly construed the language to permit the government to regulate the sale and possession of arms where a well-regulated militia is not involved. But the Opinion writer in West Hawaii Today, repeating the NRA’s position on the issue, a position that ignores the language of the amendment and the Supreme Court’s interpretation, is attempting to turn a lie into the truth through repetition. What is the lesson for us? I believe it is to be discerning in our evaluation of what we read and hear, for repetition doesn’t make it so.
Tomorrow is the fast of Tishah B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, the onset of our current exile, and many other tragedies. While mourning these calamities, we focus on introspection and repentance as we seek to improve our ways, looking forward to the speedy arrival of the Messiah.
The Holocaust survivors who hear the following insight would nod their heads in agreement, sigh, and shed a tear. How are we different from those who came from “the old country”? Is it that we have advanced in technology, in affluence, in medicine? Yes, we have reached and continue to aspire to levels of achievement in all walks of life never dreamed of even twenty years ago. But, are we better?
The Jew of Europe, Asia, and Africa throughout the ages was tortured, crushed, decimated, and beaten to a pulp, yet his inner fire never was extinguished. His simple faith and trust in Hashem, dedication to morals and values, nurturing of family life with parents, grandparents, spouses, children, and grandchildren, blossomed under the most trying of situations in the most volatile environments.
Today, we have the security. We have the comfort. But where have our advances brought us?
For this irreplaceable loss – from profundity, depth, self-sacrifice, and unity, to spiritual and moral bankruptcy, we cry. Let us return and beseech Hashem with the words we read on Tisha B’Av: “Prompt us to return and we will return; renew our days as of old.” May we see the full redemption of the entire world speedily in our time. Let us contemplate this thought on Tisha B’av and see how we can implement a change for the better.