Gleaned from the Sfas Emes

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Parshas D'varim

Accusation or Fact

Moshe Rabbenu asked for assistance as he complains “How can I alone bear your troubles, burdens, and quarrels?” (1:12)

Though this verse is marked as the beginning of the second aliyah for the Shabbos Torah-reading, our custom is to break off before the previous verse. This is done in order to begin the Torah-reading with a verse of blessing (“G-d, the L-rd of your fathers, will add to you a thousandfold...” - 1:11) rather than with this verse of rebuke. (See L'kutei m'Harich)

But our custom may be questioned from what the Rambam writes in the Yad haChazaka (Hilchos T'fillah, 13:5), that though Torah-readings should begin with a verse of blessing, the readings of parshas Ha'azinu may begin with any of its many verses of reproof - because they arouse the congregation to repent. If this is the case, why not apply that ruling to this parsha also, and begin the second aliyah with this verse of reproof, to arouse feelings of repentance?

We can justify our custom with the following insight: The Midrash (Eicha Rabba, 1:1) teaches that three prophets began their prophecy with the word “Eicha” (How). Moshe Rabbenu said, “How can I alone bear...?” (D'vorim, 1:12). Yeshayahu said, ”How has she (Am Yisroel) become immoral...!” (Yeshayahu, 1:21). Yirmiyahu said, “How has she (Am Yisroel) become estranged...!” (Eicha, 1:1).

The Midrash is not merely noting a coincidence of linguistic similarity between these three prophecies. Rather, it seeks to discover what is the interrelationship implied by that similarity. Moshe Rabbenu asked, “How can I alone bear...? And, as a result, a judicial system was introduced. Instead of taking their questions directly to Moshe - who would ask G-d - the people first went to lower judges, then to intermediate judges, then higher judges; and only then, to Moshe. This distanced Am Yisroel from the One Above, and started a process of spiritual deterioration. Eventually, from Moshe's “How can I alone bear...?" there sprouted forth Yeshayahu's “How has she (Am Yisroel) become immoral!” And from immorality, “How has she (Am Yisroel) become estranged. (Sfas Emes, D’vorim 5636)

Yet no reproof of Moshe Rabbenu or of Am Yisroel is intended. That Moshe was incapable of carrying the burden of leadership alone was a fact - not a sin. Nor were the People to blame for having questions and seeking answers to them. Consequently, this verse will not arouse us to repentance, but only sadden us with its reminder of those further, tragic “How”s. Therefore, we do not begin the Torah-reading with this verse.

Though we do not bear responsibility for bringing a given situation, we are still responsible for its consequences, because we have an obligation to change things for the better. In the desert, a process of spiritual deterioration was started, which led to destruction and exile. But we must always remember that it is in our capacity to change this trend. We can, indeed must, begin to change for the better, bring the Moshiach, and rebuild the Bais haMikdash.


“Gleaned From the Sfas Emes” - excerpts adapted from a soon to be published book, G-d Willing, by Simcha Grossbard.Rabbi Grossbard is author of “The Sfas Emes Haggadah” (Targum Press) and “Kasheleg Yalbinu”, a two volume (Hebrew) work based on Sfas Emes.

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