July 31, 2014
Rashi’s opening comment on the Book of Deuteronomy is one that shows concern for the honor of the people of Israel. This is characteristic of Rashi. He begins each one of the five books of the Torah with a comment that refers in one way or another to the uniqueness of Israel.
Tosafot questions Rashi’s interpretation.
Deuteronomy 1:1 “These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wildreness, on the Aravah plain opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel and Lovon and Chatzeiros and Di Zahav.”
RASHI : These are the words – Rashi: Because these are words of reproof and [because] he (Moses) intended to recount here all the places where they angered the Almighty, he therefore said these words in an obscure manner and only mentioned them in hints in order to show the importance of the honor of Israel.
Why does Rashi interpret these place names as symbolic terms for the sins of Israel? Why doesn’t he accept them simply as actual places?
In his ensuing comments on this verse Rashi points out two difficulties with accepting these place-names at face value. First, he says “They were not in the Wilderness, they were in the Plains of Moab!” And further on in his comments Rashi cites Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai who says, “We have reviewed all the Scriptures and have not found places whose names were Tofel or Lovon!” If these were among the places where Moses spoke to the People, why didn’t the Torah mention them previously?
On the basis of these questions, Rashi searches for another interpretation of this verse. With Rashi’s comment we are to read this verse as follows: These are the words [of rebuke] that Moses spoke to the Children of Israel on the other side of the Jordan: (then follows a recitation of place-names which hint at their various sins committed while they wandered in the Wilderness).
Rashi tells us that the reason the sins were only hinted at, and not mentioned explicitly, was out of respect for Israel, so as not to openly criticize and embarrass them.
The Moshav Zekeinim, a compilation of comments by the Tosfos, asks the following question. If Moses was so concerned with their honor that he did not openly mention their previous sins, why do we find, not so much further on (1:27ff.), that he openly castigates them for the sin of the Spies? And later on (9:15) he criticizes them quite harshly regarding the Golden Calf that they made. From these verses and others, it does not seem that Moses was overly sensitive to their honor. How can we say that his concern for their honor caused him to just hint at their sins in our verse?
The Moshav Zekeinim does not offer any answer to this question and therefore says these place-names are in fact places.
A commentary on Rashi, Amar Nekai, which was written by Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, the famous commentator on the Mishna, suggests a very reasonable answer to Tosfos’ question. He says that because this is the very first verse in the Book of Devarim, Rashi understood that Moses would be extra sensitive to the honor of the people. But further on, once Moses’ oration began, he no longer felt the necessity to speak in hints. On the contrary, there it was important to speak clearly, so that his “mussar” would be correctly understood.
Also, here Moses is talking to the next generation NOT the people who actually sinned. Therefore, he speaks gently in hints and allusions. But when it come to the sin of the Golden Calf and the sin of the spies which caused 40 years wandering in the Wilderness, he can hardly sugar coat it.
After writing, I saw the following in the name of the Sfas Emes of Gur. “As we know, Sefer Devarim begins in a surprising way, with a list of geographical sites. Why so? Rashi follows (some of) Chazal in reading the place names in Devarim 1:1 as a veiled rebuke. That is, they see Moshe as mentioning these sites to rebuke Bnei Yisroel for the Aveiros (sins) that they had committed in those places. Thus, the reference to a place named “Di Zahav” is in reality a rebuke to Bnei Yisroel for the sin of Eigel Hazahav, the golden calf.
To this the Sfas Emes reacts, asking: What is the point of rebuking Bnei Yisroel of this generation — i.e., the generation that was about to enter Eretz Yisroel — for these Aveiros? These Aveiros had been committed by the previous generation, not the people to whom Moshe was now speaking!
The Sfas Emes answers that every generation begins life with the Aveiros of the previous generation on its back, so to speak. And for this reason, every generation has the responsibility of correcting those Aveiros. Thus, just as there is Zechus Avos (people can benefit from the merit of their forefathers), so, too, there is “Cheit Avos” — the Aveiros that the previous generations pass on to succeeding generations.
Note how neatly this thought of the Sfas Emes fits in with common sense. Take a moment to think about this question, you will soon reach the same conclusion. In fact, we do start life with both the assets and the liabilities of our parents — and indeed, of the whole generation to which they belonged.”
This is another reason why we mourn on Tisha BAv. Any generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt is as if it had destroyed it.