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Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22       Haftorah: Isaiah 1:1-27
Shabbat, August 5, 2000 – 4 Av 5760

Rabbi Stephen M. Wylen                                    Torah commentary from JTS

“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…in the fortieth year, on the first day of the month, Moses addressed the Israelites according to the instructions that God had given him for them, after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites who dwelt in Heshbon, and Og king of Bashan who dwelt at Ashtarot and Edrei. On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this teaching” (Deuteronomy1:1-5).

These are the words: this means words of rebuke. Moses reminded the Israelites of their sins during their forty years in the desert and he exhorted them to do better in the future.

The commentaries offer several explanations for “after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan”:

1) Until he had defeated these two kings, Moses was unable to speak to the hearts of the Israelites, because Sihon and Og are not just earthly rulers, they symbolize the shell of evil that surrounds and blockades the heart.

Sihon represents the wicked imagination that conceives evil thoughts, and we do battle against him when we put on the tefillin of the head. Og represents evil deeds, and against him we place the tefillin of the arm. These two kings oppose and interfere with Israel’s service of the Creator, and only when we defeat them can we open our minds to God. (Hiddushei Ha-Rym)

2) Until Moses defeated these two kings the Israelites were incapable of being impressed by the exhortations of Moses, and his rebuke would fall upon deaf ears. The Israelites would have said, “We have not yet experienced any of the pleasures of this life or the reward of good deeds, so how could we be receptive to words of rebuke?” After Moses had led the people to victory on the field of battle and won them an eternal inheritance, then the people were pleased to receive from Moses his words of rebuke. (MiGinzenu Ha’atik)

We are in the days before the 9th of Av, the day when Israel is punished for all our sins, and we are entering the penitential period leading up to the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At this time of year it is the responsibility of the community preacher--the darshan, the maggid--to exhort the people to repent. How shall the preacher fulfill this sacred commission?

Our two commentators differ on this point. According to the first, it is the task of the preacher to turn the hearts of the people away from sinfulness and bring them to an appreciation of goodness. According to the second commentator the preacher must reach the people where they are, and draw them to goodness when he finds that their hearts are open to this lesson.

The first perspective requires the preacher to be eloquent, the second requires the preacher to be sensitive. Would that those of us who preach would be invested by God with even one of these two virtues!

Rabbi Stephen M. Wylen is rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, New Jersey.

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