The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the One

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 9 Part 1

The community matters, even more than its leader. The ninth of Ran’s Drashot focuses on passages in Parshat VaEtchanan. Hestarts with Devarim 3:23-26, where Moshe Rabbenu tells the Jewish people of Hashem’s refusal to allow him to enter the Land of Israel. At the same time, the drasha continues themes Ran has been building, and refers to earlier and later drashot in the book, meaning that even if it was originally parsha-focused, it fit with his broader themes in the Drashot.

Prior essays in this series

In this drasha, his concern seems to be bringing his listeners to realize their power as a congregation; Hashem’s openness to their repentance, perfect or not; and the importance to that repentance of rejecting ideas in the world around them, however logical, that contradict the Torah’s claims. We will take each in turn.

Pushing Away, Drawing Close

Ran starts by contrasting Parashat Devarim to VaEtchanan. The first records Moshe’s rebuke of the people, telling them all they had done wrong, so that they cannot avoid or deny it.  We will see the importance of confronting our sins fully next time. Right now, the relevant point is that VaEtchanan is not about that, according to Ran.

It instead shows the people that however badly they’ve acted does not doom them to distance from Hashem. They might need the slap in the face of Devarim, but VeEtchanan soothes them with the news that nothing they’ve done forestalls rehabilitation.

A central way of making this point is Moshe’s contrasting his situation to theirs. For all that he has faithfully served Hashem and the people for forty years, he will not be entering the Land. In Ran’s reading, that’s why Moshe stresses that Hashem became angry with him למענכם, on your behalf, which is different than in Devarim, where he says Hashem became angry with him בגללכם, because of you. The second locution lays blame; the first notes Hashem’s concern with the people’s honor.

Moshes Sin at the Rock

The honor in question is his anger with them when they demanded he produce water. Although in the last drasha we saw that Ran held Moshe and Aharon’s sin was their failure to show Hashem’s power to bring water from a rock after they spoke to it, here he adds that Moshe also sinned by treating them disrespectfully. It was that aspect of the incident that doomed his prayer to failure, despite his repentance. According to Tanchuma, this is a warning to all later judges to treat the Jewish people with respect.

Embedded in that message is a point about Hashem’s love for the people and an explanation of why Moshe’s repentance was not accepted. Normally—and we will discuss this more next time—Moshe’s sincere contrition should have secured some easing of his punishment. Not here, because he had insulted the Jewish people.

Moshe even chose to speak to Hashem about this just after Baal Peor, where the Jews were seduced by the Moabite women to worship their idol. Despite their having just committed one of the worst sins in the Torah, Hashem still refused to forego his mistreatment of them.

Forcing Moshe to Accept a Lower Visitation of the Divine

The same prioritizing of the needs of the people determined the kind of revelation that occurred at Sinai. Moshe reminds the people that they stood at the foot of the mountain, which was covered with a dark, thick cloud.  The people needed that cloud, unprepared for any closer or more direct revelation; Moshe could have handled a less-mediated revelation.

When Hashem tells Moshe (Shmot 19:9) that He will appear in the thickness of a cloud, Ran sees that as a sort of implied apology for the distance being inserted into their interaction.  Since Hashem wanted the people to witness it themselves, to leave them with a lasting memory and faith in Moshe’s prophecy, it was necessary that it happen at a level they could tolerate.

The Power of Numbers

One value of communities, Ran says, is that they enhance our reception of Divine influence. Since we all have different skills, talents, and areas of openness, larger gatherings will be more likely to latch on to more parts of Hashem’s message. That is why various sources (such as Avot 3:2, 6; Yevamot 64a, which speaks of 22,000 people) give different numbers necessary for a visitation of the Divine Presence.  Each number refers to a different level of such visitation, based on how diverse a group is put together.

This is also the reason that a slightly earlier discussion in Yevamot (63b-64a) said that one who does not have children denies the Divine Presence to the Jewish people. A failure to propagate stops the Jewish people from benefitting from that potential person’s talents and areas of openness to Hashem’s influence (that is not the final word on the question of having children, but it is as far as Ran takes it here, since that is all he needs to make his point).

Jewish communities matter to Hashem more than they realize, enough to deny Moshe Rabbenu entry to Israel, even after they had worshipped idols and he had repented.  He did all he could to get back to deserving entry and they did little to deserve respect. Yet his insulting them was a hurdle too high to leap.

For Our Purposes

As I said at the outset, this will be important as part of Ran’s encouraging his listeners to accept that they can repent—as individuals, they might have to bear whatever punishment they feared; their membership in the community gives them higher standing with Hashem.

For us, the awareness of the importance of communities, the precedence their honor took over Moshe’s Rabbenu being allowed into the Land, is a reminder that what happens in communities counts a great deal in the calculus of making this world a more or less Godly place. Especially in our time of weakened communal bonds, Ran calls us to recover our awareness of what a community is, how much it counts, and the value it can bring us, if we let it.

About Gidon Rothstein

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