Thoughts to Ponder, Number 13
26 Elul, 5759; 7 September, 1999

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur

One of the problems Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur confront us with is human vulnerability and the difficulties we find in overcoming our weaknesses. Every year we take it on ourselves to defeat our selfish inclinations, to start a new chapter and to accomplish, once and for all, complete teshuva (repentance). But every year again we realize, especially in the days just before the High Holidays, that once more we did not really accomplish this task last year and that our mitzvah of repentance did not bear too much fruit.

We may have started the great mitzvah of repentance, but we never finished it. This feeling causes many of us a great amount of pain and even often strong guilt feelings. It is for that reason that many of us wonder why we should try once more to accomplish the great dream of complete teshuva when we are very well aware of the fact that it is nearly sure that we will again fall short in the coming year. What is the point in starting a mitzvah when there is little chance that one will complete it?

At the end of the long journey through the desert Moshe repeatedly warns his people of the enormous implications involved if they do not follow the ways of the Torah. After lengthy and heavy discourses in which he reprimands his beloved people of their mistakes, the Israelites enter the Transjordanian territory: Immediately the Torah informs us of Moshe's next deed:

"Then Moshe separated three cities on the other side of the Jordan towards the sunrise" (Devarim 4:41). These are the cities of refuge where the unintentional murderer could flee to, after he had accidentally murdered a fellow man. (See: Bamidbar chapter 35)

The commentators struggle with this verse, since it is difficult to see the textual context in which the verse is placed. Why should Moshe, in the middle of his ethical discourses, suddenly introduce the mitzvah to separate these cities of refuge, especially since he immediately continued his discourse afterwards? Could he not have waited with the appointment of these cities until after he finished his ethical discourses? This question is even more pertinent when one realizes that these three cities would not even function as cities of refuge until another three cities in the land of Israel proper would be dedicated for the same purpose as well! Only after the land was completely captured, these six cities would be activated as cities of refuge (Makkoth 9b).

As is well known, Moshe Rabenu was not allowed to enter the land of Israel. After leading the Jewish people for nearly forty years through the desert and anticipating the moment he would be able to enter the Promised Land, one incident makes an end to this dream. Instead of speaking to the rock to give water to the people of Israel, as God has commanded him, he hits it with his staff. As a result, God tells him that the mitzvah to live in the land will be withheld from him. Even after pleading with God on several occasions, there is no favorable divine response and Moshe is asked to no longer ask for dispensation (See Bamidbar Chapter 20). This confronts Moshe with some major issues in his religious commitment. Now that he is not able to fulfill the great mitzvah of living in the land, what is the point in starting a mitzvah which relates to the actual dwelling in the land but which cannot be completed since he will never have the opportunity to do so? As mentioned before, the three cities in Transjordanian territory will not yet have the status of cities of refuge until all six including the three cities in Israel itself are inhabited by the Israelites. What, then, indeed, is the purpose of Moshe already separating three cities for this purpose of becoming cities of refuge while they will not serve as such until after the children have entered and actually dwelled in the land?

Nevertheless, Moshe separates these three cities at his earliest opportunity, i.e. when he and the Israelites find themselves at the very site of these cities in Transjordan. His point is clear and of great meaning: One does not postpone or completely ignore a mitzvah because one is not sure that one will ever be able to work for or see its completion. On the contrary, one starts to fulfill a mitzvah whatever the outcome or the extent of its fulfillment may be. The reason is clear: Even when one does not complete a mitzvah, there is still great value in starting it. Every step in the direction to complete it is a major achievement. And even when, in the end, all that was achieved seems to have been lost, the value of trying to accomplish the mitzvah has a major impact on the human soul.

It is true that the Yamim Noraim, the High Holidays, often make us wonder why we should try to do teshuva (repentance) once more, knowing quite well that there is a considerable chance that we will not make it this year either. Moshe's example, however, stands out: One starts a mitzvah even when it not sure that one will complete it. This is even more true when we realize that Moshe knew without any doubt that he would never be permitted to complete the mitzvah of the cities of refuge, since he would definitely not enter the land. We, on the other hand, do not have this problem. Despite last year's experience, we clearly do have the possibility to complete the mitzvah of teshuva this year.

And for those who will not succeed, they should not forget that real religious life is not where one finds oneself spiritually, but how hard one tries to get there! This is clearly alluded to by Rabbi Joseph Karo in his magnum opus, Shulchan Aruch, the codex of Jewish law, when he writes: One should make a supreme effort to get up early in the morning like a lion…

Ketiva ve-chatima tova and shanim raboth to all our friends, colleagues and students. May you all be blessed with a year of health, Torah and good deeds.

Redistribution of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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