Devarim 5777

Judging ourselves favorably[1]

ואלה הדברים אשר דבר משה אל-כל-ישראל בעבר הירדן במדבר בערבה מול סוף בין-פארן ובין-תפל ולבן וחצרת ודי זהב
These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel, on the other side of the Jordan River, in the wilderness, in Aravah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan and Chatzeiros and Di Zahav[2]

The book of Devarim, also known as Deuteronomy, takes place right before Moshe’s death. It’s essentially a goodbye speech to the people. He takes the opportunity to teach them new laws, as well as recount past experiences. The first verse in the book takes great pains to detail the exact geographical location of Moshe’s speech. Rashi explains[3] that some of these aren’t even real names of places, but rather subtle references to past sins of the people. Moshe was rebuking the people, hoping they would catch the hint and learn from their mistakes. The last four cities mentioned, Tofel, Lavan, Chatzeiros and Di Zahav refer to three separate incidents. Tofel and Lavan refer to the sin of the Jews complaining about the munn, the manna that they ate in the wilderness[4]. Tofel implies complaining[5], and Lavan means white, the color of the mun[6]. Chatzeiros refers to the Korach rebellion[7]. Di Zahav, which means “enough gold”, refers to the creation of the Golden Calf from the abundance of gold they had been given[8]. The obvious question on this list of sins, is why was the Golden Calf listed last[9]? It was the first to occur chronologically, and was undoubtedly one of the worst sins the Jews ever committed.

The explanation is a fascinating one. When the Jews committed the sin of the Golden Calf, they had two valid excuses to acquit themselves of their grievous crime. The first is that when Hashem introduced Himself to the Jewish people, He said: אנכי יקוק אלקיך, I am Hashem your G-d[10]. When He said “your”, in Hebrew it is written in the singular. The Jews were able to claim that Hashem was only speaking to Moshe, but they themselves were exempt from having Hashem exclusively be their G-d[11]. They claimed that Ten Commandments were only meant for people on the level of Moshe, and only when the masses reached that level would they be obligated. Therefore, they were able to claim that they shouldn’t be punished.

The second excuse they had at their disposal is hinted by the words Di Zahav. As stated before, it means enough gold. This refers to the fact that the Jews at that time were very holy people. They were satisfied with a little and didn’t need more. When Hashem blessed them with lots of gold, they responded: “Enough!”. They were given more gold than they knew how to handle, and they panicked. They didn’t know what else to do with it, other than create an idol. In a sense, they could tell Hashem that it was His fault that they created the Golden Calf, since He gave them too much gold[12]. Because of these two arguments, the Jews avoided annihilation for their heinous crime. However, it wasn’t long before these arguments fell apart.

If it was really true that the Jews were satisfied with a little, why did they complain about the munn? They were given enough food to eat every day without toil, and it fully satiated them. Despite this they still felt that the munn wasn’t good enough. It must be that they weren’t really satisfied with a little, so they lost their excuse about having too much gold. This made the sin of the Golden Calf a real sin, however they still had their first excuse. The problem is the rebellion of Korach. Korach’s main complaint to Moshe was: כל העדה כולם קדושים, the entire nation is holy[13]. Rashi explains[14] the reason is because they all heard אנכי יקוק אלקיך, I am Hashem your G-d. After this statement, they could no longer claim that Moshe was on a higher level than them and only he was obligated to have exclusively Hashem as His G-d. They felt they were all the same[15]. This is why Moshe mentioned the sin of the Golden Calf last. Only after the sins of complaining about the munn and the Korach rebellion did the sin of the Golden Calf become serious again.

This teaches us that we design our own judgement for our sins. How we view things affects how serious our past actions are[16]. If a person does something that they probably shouldn’t do, but they find excuses for themselves how to justify it, they’ll usually do it. If those excuses are justified, then they are in the clear. However, if they see someone else do the same thing, and they judge them negatively, Hashem judges the person the same way. We see this with Dovid HaMelech and his incident with Bas Sheva[17]. Dovid felt he didn’t do anything wrong, and had valid excuses. However, when Nosson the prophet approached him[18] and described to him someone who did something similar, Dovid ruled that person was liable to the death penalty. Nosson revealed that he was really speaking about Dovid HaMelech, who was now viewed just as guilty. We see from here how important it is to judge others favorably. It’s actually a huge mitzvah[19]. Not only will we see others in a better light, but Hashem will judge us accordingly.

Good Shabbos.

[1] Based on a shiur given by Rabbi Zvi Zimmerman in 5770

[2] Deuteronomy 1:1

[3] ad. loc.

[4] Numbers 21:5

[5] Minchas Yehudah to Deuteronomy 1:1

[6] cf. Numbers 11:7

[7] ibid Chapter 16. See Minchas Yehudah loc. cit.; also see the second explanation in Rashi

[8] Exodus 32

[9] Toras Moshe III and IV to Deuteronomy 1:1

[10] Exodus 20:2

[11] Rashi ad. loc.

[12] Rashi to Exodus 32:31

[13] Numbers 16:3

[14] ad. loc.

[15] Maharil Diskin to Deuteronomy 1:1

[16] Rabbi Zimmerman said this is what Chazal refer to when they say דיין עצמו, judge yourself. He wasn’t sure where he heard this idiom from, but he might have been thinking of Yevamos 109b, although it sounds like that gemarra is referring to a different idea. Perhaps he inferred it from the usage of the word דיין, judge.

[17] II Samuel Chapter 11

[18] ibid Chapter 12

[19] Leviticus 19:15; Shevuos 30a; Sefer HaMitzvos Aseh #177; See Sefer Chofetz Chaim Hilchos Loshon Hara 4:3 and Be’er Mayim Chaim ad. loc. for details on the parameters of this mitzvah