Thursday, August 7, 2008

To shine like the stars themselves (Derashah Devarim 5768)

[This dvar torah is part of a send-off for two beloved Allentown families who are moving this week. I have excised the parts about them, but I think it still holds together.]

ויוצא אותו החוצה - On a cloudless night almost four thousand years ago, the Creator of the Universe led a solitary man out of his tent, and said to him, “הבט נא השמימה, Gaze up at the heavens, וספור הכוכבים, אם תוכל לספור אותם, And number the stars, if you could possibly do so,” and then that Deity said to the man, “Avraham! כה יהיה זרעך, So shall your children be.”

With these words HaShem pledged more than multiplication - He presented a vision of descendants who would soar as loftily as the stars, a promise of a future which would shine as brilliantly as the heavens, a commitment for a protected nation which would endure as long as those celestial bodies would shine over the earth.

And then, some five hundred years later, as we read this morning, Moshe stood at the entrance to Israel and told the Jewish people, “Mission Accomplished” - הנכם היום ככוכבי השמים לרוב, Today you are as many as the stars of the heavens.

Moshe’s valedictory speech completed many story arcs.

Moshe’s own life reached a stage of fulfillment, as the man who had initially described himself as לא איש דברים אנכי, a man of no words, now began his last address to the nation by saying "אלה הדברים, These are the words."

The Jews achieved their long-anticipated goal of arriving at the Yarden, a goal which had taken forty years and hundreds of thousands of lives, an end to slavery and a birth of hope.

And the broader arc of the nation’s history was completed, with the fulfillment of the promise made to Avraham so long ago, “Your children will be like the stars.”

One problem, though: It seems that Moshe didn’t believe his own message. In just one more parshah, next Shabbos, Moshe will say, אתם המעט מכל העמים, You are the smallest of all the nations!

Further, HaShem had already specified to Avraham that the stars could not be counted - but the biblical Jewish nation is eminently countable. They are counted so often in the Torah that Gd seems to be saying to us explicitly, every so often, “Yup, still not like the stars!”

Rabbeinu Yaakov ibn Shuib, a rabbi in 14th century Spain, explained that when HaShem likened us to stars, He was not promising multiplication, at all; rather, HaShem promised us influence. As Rabbeinu Yaakov put it, citing a midrash, “ר' שמעון אומר: ככוכבים להזהיר,” that we would shine as do the stars, illuminating the entire universe, regardless of our numbers.

The Torah consistently stresses that impact is more important than numbers. For example, Rabbi Berel Wein has pointed out that when Hashem justified the destruction of Sdom, He did not do so on the basis of the large number of wicked people living in the city. Sdom’s destruction is not blamed upon the wicked. Rather, Sdom was destroyed because of the ten righteous people who did not live there. No matter how many wicked people lived there, just a few righteous people could have been enough to turn the tide.

Numbers, per se, don’t matter, and the reason numbers don’t matter is that HaShem promised us a force multiplier, something which can increase our effect far beyond the count of how many or few we are. Our force multiplier, as presented in the Torah, is our interconnectedness.

I first learned about the importance of interconnectedness when I was studying computer memory models and artificial intelligence in school. The best system proposed, as I recall, was something called a “neural net,” modeled on the nerve net of a creature called a hydra, in which interconnectedness of neurons was a major feature.

A couple of years ago I read a book called “The Tipping Point,” by Malcom Gladwell, and his discussion about how ideas spread and people link were based on interconnectedness as well.

The Torah, too, relies on interconnectedness, on feeling a joint bond, as the strength of the Jewish people - witness the famous adage, כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה, all of us are mixed in with each other. We are supposed to feel a link, and the Torah even incorporates that interconnectedness into law.

Torah generally instructs us in practical mitzvot, rather than in emotions. Even those mitzvot which seem to be about emotion are truly about actions - the prohibition against jealousy is really about acting on jealousy, and the mitzvah of loving Gd is really about learning the Torah, which will cause us to love Gd. But in two cases the Torah does command us to harbor specific emotions: The prohibition of לא תשנא את אחיך בלבבך against hating another Jew in our heart, and the mitzvah of ואהבת לרעך כמוך instructing us to love each other, to develop that connection.

If we lack this interconnectedness, then we shrink, and are even in danger of disappearing.

When the gemara says that Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, was the source for the failure of the second Beit haMikdash and the reason for our millenia-long exile, it isn’t just promoting general niceness - it’s promoting the interconnectedness that is supposed to be the source of our strength. The more we bash each other - Orthodox and Conservative and Reconstructionist and Reform and Secular and Charedi, or just neighbors and peers who can’t get along in a small town - the worse off we are, the weaker we are, the farther we are from fulfilling the Divine promise of becoming like the stars in the heavens.

When we share this bond, though, then we become radiant like those stars, despite our small numbers - by eliminating hatred, by developing love, and then by acting on that love.

Tonight, before Eichah, we will look at a multi-wicked flame and recite the berachah of בורא מאורי האש, thanking Gd for the gift of fire. The berachah is odd - it says מאורי, plural, so that the correct translation of the berachah is, “Thank You, Gd, Creator of the lights of fire.” Why do we use the plural?

The Meiri explains that fire is not monolithic - it includes many individual flames, of diverse hues and shades, which combine their energy to create the whole. This is why we use a large flame, specifically - in order to demonstrate those various hues.

The flames of the Havdalah candle are interconnected and produce great light. May our interconnectedness produce a light of its own, like the stars of Avraham’s vision, and may that light put an end to our mourning, so that tonight will be the last Tisha b'Av we are forced to observe.


1. The point by R' Yehoshua Ibn Shuib is in his Derashah for Devarim, which includes an interesting discussion about the power of the constellations.

2. Rabbi Wein's thought appears (in Hebrew) here.

3. The prohibition against jealousy is discussed in Sefer haMitzvot Lo Taaseh 285, the mitzvah of loving Gd is discussed in Aseh 3, the prohibition against hating in one's heart is in Lo Taaseh 302 and the mitzvah of loving your neighbor is discussed in Aseh 206. I used the Rambam for all four for the sake of consistency.

4. The Meiri's comment is on Pesachim 103b, as well as Berachot 51b. Note that others say "Me'orei" is simply because the flame is big.

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  1. Perhaps we have become innumerable, like the stars, when Jews can no longer agree among themselves who "counts" and who doesn't. ;)

    Just sayin'...