Finding a Sanctuary

I couldn’t help but think of Seinfeld as I looked over this week’s parasha of Va-etchanan.

Many of us remember that the book of Devarim is unique in that it consists almost entirely of a series of speeches delivered by Moshe before his death.  Much of the book is therefore written in the first person, with Moshe using the words “I” or “me.”  At one point in this week’s parasha,however, the narrative changes and suddenly starts speaking of Moshe in the third person.  After a lengthy section on the dangers of idol worship and the need to keep Hashem’s commandments, the Torah suddenly switches voice in describing the appointment of three arei miklat, cities of refuge: az yavdil Moshe shalosh arim be-ever haYarden, “then Moshe set aside three cities on the other side of the Jordan..”

Either there’s an interruption in Moshe’s speech or Moshe suddenly decided to speak about himself in the third person — like Jerry and George’s friend Jimmy in the classic eponymous Seinfeld episode “The Jimmy.”  Indeed, the thirteenth century sage Rabbi Chizkiah ben Manoach, Chizkuni, explains that these are Moshe’s words: he deliberately spoke about himself in the third person to emphasize how grateful the people should be for all of the good that Hashem had done for them to this point, including giving them these cities of refuge.

But what is this section doing here in the middle of a series of reminders to keep the mitzvot and listen to God?  It seems not to fit.  Ramban writes that Moshe gathered the people together to explain the Torah and the importance of its commandments, and he now demonstrated how to keep one of those commandments: he appointed these cities of refuge for accidental murderers.  When the chance to do a mitzvah presents itself, we should grab it, Ramban explains.  Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno agrees, explaining that Moshe wanted to show how wonderful it is to keep the mitzvot (as opposed to just talking about doing so).

Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser, the Malbim, has a sadder explanation: Moshe finally realized that God was not going to let him enter the land of Israel after all, and he wanted to keep one mitzvah associated with the land.  Earlier in our parasha, God basically tells Moshe to stop nagging him about this issue: it’s not going to happen.  Moshe decided to at least take care of the arei miklat before handing the enterprise over to Yehoshua.  The message: sometimes we need to realize the limitations of our situation.  We cannot have it all, and we need to deal with that reality.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, offers a slightly more nuanced explanation: yes. Moshe wanted to show the people the need to seize the opportunity to perform a mitzvah, but he also wanted to show them the importance of doing things far in advance of their time of need.  Planning in advance in this way, he writes, “insures that what one does will be free of error.”  This is great advice for anyone doing anything — certainly mitzvot.  I try to explain to my own kids the need to think things through before a situation arises: what will you do if she’s mean to you again?  What will you do if you need a ride home early from the party?  What could you tell the teacher about the days of school you’re going to miss?  Advance planning is a wonderful quality to teach our kids (and sometimes ourselves, too).

Finally, I’ll offer my own take: Moshe realized the value of a sanctuary.  Many of us are lucky enough to have a place or a space that is safe, relaxing, and therefore holy to us: it could be a favorite window seat in the den, an umbrella and lounge chair at the shore, or a special vacation spot where we feel protected from the rest of the world.  (For many of our children, who are returning home from camp this week, being away in these places can provide such a feeling.)  In The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously commented that Jews create sanctuaries in time, rather than in space: he wrote that “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that… even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: the Day of Atonement.”  

Whatever our sanctuaries are, whether physical, temporal or both, we should appreciate them and help our children to do so as well.

I wish everyone a Shabbat Nachamu of comfort and rest in whatever sanctuary you have.