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"Understand the Years of Each Generation"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



"Understand the Years of Each Generation"

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


"On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Mo'av, Moshe began to declare this Torah, saying..." (1:5). Rashi explains that Moshe explained the Torah in seventy languages. This is a very strange explanation: Am Yisrael certainly did not know seventy languages, and even if they had – what would be the purpose of translating into seventy languages, since they surely understood Hebrew best of all?

Rashi's explanation expresses an important idea. The seventy languages represent the seventy cultures of the world. Moshe wished to teach Am Yisrael that the Torah has something to say in every culture. Throughout history, many different cultures have arisen, each in conflict with Judaism from a different point of view, and therefore Judaism has had to address each in an individual way. Moshe's message was that the Torah has an answer for every nation and for every culture.

Modern western culture, for example, maintains that there is no ultimate authority or obligation, such that each person can and should do as he wishes; the rights of the individual are protected as the first priority. In contrast, Judaism teaches that there is an ultimate Authority and a person has not just rights but also obligations.

The argument against Communism is exactly the opposite – Communism recognizes authority and the fact that the individual cannot do as he pleases; the question here is where the authority lies. Every few generations a new culture arises and we must find the way in which Judaism addresses its central tenets.

Commenting on the verse, "Understand the years of each generation," the author of Chiddushei Ha-Rim used to say that every generation must apply the Torah to its era, seeking the elements necessary in order to address the various challenges posed by that generation. This is the function of the "tzaddik" in each generation.

The Torah contains all that is needed to face all these challenges; one has only to know how to seek the answers. The prophet Yishayahu declares,

"So says Hashem, King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of Hosts: I am the first and I am the last, and besides Me there is no God... Do not fear, nor be afraid: did I not declare to you and tell you – and you are My witnesses – Is there any God but Me? There is no rock, none that I know." (44:6-7)

Hashem tells Am Yisrael that there is no God but Him, and reassures them that they should not fear the nations that will come with a view to challenging them. Yishayahu refers here to idolators. Later he describes with mockery the phenomenon of idolatry and its adherents. But Rav Sa'adia Gaon, in his introduction to "Emunot Ve-De'ot," quotes these verses with a view to calming the Jews of his generation in the face of the challenge posed by philosophers deny the validity of Judaism. In each generation there is a different form of idolatry – it may take the form of physical sculptures or that of philosophy. The Torah has an answer for each – and that is exactly what the prophet is teaching.

The Rambam, in his Epistle to Yemen, likewise writes that throughout the generations there will be attempts to conquer Judaism in one of two ways: some will try to achieve this by force, through using the sword, while others will try debating and religious disputation. The Rambam writes that neither of these two groups will be successful, and he quotes the verse from Yishayahu:

"No weapon formed against you will succeed, and every tongue that rises against you in judgment – you will condemn." (54:17)

Sefer Devarim opens with a lengthy introduction: "These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel in the desert, facing Suf, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hatzerot and Di-Zahav." Rashi explains that these names hint at various sins, but a more literal interpretation is provided by the Rashbam, who explains that the Torah wishes to indicate the exact point where Moshe stood – between place 'x' and place 'y', facing point 'z', etc. Thereafter we read an exact account of the timeframe: "And it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Moshe spoke..." – the year, the month and the exact day. And thereafter we find a precise description of the historical period: "After he had slain Sihon, king of the Emori, who dwelled in Cheshbon, and Og, king of Bashan, who dwelled in Ashtarot in Edre'i."

For what reason does the Torah describe the exact place, time and period? Does it matter to us whether Moshe spoke these words on the first day of Shevat or on the first day of Adar? The Torah wishes to teach us that Moshe's words were not disconnected from either the place or the time when they were spoken. We have already mentioned that the Torah has a message for each generation, and that the Torah must be applied to each generation. Here what is being emphasized is that Moshe adapted his words to the specific time and place where they were spoken.

The Gemara (Gittin 56a) teaches that "the humility of R. Zekharia ben Avkulas caused the destruction of our Temple, the burning of the sanctuary and our exile from our land." These are very harsh words. This was a man who was not prepared to sacrifice the offering sent by the Roman emperor because it had a slight blemish. He claimed that people would start saying that blemished animals may be offered (this took place following the incident of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza). The Gemara mentions this act in connection with the verse, "Happy is the man who fears always, but he who hardens his heart will fall into evil" (Mishlei 28:14). Rashi explains the expression "fears always" as meaning someone who takes care to see the future consequences – that nothing bad will result from a certain action.

R. Zekharia ignored the circumstances and the possible consequences of his actions. When a person involves himself in Torah and takes care to fulfill the mitzvot, he must never allow himself to be cut off from the place and time in which he exists. He must look around him and think well how best to apply his Torah learning to the circumstances around him.

(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Devarim 5756 [1996].)


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