If At First…

It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either – Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:16

Failure will make you better - Anonymous

Our culture is relentless in driving us forward to do! do! do!   Everything is black and white.  You succeed, or you fail.  You are with me or you are against me.  You are good, or you are bad.  Do it!  Do it!  Do it!

And don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today!

The result of this constant demand for our time, our attention, our perfection is corrosive damage to our goodness and our holiness.  That said, the notion of “getting things done” is hardly new.  After all, it was our great sage Hillel who taught, “If not now, when?”  However, as we can see, our tradition is more nuanced and, frankly, more forgiving than the insistence of the larger culture.

Sometimes, it is better to do some than to try and do it all.

Sometimes, now is too soon.

“Then Moshe set aside three cities on the bank of the Jordan, on the east…” (Devarim 4:41).   At first glance, the narrative is straightforward.  We read these words and focus more on the purpose of these cities than the building of them, which was as cities of refuge.  We pause to laud the compassion and wisdom Moshe once again displays.

And yet, a closer reading raises curious questions.  There is something “off” with the grammar and, knowing that nothing is accidental in Torah, we find ourselves troubled.  Az yavdil translates, “then Moshe will divide three cities…”  That is, Moses will build three cities in the future.  Now we must ask, Did Moshe set these cities aside at that time, or were these cities separated later?

In answering, Rashi seeks a lofty middle ground.  Yes, Moshe did indeed set aside the cities at that time, but they would not be officially designated as Arei Miklat – cities of refuge – until the entire Land of Israel was conquered.  Az and yavdil – present and future.  Rashi teaches that the cities Moshe separated now would only come into existence in the future, when the other cities of refuge were to be designated and, it is worth noting, after Moshe dies.

Which raises a compelling question – why would Moshe begin something that a priori he knew he would not and could not complete?

Our lives are filled with unfinished projects and tasks, things we begin with good intentions and determination but which, for one reason or another, were never realized.   But it is a rare project that we begin knowing in advance that we will not complete it.

What is the sense of such a thing?

The argument – why bother turning your task to something if you can’t complete it, or if your contribution to its solution seems small? – is the argument of yetzer ha’ra!  It is an argument that presumes our lives are small and meaningless.  To embark upon a task that you know you cannot complete is to embrace the transcendence of life; to affirm that there are actions important enough to bequeath to others even though you will never share in their benefit.

Imagine, as the Chofetz Chaim did in giving a mashal, that you are walking along a beach.   As the waves roll in, they deposit jewels and precious stones along the shore.  As far as you can see ahead and behind you, there are glimmering jewels, piling higher and higher.

If such a thing were to happen to you, what would you do?  Would you shrug your shoulders and say, there are too many jewels here for me to pick up all of them, so why even start?  Or, will you begin collecting as many of the precious stones as you are able, knowing each one is precious?

These jewels are like Torah and mitzvot. We can never “mine” all the treasures of either, but we gain unimaginable riches by collecting as much as we can!

So, it is with the last lesson Moshe bequeathed to us.  At the end of his life, communicating his final prophecies, deep in the task of writing 13 sifrei Torah he still found time to set aside the cities of refuge, knowing even as he did they would remain “inactive” until long after he was gone.   He knows the task can’t be completed but he sees an opportunity, a singular opportunity, to perform one more mitzvah, one more good deed and he embraces that opportunity, knowing that each mitzvah has value and worth beyond imagining.

How different Moshe’s lesson from our own demanding culture, our “black or white, all or nothing, are you with me or against me…” ethos that keeps us from doing what we can because we can never do all that we want.

Moshe’s behavior teaches us that Judaism values genuine effort even more than accomplishment…

Effort more than accomplishment!  How distinct, how righteous Judaism stands in opposition to the crassness of the larger culture… but wait!  Sadly, the lessons of our tradition are too often lost not only on the larger culture but also for too many in our own community.

Too many so-called “leaders” judge accomplishments and punish “mere” effort.  And too often to tragic ends.

When the reading of Torah is completed, the Torah is lifted for all to see.  The congregation proclaims, v’zot haTorah asher sam Moshe l’fnei b’nai Yisrael! (Devarim 4:44) The Kli Yakar notes that this pasuk refers not to the entire Torah but rather zot haTorah, this Torah, calling attention to the fact Moshe could not complete the task of establishing the cities of refuge.

Moshe’s final lesson to us is that we can only – and we must – do each mitzvah to the extent we are able.  Another perhaps could do more.  Another might do less.  But we are not to be compared to others in their performance or accomplishments.  We stand in a unique and personal relationship with mitzvot.  This is the Torah Moshe placed before us!

And yet… and yet… so many of the so-called leaders of our community do exactly the opposite.  Rather than provide refuge, they render judgement.  Rather than build up, they tear down.  As a result, they do damage to the gentle – and sometimes fragile – souls for which they are responsible.

Due to their relentless demands, we witness young, precious Jewish souls lost to suicide and drugs.  Oh, we will wail and bemoan the losses, but we will do so while we avoid our own responsibility in these tragedies.

Each of these young people, each of our OTD children gave up.  They threw up their arms in surrender.  Too often because what they did and who they were was never “good enough.”  What they did, as judged by their yeshivas, schools, rebbeim, moros, and principals was incomplete, never enough.  They never “finished” what everybody around them thought they should finish.

They were not praised for what they could do.  They are damned and demeaned for what they don’t do.

If only these “leaders” learned the lessons of so many prominent men and women who became great only because of their failures, not in spite of them.  Or, lehavdil, if only they learned that each time the Torah is lifted high we are reminded that just before he left us, Moshe’s work was incomplete; he did not finish, but what he started (the task of arei miklat) was more than enough.

It is powerful that the pasuk, “v’zot haTorah” appears in our parasha immediately after the pesukim telling us about Moshe setting aside the three cities of refuge.  This association is no accident!  It, as much as each word and letter, exists to teach us something deep and important.

In understanding the power of this proximity, we are reminded of the Talmudic dispute between R’ Yochanan and Reish Lakish about chatzi shiur asur min haTorah – is transgressing half an issur forbidden?  For example, if one ate half an olive’s worth of forbidden food, is that considered an issur?   On the other hand, if one ate a half an olive’s worth of matzah, did he fulfill the mitzvah?

In other words, is it possible, to fulfill half a mitzvah worth, or not?

Our parasha suggests that the answer is, Yes! After all, we see that Moshe set aside only half the number of the cities of refuge. The other half, the three on the other side of the Jordan were not yet even available to be separated.  Nevertheless, the three he did separate were certainly considered as a mitzvah, because ultimately, they were to be joined with the other three.  So, half the mitzvah is already considered as a mitzvah.

This is why the Torah proclaims, v’zot haTorah asher sam Moshe!  This is the Torah which Moshe placed before the Children of Israel; the Torah that teaches me that even when I do half a mitzvah, even when only chatzi shiur is done, it is a mitzvah nonetheless.

If half a mitzvah was enough for Moshe, if it is enough for God Himself why is it not enough in our demanding religious systems?

If not now, when?

Sivan Rahav-Meir, reading Rashi’s words, “Moses said, ‘If there is a commandment that can be fulfilled – I will fulfill it’” suggests this is what Hillel meant.  My own perspective is slightly different.  Now is better than later and later is better than never.  Do what you are able.  Pick up one gem or ten.  That alone should be incentive enough to do more later.


And be fulfilled in the doing.