Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 21 July 2018 / 9 Av 5778

Parshat Devarim

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
ArtscrollLibrary

Fat or Fit?

The last of the five books of the Torah opens with the introductory words: These are the words that Moshe spoke. The Midrash (Sifri) asks: Did Moshe not write the entire Torah? Why are these words singled out? These words have particular significance. The entire book records the remarks of Moshe, a last will and testament, spoken during the last five weeks of his life. And the essence of those remarks is rebuke. The verse cited by the Midrash, a verse which became the catch-phrase to summarize the entirety of the rebuke, is Devarim 32:15: Jerushun became fat and kicked; you became fat, you became thick, you became corpulent. This refers to overindulgence in material abundance and pleasure, leading to forsaking G-d.

Rav Hirsch also attaches great historical significance to this prophetic rebuke, referring to it as the “mournful secret” of Jewish history. In suffering, Israel has generally withstood the test well, but only rarely has it been able to withstand good fortune. Whenever it has grown fat, it has become corpulent and overgrown with fat. The imagery is precise. The more substantial, the fatter the food introduced into the body, the more the body should seek to convert the surplus of nourishment into energy. In theory, the better nourished the body, the more active a person ought to be, and the greater his performance as a result. If successful, he will have control over the abundance and will remain healthy in both mind and body. His greater performance will also increase his moral worth. If, however, he does not act in this manner, and the surplus is merely deposited in his body, he will become corpulent and obese, and instead of having the abundance serve his health, his active self will be overwhelmed by the fat, leading to exhaustion and sluggishness.

Such has been the history of Israel. It failed to utilize its abundance and surplus for increased spiritual and moral performance. Instead, its moral progress lagged behind its material prosperity, and could not remain the master over its riches. Instead of using them for achievement of moral progress, it drowned in its wealth and prosperity, allowing its better self — the spiritual G-dly life within it — to go to sleep. While Israel has weathered danger and persecution, poverty and misery, with remarkable loyalty and commitment, it has not yet stood the test of abundance. You have grown fat, you have growth thick, you have grown corpulent has been the outcome whenever G-d has granted us a period of good fortune.

The formula to reverse this trend was hinted to by our Sages, (Nedarim 81a) in explaining why the Land has gone to ruin: Because they forsook My Torah, which I had placed before them, [meaning] they did not bless the Torah first. The first, fateful budding of misfortune was this: They did not first and foremost praise G-d for the Torah. While they did praise G-d for the Torah, they valued it much as they valued their other possessions and achievements — it did not attain its befitting primacy.

When Torah is in its rightful paramount place, then all roads lead to it. Every step, every endeavor, every object of study, every intellectual pursuit, every celebrated achievement is then approached through the lens of Torah, and is used as a tool in developing our spiritual selves. When the focus is singular and spiritual, then the self does not retreat into an indulgent sleep. In this way, the sluggish corpulence is replaced by an active engagement, and the reserves of abundance can be used as they were always intended — for our personal, national, and global betterment.

  • Sources: Commentary Devarim 32:15; Collected Writings I, Tammuz III, pp. 302-308

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