Parshat Vaetchan by Maital Friedman
In the midst of reviewing the Israelites’ journey through the desert, describing the unique aspects of Israel’s relationship with God, and imploring the Israelites to observe God’s law, Moses actually acts. As opposed to merely standing before the people and speaking, in Deuteronomy 4:41, Moses sets aside three cities of asylum, which grant refuge to those who kill unintentionally from those seeking revenge. The establishment of these cities was commanded in Numbers 35:9-34, but according to verse 9, the obligation to set up these cities, three on each side of the Jordan, only takes effect once the Israelites cross the Jordan into Canaan. So, why is Moses beginning the action of setting up the cities now in the middle of his speech? This surprising pause in speech for the sake of action teaches us valuable lessons.
Rashi explains that Moses knew that these cities did not go into effect until the three on the other side of the Jordan were set aside. However, Moses acted on the principle that a commandment that he could fulfill, he should fulfill. In other words, when an opportunity to begin a mitzvah arises, even if it’s unclear whether one can finish it, one should still perform the aspects of it that one can. The Kli Yakar contextualizes Moses’ actions explaining that Moses chose to fulfill this commandment now as an illustration of his instructions in the previous verse that you should fulfill God’s laws and commandments because it will be good for you and your children. Even if fulfilling the commandment will not be good for you, fulfill it anyway, because it will be good for your children, i.e. they will be able to finish it and benefit from it. Moses illustrates his point, in the middle of his speech, by beginning to fulfill a commandment that he knows will only be completed once he has passed away.
Moses’ actions in these verses can also be seen as an expression of his exuberance and passion for the stories of miracles and gratitude toward God that he is in the middle of recounting. There is a parallel in the language in Deuteronomy 4:41 “thus, Moses sets aside” (Az yavdil Moshe) and Exodus 15:1 “thus Moses and the Children of Israel sing” (Az yashir Moshe u’vnei Yisrael). After the Israelites are safely across the Red Sea, Moses and the Israelites break into a “song for God.” In our parasha, as Moses recounts the miracle of God speaking to the Israelites through fire and choosing them as God’s nation, Moses again feels exuberance. This time, instead of singing, he expresses his passion and emotion through the fulfillment of law. The az at the beginning of the verse in Deuteronomy hearkens back to the exodus and reminds us of the need to act as an expression of emotion. Here, as the Israelites are beginning to create a new nation, Moses expresses gratitude to God by setting down the foundation for a just society. By choosing this commandment before even sending the Israelites into the land of Israel, Moses highlights for the Israelites the centrality of creating and maintaining a just society. In other words, the foremost priority in building a society in their own land is to create a system of justice.