These Are The Words
Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )
Rashi's first comment in the Book of Deuteronomy is one that shows concern for the honor of the people of Israel. This is characteristic of Rashi. He begins each one of the five books of the Torah with a comment that refers in one way or another to the specialness of Israel.
Tosephos questions Rashi's midrashic interpretation.
"These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel across the Jordan, in the wildreness, on the Aravah plain opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel and Lovon and Chatzeiros and Di Zahav."
These are the words - Rashi: Because these are words of reproof and [because] he (Moses) intended to recount here all the places where they angered the Almighty, he therefore said these words in an obscure manner and only mentioned them in hints in order to show the importance of the honor of Israel.
A Question: Why does Rashi interpret these place names as symbolic terms for the sins of Israel? Why doesn't he accept them simply as actual places?
Hint: See the other Rashi-comments on this verse.
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
An Answer: In his ensuing comments on this verse Rashi points out two difficulties with accepting these place-names at face value. First, he says "They were not in the Wilderness, they were in the Plains of Moab!" And further on in his comments Rashi cites Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai who says, "We have reviewed all the Scriptures and have not found places whose names were Tofel or Lovon!" If these were among the places where Moses spoke to the People, why didn't the Torah mention them previously?
On the basis of these questions, Rashi searches for another interpretation of this verse. How does his interpretation help matters?
An Answer: With Rashi's comment we are to read this verse as follows: These are the words [of rebuke] that Moses spoke to the Children of Israel on the other side of the Jordan: (then follows a recitation of place-names which hint at their various sins committed while they wandered in the Wilderness). Thus the place-names do not necessarily denote actual geographical locations. So, in fact, they were in the Planes of Moab (on the other side of the Jordan); they were not presently in the Wilderness. The place-name "wilderness" instead refers to the sin they did while in the wilderness, i.e. worshipping the Golden Calf.
RESPECT FOR THE HONOR OF ISRAEL
Rashi tells us that the reason the sins were only hinted at, and not mentioned explicitly, was out of respect for Israel, so as not to openly criticize and embarrass them.
Can you think of a question on this interpretation?
Hint: Look further on in the parsha.
TOSEPHOS QUESTIONS RASHI
The Moshav Zekanim, a compilation of comments by the Ba'alie Tosephos, asks the following question. If Moses was so concerned with their honor that he did not openly mention their previous sins, why do we find, not so much further on (1:27ff.), that he openly castigates them for the sin of the Spies? And later on (9:15) he criticizes them quite harshly regarding the Golden Calf that they made. From these verses and others, it does not seem that Moses was overly sensitive to their honor. How can we say that his concern for their honor caused him to just hint at their sins in our verse?
The Moshav Zekanim does not offer any answer to this question and therefore says these place-names are in fact places.
Can you think of a defense for Rashi? Why would Moses only hint at their sins here, whereas later on he was most outspoken and direct?
An Answer: A commentary on Rashi, Amar Nekai, which was written by Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, the famous commentator on the Mishna, suggests a very reasonable answer to Tosephos' question. He says that because this is the very first verse in the Book of Devarim, Rashi understood that Moses would be extra sensitive to the honor of the people. But further on, once Moses' oration began, he no longer felt the necessity to speak in hints. On the contrary, there it was important to speak clearly, so that his "mussar" would be correctly understood.
Can you think of another place in the Torah where the idea of not beginning a new Book with criticism is found?
SUPPORT FOR RASHI
An Answer: See Rashi on Bamidbar 9:1. There he explains that the Torah intentionally recorded events not in their chronological order so as not to begin the Book of Bamidbar with an event which would reflect negatively on the People of Israel.