As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are confronted with the problem of human vulnerability and the difficulties involved in overcoming our weaknesses. Every year we take it upon ourselves to defeat our selfish inclinations, begin a new chapter and accomplish, once and for all, complete teshuvah (repentance). But every year, especially in the days just before the High Holidays, we realize that we were once again unsuccessful in accomplishing this task during the previous year, and our repentance did not bear much fruit.
We may have started the great mitzvah of repentance, but we never finished it. This feeling causes many of us a great deal of pain, even strong guilt feelings. Indeed, many of us wonder why we should even try once again to fulfill the dream of complete teshuvah. After all, it is nearly certain that we will again fall short in the coming year. What is the point of starting a mitzvah when there is little chance that one will complete it?
At the end of the long journey through the desert, Moshe repeatedly warns his people of the enormous implications if they do not follow the ways of the Torah. Just before the Israelites enter the Trans-Jordanian territory, and in the midst of this heavy discourse, we are informed of Moshe’s startling next move:
“Then Moshe separated three cities on the other side of the Jordan towards the sunrise” (Devarim 4:41). These are the cities of refuge to which the unintentional murderer could flee, after he had accidentally killed a fellow man. (See Bamidbar chapter 35.)
The commentators struggle with this verse, since it is difficult to see the textual context in which it appears. Why should Moshe, in the middle of his ethical discourse, suddenly introduce God’s command to separate these cities of refuge, especially since he immediately resumed his ethical discourse afterwards? Could he not have waited with the appointment of these cities until after he finished these speeches?
This question is even more pertinent when one realizes that these three cities would not even function as areas of refuge until an additional three cities, in the land of Israel proper, would be dedicated for the same purpose! Only after the land was completely captured would these six cities be activated as cities of refuge (Makkoth 9b). So, why the hurry? Why not wait until the Israelites have settled in all of Israel and only then designate them as cities of refuge?
Even more surprising is the fact that Moshe Rabenu knew that he would never be able to consecrate all six of the cities since he was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel. After leading the Jewish people through the desert for nearly forty years, and anticipating the moment he would be able to enter the Promised Land, one isolated incident brings an end to this dream. Instead of speaking to the rock, as God had commanded him, for the purpose of giving water to the people of Israel, he strikes it with his staff. As a result, God tells him that he can never enter the land. Even after pleading with God on several occasions, there is no favorable divine response, and Moshe is asked to no longer request dispensation. (See Bamidbar Chapter 20.)
This presents Moshe with a major problem in his performance of a mitzvah. Is there any purpose in starting a mitzvah when one cannot complete it? What is the point of starting the mitzvah of consecrating these cities when he knows he will never be able to complete it?
Nevertheless, Moshe separates these three cities at his earliest opportunity, i.e. when he and the Israelites find themselves at the very site of these cities in Trans-Jordan. His actions have great meaning. One does not postpone or refrain from doing a mitzvah even when he is sure he will never be able to complete it. On the contrary, one begins a mitzvah, no matter what the outcome or extent of its fulfillment may be. The reason is clear. Even when one does not finish a mitzvah, there is still great value in starting it. Every step towards its completion is a major achievement. And even if all that was achieved seems to have been lost in the end, the value of trying to accomplish the mitzvah has a major impact on the human soul.
It is true that the Yamim Noraim, the High Holidays, often make us wonder why we should try to do teshuva (repentance), knowing quite well that there is a good chance we will not make it this year either. Moshe’s example, however, is an important lesson. One starts a mitzvah even if he is not sure he can complete it. This is all the more true when we realize that Moshe knew without a doubt that he would never be allowed to complete the mitzvah of designating these cities of refuge, yet he still had no doubt that he should start it. We, on the other hand, do not have this problem. Despite last year’s experience, we clearly do have the possibility of completing the mitzvah of teshuvah this year.
Moshe is clearly teaching us that real religious life is not defined by where one finds oneself spiritually, but rather by how hard one tries to get there! Rabbi Joseph Karo alludes to this in his magnum opus, Shulchan Aruch, the codex of Jewish law, when he writes: One should make a supreme effort to get up early in the morning like a lion…
Ketiva ve-chatima tova.