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Jewish Journal

Priorities

Parshat Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32: 1-52)

by Rabbi Elazar Muskin

September 28, 2006 | 8:00 pm

We love to play Jewish Geography. Whenever we meet a fellow Jew for the first time, we try to find mutual people or places we might have in common.
 
I was leading a Jewish history tour to Prague when our group encountered a group of seniors from Israel. We immediately began to play Jewish Geography. It didn't take long before one woman from Israel said she lived in Los Angeles before making aliyah. Although I didn't recognize her, she had owned a home just a few blocks away from where I live.
 
"Which synagogue do you belong to?" she asked.
 
When I told her, she asked, "Is Rabbi Muskin still the rabbi?"
 
Not wanting to reveal my identity, I said, "I hope so."
 
An hour latter, we met the group from Israel a second time. As soon as the lady from Los Angeles saw me, she came running over and said, "I feel so foolish and rude. I didn't ask you the most important question. What is your name?"
 
Every so often, it happens to each of us. We fail to ask the most important question, we fail to prioritize, and as a result, we run the risk of embarrassing ourselves.
 
Prioritizing, the ability to determine what needs to be asked and said first, actually takes center stage in this week's Torah portion.
 
The Torah states that Moses died betzem hayom hazeh, or at midday (Deuteronomy 32:48). Rashi, the classical medieval commentator, notes that on two other occasions the Torah uses this expression, and in each one priorities seem to be involved.
 
The first event that occurred at high noon concerns Noah and the deluge. Rashi explains that the flood happened at midday because the people would not listen to Noah. When he told them that God was ready to destroy the world because they refused to mend their ways, they scoffed and declared instead that they would not allow anyone to enter the ark. God responded, "Watch and see who is in charge. The flood will happen right in the middle of the day, and I dare you to try to stop Noah."
 
The second place in the Torah that high noon involved priorities involved the Egyptians who thought their protests could stop the Exodus. God responded, "Behold, I shall take them out at midday and whoever has the power to object, let him come and object."
 
In this week's Torah portion, we encounter misplaced priorities again in the description of Moses' death. The Children of Israel proclaimed, "If we perceive that Moses is about to die, we will not let him."
 
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explained this unusual reaction because they said, "The man who took us out of Egypt, and parted the sea for us, and brought down the manna for us, and made the pheasants fly to us, and brought up the well for us, and gave us the Torah, we will not let him die. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, 'Behold, I will take him in at midday...'"
 
The only problem is the absurdity to think that anyone has the power to stop the Angel of Death. Israeli Torah scholar Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz suggested that this demonstrates the power of collective prayer. When the Children of Israel gather and pray fervently, they can even overpower the Angel of Death.
 
This whole theory, however, didn't work. Moses died. What happened to the power of Israel's prayer? The 19th century commentator The Kli Hemda notes that the problem rests in the order of priorities of the Jewish people. We told God that Moses was great because he took us out of Egypt, parted the sea, brought us the manna, gave us fowl to eat and brought up the well of water. Only after all of this did we note that he also gave us the Torah. Our priorities were skewed.
 
We first and foremost saw Moses as the supplier of the good life. It was only a second thought that we remembered the Torah. When our priorities are so twisted, when we can't appreciate the real contribution of Moses, then our prayers are ineffective.
 
What a powerful lesson that every one must learn:
 
Both the nation and the individual must first set priorities straight if we ever hope to receive God's blessings.
 


Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

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