1. This farbrengen of Shabbos Nachamu also has a connection with the Fifteenth of Av, as in fact Shabbos Nachamu and the Fifteenth of Av have a common theme. Shabbos Nachamu, the first of the “Seven Weeks of Consolation,” is always the Shabbos following Tishah BeAv, initiating the period of consolation and rectification for the tragic aspects of Tishah BeAv.

The Gemara says about the Fifteenth of Av:

There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the Fifteenth of Av..., (Taanis 26b)

this was because:

It is the day on which the generation of the wilderness ceased to die out. (Ibid 30a)

During the 40 years of wandering in the desert, when the day of Tishah BeAv approached, each year, everyone would dig a grave for himself and lie in it over the night of Tishah BeAv. The next morning there would be an announcement, “The living ones should rise [and separate from the dead].”

When the decree of dying in the desert was lifted, the Jews were not aware of this and once again they dug graves and lay in them. When on the morrow all arose, they thought that perhaps they had miscalculated the date of the ninth. It was not until the night of the 15th — when they saw the full moon — that they realized that in fact G‑d had rescinded the decree. So they proclaimed that day as a holiday.

Thus the Fifteenth of Av rectified the first tragic event of Tishah BeAv.

This theme may also be connected to the weekly portion — Vaeschanan — where we read:

Only you, the ones who remained attached to G‑d your L‑rd, are all alive today. (Devarim 4:4)

This verse of course was spoken to all the Jews who remained alive after the decree was abolished! As Rashi says:

.. because those who were to die in the wilderness had already ceased to exist and these belonged to those about whom it is written “... are all alive today.” [see above] (Rashi Bamidbar 20:22)

The theme of the Fifteenth of Av comes not only as a rectification for the decree of the desert, but also for the tragedy of Tishah BeAv. When our sages stated that “There were no holidays like the Fifteenth of Av...,” the Zohar explains, that then “the moon stood in its full state” (a reference to the Jewish people who are often compared to the waxing and waning moon). This indicates that from the depths of suffering of the ninth of Av the Jews rose to a state of “fullness” and celebration on the Fifteenth of Av.

In other words, the lofty state of celebration which is reached on the Fifteenth of Av is inversely proportional to the deepest depths of suffering reached on Tishah BeAv. It thus rises higher than the 15th of Nissan (Pesach), or the 15th of Tishrei (Sukkos), when the moon is also full, but since they do not follow so terrible and sad a day, therefore they do not rise to such a lofty state of joy.

No doubt, Pesach also followed the descent of Egyptian exile, but that was the galus of a people who had not yet received the Torah, nor had yet been appointed to the role of being “A Kingdom of Priests and Holy Nation.” Years later, when the Torah Nation was driven into exile the suffering was immeasurably greater, hence the ascent of the Fifteenth of Av surpasses the 15th of Nissan.

The joy of Sukkos comes after the serious soul-searching teshuvah period, from Elul through Yom Kippur. It is, however, crystal clear that the descent of the teshuvah period is not at all like the descent of Tishah BeAv.

In Likkutei Dibburim, the Previous Rebbe vividly describes the atmosphere which enveloped the city of Lubavitch during the “Three Weeks” — they were truly “days of mourning” — and compared and contrasted it with the feelings and attitudes of the people after Shabbos Nachamu and then during the month of Elul, when,

The atmosphere was filled with the “fragrant odor of Elul” and the “teshuvah-wind blew.” It was expressed through reciting Tehillim, studying Chassidus, etc.

This description was no idle reminiscence but a lesson for all generations — even in other places and at other times.

It is thus evident, that the Fifteenth of Av rises above all the other holidays, because it follows the ninth of Av, which truly saw the greatest descent for the Jewish people. Hence the association with Shabbos Nachamu, bringing the consolation for, and correction of, the tragedy of destruction and exile.

When the Fifteenth of Av falls on Friday, as it does this year, Divine Providence would instruct us to find the special qualities of this coincidence above and beyond every other possible confluence of days and dates (even when the 15th of Av falls on Shabbos itself).

What is the relationship of Erev Shabbos (Friday) to Shabbos?

(A) He who took trouble [to prepare] on the eve of the Shabbos can eat on the Shabbos. (Avodah Zarah 3a)

And the more you toil on Friday, your eating (pleasure) will increase proportionally on Shabbos! Consequently, if on Friday one stands on a lofty plane, then the pleasure of Shabbos will be proportionally loftier. Now, although it would be absurd to say that the Shabbos “received” from the weekday, yet when we stand higher on the preceding weekday, the pleasure of the following Shabbos draws down a higher intensity of light (from its own source).

(B) Shabbos effects “completion” in all aspects of Erev Shabbos and the entire preceding week, it effects a perfection and an immeasurable uplifting. Shabbos is infinitely higher than the weekdays, so much so, that we must pronounce the Kiddush — sanctification — when advancing from the weekdays to the Shabbos, or Havdalah — separation — when we return from Shabbos to the weekday.

So, when the Fifteenth of Av is on Friday:

(A) Having risen to the loftiness of the Fifteenth of Av before Shabbos, it follows that the pleasure of Shabbos Nachamu will be in a much loftier manner. At the same time, (B) through the perfection of Shabbos there will be a completion and perfection effected in all aspects of the Fifteenth of Av.

Strangely enough, there is a special quality in occurring on Friday, even as compared to falling on Shabbos itself.

When the Fifteenth of Av occurs on Shabbos, we have a completeness brought about by its concurrence with Shabbos.

But when the Fifteenth of Av occurs on Friday, it reaches its completion on Friday, and Shabbos adds an additional loftiness in the two forms discussed above. And although you will note that this addition is really only a continuation, yet we find that a continuation may also bring a genuine increase, in the manner of: “we may raise an object to a higher grade of sanctity” (Berachos 28a). [Just as the “new face” adds a new aspect of joy during the seven days of feasting that continue after the day of a wedding.]

Having established this point, we may turn the case around and ask, “If so, what is so special about Friday? We would have the same phenomenon of Shabbos completing the week even if the Fifteenth of Av falls on another weekday, would we not?”

In truth, however, Friday has the special aspect of being “Erev Shabbos.” Even the average Jew knows that while preparation for Shabbos should start from Sunday, it still does not compare to the intense, concentrated preparations of Erev Shabbos. As we find in the Gemara, concerning one who “races in the street” because of the preparations for Shabbos — it applies only on Friday!

Hence the special qualities of the Fifteenth of Av this year, when it occurs on Friday.

With this in mind, we realize the importance of increasing our Divine service in all aspects relating to the 15th of Av. What is the theme of the Fifteenth of Av?

From this day onward, he who increases will have his life prolonged. (Taanis 31a)

As Rashi interprets:

.. He who adds the nights to the days and increases his study of Torah, he will have his life prolonged. (loc. cit.)

Even the average Jew must undertake an increase in the study of Torah. If he previously fulfilled his minimum requirement of Torah study by learning one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening, he must resolve that this year the increase will be with greater effort, qualitatively and quantitatively.

All special phenomena that occur during the year, which we categorize by the term “once a year,” also radiate their unique features to illuminate the rest of the year.

This concept is especially evident when we speak of the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. All other holidays of the year are more than one day — thus when the Talmud relates: “There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the Fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement,” it really emphasizes the aspect of: “Once each year” (Shmos 30:10), which radiates throughout the year.

May our discussion evoke positive action, so that we will merit the actual building of the Third Beis HaMikdash. “The Temple of the future, for which we long, is built and perfect” (Rashi, Sukkah 41a). It is but waiting for us to reveal it and bring it down through our action in this physical world, by converting the profane materialism into a spiritually-imbued physical existence.

We will also merit the fulfillment of the promise: “Awake and sing you that dwell in the dust” (Yeshayahu 26:19), led by Moshe our teacher: “He was the first redeemer and he will be the ultimate redeemer” (Zohar I, p. 253a), who will come with his entire generation and all the Jews of all generations, to the true and complete redemption, speedily and truly in our days.

2. We previously discussed the unique quality of the Fifteenth of Av coinciding with Friday which is Erev Shabbos. It should be added that Friday’s special qualities are not limited only to the fact that it is the day of preparation for Shabbos. Rather, it has the attributes of being a unique day among the six days of the week (because it is the final day of the days of creation).

Although these two characteristics (1) being the last work day and (2) the eve and preparation for Shabbos are interdependent: i.e. there are seven days in the week, therefore, ipso facto, the sixth day must be the eve of the seventh, yet, from a Torah viewpoint, no circumstance is inevitable, and therefore, each occurrence, or facet of a phenomenon, must be given individual importance and can teach us a separate lesson in our Divine service. And although in reality the two phenomena “must” coincide, nevertheless, since Torah views all existence as coming from the Holy One, Blessed be He, who is not limited by any limitation nor controlled by any rule of law — thus in theory, at least, the two aspects are independent. Likewise, although G‑d set the world to follow the laws of nature in reality — in theory this rule does not necessarily apply.

It was the Baal Shem Tov who taught that every detail of existence occurs by Divine Providence and therefore carries a specific lesson for man in his Divine service to his Maker.

Thus, in analyzing the sixth day of the week we find the theme of Friday as: (A) one day of the week in which: “Each day performed its own work” (Zohar III 94b), and, (B) the eve and day of preparation for Shabbos. Consequently we will garner a lesson from both of these independent facets. And we will find a special quality in the occurrence of the Fifteenth of Av on Friday — as one day of the week.

When the Torah tells us of the daily sequence of the six days of creation, it concludes the daily description by saying: “And G‑d saw that it was good.”

But when the creation of Friday is completed the Torah says:

G‑d saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. (Bereishis 1:31)

This very good aspect of Friday is not because it is Erev Shabbos, for two reasons: (1) Shabbos has not been mentioned yet, and (2) the “very good” is clearly referring to all “that was made” — the completion of creation!

Do you see the startling similarity to the 15th of Av? The theme of this day is, “There never were in Israel greater days of joy (lit. good days) than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur.” There are many good days (holidays) during the year. Yet the “good” of the 15th of Av was much greater to the point that no other “good day” could compare!

Is not this the theme of Friday relative to the other days of the week! All the days of the week are labeled “good” — but Friday gets the superlative very good; very good beyond measure, the ultimate and consummate good, analogous to the superlative good of the Fifteenth of Av.

So we come to recognize the quality of the Fifteenth of Av as it occurs on a Friday (not because it is Erev Shabbos). When the very good of Friday combines with the special good day of the Fifteenth of Av, then the superiority and insurmountable goodness of the day is expressed not only by the date of the month, but also by the day of the week.

Surprisingly, this will express a quality surpassing even the quality of the Fifteenth of Av which falls on Shabbos. Shabbos may have many great attributes, being blessed and sanctified, but it is not described with the superlative very good or even with the simple adjective, good.

What aspect bestows goodness on the six weekdays? The aspect of action-creation, and although Shabbos clearly transcends the six work days, in the aspect of action-work it must stand aside. So Friday is described as very good because of the perfection of action, while Shabbos is not given the descriptive good at all.

This distinction is elementary and may be easily understood by the average person and even by a small child. The Talmud teaches us that: “A man prefers a kav (one measure) of his own to nine of his neighbor’s” (B. Metzia 37b).

Although his friend generously gives him nine portions, he still appreciates the one portion that he worked for and earned by himself, all the more. A child may receive handsome gifts from his parents or relatives, yet, when he succeeds in creating something on his own — he is proud and elated and it becomes more precious to him than all the elaborate gifts from others.

The analogy is clear.

On Shabbos we have lofty themes, such as pleasure, which are bestowed from above, given to us by our “Friend,” the Holy One, Blessed be He. What is lacking is the work and individual action, for “All your work is done.” Consequently you don’t have the aspect of “... desires his own portion.”

On the other hand, although the weekdays may lack the superior qualities of Shabbos, nevertheless, they do have the quality of “his own one portion,” effected by his effort and action. So, Shabbos, which lacks the individual action is not called good, the five days of the week which do have the potential for effecting the personal action are called good, while Friday has the power to bring completion and perfection to man’s actions and is therefore called very good.

When the Fifteenth of Av occurs on Friday, there is an added emphasis on the aspect of action. For the sixth day also has the quality of completing the deed.

But why speak about this on Shabbos when “all your work is done”? The answer is that: “We may attend to communal matters on the Shabbos” (Shabbos 150a), therefore we must speak on Shabbos of the actions to be done when Shabbos ends.

In explaining the importance of action related to Friday — very good — we should connect this theme with the Torah portion that we start reading at Minchah today.

“Eikev” (heel) is the lowest part of a person’s foot — there is nothing lower; this is analogous to simple action. The Torah says: “And it will be (eikev) that you will listen,” this is the quality of action, for the “deed is essential.”

Especially in this time of the “heels” of Mashiach — our actions will quicken his coming.

And it is through action in the mundane, corporeal world, that an abode is made for the Shechinah, and through our efforts and actions in the period of galus we can uplift even the lowest levels — so that we will have no room for a further exile after the future redemption.

Chassidus explains that, “The beginning is bound with the end and the end is bound with the beginning,” so that the eikev, the lowest level, is really the opposite end of the spectrum from listening, to the point of delight — the highest aspect of a person. Nevertheless the coexistence of these two opposites brings the delight.

As the Torah tells us concerning Avraham: “All this is because Avraham obeyed My voice” (Bereishis 26:5), which the Previous Rebbe explained to mean, “Avraham listened to My voice and it penetrated all levels of Avraham to the bottom of his heels!” The result was dedicated Torah study and observance of mitzvos.

Being the first of our Patriarchs, Avraham opened and paved the way for all Jews to follow the Divine service of eikev, that even the lowest aspects of our Divine service will be imbued with the highest themes, for the end is bound to the beginning.

When the Fifteenth of Av, the loftiest of holidays, occurs on Friday which is very good, we remember that the goodness of Friday is connected with action: there is a coexistence of the loftiest with the simplest.

3. Regarding the general theme of the Fifteenth of Av we are faced with a perplexing “Klotz-Kashe” which, as often is the case, no one notices.

The Fifteenth of Av is regarded as a very lofty holiday:

There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the Fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement. (Taanis 26b)

We do not say the Tachanun (confession) prayers on that day.

In what way are we directed to actually observe this holiday? The Shulchan Aruch relates to us the directive, that:

“From this day onward, he who increases, will have his life prolonged,” meaning, as Rashi says: “From the Fifteenth of Av onwards he who adds the nights to the days and increases his study of Torah, he will have his life prolonged.”

And since the Gemara tells us:

The night was created only to facilitate study. (Eruvin 65a)

It is clear that we must increase in study of Torah during the night hours. This relates to study, and since: “Study is greater, for it leads to action” (Kiddushin 40b), it is clear that Torah study will bring to increased observance of mitzvos and all good things, for: “The true good is only Torah” (Avos 6:3).

We see from this, that the theme of the Fifteenth of Av, (A) continues into the following days, and (B) in a manner of continuous increase and improvement. Yet at the same time the theme of the Fifteenth of Av is associated with the fact that the moon is in a state of fullness, as we quoted earlier from the Zohar.

This is a contradiction! The Fifteenth of Av conveys the principle of increasing into the future, while the moon begins to wane right after the 15th!

None of the commentaries has approached this perplexing enigma. But we know that: “The words of Torah are sparse in some places and rich in other places” (Yerushalmi), and therefore one must search in all of Torah for an answer. As our sages say:

If you study, and find that you do not come up with an answer — this void is from yourself, you have not been diligent enough in your study. (Yerushalmi, Shabbos 1:4)

The monthly lunar cycle includes: the stage of full moon, also the first half of the month when it waxes, and the subsequent period when the moon wanes, until it disappears completely, only to reemerge again as a new moon. (There is also the period when it disappears completely.)

The Jews count by the moon because they are compared to the moon. “The Jewish people count by the moon because we are compared to the moon” (Sukkah 24a), and, as we recite in the Blessing of the New Moon:

Who likewise are destined to be renewed.... (Blessing of New Moon)

If so, we must say that these two phenomena, waxing from smaller to greater and waning from higher to lower must be mirrored in the Divine service of the Jewish people.

But this is very strange.

Agreed, that a Jew’s Divine service must wax and grow from level to level, but can we say that once he has reached the goal of fullness, he should decrease his action and activity? We have a rule in Torah: “We may raise an object to a higher grade of sanctity,” not lower it!

It behooves us therefore to deduce, that in the first half of the month the incomplete moon represents something negative and lacking — while in the second half of the month — the unfull moon represents a positive quality.

How does the Talmud describe the diminution of the moon? G‑d said: “Go then and make yourself smaller” (Chullin 60b). This is analogous to the description of the Jews: “You are among the smallest of all the nations” (Devarim 7:7). As Rashi explains: “You humble yourselves before Me.” This is the quality of “bittul” — humility!

When a Jew reaches a state of perfection in his Divine service, there is a threat of falling into pride or haughtiness. To eliminate this problem we need the attribute of bittul — “diminish yourself.” Do not minimize your work or your good influence on others, or your radiation of light. We speak only of your ego! Minimize your self-esteem!

Interestingly, the moon, itself, always radiates the same amount of light (half the moon is always lighted by the sun) it is only relative to our view of the moon that it appears to wane and wax! (Because of the axis and period of its rotation around the earth.)

So, too, when we speak of the attribute of humility and self-nullification, it must increase after reaching fullness, in a regular, step by step order, each day a bit more humility, a bit less shine.

In this respect there is a greater quality in the decrease, of the latter half of the month, over the increase, in the former part of the month. The increase is in the radiation of light, the decrease reaches higher, to the level of the source of the light. To reach the point of birth of the new moon there must first be the advancing improvement of the decreasing light during the second half of the month!

This concept is expressed in Tanya:

Whoever is close to G‑d, with ever-exceeding uplifting and elevation, must be even more humble — to the lowliest plane, as it is written: “From afar the L‑rd has appeared to me” (Yirmeyahu 31:2). And it is known that “all that are before Him are esteemed as nothing” (Zohar I:11b). Hence, whoever is more “before Him” is that much more as nothing, naught and non-existent. (Iggeres Hakodesh 2)

Consequently, in our Divine service, our first responsibility is to increase light, day by day, till we reach the state of fullness, then we must exercise restraint and self-abnegation, day by day, to the point of ego disappearance, which brings us closer to the source of light. The cycle then renews itself and resumes its upward movement with the revelation (on Rosh Chodesh) of,

A new and renewed light which never yet shone ... a new, more sublime light descends, so sublime a light as has never yet shone since the beginning of the world, (Iggeres Hakodesh 14)

this being a constant monthly phenomenon.

As we said, the Fifteenth of Av indicates and calls for an increase in Torah, mitzvos and all matters of goodness. Well, no problem that the second half of the month sees the moon wane — it is increasing its humility and moving closer to a unity with the source of light.

Another theme mentioned in the Mishnah concerning the Fifteenth of Av was about the Jewish daughters:

The daughters of Yerushalayim came out and danced in the vineyards exclaiming at the same time, “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose....” (Taanis 26b)

The institution of betrothal as explained in Chassidus emphasizes the aspect of bittul as a preparation for unity. For when the groom pronounces: “You are betrothed to me,” the bride does not respond but remains still, the ultimate bittul; this then brings to the unity of marriage. (The bittul of the moon brings to the renewal and unity of the sun and moon.)

This system of Divine service acts as a preparation for the month of Elul.

In Likkutei Torah the theme of Elul is portrayed for us by a parable of:

A King, who before returning to his capital city, is greeted in the surrounding fields by his loyal subjects, so, too, during the month of Elul we go out to greet the light of His Holy Countenance in the fields. (Likkutei Torah, Rosh Hashanah 32b)

How do we prepare ourselves for this great revelation of the King in the field? The answer is, the bittul which begins from the Fifteenth of Av.

And as Chassidus explains, on the verse:

But to this man will I look, to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit and trembles at My word, (Yeshayahu 66:2)

that through the bittul of prayer we are able to reach to the revelation of the Ein Sof.

This is also connected to Torah study which is enhanced by the preface of humility. As we say in the Amidah; “Let my soul be as dust to all. Open my heart to Your Torah” (Siddur).

Ponder on this for a moment.

Success in Torah study normally depends on intellect and understanding — using the deductive ability of the mind. Faith alone, no matter how strong or firm, will not take the place of actual mental study. So why do we need bittul for success in study? Doing mitzvos — which depends in carrying out the will and desire of the Holy One, Blessed be He, needs humility and acceptance — bittul — but abstract study needs intellectual involvement. The mind must bite into the subject matter; the rabbis are called “kings” and the Torah becomes “yours.”

Despite this reasoning, we need the preface of bittul to approach the pure study of Torah; “Let my soul be as dust to all, [You] open my heart to Your Torah.”

As a result, the two themes of the Fifteenth of Av: to increase Torah study, etc., and to decrease the light of the moon, really are compatible and complementary. Because we must increase Torah study daily, we must increase the daily preface of bittul.

The deed is essential and the lesson we must take from the Fifteenth of Av is to increase our Torah, but first to pray, “Let my soul be as dust to all. Open my heart to Your Torah.” And since this prayer is said with devotion and sincerity at a time which is propitious, G‑d will surely heed our supplications and grant our wishes that we will find success in increasing our Torah study, and our hearts will truly be open and receptive to the light of Torah. And this will add “life to our lives” in all matters of goodness.

All this should fit in with the desires and needs of the simple Jew, one who has no profound knowledge of esoteric spiritual matters. He will not be satisfied with spiritual blessing. The benevolence must express itself in his down to earth physical needs.

We find an example of this in the incident which the Gemara relates about Choni the Circle Maker. His prayers for rain evoked a torrential storm and his disciples had to convince him that it was “too much goodness,” all they wanted was normal rain, relative to the needs of the world. So he prayed again for moderate rainfall so that the world could benefit from it.

Spiritual blessing is certainly more lofty than physical goodness but not everyone can appreciate it. We want simple down to earth beneficence.

May all this discussion come to reality in increased Torah, increased humility, and then, more life, true life — and the true and complete redemption through our righteous Mashiach.

* * *

4. Let us study the verse:

Moshe then designated three cities on the east of the Jordan, (Devarim 4:41)

and let us see what Rashi says on these words:

He set his attention to be zealous for the matter — to set them apart. (Rashi loc. cit.)

In respect to Rashi’s approach, which interprets the word “yavdil” (designated) as referring to the thought, or attention, to later designate the cities, the classic commentaries on Rashi state that Rashi justifies this interpretation in his commentary on the verse, “Az Yashir Moshe”:

On Az Yashir, Rashi writes:

(With regard to the usage of the future, “yashir”), the meaning is: Then — i.e. when he saw the miracle it entered his mind that He would sing a song. Similar is, “Then Yehoshua would speak” (Yehoshua 10:12); and similar, “and a house he would make for Pharaoh’s daughter” (I Kings 7:8), which signifies “he purposed in his heart that he would make it for her.” So also, yashir, here signifies: his heart told him that he should sing, and thus did he actually do, as it states: “And they (Moshe and Israel) spoke as follows: ‘I will sing unto the L‑rd.’” And in the same way in the case of Yehoshua, it means: (then) — when he saw the miracle (mentioned in that narrative) his heart told him (prompted him) to speak, and thus did he actually do, as it is stated: “And he spoke before the eyes of all Israel....” This too teaches us that the letter “yud” (as a prefix of the imperfect) is used in reference to intention (to do a thing). (Rashi, Shmos 15:1)

Normally the word “az” means then, in the past tense, if so, how can it be followed by the word “yashir” — will sing — in the future tense? Therefore Rashi explains, that the future yashir refers to a time before the actual singing — when the song was still in the future — when was that? When it was in his thought to sing.

From there we draw a rule for our term here: “az” — past tense, yavdil — future tense. Ipso facto, yavdil must mean the thought to designate, and later to be carried out in action. Rashi of course relies on his lengthy exposition in Shmos about the term Az Yashir, and need not go into all the details here.

However, it appears that several discrepancies have crept into the Rashi here, which are not clear.

(A) In translating Az Yashir, Rashi says clearly and simply, “It entered his mind that he would sing.” Whereas here Rashi states: “He set his attention to be zealous for the matter etc.” Where does this zealousness come from?

(B) A point which Rashi does make, with good reason, in translating Az Yashir is: What motivated Moshe to sing? Answer: “When he saw the miracle.” Why are we shortchanged here in Vaeschanan — where Rashi ignores this question and goes directly into the explanation of Yavdil, that he thought to designate. Why not give attention here to the same question: What triggered this act, at this time, i.e. what does the word Az teach us here?

We cannot say that Moshe designated the cities now, because he was just commanded to do so, since this incident does not follow directly after G‑d’s command to designate cities of refuge — that was in the portion of Maasei. This section of the Torah took place on the first of Shvat in the fortieth year, a considerable time span later.

Another point to ponder: Rashi continues:

And although they were not to serve as cities of refuge until those of Canaan proper were set apart for that purpose, Moshe said, any duty that it is possible for me to perform I will perform. (Ibid)

Normally, when Rashi relates two thoughts, he introduces each with a separate, independent caption. Here we see him putting two completely different thoughts under the same caption. Why?

This question is even more perturbing because of the different import of the two points.

On the one hand, Rashi says that “Moshe set his attention to be zealous for the matter,” clearly something motivated Moshe to make haste and not lose the opportunity to designate the cities of refuge.

In the latter part of the Rashi, however, it implies that really there was no rush, for in any case the cities would not operate until the other cities of refuge would be designated many years later. Despite this fact, Moshe felt that since the possibility arose for him to perform this duty he did not want to procrastinate. Clearly we are dealing with contradictory intentions, and meanings.

The Explanation:

There is no need for Rashi to indicate the cause for Moshe’s alacrity, simply, because it is obvious and self-evident. A few verses prior to Az Yavdil the Torah says:

He will drive away before you nations that are greater and stronger than you so as bring you into their land, and give them to you as a heritage, as [He is doing] today. (Ibid:38)

Says Rashi:

“Even as you see today” (loc. cit.). Three verses later we find “Az Yavdil.” Now that Moshe was given the word to tell the Jewish people “... so as to bring you to their lands ... today,” he realized that the time was now. They were literally on the threshold of the Holy Land. So he grabbed the opportunity.

Back in Maasei when the commandment was first given to the Jewish people Moshe had still hoped that there might be a chance that he could enter Eretz Yisrael with the people. So he did not rush to designate the cities of refuge, He figured that he would bide his time and when G‑d would permit him to enter the land he would then designate all six cities at once, after all, the three in Trans-Jordan were dependent on the three in Canaan, anyway.

But now that they had seen the destruction of Sichon and Og, and G‑d had told Moshe to emphasize “today” — he realized that the time had come. (He had also been told in the interim that he would not be permitted to enter the Holy Land.)

Here Rashi adds:

“He set his attention to be zealous for the matter.” Moshe actually had trepidations, being afraid that now he might lose the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of designating the cities of refuge. He might not be permitted to do it — maybe G‑d would wait until all six could be designated at once, so he “... set his attention to be zealous.”

Clearly this approach was not necessary in the case of the “Song of the Sea”; no one was going to stop Moshe from singing praise!

One might still ponder, if these three cities would not operate until the other three would be designated, what did Moshe accomplish?! For this reason Rashi adds:

“Any duty that it is possible for me to perform, I will perform.” Designating the cities was also a mitzvah, and Moshe did not want to lose a mitzvah.

Rashi connects both thoughts, because the underlying reasoning is connected — because he heard the word “today” and he knew that the six cities were interrelated (and he might be denied the mitzvah) — therefore he was zealous and rushed to designate the cities at that time.

This illuminates another puzzling point.

At the beginning of our portion Moshe had told the Jewish people: “Only you, the ones who remained attached to G‑d your L‑rd, are all alive today” (Ibid. 4:4). Is it necessary to assign cities of refuge for such good people — who would need it? But when one remembers that the designation of these cities at this time would not initiate their actual function, but, rather, only to provide Moshe with another opportunity for a mitzvah, we can understand that Moshe designated the cities because it was a good deed that he was able to perform.