Eating Elephants (Kosher Ones, That Is)

Parashat Va'etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

Have you ever been overwhelmed at what seemed like an impossible task? We can respond to this in one of two ways. The first is to give up without even trying, because we instantly know that we will not be able to complete the task. The alternative, however, is to get our minds off of the impossibility of the task and onto the responsibility at hand. If we focus on the immediate requirements of the task and work our hardest on what we can do, then we might accomplish more than we realize.

Moses was faced with a similar problem in this week’s Torah portion. In Deuteronomy 4 we read, “Then Moses set apart three cities in the east beyond the Jordan.” But the problem with this verse is that this is not actually what it says in the original Hebrew. If we were to read the actual Hebrew text, we would understand it to say, “Then Moses will set apart three cities.” This helps us understand why most translations change this to read in the past tense. It doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface that Moses will, at some point in the future, separate these cites of refuge. How is Moses going to do this at some future time if he has been barred from entering into the Holy Land? Moses had a problem without a solution in sight. He had been given an impossible task. 

Many people look at the task of living out a Torah-centered life in a similar way. We’ve wrongly been taught for far too long that living out the commandments of Torah is impossible. Therefore, most people shrug it off without much thought. “No one can live it out perfectly,” many have said. But are we required to live out the precepts of the Torah flawlessly? Or are we commanded to give our best efforts each and every day?

A parable: One day a man was walking along the beach early in the morning and noticed hundreds of thousands of precious stones and pearls that had washed up onto the beach during the night. They covered the beach as far as the eye could see. Does he get depressed or give up when he realizes he will never be able to collect every last item that has washed up on the shore? Or does he become elated because he can collect as many as possible with any means he has? This should be our response to the overwhelming number of commandments in the Torah. We should rejoice in the few that we can observe and long for the ones we are currently missing out on. They are the precious “gems” given to us by our Creator and Redeemer. Yes, the task may be impossible to complete, but it is not impossible to embark on. As Rabbi Tarfon would say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it” (Avot 2:16).

Even though Moses knew he could not enter the Promised Land, and therefore could not personally work to establish these three cities of refuge, he nonetheless took up the task and began working toward their realization. Do we have the ability to bring back Yeshua and initiate the Messianic Era? Maybe. Maybe not. But we can definitely work toward their realization through faithfully living out the precepts given to us within the Torah and the rest of the Scriptures. Will we be able to live them out perfectly? No. We will just have to work on them a little bit each and every day until Yeshua’s return. As they say: How do you eat an elephant (a kosher one, of course)? One bite at a time.