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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

One Action Can Make All of the Difference

by Rabbi Avi Weiss (Posted on May 21, 2016)
Topics: Machshava/Jewish Thought, Matot, Middot, Sefer Bamidbar, Torah

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In this week’s portion, Moshe (Moses) gives to the tribe of Reuven, the tribe of Gad and half of the tribe of Menasseh the entire Kingdom of Og, ruler of Bashan (Numbers 32:33). Interestingly, just before Moshe and the Israelites conquered the land of Bashan, the Torah records that God tells Moshe “fear him [Og] not” (Numbers 21:34).

Why should Moshe have been fearful of Og? Rashi writes that “Moshe was afraid of doing battle lest he [Og] be protected by the merit of (his services to) Avraham (Abraham), as it is written ‘and there came one that had escaped and told Avraham (of the capture of Lot—Avraham’s nephew) (Genesis 14:13). The one that came was none other than Og.” Rashi’s comment is best understood with the backdrop of the Maimonidean understanding of reward and punishment.

Maimonides, echoing the Talmud, notes that three books are open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Those who are clearly meritorious are immediately inscribed for a good year on Rosh Hashanah. And those clearly sinful, are inscribed immediately for a bad year on Rosh Hashanah. The benonim—those in the middle, have their sentence suspended until Yom Kippur, when their destiny is sealed (Rambam, Hil. Teshuvah 3:3).

For Maimonides, it appears that reward and punishment is a simple matter of weighing one’s good deeds against one’s bad deeds. A person’s fate depends upon what he or she has done more—good or bad.

But, Maimonides adds, that one bad deed because of its particular circumstances, could outweigh all the good one has done. The reverse is also true. One good deed could outweigh all of the evil ones (Rambam, Hil. Teshuvah 3:2).

In other words, for Maimonides, only God can be the accountant for our deeds. The evaluation is not a mere weighing of numbers, it is a qualitative one—and only God can know which deed will make the whole difference.

This may be the intent of Rashi. True, King Og was the wicked of the wicked. But Moshe was concerned that he may have performed one good deed, like alerting Avraham that his nephew was taken hostage—and that good deed could carry him forever.

It sometimes occurs when traveling, that former students approach me and say—“you know, there is something you said, something you did in class that made a great difference in my life.” My heart then drops as I offer a little prayer that the one word or action that is remembered, made a positive difference and not a negative one.

Rashi’s comments teaches that we all should take heed to every action, every deed—as it could make the whole difference and change an entire world.