Parhas Devarim begins with the first of Moses' parting addresses to the Jewish people, in which he reviews their history and rebukes them - often in veiled terms - for their misdeeds. Early in the speech, Moses speaks of how he came to appoint judges over the people (as told in Exodus 18). Here too, Moses engages in veiled rebuke. While Moses begins by stating that the reason who could not judge them alone was due to their numbers, and he blesses them that they should continue to increase, he then goes on to indicate that the need for additional judges was also due to less positive issues as well, stating (Deuteronomy 1:12):
איכה אשא לבדי טרחכם ומשאכם וריבכם:
"How can I alone carry your trouble, your burden, and your disputes?"
On a purely peshat (basic text) level, this verse could be interpreted as simply expanding on the idea that, as a numerous and growing nation, there was simply too many issues for one person, even Moses, to handle alone. However, asides from the fact that this would be repetitious, the terms used by the verse clearly carry a somewhat critical tone. In fact, Rashi, quoting the Sages (Sifri), understands these three terms to refer to veiled criticisms, and explains each in the context of Moses' role as a judge:
טרחכם. מלמד שהיו ישראל טרחנין, היה אחד מהם רואה את בעל דינו נוצח בדין, אומר יש לי עדים להביא, יש לי ראיות להביא, מוסיף אני עליכם דיינין:
ומשאכם. מלמד שהיו אפיקורסין, הקדים משה לצאת, אמרו מה ראה בן עמרם לצאת, שמא אינו שפוי בתוך ביתו, איחר לצאת, אמרו מה ראה בן עמרם שלא לצאת, מה אתם סבורים, יושב ויועץ עליכם עצות וחושב עליכם מחשבות:
וריבכם. מלמד שהיו רוגנים:
"Your trouble" - This teaches that [the children of] Israel were burdensome. If one would see that his opponent in court was winning, he would say, "I have witnesses to bring," "I have proofs to bring," "I am adding on judges to you." (See Ramban for a halachic explanation of the latter.)
"Your burden" - This teaches that they were apikorsin (heretics). If Moses went out early [to judge cases] they would say, "Why did Ben Amram leave [home early]? Perhaps things are not going smoothly at home." If he would delay leaving [home] they would say, "What do you think? He is sitting and getting advice [from his wife (Sifri)] against you, and thinking thoughts against you."
"And your disputes" - This teaches that they were quarrelsome.Each of these commentaries deserves extended discussion. On the most basic level, Moses was pointing out three problem areas among the Jewish people that made it particularly difficult to judge them.
The first problem was that judging cases between two Jews was exceptionally burdensome because each one was so determined to win that they would drag the case out far beyond reason and would take advantage of every possible technicality. It is important to note that Moses does not accuse them of actually engaging in any kind of dishonesty or violation of the rules but of an excessive drive to win which placed an undue burden on the judge. This behavior indicated that the litigants were motivated less by a desire for justice than by a desire to be victorious over their fellow.
The second problem was that the Jews would interpret any behavior of the judge, even outside of the court, as evidence that he was not judging their case properly. Thus, if he came early, "Uh oh! Must be problems at home! We better watch out!" And if he came late, "Uh oh! He must have been talking over the case with his wife! Who knows what she told him?"
It is significant that the Sages considered those who engaged in this behavior not simply as burdensome, but actually as apikorsim - a term usually translated as "heretics." This is because, contrary to what is commonly assumed, the category of apikoros - "heretic" - does not refer only to one who does not accept the doctrines of Judaism, but also to one who shows disrespect for the Torah or its scholars. Maimonides writes (Commentary on the Mishna, Sanhedrin 10:1):
ומלת אפיקורוס היא ארמית, ענינה מי שמפקיר ומבזה את התורה או לומדיה, ולפיכך קורין בזה השם כל שאינו מאמין ביסודי התורה או מי שמבזה החכמים או איזה תלמיד חכם שיהיה או המבזה רבו:
The word apikoros is Aramaic, and it refers to one who devalues or disparages the Torah or those who study it. The term is therefore used for anyone who does not believe in the fundamental principles of the Torah, or one who disparages the Sages or any other Torah scholar, or one who disparages his teacher.To disparage a Torah scholar is to disparage the Torah itself, which is the entire foundation of Judaism. Thus, these Jews who spoke disparagingly of Moses were indeed apikorsim.
The third problem was that they were quarrelsome, i.e. they would engage in unnecessary and unproductive disputes. The Sages (Sifri) describe this as, "they would spend a selah (an ancient coin) to take two selaim, and they would spend two selaim to take three selaim." At first glance this would seem perfectly reasonable, after all, you need to spend money to make money. However, the repetition - one for two, two for three - indicates that what we are talking about here is that they would spend extra money in order to make their opponent pay extra money, even though they would walk away with the same amount of profit. (ראה עמק הנצי"ב) This, like the first problem, was rooted in an inappropriate desire to be victorious over their fellow, even when they didn't stand to gain anything.
The midrash (Eicha Raba 1:1) tells us that there were three prophets who prophesied using the term "eicha," Moses (in this verse), Isaiah (1:21, which we read in the haftara for Parshas Devarim), and Jeremiah (in Eicha - Lamentations). (We have discussed this midrash previously.) This would seem to indicate that there is some continuity between the themes discussed in these verses.
While this topic deserves a fuller exploration than I'm prepared to attempt at this time, the basic idea - that these problems are closely related to the sins that led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of the Jewish from their land - is fairly straightforward.
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 30b) tells us:
דאמר רבי יוחנן: לא חרבה ירושלים אלא על ... שהעמידו דיניהם על דין תורה, ולא עבדו לפנים משורת הדין.
Rabbi Yochanan said, Jerusalem was not destroyed except because they decided their cases according to Torah law, and they did not go beyond the limits of the law.The issue that Rabbi Yochanan is describing is precisely the issue that we described above as the first and third problem that Moses was describing. We can readily see how such problems are related to the more basic issue of sinas chinam (unjustified hatred) which, the Talmud (Yoma 9b) tells us, was the primary cause of the destruction of the Second Temple.
With regard to the second problem we discussed - i.e. the disrespect for Torah scholars we also find a directly parallel statement in the Talmud (Shabbos 119b):
אמר רבי יהודה: לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שביזו בה תלמידי חכמים
Rabbi Yehuda said, Jerusalem was not destroyed except because they disparaged Torah scholars.We see here that disrespect for Torah scholars was one of the main contributing causes of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people. This is closely connected to the famous Talmudic passage in Nedarim 81a that the reason the land was lost was "שלא ברכו בתורה תחילה" - "because they failed to recite the blessing on the Torah [before study]." As the commentaries (ר"ן בשם ר' יונה, ומשנה ברורה ס' מ"ז) explain that even though the Jewish people were studying Torah, they didn't properly appreciate the unique status of the Torah over and above all other wisdom. Torah that is studied without a proper appreciation of its significance is not truly Torah at all. Fundamentally, the failure to give the proper respect to Torah scholars is rooted in the failure to truly appreciate the Torah itself.
At this time of year, when we are in mourning over the destruction of our Holy Temples, it particularly appropriate for us to meditate upon the root causes of our exile, which is ultimately the root cause of all the tragedies and suffering of history. By carefully studying our own behavior and attitudes, and working to bring them in line with the teachings of the Torah, we will ultimately merit the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. May it happen soon in our days!