Parshat Dvarim: The power of a single act

If we understand the power hidden in one single positive act, it will cause us not to abandon that positive path we were on when we committed that positive deed.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Book of Deuteronomy (Dvarim), which we are beginning to read this week, is almost completely made up of a long speech delivered by Moshe Rabbeinu to Am Yisrael before his death. At the beginning of the speech, Moshe reviews the hardships that the nation went through during the 40 years of his leadership, from the time of the Exodus from Egypt to standing at the outskirts of Eretz Yisrael just before entering the Promised Land.
When Moshe tells the nation about the wars they had with various nations that tried to prevent them from reaching Eretz Yisrael, he gets to the story of Am Yisrael’s war with Og, the king of Bashan. Og, that terroristic giant, is described by the Torah with the following words: “His bedstead was a bedstead of iron... Nine cubits [fourand- a-half meters] was its length, and four cubits its breadth...”
Og, along with his nation, came out to block Am Yisrael’s way to Eretz Yisrael. At the end of the war, Am Yisrael was victorious. Moshe Rabbeinu emphasizes that before the war, he obtained a Divine promise of victory: “And the Lord said to me, ‘Do not fear him, for I have given him, all his people, and his land into your hand.’” (Deuteronomy 3, 2) The Talmud sages raise an interesting question on this verse. It seems that this verse contains a hint insinuating that Moshe Rabbeinu was not sure of Am Yisrael’s victory. Otherwise, why would Moshe need this promise? And they ask – did Moshe have any doubt that G-d wanted Am Yisrael to get to Eretz Yisrael, and for this reason, He saw to it that Am Yisrael was victorious? Furthermore, before the war with Og, the nation fought Sihon, Og’s comrade who was a giant and a hero like he was, and there we do not find Moshe Rabbeinu needing a promise of a victory since he was sure that G-d would help him.
Why, then, did Moshe worry about this war against Og? The answer given by the sages is as surprising as the question. Moshe’s fear of the war with Og did not stem from fear of his physical prowess, but from the spiritual merits of Og, king of Bashan. Og, so they say, had committed a good deed many years before when he came to tell Avraham Avinu that Lot had been taking prisoner during the war of the four kings against five. In the Book of Genesis it says, “... and the fugitive came” – and our sages tell us that this was Og.
This deed alone raised the fear that its merit would help him win the war. Sihon did not have any good deeds that would have caused this fear, but Og did.
There is no doubt that when discussing Og, we are not talking about a positive character. He was an idol worshiper who waged war against Am Yisrael and thus tried to prevent the implementation of the great yearning held by Am Yisrael from the time of Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai to today. He committed one good deed many years before. But could this act bring him victory over Am Yisrael, the nation chosen by G-d to carry the great message of Torah to the entire world? With this answer, our sages try to emphasize a concept whose significance is relevant to every person in every era. We have a tendency to see a single, lone act as a something of minimal value. If we once gave in to another, if we once restrained ourselves during an argument, if we once avoided cheating, if we once gave charity or prayed from the depths of our hearts... And if after that good deed that we committed one time, we went back to routine and forgot about it, it seems to us that single deed passed and evaporated.
But the truth is that we have no idea what the value is of one good deed. The value of positive behavior is not measured by a human scale, but by a Divine scale, the kind that we as people cannot comprehend. A man can commit one positive act and forget about it, but for many years, this same act will accompany him, protect him and perhaps even change his life.
There is another advantage inherent in this understanding. If we understand the power hidden in one single positive act, it will cause us not to abandon that positive path we were on when we committed that positive deed. This is what our sages referred to when they said, “One penny and then another add up to a great amount.” One deed, and another, and another – and at the end, these will make our lives qualitatively and spiritually better.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.