The Power of One – Nitzavim 5778

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

Even a single word has power; and there is power in every singular word. Describing the second plague that God brought against the Egyptians, the Torah speaks of “tzefarde’a,” frog – in the singular (Exodus 8:2). Yet the narrative describes how all manner of frogs overwhelmed Egypt. The commentators, following the Midrash, explain that out of the one frog came many. (Contrast this view with the motto of the United States of America, e puluribus unum – “out of the many, one.”)


The same power of singularity appears in Deuteronomy 30:11. Speaking of the ease attached to the performance of all of God’s commandments, Moses refers to “this mitzvah” – one single mitzvah. But his intent, according to Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, is clear. The singular noun encompasses all the commandments, as confirmed by Deuteronomy 27:1 and 8:1. All the Torah is called “The commandment.”


Note how the grammar reinforces the idea: it is not at all difficult to follow the Torah. Israelites might think that there are so many (too many?) commandments to follow. Yet it is no more difficult than just fulfilling one commandment. This keen observation is particularly applicable to those who feel that Jewish observance is overwhelming. While the ideals of Judaism are admirable, some say, the laws that put those ideals into operation are vast, onerous, and perplexing. To be sure, the practice of Judaism can be, at times, complex and demanding. But rather than looking at the entirety of the enterprise, it is better to look at the one commandment of the moment.


The New Year is imminent and changing our lives is the rule of the day. Change need not be radical or comprehensive. In fact, incremental change is probably best advised. There is no need to commit to performing all the commandments when the most efficacious approach would be to start with one. And, as we learn in Pirke Avot (4:2), the performance of one commandment leads to the performance of another.




Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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