What a Beginning!: Sotah 14
   
“Rav Simlai expounded: The Torah begins with an act of chesed, benevolence, and ends with an act of chesed. It begins with an act of chesed, as it is written: ‘And the Lord G-d made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them' (Breisheet 3:21); and it ends with an act of kindness, as it is written: 'And He buried him in the valley (Devarim 34:6)'” (Sotah 14a).
 
Had you asked me I would have said that the act of chesed at the beginning of the Torah is none other than creation itself. “And G-d saw all that He did and it was very good” (Breisheet 1:31). This idea is echoed in Tehillim where we read “olam chesed yibaneh” (Tehillim 89:3), the world was built with kindness. Yet Rav Simlai teaches that the opening act of chesed must wait for G-d clothing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, something that does not happen until the third chapter of Breisheet. Even more difficult is that the clothing of man is immediately followed by man being chased from the Garden of Eden. Surely it is placing of man in the Garden of Eden that was an act of chesed, not his being expelled. In what way is the clothing of man the opening act of chesed in the Torah? 
 
Rav Simlai understood that true chesed is that shown to those who may not be deserving of such. Man had just sinned, defying the command of G-d. He could eat from millions of trees and chose to eat from the one the only one forbidden to him, Why? Because G-d said so and no one is going to tell man what he can and cannot do. Yes he deserved to die on the spot but G-d is a kind and forgiving G-d and while man would have to die mankind would survive. But G-d’s chesed did not stop there. By eating of the Tree of Knowledge man created a division between the physical and spiritual worlds thus becoming aware of and embarrassed by his nakedness. It was at this point that G-d made clothing for man. It is that act of chesed that the Torah “opens with”, helping man move on after sin. 
 
If the decree of man’s mortality is the backdrop to the Torah’s opening with chesed, the burial of Moshe marks the Torah closing with chesed. Moshe may have sinned (ever so slightly) and was thus unable to enter the land but G-d would take him under His sheltering wings burying Moshe Himself. 
 
This mixing of punishment and chesed continues in the immediately following teaching also by “Rav Simlai [who] expounded: Why did Moses our teacher, nitavah, yearn to enter the land of Israel[1]? Did he want to eat of its fruits or satisfy himself from its bounty? Rather this is what Moshe said: 'Many precepts were commanded to Israel which can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel'” (Sotah 14a). Had the Torah been concerned only with chesed Moshe would have been allowed to enter the land. How could it be different? But alas G-d determined it was best if Moshe would not enter the land[2].  Moshe was greatly distressed Rav Simlai argues not because he could not enter the land per se but because of the lost opportunity to perform mitzvoth. Yet at the same time G-d told Moshe not to let that bother him, “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him...’I ascribe it to you as if you had performed them.” Moshe had performed so many mitzvoth with such dedication that there was no need for him to actually go to Israel to perform more mitzvoth[3].  
 
Interestingly this theme of having mercy on those who sin - even grave sins - is found as we start the second chapter of Sotah. “He would bring her meal-offering in a twisted basket and put it into her hand in order to tire her” (Sotah 14a). As part of the Sotah process the woman is to bring a korban mincha, a flour offering. We put the flour in a relatively heavy basket and make the wife carry it indefinitely so that she tire and admit to having an affair - at which point she can drop the basket. By ending the procedure before it can really begin she saves herself, should she be actually guilty, from a grisly death where “her belly will blow up and her thigh will rupture[4]” (Bamidbar 5:27). And we much prefer she avoid such a fate. “If the Torah has such consideration for those who transgress His will, how much more so for those who perform His will”. The Torah displays great kindness[5] in letting an adulterer off the hook if they just admit their guilt. And if such is granted to sinners how much more so can those who perform mitzvoth be worthy of reward. 
 
 
[1] This is a most fitting end to the first chapter of Sotah which deals with a very different type of ta’avah. We can tell a lot about a person based on what their deepest desires are.
  
[2] A discussion on why is beyond the scope of these thoughts. Suffice it to say that a new generation in a new land needed a new leader. And having the previous one around would have created unneeded tensions.
  
[3] The mitzvot which merit special mention all involve Moshe’s actions on behalf of the Jewish people. Identifying with them, willing to die for them, seeking forgiveness for them and praying for them; in short mitzvot that involve acts of chesed for others. The simple reading of the Gemara is that the mitzvoth to be observed in Israel would be those of a personal nature. No wonder G-d told him there would be no extra reward for entering the land.
 
[4] It makes you wonder why anyone guilty would not confess. No matter how slim the odds its amazing how many think they can beat the system.
  
[5] The fact that it does not seem so to us likely reflects the changed sexual ethic of our times. Adultery just does not have that same abhorrence to us anymore and is a feature of life today. The idea of the Torah that one give up one’s life rather than commit adultery just does not resonate the same way it once did, even I would argue amongst observant Jews.