The first part of this week’s portion starts with Moshe telling the Jewish people how he had prayed to G-d to let him enter the land, and G-d had told him that this would be too much for him, and he may not enter. Moshe then discusses some of the basic foundations of Judaism. He reminds the people that they are unique, and that the tradition of the Torah is something that their own parents and grandparents witnessed with their very own eyes.
He also tells them of the concept of exile, and that even while in exile, so long as they search for G-d, they will find Him, and they will continue to have a relationship with Him. And that G-d will never abandon the Jewish people. Just as He had an unprecedented relationship with the Jews before they went into exile, so will he continue this relationship after exile. Moshe finishes by telling the people that there is no other like G-d, and that they should keep His commandments.
Immediately after this speech, Moshe set aside three cities of refuge on the bank of the Jordan, in the portion of Gad and Reuven. (Later, more cities of refuge would be built there and in Israel proper, i.e., the other side of the Jordan. People who had unintentionally killed another could flee to the cities of refuge and be safe from retribution. Cities of refuge also served as a punishment for such people, for not being careful enough with human life).
Since every topic in the Torah has a connection, what is the reason for the juxtaposition of Moshe’s speech with his setting aside of the three cities of refuge?
Moshe was teaching the Jewish people a crucial lesson for generations to come: that even if a person finds himself unable to finish a certain task, he must still do what he can. (In Moshe‘s case, he would not be alive for the completion of the cities of refuge, for it would take place after the Jewish people went into Israel.) As it says in Ethics of the Fathers (Chapter 2 Mishna 21): “it is not upon you to finish the job, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.”
How often does this happen to us? Say you want to help families in the community who do not have enough food. You find out that there are a few thousand such families. You immediately think to yourself, “there is no way I can cover that cost, and since I cannot complete the job, why start it?”, so you do nothing. What if in fact, you did a cost analysis and saw you could cover the cost of one family’s Shabbos each week. And that is what you did. And thousands of others like you did exactly the same thing. That would be a real accomplishment.
Moshe did not believe in a defeatist attitude. He knew he would not be alive to finish the task, but he also knew that it did not matter; his obligation was to heed the word of G-d, and simply do his best. And in truth, any person who believes in G-d will have this attitude. Through this belief in G-d a person will understand that he has limitations and to consistently do his best. If we all did our best, and would not worry about the size of the task, we would go a tremendous distance towards improving the world.