Skip to content

Parashat Devarim 5773 — 07/10/2013

Parashat Devarim 5773 — 07/10/2013

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael (1: 1)

The beginning of Sefer Devarim announces that it is a different kind of book than the previous four books of Torah.  From Bereishit through Bamidbar the operative phrase was “And Gd said.”  In other words, these books were given “by dictation” as it were from Gd to Moshe – in the Rabbinic idiom, the Shechinah spoke from Moshe’s throatSefer Devarim, on the other hand, is largely Moshe Rabbeinu’s valediction, delivered over the last few weeks of his life, and was incorporated into Torah at Gd’s behest.  There is further question regarding the final 8 verses of Torah, which record Moshe’s death, and which some attribute to Yehoshua, but in any event, there is considerably greater human input to this part of Scripture than to the preceding four books.

This same dichotomy is evident in other areas of our tradition, and is brought out explicitly in Midrashim.  The most obvious example is the dichotomy between Torah shebichtiv (Written Torah) and Torah sheb’al Peh (Oral Torah).  The Written Torah is the Scriptures we have, and they are “written in stone” so to speak.  They come to us from Gd and are therefore inalterable; since they come from Gd, Who is above time, they also don’t need to be altered to fit the needs of the time.  In contrast to this is the Oral Torah.

Oral Torah also comes from Gd and was given to Moshe at Mt. Sinai.  However it was given in a form that was meant to be somewhat adaptable.  Further, it was given in such a way that it requires human input to apply it to any specific issue.  The principles and the fundamental content were given at Mt. Sinai, but the actual application of these principles is given over to those Sages in every generation who have steeped themselves in Torah to the point where they can discern the correct path of application to any particular situation.  This, it should be emphasized, is a human process; Gd withdraws Himself from it to leave His creatures free to act according to their own understanding, much as He withdrew Himself in the initial act of creation to leave room for finite values to exist.

Our Sages tell us that there is a similar difference between the two sets of Tablets that Moshe Rabbeinu brought down from Mt. Sinai.  The first Tablets were given completely from Gd’s side.  After spending 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain, they are presented to Moshe, the tablets themselves and the writing on them Gd’s handiwork.  Some say that they contained only the 10 Commandments, while others say that they contained the entirety of what is now the Written and the Oral Torah.  Those who hold the first view hold that at the time of the Revelation, the Jewish people was on a high enough spiritual level to understand the full depth of each of the 10 Commandments; in other words, at this level the Oral Torah (and perhaps much of the Written Torah as well) was unnecessary; having the 10 Commandments alone was enough for us to order our behavior completely in accord with Gd’s Will.  Those who hold the second view argue that the Tablets contained all of Jewish law as it would apply to any possible circumstance.  Again, no human input was needed because the Jewish people was on a high enough spiritual level to absorb this massive amount of material.

All this changed when we plunged from our high perch and made the golden calf.  Our spiritual standing, which our Sages tell us had been returned to the same level as Adam’s before eating of the Tree of Knowledge, now was, like Adam’s after his sin, reduced.  No longer were we able to intuit Gd’s Will, let alone spontaneously function in accordance with it.  Now there needs to be a clear division between Divine and human.  The second set of tablets will have input from both sides.  Gd tells Moshe to “hew two tablets like the first ones” and to bring them up on the mountain, where Gd will “write on the tablets the words/matters that were on the first tablets that you smashed.” (Shemot 34:1)  The words are Gd’s, but the substratum on which the words will exist is man-made.

Furthermore, the Oral component of Torah will now actually be Oral – taught from Moshe to Aharon, to Aharon’s sons, to the Elders, and to all the people (see Eruvin 54b), then eventually to Yehoshua, to the Elders, to the Prophets, to the men of the Great Assembly (Pirke Avot 1:1).  In other words, the chain of transmission and development of Torah was given over to the Jewish people.  There is a famous story in the Talmud where Rabbi Eliezer the Great debated the ritual purity status of a certain kind of oven.  R. Eliezer eventually calls on a heavenly voice (bat kol) to testify that he is correct, which it does: “Why do you contend with my son R. Eliezer, whom the halachah always follows.”  At this point R. Yehoshua arose and quoted Sefer Devarim (30:12): Lo bashamayim hi / Torah is not in heaven.  In other words, once Gd gave Torah over to the Jewish people, He allows us and expects and requires us to develop it and use it according to the rules for its interpretation given on Mt. Sinai, but also according to our own understanding of Torah’s inner meaning.  Indeed, when one of the Sages encountered Eliyahu haNavi shortly after this incident, and asked him what Gd’s reaction was, Eliyahu replied that Gd delightedly said My children have defeated Me!  (Just on a personal note, I think the happiest moment in my career as a parent was when my oldest son began to argue with me rather than just accepting and then parroting my assertions.  It meant he had grown up and individuated.)

The destruction of the first set of Tablets and their replacement by the second set is one of a series of incidents of the form: If only the Jews had done/had not done <x>, they never would have been subjugated to the nations of the world/exiled/any other tragedy to which we have been subject.  But it always seems that we don’t fulfill the premise of the statement; in our case we end up with the second set of Tablets.  And we have to toil in Torah, it is not handed to us on a silver platter.  In the same way, when we left the desert behind and entered the Land of Israel, we no longer had our food and water handed to us on a silver platter (manna and a miraculous well); we had to toil on the Land, grow our own food, dig our own wells,  In short, we recognize that everything comes from Gd (Who brings forth bread from the earth), and yet we must put in our input as well (plow and plant, reap and thresh and winnow, mix and knead and bake).  Gd has left room for us to be His partners in bringing the world to perfection, be it in the mundane realm of agriculture or in the sublime realm of Torah.  It is up to us to step up and do our part, confident of Gd’s continual, loving support.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 3

Mishnah 10

R. Dostai bar Yannai says in the name of R. Meir:

If one forgets any bit of his learning, Scripture considers it as if he is worthy of the death penalty, as it says: Just guard yourself, and guard your soul very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen (Deut 4:9)

Why is forgetfulness in Torah learning judged so severely?  R. Lau gives several answers.  A person naturally remembers what is precious to him; if he forgets his Torah, obviously he didn’t appreciate its great value.  A person forgets his learning when he is too involved in the material world, to the point where it becomes his major focus, leaving no time for study or review.  A person is too involved with indulging his senses; not only does he have less time for Torah study, but even when he does sit to study, his intellect and his sensibility are dulled by his indulgences.  Someone whose ego is too big is full of himself, leaving no room for Gd.  I would like to add another explanation.  We are put on this earth to fulfill a role.  Each of us has our own particular role to play, and that role fits into the larger role the Jewish people has to play.  The ultimate purpose of this is to bring the bounded, finite material creation back to its source in Gd, the source of all life and all being.  Our script, so to speak, is Torah.  If we forget our learning, we will surely flub our lines, and our lives.  The Redemption for which we all yearn will be delayed.  This, in and of itself, is virtually like death!