This week's essay will deviate from the approach I have been taking in analyzing the last few parshiyot. Instead of looking at an idea within the framework of its presentation in the Torah, I will examine a midrashic usage of a verse. What this means is that the Sages of the Talmud often set aside the literal meaning of a passage and attach to it an interpretation somewhat distant from the original context. Justification for this technique is the traditional belief that the Torah's words contain many layers of meaning. Accepting this philosophy is usually necessary in sustaining the legal portions of the Torah, is useful in deriving lessons from the narratives, and is almost expected from any source of poetry - a genre which of course makes up most of Parashat Ha'azinu.
In his penultimate address to the nation, Moses recites a song telling of God's relationship with Israel, alluding to the past as well as to the future. At the beginning of the parasha, when discussing God's selection of Israel as His nation, Moses says that the choice was made early in the world's history:
"Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; Ask your father, he will inform you, your elders - they will tell you. When the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of man, He fixed the boundaries of peoples in relation to Israel's numbers. For the Lord's portion is His people, Jacob his own allotment" (Deuteronomy 32:7-9).
This is a necessary first step in understanding the entire story of the Jewish people. Before anything happened between God and the family that became the nation of Israel, God picked the Jews from among the other nations with a plan to forge a unique bond with them. God then protected the Jews in the desert, feeding them and providing for their needs; the Jews were ungrateful, rebelled, were punished, and so began the turbulent rises and falls of Israel's history. But everything goes back to that opening moment of being chosen - it is only because the people of Israel are singled out that they are both given special treatment by the Lord, and held more accountable than other peoples for their behavior.
The Talmud treats verse 7 in a different way altogether. In Shabbat 23a the gemara discusses the blessings recited upon lighting Chanuka candles:
"What benediction is uttered? 'Who sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to kindle the light of Chanuka.' And where did He command us? Rav Ivia said: It follows from 'you shall not turn aside from the matter which they tell you' (Deuteronomy 17:11). Rav Nechemia quoted 'Ask your father he will inform you, your elders - they will tell you'" (ibid. 32:7).
The problem raised by the gemara is that blessings recited when performing mitzvot state that God commanded us to perform them. This is all very well for biblical commandments, but does not quite fit with ordinances instituted by the Rabbis, for instance, Chanuka. The gemara's classic solution to this problem is that the Torah did in fact order its adherents to listen to the Sages, and therefore fulfilling a rabbinical precept is indirectly obeying the will of God. Rav Ivia finds support from a passage discussing the authority of an age's priests and judges, while Rav Nechemia turns to our verse and seems to argue that the elders have a right to tell us what to do. Why did Rav Nechemia prefer this selection from Moses' poem over Rav Ivia's choice which directly addresses the issue of rabbinic wisdom and power?
Let us begin to answer this question with an examination of Judaism's attitudes towards the elderly. We start with Leviticus 19:32: "You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear God, I am the Lord." The Torah here commands respect for old people, a nice example of a MISHPAT - a law that seems logical and which most people would naturally agree is a good idea. Why should we treat the elderly well? People in their later years may need to feel loved, needed, useful. Psalms 71:9 begs God "Do not cast me off in time of old age, when my strength fails do not forsake me." The golden years can be tough times, and the Torah warns us not to dismiss the older members of our society. The mishna in Ethics of the Fathers picks up this idea: "Rabbi Yishmael says: be gentle to the young and pleasant to the elderly; be sure to greet every person with a smile." (3:12) A later mishna quotes Rabbi Yose ben Yehuda of Kfar Ha-Bavli, a Tana, who contrasts the young with the old: "He who learns from young men is like one who eats unripe grapes and drinks the new wine from the wine press; He who learns from old men is like one who eats ripe grapes and drinks aged wine" (4:20). An older person is full of life's memories and experiences; they have much to teach in the ways of the world.
In a well-known commandment, the Torah dictates that children respect their parents. Among the interpretations associated with this mitzva is the fact that parents deserve our love, admiration, reverence, because they brought us into this world and for this we should be grateful. At least one commentator suggests that for this reason, the obligation extends to honoring grandparents who similarly are owed gratitude for our existence. (Rabbi Yoel Sirkes to Yoreh De'a 240:24) None of the above three approaches to old age is a distinctly Jewish idea, so we proceed to a fourth explanation which is.
The Torah contains several statements which promise longevity as a reward for obeying the Torah. Deuteronomy 6:2, for example, says "so that you, your children, and your children's children may revere the Lord your God and follow, as long as you live, all His laws and commandments that I enjoin upon you, to the end that you may long endure." The requirement mentioned above to respect parents comes with a similar guarantee: "Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you" (Exodus 20:12). Perhaps we can infer that people who have lived a long time have done so because their behavior has found favor in God's eyes. They deserve our respect because their old age indicates righteousness.
Let us return to the verse from Leviticus and explore the rabbinic interpretation of the command. "You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old" has little to do with how old a person is and more to do with how much Torah he knows. The Aramaic translation of this states the rabbinic approach: "Rise before the elderly who understand the Torah." Here is the Talmud's analysis of the verse as it appears in Kiddushin 32b.
"Our Rabbis taught: 'You shall rise before the aged.' I might think, even before an aged fool; therefore it is written 'and honor the face of a ZAKEN (old), and zaken can only refer to a Sage, for it is said 'Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel' (Numbers 11:16). Rabbi Yose the Galilean said: ZAKEN means only he who has acquired wisdom."
Rabbi Yose goes on to argue that the verse's instruction even includes respecting a young sage. The last opinion in the mishna of Avot 4:20, quoted above, agrees: Rabbi Meir says, 'Do not look at the bottle but at what it contains - a new bottle may be full of old wine and an old bottle may not even have new wine.'
Lastly, we present a variation on this idea. Respecting the elderly is not only a function of recognizing that they are learned and wise, but is critical in understanding what the older generation means to the younger. The following is an excerpt from a chapter of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's "Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav Volume Two."
"The old Rebbe walks into the classroom crowded with students who are young enough to be his grandchildren. He enters as an old man with wrinkled face, his eyes reflecting the fatigue and sadness of old age. The Rebbe is seated and sees before him rows of young beaming faces, clear eyes radiating the joy of being young. For a moment, the Rebbe is gripped with pessimism, with tremors of uncertainty. He asks himself, 'Can there be a dialogue between an old teacher and young students enjoying the spring of their lives?' The Rebbe starts the shiur, uncertain as to how it will proceed. Suddenly the door opens and an old man, much older than the Rebbe enters. He is the grandfather of the Rebbe, Reb Chaim Brisker (1853-1918). It would be most difficult to study Talmud with students who are trained in the sciences and mathematics, were it not for his method, which is very modern and equals, if not surpasses, most contemporary forms of logic, metaphysics, or philosophy. The door opens again and another older man comes in. He is older than Reb Chaim, for he lived in the seventeenth century. His name is Reb Sabbatai Cohen (1622-1663), known as the Shakh, who must be present when civil law, dinei mamonot, is discussed. Many more visitors arrive, some from the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, and others harking back to antiquity - Rabbenu Tam (1090-1171), Rashi (1040-1105), Rambam (1135-1204), Ra'avad (1125-1198), Rashba (1245-1310), Rabbi Akiva (40-135), and others. These scholarly giants of the past are bidden to take their seats. The Rebbe introduces the guests to his pupils, and the dialogue commences. The Rambam states a halakha; the Ra'avad disagrees sharply, as is his wont. Some students interrupt to defend the Rambam, and they express themselves harshly against the Ra'avad, as young people are apt to do. The Rebbe softly corrects the students and suggests more restrained tones. The Rashba smiles gently. The Rebbe tries to analyze what the students meant, and other students intercede. Rabbenu Tam is called upon to express his opinion, and suddenly, a symposium of generations comes into existence. Young students debate earlier generations with an air of daring familiarity, and a crescendo of discussion ensues."
Anyone who has spent time in serious study recognizes Rabbi Soloveitchik's description as the MESORA - the passing of the traditions from one generation to the next, connecting the past to the future. Judaism ascribes authority to Jewish law and ideas only because our culture teaches that they can be traced back through the ages to revelation at Sinai - the original delivery of the Torah by God to the nation. The elders of our people are not only valuable because of what they know but because they represent the link in the chain of Torah transmission. The new, younger generation needs the older one both for guidance and to authenticate their behavior as the legitimate expression of Judaism. Tradition states that at Sinai Moses was given a Written Law and an Oral Law to complement it. At first, the Rabbis held that it was forbidden to commit the Oral Law to writing (see Gittin 60b), the policy changing due to historical considerations with the writing of the Mishna. One explanation for the earlier prohibition was that keeping the Oral Law unwritten necessitated that every generation be linked to the previous one through a teacher-student relationship. Protecting this structure meant that students could rest assured that what their Rebbeim were teaching them had roots in the original Mosaic law.
Let us now return to Rabbi Nechemia. You'll recall that he bases the authority of rabbinic law on the verse in Deuteronomy: 'Ask your father he will inform you, your elders - they will tell you.' The value of the nation's elders is that they represent the Sinaitic tradition. It is this connection to the past which grants them the power to construct TAKANOT - new law, like Chanuka. They are the bearers of the MESORA and as such understand how to apply it to new situations which might be national circumstances like the wars preceding the miracles of Chanuka, or the necessity to standardize prayer, or any other of the rabbinic institutions which have become part of Jewish culture.
In the introduction to this essay I warned that I would be examining the DRASH - interpretation of a verse, but I believe that Rabbi Nechemia's understanding of Deuteronomy 32:7 is not that far from the PESHAT - the literal meaning of the Torah. The PESHAT emphasizes the elders' responsibility through the generations to communicate the fact of the nation's chosenness. Yet, Rabbi Nechemia also uses the verse as support for the DRASH, the equally important transmission of the MESORA, the source of Jewish practice and belief.
7- AISH HATORA
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A) WHAT'S BOTHERING RASHI (Avigdor Bonchek)
The Mighty One
by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek
"For their mighty one is not like our Almighty, yet our enemies sit in judgement."
For their mighty one is not like our Almighty - RASHI: All this the enemies should have understood, that Hashem delivered them, and victory is neither theirs nor their gods' for until now their gods were powerless against our Almighty (our Tzur), for their rock is not like our Rock . The word "tzur" in the Scripture always denotes a rock.
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
Rashi offers a simple explanation of these words. The enemies' victories over Klal Yisroel should have been understood by these very same enemies as a miraculous victory ? one dictated by God, inasmuch as these enemies were never able to subdue Israel in the past.
This is all very clear. But Rashi's last words are puzzling. He explains the meaning of the (quite common) word "Tzur" as rock. Not only is this word a common one, but it has already appeared about six times in this parsha already! If Rashi thought we didn't know its meaning, why didn't he explain it earlier?
This is a real puzzle, and understanding it will show you Rashi's unique genius.
Hint: Is this verse different from the previous verses, in any significant way?
An Answer: The word "tzur" can mean either "rock" or "creator," as in "Yotzer ohr." Rashi makes it clear that it does not (in a p'shat sense) mean "creator." In all the previous verses when the Torah uses the word "tzur" it refers to the God of Am Yisroel. This is the first time that the Torah uses the word "tzur" to refer to their gods. Therefore this is the first time it is necessary for Rashi to be quite clear that the word does not mean "creator." That couldn't be so, since here the reference is to idols. But all previous uses of this word in our parsha referred to Hashem, therefore Rashi saw no need to correct any "misunderstanding" since if we translate "tzur" as "creator" and not as "rock" that too would be appropriate, because God is The Creator.
We see here a very unusual sensitivity on Rashi's part to the student's understanding of the text. Rashi steps in only when he thinks it is necessary, and not otherwise.
A person's word is more valuable than gold. But it's tempting at times to go back on what we've promised. This week's Torah portion teaches us what a great thing it is to be reliable and keep our word. God is described as the "faithful God." He always keeps to His word and we can totally rely on Him. God is an unchanging "Rock" of stability who fulfills everything He says, even if it takes time before we are able to see it. The Torah teaches us that we should try to be like this too and become somebody the people around us can count on.
In our story a girl keeps her word and shows what it means to be a friend.
"BEAT THE CLOCK"
"Rachel, what are you doing this afternoon?" asked a girl in large wire-rimmed glasses.
"Not really anything Leah I guess," answered Rachel offhandedly.
"Well, um, would you mind if we got together to do homework this afternoon? You see, I'm a little behind in math, and, um ... I could really use some help."
Rachel shrugged her shoulders. She wasn't really looking forward to spending the afternoon doing homework with Leah, but why not? Nothing else was going on. "OK," she finally said. "I can meet you at the Hudson Library at 3:00 if you want."
Leah's face lit up. "Gee thanks so much! I can't wait. 3:00 it is!" And with that she grabbed her book bag and rushed down the corridor of their school building.
Rachel got home to find a note on the door to her room. "Carmella called," it said.
"Carmella?!" thought Rachel, surprised to see the name of an old friend who had moved away a few months ago. Quickly she dialed the local phone number scribbled on the bottom of the note.
"Hello?" answered Carmella's familiar voice.
"Carmi, is that you? What's up? Where are you?" Rachel felt excited just hearing her friend's voice.
"Guess what?" said Carmella. "I'm in town! My mom was flying in for her monthly business meeting and I got to tag along. But we're only here for a few more hours. I'm staying at the Sunset Hotel downtown. I called to invite you to join us for lunch. We have so much to catch up on. Whatdya say, Rachel?"
"What do I say?" answered the thrilled girl. "It's a dream come true!"
Just then Rachel glanced down at her book bag. "Oh no!" she groaned, remembering her promise to Leah. She looked at her watch. It was 2:30. "Um ... Carmi, let me call you right back, okay?"
"Okay," responded the surprised girl. "Is everything all right? I really hope we can get together," she added.
"Me too!" said Rachel, sounding a little panicked as she hung up the phone. She quickly dialed Leah's number.
"Maybe I can reach her to cancel before she leaves for the library," Rachel thought. But to her chagrin, Leah's mother told her that Leah had just gotten on the bus and was on her way. Rachel looked up the phone number of the library to leave Leah a message.
No luck. Her heart sank when a recording came on the line that the library's phone was temporarily out of order. "Now what do I do?" thought Rachel. "Leah's going to be waiting for me, I've tried everything to reach her, and there's no time to get to the library, tell her, and get to the hotel way across town in time. But I guess Leah will just have to understand. After all how often do I get a chance to see Carmella?"
She started to dial up Carmella to tell her she'd come. But then Rachel had a second thought. "But I promised Leah I'd meet her. She'll be sitting there just waiting for me. And even if I could reach her and let her know I can't make it, she's counting on me to come. How can I just not show up?"
Hesitantly, Rachel dialed her friend in the hotel. "Carmi, I'd love to see you but I just can't ... I gave my word."
She explained the whole story.
"Rachel I'll miss you terribly," said Carmella. "But I respect you for what you're doing. That's just the kind of thing that makes me want us to stay friends. Hopefully it will work out next month."
The girls enjoyed a quick chat, and Rachel grabbed her books, and headed for the library, content that she had chosen to do what was right.
Q. How would you feel if somebody was supposed to come to your house to play with you but in the end he never came?
Q. Is it okay to promise somebody something and then change your mind and not keep your word just because you don't feel like it? Why or why not?
A. It's not okay, because it's important to be reliable and keep all promises whenever possible.
Q. Do you think Rachel did the right thing by not going to see Carmella?
Q. Would you say that it's a good idea to promise things that we don't intend to keep and to tell people what they want to hear, or is it preferable to only say the truth even if the other person doesn't like it?
A. We may think that we're making somebody happy by telling them what they want to hear, but in the end they will likely feel worse when we don't come through than if we never committed ourselves in the first place. Of course, we should attempt to be agreeable with others when we truly can. But when people realize that we say what we mean, and mean what we say, they will come to respect us.
Q. Do you think it would have been okay for Rachel to phone Leah at the library to tell her that she has to cancel?
Q. What are some ways that you can practice being reliable in your daily lives?
A. You can be careful to keep appointments and to come on time. You should hand in your school assignments when they are due. At home you can act reliably by doing your chores regularly without having to be reminded too many times.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Why is it important to be a reliable friend?
A. People feel calm and secure with a reliable friend because they know he can be trusted. Even if on occasion the person doesn't come through, others don't get upset since they know it must be for a good reason.
Q. How do people react to someone who has shown himself to be unreliable?
A. People feel nervous around him. They never know what to expect. He's always under suspicion. Even if others act friendly toward him they are unlikely to take the friendship very seriously or have very much respect for him.
Q. Which type of friendship would you value more, one based on excitement and spontaneity or one based on reliability and trust, even if it isn't as exciting? Why?
A. The second type because, while we may feel attracted to friends who seem to be "living for the moment" and who change their minds easily, these types of friendships tend to fade. It is only when we know we can trust a friend does the friendship grow deeper. Life always has its ups and downs, and it's the stable faithful friendship that will carry us through them all.
Q. What other traits do you think are important to have in a friend?
8 Covenant and Conversation
Covenant and Conversation, a unique new Torah commentary from the Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks
Moses the Man
That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people ... For you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel.”
With these words there draws to a close the life of the greatest hero the Jewish people has ever known: Moses, the leader, the liberator, the lawgiver, the man who brought a group of slaves to freedom, turned a fractious collection of individuals into a nation, and so transformed them that they became the people of eternity.
It was Moses who mediated with God, performed signs and wonders, gave the people its laws, fought with them when they sinned, fought for them when praying for Divine forgiveness, gave his life to them and had his heart broken by them when repeatedly they failed to live up to his great expectations.
Each age has had its own image of Moses. For the more mystically inclined sages Moses was the man who ascended to heaven at the time of the giving of the Torah, where he had to contend with the angels who opposed the idea that this precious gift be given to mere mortals. God told Moses to answer them, which he did decisively. “Do angels work that they need a day of rest? Do they have parents that they need to be commanded to honour them? Do they have an evil inclination that they need to be told, ‘Do not commit adultery?’” (Shabbat 88a). Moses the man out-argues the angels.
Other sages were more radical still. For them Moses was Rabbenu, “our rabbi” – not a king, a political or military leader, but a scholar and master of the law, a role which they invested with astonishing authority. They went so far as to say that when Moses prayed for God to forgive the people for the Golden Calf, God replied, “I cannot, for I have already vowed, One who sacrifices to any God shall be destroyed (Ex. 22:19), and I cannot revoke My vow.” Moses replied, “Master of the universe, have You not taught me the laws of annulling vows? One may not annul his own vow, but a sage may do so.” Moses thereupon annulled God’s vow (Shemot Rabbah 43:4).
For Philo, the 1st century Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Moses was a philosopher-king of the type depicted in Plato’s Republic. He governs the nation, organizes its laws, institutes its rites and conducts himself with dignity and honour; he is wise, stoical and self-controlled. This is, as it were, a Greek Moses, looking not unlike Michelangelo’s famous sculpture.
For Maimonides, Moses was radically different from all other prophets in four ways. First, others received their prophecies in dreams or visions, while Moses received his awake. Second, to the others God spoke in parables obliquely, but to Moses directly and lucidly. Third, the other prophets were terrified when God appeared to them but of Moses it says, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33: 11). Fourth, other prophets needed to undergo lengthy preparations to hear the Divine word; Moses spoke to God whenever he wanted or needed to. He was “always prepared, like one of the ministering angels” (Laws of the Foundations of Torah 7: 6).
Yet what is so moving about the portrayal of Moses in the Torah is that he appears before us as quintessentially human. No religion has more deeply and systemically insisted on the absolute otherness of God and man, heaven and earth, the infinite and the finite. Other cultures have blurred the boundary, making some human beings seem godlike, perfect, infallible. There is such a tendency – marginal to be sure, but never entirely absent – within Jewish life itself: to see sages as saints, great scholars as angels, to gloss over their doubts and shortcomings and turn them into superhuman emblems of perfection. Tanakh, however, is greater than that. It tells us that God, who is never less than God, never asks us to be more than simply human.
Moses is a human being. We see him despair and want to die. We see him lose his temper. We see him on the brink of losing his faith in the people he has been called on to lead. We see him beg to be allowed to cross the Jordan and enter the land he has spend his life as a leader travelling toward. Moses is the hero of those who wrestle with the world as it is and with people as they are, knowing that “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it.”
The Torah insists that “to this day no one knows where his grave is” (Deut. 34: 6), to avoid his grave being made a place of pilgrimage or worship. It is all too easy to turn human beings, after their death, into saints and demigods. That is precisely what the Torah opposes. “Every human being” writes Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance (5: 2), “can be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam.”
Moses does not exist in Judaism as an object of worship but as a role model for each of us to aspire to. He is the eternal symbol of a human being made great by what he strove for, not by what he actually achieved. The titles conferred by him in the Torah, “the man Moses,” “God’s servant,” “a man of God,” are all the more impressive for their modesty. Moses continues to inspire.
# # #
On 3 April 1968, Martin Luther King delivered a sermon in a church in Memphis, Tennessee. At the end of his address, he turned to the last day of Moses’ life, when the man who had led his people to freedom was taken by God to a mountain-top from which he could see in the distance the land he was not destined to enter. That, said King, was how he felt that night:
I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.
That night was the last of his life. The next day he was assassinated. At the end, the still young Christian preacher – he was not yet forty – who had led the civil rights movement in the United States, identified not with a Christian figure but with Moses.
In the end the power of Moses’ story is precisely that it affirms our mortality. There are many explanations of why Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. I have argued that it was simply because “each generation has its leaders” (Avodah Zarah 5a) and the person who has the ability to lead a people out of slavery is not necessarily the one who has the requisite skills to lead the next generation into its own and very different challenges. There is no one ideal form of leadership that is right for all times and situations.
Franz Kafka gave voice to a different and no less compelling truth:
He is on the track of Canaan all his life; it is incredible that he should see the land only when on the verge of death. This dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life; incomplete because a life like this could last for ever and still be nothing but a moment. Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life was too short but because it is a human life.
What then does the story of Moses tell us? That it is right to fight for justice even against regimes that seem indestructible. That God is with us when we take our stand against oppression. That we must have faith in those we lead, and when we cease to have faith in them we can no longer lead them. That change, though slow, is real, and that people are transformed by high ideals even though it may take centuries.
In one of its most powerful statements about Moses, the Torah states that he was “a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were undimmed and his strength unabated” (34: 8). I used to think that these were merely two sequential phrases, until I realised that the first was the explanation for the second. Why was Moses’ strength unabated? Because his eyes were undimmed – because he never lost the ideals of his youth. Though he sometimes lost faith in himself and his ability to lead, he never lost faith in the cause: in God, service, freedom, the right, the good and the holy. His words at the end of his life were as impassioned as they had been at the beginning.
That is Moses, the man who refused to “go gently into that dark night”, the eternal symbol of how a human being, without ever ceasing to be human, can become a giant of the moral life. That is the greatness and the humility of aspiring to be “a servant of God.”