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On the other side of the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses began explaining this Torah saying… (1:5)
The commentators note that the Book of Deuteronomy – the ‘Mishneh Torah’ – ‘repeat of the Torah’ (c.f. 17:18) does not explicitly cover the whole Torah. They discuss the reasons for why only certain narratives and laws are mentioned, whilst others are left out. Thus, according to the Ramban, it is a utilitarian volume – a guide for the generation of Israelites who were about to conquer and settle in the Holy Land. There is nothing in it that had not been communicated to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. There are nevertheless some mitzvot – (in many cases, backed by warnings) - in this final Book that were not written down until the need to do so arose – namely for the generation that had task of conquering and inheriting the Land.
Abarbanel, however, holds that Deuteronomy is neither a book of warnings nor a book of instruction, but is it meant to explain those matters about which doubts had arisen in the minds of the Israelites, and thus need special explanation and reinforcement. He uses this idea throughout his commentary on Deuteronomy. Whenever the Torah repeats any law in this Book, it is meant to explain beliefs and instructions that Moses had been given at Sinai, but which had been improperly understood, or whose true essence had been obscured by an incorrect view developing amongst the Israelites.
R. Samson Raphael Hirsch – following a line closer to the Ramban - elaborates on the great challenges that would confront the Israelites on entering the Promised Land. Once they crossed the Jordan, the people would no longer see G-d’s constant Presence and daily miracles, as they had been accustomed to in the Wilderness. They would plow, plant, and harvest. They would establish courts and a government. They would develop the social relationships and means to provide for, and protect, the needy and the helpless. They would need strong faith and self-discipline to avoid the snares and temptations of their pagan neighbors – especially when expressed by false prophets from their very own society. Thus Deuteronomy is not merely a review of the earlier four Books of the Torah, since “of the just over hundred laws which are contained in this Book, more than seventy are completely new.” Rather, writes Hirsch, in his final weeks, Moses reviewed and taught all the laws of the Torah and the entire history of the Israelites – but in this Book, the Torah records the parts of his teachings that were most relevant for Israel’s new life in the Land.
However, the word the Torah uses to introduce Moses’ final addresses to the Israelites is the almost unique ‘bei-er et hatorah hazot’ – to explain this Torah. That word ‘bei-er’ occurs in only one other place in the Torah – namely when they were commanded, on crossing the Jordan, to set words of the Torah in stone. Those words were to be inscribed in a manner that would be ‘ba-er hai-tev’ – ‘well explained’ (27:8). The Talmud (Sotah 32a) says that means ‘in seventy languages’ – implying that whoever would read the Great Message set in stone would understand it.
Two important questions arise from the above. Firstly, what is the reason for the use of that rare word ‘bei-er’ – to explain, rather than the more expected ‘sa-per’ – to recount, or ‘shaneh’ – to review? Secondly, the common thread running though the above commentaries is the notion that the Book of Deuteronomy was directed to the Israelites in the very particular and special situation of being about to enter the Promised Land. That was a once only period in their history. How can that be reconciled with the concept of the eternal, dynamic, nature of the Torah – having a message for every generation and situation?
Perhaps the key to answering these questions may be found in the fact that the three Hebrew letters of ‘bei-er’ are bet, aleph, and reish. These letters also spell out the ‘be-er’ – meaning well of water. In several places (e.g. 32:2) Torah teachings are compared with water. The well, however, has additional characteristics, as explained below.
Wells contain two elements. Firstly, they are man-dug cisterns – deep holes into the ground. Secondly, they are ‘live’ (c.f. Gen. 26:19) – they store unused water at a very cool temperature, and whenever water is taken out of the well, they naturally admit new water within the aquifers (water-bearing rocks) to replace the used water. Thus the well functions as system a for storing and receiving water (like the cistern), and in addition, as a source for giving and creating anew (like the spring). The well – ‘be-er’ – thus symbolizes the student who first receives knowledge from others and then, through a creative process, transforms and transmits to others what he or she has learnt.
This gives an insight into the entire function of the Book of Deuteronomy. When Moses began to ‘bei-er’ – explain – this Torah, he made it like a well of ever-fresh water. His teachings – like fresh water – were not stagnant pieties and practices from the generation and circumstances of forty years ago. They were adapted for the needs of his people at the time, based on his deepest understanding of the Creation and Torah on one hand, and the personalities and situation of his people on the other. They were made to ‘reach the parts that the previous teachings could not reach’. For example, several of the commandments include the admonition of, “You shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt” – especially with issues of social justice and situations where the wealthy might unreasonably exploit the poor. Forty years ago that was not necessary – they all-too-recent redemption from bondage was uppermost in their minds, and it created a common bond between them. Once a generation passes, people start to forget, and that spirit of equality could break down. In short, the Book of Deuteronomy shows the special way in which Moses presented the Torah - in the manner that his own generation would understand and relate to.
At the same time, he worked within the limits of the Torah. The content had to be pure and sincere – without any ulterior motives – just as water comes out of a well is naturally purified, having filtered its way through limestone rocks (the main rock type of Israel’s geographical interior). And although Torah is a ‘fluid’ dynamic force, it has limits beyond which it cannot be interpreted – represented by the walls and base forming the cistern of the well.
Moses’ utterly sincere adapting and re-teaching the Torah as a dynamic, rather than a stagnant force, is a key feature of this last book of the Torah. His success was unrivalled – the text relates that the Israelites served G-d throughout the period under his successor, Joshua, and also under the elders that came after him (Josh. 24:31). And the lesson that follows is crucial for Jewish leadership in every generation, and most emphatically in our own generation. Behind the fractures and factions in the Jewish world (and all too sadly in Torah world as well) there are many learned, observant, good, and unselfish individuals. They secretly cry out for a real source of meaningful living Torah – something that can help them relate to the very stark changes, fears, and events that confront us day by day. They want a ‘Rebbe’ who is accessible, who can relate to them on a level they can understand, and readily identify with. They want someone who does not compromise himself by imposing unnecessary ‘humrot’ (stringencies) as an attempt to get credibility with his superiors in the Rabbinate, - or – taking the other extreme - ‘play to the gallery’ to ensure his congregation renew his contract. The Jewish public is not as foolish as some of these so-called leaders like to think – they can tell the sincere Talmid Haham (Torah scholar) from the career man.
Every generation – ours probably most of all - needs Torah personalities who can present the Torah in such a way that clicks with the Jewish people at large – whose essence and being touches and influences the Jewish souls of his own day and age. The Books of Deuteronomy and Joshua show how Moses did it at the end of his life with great success. And the message to our leaders is to go out and do likewise…
This week I referred to ideas contained in Ben David, A. ‘Around the Shabbat Table’ (2000) pp. 304-5.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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