Parashat VeZot HaBerakhah 5775 – The Written Torah, The Oral Torah, and the Post-Mosaic Void

וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה

Parashat VeZot HaBerakhah closes Sefer Devarim, as well the Torah as a whole, with two final passages. The first records Moshe’s final farewell blessings to the Tribes of Israel, and the second depicts his death on Har Nevo. Beyond creating a sense of closure to a Torah that has been in large part marked by Moshe’s presence, the 34th chapter of Sefer Devarim goes out of its way to make it clear just how large the void of Moshe’s absence is. It first does this by stating in no uncertain terms that Moshe was totally and irrevocably gone from the midst of Bnei Yisrael. “So Moshe the servant of the Lord died there, in the Land of Moav, at the command of the Lord. He[1] buried him in the valley in the land of Moav, near Bet-Peor; and no one knows his burial place until this day” (Devarim 34:5-6). More important, however, is what might be considered the Torah’s final epitaph for Moshe Rabbeinu. “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moshe—whom the Lord singled out, face to face” (34:10). Not only is Moshe gone, but he can never be replaced. This begs the question, in what way will he be missed? What absense is Bnei Yisrael left  with after Moshe’s death that can never be filled? Discovering the answer to this requires exploring a verse that contradicts the final chapter of the Torah, taking a look at some peculiar midrashim, and comparing the functions of prophecy before and after Moshe’s death. All this in turn will point us toward the mean of Moshe and his Torah.

The basic idea of Devarim 34:10 is that there would never again be a prophet “like Moshe.” This would seem to be contradicted by Moshe’s statement that ‘א would raise up a prophet like him. “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself; him you shall heed” (Devarim 17:15). In contradiction to the idea that there will never be a prophet like Moshe, Devarim here seems to be saying that ‘א will specifically raise up a prophet like Moshe. This contradiction can be solved by looking at ‘א’s statement in Bamidbar 12:6-8.

When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moshe; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord.

Devarim 34 seems almost to build on these verses. Both refer to Moshe as ‘א’s servant (Bamidbar 12:7; Devarim 34:5), and where Bamidbar depicts Moshe speaking to ‘א “mouth to mouth” and seeing His “likeness” (12:8), Devarim combines these two as Moshe speaking to ‘א “face to face” (34:10). More importantly, this passage groups Moshe with other prophets while simultaneously distinguishing him from them. While Moshe is a prophet, and therefore other prophets can be said to be “like Moshe,” his prophecy is somehow unique and qualitatively different from that of all other prophets. Unfortunately, these verses are not quite clear regarding the nature of this qualitative difference.

The most obvious and understandable difference stated is that Moshe was able to receive prophecy while awake, where other prophets dreamt their prophecies. Secondarily, Moshe was spoken to by ‘א, “plainly and not in riddles,” implying that other prophets received cryptic messages they then had to interpret, rather than clear instructions. While these differences are clear, they are also most technical, and do not quite seem to be the qualitative difference implied in the verse. Presumably that difference can be found in the last distinction, which is the most striking, and unfortunately also the least clear, which is that Moshe spoke to ‘א face to face. It’s impossible to know for certain what this might mean, all that is really clear is that it is very significant. Ultimately, all these verses can give us is technical differentiation in terms of how the prophecy was conveyed, and the a vague statement that tells us of Moshe’s greatness.

Another route to determining exactly what was different about Moshe’s prophecy would be to compare Moshe’s prophetic behavior in the Torah with that of other prophets throughout Tanakh. This would seem to be a more fruitful approach, as there is one distinction that is immediately obvious: Moshe is a lawgiver, and the other prophets are not. Throughout Tanakh, prophets are sent to Bnei Yisrael when they are breaking the laws of Moshe, but not in order to remind them of the laws, or to bring them new laws, but in order to rebuke and exhort them, to motivate them to be better. Not only did Moshe transmit the commandments to the people, but in cases of doubt, such as Benot Tselophehad (Bamidbar 27:1-11) or the Blasphemer (Bamidbar 24:10-16), Moshe was able to speak to ‘א and to receive the new law. Post-Mosaic prophecy is meant to remind the people of the stakes of their covenantal obligations, not to create new ones. When Bnei Yisrael lost Moshe, Prophetic Law was lost with him.

This loss is expressed profoundly in an aggadah depicting Yehoshuah’s early experiences as leader of Bnei Yisrael[2]. The gemara depicts Yehoshua standing before Moshe in his final days, and Moshe tells Yehoshuah to ask any questions he might have. Yehoshua responds that as he never left Moshe’s service even for a moment, there is nothing he does not know, at which point he promptly forgets 3,000 laws. Fast-forward to the period of mourning for Moshe, when the people approach Yehoshuah and ask him to restore the laws via prophecy, as Moshe would have, to which Yehoshuah responds “It is not in Heaven,” meaning that the time for prophetic law has passed, and therefore he cannot use prophecy to restore the forgotten laws.

Initially, Yehoshuah failed to appreciate the vast chasm separating himself from Moshe. Despite the verses making it clear that ‘א would be with Yehoshuah as he was with Moshe (Yehoshuah 1:5), the one supreme difference between them is that only Moshe could prophesy the law. The midrash represents this failure as 3,000 halakhot being forgotten, caused by misplaced confidence in his ability to prophesy the law when necessary. It is clear from the midrash that Yehoshuah figured out his mistake quite rapidly, as within the thirty days of mourning for Moshe he has already realized that the law “is not in Heaven” anymore.

This is a reference to the famous aggadah of Tanur Shel Akhnai[3], in which the halakhah is decided according to the majority of the sages against not just miracles, but even against a voice calling out from Heaven. After the voice rings out, R’ Yehoshuah stands up and says, “We do not listen to a Heavenly Voice,” and the law is decided like the majority. The reason[4] for this is that the law of the Torah, as laid down by Moshe, is that the halakhah follows the majority[5], and no prophet or heavenly voice thereafter is able to go against it[6]. The Law was sealed with the death of Moshe, and it cannot be changed. It can only be interpreted.

The Written Torah came from Heaven, and now the Oral Torah lives on Earth[7]. The switch from Prophetic Law to earthly law has significant ramifications. the most significant, perhaps, is according to what the law is decided. When Moshe did not know the law, he went to ‘א to ask what the law was (Bamidbar 27:1-11; 24:10-16), and ‘א would relate to the Moshe the Heavenly Truth of the Law. When Moshe asked ‘א about the case of the Daughters of Tselophehad, the midrash said that they had spoken the Law as it was written before ‘א in Heaven, according to the Heavenly Truth. Post-Moshe, in the era of the Oral Torah, a judge must decide the law only according to what his eyes see[8]. The law is not decided according to divine ideals, but in the application of divine law to gritty human reality.

Perhaps the most important difference between prophetic and earthly legislations is the function and purpose of the Law. In a situation where laws not only spring forth from the mouth of the prophet but can be updated, abrogated, and revised by the divine impresario at a moment’s notice, the law functions as a way of responding to or manifesting the will of ‘א. Moshe told the people what ‘א commanded them to do at that moment and they responded by carrying out that command. After Moshe’s death, the law serves a very different function. Instead of representing what ‘א thinks the people should do in that specific case, the law expresses what ‘א thinks should be done by the people in general. The law code becomes a framework for living a life according to godly principles, rather than a specific set of commands fulfilling a specific set of godly purposes. The Torah of Moshe becomes the guiding story through which we interpret, experience, and contextualize our lives.

After Moshe’s death, the Torah went from being a set of immediate divine commands to a legislated framework for Jewish society. We stopped looking to ‘א to see what to do next, and started creating a society. Thus Moshe dies as Bnei Yisrael are about to enter the land of Israel, as a human society in an earthly land requires laws organized around its living reality, not around a divine ideal. Moshe gave Bnei Yisrael a Torah of divine commands, and we have inherited as a communal way of life (Devarim 33:4). This is not to say that the divine ideal is cast aside, but rather that it is applied practically. The laws of the Torah became horizontally oriented, focused on creating a godly society, instead of being vertically oriented, focused on fulfilling the immediate Will of ‘א. Though that change is not necessarily a bad thing, that dynamic connection is what we lost when we lost Moshe.

[1] The Hebrew here allows for a delightful ambiguity wherein the subject of “He buried” could just as easily be Moshe or ‘א, as brought up in the gemara (Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Sotah, 14a), and it is left up to the reader to decide if it is more logical that Moshe buried himself or that he was buried by ‘א. The simplest explanation of the phrases “he buried him,” namely, that a person whose identity was unimportant in context, possibly Yehoshuah or one of the tribal leaders, buried Moshe, is ruled out by the end of the verse, “and no one knows his burial place until this day.”

[2]  Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Temurah 16a.

[3]  Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Baba Metsia, 59b.

[4] Tosafot, Masekhet Hulin, 44a; Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah 9:1; Kesef Mishneh Ad Loc.

[5] The fact that Hazal derived a biblical commandment to follow a majority from a verse that states quite plainly that the majority should not be followed into error is part of a much larger discussion about the relationship of the Written and Oral Torahs and the nature of Midrash, for which this composition is not the place.

[6] The question of a “Time to act for God” (“עת לאשות להשם”) or a “Temporary Instruction” (“הוראת שעה”) wherein a prophet violates a biblical commandment, or instructs others to do so, is a function of what Rambam describes, in Moreh Nevukhim 3:34, as the nature of a generally-applied system. Any system that is created to function on the general scale (for all the individuals of a group, for all moments in time, etc.), will inevitably come across specific points on the scale where it does apply perfectly, as it is intended for the general situation, and thus cannot account for every possible eventuality. In such a case the Prophet can be instructed by ‘א to violate the general law in a specific instance.

[7] The dichotomy depicted in this paragraph is roughly that between Rationalism, which originated in the Greek Theoria (determining via perfection of the mind the nature of the Divine reality, upon which law and behavior could the be based), and Empiricism.

[8] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Baba Batra, 131a.

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