Parashat Va’Et’hanan – The Dual Aspects of Idolatry

אֲשֶׁר חָלַק יְ׳הוָה אֱ׳לֹהֶיךָ אֹתָם לְכֹל הָעַמִּים


Parashat VaEt’hanan finishes Moshe’s first great speech of Sefer Devarim and begins his second. In the course of this ending and beginning the Revelation at Sinai is brought up three times, each in order to convey a specific message. The first appears in Devarim 4:9-13, and would seem at first to be simply an explanation of why Idolatry is forbidden, as expounded in verses 14-24. Verse 11 makes it clear that the Revelation at Sinai was not a visual experience, “And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the voice of words, but you saw no form; only a voice,” and then the subsequent section goes through all the forms found in Heaven and on Earth, which by definition of being visible, could not represent ‘א. However, one verse in particular is striking. After rejecting the animals and the birds and the bugs, the Torah rejects the possibility of making idols in the images of the cosmos.

And lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and you see the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven, and you are drawn away and worship them, and serve them, which the Lord your god has allotted to all the nations under the whole heaven. (4:19)

The verse seems bizarre, to say the least, but a deeper look at the verse not only teaches us much about the importance of the Revelation at Sinai, but also a great deal about the nature of the prohibition regarding Idolatry[1].

This verse was explained in a variety of ways by the rishonim. Several suggested[2], based on the gemara, that “the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven” were allotted to the nations in order to provide them with light. This fits with the end of the verse which describes the nations as “under the whole heaven,” which is the area where the light of the stars falls. However, this fails to make sense in context in two ways. Firstly, the larger section is discussing Idolatry, not the providing of light, and second, Israel also receives light from the heavenly bodies, and while this can be fit with the phrase “ all the nations under the whole heaven,” the verse seems to be making a contrast between the nations and Israel, not lumping them together. A second idea is found in the comments of Ibn Ezra and Ramban, who state that all the nations are subject to management by the constellations, in contrast to Bnei Yisrael who are directly managed by ‘א. While not quite as out of context as the first idea, this still fails to fit into the discussion of Idolatry. Sensing the importance of the context, Rashi suggests that this verse is saying that while ‘א will stop the Israelites from worshiping “the host of heaven,” He will not stop the nations of the world from doing so, despite the fact that such actions are a transgression. This fits almost perfectly with the verse. However, the verse itself lacks the implication that the nations are “allowed but not intended” to worship the stars. Rather, as suggested by Rashbam, this verse seems to be stating that the nations are in fact allowed to worship the stars.

This pasuk, then, provides a fascinating model for Idolatry, wherein while it is forbidden for the Nation of Israel, it is permitted for the nations of the world. This is in fact stated explicitly in Shemot Rabbah 15:23[3], which says, “The Holy One, blessed it he, said: I did not warn the idolaters (lit: “star-worshippers”) against idolatry (lit: “worshipping the stars”), [I warned] only you, as it says, ‘do not make for you idols’ (Vayikra 26:1).” The midrash is pretty clear that idolatry is only a problem for Bnei Yisrael. However, this is problematic in terms of the fact that other sources would seem to indicate that the nations of the world are also forbidden to worship idols. Only a few chapters after our verse, the Torah instructs Bnei Yisrael to destroy the objects of idolatry that they find in the Land of Israel (7:5). One of the purposes of the plagues in Egypt was to teach the Egyptians that only ‘א is God[4]. Moreover, the gemara says that there are seven laws incumbent on all descendants of Noah[5], and that the prohibition against Idolatry is amongst them[6]. One method to resolve this difficulty could be saying that the verse says one thing but in practice we don’t follow it[7]. However, instead of simply choosing to reject one source in favor of the other, it is possible to create a synthesis of the two contradictory ideas.

The discussion of Idolatry in the 4th chapter of Devarim is put specifically in context of the fact that ‘א took Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt (4:20) and made a covenant with them at Sinai (4:23). They are forbidden to worship idols, b/c those idols could not possibly represent ‘א, who took them out of Egypt in order to be their god (Bamidbar 15:41), and who is a jealous god (Devarim 4:24). The covenant at Sinai is the concretization of a relationship between ‘א and Israel that was started at the Exodus, and Idolatry violates this relationship. Since the nations of the world, on the other hand, do not possess this special relationship[8], this cannot prohibit them from performing Idolatry. However, Idolatry may be forbidden for other reasons. The most obvious reason is that it is false, but it may also be forbidden due to the fact that it not only involves immoral practices, it also encourages a very self-serving mindset[9]. From this perspective Idolatry would be forbidden for all people, not just Bnei Yisrael. It is possible to view these not as two contradictory ideas, but as two aspects of the larger prohibition of Idolatry, a view which has the benefit of enabling us to understand some approaches to Idolatry that have been taken throughout history.

Throughout history, Bnei Yisrael have encountered other nations, requiring a delicate balance of pushing away idolaters, and living in society. This has resulted in unique statements attempting to demonstrate that a certain religion isn’t really Idolatry. The most famous instance of this in the encounter with Christianity. Perhaps the strangest answer to the question of whether or not Christianity is Idolatry is, “It is not Idolatry for them, but it is for us.” This approach essentially says that the Trinity is the splitting of ‘א’s power to multiple entities, known in Hebrew as “שיתוף,” meaning “partnership,” and that this is only considered Idolatry for jews, but not for the nations of the world[10]. While at first it seems odd that one idea could be both idolatrous and non-idolatrous, it makes perfect sense in light of our 2-aspect paradigm of Idolatry. From the perspective of the relationship between ‘א and the Nation of Israel, introducing a second or third divine entity into that relationship would certainly not be ok, but since the nations of the world do not have that relationship it would be fine. Similarly, the Meiri held that Christianity is not Idolatry because he believed that Idolatry is essentially a moral issue, not a theological one[11]. He said that basic issue with Idolatry is that idolatrous societies are barbaric and uncivilized, and thus any religion that creates a moral society instead of encouraging immorality would not be considered Idolatry[12]. While this certainly applies to Christianity, no one would suggest that a Jew could then go and join Christian worship. Once again, this makes perfect sense in light of the two differing aspects of Idolatry as we have outline them.

Judaism never believed that all peoples should be walking the same path. This can be readily seen from the fact that it was never a missionary religion, in fact going so far as to discourage strangers from converting. Not only do the nations of the world not have to follow in the path of Judaism, the Torah even allows them their own religions. In fact some thinkers have even suggested that all religions have something unique to offer the world[13. Not only should Bnei Yisrael not be denigrating other religions for not being “the true path,” Rav Kook even suggests that it is Judaism’s job to bring out the best in all the other religions[14]. Bnei Yisrael are meant to be a “Kingdom of Priests” (Shemot 19:6), and just as the special access of the Kohanim to the Mikdash was only for the purpose of enabling the relationship of ‘א and the people, so too the Nation of Israel’s special relationship with ‘א brings with it the responsibility to value and uplift the Nations of the World.

[1] I am indebted for many of the sources in this essay to Marc Shapiro’s essay, “Of Books and Bans.”

[2] See Rav Saadiah Gaon, Rashi, Rashbam ad loc. However, Rashi and Rashbam seem unsatisfied with this answer, as they each then offer alternatives.

[3] The Hebrew text of the midrash can be found here.

[4] Rav Yoel Bin Nun, of Yeshivat Har Etzion, has an approach to the Exodus narrative wherein the entirety of it is about the negation of Egypt’s gods, to the point that any appearance of the word “רע,” normally translated as evil, is instead considered a reference to the major Egyptian sun-god, Ra.

[5] However, Masekhet Baba Kama 38a and Vayikra Rabbah 13:2 both state that ‘א repealed the Seven Noahide Laws from upon the nations.

[6] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Sanhedrin, 56a.

[7] This is in fact the general approach taken by Rashbam and the GRA, which originates in Masekhet Sotah, 16a.

[8] While Amos 9:7 states that other nations may have a relationship with ‘א like that of the Exodus, they still lack the covenant of Sinai.

[9] See the beginning of Rambam’s Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim, where he argues that idol worship is purely a function of what a person can get back from the god, a sort of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” arrangement.

[10] ( פתחי תשובה, יורה דעה, קמז ג (ב

[11] Moshe Halbertal, “Bein Torah le-Hokhmah: Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri u-Va`alei ha-Halakhah ha-Maimonim be-Provence” (Jerusalem, 2000), ch. 3.

[12] Beit HaBehira, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, p. 39.

[13] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “The Dignity of Difference,” Chapter 3. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Orot, Orot Yisrael, 5:2.

[14]  Op cit.

Jeroboam, Elijah, Ezra, and Abraham: Hinduism and the Bible

The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:

Here is another attempt to conceptualize Hinduism for a Jewish audience. This time in the reverse. How would Hinduisms react to Biblical stories. Help me think this one through- does it work?

Hinduism is really a variety of religions held together in the 20th century by politics and agreed upon commonalities. Hinduism is a “complex, organic, multileveled and sometimes internally inconsistent nature.” Hinduism does not have a “unified system of belief encoded in a declaration of faith, rather an umbrella term comprising the plurality of religious phenomena of India. According to the Supreme Court of India: “Unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a…

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Parashat Devarim 5774 – The Oral Torah and The Things That Moshe Said

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה


Parashat Devarim opens the final book of Humash, marking a radical departure from the previous books. It’s uniqueness is encapsulated in the name by which it is referred to in Midrashim and the Gemara, “Mishneh Torah”, meaning “Repetition of the Torah”. This title is probably a reference to the many narratives and laws from previous books of the Torah that are repeated in Sefer Devarim. However, the narratives and laws[1] of Sefer Devarim also include many things not found in previous books, lack many things found in previous books, or outright contradict the laws and narratives of previous books. Parashat Devarim includes a few excellent examples of all of these, such as the appointment of judicial system (Devarim 1:9-18; originally found in Shemot 18) and the incident of the spies (Devarim 1:19-46; originally founding in Bamidbar 13-14). Perhaps the most striking changes from the previous books of the Torah to Sefer Devarim are in the writing style and the perspective of narration. The language and sentence structure used are strikingly different from the other books, to the point that switching from one to the other is actually difficult. Most of the books of the Torah are narrated from a third-person perspective (“And Moshe said…” “And Moshe struck the rock…”), but Sefer Devarim is dominated by first-person narration (“I said…” “We did…”). This final detail, as we shall see, actually contains the explanation for all of the other discrepancies of Sefer Devarim.

Sefer Devarim opens with the phrase, “These are the words which Moses spoke to all of Israel” (Devarim 1:1). Just a few verses later (1:6), Moshe begins a speech that spans for about 4 chapters of Sefer Devarim. Immediately thereafter, Moshe begins his second speech (5:1), which will span 22 chapters. This is followed immediately by the beginning of a third speech (27:1), filling chapters 27 and 28, and then chapters 29 and 30 are a fourth speech (beginning with 29:1).  The last four chapters of Sefer Devarim (31-34) are a narration of Moshe’s Last Acts and Farewells, much of which is still him speaking or singing, though not all of it. This breakdown demonstrates that Sefer Devarim is almost entirely a recording of Moshe’s speeches! 30 out of 34 chapters of Sefer Devarim, give or take a few verses, are entirely his speeches, and the other four chapters include a hefty amount of his speech as well. The sudden switch from third- to first-person narration is therefore obvious and understandable, as Moshe would not narrate from a third-person perspective. Fascinatingly, this also suggests that the style switch is also a matter of Moshe’s narration, meaning a switch from the previous, presumably Divine, perspective, to Moshe’s human perspective.

This raises an immediate issue in terms of our conception of the giving of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva says that the entirety of the Torah, in its general principles and its minor details, was given to Moshe on Har Sinai[2]. If this is true, then Sefer Devarim was given to Moshe on Har Sinai, from ‘א, and for it to be narrated by Moshe, phrased in his own perspective, would be strange at the very least. However, this is not the only opinion in Hazal. Rabbi Yishmael says that the general principles of the Torah were given on Har Sinai, and then the minor details were given in the Mishkan and in the Plains of Moav (where Moshe delivers the speeches found in Sefer Devarim)[3]. Even this does not quite say that Moshe himself said over, of his own volition, the speeches recorded in Sefer Devarim, but it is a step in that direction. The next step is taken by Abarbanel in his Introduction to his commentary on Sefer Devarim.

In truth, Moshe our teacher stated the words of this book and explained the mitzvot mentioned therein as he prepared to part from the people of Israel.  After he completed his words to Israel, God desired that they be included in the Torah as Moshe stated them.  Perhaps God added elements to those words at the time that they were committed to writing.  Thus, although the words may have been stated by Moshe, the authority to include them in the Torah’s text did not derive from him.  Moshe did not decide to commit these words to writing, for how could he compose even a single thing in God’s Torah without Divine sanction?  Rather, all of these words of the Book of Devarim were by the mouth of God, together with the rest of the Torah’s text, for God agreed with his formulations and favored the words of the ‘faithful shepherd’ Moshe.  Thus, God restated them to Moshe and ordered them to be written by him, and Moshe therefore composed them by God’s authority and not by his own

Thus the speeches of Sefer Devarim are actually Moshe’s own narration[4], which then received the Divine imprimatur when ‘א decided to make them part of the Torah[5]. The significance of this idea is powerfully expressed by Rav Tsadok HaKohen of Lublin[6].

The latter version of the Decalogue, that in Sefer Devarim, was said by Moshe, on his own account. Nonetheless, it is part of the Written Law. In addition to the mitzvot themselves that Moshe had already received at Sinai, by the word of God, these words as well [in Sefer Devarim], which were said on his own account, which are not prefaced with the statement, “And God said…”, these, too, are part of the Written Law. For all of his (i.e. Moshe’s) are also a complete “torah”, just like the dialogues of the patriarchs and other similar passages are considered part of the Written Law. But the material that begins “And these are the things” (i.e. the first verse of Sefer Devarim and the rest of the book that follows), material that was said on his own account, represents the root of the Oral Law, the things that the sages of Israel say of their own account.

Rav Tsadok is saying that as part of the ‘א’s Divinely commanded text, Sefer Devarim is part of the Written Torah, but as the words of Moshe Rabbenu, Sefer Devarim is the beginning of the Oral Torah. Therefore it is not strange that Sefer Devarim should depart from previous books of the Torah in retelling past events. As part of the Oral Torah, it is a completion and an interpretation of the Written Torah. It is Sefer Devarim’s nature as interpretive retelling that explains its divergences from previous recordings of laws and narratives in the Torah.

The first great example of that in Parashat Devarim is the Appointment of the Judges. This first occurs in Shemot 18, when Yitro arrives at Har Sinai and suggests the appointment of judges as a way to lighten Moshe’s burden. Yitro tells Moshe that he should take “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (Shemot 18:21). Moshe does as Yitro recommended, and goes from being the sole judiciary authority to being the final authority when lower judiciary authorities were not enough. In Sefer Devarim, Moshe initiates the appointment of the leaders, due to his inability to lead the people.

And I spoke to you at that time, saying: “I am not able to bear you myself alone; the Lord your God has multiplied you, and, behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven in multitude. The Lord, the God of your fathers, made you a thousand times so many more as you are, and blessed you, as He has promised you! How can I myself alone bear your trouble, and your burden, and your strife? Get you, from each one of your tribes, wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge, and I will make them heads over you.’ And you answered me, and said: ‘The thing which you have spoken is good for us to do.’ So I took the heads of your tribes, wise men, and full of knowledge, and made them heads over you, captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds, and captains of fifties, and captains of tens, and officers, tribe by tribe. And I charged your judges at that time, saying: ‘Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. You shall not favor persons in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike; you shall not be afraid of the face of any man; for Justice is God’s; and the cause that is too hard for you you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.” And I commanded you at that time all the things which you should do. (Devarim 1:9-18)

There are many differences between this passage and the passage in Shemot. First off is the lack of any mention of Yitro is Sefer Devarim. More interesting, however, is the description of the judges, both in terms of their innate qualities and their assigned duties. Whereas in Shemot the men are described as “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain,” in Devarim they are referred to as “wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge.” Moshe appoints the men in Shemot as “rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens,” whereas in Devarim they are additionally appointed as “officers.” In Shemot Moshe chooses the men, whereas in Devarim the nation chooses them. These differences all flow from differences in the initial cause for the appointment in each passage. In Shemot the men are appointed to create a necessary Judicial structure, whereas in Devarim Moshe is appointing ‘heads” over the tribes, to help him lead a nation that has grown to large for his singular leadership. Therefore only Shemot mentions Yitro, while he isn’t part of the story in Devarim. The traits of the men chosen in Shemot are appropriate for judges, while the traits of the men chosen in Devarim are more generally useful for leadership. That’s why in devarim they are “officers” as well as judicial “rulers”. Shemot emphasizes the issues of jurisprudence, right before the giving of ‘א’s Law, where Devarim emphasizes matters of leadership. These two issues came up simultaneously, and we only get the full picture due to their being split apart textually.

The second such example that appears in Sefer Devarim is the Sin of the Spies. The first recording of this narrative occurs in Bamidbar 13-14, instigated by ‘א commanding Moshe to send men to scout out the land. The men bring back a misleading and evil report that causes Bnei Yisrael to rebel. Despite the protestations of the good spies, Yehoshua and Calev, Bnei Yisrael refuse to enter the land, leading to ‘א condemning the entire generation to die in the desert. The departures from this representation in Devarim are few, but significant.

And I said to you: “You have come to the hill-country of the Amorites, which the Lord our God gave to us. Behold, the Lord your God has set the land before you; go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of thy fathers, has spoken to you; do not fear, nor be dismayed.” And you came near to me every one of you, and said: “Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us, and bring us back word of the way by which we must go up, and the cities to which we shall come.” And the thing pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one man for every tribe; and they turned and went up into the mountains, and came to the valley of Eshcol, and spied it out. And they took of the fruit of the land in their hands, and brought it down to us, and brought us back word, and said: “Good is the land which the Lord our God gives to us.” Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God; and you murmured in your tents, and said: “Because the Lord hated us, He has brought us forth out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. To where are we going up? Our brothers have made our heart to melt, saying: The people is greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.” Then I said to you: “Dread not, neither be afraid of them. The Lord your God who goes before you, He shall fight for you, according to all that He did for you in Egypt before your eyes; and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God bore you, as a man bears his son, in all the way that you went, until you came to this place. Yet in this thing you do not believe the Lord your God, Who went before you in the way, to seek you out a place to pitch your tents in: in fire by night, to show you by what way you should go, and in the cloud by day.” And the Lord heard the voice of your words, and was angry, and swore, saying: ‘Surely there shall not one of these men, even this evil generation, see the good land, which I swore to give to your fathers… (Devarim 1:20-35)

Of the many differences here, a few stand out in particular. Where in Bamidbar 13, ‘א commanded the sending of the scouts, in Devarim the people asked to send spies. In Bamidbar the spies bring back a false report that incites the people, which is ineffectually countered by Calev and Yehoshua, while in Devarim the report of the scouts appears only in the words of the people after they have already rebelled. The people rebel of their own initiative and are rebuked not by Calev and Yehoshua but by Moshe himself. While here too there seems to have been two different things occurring simultaneously, two different missions performed by the same twelve men at the same time[7], depicted separately in two different places, this is not the reason for the differences here. Instead, here it seems to be simply a matter of a different perspective. By focusing on the initiatives and failures of Moshe and Bnei Yisrael, by excluding ‘א and the spies from the story, emphasis is placed on the actions and responsibility of the Nation and their Leader. Thus this retelling does not contradict or change the story, so much as it simply presents the narrative from a different point of view, emphasizing different things.

Sefer Devarim is a retelling of much of the laws and narratives of the Torah, but it is a complex retelling. It has additional information, intentional lacks of information, and apparent contradictions. However, far from posing a problem for the Torah’s integrity and for the religious reader, these complexities open up the Written Torah by anchoring it to our most precious gift, the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah is the god-given ability for the wise of Bnei Yisrael to interpret and apply the Written Torah, and it started with Moshe. Moshe took events and laws from the 40 years that Bnei Yisrael traveled in the wilderness and presented them in new ways, in order to convey the aspects he felt were most important for Bnei Yisrael to appreciate before entering the Land of Israel. Throughout the entirety of Sefer Devarim, many different aspects are emphasized, but a few themes, such as have been presented above, are dominant. The laws and events of Sefer Devarim highlight the ability, and corresponding responsibility, of Bnei Yisrael. Upon entering the land, everything will change for Bnei Yisrael. They will have to be responsible for themselves on a much greater level. They are losing Moshe, their faithful shepherd through the wilderness, and ‘א will begin to reduce His miracles and open Presence among them. The people can’t rely on Moshe or ‘א to take charge and save them. They will have to lead themselves, and they will have to take responsibility for their own mistakes. Correspondingly, the texts emphasize the ability of the people to do so. All of this is a function of Oral Torah. The Oral Torah allows for the expression of whatever aspects of the Torah are most relevant at any given time. “Since the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash, ‘א has no place in this world outside the 4 Amot of Halakhah.”[8] When the Bet HaMikdash was destroyed, the Oral Torah took us from the community-centered worship of the Bet HaMikdash to the individual-centered life of Halakhah. And when Bnei Yisrael were preparing to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe spoke to them the speeches of Sefer Devarim, that would take them from a people entirely dependent on ‘א to a people able to create a godly society, according to His laws, in His land.

[1] This composition will not discuss legal contradictions with previous books, as that is a separate topic. In brief, halakhic midrashim have their own method of solving it in relation to determining halakhah, and in terms of understanding the internal contradiction of the Torah text, it revolves around the institution of common law. For more on that and the specific case of Sefer Devarim, see essays 5-8 by Prof. Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan University, here.

[2] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Zevahim, 115b.

[3] Ibid.

[4] While some struggle with the idea of a human hand in the composition of the Torah, it is important to remember the level of Moshe in his prophecy, to the point where the midrash describes his as half man and half elohim (Devarim Rabbah 11:4).

[5] This is actually suggested by the gemara: One does not pause [to call up another reader] in [the reading of] the curses, but one person reads them all.  Abaye said: This applies only to the curses in Torat Kohanim [Vayikra], but in Mishnah Torah [Devarim], one may pause.  Why is this so? The former are in plural form and Moshe spoke them in the name of Hashem, and the latter are in singular and Moshe spoke them on his own. (Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Megilla, 31b).

[6] Pri Tzadik, Kedushat ha-Shabbat, article 7. Translation from Professor Joshua Berman, here.

[7] One of the missions was about military intelligence, while the other was more about surveying the land. The first indicator of this is the different verbs used for what the “spies” will do in each case, “לרגל,” “to spy,” or “לתור,” “to scout”. For more on this see Rav Elchanan Samet’s excellent essay, here.

[8] תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף ח עמוד א

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 2: Critical Approaches and the Documentary Hypothesis

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 2

Critical Approaches and the Documentary Hypothesis

 (For Part 1: Introduction, see here)

Perhaps the biggest issue people face when approaching Biblical Criticism is their misconceptions about what it really is. When most people hear the words “Biblical Criticism” they immediately think of the Documentary Hypothesis, but, ultimately, the Documentary Hypothesis (henceforth ‘DH’) is only a small portion of the vast tapestry that is Biblical Criticism. In truth, Biblical Criticism is such a broad field that the best definition might be “Academic Approaches to the Bible.” What this means is that Biblical Criticism (henceforth ‘BC’) includes lots of different approaches with lots of different interests. Some of these approaches, like Form Criticism and Source Criticism, parent category of DH, are solely an attempt to determine what sources the human authors of the Tanakh used to compose the texts we see before us today. Such an approach is obviously anathema to a religious believer dedicated to the idea of a purely divine text. However, BC also includes Literary Criticism, which might be thought of as “the study of the Bible as Literature.” While that same religious believer might take offense at calling the Torah as “Literature,” they presumably would not disagree with the literary critic about the incredible beauty and complexity of the Torah text, or the significance of every word. However, the picture I’ve just painted is not helpful to the average person’s encounter with BC. Instead of “just DH”, I’ve now given them “DH + all this other stuff.” With that in mind, I will attempt to begin to explain a few of these different approaches, as well as how they relate to each other and the religious believer. While some approaches, like Archaeology or Patternism, will have to wait for a later section, DH will be given primary placement in this segment, as it is both the most famous part of BC, and possibly the most challenging to the religious believer.

The Documentary Hypothesis is the culmination of hundreds of years of Biblical Scholarship, starting from the first medieval scholars that ever questioned the Mosaic Authorship of the Torah[1]. It’s first fully realized manifestation was the work of Julius Wellhausen. Wellhausen was the first to not only create a full picture of which parts of the Torah were assigned to which source, but also when in the history of the Israelites the different sources had been written. He broke the text down into four basic sources, (J)awhist, (E)lokist, (P)riestly & (D)ueteronomist, and a (R)edactor who put them all together. Historically, these sources had been broken up based on the different names they used to refer to ‘א, repetitive or contradictory stories, and writing styles. Wellhausen was the first to take these sources and figure out where they might fit historically. He placed the writing of J & E the time of the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel, with J being written in Judah and E being written in Israel[2]. He placed the writing of D in the reign of King Yoshiyahu, and the writing of P in the time of Ezra, in the Second Temple Period. However, this last placement of P has long been recognized to be based not only on some faulty assumptions, but also on some underlying antisemitism, as P includes most of the ritual laws that people associate with Judaism. Thus many people eventually began to place P earlier, at which point it becomes a matter of much debate amongst Bible scholars. Some even split P into P and H, the Priestly Source and Holiness Code, and suggest that while one was written earlier, one as written very late[3]. This, writ large, is the basic concept of the Documentary Hypothesis. Each of these sources may have had it’s own development, it may have been written by a single person, or perhaps even a school of writers, but whatever that may have been, these were the sources the Redactor combined to make the text we today call the Torah.

While much of this was initially challenging to Orthodox Jewry, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer developed what is known in Hebrew as “Shitat HaBehinot,” “The Method of the Aspects,” which said that all of these different voices and styles that DH scholars had found were really there, but that they represented not different human authors but different aspects of the Divine Truth, which cannot be put simply into Human language without compromise or contradiction (B”H we will return to this in a later segment). However, the DH was to suffer lots of critique from within BC, not only from literary critics, but also from within Source Criticism itself. In recent decades, advancements in the study of ancient languages and how they changed over time, the way scribal copying really used to work, and the like, has changed the face of Source Criticism, to the point where a critic’s ability to really identify sources with a large degree of accuracy has been called into question[4]. Thus the whole practice of identifying source documents is considered by many Source Critics to be rather passé[5]. Further, harsh critiques have been leveled against Source Criticism in general, and DH in specific, by the rising trend of Literary Criticism, as will be discussed below. For now, it is safe to say that DH need not trouble the believer too much.

Source Criticism, to reiterate, is the attempt to uncover the different sources that were combined to create the text as we have it today. This is done by rather intensive dividing up of texts based on repetitions, contradictions, and supposed authorial styles. There is a similar approach called Form Criticism, which intends to find the original forms of these sources, the original written or oral compositions that developed into the narratives the of the biblical text as we know it. This is done by determining the beginning and end of each unit of the Torah text, and then attempting to determine what “genre” the unit would fall under (examples: kingship myth, victory song, folktale, etc.). Then this genre can be used to determine the meaning of the text, as well as it’s sitz en leben, the situation in the national life in which the text would have (example: a funeral, a coronation, a sacrificial procedure, etc.). However, much as Source Critics are forever arguing over the correct divisions of the Torah text, so too Form Critics argue about the beginning and ends of units in the text. Moreover, there is little agreement among Form Critics regarding the number of genres in Biblical Literature, or what exactly those genres might be. That these two fields struggle from an incredible amount of internal debate[6]. However, perhaps their greatest critiques have come from the field of Literary Criticism.

Literary Criticism is an approach that eschews the whole practice of searching for the origins of the biblical text, not because it’s difficult or impractical, but because such an approach cannot tell you what the text means. Literary Criticism says that regardless of whether the author of the Torah may have been using varied sources or not, the text was composed with great intent. Therefore the meaning of the text can be best assessed not by picking it apart, but by looking at it as a unitary text. In fact, such an approach says that even if the text is a combination of older sources, what matters is how they were put together, not what they were separately. Therefore, what appear to be seams uniting two texts will often unlock the greatness and meaning of the larger text[7]. This approach was developed by thinking of Tanakh not as scripture, but as literature, and thus subject to Literary Theory. This type of analysis originally suffered due to comparing Tanakh to various forms of literature, such as Homer or Shakespeare, where the comparison was totally artificial. However, as knowledge of the Ancient Near East and, more importantly, the field of Literary Theory[8] improved, Literary Criticism became an approach that truly appreciates the incredible nature of the text of Tanakh. It is from this literary vantage point that many critiques have been launched against Source Criticism and Form Criticism. One of the foundational concepts of Source Criticism is that a repetition means the combination of two sources. However, repetition often serves a purpose within a narrative, so assuming that it requires a combination of sources is far from necessary. An excellent example is pointed out by Professor Robert Alter in his seminal work, “The Art of the Biblical Narrative.” He points out that when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers (Bereishit 45), he says, “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?,” then a verse later he repeats himself, “I am your brother Yosef whom you sold to Egypt.” Source critics split these two verses into two separate sources, but Alter argues that the repetition is obviously a function of the psychological and dramatic narrative, where the brothers are initially dumbfounded, and only after they draw closer and Yosef repeats himself, can they truly understand[9]. Professor Adele Berlin, in “Poetics and the Interpretation of the Biblical Narrative,” argues that many such repetitions also come from switches between various perspectives, not from multiple sources. In the same chapter[10] she compares Form Critical analysis of Tanakh with Form Critical analysis of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and shows that even in the case of the Epic of Gilgamesh where we have obvious and empirical development from primitive sources to more complex literary works, such development still cannot account for the literary complexity of the final composition. All the more so in the case of Tanakh, where there are no extant version of primitive sources, the text can really only be understood in terms of an author with full control over the text, not someone gingerly combining older sources. All in all, Literary Criticism is actually a realm of Biblical Criticism where the religious believer can feel fairly at home.

The first mistake in approach BC is believing that it is a monolithic entity. It is a large tapestry, and not all the different strands get along with one another. Moreover, even within each strand there is much disagreement. BC is not some big scary entity to be fear or adored, to be either entirely accepted or entirely rejected. Hopefully this segment has conveyed that one can examine BC critically, and see that we do not need to fear the elements we cannot accept, and perhaps also that there may be some element we will want to embrace.


(Onward to Part 3)


[1] Much of the information in this paragraph comes from Richard Elliot Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?”, a clear and easy text explaining the development of DH, and one which a clear-headed believer should not haven much trouble with.

[2] This type of assignment is usually made on the assumption that the biblical authors would only have written things that would benefit themselves, and thus a source that talks about Hebron must be from the Kingdom of Judah, which was originally based in Hebron. Simply put, this assumption is one of several options, and not necessarily the preferred one, as people, particularly religious people, are often motivated by something other than personal gain.

[3] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Yale Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, Introduction.

[4] For more on this, see Professor Alan Brill’s fantastic interviews with Professor David Carr and Professor Jacob Wright.

[5] This has also called into question some of R’ Breuer’s conclusions, and thus many religious academics have failed to embrace it. However, it should also be noted that this newer conception is largely based on the assumption that ancient Israelite society functioned just like the societies around it, something not necessarily conclusive.

[6] For more on the development of internal debates of Form Criticism, see Appendix II of Meir Weiss, “The Bible From Within”.

[7] This was the “Holistic Method” of Moshe Greenberg, which is wonderfully and masterfully demonstrated in his analysis of Yehezkal’s vision of Idolatry in the Bet HaMikdash in Yehezkal 8-11.

[8] For a survey of the development of Literary Criticism, including the literary-critical sides of Form Criticism, see the First Introduction to The Bible From Within.

[9] Robert Alter, “The Art of the Biblical Narrative”, Chapter 8, “Narration and Knowledge”.

[10] Her critiques can be found here.


Parashat Masei – Towards an Ethics of Responsibility

וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת-הָאָרֶץ

Parashat Masei concludes Sefer Bamidbar by discussing the division of the Land of Israel into twelve sections for the 12[1] tribes of Israel. Additionally, it contains a few extra passages related to the division of the land, such as the designating of 48 cities for the Levi’im, six as cities of refuge, and the command to the Daughters of Tselophehad not to marry outside their tribe, in order to keep their inherited lands within the tribe. In addition, there is a passage discussing the laws of killing, both intentional and accidental. As an unintentional murderer is able to flee for his life to a city of refuge, the placement of this passage seems a fitting extension of the designation of the cities of the Levi’im. However, the law of the city of refuge is mentioned briefly in Shemot 21:13, and discussed at length in Devarim 19, and thus, its insertion here seems a little odd. If this passage had been inserted by Shemot 21:13, no one would have batted an eye, and then when the text described the designation of cities for the Levi’im, it would simply have had to mention that six of their cities would be cities of refuge, and that would be that. Instead, this lengthy passage is inserted at the end of Bamidbar, and its placement requires explanation. This explanation can be found by comparing this passage with the parallel passage from Devarim 19, and the end of Vayikra 18.

As opposed to Shemot 21:13, Devarim 19 contains a discussion of cities of refuge as lengthy as the one found in Bamidbar 35[2] . However, the structure and content of the two passages vary greatly. The passage in Bamidbar is essentially a discussion of the laws of killing in general, and thus it also includes the laws of an unintentional killer by default. The first mention of the purpose of the cities of refuge doesn’t even mention that the killing is unintentional. “And the cities shall be for you as a refuge from the avenger, that the killer not die, until he stand before the congregation for judgment.” (Bamidbar 35:12) It’s only a few verses later that the intent of the verse is clarified: “For the children of Israel, and for the stranger and for the settler among them, shall these six cities be a refuge, that every one that kills any person through error may flee there.” (35:15). By contrast, the passage in Devarim 19 is dedicated to the unintentional killer and the cities of refuge, and only mentions intentional killing in context of the possibility of an intentional killer hiding in the city of refuge. “But if any man hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and rises up against him, and smites him mortally that he die; and he flees into one of these cities; then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die” (Devarim 19:11-12). Thus the passage in Bamidbar seems to equate the two modes of killing somewhat, whereas the passage in Devarim does not. This is reinforced by the fact that Devarim simply mentions the city of refuge as protecting him from the threat of death by the avenger, while Bamidbar depicts the killer being taken there for judgement:

Then the congregation shall judge between the killer and the avenger of blood according to these ordinances; and the congregation shall deliver the killer out of the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge where he had fled; and he shall dwell there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil. (Bamidbar 35:25)

Further, while in Sefer Devarim the city of refuge is a privilege and a gift of safety for this unintentional killer, in Sefer Bamidbar the killer is actually forced to stay in the city (35:25), making it as much a punishment as a reprieve. It is clear from the passage at Sefer Bamidbar that while the unintentional killer should certainly be able to avail himself of the city of refuge, he is not totally guiltless.

While this explains what makes this passage unique it fails to explain its placement. Finding this explanation requires contrasting this passage with verses from Vayikra 18:

And the land was defiled (וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ), therefore I did visit the iniquity upon it, and the land vomited out her inhabitants. Therefore you shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations; neither the citizen, nor the stranger that settles among you—for all these abominations have the men of the land done, that were before you, and the land is defiled (וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ)—that the land vomit not you out also, when you defile it (בְּטַמַּאֲכֶם אֹתָהּ), as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Vayikra 18:25-28)[3]

These verses, describing the transgressions of the previous residents of the Land of Israel that caused their ownership of the land to be forfeit, are clearly referenced in the passage in Bamidbar 35.

So you shall not pollute the land that you are in; for blood, it pollutes the land; and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him that shed it[4]. And thou shalt not defile the land (וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת-הָאָרֶץ) which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell in the midst of the children of Israel. (Bamidbar 35:33-34)

The passages even use the exact same wording, highlighting their innate connection. Moreover, both of these passages explain certain commands in terms of the effect trespassing them has on the land that the Nation of Israel will dwell in. The Land of Israel will not tolerate such intense trespasses. Even unintentionally, the killing of another person is such a severe crime as to have serious repercussions not just on the person[5] but on their surroundings as well, and, much like the sins of the nations that previously dwelled in the land, it costs them their ability to remain in the land[6]. Thus, the reason that the passage regarding the laws of a killer are placed at the end of Sefer Bamidbar, right in the middle of a discussion about the Division of the Land, is that they are a condition for, and a feature of, dwelling in the land.

The narrative and subsections of the Division of the Land are the final section of Sefer Bamidbar. They are the final necessary preparations before the people enter the land, and into this section is inserted laws emphasizing not just the conditions of living in the land, but the responsibility of the people who live in it. Even the unintentional killer must stand trial and endure exile (Bamidbar 35:24-25). Even the Kohen HaGadol, responsible for the religious and spiritual life of the nation, must bear the responsibility for this tragedy (Ibid). Upon entering the land, ‘א’s active and overt interaction in the life of the people begins to decrease. ‘א helps the people conquer in Sefer Yehoshua[7], but in Sefer Shoftim[8] the mark of a good leader is the lack of active involvement by ‘א. As ‘א becomes less involved, the people are expected to step in and take up more responsibility. In a world where we do not ever see open miracles, this responsibility is paramount. We cannot expect ‘א to simply take care of things, and assume that absolves us of our responsibilities. We have to stand tall and take responsibility, even for accidents[9] and mistakes, even for those things done by the people in our charge rather than by ourselves. There is a marked difference between conscious transgression and unavoidable misconduct, but there is never a reason to shirk responsibility.

[1] The Tribe of Levi does not get a portion, as they are split up into 48 cities throughout the other tribes, but the Tribe of Yosef is split into two separate tribes, Ephraim and Menashe, so the number of tribes remains twelve. This trade-off between the tribe of Levi and the splitting of Yosef’s tribe can be found throughout the torah. The only place Levi is listed alongside both Ephraim and Menashe is at the end of Sefer Devarim in Moshe’s farewell blessings, where Shimon is not mentioned, and so the number twelve is preserved.

[2] Much of the analysis in this paragraph is derived from this article by Rav Yonatan Grossman:

[3] This is foreshadowed in Bereishit 15:16, when ‘א explains the delay in the Bnei Yisrael’s inheriting the land by saying,“for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.”

[4] For those in whose eyes this seems barbaric, it is more than worth taking a look at Moshe Greenberg’s “The Biblical Grounding of Human Value”,

[5] For more on this effect, see the sources and theoretical discussion found in this essay:

[6] This explains the punishment of the unintentional killer in Sefer Bamidbar, where he is confined to the city of refuge. Much as the sins of Vayikra 18 merit exile, so does unintentional murder. Thus the city of refuge is not just a safe place, it’s also a form of exile, a little piece of “not the Land of Israel” inside the Land of Israel that the killer is stuck in.

[7] See the conquest of Yeriho in Yehoshua 6, for example.

[8] See the narratives of Otniel Ben-Kenaz (Shoftim 3:7-10) and Ehud Ben-Gerah (3:12-30), for example.

[9] “The difference between an accident and a tragedy is that an accident is preventable” ~ Yehuda Chaim Rothner

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 1: Introduction

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 1



A few months ago, Professor Yoram Hazony wrote an article critiquing the approach to Biblical Criticism taken by Open Orthodoxy, or at least by the Open Orthodox community he had spent spent a shabbat with. It’s an excellent article, one that admits to being a product of the author’s subjective experience, while still being bold enough to pose challenging questions. The main thrust of these questions, and of the article as a whole, was regarding the statement made by the Rabbi of the community, that what set Open Orthodoxy apart was its willingness to confront challenging issues, such as Biblical Criticism, and to struggle with them honestly (presumably in contrast to the rest of the Jewish Community). Prof. Hazony’s article paints a picture quite at odds with this statement, a picture where anything less than absolute acceptance of Biblical Criticism is completely unacceptable, where even questioning Biblical Criticism merits an immediate and condescending dismissal. The article concludes by comparing Open Orthodoxy to the Protestant Movement, which a century ago decided to accept Biblical Criticism, and has paid the price for it.

While Prof. Hazony does have some harsh words for the Open Orthodox community, he does also say that he is “willing to regard [it] as a positive force.” He cannot abide the automatic acceptance of whatever opinions are popular amongst secular scholars, but he is fine with openly and honestly tackling challenges to Orthodoxy. While many people used his article as a springboard from which to offhandedly reject Biblical Criticism and Open Orthodoxy, Prof. Hazony was not proposing such an action. Instead, he was proposing nuance, both in relation to Open Orthodoxy, and in terms of how Orthodoxy may approach Biblical Criticism.

It is this approach that I would like to take in what I hope will be a series of short essays on the topic of Biblical Criticism, each dealing with different aspects of the topic. Most jews either accept Biblical Criticism in its totality, or reject that self-same totality. Much of the goal of this series will be to show that both of these approaches are mistaken. Biblical Criticism in not a monolithic structure, It has many complex pieces and approaches, and we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Many of these methods are similar to those used by the Medieval commentators of the Jewish Tradition[1]. Some parts of Biblical Criticism are not simply unacceptable from an Orthodox theological point of view, they are also questionable from points of view within the secular academic world, and I will attempt to demonstrate this as well. I will attempt to point out what parts of Biblical Criticism are not only not problematic for Orthodoxy, but are in fact quite valuable. And most of all, I will attempt to show that we have nothing to fear from Biblical Criticism.


(For part 2 of the series, see here)


[1] See this article by Rav Yaakov Elman (wherein he at one point discusses the Rishonim who make use of the concept of “Resumptive Repetition”):’akov_Elman/’It_Is_No_Empty_Thing’:_Nahmanidies_and_the_Search_for_Omnisignificance

Parashat Matot – Human Initiative and the Divine Will

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-רָאשֵׁי הַמַּטּוֹת


Parashat Matot contains the story of Bnei Yisrael’s war with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8), which finishes the story of Pinhas and the sin of Bnei Yisrael at Baal Peor (Bamidbar 25). Chapters 26-30 are an interjection, interrupting the story of Bnei Yisrael’s encounter with Midyan. While some of the sections in these chapters might be chronologically in order (see 26:1, for example), other law sections could have gone anywhere, and thus their placement in the midst of the Midyan narratives strange. However, a close analysis of the parshiyot of chapters 26-30 demonstrates that the whole unit, starting from Bamidbar 25 and stretching through chapter 30, explicates and demonstrates different aspects of the tension between the Divine Will and Human Initiative.[1]

This unit breaks down into (A) Pinhas, (B) the Census and the Daughters of Tselophehad, (C) Moshe being told to go up on the Mountain and Yehoshua’s Appointment, and (D) The Laws of the Festival Sacrifices and the Laws of Personal Vows. While Pinhas’ Narrative stands alone, the rest of the sections are pairs, half of each emphasizing the Divine Will and half emphasizing Human Initiative. Together, they create what seems to a very full picture of the different aspects of the tension between Divine Will and Human Initiative, one which is built upon in the following narratives of the Spoils of War (Bamidbar 31:9-54) and the Request of Reuven and Gad (Bamidbar 32).

In the story of Pinhas, Bnei Yisrael had sinned, and were suffering from a plague in consequence (25:1-3). Then ‘א said to Moshe, “Take the leaders of the people and execute them before ‘א, that ‘א’s wrath may be turned back from upon the nation” (25:4). Moshe then instructs the judges of Israel to take the sinners that are under their jurisdiction and to kill them. This is a valid reading of ‘א’s command, based on interpreting “them” to mean the sinners, and that “take the leaders” means that Moshe should act with them. It is not the intuitive reading, which would mean simply to kill the leaders themselves, but it is certainly valid, and we do not see that Moshe is punished or corrected for his interpretation. However, there is an implied critique on Moshe in the extensive praise and reward lavished on Pinhas, who did indeed fulfill the more intuitive reading of ‘א’s command, and turned ‘א’s wrath back from upon the people. Interestingly, we do not see that Pinhas heard the command to Moshe, or was a prophet in his own right, or anything of the like. Rather he seems to have decided on his own that this was the correct thing to do, and thus he was acting both in accordance with the Divine Will and his own, human, initiative.

The census of chapters 26 and 27 serves to detail all the families of all the tribes for the purpose of dividing the Land of Israel up evenly between them. In this census, only males inherit land and thus only male heirs of the tribes are delineated, with the exception of Serah Bat Asher (26:46) and the daughters of Tselophehad (26:33). The daughters of Tzelophehad are uniquely mentioned here in order to pave the way for their taking  of the stage at the beginning of Chapter 27, where they approach Moshe and ask to inherit the land of their father, in order that his name not disappear from his tribe[2], and after Moshe speaks to ‘א, they are granted this right. Thus the original Divine law, that only sons inherit, was changed by Human Initiative.[3]

The narrative of the Daughters of Tselophehad is followed by a brief command to Moshe that he go up on Mount Avarim to see the Land of Israel before he dies[4] (27:12-14), which is followed by his request from ‘א that He appoint a leader to take Moshe’s place. The careful reader will notice that ‘א makes no mention here of a replacement for Moshe, rather Moshe asks for it on his own[5] (27:15-17). This is a case where the Divine will accepting a completely Human Initiative and acting upon it, as opposed to the previous case where the Human Initiative simply led to a slight Modification in the divine plan.

The final section before the War with Midyan is not a narrative but two sets of Laws, intimately related. The first section of laws (Bamidbar 28 & 29) is the laws of public sacrifices, both the daily sacrifices and the additional sacrifices for festivals. This is followed by the laws for personal vows (Bamidbar 30). While at first glance these appear to be separate, they are connected by the institution of the vow-offerings. If a person vows to bring an offering, it would be brought at one of the festivals. Thus the laws of chapter 30 are really part and parcel of the laws of chapters 28 & 29[6]. Thus one might consider the whole section part of the Divine Will category. However, the laws of chapter 30 are all about voluntary vows a person might take upon themselves. Therefore this is in fact a case of where the Divine Will includes space for Human Initiative.

The War with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8) completes the Pinhas story (Bamidbar 25) disrupts the thematic tensions of Divine Will and Human Initiative with an absolute Divine command. It leads into a series of events involving the spoils of the war that build upon and contrast with the themes of Bamidbar 25-30.

Immediately after the war with Midyan, before the soldiers can even return to the camp, Moshe and the other leaders of Israel confront the returning army. They had failed to wipe out the women of Midyan who had caused Bnei Yisrael to sin in the first place (25:1-3), instead keeping them for themselves. The soldiers are reprimanded, and told to rectify their mistake. Here, while lacking an explicit and obvious Divine command, it is clear that the Human Initiative still went astray.

This story is followed by the divvying up of the spoils of the war to each member of the nation. Percentages were taken from all of the spoils for the Levi’im and for ‘א. This portion for ’א was taken and given to Elazar the Kohen Gadol. Then at the end of the section, the officers of the army come before Moshe and Elazar and say that because none of their soldiers died in the war, they want to give a tribute to ‘א from their finest spoils. They do so, and it is clear that this is considered somehow greater than the first percentage given to ‘א from the spoils, as that was simply given to Elazar, where this is “brought into the Tent of Meeting for a memorial for Bnei Yisrael before ‘א.” Thus in this case the Human Initiative does not stray, but rather builds on and succeeds the Divine Will.

The final case is that of the Request of Reuven and Gad to dwell on the far side of the Yarden River. This on first appearance seems to be incredibly problematic, as Moshe points out by comparing them to the Spies (Bamidbar 13-14). They are rejecting the Land of Israel, which ‘א has given them an inheritance, in favor of land that’s better pasture for their livestock. Not only that, but they outdo the spies by trying to separate from the rest of the nation by dwelling apart, thus damaging national unity. However, upon further questioning they reveal that their intent was not to reject the Land of Israel nor to harm national unity. Not only are they not trying to separate from the rest of the people, but they are willing to lead the charge into the Land of Israel, putting themselves in harm’s way for no gain of their own. They are not rejecting ‘א’s Land, they are asking to expand it, defining the Land of Israel as the Land in which Israel dwells[7]. Their Human Initiative is not rejecting the Divine will, but embracing it and surpassing it.

Man takes a position of great power and importance in the Torah. He is created in the Image of ‘א, the Creator of the World. Tehillim 8 sees man as “מעט מא׳לוהים”, “a little less than Divine.” And yet his first great act is to disobey the Divine Will, to push against ‘א. Man is powerful, but also fickle. This portrayed strongly as Bnei Yisrael make ready to enter the Land of Israel and live under their own control at the end of Sefer Bamidbar. Perhaps the strongest indication of this is the ambiguity of Reuven and Gad’s request. Based on their request, Moshe predicts Bnei Yisrael having to wait another 40 years in the desert. But this is a false perception, as the tribes intend not evil but great good. Man’s will can go either way, it can be lowly or it can be great. It can even intuit the Divine. It’s up to us what we do with it.


[1] Many of the Ideas in this composition come from this piece by Rav Yonatan Grossman of Michlelet Herzog and Bar-Ilan University:

[2] For a discussion of why this story is not a feminist one, see here:


[3] The tension here is aptly displayed by the midrash brought by Rashi on Baidbar 27:7. “Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly: As the Targum [Onkelos] יָאוּת, rightly. [As if God said,] This is the way this passage is inscribed before Me on high (Sifrei Pinchas 18). It teaches us that their eye perceived what Moses’ eye did not. – [see Mid. Tanchuma Pinchas 8]”. (translation from

[4] The exact nature of this command is complex, for an excellent and fascination discussion of the differing views and possibilities by Rav Elchanan Samet of Michlelet Herzog, see here:

[5] It’s entirely possible that without Moshe’s request there would not have been a replacement leader, part of a much larger discussion about the ideal form of leadership and government of Bnei Yisrael, which goes far beyond the scope of this composition.

[6] See the Rashbam’s comment on Bamidbar 30:2-3. There are also linguistic parallels between this section and it’s neighbors.

[7] This sets the stage for any further conquest Israel might perform from Yehoshua until the Exile.