Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law

Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law

 

Revelation presents a problem, one that it has been acknowledged, discussed, and struggled over since Plato. In short, if revelation provides information that can be discovered via reason, then revelation is unnecessary. However, if it provides information that contradicts reason, then why should reasonable beings accept it. The two prongs of this discussion have brought forth many answers and responses from within the Jewish tradition.

While not dealing with this problem explicitly, Rambam lays out an approach to the tension between reason and revelation in the Moreh Nevukhim[1]. In discussing various approaches to the origin of the universe (MN 2:25), Rambam says, with some reservation, that the true opinion is the one that is most philosophically compelling, and that were it to contradict the plain sense of verses of the Torah, then those verses would have to be reinterpreted. This flows logically from his belief that the Torah was very limited in what it could discuss due to the primitive and pagan beliefs of the Israelites who left Egypt. Thus the plain sense of the Torah was designed to convey beliefs and truths that could be accepted by the masses, while the wise man (read: the philosopher) would be able to plumb its depths and discover the truth, with a capital “T”. The problem with this approach is that it seems to indicate that the Torah is primarily aimed at the more philosophically inclined, with everyone else being hopelessly doomed to misunderstand the Torah. Only the philosophical elite can truly understand the Torah.

In the third volume of Mikhtav Me’Eliyahu, Rav Eliyahu Dessler tackles a similar discussion. Rav Dessler says that, initially, the Torah was only accessible through the inner-life of man. It was through introspection and developing ethics and spirituality that a person connected to the Torah; this was the path of our forefathers. Then Moshe delivered the Torah from Heaven to Earth. Ever since Sinai, the Torah is accessible in our external, practical, lives. This is because the Torah is now manifest in mitsvot, in commandments that are fulfilled equally no matter who is performing them. While certain people have a natural inclination towards philosophy, spirituality, or introspection, all people are equal before the law.

Returning to the Moreh Nevukhim, it is actually easy to identify this ethos in one of the later chapters (MN 3:34). Discussing the way commandments were given to help with the self-perfection of Man, Rambam confronts the problem of individuality. Given the way people vary, it is inevitable that there will be a person for whom a certain law is not only not helpful, but it actually harmful in terms of their development. To put in terms of the text of the Torah, a person might be developed enough that they do not need the original plain sense of the text, but not so philosophical that they immediately grasp the divine Truth behind it. For this person, the text can only be confusing. So too in the case of the law; even to their detriment, the wise are equal to everyone else when it comes to following the commandments.

The Kuzari presents a similar idea as part of a polemic against the Karaites (3:39). In contrast to the Karaites, for whom each person must understand Torah according to their own intellect interpretive biases, Rabbinic Jews all follow the same tradition of interpretation. This not only serves to create unified practice throughout the entire nation, it also creates unity of practice throughout a person’s life, as they follow the tradition as opposed to their own ever-changing opinion. Not only are all Jews equal before the law, but all Jews share in the same law.

More than Matan Torah (a traditional term meaning the “the giving of the Torah”) was the giving of the law, it was the creation of a national identity through the law. While the nation shared a familial and cultural history, we were not truly united until they received the law at Har Sinai. From then on, we shared an identity based around our connection to the Torah, based on our connection to ‘א through His law. It is this identity that has been our guiding light throughout history[2], keeping us united in times of immense hardship. This Shavuot, let us reaffirm this identity, and let it keep guiding us in our future.

[1] For more on the ideas of this paragraph, see my discussion of the Torah speaking in the language of man here.

[2] This brings to mind Ehad HaAm’s famous statement, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

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Ki Tisa 5774 – Ritual vs Moral Sin in Het HaEgel, and the Nature of the Covenant with Israel

כָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בְקִרְבּוֹ

Bracketed by the sections on Shabbat and the Mishkan, Chet HaEgel is the crescendo of the second half of Sefer Shemot. The story depicts a fall from a great height as the people, fresh from affirming their covenant with ‘א, create and worship a golden calf. Following this fall, Moshe descends from the mountain and shatters the Luchot HaEdut, the physical terms of the covenant[1]. The rest of Parashat Ki Tisa records the process of Moshe and Bnei Yisrael trying to recreate the covenant with ‘א, culminating in first the revelation to Moshe of what has become know as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy[2] and second the new terms of the Covenant.

The way that the texts regarding the Mishkan surround the story of the Egel makes it quite logical to think of the Mishkan as a command which atones for Chet HaEgel. Moreover, it also meets the problems manifest in Chet HaEgel head on. The need for a physical representation of ‘א’s Presence, which was lost when Moshe failed to come down from the mountain, is replaced by the Mishkan in general and by the Keruvim in specific, which serve the same function that the Egel was meant to serve[3]. More generally, the sin of the people represents a basic inability to follow ‘א’s commands, and thus throughout the building of the Mishkan, and all throughout Vayikra, the text repeatedly emphasizes that the people did as ‘א commanded (for example, Shemot 34:4; 39:1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31, 43; and others). However, seeing the Mishkan as the fix for Chet HaEgel, rather than perhaps as a response to it, ignores the very important process of the 34th chapter of Sefer Shemot.

Shemot 34 describes the creation of a new covenant with ‘א, starting with the revelation of ‘א’s “attributes of mercy”, which explain the creation of a new covenant, and then going into the terms of the covenant, wherein ‘א goes over much of what was said in Parashat Mishpatim in Shemot 21-23. ‘א will guide Bnei Yisrael and fight their wars for them, Bnei Yisrael have to destroy the altars of Idolatry in Eretz Yisrael, etc. Notably, while much of this section if reminiscent of the statues of Parashat Mishpatim, there is one section that is copied almost exactly from Shemot 23. 34:18-26 reads as follows:

18 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread eating unleavened bread for seven days, as I have commanded you-at the set time of the month of Abib, for in the month of Abib you went forth from Egypt. 19 Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a rnale as firstling, whether cattle or sheep. 20 But the firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every first-born among your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed. 21 Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor; you shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time. 22 You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. 23 Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign LoRD, the God of Israel. 24 I will drive out nations from your path and enlarge your territory; no one will covet your land when you go up to appear before the LoRD your God three times a year. 25 You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the sacrifice of the Feast of Passover shall not be left lying until morning. 26 The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LoRD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.[4]

Shemot 23:10-19 is starkly similar:

10 Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; 11 but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.12 Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.13 Be on guard concerning all that I have told you. Make no mention of the names of other gods; they shall not be heard on your lips.14 Three times a year you shall hold a festival for Me: 15 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread-eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you-at the set time in the month of Abib, for in it you went forth from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty-handed; 16 and the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field. 17 Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign, the LORD.1B You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the fat of My festal offering shall not be left lying until morning. 19The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LoRD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

The similarities between these two passages, and their respective contexts, tells us quite a bit about Chet HaEgel, but the differences tell us even more. First and foremost is the stark lack of a repetition of Shemot 21:1-23:9 before the passage in Ki Tisa. Those two and a half chapters, the majority of Parashat Mishpatim, form the bulk of the terms of the original covenant. The commandments of verses 23:10-18 are a ritualistic, ‘א-focused capstone to an otherwise essentially moralistic covenant. In Chapter 34 this moral foundation is missing; The focus is entirely on commandments that Man fulfills for ‘א. Analysis of one of these commandments in particular highlights this difference. The commandment of Shabbat appears in both 23:12, as “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed,” and 34:21, as “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor; you shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time”, and the difference between them is startling. In 23:12 the commandment is accompanied by the explicit stating of its purpose, namely giving rest to slaves and work-animals. This is one of two places in Chumash where the moral aspect of Shabbat is emphasized[5]. In contrast, 34:21 has no explicit rationale. Where one pasuk specifically emphasizes morality, the other pasuk very noticeably does not. These commandments have been copied from the original covenant to the new one, and this tells us something incredible about the new covenant, and the nature of Chet HaEgel.

Chet HaEgel was not a moral sin. The people do not compromise on ethical values. The wronged party was not man but ‘א. This is obvious from the fact that really they are just worshiping an idol[6]. This is also seen from the effect of the sin. This does not mean the breaking of the tablets by Moshe or the slaughter of the transgressors at the hands of the Levi’im, but rather to the pericope of 33:7-11. In these verses, the “Tent of Meeting”[7] is moved outside the camp. Whereas generally ‘א’s presence rests in the midst of the people, it now stays beyond the boundaries of the camp, and that’s where Moshe has to go to speak with ‘א. Chet HaEgel specifically rejected the relationship between the people and ‘א that was forged at Sinai, and ‘א cannot tolerate His presence dwelling in their midst. This is specifically what the new covenant was coming to fix. The people have the ethical part of being ‘א’s nation down, they just need to work on the ‘א part.

Judaism has long been identified with repetitive and ritualistic actions. The Mishkan and all of its accompanying laws are a great example of this. This leads many people to protest, saying things like, “Isn’t it enough to just be a good person?” and “Morality is the important part anyway, right?”. While perhaps the main message of the Literary Prophets (Everything from Yeshayahu through Zekharia) is the importance of Morality, even over ritual, these protests miss the point of the Torah. The Torah was not given to make Man moral. Rather it expects man will be moral. The Torah itself attests to the fact that men can and will be moral in the absence of revelation[8], and that ‘א expects no less of us[9]. The Zohar goes so far as to suggest that if all that the Torah was meant for was to teach ethical lessons, then anyone in the world could have written it, perhaps even better than in its current form[10]. The Torah is more than just a book of moral instruction. The Torah is a book about how to live in the Presence of ‘א. While it’s true that ‘א’s Presence will not tolerate immoral behavior, living a godly life means going beyond simply being moral and moving into the realm of the Holy. Morality is the starting point of the Torah, rather than its end goal. Chet HaEgel demonstrated that Bnei Yisrael, while capable of being moral, had missed the fact that they were expected to be more, that they were , and are, expected to be a nation living in the Presence of ‘א.

 

[1] In Akkadian and Ugaritic texts ‘to break the tablet’ is a legal phrase meaning to cancel or nullify a contract.

[2] BT Rosh Hashanah 17b. For a comprehensive list of the different ways commentators have broken up the thirteen attributes, including some that include “visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” amongst the thirteen, see the Steinzalt edition of BT Rosh Hashanah.

[3] See the Rashbam on the purpose of the Egel, as well as Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus, and Rav Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah. It seems likely that the Egel, rather than replacing ‘א was meant to be seen as his resting place, much like the Keruvim. This explains why Aharon so readily agreed to make it, as well as why he says that the next day will be a celebration not for the Egel, but for ‘א. This explanation requires explaining Aharon’s statement of “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (32:4) as referring to ‘א’s presence above the Egel, while the people’s simultaneous statement of the same is referring to the Egel itself. While this is difficult, especially in light of the plural nature of Aharon’s statement, it does seem to fit best with both the situation and the cultural milieu of the Ancient Near East.

[4] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[5] The other is in Sefer Devarim, verses 5:12-15, during the repetition of the Ten Commandments.

[6] For a differing view, see Rashi to 32:6 s.v. to dance, based on  Bereishit 39:17.

[7] The phrase “אהל מועד” normally refers the Mishkan, but it cannot mean that here due to the Mishkan not being built yet. Thus it is generally understood to mean Moshe’s personal tent, where he met with ‘א before the construction of the Mishkan.

[8] Malkitzedek was clearly considered righteous according to the Pshat, and the Midrash expands on this. Nimrod seems textually to have been considered righteous, though the midrashim say otherwise.

[9] This is implied by any story wherein we find punishment without revelation, such as the Flood narrative or the Tower of Bavel.

[10] Zohar, Parashat Beha’alotkha, 152a

Parashat Tetsaveh 5774 – The Tension Between Keva and Kavanah In The Mishkan

תָּמִיד לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם

The parshiyot of the Mishkan are peppered with examples of repeated words and phrases. Some of there because lots of parts of the Mishkan are similar, so the instructions are repeated. For example, “According to all that I show thee” (Shemot 25:9, 40; 27:8), or “round about” (Ibid 25:11, 23, 34, 35; 27:17; 28:32, 33, 34; 29:16, 20; 30:3; 37:2, 10, 11, 12, 26; 38:16, 20, 31; 39:23, 25, 26; 40:8, 33). However, there are other words or phrases that are repeated not out of functional necessity, but because they are key concepts that help us hone in on the purpose and nature of the Mishkan. In Parashat Tetsaveh there are three such phrases that stand out in particular, that of “תמיד”, “לדורותיכם”, and “לפני י-הוה ”. The phrase “לדורותיכם” shows up only five times in context of the instructions for and building of the Mishkan (Shemot 29:42; 30:8, 10, 31; 31:13), but the majority of the times it shows up in the Torah, outside of these parshiyot, it is in the context of the Mishkan and its rituals. “תמיד” shows up eight times in context of building of and instructions for the Mishkan (Ibid. 25:30; 27:20; 28:29; 28:38; 29:28, 42; 30:8), but of the eighteen times it shows up in the Torah as a whole, only once (Devarim 11:12) is it not in regards to the Mishkan and the rituals related to it[1]. The phrase “לפני י-הוה” is certainly the most commonly found of the phrases, showing up a grand total of 147 times in the Torah, of which 18 are in the parshiyot of the Mishkan in Sefer Shemot (Ibid. ), and over a hundred of which deal with Mishkan (or the Bet HaMikdash) and its rituals. These ideas are very strong themes of the Mishkan, and their repetition is meant to highlight that. The question that leads to, however, is what are these themes, and what do they mean? One might suggest that perhaps the two more dominant themes, תמיד and לפני י-הוה, are a manifestation of what Heschel called the dichotomy of Keva (קבע) and Kavanah (כוונה), Fixed Practice and Personal Intention, respectively.

Things that are Keva are fixed. They do not change. This means things like the rules of Halakhah, like the words of Tefillah. These things are established. This has a lot of advantages. The idea of Keva creates unity. When everyone is doing or saying the same thing, that creates a community. A minyan can only pray together because they’re all saying the same thing. Keva also creates consistency. When you can change what you do on a daily basis, often you do, and your actions become subject to human whim. Often, they fall away and are forgotten altogether. Thus Keva also ensures continuity. But it also has downsides. Keva tends to quash individuality and spontaneity, it leaves no room for real religious emotion. All the members of a minyan should be saying the same words, but if they’re all thinking the same things then they aren’t really davening[2]. When things are repeated day after day they can become bland and meaningless. If the entirety of a mitzvah is the physical process, then it hasn’t changed or affected the person doing it the way it ought to have. This is where Kavanah comes in.

Kavanah means personal intention. Kavanah is the soul of Halakhah, the true spirit of Tefillah. It is the meaning and emotion with which a person can imbue actions and words. Kavanah allows for a personal element. It allows for the individual to express their self. It creates a sense of freshness and renewal. It is the honest and meaningful religious experience. But it, too, has downsides. When all that matters is personal intention, the result is a sort of religious anarchy, with everyone doing their own thing. When Kavanah is the decisive factor, then you don’t practice or pray on the days when you don’t have Kavanah, which tends to leads to less and less prayer and practice. Taken to an extreme, the ideal of Kavanah totally rejects taking any form of action, which is certainly not a tenable position within Judaism. Neither one can be rejected out of hand; the goal is a balance, a sense of polarity.

For something to be Tamid (תמיד) is for it be consistent, or in other words, established. All of the actions in the Mishkan that are described as Tamid are things that are done according to a regular fixed cycle. And what could be more of a religious experience than something that is Lifnei Hashem (לפני י-הוה)? Thus, based on the dichotomy of Tamid and Lifnei Hashem, we can see this tension of Keva and Kavanah even in the Mishkan. The problem with this, however, is that Lifnei Hashem does not necessarily denote a religious experience.

The phrase “Lifnei Hashem” is often applied to the same actions or rituals as the term “Tamid.” This could means that the two ideas exist in tension within the same act, but it could also imply that Lifnei Hashem simply does not contradict Tamid, and that’s how they can both be applied to the same act. This would mean that while Tamid is still Keva, Lifnei Hashem cannot be Kavanah.

Taking a step back, this seems almost obvious. The Torah does not often communicate the content of religious experiences. This makes sense as the Torah, generally speaking, is a manifestation of Keva. The Torah speaks to the entirety of the nation, creating principles and actions for the entire community of Israel. The Torah has a heavy emphasis on Law. This is where Rashi is coming from when he asks why the Torah doesn’t simply start with the first time Bnei Yisrael receive a mitzvah. When the Torah does communicate ideas related to the religious experience, it does so obliquely, through terse statements[3] or woven into narrative form[4]. It does not speak straight out or clearly about Kavanah. So what then is the meaning of Lifnei Hashem?

Lifnei Hashem is a quality of these actions performed in the Mishkan. This is because, in a sense, all actions performed in the Mishkan are Lifnei Hashem. The purpose of the Mishkan is that is is where Bnei Yisrael go to stand before and in relation to ‘א. That is where His presence dwells (Shemot 25:8, 29:45). However, this is not an inherent quality of the Mishkan. ‘א does not dwell there by necessity. Rather ‘א is present in the Mishkan in order to meet with us (Ibid. 25:22, 29:43). This is essentially arbitrary. ‘א is in the Mishkan because ‘א said so, and thus these Tamid actions are Lifnei Hashem, because ‘א said so.

What this means for our dichotomy of Tamid and Lifnei Hashem is that it is not a dichotomy at all. Both terms are descriptions of the action, one describing it’s physical performance and the other referring to its nature. Tamid refers to their form and Lifnei Hashem speaks about their meaning. While still seeming somewhat simple, this is actually a revolutionary idea. People tend to assume that any action done consistently has no religious value. That automated, instructed, actions can be religious is the modern mind at the very least unlikely. In a certain sense, Kavanah has won out over and completely dominated Kavanah. People understand the importance of the religious experience, to the point of dismissing and denigrating consistent actions. In the vessels and rituals of the Mishkan, ‘א tells us, quite radically, that a regularly performed ritual can by itself exist before ‘א.

“Since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, ‘א has no place in this world outside the 4 Amot of Halakha.”[5] The Halakha, the most archetypical example of Keva, is the replacement for the Mikdash in terms of the presence of ‘א. If you want to be Lifnei ‘א, you used to be able to just go to the Mikdash, or the Mishkan, and there you would stand before ‘א. Since the destruction of the Mikdash, ‘א is present in the acts and deeds of Halakha. Thus, even in the absence of Kavanah, Keva remains not just important, but as central to the life of Israel as the Mikdash once was. In the instructions for the Mishkan and it’s vessels, ‘א declares that it is through the specific actions that ‘א has lain before us that we relate to him. Despite the ultimate importance of personal intention and the religious experience, it is through Keva that we put ourselves in a relationship with ‘א.
[1] This example can also be read as being about the Mishkan, as it discusses the Land of Israel. Throughout the Torah, particularly in the second half of Sefer Vayikra, the terminology of the Mishkan is used in reference to Eretz Yisrael in order to create an equivalency there, an important underlying premise of Exile. For more on this, see the introductions to the Yale Anchor Bible Commentary: Leviticus, by Jacob Milgrom.

[2] This a general statement, but not an absolute one. Adding a personal prayer, said aloud, to the end of Shemoneh Esrei is not just allowed, it’s where Elohai Nitsor comes from.

[3] Classic examples include, “קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם”, “Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy,” (Vayikra 19:2) and “וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים”, “therefore choose life,” (Devarim 30:19).

[4] This obviously includes everything before the first mitzvah is given, as per Rashi, but also such stories as the Blasphemer (Bamidbar 15), the Daughters of Tselophehad(Ibid. 27), and the Spies (Ibid. 13).

[5] Talmud Bavli Masekhet Berakhot 8a.

Parashat Yitro 5775 – When Judges are Priests: On the place of the Teachers in Relation to the Law

When Judges are Priests: On the place of the Teachers in relation to the Law

Leading up to the Revelation at Har Sinai, the people are commanded not to approach the mountain (Shemot 19:12-13). Bizarrely, right before the ten commandments, perhaps the most pivotal moment of  Sefer Shemot, Moshe is commanded to once again tell the people to stay away from the mountain (19:21-24). While superficially redundant, this second command differs from the first in that it refers not only to “the people” but also to “the priests that approach God” (19:22). This immediately presents a problem as the priests (כהנים) that the Torah normally speaks of, Aharon and his sons, have not been appointed yet, nor has the Mishkan, their place of work, been built yet, nor have the relevant laws even been given yet. Though there are multiple approaches within the traditional commentators when it comes to understanding this phrase, we will focus on the rather unique approach of R’ Hezekiah ben Manoah (more commonly known as the Hizkuni). In order to fully understanding why he chose the approach that he did, we will first look at some of the more common understandings, enabling us to appreciate the unique and powerful message of the Hizkuni’s approach.

The most common understanding of the “priests that approach God” is that they are the firstborns of the Israelite nation. This approach originates in the gemara (Bavli, Zevahim, 115b), and is taken by R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Rashbam, and Rabbeinu Behaye, as well as being mentioned as a possibility in the Ohr HaHayyim and the more modern Daat Mikra commentary. This interpretation is based on a few factors. First is the dedication of the firstborns to ‘א in Shemot 13, as a consequence of ‘א saving them from the death of the firstborns in Egypt. Perhaps more crucial though is the replacement of the firstborns with the Leviim in Bamidbar 3 (mentioned again in Bamidbar 8). The Leviim are dedicated to the work of ‘א’s Sanctuary, the Mishkan (Bamidbar 18:6). This implies that, before they were replaced by the Leviim, the firstborns were in charge of the work of the mishkan. However, this approach suffers from several problems. First is the understanding of the phrase “that approach God.” Ibn Ezra mentions two understandings of this phrase. The first is that this “approach” is their position during the Revelation at Sinai, that the firstborns will be standing closer to the mountain than the rest of the Israelites, though still beyond the border mentioned in Shemot 19:12-13. The problem with this is that the context of the phrase “that approach God” is the command for the priests to stay beyond the fence, implying that for some reason the firstborn would think they do not need to stay beyond the border. Thus the command has to be in response to something that happened in the past that would give the priests this impression. This is presumably what motivates Ibn Ezra’s second understanding, that the “approach to God” described in this verse is a reference to the priests bringing sacrifices on the altar that Moshe built after the war with Amalek. While this is certainly possible, and the altar was built just two chapters previous to our verse making it somewhat contextual, it suffers from not being explicit in the text. Without any explicit textual mention of sacrifices being brought on the altar, it is more likely that the altar was built as a memorial and as an act of gratitude to ‘א, in the manner of the Avot (cf. Bereishit 12:7-8, 13:18, 33:20, 35:7). However the larger issue with understanding the “priests” as the firstborn is that when the sanctified firstborn are replaced, it is not by the priests, but by the Leviim, so to say that they are priests here in Shemot 19 would be a little strange.

Though mentioned by fewer commentators, there is an approach that avoids this issue. Both Rabbeinu Behaye and the Ohr HaHayyim mention the possibility that the “priests that approach God” of Shemot 19 are the sons of Aharon, who will in the future be appointed as priests. This however suffers from the same lack of precedent as the previous interpretation. Simply put, before Aharon’s sons are explicitly appointed as priests in Sefer Vayikra, they have no reason to think they should stand closer to the mountain than anyone else, and so it is unlikely that they would have to be told not to do so.

This brings us to the comment of the Hizkuni. The Hizkuni actually presents two possibilities. His first suggestion makes use of the initial understanding, that the priests are the firstborns, but changes it in a way that avoids the problematic lack of precedent. Hizkuni says that it was the 70 Elders that were firstborns.[1] This has the advantage of the firstborns approach in that they are sanctified to ‘א, but it also has an explicit textual precedent. In Shemot 18, the chapter immediately prior to the one we’re dealing with, the Elders eat a meal with Yitro and Moshe “before ‘א” (18:12). While the exact meaning of this phrase is unclear, it would seem to indicate a degree of closeness or familiarity with ‘א that would require them to be specifically told that they need to stay back. However, this approach can be understood in one of two ways. The first is that the “Elders” is essentially a subcategory of the “Firstborns.” While this is possible it is also somewhat strange, and not only because it is unlikely that every single one of the Elders was also a firstborn. More importantly, in this understanding the seventy Elders are firstborns, but there were plenty of other firstborns who aren’t in this category. Thus the fact that the Elders are firstborns would be merely coincidental, and it is strange that the Hizkuni would mention it. More likely is the second reading, that the Elders and the Firstborns are two separate but identical categories, both of which contributed to them being called “priests.” Thus both the sanctification to ‘א and the eating before Him are significant. This too however suffers from a strangeness, namely that not only would all of the Elders be firstborns, but that there would only be 70 firstborns in a group with 600,000 men. This is likely what prompted Hizkuni to offer his second, more original, understanding.

Hizkuni’s second suggestion is that the “priests that approach God” of Shemot 19:22 are the Judges and Officers appointed in Shemot 18. While his assigning of the term “priests” to the judges is quite original, this understanding has a certain logic to it, as Hizkuni explains. As support for this approach, Hizkuni quotes Devarim 1:17, “for the judgment is God’s.” Thus their very nature as judges has a certain logic to it. Meanwhile, Sefer Devarim also conflates the priests with the teachers of the Law (31:11, 33:10), a job specifically referenced in context of the appointment of the Judges in Shemot 18 (vss.16, 20). So while the priest would be the teachers once they get into the land, Hizkuni sees the teachers as the priests before the giving of the Torah. Their special positions as teachers and Judges makes them automatically closer to ‘א , not to mention it separates them from the rest of the people who they would have seen as students. This alone might have been reason enough for them to think that they should stand closer to the Revelation at Sinai, but, as Hizkuni points out, there is another reason for them to think that. The Revelation at Sinai is the revelation of the Law, and as those responsible for teaching and adjudicating that law, it is quite natural that they would have thought they should be closer. This would not have been a privilege, but a responsibility, to be as intimately involved in the giving of the law as possible. In this, however, they are rebuffed, as Moshe is specifically sent down to tell them that they are not separate, that the entire people is equal before the law. The only exception is Moshe (Aharon is included only in his capacity as Moshe’s spokesperson), who throughout Bnei Yisrael’s journey in the Wilderness receives the law via prophecy, while the judges in the desert and after Moshe’s death do not (I have written about this here). Thus, while the judges and teachers of the Law are close to ‘א, there is an important distance between them and the revelation of the Law.

The Hizkuni’s comment has an important lesson to teach us about the relationship between the people of Israel, rabbinic authority, and the Torah. We know from Devarim that, “Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov” (33:4). The law was not given to its teachers, to the judges, but to the entirety of the people of Israel. Rabbinic authority is not inherent in the rabbis, but comes from their familiarity with the law; not from creating the law but from understanding it. Thus it is incumbent upon all of Israel, each and every one of us, to approach the Torah personally, not to depend upon rabbinic intermediaries. The Torah belongs to all of us, and we each have our own portion in it. It’s not enough to trust that someone knows the law, we have to understand and appreciate it ourselves.

[1] In this he combines Zevahim 115b with מכילתא בחדש פ״ד.

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.