Parashat Va’era 5774 – The God of Israel

הַמְדַבְּרִים אֶל פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם

The entire Exodus narrative, and the story of the Ten Plagues in particular, is the first occurrence in Tanakh of the war against Idolatry[1]. Part of what made Judaism unique in the ancient world was not just the belief in one god but also the total rejection of any other gods. In Sefer Bereishit the Avot, and the Torah, seem perfectly content with the Idolatry of the other residents of Canaan. Only in Egypt, in the fight against Paroah and Gods of Egypt does it become clear that Idolatry is an unacceptable way of life for anyone and everyone. However, the Tanakh does not depict the drama of Egypt as a simple matter of one god versus many. The conflict happens on three levels and, in the end, it details the emergence of a new system for National and Religious Leadership based on a uniquely Israelite idea[2].

The obvious story of the Plagues is that of the tension between ‘א and Paroah. Now the idea of a human ruler defying the transcendent and unlimited ‘א seems odd, but that’s not how the Tanakh conceives of the relationship between Man and ‘א. “History is where God is defied.”[3]  The Tanakh shows that Man has the ability to go against the will of ‘א, but‘א will inevitably triumph. That idea, started earlier in Sefer Bereishit, here comes to total fruition in the fight against Paroah.

Paroah and ‘א are in many ways equated in the text of the Torah. Perhaps most obvious is the emphasis on their nations. In contrast to ‘א’s refrain of “Let My people go, that they may serve Me,” (Shemot 7:17, 26; 8:16; 9:13 the Egyptians are consistently referred to as “[Paroah]’s Nation”. ‘א has his nation and Paroah has his. Writ large, the torah creates a picture where Paroah and ‘א (via Moshe) face off in a battle for dominance. It’s ‘א’s will versus Paroah’s, with the decision consistently going to ‘א. Moreover, Egyptian rulers were not considered to be ordinary men of flesh and blood. They were considered to be divine, or close to it, and thus the defeat of Paroah is the defeat of Idolatry. When ‘א said, “and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD[4]”, He was also talking about Paroah, and when Paroah admits defeat it is a tacit admission of the supremacy of ‘א.

The second level of the story is that of the conflict between Moshe and Paroah. The idea is that of two kings facing off, which might be why some commentators have compared the Ten Plagues to the procedures for conquering a city. While not strictly-speaking a “King,” Moshe represents the leadership of a nation concentrated in one person, much in the manner of a monarchy. But as opposed to the conflict between ‘א and Paroah, Moshe’s fight is not for domination. Moshe’s fight is for the heart of the nation. Moshe brings plagues in order to demonstrate ‘א’s majesty and dominance before the people, that they might recognize His greatness[5]. Moshe as King rules not out of strength and not as a matter of personal right, but as an apostle of ‘א.

This idea is highlighted by several very important midrashim. On several occasions Moshe is told to go meet Paroah along the river early in the morning. The midrash comments that the reason Paroah went for his walk early in the morning was in order to secretly relieve himself[6]. Due to the divine or semi-divine status of Egyptian kings, he could not be seen to do so by the public, and so for this purpose he used to go early in the morning to the river. Thus the divine status of Paroah is not only false but Paroah knows it is false and has to maintain it by deceiving his people. This midrash points to the way Egyptians conceived of their king as divine while simultaneously rejecting and ridiculing it. In stark contrast is the Tanakh’s depiction of Moshe.

In the middle of a discussion between Moshe and ‘א regarding Moshe’s ability to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt the Torah suddenly interjects with Moshe and Aharon’s genealogy. Whereas by Moshe’s birth his parents are anonymous, here the Torah says who they are explicitly, revealing something very interesting. The marriage of Avraham and Yocheved is what would after the revelation at Har Sinai become considered an inappropriate sexual relationship. The midrash not only points this fact out, it highlights similar relationships by Avraham and Sarah, Yaakov and his first wives, and several instances throughout David HaMelekh’s ancestry. The midrash points out that the leadership of Bnei Yisrael often comes from what we think of as inappropriate origins[7], and that this is intentional. Part of the problem with Kings historically has been that they often come to think of themselves as divine, that they are the be-all and end-all, and that is simply not so. The midrash states that this could never be an issue with these Israelite leaders because as opposed to being thought of as divine, they all have rather ignominious backgrounds. Thus the conditional nature of the Jewish King is made clear in the fight against the “divine” King of  Egypt[8]. Moshe rules Bnei Yisrael not as one entitled to do so by birth, but as the appointed messenger of ‘א.

Aharon’s position in the Torah is complex, and that is true right from the outset. It seems clear from ‘א’s words to Moshe that Aharon is simply meant to be a speaker for Moshe but Moshe seems to do plenty of speaking on his own. Moreover, Aharon is personally responsible for the bringing of several plagues, and is often referred to directly alongside Moshe throughout the duration of the Plagues. As much as he does serve as Moshe’s “mouth” and “prophet”, he really is his own character in the story.

Aharon’s purpose here is not simple. First and foremost, throughout the Torah Aharon is the High Priest of Israel. But noticeably, he doesn’t do anything specifically priestly here in Egypt. The one things he does that some might have argued is a priestly act is the performance of wonders, something that in other civilizations and Egypt in particular was a priestly function. But the lack of any other priestly functions here that instead of adopting the Egyptian idea of the Priest-Magician, the Torah is actually rejecting it[9]. Aharon performs wonders not as a priest who bends nature to his will, but as a prophet who bends nature to ‘א’s will.

In this role, Aharon has a very specific message to convey. He personally brings the first few plagues, often alongside Moshe, and the language there makes clear the purpose of those plagues. Aharon brings plagues in order to punish the Egyptians[10]. They enslaved and mistreated ‘א’s nation and their retribution is to come through Aharon’s hand. Thus any plague brought or wonder performed by Aharon has a much greater emphasis on the effect it has on the Egyptians than when Moshe brings a plague (As mentioned above, Moshe brings plagues for an entirely different purpose: teaching Bnei Yisrael about ‘א. Moshe performs plagues in order to show Bnei Yisrael who they are being redeemed by.) However, there is not a word in the whole section about Aharon performing a wonder or causing a plague by his own power or volition.

This idea, of the contrast between Prophet and Priest, is highlighted by a very similar story found in Sefer Shmuel I[11]. In Shmuel I 5 ‘א brings plagues on the Plishtim for having stolen the Aron and where Paroah consults his “magicians” the Plishtim consult their “priests and diviners” (Samuel I 6:2). Aharon, standing next to Moshe as the magicians stand beside Paroah, stands in clear contrast to this idea of “priests and diviners.” The Jewish Priest has a very specific function in context of the Mishkan/Mikdash and not beyond. The role of miracle-worker is reserved[12] for the messenger of ‘א.

The divine “conflict” between ‘א and the “gods of Egypt” serves to display ‘א’s uncontested authority in the world. Moshe’s face-off with Paroah shows how all leaders, no matter how great, are always human, and therefore are all subordinate to ‘א and His grace. Aharon’s position against the magicians rejects completely the concept of magic and wonders performed outside of the Divine Will, regardless of their accord with it, for nothing is outside the Divine Will.

All of these concepts are manifestations of a larger, infinitely simple idea: ‘א is Primary[13]. Pagan conceptions of their deities always give them secondary places in reality. The deity is always born of some other creature, or made of some primordial-stuff. The existence of reality before and beyond divinity makes its power necessarily limited. The nature of divinity as created puts it in the same category as other creations, such as man, and allows for the possibility of divine, or semi-divine, kings, and for apotheosis. The idea that divinity is created means that its power must come from somewhere rather than being inherent in it, and this is the power that it uses for its works, but this power can also be used by others for the aid or detriment of divinity. Yitziat Mitzraim rejects all of these conceptions. ‘א is Primary. He has no origin and there is nothing that He did not create. All is subject to His Will and there is no power beyond it. The God is Israel is the God of All Existence and there is none beside Him.


Here is a helpful chart from Nahum Sarna’s Exploring Exodus on the breakdown of the Plagues:

Plague - Breakdown

[1] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3

[2] This is why the story of the Plagues starts with the Parshiyah of Shemot 6:2-8, a sudden recap of ‘א’s relationship to the avot and the nation.  The chiastic structure of this section is clearly highlighting the idea of ‘א’s special relationship to Bnei Yisrael and ‘א as the only god, and those concepts point directly to this idea.

[3] A.J. Heschel, The Prophets, (Harper, 1969) Vol.1, p.168

[4] All translations are from

[5] R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[6] Rashi Ad Loc., Shemot Rabbah 9:7

[7] Hizkuni on story of Yehuda and Tamar; Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vayeshev

[8] Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vaera

[9] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 85

[10]  R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[11] R’ Amnon Bazak, Parallels That Meet (Hebrew), Chap. 4

[12] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 82, 85

[13] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3

Parashat Naso – Dedications of the Mishkan

זֹאת חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ בְּיוֹם הִמָּשַׁח אֹתוֹ מֵאֵת נְשִׂיאֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Parashat Naso, one of the largest parshiyot in the Torah, is largely composed of Bamidbar 7, some 89 verses long. Chapter 7 consists almost entirely of 6 verses repeated 12 times with very little variation, namely the sacrifices of the leaders of the Tribes. This long passage is capped off by a verse that seems unwarranted: “And when Moses went into the tent of meeting that He might speak with him, then he heard the Voice speaking to him from above the cover that was upon the Aron of the testimony, from between the two keruvim; and He spoke to him,” (Bamidbar 7:89). Initialy, this verse appears to be entirely unrelated to the preceding 88 verses, which deal with the inaugural sacrifices of the Mishkan. However, this seeming discrepancy is mitigated when viewed in the larger context of the Inauguration of the Mishkan.

The Inauguration of the Mishkan is described in two other places in the Torah: Shemot 40:17-38 and Vayikra chapter 9. The passage in Shemot describes Moshe constructing the Mishkan, and then ‘א’s Presence and the associated Cloud filling it. Vayikra 9 depicts Aharon fulfilling the first services of the Mishkan, followed by a divine fire consuming the sacrifices on the altar. In both cases, an intensive, detailed, procedure is followed by the manifestation of ‘א’s Presence in the Mishkan. If we look at the passage in Bamidbar with this structure in mind, the similarity is striking. In place of building the Mishkan or initiating the sacrifices we have the Nesi’im, the tribal leaders, bringing donations. Additionally,  instead of ‘א manifesting His Presence in the Cloud or the Fire, the manifestation is in the revelation in the Aron, the heart of the Mishkan. Bamidbar 7 is one of three passages describing the Inauguration of the Mishkan, and as such, verse 89 can be explained similarly, as part of the necessary structure of the Inauguration passage.

What is important about this passage, is not how it is similar to the others, but how it differs from them. There are three main differences in all of the passages:

  1. The action performed in step one of the inauguration process
  2. The leader performing the action
  3. The resulting manifestation of ‘א’s Presence

In Shemot, the leader is Moshe, and the action performed is the physical construction of the Mishkan, which the Cloud then fills. Moshe is the leader appointed to take the nation out of Egypt and to the land of Israel. He is responsible for the physical guidance of the people, and so he builds the physical structure of the Mishkan. ‘א then manifests His Presence in the Cloud, which guides Bnei Yisrael through the Wilderness.

In Vayikra, the focus is on the priestly activities of the Mishkan. Aharon, in charge of the sacrifices and other rituals of the Mishkan, performs the inaugural sacrificial service, and ‘א manifests His Presence in the fire that consumes the sacrifices.

In Bamidbar, the tribal leaders bring animals and donations for the Mishkan, and the manifestation is in the revelation to Moshe from above the Aron.

While the passage in Shemot emphasizes Moshe’s leadership, and the passage in Vayikra focuses on the Mishkan, the inauguration in Bamidbar emphasizes the Nation of Israel.

Bamidbar is a book about the birth and formation of the Nation of Israel. Thus it makes sense that the depiction of the Inauguration in the Mishkan would focus on the leaders of the Nation. The Nesi’im, the tribal leaders, are the permanent leadership of Bnei Yisrael. They are the leaders that takes over when the nation settles in the land of Israel. More than either Aharon or Moshe, they are the leaders of the nation. That’s why in Sefer Bamidbar, where the focus is on the nation, they are the leaders in the Inauguration.

What is less obvious is why the manifestation of ‘א’s Presence here is through the revelation to Moshe above the Aron. This becomes clearer after a survey of several of the the narratives of Sefer Bamidbar. In chapter 11, the people complain and 70 elders are made prophets. In chapter 12, Aharon and Miriam are punished for their statements regarding Moshe. The narrative of the spies and the nation’s punishment fills Bamidbar 13 & 14. Korah’s rebellion is recorded in Bamibar 16 & 17. These, and the rest of the narratives of Bamidbar, are unified through consistant conversation of Moshe and ‘א in the Mishkan. Sefer Bamidbar demonstrates the amazing fact that Moshe could go to the Mishkan and ‘א would respond to him. Sefer Bamidbar is the story of birth of the Nation of Israel, and with the birth comes birth-pangs. Bnei Yisrael get off to a rough start, with a lot of unforeseen difficulties. Through all of these ups and downs, ‘א is there to guide Bnei Yisrael, and to answer Moshe when he needs help. This ensures the growth of the nation, and establishes the relationship of ‘א to Bnei Yisrael for all time. He is actively involved in our growth and development. More importantly, he responds to our development. He did not simply set us on a path and let us walk down it on our own. ‘א is with us every step of the way.

Parashat Haye Sarah – A Stranger In A Strange Land

גֵּר-וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי

Parashat Haye Sarah tells the three stories that conclude Avraham’s section of Sefer Bereishit, consisting of his last two narratives and the story of his burial. The two final narratives of Avraham’s life, burying his wife and finding a wife for his son, would seem at first glance to be in tension. When buying a plot of land to bury Sarah, Avraham is very precise in following the local protocol and accepted norms of the Hittite community in the area, making his case to and before the public (Bereishit 23). Then, when he sends his servant to find a wife for Yitzhak, his instructions make it clear that he wants nothing to do with the locals, that a Canaanite woman would be completely unacceptable as a wife for Yitzhak. However, both stories are at the end of the day more complex than that, and both express a larger tension inherent in Avraham’s life, and throughout the history of Bnei Yisrael.

Bereishit 23 begins with Sarah’s death and ends with her burial. The verses in between are spent in a very detailed depiction of the process of Avraham buying a plot of land in which to bury Sarah. Avraham first goes to the Children of Het as a community and asks them to speak on his behalf. Only then does Avraham actually speak to Efron, and the whole thing takes place in the presence of the community. The whole thing strongly resembles ancient Near-Eastern contracts, down to the mention of the trees in verse 17[1]. The larger story reads very much like a story about Avraham joining the community. However, looking at the details of Avraham’s discussion with the Hittites gives a somewhat different impression. In verse four, Avraham asks the community if he can purchase “a burial plot” in which to bury Sarah, and they respond by offering him a grave, “from amongst the choicest of their graves.” In his response, Avraham asks the people to intercede with Efron on his behalf, and in doing so he again states that he is looking to purchase not a grave, but a burial plot. This repeated emphasis on buying a full piece of land in which to bury his wife, instead of just burying her among the dead of the Hittites, demonstrates a strong desire to remain separate and distinct. So while he is more than willing to follow the communal customs and protocols in buying the plot of land, the land purchase itself represents a certain degree of reluctance to actually join the community.

Bereishit 24 depicts the journey of Avraham’s servant to Haran to find a wife for Yitzhak. The servant’s journey is started by Avraham giving him detailed instructions, with the emphasis on the fact that the wife must not be from Canaan, going so far as to make him swear to this. “And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you shalt not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. But you shalt go to my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son, for Yitzhak” (24:3-4). This would seem to betray a strong desire to remain separate and apart from the Canaanites. But for all that, it is even more important that Yitzhak not be taken out of the land of Canaan. Despite the apparently undesirable nature of the Canaanite society, Avraham wants to make sure that his descendants remain in the midst of it. They came from a different land to a place where the society runs according to norms they could never accept[2]. They are supposed to come to the society as strangers, and then dwell there, despite the fact that it is strange to them.

The idea of being a stranger in a strange land is a trend for the next few generations of Israelite leadership. Yaakov spends 22 years growing and developing his family in the house of Lavan. Yosef is sold into slavery in Egypt where he becomes a leader of the entire society. Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this is Moshe, who is raised in the Egyptian royal household, while  knowing that he is an Israelite (Shemot 2:8, 4:14), then he is exiled to Midian, where they identify him as an Egyptian (Shemot 2:19), and finally he returns to Egypt, to the house of Paroah, as the leader of soon-to-be liberated slaves. He is at all points in his life a stranger, as emphasized by the fact that he names his first son Gershom (גרשם), literally meaning “stranger there,” due to his having “been a stranger in a strange land” (Shemot 2:22). The only person whose sense of estrangement might be comparable is Rivkah. When she is taken from her family, from the land of her birth, she becomes a part of Avraham’s family, and must take up the family legacy of being part of a community they cannot fully accept. However, her estrangement starts much earlier. When the Torah introduces Rivkah, she is depicted as the very essence of altruistic dedication to the service of others. She spends hours filling up troughs full of water for the camels of a stranger who merely asked for a sip to drink (Bereishit 24:17-19). When he asks for a place to sleep, she offers him food for his camels as well (24:23-25). Her family, however, is only moved by the riches of the stranger (24:30-31), and seems to be totally self-serving, revealing that, growing up, Rivkah would have been a stranger in her own household. This would have made her perfect to marry Yitzhak, who was born in the Canaanite community, and thus would not possess the same degree of natural tension.

The question that then must be answered is, why is this tension important, or even at all desirable? The sensation of alienation Avraham and his family must have experienced living in Canaanite society must have been incredible, and not entirely pleasant. However, it has an important function. Avraham’s family was meant to be involved in the Canaanite society. Avraham helps fight a war (Bereishit 14) and he prays for the Sedom and the surrounding cities (Bereishit 18:16-33), despite their dubious moral character (Bereishit 13:13). Both Avraham and Yikzchak have repeated dealings with King Avimelekh of Gerar (Bereishit 20, 21:22-34). However, they are also a unique entity unto themselves, ‘א’s only covenantal partners in a land of people whose actions ‘א cannot tolerate (Bereishit 15:16). To remain unique is to be alienated. Losing this sense of alienation comes at the price of losing what makes one unique. This is all the more true in modern society, where we as jews are not in total opposition to society’s values. Much of modernity is incredibly valuable and important, and therefore it is that much harder to feel that we should be different, that we must remain separate. But if we as Jews do have something valuable to contribute to society, and we certainly do, letting go of that is a loss not just for us, but for society as a whole. While the pull of unity is great, it often comes at the price of the unique gifts of the individual, and in this it must be resisted. What we have to give is what makes us unique, and thus the way to stay unique is to truly believe in what we have to give. We must embrace what makes us different, not because we reject society, but because otherwise we would have cannot give to society. Embracing what makes us different not only makes us better, but betters society as well.

[1] Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis.

[2] The biblical picture of the Canaanites is one of absolute depravity, as per Bereishit 15:16, Vayikra 18:3, etc.

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

Parashat Hukat – Reasons and Messages

יַעַן לֹאהֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל


Parashat Hukat is chock-full of interesting narratives. It includes several skirmishes with other nations (Bamidbar 21), the deaths of Miriam and Aharon (20), and a cryptic mention of a godly well in “B’Er” (21:16-18).  Perhaps the most well known of these stories is that of the sin of Aharon and Moshe. After Miriam’s death (20:1), Bnei Yisrael gather against Moshe and Aharon to complain about a lack of water (20:2-5), and ‘א commands Moshe and Aharon to bring water forth from a rock for the people (20:7-8). Moshe and Aharon seem to fulfill the command, but the reader is suddenly informed that they have actually failed to live up to ‘א’s expectations in this situation, when Moshe and Aharon receive a sharp reprimand.

“And the Lord said to Moshe and Aharon: ‘Since you did not trust[1] in Me, to make me holy before the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them,” (20:12).

On a first read through, this punishment seems to come out of nowhere, as the nature of Moshe and Aharon’s mistake is not at all clear. This has prompted commentators throughout the Jewish tradition to reread the passage with great attention to detail, finding all sorts of subtle clues, which point them toward the exact nature of the misdeed.

Quoting the Sifrei, Rashi notes that where ‘א had instructed Moshe and Aharon to speak to the rock, when carrying out his command they instead struck the rock. Rambam rejects this and instead argues that Moshe’s sin was in becoming angry with the people. Ibn Ezra states that the problem was that they hit the rock twice instead of just once, as pointed out in verse 11, demonstrating a lack of faith that striking the rock only once would work. Ramban comments that all the above voices are “adding meaningless statements to meaningless statements,” and instead argues that the issue was one of phrasing; Moshe and Aharon’s statements to the people suggested that it was they, and not ‘א, who would bring forth water from the rock. Abarbanel quotes these and six other reasons mentioned by various commentators, including an opinion from the gemara that Moshe and Aharon actually did not sin, before settling on the one he thinks is correct. Topping Abarbanel’s ten, Shadal[2] quotes thirteen different opinions regarding the nature of Aharon and Moshe’s mistake. The number of opinions regarding the nature of Moshe and Aharon’s mistake has increased over time, not lessened, clouding the true meaning of the text.

Shadal, in his comments on the passage, remarked that, “Moshe Rabbeinu only sinned one sin, but the commentators burdened upon him 13 sins and more, for each one invented of his own heart a new sin.” The only evidence the text gives of a mistake on the parts of Moshe and Aharon is the rebuke they receive for it. Once the existence of the mistake has been stated, the reader then has to go back and try and piece together what that mistake might have been from errant clues and seemingly extraneous parts of the text. The only thing that is clear from the text is that the text is unclear. ‘א’s statement in 20:12 that Moshe and Aharon did not trust Him and therefore did not make Him holy in the eyes of the people is confusingly followed by the words of 20:13, “These are the waters of Merivah, where the children of Israel strove with the Lord, and He was made holy with them.” Not only is the nature of the misdeed Aharon and Moshe committed unclear, what effect it might have had is also unclear. The one thing that the text conveys clearly is Moshe and Aharon failed to properly trust in ‘א, and that was the cause of the problem

A comparison can be drawn to a similarly unclear text in the story of Akeidat Yitschak (Bereishit 22:1-19). The biblical text goes beyond its normal silence regarding the persons and places involved, into true silence regarding the nature of this “test”[3] and its taker. Consequently, the range of opinions regarding the actual nature of the test have differed greatly. Rambam, making it a test of tension between ‘א’s will and man’s, says that the command to Avraham came through and absolutely clear prophecy, and that Avraham had merely to follow through with it. The somewhat antinomian Mei HaShiloah says the opposite, that the actual nature of the test was to follow an unclear and questionable prophecy. The debate about the nature of the test is so great that commentators can’t even agree as to whether or not Avraham passed. The Meshekh Hokhmah[4], basing himself on Rashi’s comments on 22:2, actually says that Avraham failed in this test, and many thinkers have since followed in his footsteps. Throughout all of these opinions, however, one thing has remained clear: “Now I know that you revere ‘א” is a positive statement, and is the foundation of the promises to Avraham that follow (Bereishit 22:15-18). The exact nature of the test isn’t nearly as important as the proof of Avraham’s reverence for ‘א. All the more so by the sin of Aharon and Moshe, where the lack of clarity is so much greater, what is important is not exactly what they did that was wrong, but that they did it due to a lack of trust in ‘א.

Moshe and Aharon were put in a tough situation, where it would be difficult for a person to know quite what to do. They even had the benefit of ‘א’s direct guidance, and they still acted incorrectly. Today we are often put in such situations, where the correct path is not clear, and we lack the aid of prophecy to show us the way. As such, the lack of clarity in the text of Bamidbar 20 is not stymying but enervating. It is the same lack of clarity that we face in our everyday lives. While we do not face the same difficulties as the great leaders of generations past, we are posed the same challenge. We can act out of trust in ‘א or we can fail to do so. When the horizon seems darkest we do not know which path to take, but trying to live up to this responsibility, trying to let our actions flow from total trust in ‘א, can be the light that guides our way.


[1] Throughout this composition, the hebrew word “אמונה”, generally translated as “faith” or “belief”, has been translated instead as “trust”, which more accurately reflects its meaning in Tanakh, and early Jewish usage.


[3] It’s worth noting that Rashbam says “And ‘א tested Avraham,” 22:1, should actually be understood as “And ‘א punished Avraham.”



Parashat Korach – Leadership and Equality

כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים

Parashat Korah opens with sudden drama, as Korah and 250 other leaders of Bnei Yisrael gather against Moshe and Aharon in open rebellion. Korah and his followers challenge Moshe and Aharon’s authority and right to rule over Bnei Yisrael, on the basis of the fact that “כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים,” the entire congregation [of Israel] is holy. What is most interesting about this is that it doesn’t seem to be incorrect. In fact, it’s very reminiscent of Moshe’s comment from Bamidbar 11:29,  “וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים,” “would that all ‘א’s People were prophets.” Moshe seems to agree with Korah in his statement regarding the quality of the people. In his response to Korah, he specifically doesn’t reject Korah’s statement that the people are holy. “Come morning, ‘א will show who are His, and who is holy, and who may come near to Him; and he whom He will choose He will bring near to Him” (Bamidbar 16:5). Moshe opens by saying that ‘א will show who is holy, but then when describing the process actually occurring, he leaves that part out. Moshe seems to agree with Korah, which means that the rather harsh manner in which Moshe responds to his accusations requires an explanation. Upon inspection however, the explanation can actually be found within the extendedly harsh rebuke. Starting with a seemingly redundant second speech, Moshe begins a series of rebukes which detail the specific problems in Korah’s claim.

Korah starts his speech by saying, “רַב-לָכֶם,” “It is too much for you [Moshe and Aharon]!” (16:3). Moshe turns this exact language around on him at the end of his first rebuke, saying, “רַב-לָכֶם, בְּנֵי לֵוִי,” It is too much for you, Sons of Levi!” (16:7). Moshe builds on this by inverting the accusation in his second rebuke. “הַמְעַט מִכֶּם, כִּי-הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל,” “Is it too little for you, that ‘א has distinguished you from the Congregation of Israel?” (16:9). Korah and (some of) his followers were from the tribe of Levi, and, as such, had already been designated for distinction in Bnei Yisrael, yet they’re treating this as if it is nothing. They’re acting as if Moshe and Aharon are the only ones with special jobs, and by implication they are denigrating their status and duty as Levi’im. Moshe is asserting that although his and Aharon’s jobs are more unique, they are not more important, and that saying they are is actually belittling ‘א’s designation of the Levi’im. In line with his statement from 11:29, “וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים,” Moshe thinks that all of Bnei Yisrael are important and holy. Unlike Korah, he doesn’t think this is dependent on the jobs they are given.

Korah’s fatal assumption, that the job of an Israelite is what makes them special, and that unique duties preclude equality, is addressed by a popular midrash,[2] quoted in Rashi’s comments in Bamidbar 16:1 (s.v. And Dathan.).

He dressed them with cloaks made entirely of blue wool. They came and stood before Moses and asked him, “Does a cloak made entirely of blue wool require fringes, or is it exempt?” He replied, “ It does require [fringes].” They began laughing at him [saying], “Is it possible that a cloak of another [colored] material, one string of blue wool exempts it [from the obligation of tekheleth], and this one, which is made entirely of blue wool, should not exempt itself?[2]

In the midrash, Korah argues that the equality of all of the strings throughout the garment ought to eliminate the need for special strings on the corners. Similarly, the holiness of all of Israel ought to obviate the need for certain more distinguished leading individuals.

Korah does not respond to Moshe’s accusations, but his possible response, that he, not Moshe and Aharon, should be in charge of the nation of Israel, is dealt with by Moshe in his speech regarding the deaths of Dathan and Aviram. “Hereby you shall know that ‘א has sent me to do all these works… If these men die the common death of all men… then ‘א has not sent me.” Moshe and Aharon’s leadership is not a function of their innate status, nor could it be, for the entire congregation is holy, rather it is a matter of being chosen by ‘א, being assigned a duty by God. The midrash picks up on this as well, as Moshe’s response, cut off by Rashi, is that the tekhelet strings on the corners of the garments are needed by virtue of being commanded by ‘א. So too, the leadership of Moshe and Aharon is necessary by virtue of being commanded by ‘א.

Equality is part of the basic ideology of the Torah. All people are created in the Image of God (Bereishit 1:26; Seforno Ad loc.). Despite this, differentiation in duties is a necessary fact of life, of trying to form a nation. There must be those who lead the nation and those who perform the services. Therefore, ‘א commanded as such. That does not mean that anyone is innately better than anyone else. The same holds true today, after we have lost the Temple and any form of national leadership. We’re all equal, but we’re all different, and that’s a good thing. ‘א created everyone for a specific purpose, and differentiated us in order to enable us to fulfill those purposes. No one person is better or more important than any other. We’re all part of a greater picture, and all important within it.[3]


[1] Bamidbar Rabbah 18:3; Midrash Tanhuma, Korah, 2.

[2] Translation from, with slight emendations for clarity.

[3] This conception of the nature of individuals in a society also has important ramifications for the way we think of our socio-political models. People tend to point to the emphasis the Torah places on taking care of the underprivileged as proof that the Torah supports liberal/socialist/communist political thought. However, while there are specific contradicting sources, this also runs contrary to the basic debate of the Korah and Moshe. Korah’s argument that all of Bnei Yisrael are holy and thus should be able to serve in the Mishkan lends itself to easy comparison with the liberal point of view, where all people ought to be given all opportunities. This emphasis on the whole as opposed to the individual when it comes to evaluation is classical liberalism. However, as demonstrated above, Moshe does not line up with what’s normally thought of as Conservative/capitalist political-thought. Rather, Moshe’s position really falls somewhere in the middle, emphasizing both the individual and the whole (for more on this, see Rav Jonathan Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference).