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V'Zot HaBracha(Deuteronomy 33-34)

The power of Words

And this is the blessing that Moses, the man of God, bestowed upon the children of Israel before his death. (Deut. 33:1)

A close examination of this blessing yields the conclusion that Moses substantially repeated and endorsed Jacob's blessings given at the end of the Book of Genesis, although he made some modifications and additions. While no doubt these variations are sufficiently momentous to justify the repetition of a second set of blessings, nevertheless, upon reading them, one cannot help but have an uneasy feeling.

These blessings are not simply enhancing previous blessings for health, happiness and prosperity. They are an allocation of the assets and privileges of the Jewish people.

By what authority did Moses go about allocating positions to the various tribes of Israel?

Jacob, being the progenitor of all succeeding generations of Jews, and as such, the founder of the Jewish people who are called Israel after him, can be understood to possess the necessary authority to allocate the public positions of the future Jewish nation. But Moses was merely a rabbi, a teacher who taught us Torah. Granted that he was the most illustrious rabbi the Jewish people ever had, still it is legitimate to ask by what authority did he go about allocating positions to the various tribes of Israel. For the Torah goes out of its way to inform us that this was Moses' own blessing, not the words of God prophetically transmitted by Moses.

Indeed, this raises an even deeper problematic issue that involves the content of the entire Book of Deuteronomy. For the vast majority of this book consists of the thoughts of Moses himself spoken to the Jewish people in a series of lectures as stated in the introduction:

These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel. (Deut. 1:1)

Although the Talmud teaches us (Menachot 30a) that these words became a part of the Torah because God subsequently dictated them and told Moses to write them in the Torah, how can we relate to this? How can the teaching of a mere human be transformed into the message of God Himself to the Jewish people?

Because this is such a key question, it is necessary to expand on it a bit more.

* * *

FIERY TORAH

Rashi in his commentary notes that the Torah is described as fiery (From His right hand He presented the fiery Torah to them. Deut. 33:2) because the Torah was written before the creation in letters of black fire against a background of white fire (Tanchuma, Genesis 1).

This fact renders the matter of the origins of the Book of Deuteronomy even more perplexing.

The Torah was written before the creation in letters of black fire against a background of white fire.

The Torah predated creation. Thus when Moses spoke his own thoughts in the course of his farewell speech (which is the Book of Deuteronomy) apparently he managed to hit on the precisely correct words to exactly match what was already written in letters of black fire in God's own Torah. When God dictated Moses' words back to him and told him to incorporate them into the Torah here on earth, God was dictating these very words from His own fiery Torah.

How was it possible that Moses without the aid of prophecy happened on these very words, which the Torah emphatically describes as being his own:

These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel(?) (Deut. 1:1)

The assertion positively takes one's breath away!

To navigate through this intricate maze of problems we must understand the relationship between the two branches of the Torah: the Written Law and the Oral Law.

Traditional Jewish thought maintains that both these branches of the Torah were given to Moses on Sinai and accords them both the same degree of authenticity and authority. It is this doctrine that poses the greatest problems for many people who consider adopting the lifestyle of Orthodox Judaism.

For how can anyone seriously maintain that the Oral Law was taught to Moses on Sinai? It is the product of the thoughts of rabbis who were fallible human beings the same as the rest of us, with approximately the same degree of intelligence we have, struggling with the same problems we contend with, plagued by the same character flaws. Besides, they also disagree with each other on almost every page of the Talmud, the basic source of the Oral Law and about almost every issue. They themselves were unable to reach a clear consensus on what the Oral law actually dictates! How is it possible to grant the same degree of authority to the words and teachings of these rabbis as we do to the words of God Himself contained in the Written Law?

* * *

GOD'S PERSONAL TESTAMENT

The first striking observation to make is that God Himself equated the Oral Law with the Written law.

For anyone who accepts the authenticity and absoluteness of the Written Torah, the entire Book of Deuteronomy serves as God's personal testament to the equal authenticity of the Oral Law that emerges from the hearts and the minds of Jewish rabbis -- because the contents of the Book of Deuteronomy originated in the heart and mind of Moses. By accepting Moses' words and thoughts as fit to be placed into the Written Law and given equal weight to God's own words contained in the rest of the Torah, God sends a very powerful message to the followers of His Written Torah. He informs them that the words and thoughts of rabbis -- at least those of Moses' caliber -- are to be regarded as absolutely true and equally holy to His own words.

The proposition that words of rabbis have the same weight as the Torah's own words is stated in the Torah itself.

Thus the question is not whether the rabbis' words have the same weight as the Torah's own words, because that is a proposition that is clearly stated and adopted by the Torah itself. The question is to figure out how this can be so, and why did God choose to deliver a portion of his own teachings in such a controversial way?

For even if we solve the question of how the two can possibly be given equal weight satisfactorily, we would still be plagued by the question why.

God surely must have realized how difficult it would be for many people to accept the Oral Law. Indeed, all through the ages, it is the acceptance of the Oral Law that has proven to be the chief stumbling block of sincere Jewish believers -- from the Sadducees to the Karaites to the founders of modern day "progressive" streams of Judaism. These Jews were serious and sincere in their dedication to Judaism, but simply were unable to accept rabbinic authority, and therefore rejected the Oral Law in whole or in part.

* * *

THE QUESTION OF "HOW"

First let us look at the question of how.

In order to appreciate the workings of the rabbinic minds responsible for the development of the Oral Law, let us contrast a rabbi with a U.S. Supreme Court justice whose job it is to interpret the U.S. Constitution. Both the rabbi and the Supreme Court justice are looking at a document they lack the power to amend. The rabbi is looking at the Torah, while the justice is looking at the Constitution. Both are faced with a problem that is not specifically discussed in the document they are consulting, and thus both are attempting to solve their problem through a process of creative interpretation.

Let us first look at the Supreme Court justice. He is facing a document that was drawn up by people who tolerated slavery, who abhorred abortion, who had no notion of racial discrimination or of prisoner/offender rights. Yet Supreme Court justices have found a basis in the Constitution to outlaw slavery, allow abortion, crush racial discrimination and to develop a whole plethora of offender rights. They did this by applying their own values and interpreting the words of the Constitution so that their notions would fit the words. This is an ongoing process that is carried on with universal approval. No one really believes that the Constitution intended any of this.

The reason for tolerating this seemingly callous approach is obvious. It is extremely difficult to amend the Constitution, and therefore it must be stretched to accommodate the changing values of society or thrown on the scrap heap. No one wants to abandon it, and therefore everyone is forced to accept the creative judicial approach as the best alternative.

The work of a Supreme Court justice is very different from the work of a rabbi ruling on a question of Jewish law.

This is the diametric opposite of what the rabbi does. The rabbi looks at the Torah and tries to figure out what the Torah would say about a problem or question at hand. He tries to negate his own values and preconceived notions. In his worldview, there are no values other than Torah values. The purpose of studying the Torah is to learn how to bend one's will and beliefs to conform to the shape of the Torah's dictates, not the other way around.

The rabbi does not look for the solution he would offer and then make it fit the words of the Torah. He attempts to find the Torah solution and fit himself and his world into the Torah's framework. His most devout wish when facing a problem that requires Torah interpretation is to be emptied of all his beliefs and preconceived notions so that he can face the problem armed only with his training and skill in the methodology of the proper interpretation of Torah passages.

* * *

SECRET OF SUCCESS

The amount of success in attaining this state of objectivity is directly proportional to the degree of humility possessed by the rabbi. It is the quality of humility that allows a person to accept the opinion of another as true even when such an opinion flies against the face of his most cherished notions.

It is not by coincidence that Moses, the greatest rabbi of all time, is also described by the Torah as being the most humble human being in all of human history:

Now the man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)

Jewish tradition teaches that since the Torah is eternal and this verse can be read as applying to the world of the present by any reader in any generation, in effect the Torah is stating that Moses is the humblest person in human history.

When people of intelligence apply themselves to a task with such dedication, it is hardly surprising that they succeed. If a person is honestly searching for what the Torah has to say about an issue and is willing to accept what he discovers without judgment or reservation, he is indeed very likely to reach the desired result and be able to learn just what the Torah's opinion is -- in actuality. This is how the Oral Law can be considered of equal weight with the Written Law. The assumption is made that the rabbis actually manage to discover successfully the true intent of the Torah in all the issues they discuss.

* * *

THE QUESTION OF "WHY"

Now we ask the second question: Why should God have employed rabbis to transmit His message even if they might prove to be a reliable conduit? Why not say everything He wanted to tell us Himself?

Once again let us look at actuality before consulting theory.

Why is it that intelligent, well-meaning people fail to take its plainly written dictates seriously?

God issued many directives in His Torah in the plainest possible language. Yet practically all those people who accept the Divine origin of the Written Law but who do not accept the authority of the Oral Law totally reject a lot of God's directives as being no longer applicable.

But how do we explain this? Why is it that intelligent, well-meaning people who accept the Divine origin of God's Torah fail to take its plainly written dictates seriously?

The answer is again to be found by looking at the Constitution. Any written document is merely an object. It is not alive and it cannot develop and grow. The Constitution only lives in the minds of the people who read it and live it. As a document it is not alive and is unable to adapt whereas people are alive and are constantly changing; no document can survive for long without the necessary alterations that allow it to conform with the changes in people and the situations they find themselves in. This was precisely the reason why the creative approach to the Constitution was developed.

But the Torah is different.

* * *

THE LIVING TORAH

God wanted to give us a living Torah. Solomon writes about the Torah:

It is a tree of life for those who grasp it ... (Proverbs 3:18)

No "document" is a tree of life. The Torah can only be alive if the words that emerge from the hearts and minds of living human beings are also words of Torah. The correct way to regard the Oral Law according to Jewish tradition is not to see it as being merely the authoritative interpretation of the Written Law. The Oral Law is Torah itself.

Whoever does not subscribe to this view will inevitably come to the conclusion that the words of God are out of date even if he accepts their Divine origin. For he argues, quite reasonably -- in the absence of the Oral Law -- that the Torah is a document that was given to us by God over 3,000 years ago. The world has changed an enormous amount over this length of time, but the words of the Written Law have not. Thus a document that could have been very reasonable and progressive in the world of 3,000 years ago is bound to be full of provisions that cannot be regarded as applicable to the world of today.

To have an eternal living Torah there must be a blend of two things:

  1. There must be a written text so that we have with us the words of God, but this written text cannot be allowed to become a dead letter. It must be allowed to expand and grow and answer new questions that are thrust upon us by the demands of a changing world.

  2. The words of the rabbis must also be Torah. However, we do not want rabbis pushing their own opinions into God's text. We want rabbis who have internalized God's words and live them to such an extent, that it is God's words that issue from their lips rather than their own notions and beliefs.

* * *

THE UNFOLDING ORAL LAW

We are all familiar with the saying of the Zohar, the chief work of the Kabbalah, that God "consulted the Torah and created the world." As the Torah includes the Oral Law, this statement means that God consulted not only His own words when he shaped reality, but also made sure that created reality would conform to the opinions of the rabbis who shaped the unfolding Oral Law.

This is what the Midrash has to say about the introductory words to the Ten Commandments:

Even the questions that the serious student will ask his rabbi were relayed to Moses at that time. (Tanchuma, Ki Tisa, 17)

Jewish tradition teaches that this does not mean that God told Moses the actual questions that these students will ask, but rather that all serious questions raised by people learning Torah at any age were already included in God's message. For God gave us a living Torah. As such every Jew is able to receive his own special portion of God's message that was meant from the first moment of the giving of the Torah at Sinai to be deciphered only by him.

Every blessing is an attempt to reshape reality in certain directions. Reality is always shaped around the words of the Torah. Jacob's blessings when they were uttered had the same influence as a prayer -- they required God's intercession to work. The blessings themselves had no power to reshape reality until they were included in the words of Torah and became Torah itself.

But the words of Moses' blessing, although they also issued from his own mind and his own heart were already words of Torah when they were uttered. For Moses was our greatest rabbi and when he issued a Torah statement his words had the authority of the Oral Law behind them.

Published: October 10, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Anonymous, October 22, 2000 12:00 AM

R.N.Weisz,big teacher,the best.

I am a faithful follower of the divrei Torà by Rabbi Noson Weisz.I use to study them with my 28 years old son ,every week the whole year round.And the knowledge acquired ,commented at the shabbat discussion at the shul.We hope R.N.Weisz
can keep on teaching us Torà in deep as has been until now.

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