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Parashat Ki Tavo: The Torah’s Time Warp by Yaakov Bieler

September 15, 2011 by  
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A particular phrase that appears in Parashat Ki Tavo.

Parashat Ki Tavo contains one of the instances when the Tora makes a direct reference to a specific moment in time. In Devarim 29:1-3, the Tora writes,

“And Moshe called all of Israel and said to them: You saw all that God Did before your eyes in Egypt, to Pharoah, and to all of his servants, and to all of his land. The great miracles that your eyes saw, those great signs and wonders. And God did not Give you a heart to know and eyes to see and ears to hear ‘AD HAYOM HAZEH’ (until this day).”

Placing these verses in context with other verses containing similar phrases.

The various verses in which the expression “Ad HaYom HaZeh” appears can be categorized as representing two general formats: a) direct quotations of the speech of either a particular human character or Hashem Himself,[1] with the phrase understood to connote the very day on which the conversation or speech takes place, and b) editorial comments made impersonally by the Tora text. It is in this latter area, in the narrative section of the Tora, where the precise implications of the phrase “Ad HaYom HaZeh” are most in question.

Possible connotations of the phrase in question.

When the Tora employs the expression “Until this day”, one inevitably wonders what “day” is being referred to: a day in the ancient past when this statement is first committed to writing,[2] the day upon which the reader happens to be encountering the verse or the topic, i.e., the immediate present,[3] or is it meant to include times in the distant future, when other generations of readers will come across the text?

Could this phrase have some sort of eternal significance?

If we were to posit that “Ad Hayom HaZeh” is nothing more than historical in nature, i.e., the time being referred to is when the Tora is finally written at the end of Devarim,[4] then its relevance and immediacy to generations beyond the moment when it was articulated is questionable. However, an underlying assumption behind everything recorded for posterity in the Tora is that it has some sort of transcendent meaning beyond the immediate circumstance when it was written.[5] On the one hand, every last thing that Moshe ever did or said obviously is not recorded in the Tora. Even what is written in the text often describes his personal life in no more than an oblique manner. For example, did Moshe in fact leave Tzipora once the Tora was given in order that he would be continuously available to God in order to receive additional information and clarifications about the Divine Law? Some commentators think so;[6] others do not.[7] When in BaMidbar 12:1, Miriam and Aharon are talking about some aspect of their sibling’s marital life, it is unclear what their critique is focusing upon, other than it has to do with some unidentified Ethiopian woman.[8] Similarly, we are afforded glimpses of Moshe’s interactions with Pharoah during the plagues that lead up to the Exodus from Egypt. However, a close reading of the texts in Shemot 7-12 reveals that we are only provided with snippets of the conversations and even of the events that actually transpired.[9] We are not told fully about each confrontation, warning, or official response. We have to also assume concerning the conversations about which the Tora does inform us, that they have been edited down to the bare essentials, and that preliminaries, pleasantries, formal protocols, etc. have been omitted. The logical conclusion precipitated by such perceptions is that an editorial selection has obviously been made. While one consideration informing this type of selection may have been literary style,[10] it is perhaps even more likely, given that “Tora” means “teaching”, i.e., that God Intends to teach the Jewish people about Himself and His Expectations for and of them, that the specific actions and statements that are recorded contain significant ideas designed to effect Jewish thought and practice throughout the ages. Furthermore, it is assumed by all commentators that the Tora is laconic and presents ideas in only the most efficient and straightforward manner,[11] leading to interpretations based upon close reading of particular words and perceived redundancies. Consequently, not only must the themes be presumed to contain eternal significance, but also the precise literary expression of those themes, the words chosen, the grammatical nuances of those words, even their spelling, are believed to convey profound meaning for every generation of Jews who carefully study the Tora’s contents. Additionally, the assumption that important eternal lessons are contained in the Tora is applied not only to commandments that are obligatory for all time, e.g., observances such as Shabbat and Kashrut, but even to themes like constructing the Tabernacle—a structure that would eventually be replaced by a permanent Temple in Yerusalayim—as well as transcriptions of seemingly temporal conversations between the Tora’s protagonists. We have no alternative but to posit that there is eternal significance to the Mishkan’s detail and construction techniques, if only we are assiduous and astute enough to uncover them. If not, why would four entire Parashiot in Shemot be devoted to this topic? An example of a verbal interchange to which we are expected to pay close attention, no matter how seeming irrelevant, is found in BaMidbar 13. There we read about God’s apparent authorization—this is at least how Moshe understood the cryptic response that HaShem Gave him to his inquiry—to send spies to Canaan. While the vast majority of us are hardly spymasters, we nevertheless derive spiritual verities and principles from Moshe’s interactions with HaShem in this instance, as is expected to be the case with regard to the many comparable interchanges of this nature. Therefore, even if “Ad HaYom HaZeh” was merely a literal quote of Moshe’s words, we still are challenged to ask, “Why were they included in the Tora text?”

The most intriguing implication of the phrase.

The idea that the term “Ad HaYom HaZeh” could also relate to the moment when an individual happens to access this particular text on the day that it is being publicly read, e.g., 18 Ellul, 5771; September 17th, 2011, and even if this might take place several times a day,[12] is certainly psychological evocative. One aspires to internalize the life and spirit of the Tora to such an extent that he is constantly reliving it, both in his imagination as well as throughout his life. Such an approach parallels the concept that an individual is obligated on the night of the Pesach Seder “to see/deport him/herself as if s/he has just left Egypt.”[13] Similarly, on Shavuot, Jews are called upon to reenact the receiving of the Tora by staying awake throughout the entire night in anticipation of the Revelation on Sinai that was to take place the next morning.[14] Jewish history is regarded as being cyclical in nature, with every Shabbat marking the completion of another week of Creation, and Motzoai Shabbat the beginning of another creation of the universe.[15] The Rabbinic concept “Ma’asei Avot Siman LeBanim” (the deeds/experiences of the forefathers are precursors for their descendents)[16] takes note of a sensibility mirroring the psychological phenomenon of “deja vue”, when it comes to reliving past Jewish history on figurative and even literal levels. Another Rabbinic concept that evokes a sense of timelessness with respect to even the evolution of Jewish practice and learning is the sentiment that every authentic idea that someone will come up with based upon the Tora, had already been presented to Moshe on Mt. Sinai.[17] Along with the many other specific applications of such a worldview, we should recognize the “meta”-manifestation of this principle with regard to the discussion concerning Devarim 6:6 “And it will be that these words that I am Commanding you TODAY should be on your hearts.”[18] The parsing of the verse is ambiguous, allowing for two seemingly equally acceptable readings and understandings: is the command being made TODAY, i.e., thousands of years ago, and it is this ancient command that a contemporary person is expected to place on his  heart at this moment, OR is the commandment to be viewed as if it is being first decreed now in real time, i.e., “that I am Commanding you TODAY…” RaShI, basing himself on Rabbinic tradition,[19] clearly opts for the latter interpretation: “Do not relate to it as an ancient decree that no one is anxious to read,[20] but rather as a new pronouncement that everyone rushes to read.” Rabbeinu Bachaya amplifies the concept: “…View this as if today you received this Command at Sinai.” This perspective for “Ad HaYom HaZeh” would confirm Shlomo HaMelech’s observation, (Kohelet 1:9) “…There is nothing new under the sun.” Yet one should relate to all things as if they were freshly minted.

Considering the eternal verity of the Tora, reflected in this phrase.

Suggesting that the phrase “Until this day” when it appears in a Biblical verse, is timeless, and not only speaks to the reader of today, but also to future readers as well, conforms to the dogmatic principle of Jewish faith that since the Tora as we have it will never be changed,[21] [22] it is designed to be relevant for all times. While the principle is normally applied to the normative Halachot that the Written Tora formulates, it is not illogical to extend such a standard to the Aggadic parts of the Tora as well. If human nature in general, and Jewish nature in particular, are comprised of certain immutable constants, then what applied to one generation, is more than likely to appropriately apply to another, no matter how many hundreds or even thousands of years separate them. The eternal nature of the Tora is a manifestation of God’s Eternality, as reflected in the Tetragrammaton, combining past, present and future tenses of “Hoveh”, the “being” verb.[23] The verses of the Bible in one aspect of their grammatical structure similarly evoke a sense of eternal timelessness. The utilization of the “Vav HaHipuch” (the ‘Vav’ of reversal) to transform verb forms of past and future into their opposite tense, contributes to the formation of a sensibility that what is past is future and vice versa. For example, the five expressions of redemption in Shemot 6:6-8, without the “Vav HaHipuch” concept, would translate: “And I Caused to go out”; “And I Saved”; “And I Redeemed”; “And I Took”; “And I Brought”, all in the past tense. Contextually, these statements taken literally do not make sense, because God Instructs Moshe about these matters before he returns to Egypt and begins to interact with Pharoah. Consequently, the only translation that would make literal sense in this instance is to interpret the words to mean: “And I WILL Cause to go out”; “And I WILL Save”, etc. While it could be maintained that when it comes to God, once He States that He Intends to do something, for all intents and purposes it has been accomplished since nothing has the ability to stand in God’s Way, and the “Vav HaHipuch” is perhaps then only appropriate to statements and actions of God Himself, we see innumerable examples of the same structure utilized with regard to ordinary human beings. For example, in Beraishit 32:4, when Yaakov sends messengers in an attempt to appease Eisav and prevent him from avenging himself on the young members of Yaakov’s family, the Tora writes, “VaYishlach Yaakov Malachim…”—“Yishlach” would ordinarily be translated as “he will send”; yet in this instance, with the addition of the preceding “Vav”, the word is now rendered “And he sent”. As for the connotation of the verse beyond its immediate meaning, the Rabbis derive from Yaakov’s interactions with Eisav, principles to be followed by Jews when dealing with rulers and nations of significant military prowess, i.e., Yaakov’s descendants will also have occasion to send messengers to their own manifestations of Eisav, down through the years.[24] Consequently, there is the possibility that whenever a Jew reads this verse,  he can relate to it personally and immediately.

Coming full circle, understanding the appearance of the phrase in Parashat Ki Tavo.

So it is appropriate to consider how Devarim 29:3, which not only is part of the Tora in general, but also contains the phrase in question,  speaks to you and me today in a direct and challenging manner.

RaShI on Devarim 29:3 presents an evocative and personally challenging interpretation for the employment of “Ad HaYom HaZeh” in this particular verse. The commentator posits that the antecedent of the phrase is the day described in Devarim 31:9, when Moshe presented the first written Tora to the Kohanim, who by being related to Aharon, are not only his tribesmen, the Levi’im, but also literally his family members. Accusations of nepotism have hounded Moshe throughout the period of his leadership. The designation of the Levi’im to replace the first born as God’s Representatives for Divine Service in the Mishkan and the appointment of Aharon as the Kohen Gadol, rankled many among the Jewish people. RaShI understands Moshe’s giving the Kohanim the Tora as once again stirring up old resentments.  However, instead of responding to these complaints in displeasure, Moshe considers this challenge from the other tribes as constituting a truly positive development in the evolution of the Jews into God’s Chosen People.

All of Israel came before Moshe and said to him, “Moshe Rabbeinu. We too stood at Sinai. We received the Tora and it was given to us. Why are you now giving the (first written) Tora, and thereby the power that comes along with it, to the members of only your tribe? There will come a day in the future when they (the Levi’im) will say to us, ‘Not to you was the Tora given. It was given to us.’” Moshe rejoiced when he heard this and said to them, (Devarim 27:9) “It is today when you have become a nation. Today I understand that you are clinging to and desirous of HaShem.”

According to the preceding analysis, Moshe is not only making a statement about the people before whom he is standing so many thousands of years ago; he is also saying something to us as well as to our descendants. Are we demanding that the Tora be given to each of us, as opposed to remaining the exclusive province of an elite group? Would we loudly complain if we felt disenfranchised by another segment of the Jewish people who would claim to be the only ones truly cognizant of God’s Will as expressed in the Tora? If the day came for Moshe’s contemporaries to define themselves as the people of the Tora, has that day already  also come for us, and if not, will it come soon and will our children share a similar sensibility? Only we can provide a positive answer to those questions by means of our ever increasing commitment to study and embracing the idea of modeling God’s Law to the rest of the nations of the world.

[1] Examples of direct quotes:

a. Beraishit 48:15 (Yaakov to Yosef)

“…as God has taken care of me until this  day”.

b.. Shemot 10:6 (Moshe to Pharoah)

“a plague of locusts will descend upon your kingdom that has never had a precedent up until this day.”

c. BaMidbar 22:30 (donkey to Bila’am) “…you have ridden upon me up to this day”.

d. Numerous  cases in Devarim in particular, since they are the recorded statements of Moshe to the Jewish people immediately prior to his death.

1. Devarim 2:22

“The descendents of Eisav are living in the lands that they conquered from the Chori until this day.”

2. Devarim 3:14

“Chavot Yair is the name of a place until today.”

3. Devarim 10:8

“The Levi’im have been separated from the rest of the Jewish people to serve HaShem to this day.”

4. Devarim 11:4

“Egypt remains in a defeated state up until today.” (One  might have thought that they would have more resolutely regrouped, but this is not the case.)

[2] The first mention of the writing of a Tora is found in Devarim 31:22 ff.

[3] See the discussion of Devarim 6:6 below.

[4] See fn. 2 above.

[5] Megilla 14a

Were there no more prophets than these [forty-eight]? — Is it not written, (I Shmuel 1:1) “How there was a man from Ramathaim-Zophim”, [which we interpret], one of two hundred prophets [zophim]  who prophesied to Israel? — There were actually very many, as it has been taught, “Many prophets arose for Israel, double the number of [the Israelites] who came out of Egypt” (If 603,550 men above twenty left Egypt (Shemot 38:26), then the text is alluding to the number 1,207,100[!]), only the prophecy which contained a lesson for future generations was written down, and that which did not contain such a lesson was not written.

[6] See Shabbat 87a, and most commentators who take their cue from Reish Lakish’s perspective.

[7] See e.g. RaShBaM and Ibn Kaspi on BaMidbar 12:1.

[8] This is the citation from RaShBaM: “As it is written in Divrei HaYamim D’Moshe Rabbeinu (The Chronicles of Moshe our Teacher), Moshe was a king in Ethiopia for forty years and he married one of the local queens, but he never was intimate with her, as it is written there…” Therefore the discussion between Miriam and Aharon revolved not around Moshe abandoning Tzipora, but rather what they perceived as his marrying another woman to compete with her.

[9] An apparent inconsistency with regard to the Egyptian plagues is that in not all of the accounts are we given the same information. While some of the differences have to be attributed to a gradual escalation of the punishments being meted out to Pharoah and the rest of the Egyptians, there are nevertheless differences in the verses describing them to the point that the ShLaH comments, (Sefer HaShaLaH HaKadosh, Tora SheB’Al Peh, Kellal Middot 9) that the words of Tora are “impoverished in one place, and wealthy in another.” One such inconsistency has to do with the warnings or the lack therefore that Pharoah is given before each plague. There are no warnings for lice (Shemot 8:12), boils (9:8) and darkness (10:21).  While some maintain that there are three groups of three, and the third of each group is carried out without warning, this flies in the face of the Halachic principle that it is inappropriate to punish someone without warning them first. It would appear more logical to assume that there were warnings even for these three plagues, but for stylistic as well as perhaps other reasons, they were omitted.

[10] This would appear to be the position advocated by R. Yishmael when he adamantly contended that “Dibra Tora B’Lashon Bnai Adam” (the Tora is formulated in the style of typical interpersonal communications).

[11] See for e.g., Pesachim 3b.

[12] When a person recites the verses of the Shema prayer three times a day, which contain Devarim 6:6 and 11:13 discussed above, he will be hard-pressed to create the state of mind whereby he can feel that each time he is being newly addressed and commanded by God. Nevertheless, that appears to be the requirement.

[13] See Pesachim 116b.

[14] See Mishna Berura, #494, fn. 1.

[15] The symbolism of fire as part of the Havdala service is interpreted as representing the light of Creation which was the first thing that HaShem Brought into existence on the first day of Creation. On Motzoai Shabbat we also set out once again on “creating” our own personal universes, with another day of rest looming seven days later.

[16] See Sota 34a.

[17] See VaYikra Rabba 22:1.

[18] Devarim 11:13 can also be read in this dual manner, i.e., “…that I am Commanding you today to love the Lord, your God…”—is the command taking place today (many years ago, when the statement was actually made) or is one to view the commandment as having been given today (contemporaneous with the reader, who has suddenly been made aware of this “new” responsibility.)

[19] See Pesachim 56a.

[20] The novelty and excitement of a new piece of Divine Legislation will have worn off over time. Furthermore, if it is an old law, it is questionable whether the community is observing it fully, or honoring it in the breach. A brand new law has the potential of capturing the imagination and taking hold within a community that has become otherwise jaded.

[21] See #9 of RaMBaM’s Thirteen Principles of Faith.

[22] While the Tora’s foundational principles, as reflected in the Written Tradition, are certainly above time, room has been left within the Oral Tradition for certain types of interpretation as well as application within a strictly determined Halachi structure that would build into the Tora  a certain degree of flexibility.

[23] Expanding upon Shemot 3:14, the Tetragrammaton is a combination of “Haya” (was), “Hoveh” (is) and “Yihyeh” (will be).

[24] See RaMBaN on Beraishit 32:4.

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