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Parashat Ve-Zot Ha-Beracha: The Torah’s Coda by Yaakov Bieler

October 18, 2011 by  
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The significance of the last verses of the Tora.

Since Parashat  VeZot HaBeracha is the final Parasha of the Tora, it contains the final words of the Tora, which would logically serve as the summation of not only the book of Devarim but all that comes before it as well. Here are the Tora’s final three verses:[1]

Devarim 34:10-12

And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD Knew face to face;

In all the signs and the wonders, which the LORD Sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land;

And in all the mighty hand, and in all the great terror, which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel.

Distinguishing between the terminologies  describing Moshe’s uniqueness.

It is certainly fitting that the “Five  Books of Moses[2] conclude with a tribute to the great prophet who played such a major role in the events recorded in four of the books, beginning with Shemot,[3] as well as serving as God’s Recorder. While there is little doubt regarding the meaning of the references to God “Knowing Moshe face to face”, a concept mentioned earlier in the Tora[4] encapsulating the special level of clear prophecy enjoyed by Moshe in contrast to any other prophet,[5] as well as the reference to Moshe’s activities in Egypt with respect to Pharoah and his servants,[6] there is significant ambiguity with respect to the specific references that appear in the Tora’s final verse. What is being conveyed by attributing to Moshe the usage of a “mighty hand” and a “great terror”, language that had previously been associated with God rather than an human being,[7] and, to which public events

(“in the sight of all Israel”) is the verse alluding?

Emphasizing Moshe’s special place in the pantheon of the prophets to lend creditability to “Torat Moshe”.

Most traditional commentators, e.g., Ibn Ezra, RaMBaN, RaMBaM, Meshech Chachma, understand this final verse as reflecting that God Elevated Moshe’s status in the eyes of the Jews by allowing him to serve as the medium through which He Exercised His “Mighty Hand” and “Great Terror” when He Brought about the visible Egyptian miracles, the revelation on Sinai and the ongoing Wonders that accompanied the Jews’ forty years of desert wandering.[8] According to R. S.R. Hirsch[9] and MaLBIM[10] God’s specific purpose in Aggrandizing Moshe by Associating him with these remarkable occurrences, was to discourage later attempts to amend the Tora and its collection of Commandments, i.e., who are you to alter what the great Moshe conveyed to us?  While the identity, status and definition of Tora Mitzvot  have been a bone of contention from the times of the Karaites, the Sadducees,  and early Christian sects, both of these commentators actively contended with the European Reformers during the 19th century, implying that their interpretations were either overtly or at least subtly directed at some of their antagonists among their Jewish contemporaries.

An interpretation that suggests that at least the last phrase in the final verse of the Tora praises Moshe for an act that reflected his personal initiative rather than simply his adherence to God’s Directives.

In contrast to the majority of commentators, RaShI adopts an iconoclastic approach to the Tora’s final phrase, (even though he appears to essentially agree with the others concerning the first two phrases in the verse),[11] explaining that the Tora was teaching by means of a Gezeira Shava[12] that Moshe was not merely a “go-between”, but rather a direct initiator of the specific action that is being referenced:

RaShI on Devarim 34:12

“And in all the mighty hand”—that he received the Tora in the form of Tablets in his hands.

“And in all the signs and wonders”—miracles and mighty deeds in the great and terrible desert.

“In the sight of all Israel”—that he “raised his heart” (i.e., he took it upon himself, without being directed to do so) to smash the Tablets before their eyes, as it is said, (Devarim 9:17) “And I broke them before their eyes”. And the Holy One, Blessed be He, Agreed with his (Moshe’s) action, as it is said, (Shemot 34:1) “Asher Shebarta” (that you broke)—“Yeyasher Kochacha” (lit. may your strength be straightened; fig. “you have done well”) that you broke them.

R. Eliyahu Mizrachi, in his classical commentary on RaShI, explains that the Rabbinic interpretation originating in Shabbat  87a[13] to the effect that despite what ostensibly appeared to be a destruction of a holy artifact was actually in accordance with God’s Will, was added by the commentator in order to dispel the possible objection that the destruction of the Tablets was something regrettable rather than praiseworthy. Siftei Chachamim, another commentary devoted to clarify RaShI’s words, suggests that Moshe’s smashing the Tablets is what is being alluded to at the end of Devarim 34:12 can be supported by the placement of the broken shards of the first Tablets in the Holy Ark that also contained the second Tablets, as well as other precious artifacts,[14] a view that advanced in Berachot 8b and Menachot 99b. If Moshe had acted improperly, why would the evidence of his action have been preserved? Consequently, what he did must be considered virtuous!

Yet, even if it can be demonstrated that there is at least a stream of Rabbinic thought that not only exonerated Moshe of blame for breaking the first Tablets, but even maintained that God Considered it virtuous on his part for having done so, how can this be understood to be one of the crowning achievements, if not the ultimate accomplishment of this great prophet, embodied in the Tora’s final three words? Furthermore, this event preceded by several decades many of the other events that the Tora is understood to evoke in these last three verses, i.e., the many miracles with which Moshe was associated during the people’s desert wanderings; why should it be emphasized to such a great extent?

Although the Talmud in Shabbat (see fn. 13) suggests that Moshe felt that it would be logically hypocritical to give the Tora to the Jewish people while they were sinning, an alternative Rabbinic view appears in the Midrash:

Shemot Rabba 43:1

What did Moshe do (when he heard that God Intended to destroy the Jewish people as a result of their worship of the Golden Calf)?  He “took” the Tablets from the “Hand” of the Holy One, Blessed be He, in order to assuage His Wrath.

To what is this comparable? To a minister who sent a representative to betroth a woman. He went and found that she had been unfaithful (to the minister). The representative who was righteous, what did he do? He took her Ketuba  (the marriage contract, dated to take effect prior to her adultery) which the minister had given him in order to betroth the woman, and destroyed it. He said, “It is better for her to be judged (for her unfaithfulness) as a single woman[15] and not as a one who is married.

So did Moshe. When Israel transgressed by that act (making and worshipping the Golden Calf), he took the Tablets and broke them,[16] i.e., had the Jews seen their impending punishment, they would never have sinned.[17] [18] Furthermore, Moshe said, “It is better that they be judged inadvertent sinners than premeditated transgressors.” Why? Because it was written in the Tablets, (Shemot  20:2-3) “I am the Lord, your God” and the punishment (for violating this precept) is written “alongside”, (Ibid., 22:19) “He who sacrifices to other gods will be destroyed.” Therefore he destroyed the Tablets.

According to this approach, rather than Moshe deciding to deprive his unworthy people of God’s Law, he was instead trying to protect them from the consequences of their having naively declared (Shemot 19:8; 24:3, 7) “We will do and we will hear.” Although the sentiment expressed by the Jews was one of acquiescence to the Divine Law, how could they be held to rules the details of which they had not been made aware? The smashing of the Tablets then ranks with Moshe’s defending the people from God’s Expressed Readiness to Destroy them following both the sin of the Calf as well as the sin of the spies. RaShI may be suggesting that smashing the Tablets is even more audacious and therefore ultimately more praiseworthy than Moshe’s verbal defenses. “Actions speak louder than words”, and it takes greater commitment to destroy the holiest object that God had even Given to human beings because it might result in adverse consequences for the newly freed slaves, than to merely engage in debate and argument. While it is an amazing vote of Divine Confidence to have chosen Moshe for the varied missions that constituted the Exodus from Egypt, the receiving of the Tora and the journeys through the desert, Moshe’s unquestionable and sacrificial loyalty to the Jewish people were perhaps his greatest claim to fame, the thing for which he should be most remembered and the attribute that we should all strive to emulate on our own respective levels.

[1] These three verses, 34:10-12, appear to be a unit unto themselves, since those immediately preceding them describe Moshe’s death and Yehoshua’s succeeding him as leader of the Jewish people, but nothing that relates to all that has come before as the final three verses do:

Devarim 34:5-9

So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.

And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth-peor; and no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.

And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.

And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; so the days of weeping in the mourning for Moses were ended.

And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the children of Israel hearkened unto him, and did as the LORD commanded Moses.

[2] The term “Chamisha Chumshai Tora” (the five books of the Tora) appears numerous times in the Talmud and Midrash (e.g., Megilla 15a; Nedarim 22b; Beraishit Rabba 3:5; VaYikra Rabba 16:6) and this is probably why the Greek term for this section of TaNaCh is “Pentateuch” (five volumes.) Associating these books specifically with Moshe is probably based upon the assumption that Moshe is the scribe responsible for recording their contents, as attested to by Bava Batra 14b:

Who wrote the Scriptures? — Moses wrote his own book and the portion of Balaam and Job…

RaMBaM, based upon Sanhedrin 99a, includes someone who denies Moshe’s having written on God’s Instructions even a single word contained in the five books of the Tora as cause for being excluded from the World to Come:

Mishneh Tora, Hilchot Teshuva 3:6,8

Halacha 6

The following individuals do not have a portion in the World to Come. Rather, their [souls] are cut off and they are judged for their great wickedness and sins, forever:

the Minim, the Epicursim, those who deny the Torah

Halacha 8

…There are three individuals who are considered as one “who denies the Torah”:

a)   one who says Torah, even one verse or one word, is not from God. If he says: “Moses made these statements independently,” he is denying the Torah…

Maimonides’ Introduction to “Chelek” (the last Chapter of Sanhedrin)

The Eighth Fundamental Principle is that the Torah came from God.

We are to believe that the whole Torah was given us through Moses our Teacher entirely from God. When we call the Torah “God’s Word” we speak metaphorically. We do not know exactly how it reached us, but only that it came to us through Moses who acted like a secretary taking dictation. He wrote down the events of the time and the commandments, for which reason he is called “Lawgiver.”…

[3] While Moshe is a protagonist in Shemot, VaYikra, BaMidbar and Devarim, as far as Beraishit is concerned, he is relegated to the role of no more than recorder.

[4] Shemot 33:11

And the LORD Spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he would return into the camp; but his minister Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the Tent.

[5] RaMBaM defines this unique quality of Moshe’s prophecy in 2) below:

RaMBaM, Mishneh Tora, Hilchot Yesodei HaTora 7:6

…What is the difference between Moses’ prophecy and that of all the other prophets? 1) [Divine insight is bestowed upon] all the [other] prophets in a dream or vision. Moses, our teacher, would prophesy while standing awake… 2) [Divine insight is bestowed upon] all the [other] prophets through the medium of an angel. Therefore, they perceive only metaphoric imagery and allegories. Moses, our teacher, [would prophesy] without the medium of an angel as [Numbers 12:8] states: “Mouth to mouth I speak to him,” and [Exodus 33:11] states: “And God spoke to Moses face to face.” [Numbers 12:8] states: “He gazes upon the image of God” – i.e., there was no metaphor. Rather, he would perceive the matter in its fullness, without metaphor or allegory. The Torah testifies concerning him [Numbers 12:8]: ["I speak to him...] manifestly, without allegory.” His appreciation of prophecy would not be through metaphor, but through open revelation, appreciating the matter in its fullness. All the [other] prophets are overawed, terrified, and confounded [by the revelations they experience], but Moses, our teacher, would not [respond in this manner], as [Exodus 33:11] relates: “[God spoke to Moses...] as a man speaks to a friend” – i.e., just as a person will not be awe-struck from hearing his friend’s words, so, too, Moses’ mental power was sufficient to comprehend the words of prophecy while he was standing in a composed state. 3) All the [other] prophets are overawed, terrified, and confounded [by the revelations they experience], but Moses, our teacher, would not [respond in this manner]… 4) All the [other] prophets cannot prophesy whenever they desire. Moses, our teacher, was different. Whenever he desired, the holy spirit would envelop him, and prophecy would rest upon him…5) He was promised this by God, as [implied by Deuteronomy 5:27-28]: “Go and tell them: `Return to your tents,’ but you stand here together with Me.” This should be interpreted to mean: When prophecy departs from all the [other] prophets, they return to their “tents” – i.e., the needs of the body like other people. Therefore, they do not separate themselves from their wives. Moses, our teacher, never returned to his original “tent.” Therefore, he separated himself from women and everything of that nature forever. He bound his mind to the Eternal Rock. [Accordingly,] the glory never left him forever. The flesh of his countenance shone, [for] he became holy like the angels.

[6] These actions would include: 1) the signs performed in Pharoah’s presence (Shemot 7:10-13), 2) the ten plagues (Ibid. 7:14-12:36) and 3) the splitting of the Sea of Reeds (Ibid. 14:15-31).

[7] E.g., Devarim 3:24; 4:34; 26:8.

‘O Lord GOD, Thou hast begun to Show Thy servant Thy Greatness, and Thy Strong Hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth, that can do according to Thy Works, and according to Thy Mighty Acts?

Or hath God Assayed to Go and Take Him a nation from the midst of another nation, by Trials, by Signs, and by Wonders, and by War, and by a Mighty Hand, and by an Outstretched Arm, and by Great Terrors, according to all that the LORD your God Did for you in Egypt before thine eyes?

And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a Mighty Hand, and with an Outstretched Arm, and with Great Terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.

[8] E.g., the manner in which Korach and his followers were punished (BaMidbar 16:31-3,35); the sprouting of Aharon’s staff (17:23-5); the continuation of the falling of Manna (BaMidbar 21:4-5);  the cessation of the plague of snakes (BaMidbar 21:9); the Be’er (well) (BaMidbar 21:16);  the Annanai HaKavod (Clouds of Glory) (Ta’anit 9a); etc.

[9] R. S.R. Hirsh on Devarim 34:10-12

These three final verses place a seal on the Law of God brought through Moses, and ensure it its eternal inviobility and unalterableness. Accordingly they stress only three factors out of Moses’ mission, and just those which hold out an iron shield against any complete or partial abrogation of God’s Tora by any later prophet as well as any bold or light-hearted addition to it… All this stands forever as a warning to every violent aggressor who rises up against Israel from without and to every impudent or misguided person who emerges from within Israel: They should not imagine that they should be able to alienate Israel from its calling and thus jeopardize the word of Moses’ mission. (Emphasis in the original Judaica Press English edition as well as the new Feldheim edition of R. Hirsch’s commentary.)

[10] MaLBIM on Devarim 34:10 -11

Therefore no prophet is permitted to innovate anything from this point on, and it is explained by means of these three matters how Moshe is separated from all others, firstly by the nature of his prophecy… and this includes the five aspects that divided him from other prophets, as RaMBaM writes in his well-known source (see fn. 5 above), secondly by the wonders that are associated with the land of Egypt…and thirdly by the revelation of HaShem to him which took place in front of the entire nation of Israel for all of them saw with their eyes…

[11] While RaShI’s interpretation on the first two phrases could be understood as agreeing with those who contend that these verses is more about HaShem’s Miracles than mighty acts on the part of Moshe, nevertheless it could also be contended that RaShI still places stronger emphasis than most upon Moshe’s role in these events. Rather than saying that HaShem Gave the Tora to the Jewish people via Moshe, RaShI stresses that Moshe received the Tablets on Sinai. Similarly, in contrast to Moshe’s role in Shemot, where he clearly is relegated to carry out HaShem’s Orders (with the exception of his arguing against the destruction of the Jewish people following the sin of the Golden Calf), in BaMidbar, wherein the majority of their wanderings in the desert are recorded, Moshe both supplicates and initiates many of the miraculous events.

[12] The hermeneutic principle that maintains that a similar word or phrase in two separate portions of the bible indicates that they share something in common, in this case the phrase “LeEinai Kol Yisrael”.

[13] Shabbat 87a

For it was taught, Three things did Moses do of his own understanding, and the Holy One, blessed be He, Gave His Approval: 1) he added one day (to the days of separation of husbands and wives prior to the receiving of the Ten Commandments on Sinai)  of his own understanding, 2) he separated himself from his wife, and 3) he broke the Tablets

‘He broke the Tables’: how did he learn [this]? (i.e., what was the logic that he employed to justify such an act?) He argued: If the Passover sacrifice, which is but one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts, yet the Torah said, “There shall no alien eat thereof”, here is the whole Torah, and the Israelites are apostates, how much more so! And how do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave His approval? Because it is said, “which thou break”, and Resh Lakish interpreted this: All strength to thee that thou break it.

[14] See my essay, “Broken Tablets—Embarrassment or Inspiration?” at http://text.rcarabbis.org/parshat-ki-tissa-broken-tablets-embarrassment-or-inspiration-by-yaakov-bieler/

[15] The affair would then be adjudged an act of promiscuity rather than adultery, a lesser transgression.

[16] There is an extensive series of Rabbinic analogies between the receiving of the Tablets on Sinai and a marriage, with the following components: a) God is the groom, who “Arrives” at Sinai first, as all grooms precede the brides to the marriage canopy; b) Israel is the bride; c) Moshe is the Mesader Kiddushin; d) the Tablets are the Ketuba; e) the Rabbinic conceit of the mountain being raised over the people prior to their saying “We will do and we will hear” is equivalent to the Chuppa; f) the candles carried by the accompanying parents are reminders of the lightning surrounding Sinai, etc.

[17] The people were not acquainted with the details associated with the Tora’s Commandments. The only exposure that they had been given, according to Rabbinic interpretation of Shemot 15:25 “And he cried unto the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters, and the waters were made sweet. There He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He proved them,” that appears in Sanhedrin 56b, were the Mitzvot of the red heifer (BaMidbar 19:2), Shabbat (Devarim 5:12), respecting parents (Devarim 5:16), and establishing law courts (the implication of the word “Mishpat” in Shemot 15:25).

[18] The argument is somewhat disingenuous in light of idolatry being defined as one of the seven Noachide Commandments in Sanhedrin 56a. If everyone is held to the prohibition against idolatrous worship, then it should come as no surprise to the Jews that such behavior is sinful. While some commentators like RaMBaN explain that the Golden Calf was not as much idolatry as an attempt to replace the missing Moshe as a link to God, God’s Anger, the execution of overt worshippers as well as the unleashing of a plague against sympathizers suggest that it was enough of a transgression to engender the harshest of consequences. Consequently it would seem that this point is more of a technicality rather than a genuine defense.

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