It’s one of the most common phrases in all of the Torah, easy to recognize and understand: וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: . . . God calls on the most beloved and trusted of all the prophets, using these exact words, 70 times in the Torah. And, by my count, the phrase is followed 23 times by some variation of: tell the children of Israel this.
God clearly trusts Moses to deliver the divine message to the people he’s leading, just as it’s given to him. And the Torah shows us that, as time goes on, the need for that trust is more and more crucial. The phrase appears eleven times in the book of Exodus, twenty-seven times in the book of Leviticus, and thirty-two times in the book of Numbers.
In the book of Deuteronomy, which we begin reading tonight, the phrase appears exactly zero times. Nada. Zip. None. In fact, the book starts this way:
אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל: These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel.
Moses needs no prompting. He is old. He is dying. He knows he will not be the one to lead the Israelites west across the Jordan River into the Promised Land that he has longed to see. And so, on the east bank of the Jordan, he addresses the people at length. The entire Book of Deuteronomy is his final address. And he takes the opportunity to set a few things straight.
Moses recounts the forty-year journey on which he has led a frequently stiff-necked and recalcitrant people. He reminds them of all the times he had to intervene to save them from God’s wrath, and he downplays the times when his behavior fell short, or when he did not deliver the divine message as well as he should have.
Moses also takes the opportunity to both encourage the people to follow the rules in the great gift of Torah that God has given them – and to warn them of the dire consequences that await them if they don’t. He inspires them with the words we know as the Shema, the clear and firm statement of their faith in the one and only God. He reiterates the Ten Commandments, from which all other mitzvot flow. And he blesses them with the words we know as the priestly benediction, calling on God to guide their steps and protect them from harm.
And he – Moses, the man of stuttering speech – does all of this poetically and eloquently and movingly.
But beyond the rhetoric, these first words of the Book of Deuteronomy teach us something else very, very important about the Israelite world in which Moses takes leave of them. It’s no longer God’s responsibility to tell us how to behave all the time. Now, it’s up to us.
By accepting the b’rit, the covenant, at Sinai, we bound ourselves to God and Torah. But there, we declared, na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do and we’ll heed you. We signed on for whatever God had in mind for us, and, over forty years, God gave us the details, large and small.
Those forty years are over. A new generation has emerged that has never known slavery. A new leader, Joshua, has been chosen to lead them. A new land awaits them. And a new responsibility has been laid on them.
Torah is alluding to this in the way Deuteronomy begins. Moses now uses his farewell address to gently guide them into the idea that Torah is now in their hands. He will make it explicit near the end of his oration, when he tells the assembled nation:
Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, for you to do it. (Deut. 30:11-14)
In future generations, the Israelites will have judges and kings to lead them; priests to make offerings on their behalf; and prophets to be their conscience when they’re tempted to go astray. But it is now up to the people to govern themselves – to create sacred communities and build fair systems of justice and run open marketplaces and teach their children to be kind to everyone and generous to the needy – all following the guidance of Torah. These few words at the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy lay the foundation that has sustained Jewish life from the crossing of the Jordan River until today.
According to the rabbis of the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b), God acknowledges that this was the plan all along – not to have to guide our every step or make our every decision, but to give us the tools in Torah to do all of it ourselves.
The story is told of the brilliant but irritable Rabbi Eliezer, who one day was arguing with all of his colleagues about the kosher status of a particular oven. Now, the general rule is that Jewish law follows the majority. But Rabbi Eliezer refused to concede.
He said, “If the law follows me, the carob tree will prove it”; and, lo and behold, the carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, some say four hundred cubits. The rabbis said: “We do not bring proof from a carob tree.”
He came back and said, “If the law follows me, the water channel will prove it”; just then, the water channel flowed in reverse direction. They said: “We do not bring proof from a water channel.”
He came back and said, “If the law is as I say, the walls of the House of Study will prove it”; the walls of the House of Study began to bend inward. Rabbi Joshua protested at them, saying to them, “If scholars defeat each other in the law, how does it benefit you?” So the walls froze where they were.
Rabbi Eliezer came back and said, “If the law follows my ruling, from the Heavens they will prove it”; a Bat Kol, a heavenly voice, then called out and said, “What is with you towards Rabbi Eliezer, for the law agrees with him in every instance?” Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said, “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” (Deuteronomy 30:12).
Added Rabbi Jeremiah: “Since the Torah had been given [to us] at Sinai, we do not even listen to a heavenly voice.”
Some time afterward, Rabbi Nathan happened upon the prophet Elijah [who does appear now and then to people] and said to him, “What did the Holy One do in that hour [when we refused to follow the Bat Kol]?” Elijah said to him: “God smiled and said, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.’”
Each and every generation will find its own way and its own interpretation in the Torah, and deal with its own challenges from without and within. But we have been able to sustain our faith and our people only because Torah is in our hands. Torah – not as 613 discrete commandments that we have to pound into our heads. But Torah as the prophet Isaiah (56:1) summarized for us: שִׁמְרוּ מִשְׁפָּט וַעֲשׂוּ צְדָקָה
Keep justice and do righteousness. The foundation of Torah isn’t hard to remember – which is why Moses assured the people they could do this. Despite all the arguing and the complaining and the half-hearted attempts to turn around – they could do this. And so can we.
Keep justice and do righteousness. Or, as we learned from the great Rabbi Hillel the Elder in our study of Pirke Avot, the Mishnah’s ethical teachings of the early rabbis: What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. That is Torah. All the rest is simply commentary.
If we – each of us – follow a path of life in which we treat each other with dignity and fairness, we are fulfilling the promise and the responsibility that Torah lays out for us in Deuteronomy. God expects no more from us than that. And we should expect no less.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin