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Moshe's Liberties with the Text

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Parashat Vaetchanan

Moshe's Liberties with the Text – Part 1

By Rav Michael Hattin


This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.



Last week's parasha concluded with Moshe's recollection of the astounding victories over Sichon and 'Og, the ominous Amorite kings who inhabited the Transjordanian highlands. Those remarkable events occurred at the end of the wilderness journeys, as the people of Israel finally drew close to their destination. The triumphs ushered in Israel's wars of conquest and ignited in Moshe the fervent hope that perhaps God's decree barring him from entering the land of Canaan had in the interim been relaxed, but to no avail for soon that hope was dashed:

I entreated God at that time saying: Almighty God, You have started to show Your servant Your greatness and Your forceful hand, for there is no power in heaven or upon earth who can match Your deeds and Your strength. Let me please pass over so that I may see the good land that is on the other side of the Yarden, this fine range of mountains and the Levanon. But God was angry with me on your behalf and He would not listen to me. God said to me: it is enough! Do not continue to speak to Me any more concerning this matter! Rather, ascend to the top of the heights and lift up your eyes to the west, to the north, to the south and to the east, and see it with your own eyes, for you will surely not pass over this Yarden. Charge Yehoshu'a and strengthen and encourage him, for he will traverse before this people, and he will cause them to possess the land that you will see. Therefore, we encamped in the valley, opposite Bet Pe'or…(3:23-29).

Wholly resigned to the Divine dictate that sealed his fate, Moshe now turned his attention to the people of Israel. In soaring words, he encouraged them to cleave to God's laws while he simultaneously warned them about the perils of idolatry, he recalled for them the pivotal events associated with their wilderness sojourns, and he then began to explicate for them God's statutes and laws. In the course of his remarks, Moshe mentioned the decisive episode of the revelation at Sinai, reinforcing the theme of the binding covenant, emphasizing the idea of Divine immediacy, and proclaiming once again for the benefit of the new generation God's thunderous Decalogue that was to forever alter the course of human history.


Since the Book of Devarim is introduced from the outset as Moshe's own impassioned words to Israel and his personal recalling of their history, it is only natural that there should exist discrepancies between his retelling of earlier events and the events themselves as they are recorded elsewhere in the Torah. Often these seeming incongruities reflect nothing more than didactically-inspired shifts in nuance that can be easily resolved by considering the nature of the audience that now receives Moshe's teachings as well as the temporal setting for his words. That is to say that the generation poised to enter the land of Canaan and to grapple with the acute challenges of founding a state inhabits a very different existential plane than their deceased forebears. The lessons to be gleaned from the experiences of the Exodus will necessarily be different, at least in some respects, for those that actually lived through those events than for their children and their grandchildren. And those that wandered in the wilderness in fruitless search of a home possessed a very different destiny than those that now prepare to cross the rushing waters of the Yarden and to set down roots in the new land. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for Moshe's words to the latter, when he recalls an earlier event in Israel's history, to reflect an altered set of priorities. Thus, for example, Moshe's recounting of the sin of spies is markedly different in Sefer Devarim than the actual narrative of the event as recorded in Sefer BeMidbar. In our book, Moshe more emphatically places the burden of responsibility for the debacle upon the people and upon their leaders, for his intent is not only or even primarily to objectively recall events of the past but rather to communicate guiding instruction for the future.

Occasionally, however, the clash of sources is more acute, especially when Moshe presents us with an ostensibly verbatim account that is markedly dissimilar to the actual occurrence. The Decalogue, God's pronouncement of the Ten Guiding Principles, offers us a rare opportunity to consider both varieties of discrepancies, the easily resolved extrinsic and the much more serious intrinsic, and we will view the matter through the perspective of the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) in his lengthy remarks to the episode as recorded in Sefer Shemot (Chapter 20). On the one hand, some of the differences can be understood clearly as acknowledgement and affirmation of the fact that Moshe now addresses different listeners; on the other hand some of the divergences seem so glaring as to be inexplicable.


Certainly, Moshe's description of the overall context, while understandably more concise in our account, is accurate. His mention of the covenant (5:2), his description of the immediacy and intimacy of the God-man encounter (5:4), his recounting of the awe-inspiring fire that enveloped the mountain (5:4), and his reference to the special role that he played in the communication of God's word (5:5), are all well-attested to from Sefer Shemot (see Shemot 19:16-25). On the other hand, his significant shift in emphasis in claiming that God's covenant at Sinai was struck "not with our ancestors…but rather with us, we who stand here today, all of us alive" (5:3) is a deliberate attempt to inspire the people soon entering Canaan with the nobility as well as with the gravity of their mission. Their fathers who stood at Sinai, though they heard the word of God from the midst of the fire, all perished, but the eternal covenant that God sealed with them at that time did not dissipate with their demise; rather, its provisions were transferred to their offspring to be realized by them in the new land.

Significantly, the medieval commentaries, confronted with the obvious disagreement between Moshe's recollection and the events themselves (for surely God DID seal His covenant with their ancestors at Sinai!), were unwilling to take Moshe's words at face value. Almost all of them (see Rav Sa'adia Gaon, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Chizkuni) added a single word to his account that they believed could adequately reconcile the texts. When Moshe says "not with our ancestors…but rather with us, we who stand here today, all of us alive" (5:3), what he means to say is "not with our ancestors ONLY…but rather with us ALSO, we who stand here today, all of us alive" (5:3). In other words, Moshe does not deny that God in fact concluded a covenant with those that stood at Sinai. But since that generation perished almost to a man and their fulfillment of the covenant was incomplete, it is their children in their stead that must presently be encouraged to follow and to fulfill God's word. What Moshe does now, therefore, is to downplay that first, failed contract by modifying the relative value of its components. Though in a formal sense the provisions of the covenant may have been technically concluded with the parents, its ongoing fulfillment, which is anywise any covenant's main purpose, must now devolve upon the children. Thus Moshe's account of the sealing of the covenant can be reconciled with the narrative of the event itself.


Concerning the Decalogue that follows as it is recounted by Moshe (5:6-17), it is mostly synonymous with the version preserved in Sefer Shemot (Shemot 20:2-13). Though there are occasional words that are rearranged or syntactical features that are not the same (especially concerning the use of the conjunction), the overall convergence of the two texts is reasonable. There is, however, one glaring exception to the above general analysis and that concerns the utterance pertaining to the Shabbat. Here, there are differences of vocabulary and of emphasis that are striking and seemingly irreconcilable. In Shemot 20, the fourth utterance reads:

Remember ("Zachor") the Sabbath day to sanctify it. Six days shall you labor and do all of your work, but the seventh day shall be a Sabbath to God your Lord. Neither you, nor your son, daughter, servant, maidservant, beast nor convert that dwells within your gates shall do any manner of work. This is because in six days God made heaven, earth, the sea and all that they contain, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, God blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it (20:7-10).

In Moshe's recounting, however, the command concerning the Shabbat says as follows:

OBSERVE ("Shamor") the Sabbath day to sanctify it, AS GOD YOUR LORD COMMANDED YOU. Six days shall you labor and do all of your work, but the seventh day shall be a Sabbath to God your Lord. Neither you, nor your son, daughter, servant, maidservant, OX, DONKEY, OR ANY beast or the convert that dwells within your gates shall do any manner of work, IN ORDER THAT YOUR SERVANT AND MAIDSERVANT SHALL REST AS YOU DO. YOU SHALL REMEMBER THAT YOU YOURSELF WAS A SLAVE IN THE LAND OF EGYPT AND GOD YOUR LORD TOOK YOU OUT OF THERE WITH A STRONG HAND AND WITH AN OUTSTRETCHED ARM. THEREFORE, DID GOD YOUR LORD COMMAND YOU TO FULFILL THE SABBATH DAY (5:11-14).

Once again, some of the differences between the two texts are slight while others are glaring. The opening word is, for example, entirely different! In Shemot, we are bidden to remember and here we are bidden to observe. The inclusion in Moshe's account of some further elaboration of the generic "beast" mentioned in Sefer Shemot is notable but not necessarily at odds with the earlier text. But concerning the thrust of the Shabbat legislation, there appears to be no convergence at all. In Sefer Shemot, the reason advanced for the necessity to abide by the Sabbath provisions relates to the act of creation: because God created the universe in six days and ceased from His activity on the seventh day, so too must we acknowledge His central role in the cosmic order by following His example. But now in Sefer Devarim when Moshe spells out the reason for the Shabbat, God's creation is entirely absent from the text. Instead, the Shabbat is to be observed because of its critical thematic link with the servitude in Egypt and because its observance alone can foster a profound identification with those that are less fortunate. Because there we were slaves who toiled tirelessly and without respite, we must therefore ensure that our own servants are granted a day of rest. Because God rescued us from bondage and oppression, therefore must we be sensitive to those who must labor for others, by extending also to them a break from their labors. Because we ourselves experienced state-sponsored serfdom and were liberated from it, therefore we are charged to ensure that our own servants are similarly discharged from their duties at least one day a week. The emphasis for Moshe, then, is not the Creation of the world but rather the Exodus, not the internalization of the truth that God is transcendent and all-powerful but rather that He is close by and concerned.

How then to explain Moshe's reiteration? If Moshe purports to tell the people of Israel exactly what transpired at Mount Sinai, how then can he take so many liberties with GOD'S OWN PRONOUNCEMENTS? What, in fact, did God actually utter as the people of Israel stood expectantly at the foot of smoldering Mount Sinai, and for what purpose would Moshe modify matters so much in his parting address to the people of Israel? The implications of the discussion pertain not only to our particular context, but to Sefer Devarim as a whole. Next time, God willing, two weeks hence, we will return to these texts and analyze them through the insightful and surprising comments of the Ibn Ezra.

TO BE CONTINUED in a future shiur .

Shabbat Shalom