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The Timeless Torah

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley




The Timeless Torah


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



Moshe began Sefer Devarim with a brief historical retrospective, but closes the historical segment with a very personal and emotional confession. Our parasha’s opening passage informs us of his plea to Hashem to allow him to Eretz Yisrael, resulting in an inflexible and categorical refusal. Toward the end of the subsequent chapter, Moshe returns to this issue, using the fact that he cannot enter Eretz Yisrael as a motivational factor for the Jewish People.  He isn’t entering the land, while they are - they should appreciate the privilege, and therefore they must make sure they abide by Hashem’s rules. Moshe begins his introduction to his recounting of the Giving of the Torah by expressing the most basic benefits of fulfilling these laws. By following the mitzvot, the Jewish People will receive “life” in its most meaningful sense. He points out to the next generation that those who followed Ba’al Pe’or died, while those who remained connected to Hashem were still alive.


Having emphasized this fundamental issue, Moshe begins to dramatically recount the amazing and unparalleled events of the Giving of the Torah. After reviewing the Ten Commandments, he recalls the people’s fearful reaction. The Jewish People were simply unable to cope with what occurred, and they requested that Moshe serve as an intermediary between them and Hashem.  Hashem’s favorable response to their request was highly motivational. Finally, Moshe returns to the theme of the benefits that they will receive for fulfilling the commandments - longevity and continuation in the Land of Israel. He continues to emphasize that the laws that he will teach them now are also of Divine origin, and then he begins the major section of Sefer Devarim - twenty-one chapters (6:4-26:15) that discuss the philosophical principles and commandments that form the backbone of our book. 


This week, we will look at the verses that introduce the retelling of the Ten Commandments:


1 And Moshe called unto all Israel, and said unto them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I speak in your ears this day, that you may learn them, and observe to do them.

2 Hashem our God made a covenant with us at Chorev. 

3 Hashem made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day. 

4 Hashem spoke with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire-- 

5 I stood between Hashem and you at that time, to declare unto you the word of Hashem; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you went not up on to the mountain, saying:


Several questions are immediately noticeable, even upon a cursory read. We will approach the difficulties in reverse order from when they appear, as each one adds to the previous. First, what is the significance of the words “you went not on to the mountain, saying”? The word "saying" is not connected to what is being discussed here; since it was not the people who spoke the word of Hashem, “saying” is out of place. Second, the interpolation of verse 5 also appears unnecessary. Moshe will discuss the people’s reaction to the Revelation after reciting the Decalogue – why mention it here? Finally, and most significantly, verse 3 is factually incorrect. Clearly, as stated in Shemot (24:8), Moshe Rabbeinu made a covenant with the generation that left Egypt. Why does it state that “Hashem made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day”?


Here is how two of the major medieval commentators deal with the first question that we raised – the placement of the word “saying” at the end of verse 5, where it is obviously out of place:


“SAYING”: …And the word “saying” is attached to [verse 4], "Hashem talked with you face to face in the mountain out of the midst of the fire." Saying… “And went not up to the mountain”: when I went up - "and Moshe approached the cloud." Do not be perturbed that the word "saying" is distant [not connected], for there are many [such cases]. The speaker did not divide the verses nor the portions. Nor should you heed the words, for they are like [dead] bodies and the meanings like spirits. The combination of the two vessels [renders] this one like that one. In effect, they are one deed. [For example,] therefore, vanity and falsehood are brothers. Every falsehood is vain. I already explained "remember" [zakhor], which is like "preserve" [shamor] and it is added to “As Hashem your God has commanded you at Mount Sinai.”  (Commentary of the Ibn Ezra 5:4)


“SAYING”: …“Saying” is connected to “Hashem talked with you face to face in the mountain out of the midst of the fire, saying;” [these are] Rashi's words. R. Avraham said: Do not be perturbed that the word "saying" is distant [not connected], for there are many [such cases]. The speaker did not divide the verses nor the portions.

It is more correct that we connect "to show you the word of Hashem… saying," as in the language in Shemot (13:2), "And you shall tell your son on that day, saying." In my opinion, there is no need whatsoever [for this]. Rather the explanation is: For you were afraid by reason of the fire, and went not up to the mountain, saying, "We will not go up, as we fear from the fire." It is recalled that they told him this specifically and that he did not say this from within his own thoughts. (Commentary of the Ramban 5:5)


The Ibn Ezra connects the word "saying" to the end of verse 4: “Hashem spoke with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire … saying: I am Hashem.  The Ramban, however, connects the word "saying" to the middle of verse 5: I stood between Hashem and you at that time, to declare unto you the word of Hashem … saying: I am Hashem.  Either the speaker of the words after “saying” is Moshe or it is Hashem. We can add that the literary effect of this syntactic ambiguity is obvious – by blurring the two speakers, it demonstrates how Moshe’s recounting is indistinct from the original word, giving it a sense of veracity.[1]


With this approach, we can cleverly suggest an answer for the second question as well. The interpolation of the people’s reaction into original description of the Giving of the Torah helps us appreciate the sense of terror that they felt, and how they turned to Moshe, understanding that his speaking was equivalent (in their eyes) to Hashem’s speaking.


This helps us appreciate the final question as well.  Obviously, verse 3, “Hashem made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day,” cannot contradict the obvious historical reality that Hashem did indeed make a covenant with their fathers. We will examine how several traditional and modern scholars dealt with this issue, and then apply our understanding to the problem created by verse 3:


Rashi: “Not with our fathers”: only. (5:3)


Rabbeinu Bechaye: “And Moshe called all Israel: they are the sons that Moshe now called to announce the Ten Commandments that the fathers received and heard them from the Almighty. He said to them: The Lord made not his covenant with our fathers, meaning: not only our fathers received it and heard it… “But with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day:” He made the covenant with us, even us, some of whom are alive. Therefore, it is written (verse 4): "The Lord talked with you face to face;" He talked with the living who remained after the giving of the Torah, and He said to them (verse 5): "I stood before the Lord and you." (5:2)


Abarbanel: "The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers," that is: so that the Torah should not be taken lightly by the many [coming] generations. [This was] because God Almighty did not give the Torah to that same generation that is hinted as having received it, since He knew that they would not reach Israel and therefore would not keep the commandments therein. He made the covenant, however, for the coming generations that would reach Israel and be sure to fulfill them. He told him: "But with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day," meaning, the Torah was directed only at all of those who will live from generation to generation, not to those who would receive it.


According to Rashi and to Rabbeinu Bechaye, the sentence is missing the word "only," so that the sentence means "but also with us, even us…" The Abarbanel, however, states that the verse intends to disqualify the previous generation. They had a covenant with Hashem, but it did not last because they did not fulfill their purpose. Instead, the covenant remains waiting for the second generation to take hold of it.


Based on the words of Yirmiyahu (7:22) – “For I did not speak to your fathers, nor command them… concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices, but…”, and other verses, a modern researcher suggested that this verse is part of a larger series of idiomatic verses throughout the Tanakh where “not A but B” means “not A (alone), but rather B” – a relative contradiction as opposed to an absolute negation.[2] However, we prefer for thematic purposes to turn to the words of Martin Buber on the mitzva of bringing the first fruits to explain the difficulty we face in our verse:


"I profess this day to Hashem your God that I came to the country which Hashem swore to our fathers to give us"  - even at times later on. The man bringing the first fruits should not say, for example, "My fathers came to the land,” but rather he must say, "I came to the land." Here, the two are intermingled as the text addresses them, the nation and the individual - "I came to the land," meaning the former: I, the nation of Israel, came to the land. The speaker identifies with the nation of Israel and speaks in its name. Later, Ben David speaks in the name of the same generation that came into Canaan. In any case, in the name of the entire nation for all of its generations that come to term [itself] as the body of that same generation. (M. Buber, Between a Nation and its Country: First Fruits, pp. 7-8 and The Way of the Scripture (Bialik Institute, 1964), p. 82.)


What Moshe is trying to accomplish and demonstrate to the people, a lesson that they will have to internalize every time that they bring the offering of the first fruits to the Beit Ha-Mikdash, is that they must develop a new sense of national identify, one that does not make hard differentiations between past and present, but rather views each generation as not only a continuation of the past, but an embodiment of the eternal corporate entity of the Jewish People.  Yes, the people who left Egypt stood at Har Sinai and made a covenant with God. However, so do the people in Moshe’s time, and so forward for every generation until this day. 


[1] See also the words of R. Yonah Ibn Janach in Sefer Ha-Rikma, ch. 34, who states that this syntactic ambiguity is typical of Biblical style: "What was brought from the statements on the distant and not on the near”" The ‘saying’ [leimor] is not connected to the subject of the statement, ‘and you went not up to the mountain.’ Rather, it is [connected] with the saying [leimor], ‘The Lord talked with you face to face in the mountain out of the midst of the fire saying, I am the Lord your God.’ And it says, ‘I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to show you the word of the Lord: for you were afraid by reason of the fire and went not up to the mountain.’ It is read [according to] chakirot devarim [the usage of words]. So too should be termed all words that fit into [the category of other] words whose subject matter is not completed, as you see.

[2] See D. Kruse, "Dialektische Negation als semitisches jdiom," V.I. vol. IV (1954), 385-400: “….Before us we have a special Hebrew idiom which is able to be expressed in the form of an algebraic formula as follows: ‘Not A, rather B.’ The explanation in Scriptural linguistics is not total contradiction of A, rather only relative contradiction: In an understandable sense not A or in a specific measure not A rather B. For example (Genesis 45:8), ‘It was not you who sent me here, but God.’ Also (Exodus 17:8): ‘Your murmurings are not against us, but against the Lord;’ (Deuteronomy 5:3): ‘The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day;’ (Samuel I 8:7): ‘For they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them;’ (Hosea 6:6): ‘For I desired loyal love, and not sacrifice;’ (Psalms 44:4): ‘For they did not get the land in possession by their own sword, nor did their own arm save them; by thy right hand, and thy arm, and the light of thy countenance, because thou did favorably accept them.’" The list of verses brought in the article is long. In the opinion of the author, this idiom is found on specific topics: The sender and the messenger (the first and second examples in the list), the endeavoring of man and the redemption of God (Psalms 44:4), and especially sacrifices and burnt offerings versus merciful deeds (for example, our verse and Hosea 6:6, as well as Psalms 40:7-8, 50, 9-15, 51, 18-19 and others). The author dissects the consciousness of the Hebrew by utilizing this idiom. By saying, "Your murmurings are not against us, but against the Lord," concise language is not used. Moshe wishes to say: “Not only…. but also;” it is self-evident and clear to all that the complaint is against Moshe. It is not the intention of Moshe whatsoever to deny what is tangible, their express complaint against him. Rather, his words are to be explained in this manner: “You are complaining about us, but this complaint essentially, from its foundation, is directed more at God than at us, as we are only his messengers. Your complaint about us is not so important. It is also possible to neglect it and to pay no attention to it, but it is not acceptable that your complaints be directed at God.”


“Therefore, the narrator does not at all deny A, as this is something that is obvious. The hearer would not even consider that the narrator intends to deny it. By using a negative word adjacent to that A that is known and obvious, and there being no possibility to negate its existence, it is clear that he wanted to negate that A only in an obvious sense. By setting up the possibility of B opposite it, it immediately becomes clear that only in a certain sense is the A being negated here and in contrast with it, B is emphasized to the fullest.”