Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Parashat Devarim - Down To Earth


There are those among us who crave symmetry, for whom the structure of life only makes sense when Life reveals itself to have an artistic structure. Human beings are, by our very nature, what has usefully been called "retroactive meaning-finders". There are those in the Jewish community who, influenced perhaps by the Zohar - or perhaps only by what they have been told is in the Zohar - read meaning into the very letters of Torah. The French intellectuals of the Twentieth Century did not invent Deconstructionism, they only resurrected an aspect of an ancient Jewish textual methodology. And, if the Torah is the ultimate text, then certainly G-d is the ultimate Author. What does this text tell us about its author? What are the conflicts and paradoxes underlying the words of G-d?

Il n'y a pas dehors texte wrote Jacques Derrida, the thinker most closely associated with Deconstructionism. And the Kabballah certainly agrees, at least in one aspect.

To bring this to our first question: Why does the Torah - the ultimate Book Of All Books - begin not with the first letter, Aleph, but with the second letter, Beit?

The answer, revealed in the self-referential structure of Torah itself, is: the Torah does begin with Aleph. And it begins here: Devarim 1:1: 'Eleh ha-devarim asher diber Moshe... "These [spelled Aleph, Lamed, Heh] are the words that Moshe spoke..."

The Rabbis call Sefer Devarim by the name "Mishne Torah" - the second Torah. As a restatement of the main themes of G-d's commands to the Jewish people, the Book of Devarim is, in a very real sense, the entire Torah. Remember that very first Rashi, at Bereshit 1:1. That the Torah is a book of laws, and as such it should begin with the Halacha of the New Moon - Shemot 12:2. Remember, too, Rashi tells us that Moshe read all of Sefer Bereshit to us on the eve of Mattan Torah, as prologue to the Law we were about to receive. It appears that the purpose of Sefer Bereshit is to introduce Torah's true message, which is directed to Klal Israel - an entity that only comes into existence through the process of the Exodus.

From Moshe's perspective - and from our own - this is the Torah. The Book of Deuteronomy is one man's retelling of Torah, and in retelling, Moshe interprets. Indeed, the whole of our history is an ongoing attempt to find new applications for this Text. The Midrashim surrounding Mattan Torah - the Giving of Torah at Sinai - make it clear that the words themselves are both a gift and a snare. The words of Torah are a gift: G-d gave humanity the blueprint for Creation, the Owner's Manual for life in the cosmos. And yet, once the concepts and images and thoughts moved from the Mind of G-d to the stones - and thence to the printed page - we all became prisoners of our own shades of meaning. "Two Jews," goes the saying, "three opinions." What do you expect? You have only to work your way through a Daf or two of Gemara to see that there is no such thing as Pshat - the "Simple Meaning" of a text.

Torah does, indeed, begin with Aleph. And Bereshit - what we call the beginning of Torah - begins with the letter Beit to show the relationship between Sefer Devarim and the first four books. This book, Moshe's book, is Our Torah. It is Torah brought down from the Heavens and placed in the hands of a man. Who thence passes it on to us. From our perspective, it is the first four books that are "add-ons". And let us also remember that, collectively, the five books are referred to as Torat Moshe - "Moshe's Torah".

The Dubner Maggid quotes a statement of the Vilna Gaon, the import of which appears to be that the first four books of Torah are G-d speaking directly, while the fifth book is Moshe speaking what he understands to be the words of G-d.

Everyone knew that Moshe had a serious speech impediment, which is why Aharon had to speak for him. Now that Aharon is dead, who does the speaking? The Maharal, echoing the Zohar, brings the image of Moshe "speaking" these words: the people heard words coming from Moshe's mouth, and they knew it could not be him.

The Or HaChaim seems to go so far as to state that "'eleh" - "these" words are distinct from all that came before: that "these" words were spoken by Moshe without being commanded by G-d.

Or perhaps Moshe received all the words of G-d's Torah - books one through four - and wrote them down, then just kept writing his own Gemara on the text, with G-d looking over his shoulder. "That's good," G-d seems to say. "Keep that in."

The phrase "Va-yidaber H' el Moshe lemor..." - "And G-d spoke to Moshe, saying..." does not occur in this book. There is a dual significance to this phenomenon. As we learned / will BS"D learn in our discussion of Parashat Bereshit, the act of Speech is one of the four fundamental Acts of Creation. "Va-yomer Elokim yehi Or - va-yehi Or." "And G-d said 'let there be light' - and there was light." G-d's first act of Creation is done through the verb 'AMR - Aleph, Mem, Resh. To speak, to say. And each time the phrase "Vayidaber H' el Moshe, lemor..." appears in the text, it is to introduce a new concept. The power of "Lemor" is the power to create, to make new, to introduce new concepts.

In contrast, the concepts in Sefer Devarim are Moshe's own. These are the words, not of G-d, but of a man who has seen G-d, who has spoken with G-d, learned Torah as G-d's Chavruta, and now turns to pass on to us what he has learned.

The literary markers in the text show us explicitly that this book is of an altogether different character from the preceding four. How do we begin to approach a work as vast as Sefer Devarim - a Parasha as rich as this? We shall touch on three Psukim, taking them - to make our point - in the reverse of the order in which they appear in the text. We hope from this to deconstruct somewhat the complexities of the relationship of G-d and Torah, of G-d and Torah and Moshe, of G-d and Torah and Moshe and Israel, and of G-d and Torah and Moshe and Klal Israel and each one of us.

Chapter 1, verse 5. "... Moshe began to explain this Torah, saying:" The word "Ho'il", here translated as "he began", contains multiple layers of meaning, including the sense of Willingness, Venturesomeness, Risk of failure. The word "Be'er" - "he explains" - comes from a root that can also mean To Engrave. Finally, the last word of the Pasuk is "Lemor" - the very Word with which G-d created the cosmos. Clearly, Humans have become the Creators. Consistent with the long-drawn process of the transfer of power and authority that we have followed through the text - starting in Sefer Shemot, but emerging powerfully in the final Parshiyot of Bamidbar - the final touch is the ultimate transfer of Torah from G-d to us. "Lo bashamayim hi" we shall read later in this same book: "It is not in the Heavens". Indeed. And what more powerful way to demonstrate this than to put all of Torah in Moshe's own stammering mouth, in his own human words, where he sits with us over the dog-eared pages of the well-worn book as Chavruta to Chavruta and tells over what he has learned.

The transfer, the giving-over of Torah - the engraving on our own souls, the explanation, requires a person who is willing to take the initiative to dive in. To be willing to begin, to take the risk of getting it wrong, and to revisit the text over and over again. Our entire history is one of attempting to tease the infititude of meanings from this text. As Rabbi Dan Shevitz (known to us as The RaDaSh - or, colloquially, The Radish) says: Not what the text does mean, but what it can mean.

Chapter 1, verse 3. "... Moshe spoke to Bnei Israel according to all that G-d had commanded him upon them." The word "Ki" is best translated "As" or "Like". The Pasuk says that Moshe spoke "Ke-kol" - as all. We would imagine that Moshe would speak "All," and not "as" or "like" all that G-d had commanded. The interjection of this tiny particle illuminates the entire Book of Deuteronomy: Moshe is doing his best to give a summary, a synopsis, a precis of G-d's commandments. Of what G-d commanded Moshe regarding Bnei Israel. The textual reference is, again, crystal clear: this is Moshe's version of the Torah. It is not for nothing that the Rabbis call this book "Mishei Torah" - the Second Torah.

Finally, Chapter 1, verse 1. "These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the Wilderness, in Arabah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di Zahav." The very fist phrase of this entire Book tells us an amazing Chiddush - a startling new principle: This book is written with the intent that it be read, not by the generation that enters the Land, but only by those who are, in fact, resident in the Land. Moshe speaks the words "... on the other side of the Jordan..." and again in verse 5: "On the other side of the Jordan..."

This is our Torah. It is Moshe's Torah, spoken by those who remained behind, and given over to those yet to be born. Spoken from the other side of the Jordan, and intended for those on this side. Spoken, simply, from The Other Side, and intended for the Here and Now. It is the Torah of Bnei Israel - the Torah of Humans, and not of G-d. We have seen how the less-than-perfect workings-out of G-d's plan have taken hold. Pinhas, despite his rashness - his very un-Aharon-like inability to control his wrath - becomes the bearer of the Kahuna. Yehoshua, despite his un-Moshe-like inability to immediately grasp what the People need, is deputized to become Leader in Moshe's stead. And now, the crowning touch, Moshe's own version of Torah becomes the basic text on which we shall build our nation. And it is the text, not for those who dwell in the Midbar, but for those who have crossed over.

The book of Devarim contains much that is Revisionist. The most blatant example is perhaps the retelling of the story of the Exodus - the text that we read in the Pesach Haggaddah comes from Devarim, where it is so different from the contemporaneous record in Sefer Shemot as to be almost unrecognizable. But this is our history. In order to build a nation, we need our own National Mythos. And myth, to be successful, nust be grounded in reality - in an interpretation of reality.

Moshe's parting gift to us is to give us the tools for creating our own private readings of Torah. Our own means for absorbing and internalizing and living by Torah - as individuals, as clustered groups within Klal Israel who gather around shared interpretations - as Sects or movements, as a Nation and as a People.

Ultimately, this entire book is our Torah. Not the "perfect" work handed down to us by G-d, but the human assessment - based on the process of Chochmah / Binah / Da'at [ChaBaD] - of Insight, Understanding, Internalization - whereby Torah becomes a living instrument, rather than a sterile historical document. Through the process of Halachah, we bring Torah constantly into our own lives. Moment by moment, we strive to understand and to apply all that G-d has given us, all that G-d expects of us. All the immensity of gifts and blessings that G-d constantly provides.

"Torat Ha-Shem temimah," we say: G-d's Torah is perfect. Yes. Which is why we live, not with G-d's Torah, but with what we continue to refer to as "Torat Moshe," the Torah of Moshe. G-d's ineffable Torah, whose infinite meanings are by definition beyond human reach. Torat Moshe - an admittedly incomplete working-out of G-d's message; the formulating of Halachah as the means for enabling us to live consistent with the fundamentals of G-d's message, to key ourselves into the blueprint of the cosmos.

What purpose do the first four books of Torah serve? Intellectually, they teach us how to approach text. Spiritually, they show us the requirement to seek out the miraculous in the world. Religiously, they state that there was an Eternal Presence before ever the world of Time, Space and Motion came into being, they explain to us that the purpose of Creation is to form a relationship between us and that Presence.

Finally, we need the first four books to make it clear that Moshe did not create Torah out of thin air: that Moshe's own Torah is suffused with the constant brightness of his encounter with the Eternal. This also teaches us a further vital lesson - an admonition against 'Avodah Zara - Idol Worship. That even Moshe, great as he was, could not create Torah out of thin air. Only G-d can create Yesh me-Ayin - Being from Nothingness. To say that we understand G-d's message is the height of Chutzpah, of hubris. Of 'Avodah Zara.

Here, on the eve of Tisha Be'Av - the time of year, incidentally, when Parashat Devarim is always read - we must ask ourselves: have we learned nothing at all from our own history? Jewish 'Avodah Zara did not die at Shilo, but is alive and thriving. "Alive and kicking," would perhaps be a better metaphor. Or maybe, "alive, and bearing arms." It is alive and seeking to slaughter people who maintain that the mere fact that their families have lived on a piece of real estate for over seven hundred years somehow entitles them to continue to occupy that piece of real estate. It is alive and kicking and placing placards on the West Side Highway that take the image of one of the truly great spiritual leaders in human history and make him into a Frum version of a Calvin Klein underwear advertisement. It is alive and thriving every time a Jew shuts up another Jew, every time a Jew uses the Torah as an excuse for social injustice, for morally reprehensible acts, whether those acts be depriving people of their homes, their lives, their livelihood, or refusing to permit their wives the freedom to divorce and proceed with their lives. Make no mistake: Judaism is in crisis. As Yeats wrote, at the hour of another nation's crisis: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." If we do not stand for reasonableness in the face of religious extremism - if we do not stand for Torah over Zealotry - then we have only ourselves to blame as the Rough Beat slouches towards Yerushalaim.

The Torah does, in fact, begin with Aleph. For Moshe's Torah is our point of departure. G-d's Torah comes second, because our only tool for comprehending it is our own human powers of comprehension. The Book of Devarim begins at the beginning, with Aleph. G-d's blueprint - Bereshit through Bamidbar - starts with Beit, shadowing, indicating, hinting, leading, correcting.

Imperfect as our own reading of Torah must remain, G-d has chosen to make do. It is time for the transfer to take place. Time for us, unprepared as we are, to enter the Land. Time for us, imperfect as we are, to make of the world a place perfected in the Image of G-d. Time for us, morally weak as we are, to rise to the destiny ofr becoming a Kingdom of Priests, a Holy Nation. Ultimately, as we shall be told: "Lo bashamiyim hi" - the Torah is no longer in the Heavens.

It is, rather, incredibly close upon us. Within our own hands.

To do.

Yours for a better world.


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