parshat Vezot Hab’rachah and simchat torah
Eight verses before we finish reading the Torah, Moses dies. Since in Deuteronomy 31:24-26 Moses is purported to have given the completed book of theTorah (סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה ) to the Levites, this is problematic… How could Moses have finished the Torah … posthumously?
So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.
וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד-ה’, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב–עַל-פִּי ה’
And Moses… died there: Is it possible that Moses died, and [then] wrote, “And Moses… died there”? But [the answer is:] Moses wrote up to that juncture, and Joshua wrote from then on. Says Rabbi Meir: But is it possible that the Torah Scroll would be lacking anything at all, and yet Scripture states (Deut. 31:26),“Take this Torah Scroll” [and Moses commanded this to the Levites; so, according to the above opinion, is it possible that the Torah Scroll referred to there was an incomplete one, up to the juncture of Moses’s death? This cannot be!] Rather, [continues Rabbi Meir, we must say that] The Holy One, blessed is He, dictated this [i.e., the verse “And Moses… died there”], and Moses wrote it in tears. — [B.B. 15b, Sifrei 33:34]
וימת שם משה: אפשר משה מת וכתב וימת שם משה, אלא עד כאן כתב משה, מכאן ואילך כתב יהושע. ר’ מאיר אומר אפשר ספר התורה חסר כלום, והוא אומר (לעיל לא, כו) לקוח את ספר התורה הזה, אלא הקב”ה אומר ומשה כותב בדמע
The image of Moses writing his own epitaph, in addition to not making it to the Promised land… is heart wrenching. on a human level But as students of the Bible, we cannot help but note that whichever Rabbinic opinion one accepts, either the Torah had at least one additional author besides Moses, or, at a minimum, the writing of this book continued even after the death of it’s author… whether his actual death or his literary death.
In a previous post I have referenced a legend in the Talmud, where the rabbis declare that the Torah is no longer in God’s hands and it is up to future generations to decide the law. God smiles at this affront and says “My children have defeated (or eternalized) me!”
Now it is Moses turn to discover his eternity in the eternity of his Torah.
Rab Judah said in the name of Rab, When Moses ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in affixing coronets to the letters. Said Moses, ‘Lord of the Universe, Who stays Thy hand?’ He answered, ‘There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiba ben Joseph by name, who will expound upon each tittle heaps and heaps of laws’. ‘Lord of the Universe’, said Moses; ‘permit me to see him’. He replied, ‘Turn thee round’. Moses went and sat down behind eight rows [in the cheap seats for the less gifted students ed] [and listened to the discourses upon the law]. Not being able to follow their arguments he was ill at ease, but when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to the master ‘Whence do you know it?’ and the latter replied ‘It is a law given unto Moses at Sinai’ he was comforted. Thereupon he returned to the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, ‘Lord of the Universe, Thou hast such a man and Thou givest the Torah by me!’ He replied, ‘Be silent, for such is My decree’. (Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b)
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב
בשעה שעלה משה למרום
. מצאו להקב”ה שיושב וקושר כתרים לאותיות
רבש”ע מי מעכב על ידך
אדם אחד יש שעתיד להיות
בסוף כמה דורות
ועקיבא בן יוסף שמו
שעתיד לדרוש על כל קוץ וקוץ
תילין תילין של הלכות
רבש”ע הראהו לי
הלך וישב בסוף שמונה שורות
ולא היה יודע מה הן אומרים
כיון שהגיע לדבר אחד
אמרו לו תלמידיו
רבי מנין לך
הלכה למשה מסיני
רבונו של עולם
יש לך אדם כזה
ואתה נותן תורה על ידי
שתוק כך עלה במחשבה לפני
The term “a law from Moses at Sinai” (הלכה למשה מסיני ) is used profusely in rabbinic literature, and unlike the phrase “The Torah is not in heaven”, “a law from Moses at Sinai” has legal standing. It is used whenever there is not a clear textual source for a law, but the contemporary rabbinic authority believes it to be binding. In modern Hebrew one uses this expression to characterize a rule, belief or practice that is not to be questioned… Speaking of one’s boss: “What does he think … it’s a law from Moses at Sinai?”
For me, the power of this story is that it not only provides a justification for reinterpreting and modifying Jewish practice, but in so doing, it reveals the secret of the immortality of the Torah and Jewish learning. By linking Moses with Akiba and putting them in the same study hall this magical aggadah showcases what is done on every page of Talmud, when multiple scholars, not to mention you the student, engage in a conversation bridging the constraints of time. Biblical characters refute sages of the Ancient world who in turn have their words sliced and diced by medieval Rabbis.
At the end of the day… and it was the end of Moses’ day.. this story gives us all the secret of immortality and… for Moses, it gives him his promised land.
I am reminded of a scene in a movie starring Harrison Ford called Regarding Henry. Henry, is a highly paid and ruthless corporate lawyer who gets shot in the head and needs to re-claim his identity and re-learn everything he ever knew. In the scene, his daughter is reading him a book and Henry is spellbound…. Henry can’t read a simple children’s book. “Who taught you that?” asks Henry. Replies his daughter… “You did dad… you did.”
To follow in the footsteps of Moses, we need to teach our children (and friends) well… for it is in our teachings, questions and comments… that we live forever.
With this post I finish what I set out to do over three years ago… to write a post on every one of the weekly Torah portions… and with the help of my readers…. touch eternity.
Hazak Hazak Venitchazek