A Message for Parashat VaEthanan 2017
Click here to view as PDF
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
(Edna St. Vincent Millay)
Moshe continued his final address to the people in Parashat Va-Et’hanan. He began with a brief retelling of Ma’amad Har Sinai, and then segued into various warnings and rebukes of the people. In the midst of this narrative he made a surprising statement:
And God was incensed with me because of your words and he swore not to let me cross the Jordan and not to let me come into the goodly land that Hashem your God is about to give you in estate. (4:21)
His words implied that it was Am Yisrael’s fault for his barred entrance into the Land of Israel. Indeed, Moshe had recently made a similar declaration, as recorded in last week’s parashah. In the context of his retelling of God’s punishment for the sin of the spies, he declared:
Against me, too, God was incensed because of you, saying, “You, too, shall not come there…” (1:37)
Why did he say this? Moshe surely remembered his own actions at Mei Merivah, when God had subsequently informed him, “Since you did not trust Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the nation, even so you shall not bring this assembly to the land that I have given to them” (Bemidbar 20:12). Why, then, did he now deflect the responsibility from himself to the nation?
* * * *
Ramban dealt with a different textual difficulty regarding Moshe’s recollection. He was troubled by its specific context in this week’s parashah. What was the relevance of Moshe’s denied entrance into Israel to Ma’amad Har Sinai and his various warnings and rebukes? Ramban pointed to Moshe’s reminiscence several sentences earlier, when he detailed God’s command to him upon reception of the luhot:
And God charged me at that time to teach you statutes and laws for you to do in the land into which you are crossing over to take hold of it. (4:14)
Ramban thus suggested that Moshe was now setting forth the rationale for his subsequent explanation of the laws of the Torah. He was fulfilling his responsibility to teach them because he would soon die.
By connecting Moshe’s obligation to teach the people with his barred entrance into Israel, Ramban unwittingly opened a passageway for us to make sense of Moshe’s puzzling attribution of his punishment to the nation.
* * * *
On its most basic level, God’s command that Moshe “teach the statutes and laws” meant that he elaborate upon their various details. More fundamentally, however, this charge constituted Moshe’s obligation to interpret the Torah, to explain its laws and to pinpoint their relevance to practical situations. In a word, God’s command to Moshe at that time began the tradition of Torah she-Be’al Peh – the Oral Law.
God’s stated system for transmitting the Oral Law, however, posed a problem. Although it was necessary for Moshe – as emissary of God – to first introduce the rules and methods for interpreting the Torah, his continued role as sole decisor of the law would threaten a developmental stagnancy. The system of halakhah, received from God, was meant to be dynamic within its received structure. The existence of a “sole authority” would undermine that function. It would stifle any hope of future creative interpretation, effectively shuttering all batei midrash before they could ever open. And even if Moshe were to personally open the study halls and encourage others to engage in the process of original pesak halakhah, who would dare to speak up and voice their opinion in the presence of Moshe?
In his Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud presented an imaginative description of the life, death and enduring legacy of Moshe. Freud illustrated a core theme of the work by quoting from German poet Friedrich von Schiller:
All that is to live in endless song
Must in life-time first be drown’d.
Freud wrote that sometimes for a tradition to take hold the “messenger has to be killed.” Noted philosopher Jonathan Lear suggested that the world of philosophy owes its existence to this phenomenon. Plato was motivated to invent “philosophy” by the murder of his mentor Socrates. He did so as an act of mourning and longing for the lost wisdom of his teacher.
Patrick Miller noted that the “closing” of the Torah was coincidental with the death of Moshe “in a real sense.” He explained that Moshe “now moves off the scene, and Israel henceforth will not be led by a great authority figure but by the living word of the Torah that Moses taught.” The Hakhamim perhaps hinted at a similar phenomenon regarding Moshe’s death. They taught that following his death, 1,700 derashot of the Torah were forgotten, but that Otniel ben Kenaz, a later leader of the people, heroically restored them with his “sharpness.” This process of initial forgetfulness and its subsequent “restoration” was, in a sense, the successful continuity of Torah she-Be’al Peh.
As Moshe recounted the initial stages of the oral tradition, he pondered the system’s enduring strengths and deficiencies. And he then understood God’s decree that he must soon die.
Moshe realized that the system’s vitality depended upon its adherents’ courage and creativity, and realized that he paradoxically stood as the obstacle in their path. Political scientist Aaron Wildavsky explained:
Moses the eternal teacher would then instead be Moses the permanent master. What Moses teaches in Deuteronomy is not just law but institutions for the transmission of law, continuity of leadership to make the law effective. It is better for the people that Moses die physically than that his character be assassinated morally.
Moshe flashed back to the nation’s first display of unhealthy over-dependence upon others, during the sin of the meragelim. The nation then showed that they were incapable of marching ahead without the constant guidance and advice of others. And he now realized that his continued presence threatened the persistence of that flaw.
* * * *
One might say that the difficulty of rearing children has to do with the ambiguities of independence. The child must be separate from the parent; the parent must allow the child to discover his or her own reality…But this separation, though necessary, is a complex and often tormented experience…In the act of creation, there is perhaps inevitable sadness, as the work works itself loose from the vision.
(Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg)
As a parent and teacher, I am often reminded of this lesson of Moshe. It is at the “transition periods” that I feel it most – when my children mature and grow more independent or when my students graduate and move away. In those moments, when my role in their lives begins to change and sometimes diminish, I reflect upon the core lessons that I have attempted to teach and remind myself that separation is sometimes necessary for maximal growth.