V’zot Habracha and Simchat Torah 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: V’zot Habracha and Simchat Torah

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Simchat Torah/ V’zot Habracha (Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12)

OVERVIEW

Moshe addresses the Israelites one last time, blessing them tribe by tribe. The Israelites are standing on a mountain overlooking the Jordan Valley from the east, but Moshe will not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel with the rest of the people. He dies, and is buried; the story of the Torah is now finished, and the story of the judges and prophets begins.

IN FOCUS

“And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. God buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is”. (Deuteronomy 34:5-6)

PSHAT

Moshe was punished for his sin of striking the rock, way back in Numbers 20. He somehow disobeyed God’s instructions, and as a result was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel with the people. He is buried on the other side of the valley- in what we now called Jordan- in a deliberately obscure grave.

DRASH

The fact that the Torah ends with Moshe’s death presents a big problem for many commentators, because there is a line of thinking in some traditional Jewish theologies that says the Torah was dictated word for word to Moshe on Mount Sinai. If so, how could the Torah say that Moshe died? Who then wrote the last few lines of the Torah?

The Talmud records an argument about this problem from the very earliest days of post-biblical Judaism:

    The Master has said: Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Pentateuch. This statement is in agreement with the authority who says that eight verses in the Torah were written by Joshua, as [It is written], “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there.”

    Now is it possible that Moses being dead could have written the words, ‘Moses died there’? The truth is, however, that up to this point Moses wrote, from this point [onwards], Joshua wrote. This is the opinion of R. Judah, or, according to others, of R. Nehemiah. Said R. Simeon to him: Can [we imagine the] scroll of the Law being short of one word ?!?. . . .

    No; what we must say is that up to this point [where Moses dies] the Holy One, Blessed be God, dictated and Moses repeated and wrote, and from this point God dictated and Moses wrote with tears, as it says of another occasion, “Then Baruch answered them, He pronounced all these words to me with his mouth, and I wrote them with ink in the book.” (Jeremiah 36:18)

    (Taken from Talmud, Bava Batra 15a, Soncino translation, some interpolations mine.)

For the moment, let’s leave to one side any modern-era questions about the Torah’s origins and authorship, and just try to understand these arguments on their own terms. The “Master” of the first argument- identified as R. Judah- has a straightforward and sensible solution to the problem: Moshe wrote the whole Torah up until the verse “and Moshe died”, at which point Moshe’s successor, Joshua, takes over.

R. Simeon [Shimon, in Hebrew] can’t accept this viewpoint; he believes that God dictated the entire Torah to Moshe on Mount Sinai. According to this view, when God got to the verses pertaining to Moshe’s death outside the Land, Moshe wrote even those, weeping as he recorded his future fate. Perhaps R. Shimon attributes every single word of the Torah to Moshe in order to defend the Torah’s status as a unique sacred text, or in order to link later rabbinic teachings to the earlier revelation. Whatever his motivations, R. Shimon brings a prooftext to defend his position, where he points out that other scribes took “dictation” of holy texts in their entirety (in this case, the prophecies of Jeremiah.)

R. Shimon’s midrash presents an emotionally moving image, compelling us to imagine that Moshe was the ultimate selfless soul, giving his life to lead the people even with full knowledge of disappointments in the future. Yet at least one commentator makes an even more dramatic midrash on the midrash. R. Shlomo ben Aderet, an early medieval commentator from Spain (also known as the Rashba), takes R. Shimon’s interpretation even further, by understanding the words “and Moses wrote with tears” in the most literal sense. The Rashba says that Moshe used his own tears as the ink with which he wrote the last few verses of the Torah.*

Adding the Rashba’s twist to R. Shimon’s midrash takes us in a whole new direction, making Moshe into the exemplar of not only communal service, but of the creation of Torah itself. To me, the image of a person writing words of Torah with their very own tears suggests that Torah may be learned “by dictation,” but in order to really make it complete- to add the final few verses, as it were- we have to invest ourselves in it, bringing to our religious lives our emotions, our spirits, our most intimate experiences.

Not only that, but the Rashba’s image also suggests that in sorrow is opportunity. “Turning one’s tears into Torah” is a powerful reminder that we can learn from our troubles, even make the inevitable pains of life into something holy, something transformative. Moshe may have been the original teacher of Torah, but his life experience is something with which we can call identify- we too know, in advance, that life will bring joys and sorrows, triumphs and some unavoidable disappointments. Unlike Moshe in these midrashim, we don’t know when those times will be- but we do have the same choices: to serve others as selflessly as possible, to invest ourselves fully in spiritual pursuits, and to learn Torah from each experience.

*Quoted in Ha’gaot B’Parshiyot HaTorah, by Yehuda Nachshoni.

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