Monthly Archives: September 2018

Seven Wanderers

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Matthew Kritz

I invite to my Sukkah seven esteemed guests: Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, and David.

וַיּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַבֶּט־נָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה וּסְפֹר֙ הַכּ֣וֹכָבִ֔ים אִם־תּוּכַ֖ל לִסְפֹּ֣ר אֹתָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ כֹּ֥ה יִהְיֶ֖ה זַרְעֶֽךָ׃

Avraham our father, why do we wander?

Break out of foolish ways of thinking, my child. Going outside your physical space is the first step to entering new mental spaces, by not being bound to the familiar. To be an iconoclast calls for stepping outside, risking being different, being ready to learn and discover. Look beyond the four walls given to you; truth is waiting for you outside. (Rashi ad. loc. Breishit Raba 42:8)

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃

Yitzchak our father, why do we wander?

My child, how can you find G-d in the midst of the bustle of life? How can you pray when surrounded by distractions? To speak to the Almighty, you’ll need to go far away, to a place where no one will find you. There, freed from the noise of the world, you will begin to hear your own breathing and your own thoughts. Alone, you will not be ashamed to pour out your heart to G-d, remembering that you and G-d are both lonely, eager to find one another. (Seforno, ad. loc.)

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃

Yaakov our father, why do we wander?

In wandering, our trust in G-d is put to the test, my child. Whether we will return home safely, whether we  will have bread to eat and clothing to wear, is in the hands of G-d. On the road, we cannot rely on familiar surroundings; our only choice is to foster within ourselves an awareness of our dependence on G-d, which, in reality, is present even when we feel self-confident. (Breishit Raba 79, Mechilta 16:20)

וַתִּתְפְּשֵׂ֧הוּ בְּבִגְד֛וֹ לֵאמֹ֖ר שִׁכְבָ֣ה עִמִּ֑י וַיַּעֲזֹ֤ב בִּגְדוֹ֙ בְּיָדָ֔הּ וַיָּ֖נָס וַיֵּצֵ֥א הַחֽוּצָה׃

Righteous Yosef, why do we wander?

As you wander, you will encounter worlds foreign to you, cultures that look different from your own. In wandering, you will be forced to discover within yourself a commitment to your own values, to know when you must run away. To flee from evil is the ultimate test, to be ready to leave everything behind in the name of what you believe. In wandering, you demonstrate where you refuse to go, no matter the cost; you show that your true home is not the place you are from, but the people you are from. (Sotah 36b, Ramban Breishit 39:8, Introduction to Mesilat Yesharim)

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיִּגְדַּ֤ל מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו וַיַּ֖רְא בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם וַיַּרְא֙ אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י מַכֶּ֥ה אִישׁ־עִבְרִ֖י מֵאֶחָֽיו׃

Moshe, our teacher, why do we wander?

From within the walls of your own home, you cannot see the suffering that surrounds you. Security lays the groundwork for complacency; wandering out allows us to see what others take for granted. Wander in order to gain an outsider’s perspective, to remove the mask of the normal from what is, in truth, injustice. Doing so will make you more aware of what others do not notice, be that the suffering of the innocent, or a peculiar, unburnt bush. (Midrash Tanchuma, Shemot 9)

וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֨ף ה’ בְּמֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הֲלֹ֨א אַהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֙יךָ֙ הַלֵּוִ֔י יָדַ֕עְתִּי כִּֽי־דַבֵּ֥ר יְדַבֵּ֖ר ה֑וּא וְגַ֤ם הִנֵּה־הוּא֙ יֹצֵ֣א לִקְרָאתֶ֔ךָ וְרָאֲךָ֖ וְשָׂמַ֥ח בְּלִבּֽוֹ׃

Aharon, righteous priest, why do we wander?

Our desires, and our responsibilities, are not always easily within reach. Those goals we truly care to accomplish, we must journey for, to show we are ready to go the distance. Some wandering is aimless, but other wandering is better termed journeying, setting our goals high and pursuing them. To take the long way is an act of love; it shows we cared enough to travel. (Midrash Agada Shemot 4:14)

וְיָצָ֥א חֹ֖טֶר מִגֵּ֣זַע יִשָׁ֑י וְנֵ֖צֶר מִשָּׁרָשָׁ֥יו יִפְרֶֽה׃

King David, why do we wander?

Do not think that all is settled, for even as you sit in a house of cedars, the ark of the covenant remains in a tent. Keep wandering, to remember that your story is unfinished, that the exile goes on, that the Messiah has not yet come. Continue wandering, for you mustn’t think you’ve reached your destination. There is still work to be done in the wilderness before the next generation can build a permanent home for G-d. (Midrash Agada Shemot 4:14)


Matthew Kritz (SBM 2018) is a chaplain intern at Princeton Medical Center, and an Associate at Gal Ventures, LLC. He hopes to begin rabbinical school next year.

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This is the Dvar Torah that Never Ends, Never Ends…

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Irony is a complicated thing.  It can be difficult to distinguish broad irony from obvious contradiction, or oxymoron.  As with sarcasm, our willingness to see it is often based on our presuppositions about a text, and those presuppositions often say more about ourselves than about that text.

For example: Do you think G-d appreciates sarcasm?  Then you probably think that Kayin said to Him in Genesis 4:13: “Is my sin too great for You to bear, i.e. to forgive? (After all, You control the whole universe, and what is man that Thou art mindful of him?)”  But if you conceive of G-d as above that kind of humor, you probably think Kayin said “My sin is too great to be borne“, and was utterly contrite.

Which brings us to King Solomon.  Proverbs can seem pedantic, but Song of Songs brims with the joy of linguistic play (e.g., swearing by the gazelles and the does, which just so happen to be (near-)homonyms for names of G-d.). Kohelet is famously dour, and contradictory.  Yet our understanding of the book may be significantly affected by whether we are willing to see its author as capable of empathetic self-mockery (making genuine and deep fun of yourself without losing your sense of self-worth).

My focus here is Kohelet 12:12.

וְיֹתֵ֥ר מֵהֵ֖מָּה בְּנִ֣י


עֲשׂ֨וֹת סְפָרִ֤ים הַרְבֵּה֙ אֵ֣ין קֵ֔ץ

וְלַ֥הַג הַרְבֵּ֖ה יְגִעַ֥ת בָּשָֽׂר has a fairly standard translation:

And more than they, my son,


making many books has no end,

and studying much is a weariness of the flesh.

The problem is that “more than they” has no antecedent: more than what?  There are no obvious objects of wariness in the preceding verses.  This drives the Jerusalem Bible to translate

And furthermore, my son,

even though “furthermore” seems to me an impossible translation of ויותר מהמה.

Koren’s  “The Israel Bible” even more creatively translates:

A further word:

Against them, my son, beware!

This seems to be an effort to have the “them” refer forward rather than back, but it’s not clear to me that there is a plausible postcedent either.

Some Rabbinic readers have the “them” refer to the 24 books of Tanakh, the Written Torah.  Everything else is Oral Torah, which it was forbidden to commit to writing, and so

More than those (books), my son, beware of making books

One problem with this is that at the time Kohelet was written, the Written Torah was not yet complete.  Another is that the verse seems to warn against “making books without end”, rather than against Book 25.

This second problem can be resolved by making infinity a reason not to publish.  The Written Torah can be bounded, but the Oral Torah has no bounds, so it cannot be contained in books.

I don’t find this convincing – why not write down as much as we can, as it develops (as we are in fact doing)? But here we have our first flash of humor, glinting from the crevices.  This interpretation is of course Oral Torah, and yet we find it in printed books!

We can seal this crack in our armor.  In the ideal world, Oral Torah would never be written. That we find this interpretation in a book reflects only a concession to our weaknesses, and the strain of a seemingly endless Exile (may Hashem be mechasev et haketz!).

But this seems to me to miss the point.  Let us concede that the interpretation should never have been written down.  The verse itself, by contrast, is unquestionably Written Torah.  Shouldn’t we be nonplussed by a written book that warns against the writing of books?

For this reason, Rav Shlomo Kluger joyously inverts the verse, and the concession.  One Rabbinic position suggests that the purpose of the world is to allow all possible souls to be incarnated; when the last soul has experienced (what we call) life, the world as we know it will end.  So too, perhaps the Exile will continue until and only until all potential interpretations of Torah have been given existence in our world.  It is only through the publication of infinite books that the endtime (ketz) can be brought.  So

More than those, my son,

Be careful to make (infinite) books so long as there has been no End!

By making the overall thrust of the verse positive, this interpretation goes some way toward providing an antecedent for “those”.  Verse 12:11 speaks of the “words of the sages”, so we can say that even more than heeding the words of our predecessors, we are commanded to write down our own creative thoughts.  (Netziv argues that the prohibition against writing down Oral Torah never applied to private notebooks anyway.)

Rava, however, goes further (Eruvin 21a).

דרש רבא

מאי דכתיב ויתר מהמה בני הזהר עשות ספרים הרבה וגו’

בני הזהר בדברי סופרים יותר מדברי תורה

שדברי תורה יש בהן עשה ולא תעשה

ודברי סופרים כל העובר על דברי סופרים חייב מיתה

שמא תאמר אם יש בהן ממש מפני מה לא נכתבו

אמר קרא עשות ספרים הרבה אין קץ ולהג הרבה יגעת בשר

Rava expounded

What is the meaning of Kohelet 12:12?

My son!  Be more wary of Rabbinic decrees (divrei Soferim) than of Torah law

as Torah law includes both positive and negative commandments

whereas anyone who transgresses Rabbinic law deserves death

Lest you say: If Rabbinic laws have substance, why weren’t they Written?

Scripture says: the making of books has no end…

There can be no greater demonstration of Rabbinic superiority than the transformation of sefarim=books into soferim=rabbis.  And to top it off, Rava’s answer as to why Rabbinic law was not written cheerfully reverts to sefarim!

Rashi thinks this goes too far.  While everything about Rava’s statement seems to me to indicate one should be more wary of the words of rabbis than those of Torah, Rashi translates Rava as saying:

and in addition to those (of Torah, which are primary), my son,

be wary of the word of the Rabbis (as well)

The danger of celebrating infinitely creative interpreters is that they may eventually overwhelm the text they interpret.

Maharshal, however, may offer a reading that validates the enterprise.  The sefarim produced by the soferim must never see themselves as the end of the process, as a definitive reading which subsequent scholars and generations cannot argue with and even reject on the basis of first principles.  Thus he rejects the Shulchan Arukh and all other works which present themselves as self-sufficient and self-justifying.

This reading incorporates many levels of irony.  The sefer in the (theoretically finite, but not yet complete) written Torah commands the soferim to produce (infinite) sefarim of Oral Torah, which because it is infinite cannot ever be contained in sefarim.  But that is fine, so long as those sefarim acknowledge that they are continuing a conversation rather than ending it.

I need to acknowledge that I’m far from certain that Maharshal actually suggests this reading; I may be projecting my love of irony onto him.  Readers are encouraged to look at any of Maharshal’s many introductions to volumes of Yam Shel Shlomoh and draw their own conclusions, and I would appreciate if you shared them with me.

In any case, it would be ironic to use this reading as the ending of this essay.  So I will conclude instead by acknowledging that Alshikh reads the verse simply as recommending brevity; one should not make books – or divrei Torah – that seem endless.

Shabbat shalom and moadim lesimchah!

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Sukkot Reader 2018

Check out the 2018 edition of the CMTL Sukkot Reader for Divrei Torah from Rabbi Klapper and CMTL alumni!

Wishing you all a Chag Sameach!

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Certain Doubt

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Adena Morgan

Haazinu is a disturbing passage. It gives us major spoilers for Jewish history, that we will sin and be punished by exile and degradation among the nations. Even with this advance warning and instructions on how to avoid this fate (don’t sin), our fate seems predetermined. It makes one wonder what kind of God would do this to Their Chosen People. The good news is we don’t have to wonder, as we are told explicitly in verse 4:

הַצּוּר֙ תָּמִ֣ים פׇּֽעֳל֔וֹ

כִּ֥י כׇל־דְּרָכָ֖יו מִשְׁפָּ֑ט

אֵ֤ל אֱמוּנָה֙ וְאֵ֣ין עָ֔וֶל

צַדִּ֥יק וְיָשָׁ֖ר הֽוּא

The Mighty One, His works are perfect

For all His ways are justice

A faithful God without fault

He is righteous and just

I find this description confusing, since the rest of Haazinu doesn’t mesh with my intuitive understanding of the concepts of justice and righteousness used above.

The Sifrei on this verse gives a fascinating elucidation which I believe offers a helpful perspective. In a series of 5 comments we learn the rabbinical understanding of a just and righteous God. First the midrash affirms that all God’s creations are perfect, none wish that they had been made differently. Then the midrash tells us that God’s works in history are perfect and one should not question the decision to kill the whole world with a flood or elect Aharon’s family for the priesthood. Finally we are assured that God metes just rewards and punishments for the righteous and the wicked. 3 times the following comment is repeated:

כי כל דרכיו משפט –

יושב עם כל אחד ואחד בדין ונותן לו מה שראוי לו:

For all His ways are just-

He sits with every individual in judgement and gives what is appropriate

Chazal really seem to believe that everything God does is proper; it cannot and should not be questioned. This is illustrated with the story of R’ Hanina b. Teradion and his family. R’ Hanina was sentenced by the Romans to be burned alive with his Torah scroll for daring to teach Torah in public after it was forbidden, and his wife and daughter were also sentenced to be punished. The three of them were asked what they made of their sentence, and they each answered with our verse or a different verse that showed they had reconciled themselves to their fates. Here is a real life example of belief that whatever God does, even causing the righteous to suffer, is just.

Yet, the Sifrei doesn’t end there. It makes one more comment of just a few lines.

כשירד משה מהר סיני באו כל ישראל אצלו ואמרו לו:

משה רבינו, אמור לנו מה היה מדת הדין למעלה?

אמר להם:

אני איני אומר לזכות את הזכאי ולחייב את החייב,

אלא אפילו להחליף בדבר – אל אמונה ואין עול:

When Moshe descended from Mt. Sinai all Israel came to him and asked:

“Moshe, tell us what is the attribute of judgement above?”

He said to them:

“I cannot tell you it is to exonerate the innocent and hold liable the guilty,

rather even to switch the matter” – a faithful God without fault

This seems to contradict all of the earlier portion of the Sifrei. Moshe, the prophet who communicated more directly with God than any other, who should understand the best how God’s decisions are just, is questioning God’s judgement.  Although Chazal generally reaffirm God’s perfect judgement they also give voice to the doubts we all have when looking at a complicated world.

Adena Morgan (SBM 2011, 2013) lives in Jerusalem with her husband, where she works as a museum educator.

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Did King David Hand in First Drafts as Final Papers?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

I have always found it much easier to connect with David the character in Sefer Shmuel than with David the lyricist of Sefer Tehillim.  One David is at least capable of brutal honesty when looking in the spiritual mirror, although he sometimes has to be dragged to the mirror.  The other seems so often (but certainly not always) to be possessed of perfect confidence in his current righteousness, in his being deserving of Divine assistance.  So it is an opportunity to be seized when those personae intersect, as they do in the haftarah of Parashat Haazinu, where the David of II Shmuel 22 recites a poem that also finds its place as Psalm 18.

Let us begin before the beginning.  In both Shmuel and Tehillim, our poem is introduced as having been spoken by David to G-d “on the day that G-d saved him from the palm of all his enemies, and from the palm (Shmuel) or hand (Tehillim) of Saul”.  One problem is that David was not saved from “all his enemies” on a single day. A second problem, which the reader may or may not find important, is that the introductions are slightly different. Tehillim speaks of the “hand of Shaul,” whereas Shmuel speaks of the “palm of Shaul.”  Thus Tehillim has a sharper distinction between Shaul and the enemies than Shmuel does. This is just the first of many differences. For example, after the introduction, Tehillim opens with a verse that is simply not present in Shmuel. A third question – not necessarily problem – is on what basis the author of Shmuel chooses which poems to include, as Tehillim includes several poems whose introductions link them to events in Shmuel, which the latter nonetheless does not include.  

Abravanel seeks to resolve all these difficulties in one brilliant swoop.  He begins by recording the dominant view in his day:

חשבו המפרשים

ששדוד המלך עליו השלום בסוף ימיו

אחרי שהצילו הקדוש ברוך הוא מכל אויביו

חבר השירה הזאת

להודות להשם הודאה כוללת על כל תשועותיו,

ולכן הושמה במקום הזה

באחרית המלחמות ותכליתם.

The commentators thought

that King David – peace upon him! – at the end of his days

after The Holy Blessed One had saved him from all his enemies

composed this poem

to offer Hashem a comprehensive acknowledgement for all His salvations.

Therefore the poem was placed here [in II Samuel]

in the aftermath of all the wars and at their conclusion.

The commentators took this position in response to “all his enemies”.  Abravanel takes a different approach.

ודעתי נוטה

שהשירה הזאת דוד חברה בבחרותו

בהיותו בתוך צרותיו

ועשאה כוללת לכל הצרות,

כדי שבכל פעם ופעם שהיה הקדוש ברוך הוא מצילו מכל צרה

היה משורר השירה הזאת,

והיתה אם כן שגורה בפיו

כדי להודות להשם על כל תשועה שעשה עמו להפליא.

But my mind inclines to the opinion

That David composed this song in his youth

when he was in the midst of his troubles

and made it comprehensive for all troubles

so that each and every time The Holy Blessed One saved him from any trouble

he would recite this poem

so that it was fluent in his mouth

in order to acknowledge Hashem for each amazing salvation that He did for him

ספר תהלים

חברו דוד המלך עליו השלום בסוף ימיו

להנהגת המתבודד

ולסדר לפניו התפלות והתחנונים

אשר יאמר ויתפלל האדם בעת צרותיו

By contrast, Sefer Tehillim

King David – peace upon him! composed it at the end of his life

as a guide for the meditator

and to arrange for him the prayers and pleadings

that a person should say and pray in his time of troubles

Tehillim reflects the mature David’s reworking of his personal works into a universally usable psalter.  Abravanel then seeks to explain all 74(!) differences between the two versions on this basis. Some of these are substantive; some of them just reflect greater sensitivity to aesthetics.  For example, the “palm” of Shaul is changed to his “hand” because that avoided using the same word twice in a row. Note that Abravanel in his introduction to Yirmiyah similarly explains the numerous qeri/qetiv’s in that book as the product of editing later in life, when Yirimyah’s knowledge of grammar had deepened.

Why are only some of David’s relevant poems included in the narrative of Shmuel?  Abravanel here in my humble opinion takes his theory a step too far:

כבר אמרתי בהקדמה הכוללת אשר הקדמתי לפירוש הספרים האלה

בהתחלת ספר יהושע,

שהיתה הסבה בו להיות השירה הזאת כוללת לכל התשועות

ומפאת כללותה נזכרה בספר הזה,

ולא נזכרו שאר המזמורים להיותם פרטיים

שנאמרו על ענינים מיוחדים.

I wrote previously in my general introduction to the interpretation of these books,

at the beginning of Sefer Yehoshua,

that the reason was because this poem is comprehensive of all salvations

and on account of its comprehensives it was cited in this book

whereas the other songs were not included because they were personal,

about specific matters.

This seems backward.  Shouldn’t a narrative about specific characters davka be interested in what makes those characters specific, rather than in what makes them generic?  Perhaps this is imposing a modern consideration – pre -20th century literary theorists thought that Dickens had succeeded because he captured types so well, whereas moderns tend to argue that his characters transcend the stereotypes they nonetheless effectively convey.

I generally argue that poems are included in Biblical narratives because they convey a subjective viewpoint that supplements the perspective of the omniscient narrator.  The poem is included here because we want to know not only what happened, but how David felt about what happened.

If Abravanel is correct that this is David’s generic poem acknowledging that G-d had saved him from enemies, then I think we can offer a different reason for the change in caption between Shmuel and Tehillim. Shmuel includes the poem to show that David at the time perceived Saul as just another enemy; “from the palm of all his enemies and from the palm of Saul.”  Tehillim, however, offers the mature later perspective that Saul was different, and so “from the hand of Saul”.

But truth be told, I am not so convinced that this as a generic poem said as-is about episodes with many enemies before it was associated with Saul.  My ground is the language of verses 3(4)-6(7):

מְ֭הֻלָּל אֶקְרָ֣א יְקֹוָ֑ק וּמִן־אֹ֝יְבַ֗י אִוָּשֵֽׁעַ:

אֲפָפ֥וּנִי חֶבְלֵי־מָ֑וֶת וְֽנַחֲלֵ֖י בְלִיַּ֣עַל יְבַֽעֲתֽוּנִי:

חֶבְלֵ֣י שְׁא֣וֹל סְבָב֑וּנִי קִ֝דְּמ֗וּנִי מ֣וֹקְשֵׁי מָֽוֶת:

Is it coincidence that the words for enemy and the consonants for Saul appear so early, so close together, and in this order?  Or is this rather a literarily signal that this is not a generic poem, but rather one written specifically to convey David’s feelings at the point when Shaul had – perhaps to his surprise and dismay – become a real enemy?

Where Abravanel’s theory nonetheless helps me, perhaps ironically, is in suggesting a different approach to Tehillim.  If we accept that Tehillim is intended as a series of setpieces to read in appropriate moods – a sort of early Rabbi’s Guide – we do not need to see them as capturing the whole complexity of the great religious personality, except perhaps taken as a whole.  All poetry loses a certain amount of complexity when it becomes liturgical, and there can be great liturgy that is stultifyingly unreadable as poetry in any other context. The capacity to write poetry that can function spectacularly as liturgy, but is nonetheless not limited to its liturgical meaning, is rare, and perhaps a key to developing a portrait that compellingly integrates the David of Shmuel with the David of Tehillim.


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The Security and Continuity of Torah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Judah Kerbel

דברים פרק לא, י-יג

(י) וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה אוֹתָם לֵאמֹר מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת: (יא) בְּבוֹא כָל יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵרָאוֹת אֶת פְּנֵי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר תִּקְרָא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת נֶגֶד כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם: (יב) הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת: (יג) וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ:

The 612th mitzvah in the Torah requires us to read the Torah publicly on Sukkot once every seven years. There are two questions I have on this passage. First, why is not listed among other mitzvot earlier in Devarim? If it has anything to do with Sukkot and/or shemitta, why not share it in Parashat Re’eh? Second, why only once every seven years? If the goal is “in order to hear, to learn, and to fear the Lord your Gd,” should we not be obligated to read the Torah much more frequently?

I suggest that the purpose of this public reading is not the immediate experience of Talmud Torah, or the short-term goal of conveying information. Rather, it is about ensuring the continuity of Torah and the teaching of Moshe Rabbeinu while simultaneously maintaining the superiority of the Torah over any future leader.

We know that Moshe is unique; in fact, he is the greatest prophet of all time. This appears explicitly in the description of Moshe upon his death (Devarim 34:10), and Gd also conveys this to Aharon and Miriam when saying that while Gd communicates with most prophets through visions, Moshe was privy to direct communication (Bamidbar 12:6-8). Furthermore, beyond his singular access to Gd, Moshe so far has been the only prophet or leader to teach Torah to B’nei Yisrael. All these factors combined might raise questions about the security of Torah and of the next leader – perhaps neither the Torah nor subsequent leaders could command the same authority that Moshe did. Or, a leader might try to assert authority by means of casting the Torah aside.  Thus, hak’hel upholds the authority of the Torah. It simultaneously supports the leader who fosters the observance of the Torah while serving as a check for the one who may try to circumvent it. The Torah holds its absolute authority in every generation, regardless of the will of any future leader or the will of the masses.

This would explain why these pesukim appear in this context and not earlier in Devarim. Before the mitzvah of hak’hel, Moshe provides extra support and reassurance to Yehoshua, which has already been described in the Torah (Devarim 3:28). The continuity of leadership is clearly of concern, so the Torah itself serves as a reassurance to Yehoshua. No matter who the leader is, the Jewish people and its leadership structure will be preserved through the authority of the Torah.

This seems to emerge also from the person who reads the Torah. The Mishnah (Sotah 7:8) describes the king as the one who reads the Torah, but Netziv points out (Devarim 31:11) that the original mitzvah of hak’hel is on Yehoshua, and in subsequent generations, on whoever the top leader is (be it the king or, if no political entity, the Kohen Gadol). The point is that whoever the leader may be, the Torah is in full force. If that leader furthers observance, his authority is to be maintained; but the leader himself reading it also serves a check. [1]

This may shed some light as to why the Torah is read only every seven years. Clearly, not much knowledge is to be conveyed in one presentation that takes place so infrequently. On a peshat level, it would seem that hak’hel is connected to shemitta because that is when people are physically and spiritually available to learn. But if what we have been saying is correct, another layer of hak’hel is to simultaneously preserve the authority of the Torah and its leader, and this needs to be conveyed only semi-frequently. Each generation should experience this continuity and be instilled with a יראה that inspires a general commitment to Torah (this goal of יראה is stated twice in the passage). While presumably, the details of Torah and its morals are still being communicated more frequently, this particular experience need take place regularly enough to be memorable but also sparingly enough to maintain its significance.

The reassurance that Moshe gives Yehoshua is that the invaluable teachings of the Torah do not expire with the death of Moshe. Likewise, the Torah itself is greater than any leader or any generation. The Torah bestows authority upon its greatest thinkers and practitioners, and they are invested with great responsibility to convey it to the people. When a great Torah scholar passes, it is necessarily of great anguish for the community – yet, the Torah continues to impact each subsequent generation. At the same time, leaders and scholars are not above the Torah; they answer to Torah, not the Torah to them. This model of checks-and-balances ensures the continuing integrity of the Torah, and thereby, the Jewish people. While the bulk of our relationship to Torah might be to learning its details and nuances, once in a while, we should step back and appreciate the distinctive role the Torah plays in every generation.


[1] See Rabbi Elchanan Samet for related comments on this point.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is completing semicha and a master’s degree in medieval Jewish history at Yeshiva University. He is currently a Beit Midrash Fellow at SAR High School and has served as rabbinic intern at The Roslyn Synagogue and Young Israel of Plainview.

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Aseret Yemei Teshuvah and Yom Kippur Reader 2018

Check out the 2018 edition of the CMTL Aseret Yemei Teshuvah and Yom Kippur Reader for Divrei Torah from Rabbi Klapper and CMTL alumni!

Wishing you all a Gmar Chatimah Tovah!

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