When I was little, I’m certain that I asked the question, “where did the Torah come from?” I don’t remember asking it, the motivation behind the question, or exactly when it was asked, but I do remember the answer. The answer which I was taught, and which I read many times over as I studied Judaism from a child, to a teenager, to an adult, was the same. It was: On Mount Sinai, in the middle of the wilderness, under storm clouds of thunder and fire, Adonai our God whispered the word of the entire Torah to Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, our teacher, who then wrote it down, start to finish, and handed it down to the Israelites. For most of us, the image of Charlton Heston standing on a cliff holding tablets comes to mind, and while we think that the Ten Commandments came from that moment in our history, it is understood that upon those tables were the entire Torah. Then, as Pirkei Avot teaches, the Israelites carried the Torah throughout the wilderness, with Moses handing it down to Joshua after his death, who handed it down to the tribal elders, who handed it down to the Prophets, who handed it down to the members of the Great Synagogue. It was then passed down to individual rabbis, synagogues, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, and now our Torahs sit in Arks all across the world.
It’s a powerful image, the idea that the entire Torah, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, from Bereshit to D’varim, was handwritten by Moses, dictated from God. And it’s a fine idea to have. Of course, this idea does run into trouble sometimes, for example, in this week’s parsha. This week we begin parshat D’varim, the first chapters of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy, in case you have forgotten from religious school, is the final book of our Pentateuch, and holds within it an abbreviated version of all that we had been through as a people, written not in narrative form, but through the words of Moses’ final speeches to the Israelites. It’s a powerful and important book, with a great deal of ideas and lessons that have lasted and been set in stone for our religion–ideas such as the good are rewarded, the wicked are punished; and ideas like magic and sorcery are all evil and forbidden. The trouble, however, arises when we try to attribute everything to the same author, in the same time period.
For example, one of my favorite lessons about Genesis, our first book, is that the very first word of the Torah, the first sentence really, is grammatically incorrect. The word “Bereishit” grammatically doesn’t work for a lot of reasons, and that’s a lesson I’ll get to after Simchat Torah. But it always makes me laugh when the authors of our Torah make a mistake like that, something in the very first sentence. And as it happens, Deuteronomy does the same thing. Now remember, the whole Torah, including Deuteronomy, is believed to have been written by Moses himself on Sinai. And here’s how it starts:
“These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.”
Take a moment and listen to that one more time. “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” So, first of all, let’s put this in a time perspective. Moses took down the Torah from God at Sinai, back in the book of Exodus, after traveling through the wilderness, which means that he knew everything that was going to happen right up until his death; he knew about the rebellion from Korach, about the Moabite girlfriend issues and Pinchas, and he knew his speeches in Deuteronomy long before he gave them. Interesting.
Now, back to that first line: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” Most of Deuteronomy is written in the first person, with Moses addressing Israel, but this first line is in the third person, like the narratives that come before it, starting in Exodus. But doesn’t it seem awkward to write down the words “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel,” if you are Moses, who will address Israel in the future? Wouldn’t you write, “these are the words that I addressed to all Israel”? In the more modern commentaries, this is referred to as an “editorial headnote,” letting us know that this book is supposed to be attributed to Moses. Except that we know the book is attributed to Moses because he wrote it down at Sinai, right?
Here’s where things really go downhill with this first sentence. It says, “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” On the “other” side of the Jordan means that the speaker here, this editorial headnote, is speaking from the “other side” of the Jordan river, meaning in Canaan. In other words, the speaker is already in the Holy Land, talking about what Moses did on the other side of the river, in the wilderness. Now remember, in Deuteronomy, the Israelites aren’t in the Holy Land yet, as Moses is not granted entry, but whoever wrote this line was speaking in the future, as someone already in Canaan, talking about when Moses was in the wilderness in the past. Therefore, we know that Moses could not have written this line because he never knew what it was like to be on the other side of the Jordan. As the JPS Study Bible states, “From this and similar anachronisms, a small number of Jewish medieval Jewish commentators already recognized that not all of the Torah could be attributed to Moses.”
Additionally, isn’t something missing in that sentence: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan”? Where’s God? In almost all of the moments when Moses addresses Israel, it always mentions that Moses is speaking for God, or that God is speaking through Moses, or to Moses to pass on information. How often in the Torah do we hear those words, “Vayomer Adonai el Moshe leimor,” “And God spoke to Moses saying…”? Deuteronomy doesn’t begin with those words, nor does it include anything about how what Moses is saying comes from God. So, it seems like Moses is on his own here, which means that God didn’t write it through Moses; rather, Moses just took creative initiative and wrote Deuteronomy…
So, what’s the take-away this week? That God didn’t write the Torah? Or that Moses sometimes went off book? Well, you could take it that way. But this is one verse in our Torah. One of about 23,000. Rather, I think the lesson this week is that one verse, one verse, has the power to complicate and derail an entire theological viewpoint. And if that is what this verse can do, imagine the 22,999 other verses that have the potential to start a conversation and, perhaps as this verse does, challenge what we once learned in religious school. Does that mean my religious school teacher was wrong, or that the lessons we are teaching our children are wrong? Of course not. But as we grow, as we mature in age and wisdom, the religious school answers aren’t fit for us anymore, as we have more questions, more experience, more understanding. And that’s when it really gets fun. When one verse can be all you need for a D’var Torah or Torah study. The most amazing Torah study classes I’ve led have been those in which we read one verse, talk about it for the entire hour, and end with, “we’ll get to that.” So, tonight, for this D’var Torah, we made it to one verse. As for the rest of parshat D’varim? Well, we’ll get to that.