Transitions in Small Bites

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Partial Return, Partial Punishment

Only a Sith thinks in absolutes, the movies tell us, and Ramban points to two verses in this parsha that remind us that Hashem is no Sith.

דברים פרק לא:יז וְחָרָ֣ה אַפִּ֣י ב֣וֹ בַיּוֹם־הַ֠הוּא וַעֲזַבְתִּ֞ים וְהִסְתַּרְתִּ֨י פָנַ֤י מֵהֶם֙ וְהָיָ֣ה לֶֽאֱכֹ֔ל וּמְצָאֻ֛הוּ רָע֥וֹת רַבּ֖וֹת וְצָר֑וֹת וְאָמַר֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא הֲלֹ֗א עַ֣ל כִּֽי־אֵ֤ין אֱלֹהַי֙ בְּקִרְבִּ֔י מְצָא֖וּנִי הָרָע֥וֹת הָאֵֽלֶּה: (יח) וְאָנֹכִ֗י הַסְתֵּ֨ר אַסְתִּ֤יר פָּנַי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא עַ֥ל כָּל־הָרָעָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה כִּ֣י פָנָ֔ה אֶל־אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֲחֵרִֽים:

Devarim 31;17: My wrath will burn on them on that day, and I will leave them, hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, many trying evils will find them; and [the nation] will say on that day, behold this is because my Gd is not in my midst, that these evils have found me. Verse 18: And I will continue to hide My face on that day, for all the evil they did, in that they turned to other gods.

The verses seem to speak of the Jews realizing they’ve done wrong but not repenting. Because if they repented, why would Hashem continue to hide His face?

Ramban doesn’t address that question explicitly, but his comment answers it. He says that verse 17 isn’t referring to repentance. The end of the tochacha in Vayikra, for example, speaks of the Jews articulating their sins (ve-hitvadu is sometimes translated as confessing, but I prefer R. Mayer Twersky’s word for it), a full-fledged repentance: recognition, regret, and determination to do better in the future.

All that our verse mentions is that they know what they’ve done, recognize their guilt, and accept that the troubles they are suffering stem from that behavior. That’s good, and will positively affect them, but it’s missing the crucial component of deciding to change.

The next verse speaks of a continuing hester panim, hiding of Hashem’s face [a metaphor for withdrawal of hashgachah, beneficent supervision], because of all the evil they’ve done (and have yet to put aside), but Ramban thinks there’s still a change from before. It will no longer be a hester panim allowing for terrible troubles, it will only prevent the redemption.  

Hashem will never abandon them, and from that point on will protect them from troubles. Their partial return will merit a partial redemption. But full redemption depends on a proper vidui, that comes with a complete repentance.

The Growing Role for Yehoshu’a

Based on Hashem’s expectations about the future of the Jewish people, Hashem gives Moshe a song, Ha’azinu; but the command to incorporate it into the Torah raises two issues for Ramban.

דברים פרק לא:יט וְעַתָּ֗ה כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וְלַמְּדָ֥הּ אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שִׂימָ֣הּ בְּפִיהֶ֑ם לְמַ֨עַן תִּהְיֶה־לִּ֜י הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את לְעֵ֖ד בִּבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

Devarim 31;19: Now, write for yourselves this song, teach it to the Jewish people, place it in their mouths, that this song be a witness for me at the Jewish people.

His first concern is the verse’s wavering use of singular and plural. Hashem tells Moshe to write the song for yourselves, in the plural, but the command to teach it to the Jewish people is in the singular. He takes the plural to refer to Moshe and Yehoshu’a (whom he had said was watching this as part of learning to be the new leader).

Yehoshu’a was to be part of the writing of Ha’azinu, to hear it as Moshe did, then to see Moshe write it (verse 22 makes no mention of Yehoshu’a) and read it as it became part of the Torah. That way, he will have served as a functioning prophet in Moshe’s lifetime, will not be a complete beginner when Moshe is taken away.

But just as Moshe is central to the writing, he will be the one who does the bulk of the teaching. Verse 32;44 does add Yehoshu’a’s name when Moshe finally recites Ha’azinu to the people, but Moshe is the main actor.

The second issue about Ha’azinu on which Ramban raises a point I wanted to share is that it’s called a song. He says that’s because the people will always sing it in a tune, and it’s written in the Torah like a song. The second point is banal, but the first raises an interesting point for us, in that in the wealth of Jewish music we have today, few songs come from Ha’azinu. Ramban is suggesting Hashem wanted these words to be a significant part of the soundtrack of our lives, so that just as other sings reverberate in our heads, the messages of Ha’azinu would as well.

Assuming the Worst, or Realistically Knowing What’s Coming

דברים פרק לא:כא וְ֠הָיָה כִּֽי־תִמְצֶ֨אןָ אֹת֜וֹ רָע֣וֹת רַבּוֹת֘ וְצָרוֹת֒ וְ֠עָנְתָה הַשִּׁירָ֨ה הַזֹּ֤את לְפָנָיו֙ לְעֵ֔ד כִּ֛י לֹ֥א תִשָּׁכַ֖ח מִפִּ֣י זַרְע֑וֹ כִּ֧י יָדַ֣עְתִּי אֶת־יִצְר֗וֹ אֲשֶׁ֨ר ה֤וּא עֹשֶׂה֙ הַיּ֔וֹם בְּטֶ֣רֶם אֲבִיאֶ֔נּוּ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבָּֽעְתִּי:

Devarim 31;21: When terrible evils and troubles find them, this song will bear testimony against them, for it will not be forgotten from its [the nation’s] descendants, for I know their inclination, that he [the nation] does this day, before I bring them to the Land I swore.

Ramban fastens on the word “know” that Hashem uses for their inclinations. When people speak of knowing the future, it usually means something less than full knowledge, since they’re not prophets. They mean it seems very, very likely.

But Hashem knows the Jewish people in their actuality, in their conduct in the desert, and that knowledge—for Hashem—suffices to provide the certainty expressed in Ha’azinu, that they will sin in the future, leading to the various predicted troubles. Without the experience of the desert, it would only have been appropriate for Hashem to express himself in the conditional, as happens inYeshayahu 1;19. It’s because of how they’ve acted already that Hashem can be so confident about the future.

[In the event, all of this did come true, but Ramban’s comment raises freewill questions. Does he mean the Jews’ conduct in the desert made the course of Jewish history inevitable? It seems odd, since it would doom the project of the prophets from the start; it’s strange to say Hashem would spend centuries calling for the people to improve themselves if there was no way they could.

It makes more sense that Ramban means that had the desert not happened, Hashem shouldn’t have weighted the conversation, would have acted as if all possibilities were equally likely. Now that the Jews have gone down certain paths, they’ve established defaults, under which the future Hashem is predicting in Ha’azinu is assured. They can change those, can repent fully, but that’s difficult, rare, and unlikely enough to justify this phrasing. That’s how it seems to me].

The Order of the Final Giving of the Torah

 דברים פרק לא:כד וַיְהִ֣י׀ כְּכַלּ֣וֹת מֹשֶׁ֗ה לִכְתֹּ֛ב אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הַתּוֹרָֽה־הַזֹּ֖את עַל־סֵ֑פֶר עַ֖ד תֻּמָּֽם: (כה) וַיְצַ֤ו מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶת־הַלְוִיִּ֔ם נֹ֥שְׂאֵ֛י אֲר֥וֹן בְּרִית־יְקֹוָ֖ק לֵאמֹֽר:(כו) לָקֹ֗חַ אֵ֣ת סֵ֤פֶר הַתּוֹרָה֙ הַזֶּ֔ה וְשַׂמְתֶּ֣ם אֹת֔וֹ מִצַּ֛ד אֲר֥וֹן בְּרִית־יְקֹוָ֖ק אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָֽיָה־שָׁ֥ם בְּךָ֖ לְעֵֽד:

Devarim 31;24: When Moshe completed writing the words of this Torah, Verse 25: Moshe commanded the Levi’im, the bearers of the Ark of the Covenant of Hashem, saying, Verse 26: Take this Torah scroll, and place it on the side of the Ark of the Covenant of Hashem Your Gd, and it will be there as a witness.

Ramban is troubled by how Moshe can be giving them a full scroll, since he has not yet recited the blessings of VeZot HaBrachah, nor taught Ha’azinu to the people. He therefore suggests that Moshe wrote the Torah, as reported in verse 9, and gave it to the kohanim, the priests, without telling them what to do with it.

Then he was commanded to write Ha’azinu. He did that, taught it to the people, added it to the Torah [there is a discussion to be had about Ramban’s view of adding to the Torah, which was given at Sinai. I assume he means the principles and ideas of Torah were all given at Sinai, the specific manifestations of it, including a song that reacted to the Jews’ conduct in the desert by laying out the path they were on, coming as late as now]. Then this verse was where he gave it, complete, to the priests, and told them to place it on the side of the Aron.

That doesn’t account for Ve-Zot HaBerachah, that last parsha. So he suggests a slightly different chronology, that Moshe wroteHa’azinu, taught it to the Jews tribe by tribe [a reminder that the tribes were independent units within the larger whole of the Jewish people], then included it in the Torah, gave that to the priests, and told them where they were going to place it.

Then he gathered the whole people to hear Ha’azinu again [to me, this emphasizes that they were supposed to also be a whole nation; the nation shouldn’t subsume the tribes, but the tribes weren’t to be completely independent either]. At that point, 32;49, Hashem tells him to go up Mount Nevo. Impelled by this command, he blesses them, writes that down, includes VeZot HaBerachah in the Torah, which is now complete, then goes up.

So, for Ramban, the final few pieces of the Torah were included in a fairly brief period of time right at the end of Moshe’s life, written down and taught to the people just before we lost this great leader.

It’s a transitional time, when Hashem tells us where we stand, the path we’re on, a path we will likely only be able to leave partially before fully; a transition of leaders, where Yehoshu’a starts taking part in the leadership of the people; and a transition for Moshe, where he rushes to get his work done before going to his final rest.

About Gidon Rothstein

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