by R. Gidon Rothstein
Putting Pieces in Place So Moshe Rabbenu Can Leave the Scene
Unable, Unwilling, or Not Allowed
Moshe Rabbenu introduces the Jewish people to the fact that this is the end of his life with the words,
דברים פרק לא:ב וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֗ם בֶּן־מֵאָה֩ וְעֶשְׂרִ֨ים שָׁנָ֤ה אָנֹכִי֙ הַיּ֔וֹם לֹא־אוּכַ֥ל ע֖וֹד לָצֵ֣את וְלָב֑וֹא
Devarim 31;2: He said to them, “I am today one hundred and twenty, I will no longer be able to go and come [before you, as your leader]…
“No longer able” might sound like a physical issue, but 34;7 says he was in full health (his eyes had not dimmed, his face had not lost its youthful look). It was to comfort them, says Ramban (to let them think this was a necessary concession to old age, rather than a Divine decree, which can be harder for some people to accept).
He then mentions Sotah 13b, which reads this verse as telling us that the springs of wisdom had been sealed off from him; Ramban says that was done miraculously (not that his mind went, but that Hashem stopped him from accessing the wisdom there), so that he not worry about handing the reins over to Yehoshu’a, that he accept the finality of the passing of the baton.
Moshe’s inability was for someone’s benefit, but whether the people’s or Moshe’s is unclear.
Who Is Illuminated by a Torah Education
After writing and giving a Torah scroll to the priests (which Ramban thought contained the entire Torah, even the parts that hadn’t yet happened, although later in this parsha, Ramban thinks that Ha’azinu was taught to Moshe after this), Moshe relates the mitzvah of Hakhel, a gathering that happened every seven years (on the sukkot after a shemittah year), and was described as:
דברים פרק לא:יב הַקְהֵ֣ל אֶת־הָעָ֗ם הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֤ים וְהַנָּשִׁים֙ וְהַטַּ֔ף וְגֵרְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ לְמַ֨עַן יִשְׁמְע֜וּ וּלְמַ֣עַן יִלְמְד֗וּ וְיָֽרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם וְשָׁמְר֣וּ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֖י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת: (יג) וּבְנֵיהֶ֞ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹֽא־יָדְע֗וּ יִשְׁמְעוּ֙ וְלָ֣מְד֔וּ לְיִרְאָ֖ה אֶת־יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם…
Devarim 31;12: Gather the people, the men, women, and children, and the strangers in your gates, that they will hear and that they will learn, and will revere Hashem your Gd, and will take care to do all the words of this Torah. Verse 13: And their sons who never knew, will hear and learn to revere Hashem your Gd…
Ramban is troubled by the verse’s speaking of women and children learning, since he assumed women could not learn the content of the Torah [he seems to mean that unless one knew the Torah ahead of time, it would be impossible to absorb content just by hearing it read at a Hakhel event; when the Chief Rabbinate has Hakhel-type events in our times, it seems to me that Ramban has it right, that those who do not already know the passages being read cannot really follow the content], and children often means those too young to learn.
He suggests that even if they could not follow the reading, the women would learn fear/ awe/ reverence (yir’ah), a reminder that inspiring those emotions is an important part of maintaining observance as well. On the other hand, the children would not be so passive—where the verse says they’ll hear and learn, Ramban says they’ll hear and ask, that the event will stimulate them to question and then learn.
That assumes an age for the children that does not match Chagigah 3a, which says the men will learn, the women will hear (separating the verbs in the verse, applying one to the men and the other to the women), and the taf, the children, are told to come so that those who bring them will get reward. That characterization sees them as too young to learn [although Ramban could have argued the children in verse thirteen aren’t the taf from verse twelve].
It’s a whole-nation ceremony, in Ramban’s view, designed to teach content and affect.
With Moshe’s passing fast approaching, Hashem tells him,
דברים פרק לא:יד וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְקֹוָ֜ק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה הֵ֣ן קָרְב֣וּ יָמֶיךָ֘ לָמוּת֒ קְרָ֣א אֶת־יְהוֹשֻׁ֗עַ וְהִֽתְיַצְּב֛וּ בְּאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד וַאֲצַוֶּ֑נּוּ וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ מֹשֶׁה֙ וִֽיהוֹשֻׁ֔עַ וַיִּֽתְיַצְּב֖וּ בְּאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד: (טו) וַיֵּרָ֧א יְקֹוָ֛ק בָּאֹ֖הֶל בְּעַמּ֣וּד עָנָ֑ן וַיַּעֲמֹ֛ד עַמּ֥וּד הֶעָנָ֖ן עַל־פֶּ֥תַח הָאֹֽהֶל:
Devarim 31;14: Hashem said to Moshe, the day of your death is near, call Yehoshu’a, and stand at the Tent of Meeting, and I will command him, so Moshe and Yehoshu’a went and stood at the Ohel Mo’ed. Verse 15: And Hashem appeared at Ohel Mo’ed in a pillar of cloud…
Rashi read the word va-atzavenu, I will command him, as va-azarzenu, I will exhort him to act with alacrity. Ramban cannot accept that, since Hashem actually commands Yehoshu’a to be strong and of good courage in verse 23. Once it’s a specific Divine command, Ramban says, acting lazily would be a capital offense.
[It’s a surprising claim, with far-reaching ramifications. The least radical reading would be that since Yehoshu’a will hear this personal command from an established prophet, the failure to obey immediately and zealously is a capital crime. Even that, I think, would surprise people.
It’s odder in this case, to me, since the messenger for this command to Yehoshu’a was Moshe Rabbenu, who also taught us the entire Torah, so why wouldn’t failure to obey any mitzvah be a capital crime? I think the difference might be the hearing it directly from the prophet in question, but it’s a topic for further consideration].
The encounter itself involves Hashem descending in a pillar of cloud, Ramban says to speak with Moshe in Yehoshu’a’s earshot (a metaphor, since we don’t think Hashem’s communications with Moshe were audible to anyone else unless they were also worthy, so it’s not a question of volume or proximity). Moshe himself could have gone into Ohel Mo’ed, but Yehoshu’a was restricted to just outside the tent.
For Ramban, Yehoshu’a’s first step as leader of the people was to witness—but not partake, since he was not at that level– his teacher’s interaction with Hashem.
Hashem’s Role/Relationship to the Land of Israel
What Yehoshu’a saw was Hashem’s predicting/warning Moshe that the people would go astray after his death, and that they therefore needed Ha’azinu as a lasting reminder of how the history of the Jewish people works. The beginning of that was
דברים פרק לא:טז וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְקֹוָק֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה הִנְּךָ֥ שֹׁכֵ֖ב עִם־אֲבֹתֶ֑יךָ וְקָם֩ הָעָ֨ם הַזֶּ֜ה וְזָנָ֣ה׀ אַחֲרֵ֣י׀ אֱלֹהֵ֣י נֵֽכַר־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר ה֤וּא בָא־שָׁ֙מָּה֙ בְּקִרְבּ֔וֹ…
Devarim 31;16: Hashem said to Moshe, you are about to rest with your ancestors, and this nation will rise and prostitute themselves after the foreign gods of the land to which he is coming in its midst.
The phrase “foreign gods of the land” stands out, because what makes them foreign [my instinct would have been to suggest that they’re foreign in that they’re not Hashem, but the phrase in Hebrew is elohei nechar ha-aretz, gods foreign to the Land, not just foreign gods]? Rashi had said it the gods of the nations of the land (and it’s those nations who are foreign). Ramban disagrees, says that it’s the gods themselves who are foreign to this land (in a way they are not in Egypt or Syria), because Hashem is the Gd of the Land of Israel. For support, he points to II Melachim 17;21, to the words of the religion experts who were consulted as to why lions were eating the people that the King of Asshur imported to replace the exiled Ten Tribes.
To explain that these people needed to act differently, they said that the new arrivals did not know “mishpat Elokei Ha-Aretz, the laws of the Gd of the Land.” So, too Hoshea 9;3 refers to Israel as eretz Hashem, the Land of Gd.
Ramban seems to mean it relatively literally, that there is a meaningful sense in which Israel is more the Land of Hashem than other places in the world, such that even non-Jews’ violation of certain laws brings more direct and immediate consequences. That’s a lot to wrap our minds around, but it’s how Ramban understands these verses, that it’s a fact of the world’s workings, a matter of tangible reality that Israel is more Hashem’s land than elsewhere.
As Moshe’s life approaches its end, some of his grip is taken away from him, giving some urgency to his putting Yehoshu’a into the leadership role and preparing the Jewish people for a time when they will no longer have him to kick around (or to help keep them on the proper path).