by R. Gidon Rothstein
Just before the end of the parsha, Moshe Rabbenu calls to witness heaven and earth that he has placed before them the paths of life and death, blessing and curse, and urges them to choose life, that they may live, and their descendants. Yalkut Shim’oni to Ha’azinu wondered why he called heaven and earth to witness in particular.
The Midrash says Moshe was contrasting the Jewish people to these, which do not receive reward for obedience to God, nor have descendants who might benefit, yet do what God said. We, who have both, should all the more so adhere to God’s commands. Kli Yakar wonders what led the Midrash to include the piece about offspring.
He points to our verse: why did Moshe all of a sudden say ve-zar’ekha, and your descendants? And his answer—I think as true now as in Kli Yakar’s time, as in the Midrash’s time—is that in his last attempts to leave the people with something that will move them to proper service of God, he recognized they might not be willing to relinquish sinful worship on their own behalf, because its pleasures were too great, but will or would do so to make a better life for their children and grandchildren.
Identifying the Correct Day of Yom Kippur
Devarim 30;12-13 said the Torah was neither in Heaven nor across the sea, a phrasing Eruvin 55a suggested meant people to involved in astrology or business travel would never acquire Torah. Ramban thought the “it” of “it is not in Heaven” was repentance, Moshe wanted us to know repentance was not difficult or beyond our grasp.
Chatam Sofer weaves the two into a reassuring view of Yom Kippur. Much of the atonement we receive (for any sin at or less than the level of a plain prohibition) comes on Yom Kippur, with repentance. Already Torat Kohanim identified the day itself, not just our prayers or supplications on Yom Kippur, as a vehicle of atonement. Pirkei de-Rabi Eliezer 29 suggested the power of Yom Kippur stems from Avraham having been circumcised that day, or Yitzhak being bound to the altar that day, or Moshe Rabbenu securing Hashem’s forgiveness for the Golden Calf (Tanchuma Ki Tissa). Whichever, we might think it must be the actual anniversary of the event, or it won’t work.
Except the rotations of the heavenly bodies mean it will rarely be true; an exact year later, however we calculate that, the positioning of everything will not be the same. [He does not examine or explain this view, but I find it very interesting, for him an anniversary must be the same day, with sameness defined by the position of the earth and its surrounding planets and stars.]
Sincerity Is Good Enough
Comes Rosh HaShanah 25a to the rescue, telling us tradition accepts a declaration of a new month (including Tishrei, the tenth of which will be Yom Kippur) in error, without the full complement of the Sanhedrin, and even if deliberate. The tenth of Tishrei will be Yom Kippur regardless of how Tishrei was declared, and will be so also for those too far from Jerusalem to get word of when the month was declared, who do their best to pick the right day, but might fail.
Bringing us back to Ramban: the Torah is calming us about finding the “right” Yom Kippur, telling us we can find Yom Kippur even if we are not skilled enough to find the exact configuration of sun, moon, and stars. For the distant, the verse tells us teshuva does not depend on those across the sea, in Jerusalem, they can find their best guess for Yom Kippur, observe it, and reap the benefits, no different than any other Jew.
It is be-fikha, in the mouths of the Sanhedrin to declare, u-bilvavekha, your hearts, even if you end up observing the wrong day, as long as you are sincere.
Impossibility Is Not an Excuse
Ha’amek Davar gives the impression he is going to draw a less comforting message from these verses. The same Gemara in Eruvin cited R. Abdimi bar Chama bar Chasa, were the Torah in Heaven or across the sea, we would be required to go and find it there.
Netziv reads it metaphorically, “in Heaven” refers to aspects of Torah too sophisticated for our understanding, beyond our ability to grasp, much like trying to climb to heaven. Across the sea indicates ideas we need a teacher to transmit, who might be far away.
Were Eruvin simply right, many Jews would be stuck, needing to exceed themselves intellectually and/or travel unworkably great distances to study Torah.
But It’s Not in Heaven
Fortunately, the verse tells us the Torah is not in Heaven. Given Ha’amek Davar’s reading, how could that be? Aren’t there pieces of Torah beyond our abilities? He invokes R. Yitzchak from Megilla 6b, we are not to believe someone who claims to have put in effort to Torah and not found what he sought.
Rashi in Sanhedrin 99b thought Torah would look to reward those who seek to learn it, would ask God to help her be acquired by this person. [Still, there is a leap between Torah trying to reward those who sincerely try to learn it, and a guarantee the person will understand what was formerly beyond him.]
Similarly, if the requisite knowledge resides with a teacher too far to access, Torah will find a way to bring the understanding to this Jew in some other way.
Ways to better results than we might find on our own: the reminder to do it for our children might elicit better fealty to Torah and mitzvot than we for ourselves, according to Kli Yakar; the acceptability of the Yom Kippur defined by the court or guessed at by those with no way to know what the court said, for Chatam Sofer; and a promise Torah will come to those who seek it, even if too hard, or with someone too far, for Netziv.
Parshat VaYelekh: Three Meanings of First
Fear Comes First
Last week, we saw Kli Yakar stress the necessity of observance out of a sincere awe/fear of God. Our parsha’s description of the Hakhel ceremony on the Sukkot after a shemittah year helps him out with its placement of its mentions of yir’a. In 31;12, the Torah says the adults have to gather that they hear and that they learn, and will then have awe/fear of God. The next verse references their children, who did not know or hear, they will learn and listen so that they achieve awe/fear.
Were Moshe addressing his own generation only, Kli Yakar thinks the distinction is easy: the parents of that generation have seen God’s wonders, so awe/fear should be easy. The next generation, who have not, first need a Hakhel to give them this basic component of a religious life.
The same idea underpins Devarim 10;12, where Moshe says “all” Hashem wants of them is yir’a, an idea the Gemara already challenged, because yir’a is neither simple nor easy. He sees the solution in the next chapter, where the Torah lists wonders this generation had seen, as opposed to their children and coming generations, which should ease their way to proper yir’a.
Except Hakhel most likely addresses the future; Kli Yakar sticks to the basic rubric. The adults who come to Hakhel will have learned of God and yir’a many times before. They come to learn and hear, to rejuvenate their yir’a. The children who come are still in the process of developing the needed yir’a.
The first step is yir’a, the rest follows.
What Comes First, Matters Most
Chatam Sofer also focuses on origins, in a slightly different context. When Moshe Rabbenu predicts the Jewish people’s eventual return to Hashem, 31;17 has them say their troubles result from God’s absence from their midst, with God warning He will then hide His face, as it were.
To explain why the Jews’ admission should elicit further removal of God, Chatam Sofer reminds us of passages in Shabbat 119a and 105b, where our internal state determines our religious status. Commenting on the Torah’s warning not to turn towards idols, Vayikra 19;3, the Gemara had inferred a warning not to remove God from your hearts, one of the results of any turn towards idols.
Chatam Sofer understands Chazal to be teaching us to be sure about root causes, the evil inclination starts us off small, turning towards idols, not even necessarily worshipping them, then moves step by step to more serious sin, the victim losing God completely. [He seems to think Jews lose their connection to God by being attracted to something else; I could imagine thinking it goes the other way, we are only open to something else if we have lost our connection to God.]
When the Jews here admit only a lack God in their midst, they have neglected to confess the root cause, their turn to idols. Until they do, Hashem will not respond, God forbid.
For teshuva to work, the first step is finding and admitting the first step.
Hashem Goes How Far First?
We’re really coming to the end, and Moshe starts our parsha telling the Jews he will no longer be able to lead them, but Hashem will be with them. The phrase in verse three stands out however, Hashem is over lefanekha, passing before you, where verses six and eight speak of Hashem going with or before them, being with them. Why over, passing before, here? Netziv thinks the answer lies in a statement of Shmuel’s in Pesachim 7, we are supposed to recite the blessing on mitvot over la-asiyatan, an Aramaic phrase the Gemara then needs to explain, with competing verses for what over means.
Bothered by Shmuel’s choice of an ambiguous word, Netziv points out two versions of being “before.” Before can mean completely removed from, far in front of, as in one of the quoted verses (Achima’atz catches and passes another messenger), or it can be somewhat connected, as in the other verse, about a king passing before his nation.
Both are true for mitzvot, says Ha’amek Davar. Wherever possible, we are to mix the bracha with the mitzvah, hold the item of mitzvah, start the bracha, perform the action of mitzvah and then complete the blessing. [For example, we place the tefillin box on our arms, start the bracha before we wrap it, then wrap it as we finish the bracha.] Where not possible, we just say the bracha, then do the mitzvah.
Coming back to the Jews of the desert, until now God had gone before them in the sense of God doing things first, the Jews passive, God saving and leading them. Now, Moshe phrased God’s Presence among them to make clear they would have to act, God would help them when they helped themselves.
God will still be first, but a closer first than when they could sit back and let God do it all.