Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 28 July 2018 / 16 Av 5778

Parshat Va'etchanan

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Law, then Land

In this week’s Torah portion Moshe begins to prepare the people to enter the Land of Israel. See, I have taught you statutes and ordinances… so that you may act accordingly in the midst of the Land which you are coming to take possession of. (Devarim 4:5) The laws that I have already taught you (past tense) are for you to fulfill in the Land you stand to inherit (future tense). Moshe is pointing out is — See! — that the laws came before the Land.

The Jewish People is different than all others in that its law preceded its land. Every other nation becomes a nation through its land, and afterward it creates laws for its land. The laws are not intended as a means for building up a national existence and for achieving national independence. Rather, they are the ends for which Land, independence and prosperity are given. Thus, in contrast to other nations, Israel became a nation through the Torah, and the Land was given for the sake of observing Torah.

The laws of other nations reflect their own character, engendered by their land, and of the changing needs of the nation’s development. In fact, legislators and judges — the lawmakers and the law-interpreters — see their duty more as ensuring that laws are consonant with current public policy than with the founding fathers’ vision.

But the law of Israel was given by Moshe, who had never seen, let alone set foot in the Land. He transmitted the law in the wilderness, and was laid to rest there in the wilderness. When the Torah refers to Moshe’s resting place, it is called chelkat mechokek (Devarim 32:21) the plot of the lawgiver. That the “lawgiver” remains in the wilderness is a testimony to the eternality and immutability of Torah.

Before the Jews entered the Land they needed to understand this character of the law: the Land, and its accompanying prosperity and independence, were not goals themselves, to be perpetuated by the law, but rather they are the means for the fulfillment of the law. The laws of the Torah do not change in accordance with changes in the people’s or land’s fortune, but rather the fortune of the people and the land changes in accordance with their faithfulness to the law.

The difference is not semantic. If Torah is related to as the ends and not the means, it ensures the growth of the Jewish People, as a separate nation, who will endure throughout history, with its goals unchanging. If law is above land, and all prosperity is intended to serve it, then the people will not perish in the worship of pleasure and possession, as other nations have.

The people thus stand, at the border of the Promised Land, with the complete Torah in their arms. Throughout their history, whether they live in the Land, or are temporarily exiled from it, the Torah will remain in their arms. We are the people of Torah, not the people of the Land of Israel; without the Torah, the Land is not even the Land of Israel.

  • Sources: Commentary, Devarim 4:5; Nineteen Letters #8, pp. 115-116

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