Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 5 October 2019 / 6 Tishri 5780

Parshat Vayelech

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Purposeful Presage

Moshe completes the writing of the Torah and gives his final words of encouragement to the next appointed leader, Yehoshua. He then calls an assembly of the entire nation to speak the words of Ha’azinu, the song that will call the heavens and earth to serve as witnesses against the people, holding them to their commitment.

Before beginning this song, Moshe explains to the elders and the tribe leaders why: For I know that after my death, you will become very corrupt and turn aside from the way that I commanded you, and the evil will befall you in the end of days… What a parting message! Moshe has just cautioned them with a painfully detailed cause-and-effect rebuke of what will befall them should they betray the Torah, and is about to call the heavens and earth as witnesses to ensure that this message is taken with utmost seriousness. Why foretell the corruption so bleakly? Would this not leave the people in despair, knowing they stand no chance?

The purpose of this statement can be understood from a different vantage point. Nothing attests to the Divine origin of Moshe’s mission like the admission and awareness that survey the past and foresee the future. Had “Mosaic” law been the product of Moshe’s own mind, there would not have been a greater fool in the world than “this man Moshe!” From a human standpoint, what greater folly could there be than to give laws so completely opposed to, and at odds with, the attitudes and inclinations of the people for whom they are meant? The contrast is so great that the Lawgiver Himself knows full well that, for centuries to come, the people will still not have adapted themselves to the Law.

As Rav Hirsch points out in many places, the Torah is sprinkled with references, comments and recorded events that lead to the conclusion that the Torah came to the people, and did not emanatefrom the people.(See e.g., Shemot 19:10-13, 32:1 and Collected Writings I, pp. 183-186 and 189-190.) For example, in the story of the Golden Calf, the blatant betrayal only forty days after the clearest revelation, the non sequitur demonstrates just how far the people were from the truths and requirements of the law. It could not have emanated from them; instead, they must learn — over centuries, as it turns out — to adapt to it.

While this foretelling of their imminent future failing may not have been a comfort for the people standing before Moshe, its function becomes apparent from our perch, millennia later. If we now look back on these past millennia and of this “Book of Moses,” we see with our own eyes that everything has come true in the course of time. In the end, precisely in times of dire suffering, the nation attached itself deeply to this Torah. For the Torah’s sake, people endured martyrdom unparalleled in world history. This Torah became the “eagles’ wings” on which G-d’s providence bore Israel throughout its tumultuous journey through history.

Israel’s essential task — to be a light unto the nations — could only be realized when we ourselves showed that even defectors can become effectual agents of G-d’s service. Despite their sins, the Jewish people have always carried within them sparks that can and have spread, and sprouted life and truth in the fields of nations.

  • Sources: Commentary 31:29; Shemot 32:1

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