Deuteronomy, Sefer Devarim, presents Moses’ speech that reviews the historical memory of God’s contact with Israel in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. In the Torah’s three middle books, God is the speaker; Deuteronomy opens with the Johnny Carson-like introduction: “here’s Moses!”
At his career’s beginning, Moses tries to avoid the divine call, arguing “I am not a man of words.” [Exodus 4:10] Deuteronomy/Devarim begins with the words “and these were the words that Moses said.” Moses is indeed (a) a man of words (b) who knows exactly what to say. The italicized demonstrative pronoun indicates what Moses’ words are and what they are not. At Deuteronomy 4:6, Moses informs Israel that Torah is “your wisdom and understanding before the nations.” What makes the Torah system unique, special, and sacred?
Each Book of the Torah Has Its Message
In Genesis, God plays the genetic engineer, creating humankind in God’s image [Genesis 1:27], the Divine program for sanctifying humanity. Genesis reports three exceptionally good people, Enoch, Abraham and Joseph, some good (Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel), some morally mediocre (Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, and Lot, and Joseph’s half- brothers), and others who go nameless because they are shamelessly evil.
In Exodus, God selects Moses, a very great man with a temper, a shepherd of sheep who becomes a shepherd of people, with passion, compassion, and a conscience. In Exodus, Moses leads Israel from Egyptian slavery to the Tent of Meeting, God’s presence in the Sinai wilderness.
In Leviticus, God tells Israel how to be holy and remain within God’s sanctifying presence, with the priests being informed of their cultic and teaching ministries.
With Numbers’ opening, Israel’s demographic explosion of Israel is recalled, showing that God kept the promise made to Abraham, [Genesis 15:5], Numbers 5 reminds Israel that God requires theological and marital fidelity, something unthinkable either in Egypt or Canaan [Leviticus 18:3], the nazirite who strives for angelic excellence is tolerated but not endorsed in Numbers 6, Numbers 11 reports Moses’ emotional breakdown, the appointment of an elite leadership, and Eldad’s and Medad’s ministering in the camp. Moses’ squire, Joshua, wants them arrested; taking God at His word, Moses responds that the divine call is not the right to power. After learning this lesson, Joshua opposes the pedigreed spies’ negative report in Numbers 13. Being right with God is contingent upon conformity to God’s word, not by affirming the station, office, or renown of the aristocratic person. In Numbers 12, Moses marries a woman of whom his family does not approve, with God interjecting that Moses is indeed the most modest of men, whose faithful leadership is beyond challenge. Torah truth resides is the object of the Torah law , not the intuition of the charismatic person. In Numbers 15:16 we discover that God’s law does not discriminate between Israelite and alien, and at 15:40 we learn that the only way to become holy is by observing God’s commandments.
Numbers 16 reports Korah’s challenge to Moses. Leadership lust drove Korah to lie, even to himself. Korah’s Torah is what Korah says it is. Asking the rhetorical question, “why do you [Moses and Aaron] raise yourselves over [and above] God’s community,” [v. 3] Korah’s creed sanctifies power and office. Anticipating Marx, Korah’s religion is the controlling opiate of the masses. In contrast, Torah requires that the priest be defiled in order to purify the defiled [Numbers 19], that the telos of the Law is to treat and care for the other as oneself [Leviticus 19:18], appreciating one’s own subjectivity, God’s image, and humanity, in the “other.” At Numbers 20:8, God orders Moses to speak to a rock in order to produce water. In an anger fit, Moses strikes the rock [v. 11], disobeying God [v. 12]. Moses will later die at God’s command [Deut. 34:5] to atone for his disobedience.
This value system is explicit in Deuteronomy. “These” and no other words are Torah. Torah is a rule of law, not a law of rulers. Israel’s king writes his own Torah scroll, so he not be arrogant and he continue the modest, Mosaic leadership model. [Deut. 17:18-20] Israel’s polity is ruled by the supreme court, whose human words are authorized by the Written Torah as Torah [17:11]. The last court supreme court of Israel was Rav Ashi’s, whose passing marked the end of the Amoraic period and the authority to issue apodictic legislation binding upon all Israel [bBava Mezia 86a]. This God-given Torah is possessed by all Israel [Deut. 33:4], it does not tolerate updates or emendations [Deut. 30:12], or usurpation by privilege claiming elites, who invoke “tradition,” insight, intuition, or the ability to read God’s mind.
Non-Torah law, from ancient Egypt’s Pharaoh to Machiavelli’s Prince, is whatever pleasures that prince. God’s Torah was given to refine and sanctify those who observe it [Genesis Rabba 44:1]. Pagan law is a political instrument of social control. Pharaoh decrees at Exodus 5:6-8 that he will no longer add [provide] straw for making bricks, but the required brick quota must not be diminished, an undoable task designed to demoralize the worker, not to produce a work product. In Deut. 13:1 [and 4:2], Moses the Oral Law teacher/rabbenu teaches that these doable words may neither be added to nor subtracted from God’s Torah.
Deut. 13:2-6 challenges the claims of false prophets and dreamers. If an authority person says “reject the law,” that great person must be challenged. Israel’s Torah is both code and map, empowering the individual, armed with the Law, to judge the judges, to assess the assessors, and evaluate legal claims. Every Israelite is a proactive moral agent. Just as Abraham challenged God, “shall the judge/king of the world not act justly” [Genesis 18:28]. Israel holds its leaders accountable for the claims they make.
Authentic Torah leaders will not speak in the third person, which precludes dialogue because the Torah’s Author spoke to Israel in the second person, with respectful dialogue. Torah values the human mind, which evaluates leadership claims. Just as in Deuteronomy Moses retold the Torah, all Israel is empowered to formulate its own narrative. Moses teaches all Israel to become creative link in Tradition’s change. Moses reminds Israel that only God and Israel’s Supreme Court may issue apodictic decrees. Today’s rabbis are authorized to teach and persuade; they may legislate only when so accepted by communities. If a rabbi issues a ruling that is questionable, the ruling must be questioned. Great men are modest; they don’t call themselves “gedolim,” or “great one’s.” By empowering the individual Israelite, Moses teaches the powerful to be modest, empowers the people to be moral agents, and creates a wise, understanding nation.
Rav Alan Yuter, a member of Beit Hillel, is currently teaching at Torat Reva Yerushalayim, and CJCUC, Ohr Torah Stone, Efrat, Israel. He is Rabbi Emeritus from B’nai Israel, Downtown Orthodox synagogue of Baltimore, MD, USA, and taught at University of Maryland and Anne Arundel Community College. He received Semicha from Yeshiva University, Rabbanut ha-Rashit, and Rav David Halivni, Dayyanut. Rav Yuter also has a PhD from New York University in Hebrew Literature
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