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Torah Sparks

September 22, 2001 - 5762

Prepared by Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg
Temple Sinai, Hollywood, FL

Edited by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle and Triennial Cycle III: Deut. 31:1-30; Hertz Chumash, p. 887
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-27; Hertz Chumash, p. 891

(31:1-13) "I am 120 years old today." On the last day of his life, Moses encourages the Israelites to conquer the land, publicly transfers leadership to Joshua, and commands the priests to read the Torah before the entire people of Israel assembled at the end of the Sabbatical year.

(31:14-21) "And now, write down this song." A song that serves as a prophetic witness for the future if you will violate the covenant.

(31:22-30) "Moses writes down the words of this Torah," and commands that it be placed in the Ark of the Covenant, knowing that his people will need a constant reminder of the covenant.

Theme 1: A Puzzlement

Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel (Deut 31:1)

  1. This verse is somewhat unusual and requires clarification. Rambam explains that the people had returned to their homes after the completion of the address described in Parashat Nitzavim. Moses had given that address in the Camp of the Levites, which was near the Tent of Meeting. Now, as he sensed his death approaching, he felt the need to show special consideration to his people. He therefore went out from his home in the camp of the Levites and walked through the camp of the Israelites, like someone wanting to take leave of a friend. His purpose was twofold: to console the Children of Israel in the face of his inevitable death and to give them courage to face the wars that would be waged without his leadership. (Elie Munk; The Call of Torah, p. 336)
  2. The paragraphing in the translation is misleading because it implies that verse 1 and the first part of verse 2 are all introductory to this chapter. In the idiom of Hebrew narrative, "These things" refers to words previously spoken, and verse 1 refers to the address of chapters 29-30. The statement that Moses "went" is unclear, since it does not indicate where he went from or to. But it is comparable to 32:4: "Moses came....and recited all the words of this poem...", referring to the poem just recited. The verse also seems a bit superfluous in view of 29:1, though no more so than 32:44 is in view of 31:30. However, a smoother reading appears in a manuscript of Deuteronomy from Qumran: "When Moses had finished speaking these things." This reading makes the verse identical to 32:45, which like the present verse, is also followed by "He said to them." (Jeffrey Tigay; The JPS Torah Commentary - Deuteronomy; footnote to 31:1; p. 289)

Discussion Sparks:

As we near the end of Deuteronomy, we begin to see some of the transitions between the different sources that the editor of the Torah used. We have here one of the traditional explanations of a difficult verse and a modern understanding. How do the two explanations differ? What is the difference between the role that the commentators see for themselves? Can both explanations exist side by side, or does one preclude the other? Does the critical methodology of Tigay take something away from the text or does it add another layer? Does either explanation change the way you understand this chapter?

Theme 2: Moses - The Man and the Myth

The Lord said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your fathers... (Deut. 31:16)

  1. At that time the Holy One said to the Angel of Death, "Go and bring Me the soul of Moses." He went and stood before him and said to him; "Moses - give me your soul." Moses said to him; "Where I sit, you have no right to stand, and you dare to say to me 'Give me your soul?'" he rebuked him and the Angel of Death left crestfallen. He then went and reported to the Mighty One. Once again the Holy One said to him, "Go and bring Me his soul." He went to (Moses's) place to seek him, but could not find him. He went to the sea and said to it, "Have you seen Moses?" (The Sea) responded, "Since the day when he caused Israel to pass through me, I have not seen him." He went to the mountains and hills and said to them, "Have you seen Moses?" They responded, "Since the day when Israel received the Torah on Mt. Sinai we have not seen him." He went to Gehenna (the netherworld) and said to her, "Have you seen Moses?" Gehenna replied, "His name have I heard, him I have not seen. He went to the ministering angels and said to them, "Have you seen Moses?" They responded, "Go to humankind." He went to Israel and said to them, "Have you seen Moses?" They responded, "G-d has known his way and has hidden him away for the world to come and no creature knows his whereabouts." (Sifre Devarim, 323, see Reuven Hammer; The Classic Midrash; p. 327-328)
  2. Like many students of the Bible, I am taken with the story of Moses' transformation. First, he is transformed from a threatened child into a pampered prince. Next, he is transformed from a pampered prince into a man of action, who is so moved by the cruelty inflicted on a poor slave that he reacts in righteous anger. Then, he is transformed from a fugitive to a humble shepherd. Finally, he is transformed from a loner who dwells in the wilderness with his flocks to the leader of a nation. (Levi Meir; Ancient Secrets; Jewish p. 232)

Discussion Sparks:

How do you see Moses? Like Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments" or as the conflicted prince/leader of "Prince of Egypt"? Do you see him as a man in constant war against his temper or as the must humble of men? Is he the favorite of G-d or the leader that Israel can not follow without strife? Is he a success that he led them to freedom or a failure that he did not enter the land with them? Is Moses larger than life, or just another human being? Perhaps he is all of the above. How does he live up to our ideal expectations? How does he fail?

How is your life like his? What transformative experiences have you had in your life?

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