Refining Torah

Devarim By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Aug 2, 2003 / 5763

The Torah itself, Heschel explains, is a midrash on revelation. As such, the Torah or literally, “the Teaching” is a text that is dependent on reading and re-reading; on commentary and on super-commentary. With each successive reading, we uncover the many layers of meaning that Torah has to offer. This hermeneutical process traces its roots back to the Torah itself and quite explicitly to this week’s parashah, Parashat Devarim. At the opening of this week’s parashah, the Torah introduces Moses’ first discourse of Deuteronomy: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this teaching . . .” (Deuteronomy 1:5). Moses’ lengthy exposition follows. What interests me in particular is the wording of the introductory phrase, namely “Moshe be’er et ha-Torah,” that “Moses explained the Torah.” What is the nature of the process that Moses engaged in and how does it shed light on our reading of Torah today?

Professor Ze’ev Falk, z”l (of blessed memory) shares a very special insight into this verse. He notes that the Hebrew word, be’er, perhaps comes from the root, bet-resh, which refers to “selecting choice produce from the chaff.” That said, Falk goes on to write that be’er, to expound or explain, is actually more of a process of refinement and clarification. Moreover, he points out that “to explain Torah well, one must adjust [his or her words] according to the needs of the audience.” Through these words, Falk points out a critical notion in the philosophy of education. The teacher must always be aware of her audience. To speak below or above the level of one’s audience is for that audience to experience frustration and disappointment. Finally, Falk goes on to point out that a number of events narrated in the Book of Deuteronomy are presented at variance with the way in which they are narrated earlier in the Torah. One of the examples Falk cites is the appointment of ministers and judges. While in Exodus 18, this appointment is credited to Jethro, here in Deuteronomy, it appears to be the product of negotiations between Moses and the people. Another vivid example of differing accounts arises with the infamous story of the spies. In Numbers 13, it appears as if the idea of sending spies is initiated by God. Deuteronomy 1:22 suggests that it was the idea of the people.

While such discrepancies may be solved by simply attributing these episodes to different authors, a deeper reading suggests otherwise. Perhaps, Deuteronomy comes to teach us a lesson not only in clarification and exposition but also in historical memory and how events come to be interpreted after the fact. Variant accounts of the same episode express the humanity of the Text. Torah is both a human and Divine document that ultimately represents the nexus point between heaven and earth. How striking and human it is for a leader to take the credit for a brilliant idea suggested by one of his advisors (as in the case of Moses and Jethro)! And how interesting it is that God’s role in history becomes blurred with that of humans in the case of the spies. Reading Torah then is truly an exercise in ‘turning it over and over; for everything is in it.’ And ultimately it is as Ze’ev Falk suggests – a sacred process of refinement.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.