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The Parsha Experiment: The Inspiring Conclusion To The Torah
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In our last segment, we were talking about the difficult conclusion to the Torah. Why do we end with the death of Moses? Why don’t we hear some inspiring summary of how we should all keep God’s laws and walk in His ways? On our way to an answer, we discovered that the Torah’s ending starts back in Parshat Ha’azinu, with God’s command for Moses to go up the mountain to die. וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לֵאמֹר - God spoke to Moses on that self-same day, saying, go up the mountain...And we said that that phrase, on that self-same day, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, is very rare. It only appears in 3 other stories in all of the 5 books of Moses.
Let’s explore these 3 mentions together, because I think there is a clue here, that will help us begin to understand the significance of the episode of Moshe’s death, and just why the Torah ends the way it does. This week, on the Parsha Experiment.
Hi, I’m Imu Shalev, and welcome to the final episode of the Parsha Experiment.
The first mention of this strange phrase takes us back to the story of Noah, at its terrible climax. The flood is on its way, and Noah had ushered his family and the animals on to the ark. וַיָּבֹא נֹחַ, וּבָנָיו וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וּנְשֵׁי-בָנָיו אִתּוֹ--אֶל-הַתֵּבָה: מִפְּנֵי, מֵי הַמַּבּוּל - Noah, his sons, his wife, and the wives of his sons, had gone into the ark. Then we hear about all the animals who went with him, how for 7 days the waters of the flood were on the land, that the fountains of the deep erupted and how the windows of the heavens were opened and water rained for 40 days and 40 nights. And then, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, on that selfsame day, בָּא נֹחַ, וְשֵׁם-וְחָם וָיֶפֶת בְּנֵי-נֹחַ, Noah, his sons, and his wife, and his sons’ wives, went on to the ark.
So wait a minute, we just heard that! It already told us all about the people who went on the ark, thankfully before it described the rain for 40 days and 40 nights. And what does it even mean that it happened on that selfsame day? Which day? After the rain? Before the rain? And what is a selfsame day?
Let’s take a look at the second mention, just a few chapters later, in the story of Abraham. Right after God had commanded Abraham to perform circumcision, after they sealed a covenant, Abraham does what God had commanded him. בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, נִמּוֹל אַבְרָהָם - On that selfsame day, Abraham was circumcised.
And what about the third mention? None other than the Exodus from Egypt. Over and over, right as the nation of Israel leaves Egypt, we hear about the day they left. וַיְהִי, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, יָצְאוּ כָּל-צִבְאוֹת יְהוָה, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם - and it was, on that selfsame day, all the hosts of God, went out from the land of Egypt. וַיְהִי, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה: הוֹצִיא יְהוָה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל - and it was, on that selfsame day that God took Israel out.
The Flood, Abraham’s covenant, the Exodus, do these events have anything in common? Is there anything that links each of these epic moments in history to one another? Well, maybe it is just that... each of these events are seminal moments in history. After these events transpire, the world is never the same again. Noah enters the ark, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, that phrase, on that selfsame day is sort of the way we would say, on that momentous day, or that fateful day. When he and his family shut the door of the ark, they were closing the door on an entire era. In our video on Parshat Noach, we saw parallel after parallel in the flood that demonstrated an inverse of Creation, a destruction of the world, and then, its recreation for a new era of humanity. The verse isn’t repetitive, it’s less interested in telling you again who went on the ark, and more interested in telling you that when they all embarked, on that selfsame day, the world as we knew it had ended, and a new one was about to begin.
בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה is a phrase describing how one day can simultaneously be the calendar day that marks the end of one era, but also, begin an entirely new one, on that selfsame day.
The covenant of circumcision changed the world again. God promised to make Abraham great, to multiply his descendants and to give them the land of Israel. It is this covenant that sealed the destiny of the people of Israel as those who would bring blessing to the rest of the world. It marked the transition from the era of a humanity that had forgotten God, the era of the tower-builders, and began the age of the model family that would bring humanity back from the edge.
And finally, the destiny which began with the family of Abraham would be born on the national level with the Exodus. בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, on that selfsame day, when God had taken the people out of Egypt, the world would never be the same. A nation was born that would soon find itself at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and on their way to the promised land.
And the final mention of בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה is right here at the conclusion of the Torah. When God commands Moses to go up on the mountain to die, the commandment begins, וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה - This final command for Moses to go up on the mountain to die takes place on that selfsame day. Moshe’s death is not simply the next plot point we need to know before we can close the book: “Moses exits stage-left.” No, the Torah is signaling us to lean in closer. Something epic, something massive is afoot. The world will never be the same again from this moment forward. It is an event so transformative that it concludes our book, concludes our Torah, and sets the course for the destiny of our own age.
That event is the death of Moses. But how does the world change with his loss? The Sages in the Talmud, in the tractate of Temurah, seem to suggest an answer when they relate a story that illustrates just how profound the loss was. Remember how in the final chapter, we hear about how after Moses dies, the people had mourned him for 30 days? Well, something else happened during those days. The gemara says 3,000 laws were forgotten during the period of mourning for Moses. The people panic, they turn to Joshua and plead to him: “Sh’al” - Go get these laws back, Ask God! He can tell us! Amar lahem, Lo Bashamayim hi: “Joshua responds grimly, I can’t do that. The Torah is not in Heaven. It is not in God’s domain, it is in our domain! Another one of the Sages say that Israel was so discouraged that they were prepared to kill Joshua over this loss. But finally, af al pi ken, hecheziran Otniel ben Kenaz mitoch pilpulo - nonetheless, Otniel the son of Kenaz was able to rediscover these forgotten laws through human logic and analysis.
This is the story the Sages use, poetically, to explain what they think is the significance of the end of the Torah. Not only does the nation of Israel lose this great leader, this prophet, but 3,000 laws - poof - vanish. בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. This is the new age that the death of Moses ushers in, a dark age. But, is that the message of the end of the Torah? Dark times are ahead?
But that can’t be the lesson. The story of the sages didn’t end on a dark note - those laws weren’t lost. Otniel rediscovers them through human logic. So what’s the message here? And just why can’t Joshua, ask God to give him a refresher on the laws? Why does he tell the people: לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא, that the Torah is not in heaven? Joshua is a prophet and gets messages from God, shouldn’t be too hard to slip it into their next conversation.
That phrase, לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא - that’s actually a quote from a speech Moses gave a few chapters ago. But it seems like Joshua is taking it entirely out of context in this story. In Moshe’s original speech, he is trying to convince the people to follow in God’s ways and to keep His Torah. So, as part of his pep talk he says, you know what, guys, this is actually not that hard. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא, it’s not in the heavens, it’s not that out of reach, כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד - this matter is really close to you, בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ, it’s in your mouths and your hearts to do it. What Moses says is really inspiring. But does it have anything to do with what Joshua says? Did Moses say that God isn’t allowed to refresh people’s memories if they forget any laws? He wasn’t talking at all about knowledge of Torah, he was just saying that the observance of Torah isn’t beyond us.
So what do we make of this strange story in the Talmud? What are the Sages trying to highlight for us about Moshe’s death?
Let me read Moshe’s quote with you carefully inside, and see if anything jumps out at you. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא:, - The commands, this Torah, it’s not in the heavens, לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, that you should say: “Who will go up into the heavens and bring it back down to earth for us? וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה - And he will cause us to listen to it, and we will do it. Do these words remind you of anything? Was there ever a time where the Torah was up in the heavens, and there was a man who needed to go and get it for us and bring it back down to earth? וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה, he will cause us to listen and do. To listen and do...doesn’t that sound an awful lot like...na’aseh v’nishma? This was Moses. He was the man who ascended the mountain, who took the Torah down from the heavens, who taught it to the people and caused us to say naaseh v’nishma, we will do and we will listen.
And the verse continues, וְלֹא-מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם, הִוא - And the Torah, it’s not across the water, לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲבָר-לָנוּ אֶל-עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה - that you should say: who will cross over to the other side of the water and retrieve it for us. Now, let me ask you. Maybe this hasn’t happened in the past, but will there be sometime in the future where their great leader, where Moses, will be separated from his people, across a body of water? Me’eiver layam? Well, look at what God tells Moses in the last chapter: I have shown you the land with your eyes, וְשָׁמָּה לֹא תַעֲבֹר - but you will not cross over. Moses will die on this side of the Jordan, while the people are in the land of Israel, across a body of water.
This verse, לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא, Moses isn’t just inspiring the people, he is talking about himself. He’s preparing them for his death! Don’t rely on me! he says. You, Israel, you may have grown comfortable that you had an intermediary. There were times where I brought the Torah down to earth for you, I made it comprehensible, I taught you. But there were dark times too. Remember when Moses delayed coming down the mountain, the people sought to replace him with a Golden Calf. They sought to replace a man with a false deity. Why? Because sometimes, as we showed in our videos throughout the book of Numbers, the people related to Moses improperly, as a demigod. Sometimes, the relationship between Moses and the people interfered with the direct relationship they are meant to have with God. When they complained, they too often complained to Moses, and not to God. Instead, Moses says: כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד - The Torah, your relationship with God, it’s very close to you. You don’t need an intermediary. בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ, it’s in your mouths and it’s in your hearts, to do it. Your mouth, your heart, those are the tools of relationships, your emotions, your speech, your prayers - not mine.
When Moses dies, the text goes out of its way to tell us: וְלֹא-יָדַע אִישׁ אֶת-קְבֻרָתוֹ, עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה - No one knows where Moses is buried, even today. Why? Because otherwise, maybe some of us would have made the journey מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם, searching after the grave of Moses to seek him again as an intermediary between us and God.
The very last line of the Torah: “וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה, פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים” - There will never again arise a prophet such as Moses who knew God face to face...this verse has a double meaning. On the one hand, it is Moshe’s epitaph, a wonderful praise of a leader who is having his walk into the sunset moment, but more profoundly, this verse is telling us a grave truth. Hear O Israel, there will never again be someone who makes his journey into the heavens, who perceives God face to face and has that relationship on your behalf, the Torah is no longer in heaven, it is in your mouths, and in your hearts.
בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה - It was the end of an era, yes. But not the entrance to a dark age where 3,000 laws are lost. It is a new age with a new destiny. Joshua understands this. He is a prophet, yes, but he will never know God face to face the way Moses did. He is not meant to intercede on behalf of Israel. Otniel understands this as well. He makes the Torah his own, and through his passion to rediscover the truth of God’s will, he rescues the 3,000 laws, out of his own direct relationship to the Torah.
This is the message of the Torah’s conclusion. These are the five books of Moses. They tell the story of the people of Israel, their repeated struggles, their failures, and their successes. They are the people charged with redeeming humanity, spreading blessing to the families of the earth. They are a people who have been redeemed from Egypt, who have witnessed signs and wonders performed by a leader who modeled closeness to our Creator, our Parent. That people met their Creator where heavenly cloud descended to meet terrestrial mountain. God made His commands known to the people, commands that taught justice, kindness, and happiness, commands that bring blessing, life, and goodness. He charged us with making a place for Him amongst us, in the camp where His cloud descends from the mountain to join us on earth. We learn to be kadosh, tahor, to live with Him in holiness and purity. We are taught in the desert to rely on Him, that He is the source of our sustenance, that He is the source of our security, we can trust Him. Even when we stray, we learn how to correct our course and to beseech Him, directly. And finally, we venture into the land, ready to build a new Eden, this time, by ourselves, without Moses. We are mature enough to face God on our own, we now know His ways.
As we close the book, at the end of this Experiment, I can’t help but feel like we are the generation without Moses, and without any prophets. How many laws are forgotten or unknown, we don’t even have a leader we can ask to ask God and be refused. But we can learn this Torah. We can be inspired by its messages, we can live our lives according to its morals, and fulfill our destiny as a people. It is our eitz hachayim, our tree of life, and our source of blessings. We have learned it. It is now in our mouths and in our hearts, to do it. The rest, says the end of Torah, is truly, up to you.
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