July 2017, Parshat Devarim

Dear friends,

This week’s Parsha, Parshat Devarim, marks the start of the fifth and final book of the Torah, also called the Book of Devarim. Devarim simply means words and refers to the fact that the entire Book of Devarim is one long monologue Moshe delivers to the People of Israel on the eve of them entering into the Promised Land just before his own death which is, in fact, where the Torah ends.

In the longest sermon ever, Moshe recounts the entire experience of Israel wandering in the desert with all the ups and the down. The Ten Commandments reappear in this book as well as every other significant event, sometimes with a slightly different angle than the first time around.

For example, the reason given for Shabbat in the Ten Commandments the first time is because God rested on the seventh day of creation. In the current book, Shabbat is associated with the experience of freedom from slavery.

There are many other interesting comparisons and analyses we could make and derive much stimulation. However, I’d like to focus here on one line from the Ibn Ezra which has the potential to release bolts of lightning in one’s head. But before I share his sweet bombshell, I’d like to explain the background to the Ibn Ezra’s comment and also to give his credentials.

According to chabad.org, Rabbi Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra 1089 – 1164 (usually referred to as simply ‘Ibn Ezra’) was a true giant of the spirit. As a man of Torah scholarship he surpassed all his contemporaries, and his influence upon learning and writing in Italy, Southern France and England was greater than that of any other Jewish figure.

His commentary on the Torah is so universally respected that it features in every self-respecting compilation of biblical commentaries.

Now to the background I flagged above. The Parsha’s opening line contains a very puzzling comment indeed. It begins ‘These are the words (Devarim) Moshe spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan’.

The question screams itself out. If Moshe spoke to the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan, where is the author of the verse standing when it was written?

And that is by no means the only example of its kind. In Deut. 2:10-12, Moshe’s description of his command to the Israelites to pass by the Moabites is interrupted by a description of how the Moabites and Edomites settled. Looking at the final verse there is a very surprising comment: ‘Moreover, the Horim had formerly inhabited Seir, but the descendants of Esau dispossessed them, destroying them and settling in their place, as Israel has done in the land that God gave them as a possession.’

It would appear that whoever wrote this verse did so after the settlement of the Israelites and not in the time of Moshe!
One last example is from Devarim 3:14. ‘Yair the Manassite acquired the whole region of Argob… and he named them– that is, Bashan– after himself, Havvoth-yair, as it is to this day.’ Yair’s conquest of an area in the Bashan is referenced schematically in Numbers 32:41. It beckons the questions that if this verse was written in Moshe’s lifetime, why would he say that they are called Havvot Yair until this very day – it only happened literally just weeks earlier?!

In order to make sense of these and other anomalies the Ibn Ezra writes most mysteriously: ‘If you understand the secret of the twelve…you will recognize the truth.’

The ‘secret of the twelve’ is a reference to his opinion that the last twelve verses of the Torah were not written by Moshe but by Joshua, because they speak about Moshe’s death and the mourning of the Israelites. What we can understand from Ibn Ezra here is that the last twelve verses of the Torah are an example of a broader phenomenon of later editorial comments in the Torah.
I’ve often referred to certain Eureka moments I experienced along the way during different aspects of my education. Well, this Ibn Ezra is a Eureka as good as any other.

Let me explain why this is so. Growing up I was taught, consistent with ultra-orthodox philosophy, that that every word, every syllable, and every letter in the Torah is the word of God, verbatim, as dictated to Moshe.

What we can understand the Ibn Ezra to be is saying is that there is another view. The belief that the Torah is from God, a basic tenet of Judaism, is not at all at odds with the idea that the Torah as we have it contains many passages which were only recorded much after the death of Moshe.

This is perhaps very unsettling to some which is precisely why the Ibn Ezra speaks about it in the most coded fashion.

I believe this teaching to be truly liberating and magnificent. Liberating, because it allows us to divest ourselves of the intellectual straight-jacket imposed by some of the more narrow views of the divine authorship. And magnificent because it has the potential to answer so many seeming inconsistencies in the Torah which hitherto have often been answered inadequately. This idea of a third-party narrator has the promise to explain so much of that away, and it predates modern biblical scholarship, which arrives at a similar conclusion, by 800 years or so!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur