Moses Spoke and God Answered ‘Amen’

There are two important issues that must be studied when approaching this week’s Torah portion, the first theological and the second textual.

The theological question strikes us from the moment we open this fifth Book of the Bible: Moses is speaking with his voice to the people of Israel. Each of the other four biblical books are written in the third person, in God’s voice, as it were, recording the history, narrating the drama and commanding the laws. This fifth book is written in the first person. Does this mean that the first four books are God’s Bible and the fifth Moses’ Bible?

The 15th Century Spanish biblical interpreter and faithful disciple of Maimonides, Don Isaac Abarbanel, queries “whether Deuteronomy was given by God from heaven, containing words from the mouth of the Divine as the rest of the Torah, or whether Moses spoke this book by himself … what he himself understood to be the intent of the Divine in his elucidation of the commandments, as the biblical text states, ‘And Moses began to elucidate this Torah.’”

Abarbanel concludes that whereas the first four Books of the Bible are God’s words written down by Moses, this fifth Book of the Bible contains Moses’ words, which God commanded the prophet to write down. In this manner, Deuteronomy has equal sanctity with the rest of the five Books.

Perhaps Abarbanel is agreeing with a provocative interpretation of the verse, “Moses will speak, and the Lord will answer him with a voice” (Ex. 19:19), which I once heard in the name of the Kotzker Rebbe, who asked: “What is the difference whether God speaks and Moses answers ‘Amen,’ or Moses speaks and God answers ‘Amen?’”

The second issue is textual in nature. The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ long farewell speech. Moses feels compelled to provide personal reflections on the significance of the commandments as well as his personal spin on many of the most tragic desert events.

From the very beginning of Moses’ monologue, he cites God’s invitation to the Israelites to conquer the land of Israel. This would be the perfect introduction to a retelling of the sin of the scouts whose evil report dissuaded the Israelites from attempting the conquest. Indeed, he does begin to recount, “But you all drew near to me and said, ‘Let us send out men before us, and let them scout out the land and report to us on the matter.” But this retelling comes 14 verses after God’s initial invitation, and these intervening 14 verses are filled with what appears to be recriminations against a nation which Moses “cannot carry (bear) alone.” Only after this excursus from the topic at hand does Moses discuss the failed reconnaissance mission. Why the excursus? How does it explain the failed mission?

From God’s initial approach to Moses at the burning bush, Moses was a reluctant leader. The reason was clear: Moses called himself “heavy of speech.” I have previously explained this on the basis of an interpretation of the Ralbag, to mean that Moses was not given to “light banter.” He was so immersed in the “heavy” issues that he had neither the patience nor the interest to convince an ungrateful and stiff-necked people to trust in God and conquer the Promised Land. Moses spent so much time in the companionship of the Divine that he lost the will — and ability — to consort with regular humanity.

Moses knew himself. The verses leading up to the sin of the scouts are hardly an excuse. They explain his failure to give proper direction to the delegation of tribal princes, his inability to censure their report, his unwillingness to convince them of the critical significance of the conquest of the land. He could not bear the burden, the grumblings, of a nation that was too removed from God to be able to follow Him blindly.

Back to theology. Maimonides explains that even at Mount Sinai, the entire nation only heard a sound emanating from the Divine, a kol; each individual understood that sound in accordance with his specific and individual spiritual standing, while Moses was the only one able to “divine” the precise will of God within that sound — the words of the 10 commandments (Guide to the Perplexed, II: 32). Moses internalized the will of God and thereby produced the words of the four Books of the Bible, which constitute God’s words internalized and written by Moses, the greatest prophet of all. Moses communicated with God. Moses may not always have spoken successfully to his own generation, but he did write, for us and for Jewish eternity.

But Moses also had a legacy to leave and an interpretation to give. In the book of Deuteronomy, he spoke to his people, telling them not God’s words but his own, and God commanded him to write down the words of this Book as well for all eternity, God was granting the Divine imprimatur of Torah to Moses’ Book of Deuteronomy — and making it His (God’s) Book as well. Moses spoke and God answered Amen.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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