Devarim: One Man’s Story

MosesThis week’s Torah reading begins: “These are the words that Moshe spoke to the entire Jewish people.” Noting the distinction between this book and the previous four, which are all “the word of G-d,” our Sages explain that Moshe recited the Book of Deuteronomy “on his own initiative.”

Rabbi Eli Touger
Commentary on Torah Portion Devarim
“A Mortal Mouth Speaking G-d’s Word”
Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, p. 1087ff; Vol. XIX, p. 9ff

For most Christians, who don’t have a conservative evangelical view like the one I had, these textual facts can be interesting, but there is nothing in them to challenge their faith, which is built on something other than having the very words that God inspired in the Bible. And I certainly never intended to lead anyone away from the Christian faith; critics who have suggested that I myself stopped being a Christian once I realized there were differences among our manuscripts are simply wrong and being ridiculous.

Author and New Testament Scholar
Bart D. Ehrman in his book
Jesus, Interrupted

Today’s “extra” meditation and my commentary on this week’s Torah Portion Devarim.

Occasionally people ask why most of the book of Deuteronomy (in Hebrew, “Devarim”) even exists. It seems to do little more than repeat and summarize the events in the first four books of the Torah. The answer can be a little disturbing to some Christians and even to some Jews. Our understanding is that the first four books of the Bible were the words of God as dictated to Moses and Deuteronomy is in Moses’ own words.

Does that mean Deuteronomy is completely human in origin and without the influence of God? Let’s return to Rabbi Touger’s commentary:

This does not…mean that the Book of Deuteronomy is merely a mortal invention. Our Rabbis immediately clarify that Moshe delivered his words “inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Similarly, when the Rambam defines the category of “those who deny the Torah,” he includes: “a person who says that the Torah even one verse or one word does not emanate from G-d. If one would say, ‘Moshe made these statements independently,’ he is denying the Torah.”

Not a single commentator maintains that there is a difference in this regard between the Book of Deuteronomy and the four preceding books.

For the Book of Deuteronomy are merely Moshe’s words. Moshe’s identification with G-dliness was so great that when he states: “I will grant the rain of your land in its season,” he speaks in the first person although the pronoun “I” clearly refers to G-d. “The Divine Presence spoke from his mouth.”

The origin of the Bible and exactly how it was written and codified is complex and more than a little mysterious. The simple belief among many Christians is that each author wrote under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit and what they wrote originally is exactly what we have in our Bibles today (translated into the language we prefer to read). I included the quote from Bart Ehrman’s book to illustrate that even among modern Bible scholars, there is some doubt as to whether or not we can read the Bible as if it were a history book, newspaper, and court reporter’s record all rolled into one. In fact, we can’t.

The Bible is as much a human document as a document of the Divine. It’s a series of “stories” that illustrate something about God and His interactions with humanity. That it contains internal inconsistencies and historic flaws in no way disqualifies its moral and mystic significance among the community of faith. The stories tell us what we need to know, not as a history lesson, but as a guide to righteous living and as a doorway into domains that leave our mortal plane and allow us to glimpse the Throne of God.

In referring to Midrash Tehillim to 90:4; Bereishis Rabbah 8:2, we see that the Sages believe that “The Torah preceded the world” and when we read John 1:1, we see that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. From this, we understand that only part of the Bible’s function is to act as a record and a document. Beyond the scroll in the Ark or the book on our hand, it exists in transition between our world and the next.

Rabbi Touger continues:

Here, the concept of precedence is not chronological, for time like space is a creation, relevant only after G-d brought existence into being. Rather the intent is that the Torah is on a level of spiritual truth which transcends our material frame of reference. Although the Torah “descends” and “enclothes itself” in our world, speaking of seemingly ordinary matters such as agricultural laws, codes for fair business practice, and the proper structure for marriage and family relations, this is not its essence. The essence of the Torah is “G-d’s will and His wisdom,” united with Him in perfect unity (see Tanya, ch. 4).

The product description for Ehrman’s book states that “the New Testament is riddled with contradictory views about who Jesus was and the significance of his life”, yet from a mystic point of view, this doesn’t present a problem.

The Ba'al Shem TovWhen I was reading The Hasidic Tale by Gedaliah Nigal, I wrote several commentaries about what I gained from the text including The Messianic Tale and Stories are Miracles. From these, we see that the stories of the Chasidim are less a series of historical facts and more a collection of mystic and allegorical tales designed to reveal something about ourselves, about holiness, and about God. How much of each story is factually accurate isn’t particularly relevant, because one does not approach the tales of the Chasidim that way. What we are looking for is something that will peel away the covers from the world of the supernatural and give us a peek at what lies around the next bend on our path of faith.

We can apply that commentary back to the Bible thus.

Jorge Quinonez, in his book “Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader” Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34 (quoted in Love and the Messianic Age) describes Levertoff, a Chasidic Jew and devoted disciple of Jesus, this way:

He read the Gospels in German. Then he obtained a Hebrew version and reread them. Though he was in the midst of a Gentile, Christian city where Jesus was worshiped in churches and honored in every home, Feivel felt the Gospels belonged more to him and the Chasidic world than they did to the Gentiles who revered them. He found the Gospels to be thoroughly Jewish and conceptually similar to Chasidic Judaism. He wondered how Gentile Christians could hope to comprehend Yeshua (Jesus) and His words without the benefit of a classical Jewish education or experience with the esoteric works of the Chasidim.

This perhaps, is what scholars like Bart Ehrman miss when they study and criticize the Bible for not reading like a story posted at CNN. Divinity and humanity collide, meld, mesh, and blend within the pages of the Bible and we are not always meant to be able to tell where one leaves off and the other begins…or if that division is even possible.

Rabbi Touger states:

But why is the Book of Deuteronomy necessary? Enclothing the Torah in human intellect seemingly does nothing but lower its spiritual content. What purpose is served?

Nevertheless, this is G-d’s intent in giving the Torah: that it permeate mortal thought and thus elevate man’s understanding. Whenever a person studies Torah, regardless of his spiritual level, he is making its infinite truth part of his personal nature.

Were there to have been only four books in the Torah, it would have been impossible for our powers of understanding to unite completely with the Torah. It was only by having the Book of Deuteronomy pass through Moshe’s intellect that this goal accomplished. Moreover, Moshe’s review of the Torah in he Book of Deuteronomy gives us the capacity to understand the previous four books in a similar fashion.

Enclothing the Torah in mortal intellect does not merely grant man the opportunity for advancement, it also introduces a higher quality to the Torah itself, as it were. For clothing limitless spirituality in the confines of mortal intellect represents a fusion of opposites that is possible only through the influence of G-d’s essence. Because His essence transcends both finiteness and infinity, it can weld the two together, bringing the spiritual truth of the Torah within the grasp of mortals.

TranscendentWho we are and who God is in us requires that we leave behind some of our attachment to what we call “reality” and allow ourselves to stand transcendent at the uncomfortable and mystic threshold between Heaven and Earth. We don’t have to rely on the Bible to be a book of facts but rather a book of truth.

Consider this:

These are the words which Moses spoke to the children of Israel, across the Jordan, in the desert, in the plain, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, Lavan, Chatzeiroth, and Di-Zahav –Devarim 1:1

All these “places” are allusions to sins committed by the Jewish people during their forty years of wandering in the Sinai Desert. Moses rebuked them only by insinuation so as not to embarrass them.

-Rashi’s commentary

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch once delivered a scathing critique of a certain type of outlook and behavior. Later, one of those present complained to him: “Rebbe, why did you rebuke me in public? Could you not have privately made me aware of my negative traits, without embarrassing me in front of everyone?”

Replied Rabbi Menachem Mendel: “Did I mean you? Obviously, I did. You see, I am a hat-maker. The hat-maker fashions a hat and places it in his window. People come in and try it on, until someone finds that it suits his head perfectly. Whom did he have in mind when he made this hat? Why, he made it precisely for the very customer who finds that it fits him!”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Commentary of Torah Portion Devarim
“The Discreet Hatter”

The Bible serves many purposes in our lives, not the least of which is to reveal the nature of who we are, for good or for ill. It is a book that condemns but also encourages. It shows us the goodness of God and where we fall short of that goodness (Romans 3:10). Let the Bible be what God intended it to be and let God be who He is. Listen to the words of Moses and his “Chasidic” tale of the wanderings of the Children of Israel, of his own journey with God, of the approach to the end of his life, and in listening to him, learn something about yourself.

Good Shabbos.

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