The Value of Total Interpretation – Ha’azinu 5780

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy | General

Israeli scholar Meir Weiss propounded a technique of reading Biblical texts he called “total interpretation.” An example of what that encompasses might be ascribed to the work of a medieval scholar in at least one particular case. The poetry of the Song of Moses is sublime, but some of the imagery is not too clear. Sixteenth century Rabbi Moses Alshikh both clarifies the imagery and applies it to the historical context of Moses’ final days in particular and to Jewish life in general.


Moses introduces his song with the hope that his discourse “comes down as the rain” (Deuteronomy 32:2) and his speech will be “like dew.” The watery imagery continues with the next couplet: “Like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass” (ibid.). The introduction employs four different intensities: rain, dew, showers, and droplets. Alshikh explains why. The earth, he says, requires heavy rainfall to promote initial plant growth. Subsequently, only minimal amounts are required. In fact, if heavy rain persists, the seedlings are in danger of being washed away. Thus a steady, gentle, nurturing will yield the highest degree of agricultural success.


Once the imagery is explained, it needs to be applied contextually. Moses expresses the hope that his final words will cause the ideas to take root. As he proceeds, he will rely on a steady, gentle expansion and embellishment to enhance these ideas and give them deeper meaning. In other words, Moses is hinting at how his address will be structured: main ideas at the outset; corollaries to follow. As an expert in public speaking once advised: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them what you are telling them. Tell them what you told them.”


The last step in Alshikh’s commentary is to derive a lesson from the imagery that extends beyond Moses’ application. Here, Alshikh applies Moses imagery to the study of Torah. At first, Torah study requires a high degree of focus and intensity. But once a Jew has mastered the basics, measured amounts of refinement, extension, and development will yield maximum growth. Moreover, the more Torah a Jew studies, the less burdensome and the more rewarding it becomes.


By reading the text closely, Alshikh is saying, there are three layers of meaning: exegetical insights, contextual application, and homiletical meaning, collectively pointing to total interpretation.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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