To Value the Torah – Nitzavim-VaYelekh 5783

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

As Moses nears his death, he continues to lecture the people on God’s expectations. It is what biblical scholar Professor Jeffrey H. Tigay calls “the summons to the covenant.” He assures the people that the content of the Torah is neither unintelligible nor inaccessible. In the language of the text, the Torah is “not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach” (Deuteronomy 30:11).  The Hebrew word for “baffling” is “niflait,” which Tigay correctly notes comes from the same root that refers to a legal case where the judges do not know how to rule (Deut. 17:8). But the Midrash offers a different perspective.

According to the Midrash (Deuteronomy 8:2), the angels desired the Torah but it was denied them by God. The word “niflait” suggests something miraculous or wondrous and thus best suited for divine beings. But God said to the Israelites: “For angels it [the Torah] is wondrous” [that is, beyond them]; for you, not.” In other words, the Torah holds no value for angels who, lacking free choice, cannot understand or appreciate its laws. It is not that human beings are superior in power or position to angels. But human beings who grasp their own frailties recognize how valuable the Torah is.

Indeed, this is the singular problem of Jewish education today in the non-Orthodox milieu: convincing students that the Torah is an invaluable tool in shaping their character; that the Torah is not simply an anthology of myths and an assortment of largely outmoded laws but a system of moral instruction that can make them better citizens and better people.

Moses can commiserate. Faced with the possibility of the Israelites reverting to their pre-Sinaitic behavior, Moses tries to win their hearts and minds by berating, threatening, warning, persuading, and cajoling them.  As history attests, his efforts were less than successful. But that does not mean that the enterprise ought to be abandoned. The “magic bullet” may never be discovered. Nevertheless, it is the obligation of every rabbi, teacher, and Jewish leader to change people’s outlook from indifference to acceptance.


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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