Parashat Devarim & Tisha B’Av: Torah and the Land of Israel

hero image

Torah and the Land of Israel

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael, on the far-side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, on the plain opposite Suf, between Tofel, Laval, Chatzerot and Di Zahav. (Sefer Devarim 1:1)

1. Divergent interpretation of Sefer Devarim’s first passage
Sefer Devarim is a record of Moshe’s final message to Bnai Yisrael. In his message, Moshe urges Bnai Yisrael to remain faithful to the Torah. He describes the rewards that will be secured through observance and the consequences of abandoning the Torah. Also, Moshe elaborates on various commandments. Some have been previously discussed and now Moshe adds more detail. Some of these commandments are now first communicated to the nation as it prepares to pass into the Land of Israel.

The above passage introduces Sefer Davarim. The apparent intent of the passage is to provide a detailed geographic description of the location at which the address was delivered. Rashi and many others rejected this interpretation. They questioned the purpose of describing in such minute detail the location at which the address was delivered. Rashi reinterprets the passage. According to his interpretation, the passage begins by describing the location at which the address was delivered but then it continues and provides a list of the sins and failings of the nation. Moshe is reminding the nation of these past wrongdoings and their consequences in order to motivate them to be more scrupulous in their obedience to Hashem. Beginning with the term “wilderness”, each term in the passage that seemingly refers to the location of the address is actually a reference to an event. For example, “Suf” refers to the people’s panic upon arriving at the Reed Sea – the Yam Suf – with the Egyptians in pursuit.1

However, Rashbam understands the passage in its simple sense – as a description of the location at which Moshe addressed the nation. He argues that although it is true that the description is very detailed, this is not the only instance in which the Torah provides a detailed description of the location of an event. In these other instances, the description is not as elaborate as this one. Nonetheless, in these numerous instances, the Torah provides a level of detail that, from Rashi’s perspective, should be regarded as superfluous. Rashi does not feel compelled to reinterpret these various passages. So, he should not be troubled by this instance!2

2. The first passage’s geographic confusion
Both Rashi and Rashbam agree that the term “the far-side of the Jordan” is a geographic description of the location at which Moshe delivered his address. The term refers to the eastern bank of the Jordan River. The nation will begin its conquest of the Land of Canaan by crossing the Jordan to its western bank. The reference to the eastern bank as the “far-side of the Jordan” is appropriate for someone who has already crossed the river and is on its western bank. At the time Moshe delivered his address, the eastern bank on which he stood was not the far-side of the river. The western bank was the far-side. Yet, Moshe referred to the side on which he stood when he spoke and recorded his words as the “far-side” of the Jordan. In other words, Moshe described his location as if he were standing in the Land of Canaan and was referring to a past event!

And Hashem planted a garden in Eden in the East. And He placed there the man He had formed. And He caused to grow from the land every tree that is pleasant to look upon and good to eat and the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And a river went forth from Eden to water the garden, and from there, it separated into four parts. The name of one is Pishon. It is the one that surrounds the entire Land of Chavilah where there is gold … The name of the second river is Gichon. It surrounds the entire Land of Kush. The name of the third river is Chidekel. It flows to the east of Ashur. And the fourth river is Perat. (Sefer Beresheit 8-14)

3. Time and geographic perspective in the Torah’s narrative
There are other instances in which the Torah records events in similar manner. In fact, the second chapter of Sefer Beresheit provides an example. The passages above record a detailed description of the location of Garden of Eden. Most of the references in the passage are to rivers or geographic territories. The Talmud notes that there is one exception. “Ashur” refers to a city that did not exist when the Garden was created. In other words, whereas most of the terms refer to rivers or territories that were contemporary to the event described by the passages – the creation of the Garden, one term is not contemporary. Ashur is a city that was not built until humanity left the Garden and settled the Earth.3,4 Based on this observation, the Talmud concludes that the terms used in the Torah in describing events are not necessarily contemporary to the events.5, 6

4. The Torah addresses the generations that possessed the Land of Israel
Rashbam’s comments lead to an important conclusion. The Torah’s narrative begins with creation and outlines the development of humanity and then Bnai Yisrael. It concludes with Moshe’s last moments as he brings to a close his last words to his nation. He recorded the entire narrative and he delivered it to the nation before his death. But the Torah is not addressed to the people who stood on the eastern bank of the Jordan and received Moshe’s Torah. It is addressed to those who will pass over the Jordan and the generation that will inhabit the land to the west of the River. It is addressed to Bnai Yisrael in the Land of Israel. In other words, the Torah speaks to Bnai Yisrael in the Land of Israel – not on the eastern bank of the Jordan and not in exile. Because it addresses the nation in the Land of Israel, it refers to the eastern bank of the Jordan as the “far-side” of the river.

Rashbam interprets the first passage of Sefer Devarim in a different manner than Rashi. However, his comments reflect Rashi’s famous comments on the first passage of Sefer Beresheit. Rashi explains that the Torah opens with an account of creation in order to establish that Hashem is creator and the ultimate owner of the Earth. If we are accused of having stolen the Land of Israel from its previous inhabitants, we must respond that we have merely taken possession of the legacy awarded to us by the Land’s true and ultimate owner.7 Rashi’s comments are carefully composed. He is explaining that the Torah is speaking to future generations who will possess the Land and be accused of dispossessing more rightful owners. Like Rashbam, Rashi is suggesting that the Torah addresses Bnai Yisrael in the Land of Israel.8

5. Torah in the Land of Israel and in exile
Rashbam’s comments are also reflected in Nachmanides’s well-known position that the Torah is only fully observed in the Land of Israel. Nachmanides explains that although most of the Torah’s commandments are performed even in exile, they lack their full meaning and context. We perform the commandments in exile in anticipation of our return to the Land and the restoration of comprehensive observation of the Torah – observation of all of its commandments.9

[1] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 1:1.

[2] Rabbeinu Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Devarim 1:1.

[3] Masechet Ketubot 10b.

[4] The Talmud is not suggesting that the terms used in the passage are contemporary to the event of creation. These terms were created by humanity in the centuries following Adam and Chavah’s banishment from the Garden. However, the terms refer to territories and rivers that were in existence. Only the term “Ashur” refers to an entity that did not exit contemporary to the account (See Tosafot Masechet Ketubot 10b).

[5] This presentation of the Talmud’s comments reflects Rashi’s interpretation of the text. Tosafot reject this interpretation. According to Tosafot, the term “Ashur” refers to a city that did not exist even in Moshe’s era and is therefore an expression of prophetic knowledge.

[6] Of course, in this instance, the term “Ashur” was contemporary to Moshe and there is nothing shocking about its use. However, the Talmud concludes that even terms that were not yet contemporary in Moshe’s era are employed by the Torah. The specific example that is the subject of the Talmud’s discussion provides an important insight into the Sages’ reasoning. The term used in the Torah for a widow is “almanah.” The Talmud explains that this term is derived from the word “manah.” “Manah” refers to the sum of money provided to the widow from the husband’s estate at the time of his death. The provision of this sum to the widow is an enactment of the Sages. This enactment did not exist when the Torah was recorded by Moshe. This means that Moshe employed the term “almanah” even though its meaning was based upon a Rabbinic enactment not yet in existence!
However, it would be improper to conclude that the Talmud is engaging in homiletics or mystical abstractions. Rav Pinchas Horowitz in Chidushei Hafla’ah (Masechet Ketubot 10b) notes that the Sages did not create or establish their enactment without precedent. In fact, their enactment merely gave halachic form and authority to established, appropriate practice. The Talmud assumes that the practice of awarding the widow a manah existed in Moshe’s time. However, it lacked legal authority. When Moshe created the term “almanah”, the term was not meaningless. It was fully comprehensible from the framework of contemporary practice.
According to this interpretation, Moshe’s creation of the term “almanah” was not remarkable because it lacked contemporary meaning. In fact, it had clear meaning in the contemporary framework. However, it was remarkable that Moshe created a term that was based upon a practice that lacked any contemporary halachic standing. The practice reflected by the term was customary but not yet part of the Torah. The implication of Moshe’s phrasing – presumably provided by Hashem – was that the Torah directed the Sages to take action and formalize as halachah the existing practice of providing the widow a manah.

[7] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 1:1.

[8] This does not suggest that it is appropriate or effective to respond to pressure upon the State of Israel to come to a territorial compromise with the Palestinians by quoting the message of this Rashi. Former Chief Rabbi Lau pointed out that the message of Rashi is that we must be aware of the justice of our claim. If we are not aware of our right to the Land, we will not defend it and we are more likely to make unjustified territorial concessions.

[9] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 11:18.