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Home » The Jewish Faith, Vayelech

Vayelech: Students or Contributors?

Submitted by on September 6, 2009 – 3:24 amNo Comment | 4,258 views

End Of An Era

The Torah is G-d’s book, given in complete form to Moses, subject to neither addition nor subtraction. Yet many questions were left unaddressed in the written Torah and later sages resolved them through independent analysis. This leaves us with a question, are we recipients of the Torah or its contributors? Do we make it up as we go along or are we committed to the unchanging word of G-d?

This was the very conundrum our ancestors experienced with the passing of Moses. For forty years Moses had taught the Torah. When questions arose Moses would put them to G-d, but with his passing this would no longer be possible; there would no longer be a Moses to query G-d. When questions would arise the people would have to determine the answers on their own. The Torah Moses taught was clearly the word of G-d, but would the Torah Joshua taught also be the word of G-d?

The Talmud relates (1) that seventeen-hundred laws were in fact forgotten during the mourning period for Moses and Asniel  Ben Knaz reinstated them through his analysis… An additional three thousand laws were forgotten, which Asniel was unable to reinstate. The people asked Joshua to query the heavens, but Joshua replied, “The Torah is not in heaven.” (2)

You Can Do It

The link to heaven seemed to pass away with Moses; from that point forward the people would have to rely on their own analysis. Scholars such as the aforementioned Asniel would have to delve into the texts and derive independent answers to the questions of their day.

This was surely a traumatic time for the entire nation. There must have been an abiding sense of insecurity about the future akin to what children experience with the passing of parents. Irrespective of age, we are psychologically dependent on our parents throughout our lives. We might be financially indeplearn for yourself - innerstreamendant and emotionally self sufficient, but in the back of our minds we know that our parents are always there to support us. When they pass away we feel utterly alone. We wonder if we can handle life without them. We wonder if we can step in and become family patriarchs or matriarchs. We wonder if we can fill the shoes that were always filled by those greater than ourselves.

Judging from their request of Joshua to query the heavens and their reluctance to reinstate the law through their own initiative we can surmise that they harbored similar concerns. Could they fill Moses’ large shoes? Could they survive without him?

G-d’s answer was a resounding yes. He ordained that Moses be buried outside of Israel to indicate that the new generation was fully capable of responding to the call. They would not live in Moses’ shadow; they had been well trained and were now ready to succeed him. Just before his passing, Moses wrote thirteen Torah scrolls and gave one to each tribe. This was his way of passing the torch to the next generation. It was his way of saying, you have your own Torah now; you are capable of preserving it and will soon be entrusted with that task. (3)

For five weeks before his passing, Moses reviewed G-d’s law with them, but he did so in his own words rather than repeat G-d’s words verbatim. By this he demonstrated that we would now need to engage our own minds to resolve questions that arise because G-d would no longer resolve them for us.

Still With Us

Moses may have used his own words, but the ideas he put forth were not his own. He did not create a new law; he imparted G-d’s law. By this he demonstrated that even as we engage our minds and rely on our analysis, our conclusions are only accepted if our intent is to identify G-d’s law rather than create a new law that suits us or is in keeping with our ethical sensibilities.

In this sense Moses did not abandon his people. He may not have been buried in Israel but he was buried beside a mountain near the border of Israel. From this mountain Moses had been given an opportunity to gaze upon Israel; the land he could not visit, but into which he would send his disciples. He was not with them as they entered, but he inspired their efforts from above.

Our sages put it thusly; every innovation of a veteran student was taught to Moses at Sinai. (4) Moses was given the basic building blocks of the entire Torah and every innovative interpretation that would ever be suggested is embedded in those blocks. Using the code that G-d gave Moses students of later generations apply themselves to uncover layers of depth and breadth that Moses never imagined. Innovations of such students are incorporated into the Torah, but innovations of those who break with the teachings of Moses are beyond the kosher pale.

This is the symbiotic relationship between Moses and Torah scholars of all generations. We were given license to innovate, but we were only authorized to work within the parameters of the law that Moses taught. We cannot change the Torah; we cannot add to it or subtract from it. What we can do is use the keys, given us by Moses, to unlock secrets that Moses never fathomed. We can thus uncover explanations and Halachic rulings for questions that were never addressed before.

Moses is not buried in Israel; he has passed the torch to us and does not interfere. But from his heavenly perch he inspires. He does not directly petition G-d for answers, but indirectly he is still involved; his past teachings inform our efforts and guide us toward the truth of G-d’s law.

This explains why Moses delivered a Torah scroll to every tribe before his passing. Moses would pass away while the people would move on to Israel. But his torah would remain with them; his teachings would continue to guide them in deciphering the secret code of the Torah.

Perhaps this is what our sages meant when they declared that Moses never died. (5) He was buried and succeeded by Joshua, but his works continued to live through the students who followed his lead.

The Humble Channel

Returning to our original question; is a Jew a student of Torah or also a contributor? The answer is neither. We cannot contribute to the Torah; the Torah is G-d’s book and no human can enhance or alter it. On the other hand, a Jew is not a mere student of Torah; the Torah’s depth and breadth is revealed through our efforts in every generation.  We are neither student nor contributor; we are channels through which the Torah reveals itself.

To become a channel for the revelation of Torah we must submit to the study of Torah with reverence, awe and, most importantly, humility. When we do so in complete humility we become a vehicle for the transcendent word of G-d. And being a humble vehicle for G-d is the highest honor.

Questions For Further Discussion

Is it hubris to claim that the product of the human mind is the living word of G-d?

Would we have been better served if G-d continued to provide direct answers as He did for Moses?

What benefits do you suppose the current system provides?

We invite your comment in reply.



  1. Babylonian Talmud, Temurah: 16a
  2. Deuteronomy 30: 12.
  3. Deuteronomy 31: 9.
  4. Babylonian Talmud, Megillah: 19b.
  5. Babylonian Talmud, Sotah: 13b.