Parshat V’zot HaBracha (Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12)
Rabbi David Stav
It is interesting to note that Hashem chose to end His Torah, “And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, as manifested by all the signs and wonders, which the Lord had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land, and all the strong hand, and all the great awe that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 34:10-12)
This conclusion focuses on three aspects of Moshe Rabbenu’s greatness. The first concerns prophecy. There had never been, nor will there ever be, a prophet as great as Moshe. This declaration ostensibly serves to warn the nation and prepare it for the challenges it is destined to face later in its history, which include frequent encounters with false prophets who emerged both from within the Jewish people, and from without.
The second aspect of Moshe’s greatness was the magnitude of the events in which he was a part. These verses stress the fact that this was a man who was involved in the performance of the greatest miracles in the history of mankind. Far from being quaint, simple folk tales, these events set in motion dramatic changes in the annals of the nations of the world. Some of these great miracles were witnessed by the entire nation, and the other nations were also involved in what had transpired.
The third aspect is less clear. How can the words “and all the great awe that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel” be understood? Is God hinting to a regime of terror, God forbid, or to a specific event? And if a specific event is being referred to, what is it? The rabbis grappled with this verse, and Rashi interpreted them as follows:
This expression alludes to the incident where his heart stirred him up to smash the tablets before their eyes, as it is said, “and I shattered them before your eyes” (Deut. 9:17). – [Sifrei 33:41] And [regarding Moses shattering the Tablets,] the Holy One Blessed is He gave His approval, as Scripture states, “[the first Tablets] which you shattered” (Exod. 34:1); [God said to Moses:] “Well done for shattering them!” (Rashi on Devarim 24:12, based on Tractate Shabbat 87a)
In other words, the Torah is reminding us here that Moshe broke the Luhot Habrit, the Tablets of the Covenant, which were given by God after the sin of the golden calf.
This explanation, however, does not sit well with us. Moshe had led the people through the desert for forty years, and the one event he chooses to emphasize as he finishes delivering his message to the Jewish people is the breaking of the Tablets of the Covenant? What is so unique about this event? Why was this event so important that it should conclude the Torah?
The rabbinical interpretation of the verse might be expressing a basic principle used to understand the essence of the Torah and distinguish between Torah study, in contrast to studying any other book. When we finish reading the Torah, we should ask ourselves what our takeaway is from the experience.
Was this just a nice book that occasionally made us reflect, or perhaps even inspired us at times, only to be buried in the recesses of our memories as we went back to our daily routines? Or did this book truly leave a lasting impression on us, one that would change us from within, and even lead to a major change in our actions?
At the very beginning of the relationship between the Nation of Israel and the Torah, at Mount Sinai, when they went hand in hand, a formative event occurred, one that would serve as the basis for the Jewish people’s relationship with the Torah. Yet just forty days after receiving the Torah, after the Jewish people famously exclaimed “we shall do, and we shall listen” and in so doing took on the prohibition against idol worship and prostrating before statues, the very same nation bowed down to a golden calf.
Moshe’s immediate and severe reaction was that if this travesty occurred, the Torah does not exist. The Torah can’t be simply tucked away in our bookshelves. It needs to cause a serious change within us. If we only notice it with passing glances, if it doesn’t truly leave a deep impression on our perceptions, we might as well have never received it to begin with.
As the Torah draws to a close, people need to ask themselves the tough questions. Without them, Torah study is worthless. It isn’t just about what we learned in the Torah, but also what the Torah has taught us, and what it has planted deep within us.