The Essence of Torah

This Shabbat marks the beginning of the reading of the fifth book of Moses – a book which summarizes the last 40 years in the desert from Moses’ perspective, as he reaches the end of his leadership and the end of his life. Moses reminisces about both the past and the future in front of a new generation – a generation which is about to enter the promised land. 

In Moses’ grand summary, the past resurfaces in all of its nuanced complexity: the accomplishments and failures are reviewed and plans for the future are outlined. Moses’ words reproach and caress, they instruct and rebuke and form the essence of Sefer D’varim – perhaps one of the earliest examples of a leader addressing their community, consciously applying tone and timing, authenticity and care. 

Preceding Moses’ words we read the following description: 

1:5 On this side Jordan in the land of Moab began Moses to explain/illustrate the Torah by saying…

…בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה בֵּאֵר אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת לֵאמֹר

One would enthusiastically expect Moses to indeed explain the Torah and its teachings as part of his grand recap of all that happened so far, but instead there’s a continuation of a story, which doesn’t quite seem to fit the aforementioned introduction:

“God said to us at Horeb, You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighbouring peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the Euphrates. See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land that God swore he would give to your fathers- to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob- and to their descendants after them.

At that time I said to you, You are too heavy a burden for me to carry alone. God has increased your numbers so that today you are as many as the stars in the sky. May God, the God of your fathers, increase you a thousand times and bless you as God has promised! But how can I bear your problems and your burdens and your disputes all by myself? Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you. 

You answered me, What you propose to do is good. So I took the leading men of your tribes, wise and respected men, and appointed them to have authority over you- as commanders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens and as tribal officials. And I charged your judges at that time: Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien. Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it. And at that time I told you everything you were to do.”

Where, would one wonder, is that essence of Torah the introductory text suggests Moses is about to proclaim?

Might it be that the essence of Torah is implied by the appointing of new authorities by Moses, as his leadership reaches an end?

By delegating judges from each tribe and creating a previously unfamiliar system of solving conflict, Moses introduces a shift from a model in which one person (Moses) is the sole person to evaluate a conflict according to his convictions – to a group of leaders making those evaluations and judgements. Might the essence of Torah be reflected by a group of people coming together to process and solve problems?

We can assume that not every decision made by the people will be identical or even compatible with what Moses would have decided and yet it’s the group that is given the general guidelines – to walk along the principle of justice and to not be afraid. It’s the people that are asked to resolve conflict with the same fairness that is attributed to the divine. 

This might be what Moses’ illustration of the Torah is all about: The people, who up to this moment only knew one Torah dictated by Moses, are presented with a system that is made up of many judges with many Torot, opinions and approaches. The expectation of having only one Torah is let go of. When we look today at the variety of Jewish movements, styles of worship music and teachings, ways of reading Jewish texts, liturgy and rituals, we find that there too – many torot give expression to the essence of Torah.

There’s no escape from the differences of opinions and beliefs among human beings. Different interpretations of Torah are inevitable. As we each grapple, reclaim, struggle and celebrate our sacred texts, may we be reminded of this essence that we all differ in our strategies to meet our shared needs as we each journey towards our promised lands. 

Shabbat Shalom!