Why do we need Moses to keep talking?
According to the commentator, Nachmanides, Moses finishes reviewing the commandments and stipulations of the Torah by Deuteronomy 26:16. This already comes most of the way through a book of the Torah that some commentators view as a recapitulation of the other four books – and which some contemporary scholars view as a later addition altogether. So why are we here, three chapters after the most generous reading of the Book of Deuteronomy indicates Moses has fully conveyed the content of the Torah? Why is Moses relating a review of a review within a book of reiteration?
It feels like the moment in a conversation when you might remind your interlocutor that they had already said something or that you remember what they had told you. Perhaps that is exactly what Moses is waiting for. For any number of reasons, he needs affirmation that the Israelites have heard him.
From a careful reading, I intuit three possible motivations: fear that he (and, by extension, God’s message) is not adequately understood; fear that the Israelites won’t listen to him (and, by extension, God); or fear that entering the promised land will so significantly test the Israelites that there is no adequate amount to repeat, drill, practice, and internalize his message.
All three are plausible, but I read Moses as giving of himself a bit more vulnerably and openly in Parshat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20) than in other passages from the Torah He is at once preparing to shed the mantle of leadership and reaching toward the capstone of his work, which he will achieve posthumously when the Israelites enter the Promised Land with the laws they need to live in it well. He knows that his end is near and fears losing his voice (or the impact thereof), so he implores the Israelites once more to heed the laws that he has conveyed and to live them out.
Our sages seem to wonder about what Moses sees of the people and their future but focus less on geographical place than they do of the spiritual place of Torah in their lives. They draw greatly upon the final sentences of this Torah portion, Deuteronomy 30: 19-20:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life–if you and your offspring would live–
by loving your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to [God]. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.
They focus upon the words in Hebrew (Ki hu hayyecha v’orach yamecha) from Deuteronomy 20, which literally means that “It is your life and the length of your days” (BT Kiddushin 42a, BT Pesachim 49b). If God’s commands are one’s life, that means Torah is life – and one who studies, irrespective of where they do – may realize its potential.
For those living in exile over the millennia – or today, those who remain outside of the Promised Land by choice – the Talmudic interpretations are liberating. Moses gave us the Torah that we might live well, wherever we might live. The Promised Land can be everywhere if only we make it so.
For those who live in the modern State of Israel, they carry no less significance. They might just carry a different emphasis and a heightened sense of place alongside the more universal sense of Torah-guided purpose.
Perhaps Moses continued to speak because the Israelites needed him to then, and perhaps because we still need his words today. He had already conveyed the substance of the Torah and could finally sum up why it mattered so that we could hear it more deeply.
Moses’ words from Parshat Nitzavim still speak to us.
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