Parashat Va'et'hanan

The Dutiful Student

Moses as a model of one who seeks greater understanding

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Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Reenacting an historical moment through liturgy and deed is a forte of Judaism. Our calendar year overflows with holidays and observances that transport us to our former days and inspire us to reenter the narrative and relive salient moments of history. This week in particular, observing the 9th of Av, we read of the destruction of the Temple and continue the mourning of our ancestors for the calamities that befell them.

While it is possible to read this narrative as a preventive measure to ensure that we, too, do not fall victims to George Santayana's dictum condemning us to either learn from our history or repeat it, I believe that Judaism's message is a blessing, not a curse. It is a blessing for us to be able to relive life's difficult moments--and the reason why can be gleaned from Moses' behavior and our parasha this week.

Isaiah Horowitz, commenting on this week's parashah, Va'et'hanan, asserts that throughout the parshiyot of D'varim, we are constantly encouraged to learn and relearn the mitzvot of the Torah. The common name of Deuteronomy itself, the Mishneh Torah, means a second retelling of what came before in the previous four books. Each subject of the Torah is rehashed within the pages of Deuteronomy, according to Horowitz, and each is a call to action to study the passages to our fullest comprehension. For inspiration, Horowitz patterns Moses as the quintessential student, constantly questioning the pedagogical message of God.

By citing and expanding on a midrash from Yalkut Shemoni [a Bible commentary compiled in the 13th century], Horowitz enumerates the four times that Moses, as the student of God, did not fully comprehend God's message and requested clarification of God's objectives. The first of these occurs after Moses' divine election as prophet for the people at the burning bush. He faithfully transmits God's message to Pharaoh and the midrash states that Moses is surprised by Pharaoh's reaction. If God had meant to redeem the people, how could there be a negative response from Pharaoh? Should they not be redeemed immediately? Here, Moses questions the direction from God-- seeking to understand fully what God's underlying intentions are.

The same questioning occurs when Miriam is stricken with leprosy and again when Moses is told to appoint Joshua as his successor. Each time, the result of his interaction with God is not as Moses expects, instead, the midrash has him re-approaching God for clarification of his prophecy. Moses plays the dutiful student, seeking to understand a difficult lesson.

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Rabbi Marc Wolf

Rabbi Marc Wolf is assistant vice-chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary