Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to present a new column of the parsha shiurim of Harav Dovid Feinstein, zt”l. To manage the amount of divrei Torah for Rabbi Grunfeld to go through, we will be publishing the column biweekly. Missing parshiyos will be made up next year, G-d willing.
At exactly 120 years, Moshe tells the people of Israel that today he can no longer lead them. Why was today different from yesterday or from the years before when he did have the strength to lead them, not only in their daily needs, but even into war?
The answer is that Moshe was aware of the hidden reference to himself in the words of the Torah (Bereishis 6:3) “…b’sehgam hu basar, v’hayu yamav me’ah v’esrim shana” (…since he too is flesh; his days will be 120 years). The fact that the words Moshe and b’shegam are equal in numerical value, informed him that his life was to end at 120.
In addition, the words b’sehgam hu basar undercut an argument that Moshe himself could have made to live longer than 120 years. After all, Moshe is referred to in the Torah (Devarim 33:1) as Ish haElokim, a man of G-d, which Chazal interpret to mean that in spiritual matters, he was like an angel. This explains how he was able to survive in heaven for 40 days and nights learning Torah, without eating or drinking. Yet, in physical matters he was human. Is such a hybrid being as Moshe subject to the edict pronounced in Bereishis 6:3, that all humans from the time of the bnei haElokim (a reference in the pasuk to the people of that generation) onwards must die by 120? This question is answered by the words b’sehgam hu basar, that even though Moshe is part angel, he is also part human, and he cannot live longer.
As such, Moshe’s mandate to act as G-d’s messenger is terminated and he must make room for Yehoshua, because, as the Gemera says, the reign of a leader cannot encroach on the reign of his successor by even one hairsbreadth.
Moshe then asks G-d whether he can cross the Jordan into the land of Israel as a private citizen, without any leadership role. After all Moshe was the most humble person ever; he had no ego and did not need an official title. This request too is rejected by G-d with the words “Lo sa’avor es hayarden hazeh” (You will not cross the Jordan). Chazal tell us that, unlike the leaders of the twelve tribes whose bodies were transported and buried in Israel, Moshe was not allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael, neither during his lifetime nor after his death. Indeed, because Moshe was an Ish HaElokim, we do not really know exactly where he is buried (Devarim 34:6) nor, for that matter, whether he always inhabits his grave. If G-d would allow him to enter Eretz Yisrael after his “death,” perhaps the spiritual side of him would continue to lead as before and encroach on Yehoshua’s leadership.
The words “Hashem your G-d will cross before you, He will destroy these nations from before you and you shall possess them; Yehoshua will cross before you as G-d has spoken” (Devarim 31:3) seem to contain a contradiction. Who is leading the people, G-d or Yehoshua. From the verses which immediately follow, however, we see that G-d would continue to perform miracles like He did during the defeat of the giant Og, king of Bashan, whom Moshe was able to miraculously slay with his bare hands, and it is therefore clear that it is G-d who is going to be leading them, not Yehoshua. But these miracles would occur only if Yehoshua rides into battle in front of the people. If they try to go it alone without Yehoshua, they would be defeated, as they were in the battle of Ai (Yehoshua, chapter 7).
This is why the Torah (Devarim 31:6) adds the words “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid and do not be broken before them for G-d goes before you and he will not …forsake you.” Yes, there may be setbacks, as there was in the battle of Ai. But that was a temporary setback, whose purpose it was to strengthen the people of Israel by rooting out the evil elements within them, which sought to plunder the spoils of battle even as G-d had forbidden it.
Moshe then summons Yehoshua (Devarim 31:7) and tells him “you shall come (ta’vo) with the people to the land.” Later on, when G-d addresses Yehoshua directly (Devarim 31:23), He uses different language: “You shall bring (ta’vee) the children of Israel into the land.” Whereas the former suggests that Yehoshua will have no leadership role in bringing the people into the land and will just follow along, the latter suggests that he will lead.
Indeed, by using the word ta’vo, it was Moshe’s intention that Yehoshuah, in all he did, would have to acquiesce with whatever the 70 elders of Israel decided, even if he disagreed with them. It was G-d’s wish, however, that even though Yehoshua should seriously consider the views of the 70 elders, ultimately the decision was for him to take, even if they disagreed with him.
This diverging view of Yehoshua’s leadership role is further borne out by the fact that when addressing him, Moshe in (Devarim 31:7) uses the name Yehoshua, whereas when G-d addresses him in (Devarim 31:23) He uses the name Yehoshua Bin Nun. As the Chasam Sofer points out, the word Nun is made up of a bent nun (the letter in this case, not the word) at the beginning and an upright nun at the end, and the word ben (“son of”) comes from the word l’havin, to understand. Yehoshua was vested by G-d with the understanding to determine when to conduct himself like the bent nun and bow to the will of the 70 elders and when to stand up to them, like the erect nun and impose his decisions on them.
Moshe wrote the Torah (Devarim 31:9) and gave it to the kohanim, the sons of Levi, the bearers (ha’nosim) of the ark. The word nosei (singular of nosim) signifies the title of a kohen which is bestowed on him at birth. This title alone does not qualify him to be a bearer of the ark. After all, the kohanim were meant to be the religious leaders of the people of Israel. Accordingly, in addition to nosei, the word vayitna (he gave it) is used to stress that the Torah be given to the kohen in the sense that he must acquire it, which he can only do by learning the Torah. That is why out of all the possible candidates of the children of Kehot, it was Korach who was initially chosen to carry the ark, because, whatever other deficiencies he would develop, including that of having a bad advisor, he was a great Torah scholar.
This same Torah was also given by Moshe to all the elders of Israel. Unlike the title of kohen and the title of royalty, which were granted by birth to the privileged few, the title of zaken (elder) is one that can be acquired by anybody willing to invest the effort to become a Torah scholar.
Moshe commanded that a reading of the Torah should take place in the presence of all the people of Israel who assemble at the Temple at the end of the seventh year of the Shemitah cycle, during the Sukkos festival. This gathering of the people known as Hakheil was done in order that they learn how to perform all the commandments of the Torah which would automatically instill the awe of G-d into them.
If one would ask a person today to cease work and dedicate serious blocks of time each day to the study of Torah, the obvious question would be the one the Jews asked when they were required to cease working the land during the Sabbatical year: “What will we eat in the seventh year, behold we will not sow and not gather in our crops?” (Vayikra 25:20). If I sit and learn instead of working round the clock, what will happen to my livelihood? If this question is asked outright, it will be answered outright with G-d’s blessing: “I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year and it will yield crop sufficient for the three-year period” (25:21). But the blessing will not be given with a smile, because the question should never have been asked. It shows a lack of trust.
That is what the timing of Hakheil is all about. We are asked to gather, joyously, at a difficult time, at the end of the Shemitah cycle, when food is scarce and to dedicate our resources, not to the replenishment of food, but to our spiritual refurbishment. We are asked to do this not only by putting our economic concerns aside, but also by stepping, trustingly, out of the physical comfort zones of our permanent homes, without asking where our security will come from. It is only by doing so and thereby demonstrating that we place our economic and physical well-being entirely in G-d’s hands, even at the most vulnerable of times, in the flimsiest of accommodations, that we genuinely put into practice the words of the Torah “Not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of G-d does man live” (Devarim 8:3) and the words of the Psalmst (Tehillim 127:1) “If G-d will not build the house, in vain do its builders labor on it.”
The Torah warns us that if we are too preoccupied with making a livelihood and achieving prosperity, we are likely to forget Him and his Torah and incur the ensuing penalties. “If you will eat, be sated and grow fat (v’dashen) and turn to the gods of others and serve them, it will provoke me and annul my covenant (Devarim 31:20).
The word dashen has the numerical value of 354, equal to the number of days in the year. The message is that if we strive to achieve the economic success that would allow us to indulge ourselves every day of the year like we do each Shabbat, we are bound to lose our way. This is what happened when the Jews helped themselves to the gold and silver that the drowned Egyptians left behind them at the Red Sea. These riches were later used to fashion the Egel, the golden calf which they worshipped then, and the eagle – the dollar bill – which we are in danger of worshiping now. As the Talmud says, “A lion does not roar amid a basket of straw, but rather amid a basket of meat.”