AND THERE WAS A KIN

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

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In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

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PARASHAT VEZOT–HA-BERAKHA

 

AND THERE WAS A KING

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

In our final study of the weekly parasha this year, we read of Moshe Rabbeinu's parting benediction to the tribes of Yisrael, the entire people, as well as the record of his death and burial.  Were his blessings the heartfelt wishes of a human leader who has accompanied the people for a generation of struggles, through their failures and successes?  Or were the blessings that emanated from his lips reflections of a higher Divine truth?  The commentators are divided on this issue. 

 

The Ibn Ezra notes the title accorded to Moshe at the beginning of the parasha:

 

And this is the blessing that Moshe, the man of God, blessed the children of Yisrael before his death. (33:1)

 

For the Ibn Ezra, the sudden appearance here of the accolade "the man of God," never before bestowed upon Moshe in the Torah, is meant to stress the prophetic origin and the power that lay behind the blessings he was to utter.  This was not just Moshe Rabbeinu speaking, but Hashem Himself. 

 

Not all commentators accept this approach.  R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, for example, states as follows:

 

If we believe [that] this blessing was not said, as the rest of the Torah was, as the Word of God, but emanated primarily out of the depth of his own heart, then we can well understand… this unique designation… that tells us that nevertheless these words are to be accorded an incomparably higher value than if they contained merely the speech of an ordinary man … if it was not a direct prophetic delivery, it was in any case Divinely inspired. (Commentary to 33:1)

 

In Ha-Emek Ha-Davar, the Netziv describes the connection between the description of Moshe as "the man of God" and his upcoming death:

 

With death at hand, there was enkindled in Moshe a Divine flame.  Like a flickering candle that bursts into brilliant flame just before it burns out, so that soul of the righteous man on departing this world and about to enter the World to Come, rises aloft with a spiritual impetus more in tune with its own ethereal nature… Moshe then attained the highest degree of spiritual perfection possible.  (Commentary to 33:1)

 

The following several verses describe the giving of the Torah, with is magnificent and sublime glory, and the special relationship between Hashem and the Jewish People that resulted from their acceptance of His Law.  Most commentators understand these verses as providing encouragement during the times of blessing and challenge that will follow.  Verse 5, however, poses a conundrum:

 

And there was a king in Yeshurun. 

 

Who is the king?  When did he rule?  The commentators disagree in identifying this king and for what purpose Moshe Rabbeinu mentions him here.  The Malbim attempts to place this verse in the immediate historical context:

 

And there was a king in Yeshurun – This refers to Yehoshua, who became a king over them, as it is stated:  "And Yehoshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, and the Jewish People listened to him and did as Hashem had commanded Moshe," of whom it is stated at his command the went forth and at his command they came in.  Similarly, with respect to Yehoshua, it states, "Whoever transgresses your command will be put to death."  The Torah is declaring here that the people accepted Yehoshua as king "when the heads of the people were gathered, all the tribes of Israel together."

 

Some commentators reject this approach.  Nechama Leibowitz argues that this identification can't be correct, as nowhere in his book is Yehoshua referred to as king. (In his commentary to the Prophets, however, the Netziv notes that by stating to Yehoshua that "whoever transgresses your command will be put to death," the people bestowed on Yehoshua the de facto legal status of king, if not de jure.)  More importantly, if this verse was meant to describe Yehoshua's coronation and acceptance, than his name would have been mentioned explicitly. 

 

How then to decide the identity of the mysterious king?  In his book Ha-Ketav Ve-Ha-Kabbala, R. Mecklenberg suggests that we must first identify the speaker of this verse.  Based on the shift to the first person plural in the preceding verse – "Moshe commanded us the Torah, an inheritance for the congregation of Yaakov" - he argues that the king is none other than Moshe Rabbeinu himself!

 

It is very difficult to maintain that Moshe himself proclaimed, "Moshe commanded us the Torah."  The same objection applies with even greater force to our verse, "And there was a king in Yeshurun," since in the view of our Rabbis, the reference is to Moshe Rabbeinu, as it states in Shemot Rabba: "'And there was a king in Yeshurun'"- Moshe enjoyed the privilege of kingship"… Similarly, in Bamidbar Rabba:  "Said the Holy One Blessed be He to Moshe, 'I have made you a king!'" …

Could Moshe say of himself, "And there was a king in Yeshurun?
It therefore seems to me that these two verses (4-5) were proclaimed by the Jewish People, after they had heard the complimentary references made by their faithful shepherd regarding their acceptance of the Heavenly yoke and Hashem's conduct towards them.  In their enthusiasm, they interrupted his words and proclaimed, "Moshe commanded us the Torah … and there was a king in Yeshurun!"

 

However, this explanation, which claims that verses 4-5 constitute an interpolation of the people, violates the grammatical structure of the text.  While verse 4 is written in the first person plural, verse 5 reverts to the third person.  Most likely, Moshe Rabbeinu reverts to the role of speaker, and the question of whom he referred to as "king" remains.

 

The Ramban suggests that the king is none other than Hashem Himself.  Although he attributes verse 5 to the people as well, he argues that through the people's acceptance of the Torah, they implicitly accepted Hashem's dominion:

 

"And there was a king in Yeshurun" alludes to Hashem, who is described as the King of Israel in their upright state, when all the heads of the people and all the tribes of Israel are gathered together.  This verse is also in context [with the previous verses, which refer to the revelation at Har Sinai and the acceptance of the yoke of the Torah].  The text then means that the Jewish People will always say that the Torah which Moshe commanded us will be an inheritance to the congregation forever, [and] they will say that Hashem was king over Israel when our heads, elders and judges and all of the tribes were gathered together to accept His kingdom over us for all time, obligating us to observe His Torah for eternity.

The text mentioned the Torah in general (verse 2) and the kingdom of Heaven in particular (verse 5); for whoever acknowledges the kingdom of Heaven thereby repudiates idolatry and acknowledges the whole Torah.

 

        The constant mention of the Torah within the Ramban's commentary reflects his sensitivity to the constant repetition of the Torah and its giving within the preceding verses.  Therefore, a final possibility can be considered – that the king referred to is neither human (Yehoshua or Moshe) or even Divine. Instead, it refers to that which rules over the Jewish People and maintains their ultimate allegiance - the Torah itself.  The Ibn Ezra quotes the author of the Sefer Ha-Kuzari as the source for this interpretation:

 

R. Yehuda Ha-Levi stated that by king, the Torah is meant, and so he explained the text, "In those days there was no king in Israel!" (Judges 18:1)

 

R. Hirsch echoes this in his commentary here:

 

The Torah, the Law, became King in Yeshurun. It alone is the ruling, directing and deciding power in Israel.  The actual king stood under it, and was only to be its first model subject.  Through the reign of the Torah, Israel became Yeshurun, corresponding to the ideal of its moral calling. 

 

        With the above, we can answer a classic objection raised against those who hold that the Torah did not command the appointment of a human king.[1]  If, as they claim, the king was indeed such a negative influence on the character and constitution of the people, why did the book of Judges attribute the moral failings and corruptions to the lack of a king? The answer is given above.  The king is no more than the number-one subject of the Divine King, and is judged by his fealty to the Torah, the Divine constitution.  Not for naught did the Rabbis proclaim poetically that Hashem himself would bemoan, "Would that they [the Jewish People] have abandoned Me, but maintained loyalty to My Torah instead!"  Ultimately, the King and His Law are one. 

 



[1] See our previous lecture on Parashat Shoftim, http://vbm-torah.org/archive/intparsha69/47-69shoftim.htm, as well as others available in the Virtual Beit Midrash that deal with this issue.