CHAPTER 4 - LOCATING SINAI IN TIME AND PLACE

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHA

 

PARASHAT VAETCHANAN

 

*********************************************************

This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Dr. William Major, z"l.

*********************************************************

 

CHAPTER 4 - LOCATING SINAI IN TIME AND PLACE

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

A.        INTRODUCTION

 

Last week, we discussed how the Ramban divides Sefer Devarim into three components: (a) an introduction that uses historical events to provide reproof and warning to the generation about to enter the Land of Israel, (b) an overview of the fundamentals of our faith and the precepts of our observance, and (c) a renewal of the covenant before entering the land.  According to the Ramban, the end of the third chapter marks the close of Moshe's introductory discourse to the book.  In that discourse, he describes the retribution that overtook the generation of the Exodus for disobedience, and he assures the new generation that they will inherit the Promised Land, as long as they do not follow in their fathers' footsteps.  After this introduction, Moshe proceeds to the real subject of the book – a recapitulation of the precepts of Judaism, for which our book is known as Mishneh Torah, "Repetition of the Law," — or, in Greek, "Deuteronomy."  It is this body of laws concerning which Israel is commanded: "Do not add to it, nor diminish from it" (4:2).

 

As noted last week, the Jewish people standing in the Arvot Mo'av are not simply observers of this historical journey; they are addressed as participants in it.  Moshe relentlessly insists his listeners are actors in these past events.  "God spoke to us at Chorev" (1:6); "You said: 'Send men before us'" (1:22).  Every aspect of the journey involves every member of the audience.  The first discourse breathes exclusivity, for only through understanding the national experiences of the past are the present and future redeemed. 

 

If the Ramban's understanding of Sefer Devarim is correct, then Chapter 4 should begin with a recapitulation of the Giving of the Torah (Matan Torah) on Mount Sinai, also known as Chorev.  Instead, the chapter appears to meander, containing various commandments ("Do not add…"), additional allusions to historical events in the near past (straying after Ba'al Pe'or, designating cities of refuge), and a lengthy exhortation against idolatry.  Only in Chapter 5 does Moshe focus fully upon Matan Torah.  In Chapter 4, it serves as the subject of numerous allusions, but only as part of the general warning against disobedience. 

 

In addition to the difficulties of the subject matter(s) of Chapter 4, we find several literary difficulties within the text.  While, before moving into the third person in its final part (vv. 41-49), there is an overall division of the bulk of the chapter by the plural (vv. 1-28) and singular (vv. 29-40) form of address, the switches between singular and plural within these sections are numerous, and it is difficult to provide an overriding explanation that adequately explains all of the changes.  We will attempt to look at the both of these difficulties today, by analyzing the general structure of the chapter and then discussing the purpose of the variances within an overall understanding of Moshe's message.

 

B.        STRUCTURING CHAPTER 4

 

When attempting to discern the meaning of a large body of text, it pays first to note the repetitions, both literary and thematic, that it contains, and to structure them accordingly.  In an article that discusses chiastic structures (either ABB'A' or ABCB'A') that appear within Sefer Devarim, Rabbi Aviyya Ha-kohen suggests the following pattern in our chapter:

 

A.  Keeping the commandments ("chukkim u-mishpatim," 1-5)

   B.  The commandments are Israel's greatness (6-8)

      C.  The Giving of the Torah (9–14)

         D.  The covenant (13)

            E.  Warning against idolatry – God is a zealous God (15-24)

            E1. Warning against idolatry – its punishment is exile (25-29)

         D1.  God remembers the covenant – He is a merciful God (30-31)

      C1.  The Giving of the Torah (32-36)

   B1.  God's uniqueness and His relationship with Israel (37-39)

A1.  Keeping the commandments ("chukkav… u-mitzvotav") (40)

 

Chiastic structures can serve several literary functions.  Most people are familiar with the fact that they serve to focus the reader's attention upon the center of the text.  In our text, not coincidentally the public Torah reading for Tisha Be-Av, the center clearly focuses upon the seriousness of avoda zara (idol worship).  However, chiasms (and parallels in general) also serve to delineate differences between the varying axes.  The first half clearly directs itself to the present generation, while the second half describes the consequences that will befall a future generation, as noted in verse 25:

 

When you bear children and grandchildren and grow old in the land, and you deal corruptly and make a graven image in the form of anything, doing that which is evil in the sight of Lord your God, to provoke Him.

 

More importantly, we find one difference within the parallels that stands out.  In the first half, the commandments are presented as the uniqueness and source of greatness of the Israelites; the second half does not mention the greatness or uniqueness of the Jewish people.  Instead, it is the awesomeness and uniqueness of God that obligates our observance.  Only the greatness of our ancestors warrants mention.  Rabbi Ha-kohen suggests that this explains the change in terminology from the opening verses to the closing.  Moshe originally refers to the commandments as "chukkim u-mishpatim," statutes that are found within any enlightened society.  However, Moshe closes by referring to the commandments as "chukkav… u-mitzvotav," commandments that are to be performed because God so orders.  As we will discuss in future shiurim (iy"H), most of Moshe's presentation of the commandments within Sefer Devarim reflects this dichotomy and the dual purpose of observance.

 

C.        TIME AND PLACE AS THEOLOGICAL VARIABLES IN SEFER DEVARIM

 

Understanding the larger framework of Chapter 4 allows us to begin to explain the variances in subject matter, time, and places that permeate the text.  Understanding that these variances are a stylistic device used for a theological purpose will assist our purpose.  Last week, we demonstrated that Moshe, in order to convey a sense of national linkage with the past, consistently links Arvot Mo'av, the present location of the Jewish people, with Kadesh Barne'a, the location of their greatest historical error.  The mention of Ba'al Pe'or at the beginning of the chapter is a subtle reminder that even in the present, the possibility of repeating the errors of the past still exists: do not let Arvot Moav become another Kadesh Barne'a, Moshe warns! 

 

Having established that equation, Moshe now shifts the focus to linking Arvot Moav to Chorev.  Both the content of the revelation and the manner of the revelation are emphasized for their theological value.  Time becomes a variable in this chapter.  The same generation that sees the consequences of the apostasy of Ba'al Pe'or is the same generation that sees the revelation at Chorev.  In verse 8, Moshe describes the commandments as "this law, which I set before you today."  In the very next verse, Moshe warns them "Only guard yourself and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget… the day that you stood before Lord your God at Chorev." 

 

Historically, the generation that stands before Moshe now is not the same generation that stood before God at Mount Sinai.  However, rhetorically, the two are the same.  There is a convergence of past into present and present into future: the children and grandchildren that are to be reminded of Matan Torah are the same children and grandchildren that may "deal corruptly and make a graven image" in the future.  The word "today" repeats itself seven times throughout the chapter (vv. 4, 8, 20, 26, 38, 39 and 40).  However, the word "today" connotes much more than a 24-hour period in the present.  In Sefer Devarim, "today" is continually repeated; hence, it is continuously present.  Every moment provides both the confrontation with the lessons and experiences of the past and the opportunities for bold, decisive commitments and actions.

 

Like the generation of Arvot Mo'av, today's readers are the same people that were present at Chorev.  The Jewish people share a corporate identity that transcends temporal limitations.  By conflating the generations together, Moshe provides us with the capability to affect our present, so that both our uniqueness and greatness and the uniqueness and greatness of God become apparent - not through historical markers limited by time and space, but through our actions and commitments.