• Samuel Lebens

V'zot Haberacha: Writing in Tears

This short little parsha, unlike all the others, is not read out on a regular Sabbath. Instead, it is read on the festival known as Simchat Torah which, in Israel, falls out the day after the seven days of Sukkot (a day known as Shmini Atzeret) and, in the Diaspora, on the day after that. It is the conclusion of Deuteronomy, and the conclusion of the life of Moses.

Just as Jacob’s blessings of his sons bring the book of Genesis to a close, Moses takes this opportunity to bless the twelve tribes. The parsha then describes Moses ascending Mount Nebo, to view the promised land. Moses dies “by the mouth of God”; God buries him in an undisclosed location (Deuteronomy 34:5-6).


The parsha and the Pentateuch then conclude with some verses in praise of Moses:

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom the LORD singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that the LORD sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.

Who wrote these words? Did Moses write them? It sounds as if he’s already dead. It speaks of him in the past tense. On this issue the Rabbis disagreed:

“And Moses the servant of the Lord died there” (Deuteronomy 34:5); is it possible that after Moses died, he himself wrote “And Moses died there” [in the past tense]? Rather, Moses wrote the entire Torah until this point, and Joshua wrote from this point forward [i.e., the last eight verses of the Pentateuch]; this is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda. And some say that Rabbi Nechemya stated this opinion. Rabbi Shimon said to him: Is it possible that the Torah scroll was missing a single letter? But it is written: [that Moses gave a Torah scroll to the Levites, saying] “Take this Torah scroll” (Deuteronomy 31:26), [indicating that the Torah was complete as it was, and that nothing further would be added to it.] Rather, until this point, the Holy One, Blessed be He, spoke and Moses spoke and wrote the text. From this point forward, the Holy One, Blessed be He, spoke and Moses wrote with tears.

Rabbi Shimon doesn’t think it problematic for Moses to have written that he was dead, since he soon would be, and he was writing from the perspective of the future, so to speak. What’s more important to Rabbi Shimon is that the Torah scroll that Moses gave to the Levites couldn’t have been incomplete. As Maimonides would one day say:

The Torah found in our hands this day is the very Torah that was handed down by Moses. It is all of divine origin.

What Moses gave to the Levites is what we have in our hands today. Joshua didn’t need to add anything.

Rabbi Yehuda (and some say Rabbi Nechemya) thought otherwise. Moses couldn’t have written something untrue. All the while that he was alive, he couldn’t write that he was dead. The last eight verses must have been written by Joshua. While Maimonides sides with Rabbi Shimon, Ibn Ezra (and others) sided with Rabbi Yehuda/Nechmya.


You might think that Rabbi Yehuda/Nechemya’s side of the debate is the most daring. On that view, the first earthly copy of the five books of Moses was the product of two scribes: Moses and Joshua. But in actual fact, there’s something daring going on in the words of Rabbi Shimon too.


Rabbi Yechiel Michael ben Uzziel, the Nezer HaKodesh, who lived in Germany in the early eighteenth Century, asks the following question about Rabbi Shimon’s view:

[Rabbi Shimon said] “until that point, the Holy One, Blessed be He spoke and Moses spoke and wrote the text”… Why were they both, the Holy One, blessed be He, and Moses, speaking at the time of the writing down of the Torah?

His answer to the question might sound radical:

The Holy One, blessed be He, was speaking the Written Torah, and Moses began to speak the Oral Torah, which was founded by him; and only then did he write, including allusions in his writing to that Oral Torah that he grasped on his own. Accordingly, it seems that this is why scripture says, “Write down for yourself these commandments” (Exodus 34:27), rather than more simply, “Write down these commandments.” It said what it said—“write down for yourself”—so as to say, “write in allusions [to] that which is yours,” that Oral Torah which you apprehended on your own.

But, as we’ve seen in this series, it’s not so controversial to think that Moses added details to the text, so long as God approved of those additions and co-opted them into His Torah. That’s quite consistent with Orthodoxy, and that's all that’s happening here.


In fact, it would be a sort of heresy to think that God’s wisdom that pre-existed the creation – his Heavenly Torah – could be totally conveyed, in its entirety, in human language. Something would have to be lost in translation. It seems only proper that a human element had to dilute, so to speak, the transcendent wisdom that no human mind could contain. To think otherwise would be to think that God’s wisdom, His Torah, is finite; that it’s wholly contained in the letters of the Pentateuch. On the contrary, those letters point towards an even more sublime Torah that no human language can contain. The Torah that we have in our hands is a result of God’s interaction with the human mind of Moses.


The great halakhist, Rabbi Yoel ben Shmuel Sirkis (known as the bach) seems to have been somewhat torn about the words of Rabbi Shimon. On the one hand, he rules that when a scribe writes down a Torah scroll, he should speak aloud the words that he writes; just as Moses wrote and spoke, rather than merely writing in silence. On the other hand, in his suggested emendations to the Talmud, he deletes the word “spoke and” from the phrase “Moses spoke and wrote” – perhaps he was afraid of the sort of radical reading that we’ve just pursued. It would have been better, for the unadulterated divinity of the Torah, had Moses written in silence. As I said, I'm not sure this fear is warranted. So long as God endorsed anything that Moses added, then the Torah remains entirely Divine.


But as we come to conclusion of this year-long series of blogs, and as we come to the end of this years’ reading of the Torah, let’s not focus on the words that Moses may or may not have spoken, but upon the tears that he cried. What does it mean that he wrote with tears? With regard to this question, the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo-Zalman) writes:

One can explain that the Hebrew word for a tear [can also refer (in Aramaic) to a mixture] which is to say: the letters were mixed up one with the other, and they were not divided into words. And after he died, they were divided into words, as they are [now] written before us. [Alternatively:] there are those who explain that he wrote with his tears and not with ink because it was the Sabbath, and it is forbidden to write with ink [on the Sabbath]. And writing with juices [or even tears] is only forbidden by Rabbinic law [rather than Biblical law] since it isn’t writing that could last, and [what’s more,] the Rabbis hadn’t yet instituted the law [regarding juices and tears]. And Joshua came after the Sabbath and passed his quill with ink [over the tears of Moses].

In the first explanation, Moses wasn’t crying at all. Rather, he couldn’t write a falsehood that he was dead, because he wasn’t yet dead, but he couldn’t leave the Torah incomplete. So, he wrote the right letters without inserting spaces between the words. He left that for Joshua. This explanation is a little jarring in two respects. First, in context, it looks like the right translation of the Talmud is that Moses wrote with tears, not that he wrote in a jumbled-up manner. Secondly, the Torah that he gave to the Levites wouldn’t have been kosher if there were no spaces between the words of the last eight verses. So, the problem isn’t solved.

The Vilna Gaon

The second explanation has Moses writing the last verses of the Torah at the last possible moment, on the last day of his life, which was a Sabbath. He couldn’t write in ink. So, he wrote it in tears, staining the parchment for Joshua to fill it in with ink. This is a beautiful image, but it still doesn’t solve the problems that are at the heart of this Talmudic dispute.


In fact, we now have the worst of both worlds: first, Moses did write an untruth – he wrote that he was dead, even though he wasn’t; and second, he didn’t give a complete Torah scroll to the Levites because a scroll that’s written, even if only for eight verses, in tears, is not a kosher Torah!


Of course, the most straightforward way to understand Moses writing in tears, is just to say that he cried as he wrote. Following the reading of the Nezer Hakodesh we could go so far as to say the following. When Moses was speaking and writing, he was inserting his own understanding into the text, at God’s invitation. But there are some things that we don’t understand. It’s very hard to fathom why Moses couldn’t be granted entry to the promised land. The last eight verses of the Torah, Moses couldn’t speak.


And in everybody’s lives there will be events that are very hard to make sense of religiously. When things do make sense, we can invest our actions with all sorts of deeper meanings, by engaging our intellects. We can speak as we act. But when things don’t make sense, we don’t stop serving the king of kings. Instead, we invest our actions with tears, and we carry on.


The Torah doesn’t end on a high note. It ends with the death of a great man, the greatest of men, who didn’t live to see the fruition of his life’s work. And, as Judaism views this world, the journey still isn’t complete. The messiah is yet to come. Redemption lives in the future. But we carry on. When we can't invest intellect into what we do, we can at least invest our tears. Accordingly, we move straight from Deuteronomy to reading the book of Joshua. And next week, we’ll start the book of Genesis again, with the deeply held faith that one day humanity will reach the promised land. Some days it will all make sense. Some days, it won't. Our job is to keep marching in the right direction come what may.

228 views