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D'varim/Deuteronomy 4:44 This is the teaching that Moshe set before the Children of Israel.
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This verse starts the second of the major discourses by Moshe in the book of D'varim, extending from here to the last verse of chapter 28: "These are the terms of the covenant which the L-rd commanded Israel to conclude with the Israelites ..." (D'varim 28:69, (JPS). Jeffrey Tigay suggests that our text, a recapitulation necessary because of the long digression from 1:6-4:43, might be paraphrased: "This, finally, is the teaching ...".Rashi, the quintessential Jewish commentator, has already proposed this view; commenting, "'this is the teaching' - this is what he is about to set forth after this passage". This limits the meaning of , in this context, to be what follows and not to anything that has gone before. Rabbi Hirsch, on the other hand, widens the scope of the word by stating that "the true conception of 'G-d' which they obtained from the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai and the true conception of 'Man' proclaimed by the cities of refuge are the foundations of Jewish national life, and this book in which Moshe wrote them down is the 'Law', the teaching, the Torah in which he laid down in writing as the inviolable norm for the children of Israel for all their behaviour."
Richard Elliott Friedman brings the two positions together. He starts by explaining: "In the original context here in Deuteronomy, the word 'Torah/instruction' refers only to the things that Moshe says to the people across the Jordan from Canaan in his last speech." But referring to current ritual practice, he continues: "Jews now sing this verse when the Torah is held up for all to see after it is read each week. These words 'This is the Torah that Moshe set ...' have therefore come to be understood in that context to refer to the entire five books on the Torah scroll." Over time, then, this verse has taken on that wider meaning because of its use in a ritual context. The text, with its two additional closing phrases can be found in the Siddur as part of the liturgy surrounding the reading of the Torah:
This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Children of Israel,
at the L-rd's command, by the hand of Moshe.
In the ritual step known as hagbar, the scroll is lifted up and shown to those present in the synagogue or minyan group1. This is done routinely when the Torah is read on Shabbat, Mondays and Thursdays, on festivals, new moons and fast days, and on other special occasions such as a bar mitzvah. In the Ashkenazic world, this happens after the Torah has been read; in the Sephardic world, it happens before the reading starts. There are many rules about exactly how this is to be done - for example, showing at least three columns of the script, starting facing the ark and rotating clockwise - but the ritual forms an important visual and oral contract between the reader and the listeners. As the minyan chant the text together, they are confirming (a) that the L-rd spoke and Moshe wrote the text, both in the portion being read and of the Torah as a whole; (b) that they are reading the text as traditionally handed down from Moshe and preserved by generations of faithful scribes; (c) that what they have heard (or are about to hear) is a faithful reading of what has been written; and (d) that, as a part of the Jewish people, they continue to be part of and governed by that covenant. In other words: this is what you have seen and heard, this is the word of the L-rd.
Each generation validates the witness to the next. A minyan may contain people from age 13 to age 93 and that verbal link, remade every time the Torah is read, affirms the covenant over successive generations. We believe this because our fathers and grandfathers believed this and they heard it affirmed in their presence over multiple cycles of reading the Torah by their fathers and grandfathers and so on for generations before them.
G-d used the example of the Rechabites to demonstrate generational obedience to the people of Israel. He told Jeremiah to bring the Rechabites into the Temple in Jerusalem and offer them wine to drink. Jaazaniah the son of Jeremiah son of Habazziniah replied "We will not drink wine, for our ancestor, Jonadab son of Rechab, commanded us: 'You shall never drink wine, either you or your children. Nor shall you build houses or sow fields or plant vineyards, nor shall you own such things; but you shall live in tents all your days, so that you may live long upon the land where you sojourn.' And we have obeyed our ancestor Jonadab son of Rechab in all that he commanded us: we never drink wine, neither we nor our wives nor our sons and daughters. Nor do we build houses to live in, and we do not own vineyards or fields for sowing; but we live in tents. We have obeyed and done all that our ancestor Jonadab commanded us" (Jeremiah 35:6-10, JPS). Jeremiah is then told to go and teach the people of Israel about the Rechabites and their obedience, compared to Israel's disobedience, and to bless the Rechabites inHaShem's name: "Because you have obeyed the charge of your ancestor Jonadab and kept all his commandments, and done all that he enjoined upon you, assuredly, thus said the L-RD of Hosts, the G-d of Israel: There shall never cease to be a man of the line of Jonadab son of Rechab standing before Me" (vv. 18-19, JPS).
This generation linking - of frequent repetition and reinforcement, combined with active participation by all involved - not just from one generation to the next, but to several overlapping generations, is why the Sages maintain that the Oral Torah could be passed down along with the Written Torah: "Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets transmitted it to the men of the Great Assembly" (m. Pirkei Avot 1:1). This mechanism proved itself to be reliable: it worked! So much so that we find Rav Sha'ul, who was himself trained in the best rabbinical methods, teaching that very same technique to his disciple, Timothy: "What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2, ESV).
It is also used by John at the start of his writings about Yeshua: "We have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14, ESV). This is a written affirmation of personal witness: John - and the other disciples - are sharing their first-hand eye-witness testimony: we saw these things take place with our very own eyes. He repeats this in more detail in his first letter: "which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life ... that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you" (1 John 1:1,3, ESV); now reporting the evidence of three senses: seeing, hearing and touch. This, he is saying, is real.
We know from the writings of Papias2, dated according to Richard Bauckham3 to around 110 CE, that whenever he could he would inquire about the words of the elders as to what the apostles had said, or the elders (such as Aristion or John the elder) were saying. He adds, "I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice" (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.3-4). The Didache or "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles", dated anywhere between 50 CE and 150 CE includes a form of the L-rd's Prayer (from Matthew's Gospel), instructions and liturgy for communion: "On the L-rd's own day gather together and break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure" (Didache 14.14). These demonstrate that the Early Church maintained the practice of multi-generational witness and transmission. The recitation by the whole congregation in liturgical churches of such formulations as the Apostles' Creed is another example of people into our time being intentional about maintenance and tradition.
In an increasingly un-churched world, where people are becoming less familiar with the basic stories and characters of the Bible, we need to be similarly deliberate about our confidence in and ability to accurately transmit not only the culture but the content of our faith in Yeshua and the certainties of the Gospel to those who have not heard.
1. - As, for example, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where minyan groups may be reading from the Torah throughout the day.
2. - Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor; reported by Irenaeus to have known the Apostle John and to have been a contemporary of Polycarp.
3. - Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eye-Witnesses, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006, 0-8028-3162-1, pages 14-15
4. - Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2007, 0-8010-3468-X, page 365
Further Study: Shemot 12:24-27; Acts 4:18-21
How can you take part in the faithful transmission of the truths you know to
the next and following generations? Ask the L-rd for a way that you can
creatively participate in telling His story.
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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© Jonathan Allen, 2013
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.