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Students or Contributors?
The Torah is G‑d’s book, given in complete form to Moses, subject to neither addition nor subtraction. Yet many questions were left unaddressed in the written Torah, and were later resolved by the sages through independent analysis. This leaves us with a question: are we recipients of the Torah, or contributors to its body?
This was the very conundrum our ancestors experienced with the passing of Moses. For forty years Moses had taught the Torah. When questions arose, Moses would put them to G‑d. But with his passing, this would no longer be possible; when questions would arise, the people would have to determine the answers on their own.
The Torah that Moses taught was clearly the word of G‑d. Would the Torah that Joshua taught also be the word of G‑d?
The Talmud relates that 1,700 Torah laws transmitted by Moses were forgotten during the mourning period following his death, and Othniel ben Kenaz reinstated them through his analyses. An additional 3,000 laws were forgotten, which Othniel was unable to reinstate. The people asked Joshua to query the heavens, but Joshua replied, “The Torah is not in heaven.”
The link to heaven seemed to pass away with Moses; from here on, the people would have to rely on their own analyses. Scholars such as the aforementioned Othniel would have to delve into the texts and derive independent answers to the questions of their day.
This was surely a traumatic time for the nation. There must have been an abiding sense of insecurity about the future, akin to what children experience with the passing of their parents. Irrespective of age, most of us are psychologically dependent on our parents. We might be financially independent and emotionally self-sufficient, but in the back of our minds we know that our parents are always there to support us. When they pass away, we feel utterly alone. We wonder if we can handle life without them. We wonder if we can step in and become family patriarchs or matriarchs.
The Jews harbored similar concerns. Could they fill Moses’ large shoes? Could they survive without him?
You Can Do It
G‑d’s answer was a resounding yes. He ordained that Moses be buried outside of Israel, to indicate that the new generation was fully capable of responding to the call. They would not live in Moses’ shadow; they had been well trained and were now ready to succeed him. Just before his passing, Moses wrote thirteen Torah scrolls and gave one to each tribe. This was his way of passing the torch to the next generation. It was his way of saying, “You have your own Torah now; you are capable of preserving it, and will soon be entrusted with that task.”
For five weeks before his passing, Moses reviewed G‑d’s law with them, but he did so in his own words rather than repeat G‑d’s words verbatim. By doing this, he demonstrated that we would now need to engage our own minds to resolve questions that arise, because G‑d will not resolve them for us.
Still With Us
Moses may have used his own words, but the ideas he taught were not his own. He did not create a new law; he used his own words to impart G‑d’s law. By this he demonstrated that even as we engage our minds and rely on our analysis, our conclusions are accepted only if our intent is to identify G‑d’s law rather than create a new law to suit us and our ethical sensibilities.
In this sense, Moses did not abandon his people. He was not buried in Israel, but beside a mountain nearby. From this mountain, Moses had been given an opportunity to gaze upon Israel -- the land he could not visit, but into which he would send his disciples. He was not with them as they entered, but he inspired their efforts from above.
Our sages put it thusly: “Every innovation of a veteran student was taught to Moses at Sinai.” Moses was given the basic building blocks of the entire Torah, and every innovative interpretation that would ever be suggested is embedded in those blocks. Using the code that G‑d gave to Moses, students of later generations apply themselves to uncover layers of depth and breadth that Moses never imagined.
This is the symbiotic relationship that exists between Moses and the Torah scholars of all generations. We were given license to innovate, but we were authorized to work only within the parameters of the law that Moses taught. We cannot change the Torah; we cannot add to it or subtract from it. What we can do is use the keys, given us by Moses, to unlock its secrets. We can thus uncover explanations and halachic rulings for questions that were never addressed before.
This is why Moses delivered a Torah scroll to every tribe. Moses would pass away, but his Torah and teachings would remain with them.
Perhaps this is what our sages meant when they declared that Moses never died. He was buried, and succeeded by Joshua, but his works continued to live through the students who followed his lead.
The Humble Channel
Returning to our original question: is a Jew a student of Torah, or also a contributor to Torah? The answer is neither. We cannot contribute to the Torah; the Torah is G‑d’s book, and no human can enhance or alter it. On the other hand, a Jew is not a mere student of Torah; the Torah’s depth and breadth is revealed through our efforts in every generation. We are neither student nor contributor; we are channels through which the Torah reveals its secrets.
To become a channel for the revelation of Torah, we must submit to the study of Torah with reverence, awe, and most importantly, humility. When we do so in complete humility, we become a vehicle for the transcendent word of G‑d. And there is no greater honor than becoming a vehicle for divine transcendence.