Rabbi Kook on Deuteronomy

Unlike the other four books, Deuteronomy is largely a record of Moses' speeches, spoken in the first person to the people before his death. The Talmud affirms that this book is qualitatively different than the others. Moses wrote the other books of the Torah in God's name; Deuteronomy, on the other hand, Moses said on his own. (Megillah 31b)

Rabbi Chanan Morrison,

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The final book of the Pentateuch opens with the introductory observation, "These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the far side of the Jordan river...." (Deuteronomy 1:1)

Unlike the other four books, Deuteronomy is largely a record of Moses' speeches, spoken in the first person to the people before his death. The Talmud affirms that this book is qualitatively different than the others. Moses wrote the other books of the Torah in God's name; Deuteronomy, on the other hand, Moses said on his own. (Megillah 31b)

We cannot take this statement - Deuteronomy being Moses' own words - literally. Moses could not have composed this book on his own, for a prophet is not allowed to say in God's name what he did not hear from God. (Shabbat 104a) So, what does it mean that Moses said Deuteronomy "mipi atzmo" ("on his own")? In what way does this book differ from the other books of the Pentateuch?

The Talmud states that if we have two activities, where one is holier ("mekudash") while the other is more prevalent ("tadir"), the more prevalent activity takes precedence over the holier one. (Zevachim 90b) One might think that this ruling indicates that prevalence is greater or more important, and therefore comes first. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The subject with transitory sanctity contains a very high level of holiness; so high, in fact, that the world does not merit to benefit from this holiness on a permanent basis. Why then does the more common event take precedence? This is in recognition that we live in an imperfect world. We are more receptive to and influenced by lesser, more sustainable sanctity. In the future, however, the higher, transitory holiness will come first.

This distinction between mekudash and tadir illustrates the difference between the first and second set of tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The first tablets were holier. They reflected the singular unity of the Jewish people at that time in history. "The people encamped - as one person, with one heart - opposite the mountain." (Exodus 19:2)

After the sin of the Golden Calf, however, the first tablets needed to be broken. Had they not been broken, the Jewish people would have warranted destruction. When the holy tablets were destroyed, the special unity of Israel also departed. This unity was only restored with the second covenant that they accepted upon themselves at Arvot Moav (the plains of Moab), from the Hebrew word arvut, meaning responsibility or accountability.

The exceptional holiness of the first tablets, and the special unity of Israel at Sinai, were too holy to maintain over time. They were replaced by less holy, but more attainable, substitutes - the second set of tablets, and the covenant at Arvot Moav. This was the crux of Moses' goal in the book of Deuteronomy: to prepare the people for the renewed covenant.

In the future, the first tablets, which now appear to be broken, will be restored. Israel will be ready for a higher, more fleeting holiness. Thus, the Holy Ark held both sets of tablets, each set for its appropriate time period.

After the sin of the Golden Calf, God offered to rebuild the Jewish people solely from Moses. Moses himself belonged to the elevated, transient holiness; he was unsullied by the sin of the Golden Calf. Yet Moses rejected God's offer. He decided to include himself within the constant holiness of Israel. This is the meaning of the assertion that Moses wrote Deuteronomy on his own: not that this book constituted his own words, but that it was Moses' decision to join with the level of Israel, and prepare the people for the more attainable holiness and covenant of Arvot Moav.

Moses' prophecy in Deuteronomy became the lower-level prophecy appropriate for all generations (nevua ledorot), and could therefore be committed to writing. He abandoned the sublime prophecy that cannot be confined to physical scrolls and books; he withdrew from his unique level, where "no other prophet arose in Israel like Moses". Instead, with the Book of D?varim, he initiated the form of prophecy that is applicable for all generations. He led the way for the other prophets and their books, as he predicted, "God will establish for you a prophet from your midst like me." (Deuteronomy 18:15) This is the significance of the Talmudic statement, "Had Israel not sinned, they would only have been given the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua." (Nedarim 22b)

[Based on Shemuot Ri'iyah, Devarim 5689]
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Chanan Morrison, of Mitzpeh Yericho, runs a website (RavKook.n3.net) dedicated to presenting the Torah commentary of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, to the English-speaking community.




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