Thursday, October 12, 2006

V'Zos HaBracha - V'zarach mi-Sei'ir lamo

A d'var Torah that I wrote for the Penn Hillel's dvar Torah newsletter. It appears in _The Juggler and the King_, by R' Aharon Feldman (now of Ner Yisroel) in a somewhat expanded form, but I used the pirush of the GRA as printed in the back of the sefer as my primary source, rather than writing it based on the secondary source.
In Moses’ preface to the blessings that he gives to the twelve tribes prior to his death in the Torah portion of V’Zos HaBracha, he begins by alluding to the giving of the Torah, the event that affirmed the connection between God and the Jewish people: “And he said, ‘God came from Sinai, and shined from Sei’ir unto them; He appeared from the mountain of Paran, and came with some of His holy myriads; from His right hand, a fiery law He gave unto them’” (34:2). In the beginning of Tractate Avodah Zarah (2b), it is explained that the reason that the Torah mentions Sei’ir, homeland of the descendants of Esau, and Paran, homeland of the descendants of Ishmael, in this context is because prior to offering the Torah to the Jews, God first offered it to the other nations, but each turned it down due to a specific law that clashed with each of their own national moralities.

In Tractate Bechoros (8b), it is related that the Elders of Athens taunted the tanna Rabbi Yehoshua on this matter: “If a man seeks a woman’s hand in marriage but is rebuffed, would he then pursue a woman of a higher lineage? Your nation’s possession of the Torah does not indicate any special national quality, as you only came into possession of it as a last resort, after every other nation rejected it.” Rabbi Yehoshua did not directly address the question, but instead took a peg and attempted to drive it into a wall. Upon being unsuccessful at this endeavor, he lifted the peg further up along the wall, this time succeeding in securing it in place. He then turned to the Elders, and cryptically observed “It, too, has found its match”. What is the meaning of this answer that Rabbi Yehoshua offered the Elders, and how does it explain how being the last to be offered the Torah does not illustrate the inferiority of the Jewish people relative to the nations who were asked beforehand?

The Vilna Gaon, in order to elucidate this question, quotes an exchange between the tanna Rabbi Yosei and a Roman noblewoman that is related in Koheles Rabbah (1:7). The noblewoman challenged the tanna to explain a verse in the book of Daniel (2:21) that states that God gives wisdom to the wise. At first glance, this appears to be a redundant action, as the wise does not need wisdom; to the contrary, it is the fool who is in need of such a gift. Rabbi Yosei explains that much as a moneylender would prefer to lend money to a rich man than to a poor man, as the former can be more trusted to pay back his debt, so, too, God finds it more productive to give additional wisdom to one who is already wise, as a fool, despite his greater need, would misuse the allotment of wisdom were it provided to him.

The Gaon proceeds to explain that the use of a peg as a prop is an allusion to Ecclesiastes 12:11, which states that “the words of the Torah are like goads and like pegs.” The Talmud in Tractate Chagigah (3b) explains that, while a goad serves as a symbol for the Torah in that it is an implement for keeping an animal on the straight path, a true analog of the Torah must also incorporate the concept of a peg, which is firmly driven into a wall, symbolizing permanence. By their rejection of the Torah due to its conflict with their own political, economic, and social ideals, the nations of the world demonstrated that they were unfitting recipients of it, as the potential of the Torah can only be unleashed by a nation that is willing to hold firm to the Torah’s dictates despite the fluctuations of their society’s ideology.

The nations of the world, each with their own idiosyncracies, would have benefited greatly from receiving the Torah to aid them in directing these qualities towards good. Nonetheless, each showed itself to be an unworthy guardian of the Torah due to their refusal to subjugate their own desires and attitudes to those of the Torah. The Torah could optimally be given only to a nation that already possessed some wisdom of its own, namely the understanding that they had much to gain from accepting the yoke of the Torah with all of their hearts. Once every other nation had been eliminated from consideration, only the Jewish people were left to be offered the option of accepting the Torah, and, by their decision to commit to following its dictates through all historical circumstances that may arise, they showed their qualification to serve as God’s ambassadors to the world.

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