A Bible Scholar’s Simchat Torah
Comprehending the Torah’s Deepest Mysteries
The final day of the Sukkot-Shemini Atzeret festival, whether the eighth day as in Israel or the ninth day as in the Diaspora, is designated as Simchat Torah, the day on which our simcha, our festival rejoicing, is focused on the Torah. As we celebrate the privilege of concluding the annual public reading of the Torah, thus completing once again the process of receiving it, we re-affirm our love of Torah and our commitment to it.
To those for whom the painstaking study of the Torah is an important part of their lives, another meaning of the phrase simchat torah may suggest itself. One of the things for which we pray just before the reading of the Torah on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is, in the words of the Machzor, שֵׂכֶל וּבִינָה לְהָבִין וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל עִמְקֵי סוֹדוֹתֶיהָ: the discernment and understanding needed in order to comprehend the Torah’s deepest mysteries.
For me, the Torah’s “deepest mysteries” are the duplications, inconsistencies and discontinuities that make it impossible to read it smoothly and which have led to the realization that it is composed of several strands – what critical scholars call sources or documents – that have been intertwined. Therefore, one aspect of my own, personal simchat torah is the exquisite joy that I experience when I feel that the prayer just quoted has been answered and I have arrived at a solution to some troubling literary aspect of the Torah.
Final Chapters of the Torah
I have gradually begun to experience this joy as I have attempted to make sense of the four final chapters of Torah, that make up the Torah readings of Vayyēlek, Ha’ăzînû and Vêzo’t Ha-bêrākâ (Deuteronomy 31–34) and which tell of the final days of Moses’ life. The questions are many;
- Did Moses bless the Israelites as he bade them farewell, expressing his optimistic confidence in their future good fortune (Deut 33), or did he foresee, with absolute certainty, that they would fail to live up to God’s demand of fidelity to Him and would deserve to be punished severely for abandoning Him (Deut 31:15–18)?
- Did he write down, and order the Israelites to commit to memory, the text of a threatening poem predicting their future idolatry and God’s anger, eventually to serve as proof that their sinfulness was foreseen (Deut 31:19–22; 32:1–44)? Or did he write down, and command the Israelites to learn and preserve, the text of God’s Torah, in order to be able to observe its precepts, and to keep a copy alongside the Ark of the Covenant as proof of its authenticity (Deut 31:9, 25–27)?
- Was the haqhēl – the assembly of the entire Israelite people that Moses commanded – a one-time act to be performed immediately in order to call heaven and earth to witness God’s threat (Deut 31:28,30), or a ritual act to be performed in the future, every seven years, in order to re-read the Torah that had just been given (Deut 31:10–13)?
- Was Joshua commissioned as Moses’ successor only now, in anticipation of the imminent wars of conquest of the land of Canaan (Deut 31:7–8; comp. 14ff), or had his appointment already taken place (Num 27:15–23)?
- Was Moses sentenced to death before entering the land of Canaan a punishment for his (and Aaron’s) disobedience (Num 20:12–13; 27:12–14; Deut 32:48–52), or did he simply go off to die of old age and infirmity (Deut 31:2)? If the latter, why are his strength and vigor said to have been undiminished at his death (Deut 34:7)?
These questions – along with a host of others, many of which pertain to details of language, syntax and continuity – confound every attempt to read these chapters as a unified and consistent narrative. However, when the text is separated into its strands, we realize that four authors, whom critical scholars have labeled J, E, P and D, have provided us with four distinct accounts of the end of Moses’ life. Not surprisingly, some of the sources share features in common; after all, they all drew on ancient tradition regarding Moses’ career. And yet each of them has its own version of the events and its own messages to communicate, so that even the common motifs become distinct in the hands of each narrator.
Here is a simple guide to which source, in my reconstruction, recounted which events (the asterisk means some of the verse but not all of it):
Deut 31 – E: 1–8 D: 9–13 E: 14–24 + 25* D: 25–27 E: 28 D: 29 E: 30.
Deut 32 – E: 1–44 D: 45–47 P: 48–52.
Deut 33 – J: 1–29.
Deut 34 – E: 1*, 2–4, 5*, 6 P: 5*, 7–9 E: 10–12.
J – God’s Promise Fulfilled
J’s account is the most upbeat. J has just related how Balaam, the representative of Israel’s enemies, was unsuccessful in his attempt to curse God’s people and was forced to bless them, i.e. to acknowledge their superior qualities and to predict their future greatness (Num 22:2–21 + 36–41; 23:1–25; see esp. 23:10 “May my future be like his;” also 24:9). God’s promise to Abraham, that the other families of humankind would ultimately bless themselves, and one another, by aspiring to be like Abraham’s descendants (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14), has thus been fulfilled.
This central aim of J’s Torah narrative achieved, the stage is set for the final act: the blessings imparted to each of the tribes of Israel by Moses himself. With this, J’s account of the life of Moses comes to a close. (It is possible that J too told of Moses’ death and that a J strand can be detected in Deut 34 along with the P and E accounts.) No failure is anticipated and no danger is imminent, and Moses ends his life assured of the success of his life’s work.
E – Farewell and Rebuke
Throughout E, Moses is portrayed as the archetypal prophetic figure. In E, the covenant was made, and the laws were given and ratified, 40 years earlier at Horeb, so that with the victory over Sihon and Og and the conquest of the tranjordanian territories they previously held (Num 21:21–35; 32:33), Moses’ active career concludes. Too old to lead his people in battle, he is told to summon Joshua to the ’ohel mô‘ēd, where prophetic oracles are received, there to appoint him as his successor.
And since, in his role as prophetic preacher, it is unthinkable that he might bid his people farewell without appropriate words of warning and rebuke, he calls heaven and earth to witness his ability accurately to forecast his people’s backsliding and unworthiness. He bids them and their descendants to memorize and preserve the prophecy of their coming unfaithfulness, its inevitable result and the undeserved gracious response of God – so that, when all these events come to pass, Moses’ prophetic authority will be proven for all time.
Finally, after a view of the whole of the land of Canaan, he dies of old age. The story concludes with the retrospective pronouncement that he was the greatest prophet of all time.
D – Learning the Torah’s Teaching
D builds on but rewrites E’s account. D claims that Moses’ “valedictory” address (the basic notion of which is evidently drawn from E) was none other than the Torah itself: the laws and commandments as well as the accompanying orations. For D, this Torah was not communicated to the people at Horeb at all but rather to Moses alone; Moses thus transmits it to the Israelites for the first and only time now, just prior to his death (see Deut 5:19–6:3 and throughout Deuteronomy).
For D, not a poem predicting the future but the written text of the Torah as a whole was designated to serve as a “witness,” testifying not to the truth of Moses’ prophetic mission but rather to the authenticity the Torah itself. After doing so, he has only to charge them with the task of learning this Teaching and of rehearsing it at regular intervals, thereby relaying it unaltered – in both written and oral form – to future generations.
D relates that Moses’ last words consisted of the claim that only this will ensure success and prevent disaster, and with these words the D document ends. Just as D told nothing of Moses’ life before he began to orate, it tells nothing of what happened after he concluded his orations.
P – Moses’ Death Sentence Carried Out
P’s story too relates that Moses conveyed laws and statutes (but not blessings or a prophetic rebuke) to the Israelite people at the end of his life. For P, these were in addition to the lawgiving 40 years earlier, and consisted of the legislation commanded by God, and immediately imparted to the Israelites, in the fortieth year of the wilderness journey.
These mitzvot are found at the end of Numbers (most of Num 28–34 belongs to P), which directly preceded the account of Moses’ death in the independent P source. In P Moses is commanded (!) to die as punishment for insubordination. His sentence was pronounced on the spot (Num 20:12–13); now, when the time has come for it to be carried out, it is repeated. Moses thus dies at God’s behest, not because he is old or weary; indeed, despite his years, he is still in good physical shape. After he is gone, Joshua, who was appointed to be his successor some time before, enjoys the Israelites’ full and compliant obedience, and this, for P, is Moses’ legacy.
End of an Epoch
Some of these strands, perhaps all four of them, most likely continued on to relate subsequent events. However, the compiler of the Torah, whose aim was to provide an anthology of God’s commandments and an account of how our ancestors received them, drew his work to a close as each of the four documents arrived at the end of Moses’ activity as lawgiver. With the exit of the lawgiver from the stage of history, the compiled Torah is saying, came the end of an epoch; all subsequent events belong to another era.
When I am able to disentangle the narrative in a way that each strand makes sense and the precise manner in which they have been combined becomes clear, I have the sense that the rational faculties that God has planted in the human mind have once again proven themselves to be, in the words of Abraham ibn Ezra, true agents of divine revelation (see his Introduction to the Torah). That is a joyous event, truly deserving of the name simchat torah. Hag Sameah!
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Prof. Baruch J. Schwartz is the J. L Magnes Professor of Biblical Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned his Ph.D. He writes and lectures on the J, E, P and D documents, the uniqueness of each, and how they were compiled to create the five-book Torah. Schwartz is especially interested in how academic biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief and observance may co-exist.
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