VeZos HaBeracha 5780

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The rejected gift[1]

ויאמר יקוק מסיני בא וזרח משעיר למו הופיע מהר פארן וגו’‏
He said: “Hashem came from Sinai, shined forth from [Mount] Seir; He appeared from Mount Paran…”[2]

In the last parsha in the Torah, Moshe gave each of the tribes a final blessing. Before these blessings, he describes the Torah itself and how the Jews accepted it. It says that Hashem “came” from Mount Sinai, having “shined forth” from Mount Seir and “appearing” from Mount Paran. We’ve all heard of Mount Sinai. That is where the Torah was given to the Jews, who gladly accepted it. What is Mount Seir and Mount Paran referring to? Mount Seir is usually associated with the descendants of Eisav[3], and Mount Paran is usually associated with the descendants Yishmael[4]. Picking up on this, the Midrash explains[5] the verse to be describing a historical backdrop to the accepting of the Torah.

Hashem went to each of the nations and offered them the Torah, not just the Jews.He offered it to the descendants of Eisav. They asked what was in it. Hashem told them an example: “Don’t murder”[6]. They said we’re very sorry, but that’s what we specialize in. We’re not interested. Hashem offered the Torah to the descendants of Yishmael. They asked what was in it. Hashem told them an example: “Don’t steal”[7]. They said that this is what they’re all about, and declined. Hashem offered the Torah to the descendants of Moav. They asked what was in it. Hashem told them an example: “Don’t commit adultery”[8]. They responded that they were steeped in illicit relations. They couldn’t accept. Only the Jews accepted the Torah, without even asking what was in it[9].

However, there’s a major problem with this Midrash. How can we understand the responses of the nations of Eisav, Yishmael, and Moav? They told Hashem that they can’t or won’t accept the Torah, as it forbids things they aren’t interested in keeping. But murder, theft, and adultery are forbidden to Jew and non-Jew alike[10]! Even if they didn’t accept the Torah, they would be forbidden from committing these acts. How does their response make sense?

A possible explanation[11] is they misunderstood a basic concept. There are some mitzvos which were given to mankind before the Torah was given. Some of them were repeated again at Mount Sinai, when the Jews were given the Torah. However, some of them weren’t repeated. The rule is that the mitzvos which were taught before Sinai, and repeated at Sinai, are obligatory for Jew and non-Jew alike[12]. Examples of this rule include the above mitzvos against murder, theft, and adultery. If a mitzvah was taught before Sinai, and not repeated at Sinai, the mitzvah is exclusive to the Jewish people. An example of a mitzvah that wasn’t repeated at Sinai is the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve[13]. Consequently, this mitzvah is only for the Jewish people[14].

The descendants of Eisav, Yishmael, and Moav, seemingly made a simple mistake. They knew that murder, theft, and adultery were forbidden by the Torah, before Sinai. However, they thought these mitzvos would only be taught once. Since they wouldn’t be repeated after Sinai, they wouldn’t be forbidden to non-Jews. They would only be forbidden to whichever nation that accepted the Torah. Therefore, by rejecting the Torah, they were in essence permitting their lifestyles. They would never become forbidden from murder, theft, or adultery[15].

Of course, they made a colossal mistake. These prohibitions were indeed repeated at Sinai. This made them forbidden for Jew and non-Jew alike. Whether they accepted the Torah or not, they were forbidden from continuing their lifestyles. When Hashem told them what was in the Torah, He didn’t intend to dissuade them from accepting it[16]. It would have seemed that He chose to mention exactly the mitzvah they would struggle with. Perhaps this was to scare them off? Quite the contrary. He was informing them that regardless, these things were forbidden. Accepting the Torah would be an opportunity to improve. The Torah could be used as a tool to work on oneself, such that these crimes would no longer be enticing. They would no longer be insurmountable[17]. However, they grossly misunderstood Hashem’s intent. In the end, the Torah became the exclusive gift to the Jewish people. They understood its worth, and use Simchas Torah as an opportunity to express their gratitude for it.

Chazak Chazak VeNischazek!

[1] Based on Meshech Chochmah to Deuteronomy 33:2

[2] Deuteronomy loc. cit.

[3] See Genesis 33:8,9

[4] See ibid 21:21

[5] Sifrei Devarim § 343. See Targum Yonasan to Deuteronomy loc. cit.

[6] Exodus 20:13

[7] The Midrash loc. cit. uses the verse from ibid, but a more accurate verse would have been Leviticus 19:11

[8] Exodus loc. cit.

[9] Exodus 24:7

[10] Sanhedrin 56b; Mishneh Torah Hilchos Melachim 9:1

[11] For another interesting explanation, see https://torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos-chapter1-18b/, from the teachings of Rav Yochanan Zweig of Miami

[12] Sanhedrin 59a

[13] Genesis 32:32

[14] The gemarra loc. cit. (in one answer) says that the mitzvos of procreation (Genesis 9:7) and circumcision (ibid 17:9), while they were taught before Sinai and were repeated after Sinai, also fall under this rule. They are only obligatory for Jews. This is because they were repeated only to teach specific novel laws, but not to reintroduce the command. Therefore, they are not really considered “repeated” at Sinai (see there)

[15] Rav Kupperman, in his commentary on the Meshech Chochmah, explains that the simple way to read the Midrash is that the responses of the nations were their excuse why accepting the Torah would have been too hard. They were too steeped in their lifestyles to change. However, the Meshech Chochmah explains the Midrash that their responses revealed their logic for rejecting the Torah. By not accepting it, it was (in their minds) permitting their lifestyles

[16] As is the commonly understood way to read the Midrash (Rav Kupperman)

[17] Ibid