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TORAH IN THE 20TH CENTURY

by Eyal Feiler    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan" (first sentence of the book of Deuteronomy).

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These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan" (first sentence of the book of Deuteronomy).

Generally, when the Torah wants to describe Moses' communication with the Jewish people, it uses the term "Bnei Yisrael - Children of Israel". Why, then, does the Torah use the unusual term "Israel" in the above verse rather than the "Children of Israel"? Secondly, as we know that the Torah does not mince words or phrases, why does the Torah go out of its way to tell us that Moses spoke to "all" of Israel?

Rabbi Ben Zion Firer, a contemporary rabbi in Israel, suggests that the term "Bnei Yisrael" refers to Israel as a collection of people, i.e. the Children of Israel. However, the term "Israel" implies a nation. A nation such as the people of Israel encompasses more than one generation. Therefore, in this verse, Hashem is telling us that Moses is speaking to all the generations of Israel, not just the generation in the desert. The laws and life guidelines that follow are applicable and are to be observed by every subsequent generation, not just the people alive at that time.

If the term "Israel" is teaching us that every generation is to follow the Torah's laws, why then does it need to say "all" before the word "Israel"? The Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, offers us a possible answer. Moses' speech later in this Torah portion was specifically directed to the generation born in the desert, the same generation which would soon enter the land of Israel. The previous generation participated in the disastrous worship of the golden calf and the failed mission of the spies. As punishment, they died in the desert over a span of forty years. One might therefore claim that Moses introduced new laws to the new generation entering Israel, as he tells them about the stories of their parents. Since many of the Torah's laws are mentioned for the first time in Deuteronomy, this claim may sound reasonable. However, the Ramban emphasizes that this is not the case. He links the phrase "These are the words" with "all Israel". Meaning that all the words of the Torah apply to all of Israel. The Torah laws that the desert generation observed are the same laws that the generation who entered Israel observed. There were no new Biblical laws introduced at any time, not in the desert and not since then.

As we see from this verse, Hashem commands each generation to observe the Torah. Additionally, each generation adheres to the same Torah rules. The challenge of the Torah Jew, therefore, is to find answers to contemporary issues in the Torah. In the 20th century we face issues in Jewish law that did not exist in previous generations. The generation of the desert did not contend with cars, organ transplants, and insider trading. However, we look to the Torah (and the SEC) to guide us to make the morally correct decisions. As we sing every time we return the Torah to the ark, "The Torah is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it." Just as a tree's branches grow and flower over time, so too by studying the Torah we gain a greater understanding of the applications of the Torah. A tree, however, is firmly rooted in the ground by its roots. So too, as we search for solutions to new moral issues, we must remember that the answers must have their roots grounded in the Torah.

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Eyal Feiler, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta and a graduate of Yeshiva University, resides in New York.

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