Still Relevant

The Giving of the Torah, the Almighty told Moshe, would be a truly unique event.  He would appear in a cloud and speak to Moshe in the presence of the entire Jewish people with a long-term goal in mind.   This epic, monumental, and dramatic experience would imprint confidence in the Torah in the hearts of the Jewish people.  The Torah specifies an additional twist in this episode.  The Almighty said to Moshe “And in you also they will believe forever” (Exodus 19:9).   This verse requires explanation.  Why was it necessary for the Jewish people to have special belief in Moshe?

The typical explanation of the significance of belief in Moshe, based on the writings of Maimonides,  is in regard to the primacy of his prophecy and the resulting authenticity of the five books of the Chumash.  Rabbi David Feinstein (born 1929), the Halachist and heir of the yeshiva of his father R. Moshe Feinstein, offers a different explanation.  He writes in Kol Dodi on the Torah that it can also be interpreted as referring to Moshe’s own interpretations of the Torah.  Moshe derived precepts from his own interpretations and insights into the Torah that he learned and received on Sinai.  The Torah therefore states that as a result of their hearing the Almighty speaking to Moshe in their presence, the people would not only have confidence in the Torah that he received but also in his ability to uncover, interpret, and discover authentic Torah ideas and principles on his own.  The word “forever” implies that this reliability would be extended to the prophets after Moshe as well, and presumably to the leaders of all the later generations afterwards after the end of prophecy until the present.  This interpretation of the verse relates not to belief in the Chumash and its Divine source but rather in the Oral tradition and the authenticity of its mortal teachers and interpreters.

The specialness of our Torah teachers takes on new relevance in the contemporary world.  The nearly universal accessibility of information that began with the invention of the printing press and that has recently reached a remarkable new level with the digital revolution and the proliferation of the Internet seems to have eradicated the blight of ignorance for good.  Knowledge seems to have finally reached the hands of the entire populace.   Torah knowledge is no exception.  The Hebrew religious publishing industry has experienced a renewal in the last few decades, and the English Judaica market has grown explosively.  Google is now the first address for questions about Jewish belief and observance, rather than the synagogue rabbi.  When this verse states, however, that the Torah of the sages and Torah leaders will be accepted forever it clearly indicates that they will be needed throughout all times and eras.   How are they needed in the era of the iPhone?  I believe that although it is true that much acquisition of Torah knowledge can be accomplished without reliance on student-teacher interaction, there is a crucial portion of mastery of Torah study skills (and perhaps of other subjects as well) that cannot.  True and accurate depth of understanding as well as the  ability to apply Torah principals to constantly changing  and historically new innovations, developments, and inventions cannot be acquired merely by hitting the books and by having the right research material at one’s digital fingertips.  We still need to rely on living, breathing Torah scholars to relate our contemporary lives, experiences, and challenges all the long way back to Sinai.  Moses and his heirs throughout the generations of our history remain ever more relevant and vital to Jewish life, community, and nationhood.

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