Six years ago, I wrote a musing for this parsha entitled "Connecting the Dots" In it, I explored the possible meanings of the Masoretic "dots" inserted above the first 11 letters of the words "lanu ul’vaneinu ad" (only the final dalet is absent the dot) in the sentence:
Hanistarot l’-Ad"nai El"heinu v’haniglot lanu ul’vaneinu ad olam la’asot et kol divrei hatorah hazot"
My translation: "The hidden things are for Ad"nai, our G"d, and the revealed things are to us and to our children for all eternity to do all the words of this teaching."
The JPS’s translation" Concealed acts concern the L"rd our G"d; but with over acts. it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this teaching."
In so translating this text, the JPS committee decided to side with the traditional understanding of this text referring to responsibility of the community for dealing with sinners. The dots, say most scholars, tell us that the people of Israel could ignore the instruction until they came into the land of Israel. That is, they were not obligated to deal with revealed sin, or work to prevent people from sinning, until they had entered the land, after taking the responsibility upon themselves with the oath ritual at Mount Gerezim and Mount Ebal.
Rashi supports this interpretation, and relies upon Talmud to so so, citing portions from Sanhedrin 43b and Sotah 37b.
Of course, all this is based on the supposition that the Torah, as we now have it, was known and revealed to the Israelites (at Sinai?)before they entered the land after 40 years wandering in the wilderness.
Why, probably two or so millenia later, in the 7th century CE, would the Masoretes feel it necessary to dot the words "lanu ul’vaneinu ad?" What was troubling the rabbis, Rashi, and the Masoretes?
Rashi claims that G"d did not mete out punishment even for revealed sins in great quantity before the people entered the land after accepting the oath. thus becoming responsible for the conduct and behavior of each other. Rashi was a proponent of punishing the many (i,.e. the community) for the sins of the individual, for it is as much their failure. (Given this world view, it’s no wonder the rabbis went to such great lengths to create a fence around the Torah
So what troubled Rashi, the rabbis, the Masoretes? Surely plenty of punishment for sins was meted out during the people’s time in the wilderness. Pinkhas showed great zeal for such activities. Korakh and his rebel band were dealt with quite directly by G"d. Why, their very wandering in the wilderness was a punishment for the sin of doubting G"d. Yes, things got much worse after we entered the land, largely due to our own inability to control ourselves. We failed, as individuals, and as a community, to live up to our covenant, and for that we were punished and kicked out of the land. Twice-the second time for good. (I’m not sure that our ability to presently be in the land again means all is forgiven and our period of expulsion for our sins is over.)
Why only the eleven letters? Why is the word "ad" only dotted over the first letter, the ayin? How can we ignore one letter of the word? Just a typo that got carried on through tradition, or is it purposeful?
So again I ask, why would the Masoretes mark text to be disregarded by people who preceded them by thousands of years? Was this their nod to previous generations of rabbis and scholars who argued that this little piece of text was inapplicable prior to the people entering the land? Why not be bold and say "this applies to us now and foreverm so what does it matter that for a short time, thousands of years ago,it didn’t apply" The Masoretes were fixing something that didn’t need fixing. So again I ask why?
Shortly after this perpelexing text, and its perplexing dots, we come to the famous "lo bashamayim hi" which teaches us that Torah is not too baffling to be understood by anyone. It would seem the Masorete’s dots in 29:28 directly contravene this concept. For that matter, so do thousands of years of rabbinical and scholarly writings, from Talmud on down to modern Responsa. All of them exist on the basis that Torah isn’t clear, and needs explanation, needs gaps filled, etc. I’d be so bold as to stipulate that all of halakha is in direct contravention to the text of Deut. 30:11-14.
We developed this idea, this tradition of the Oral Torah (which eventually became Mishnah, Gemara, Talmud, Shulkhan Arukh, and more.) It exists to help us understand what we don’t understand in the Torah. Yet Torah herself tells us that she is not to difficult for anyone to understand. Oh, what a viscous circle we have woven.
Maybe it’s time to forget the dots, and stop trying to connect them. Maybe it is time for each of us to assume our roles as individuals (and communities) fully capable of understanding Torah, without intervening layers.
This has been on my mind of late, largely because of something I read in my efforts to help be a part of the future of Jewish education. The piece, Ten Things I Learned About The Future of the Jewish People From the Future of the Jewish People, makes an important point about today’s youth being a creative generation, with easy access to the tools that enable them to be creative. Using Wikipedia as an example, author David Bryfman says that today’s youth need to be part of creating anything which they will respect, and that includes working with our sacred texts. He wrote:
A Jewish text and a traditional authority are valuable only once their respect has been earned – something that can only be established when teens are given the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with either the text or the authority figure. Likewise rituals are only as meaningful as the sovereign selves who help construct and develop them. This rejection of tradition has been interpreted by some as disrespectful – but instead needs to be re-framed within the passion and dedication of those many young Jews who strive to be creators and interpreters and not merely recipients of a tradition. (emphasis added)
I have taken this idea to heart and plan to use it at the core of my teaching and other activities in Jewish education.
How might today’s youth approach these two pieces of Torah: the dotted "lanu ul’vaneinu ad" and "lo bashamayim hi?" They would certainly embrace the latter concept, as it pretty much guarantees their place as interpreters of Torah. How would they seek to be both creator and receiver of that text?
Why don’t we try for ourselves to find out. while I’m not going to create a wiki to discuss this (at least, not for now) I’d like to ask you, my readers, to openly engage in the process of creating and receiving Torah by offering your thoughts on Deut. 29:28 and 30:11-14. Post your comments here, on the blog post of this week’s Random Musing. (If you’re reading this in an email or on a page of my web site, the blog is at http://migdalorguysblog.blogspot.com) Together we can create and receive.
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester