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By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

Public Secrets1

Moshe spoke to the Bnei Yisrael according to everything that Hashem commanded him to them.

This was hardly the first time that Hashem commanded Moshe to convey His words to His people. Moreover, it would have sufficed to say that Moshe spoke according to everything that Hashem commanded him. We would have understood that the command included whom Moshe was supposed to address. Why does the Torah underscore – in this one place- that Hashem commanded him “to them?”

If we accept one important premise, many doors of understanding spring open. Whenever the Torah speaks of Hashem commanding Moshe, it means the entire universe of Torah she-b’al -peh that is associated with a particular line or passage in the Written Torah. The fullness of Hashem’s “command” of any part of the Torah includes a wealth of material. Moshe was instructed to share that wealth – or at least part of it, as we shall see.

First and foremost, the Torah she-b’al -peh associated with every parshah of Torah means fixed, firm halachic rulings that flesh out the full intention of a given section. In fact, without these rulings, no section of the Torah conveys any usable legal meaning. Moshe was instructed from the get-go to share with the Jewish people everything of this nature that he had been taught. (This is the proper understanding of the gemara{2} that describes Moshe’s learning and teaching. Moshe learned both kelalim and peratim /general principles and their details at Sinai. He then taught them in the Ohel Moed{3}).

The Torah she-b’al -peh that Moshe acquired, however, contained many other riches. Among them were rules through which halachic meaning could be wrung from text. Moshe received clear instruction from Hashem about derashos, i.e. how to make text yield the abundance of laws it contains, how to discover all the allusions to details and nuances of the Law that reside within the Torah she-b’chsav. By comprehending the process (which includes tools like R. Yishma’el’s 13 principles of halachic derash, and the 32 similar principles of aggadic inference), students could get to the plane of “Talmud,” or understanding just how an accepted law of the Mishnah (i.e. the compendium of fixed laws) is organically related to and derived from the Torah she-b’chsav.

This knowledge was not originally shared with the Jewish people. Moshe withheld it from them during the forty-year trek through the wilderness. In fact, it was within his rights to withhold it from them entirely. The gemara{4} tells us that Torah was originally “given” to Moshe alone. Following the sugya there to its conclusion, this means that one part of the Torah – the rules and the art of halachic inference from the text of Torah itself – was originally intended for Moshe alone. The people were to be given the corpus of fixed laws taught to them by Moshe, but not the ability to relate those laws to the text, nor to derive new laws from the text. When new, unfamiliar situations would arise, they were to use logical inference, i.e. comparing unknown situations to known ones, to arrive at halachic conclusions.

Despite the exclusive rights that Moshe possessed, he decided to share his knowledge with the people. He did not do so, however, until the nation arrived at Arvos Moav. (The gemara in Chagigah cited above makes precisely this point. Moshe received the general principles and their details at Sinai; he taught them to the people from the Ohel Moed; he made it a three-fold learning at Arvos Moav. The third leg of this tripartite learning was not just another repetition. Why would he wait for Arvos Moav to review what he had been taught, and what he taught the people? Reviewing our Torah knowledge is a constant, non-ending obligation! They certainly reviewed at every available opportunity. Rather, this third leg was a completely new approach to Torah, something the people had never heard of before. Moshe offered them the rules of derivation with which to find law within the text of the Torah.

We now understand the curious phraseology in our pasuk. Moshe was willing to share all that “Hashem commanded him,” i.e. the parts of Torah originally intended for Moshe to keep to himself, and passed it along “to them.”

Our pasuk also conveys a different subtle point about another class of Torah knowledge that fall under the broad heading of Torah she-b’al -peh. The Torah contains many secrets, much esoteric knowledge that is simply not appropriate for the public domain. This, too, was vouchsafed to Moshe – but with the understanding that it would not become part of his public teaching. Thus, our pasuk reports that Moshe taught only the parts of Torah that Hashem commanded him to be given to them, to the exclusion of the esoteric parts.

Why did Arvos Moav call for a reconsideration of the way Moshe taught Torah to the people? The answer lies in the function of the forty years the Bnei Yisrael spent in the wilderness. The broader implication of this forty year sentence was that future generations would have to endure long exiles. The people did not realize this – until Moshe explained it to them at Arvos Moav, at the very end of the four decades. Without realizing it, they had gained the capacity to survive in galus. Moshe understood, however, that he was holding on to an important survival tool. The method of pilpul, of deriving new law from the text, would be crucial to their survival, for two reasons, one spiritual, the other legal.

Galus would not be easy to bear. The people would need huge spiritual assets to keep their heads above water. The method of pilpul demands deep, penetrating analyis – a veritable “war” of Torah. Instructing the people in this methodology would create many more eager soldiers fighting the wars of Torah – whose merit would stave off more conventional battles with more conventional enemies.

From the standpoint of practical law alone, Moshe understood that the people needed to become expert in a new methodology of derivation. Before galus became a concern, people could follow the instructions in parshas Shoftim{5}. Coming to the beis ha-mikdosh, they were assured of receiving an answer to any important halachic query. The decision might come from a shofet employing the razor-sharp, incisive reasoning of pilpul to creatively construct new legal reasoning. Or it might come from a kohen, weighing the issues and making the best comparison to precedent. (This is why both are mentioned in the pasuk. They represent different ways of arriving at a legal conclusion{6}).

We can state with confidence that people who sought answers there received them, because the Torah underscores one important detail: “You shall do according to the thing that they tell you from the place.” The “place” – which had previously been identified by the Torah – is itself important. Even if the shofet and kohen are somewhat lacking in skill, the Torah tells us that the very place itself determines halachah. Any decision handed down at the place of the Sanhedrin becomes the halachah. The specialness of the place – the kedushah, the Shechinah – compensates for some weakness in the ability of the judge.

All this would come to an end with galus. Without the beis ha-mikdosh, no special place guaranteed an acceptable halachic approach. Scholarship now meant everything. Moshe understood the need to provide his people with extra tools with which to approach halachic questions. He therefore generously shared what by right belonged to him. At Arvos Moav, he instructed them in an approach to halachah that they could take with them into galus, providing the answers that would make the Torah a viable way of life in all places and at all times.

1. Based on Haamek Davar, Devarim 1:3
2. Chagigah 6A
3. This differs from what seems to be the plain meaning of the gemara, which is that Moshe first studied these matters at Sinai, and then reviewed them as part of his personal learning.
4. Nedarim 38A
5. Devarim 17:8-10
6. See “Two Halachic Highways,” parshas Shlach