Simchat Torah 5775
October 15, 2014
Rashi on Simchat Torah
As we conclude the yearly cycle of Torah reading and commence anew, I thought that we would look at the very first and the very last comments of Rashi on the Torah.
The opening Rashi is more well known than the final one.
On the first line of the Torah Rashi says (Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 1:1):
Rabbi Isaac said: should not the Torah have begun with the words, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months” (Ex. 12:2), which is the first commandment given the Israelites? Why start with the words, “In the beginning”? Because “He revealed to His people His powerful works, in giving them the heritage of nations” (Ps. 111:6), for lest the other nations of the world say that the Israelites are robbers, having conquered the lands of seven nations, they can respond that the entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He, and He created it and gave it to whomever He saw fit, giving it to them or taking it from them and giving it to us, according to His will.”
This homily can be understood several ways, and we might have expected Rashi to express his opinion regarding the elucidation he chose and his reasons for choosing precisely this homily with which to begin his commentary.
Rabbi Chavel, also wondering why Rashi remained silent on this matter, notes: I cannot resist noting how the purity of soul of our Rabbi (Rashi) is reflected here, for he chose, of all the dozens of passages in homiletic literature, precisely this one from Yalkut, whose objective is to defend the honour of Israel, “lest the nations say,” and even nine centuries after this was written we still face the same challenge with the nations of the world. It can only be that our Rabbi, Meor ha-Golah, was divinely inspired…all this being testimony that the Eternal of Israel does not lie.
Likewise, Prof. Abraham Grossman, who in his definitive work, “Rashi”, wrote: Rashi began his commentary on the Torah with this subject, citing the homily from Tanhuma: lest the nations of the world say the Israelites are robbers, having conquered the lands of the seven nations, etc. Clearly, his having begun his explication of the Torah with the right of Israel to the land of Israel is highly significant and bore a message to the Jews of Europe and their Christian environment even in Rashi’s time.
Now we turn to Rashi’s remarks on the last verse of Parashat Ve-Zot ha-Berakhah: “and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel”:
For he was moved to smash the Tablets before their very eyes, as it is written (above, Deut. 9:17), “smashing them before your eyes,” and the Holy One, blessed be He, was of like mind with him, for it is written (Ex. 34:1), “which you shattered”—the more power to you.
Rashi’s remarks, aimed at summing up Moses’ life’s work “before all Israel” make one wonder: Of all the things Moses did in Egypt and in the wilderness, could Rashi find nothing worthy of note save his breaking the Tablets?
Moreover, Rashi adds force to the last verse of the Torah with the homily of Resh Lakish (Menahot 99b), which in its original context and primary sense revolves around a different verse altogether: “The Lord said to Moses: ‘Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered'” (Ex. 34:1).
Resh Lakish expounded this verse as follows: “Sometimes abrogation of the Law is its foundation, as it is written, ‘which you shattered’—the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: the more power to you for shattering them.” The Holy One, blessed be He, congratulated him for breaking the tablets, for had they not been shattered, the Israelites would have had to have been wiped out, heaven forfend; therefore it says ‘which you shattered'” (Pesikta Zutrata Lekah Tov).
We conclude that Rashi had an interest in concluding his commentary on the Torah precisely with Resh Lakish’s homily, and the question, of course, is to what end?
If we naively thought that shattering tablets written by the finger of G-d would bring about a severe crisis in Israel, it turns out we were mistaken. Resh Lakish determined that breaking the tablets revealed the depth of Moses’ perceptiveness, showing that he had the good sense to understand the Divine position and thereby brought about deliverance of Israel, as we read, “Sometimes abrogation of the Law is its foundation” and “had they not been shattered, the Israelites would have had to have been wiped out, heaven forfend.” In what context did this wonderful, revolutionary way of looking at the text emerge? The answer turns out to be embedded in another homily (also by the above-mentioned Rabbi Isaac), appearing in Exodus Rabbah, on the verse, “But Moses implored the Lord his G-d, saying, ‘Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, who You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand” (Ex. 32:11). It goes as follows (Exodus Rabbah, ch. 43.4):
Another explanation of ” But Moses implored”: What does this mean? R. Berekiah said in the name of R. Helbo, who said it in the name of R. Isaac: That he [Moses] absolved his Creator of His vow. How so? When Israel made the Calf, Moses began to persuade G-d to forgive them; but G-d said: “Moses, I have already taken an oath that whoever sacrifices to a god…shall be proscribed (Ex. 22:19), and I cannot retract an oath which has proceeded from My mouth.” Moses rejoined: “Lord of the Universe! Did You not grant me the power of annulment of oaths by saying, If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge (Num. 30:3)—he may not break it but a Sage may absolve his vow if he consults him. If a scholar pronouncing decisions desires that others should respect his decision, he must be the first to observe it. Since You commanded me concerning the annulment of vows, it is only right and proper that You should annul Your vow as You have commanded me to annul the vows of others.” Whereupon he wrapped himself in his cloak and seated himself in the posture of a Sage, and G-d stood before him as one asking [for the annulment of] his vow…At that moment Moses said, “Be it absolved for You, be it absolved for You. There is neither vow nor oath any longer.” For this reason it says va-yehal Moshe (Moses implored), intimating that he absolved the vow of his Creator, as it says, he shall not break (yahel) his pledge. R. Simeon b. Lakish said: This was the reason why he was called “the man of G-d,” because he had absolved the vow of G-d; hence Moses implored.
It follows from R. Isaac’s homily in Exodus Rabbah (also see par. 1-3, there) that when the vow of the Holy One, blessed be He, was annulled, the validity of the second commandment on the first set of tablets was cancelled; therefore, it was proper to break the tablets in order to save Israel from the punishment inscribed thereon. From this angle, the act of breaking the tablets was the source of deliverance, for that act preserved the Israelites and enabled the Holy One, blessed be He, to bond with them in a new covenant.
Now it becomes completely clear why Rashi was interested in concluding his commentary on the Torah precisely with the homily of Resh Lakish. In so doing he apparently sought to instruct future generations that, in the view of the Sages, the Holy One, blessed be He, gives full backing to breaking the tablets when the survival of the people of Israel is at stake. In so doing, Rashi presented anew the famous words of the Talmud regarding R. Joshua, who “stood on his feet and said: it is not in Heaven” (Bava Metzia 59b). We note further that the ideas to which Rashi alludes here are presented explicitly in his commentary on Psalms 119:126: “It is time to act for the Lord, for they have violated Your teaching [could also be read: violate Your teaching!]: our Rabbis interpreted this to mean that one may violate what is written in the Torah in order to make a hedge and fence for Israel, as Gideon and Elijah did on Mount Carmel, making offerings on a high place.”
Thus our teacher Rashi of blessed memory commenced his commentary on the Torah with the honour of Israel and its right to the Land of Israel and concluded his commentary with the honour of Israel and its indestructible, eternal nature.