Mishneh Torah: The Role of Humankind in the Writings of God
In Parshat Re’eh, we find ourselves moving towards the middle of the Book of Devarim, the fifth and final Book of the Torah. The Rabbis refer to the Book of Devarim as “Mishneh Torah”. [Midrash Sifri]
Nachmanides explains that the reason why it’s called Mishneh Torah: it is a review of basic precepts necessary for the Jewish People to remember before they enter the Land of Israel and create a location, Eretz Yisrael, which is really the anchor of Jewish society of Torah and mitzvot.
And therefore Nachmanides says it’s called Mishneh Torah because it’s the basic ideals that are necessary when the Jewish People enter the Land of Israel. [Introduction to Deuteronomy].
The challenge with this wondrous idea of Nachmanides is it does not bear itself out in the list of commandments that are mentioned for the first time in the Book of Devarim. So many of them have nothing to do with the Jewish People entering the Land of Israel: the commandment to love God, the institution of marriage, to study Torah, to teach it, to recite the Shema, the responsibility of the Grace after Meals.
In our parsha, the institution of Kashrut, the idea of Shatnez, the prohibition of wearing a garment with wool and linen, the responsibility of giving charity or returning lost property. None of those things have anything to do with entering the Land of Israel.
And therefore the Talmud [Bava Batra 88b, Megillah 31b and Tosfot’s comments there (s.v. “Moshe”)], the Kabbalists [Zohar, vol. 3 (Deuteronomy), Parshat Va’etchanan], the Ohr HaChaim (Rav Chaim ibn Attar) [Commentary to Deuteronomy 1:1], the Gaon of Vilna [cited by Ohel Ya’akov, Deuteronomy, page 20], the Maharal [Tiferet Yisrael ch. 43] and so many others give a different explanation for why this final book of the Torah is called Mishneh Torah.
If the relationship between God and the Jewish People is to be guaranteed, there must be two partners in the scribing of the Torah.
The first four books of the Torah is the first paradigm of “God-speak”. It is written in the third person. It is completely articulated by God and scribed by Moshe.
The fifth book, the final book, is “Mishneh Torah”. It is literally a second Torah, a different paradigm of God-speak, in which Moshe scribes the text, God approves the text, Moshe scribes it with Ruach HaKodesh, God approves it and then Moshe finalizes the text.
The idea being that if we’re going to have a relationship between God and the Jewish People, it is not just God that has to convene and bring and share with us the Torah.
There needs to be a partnership with the Jewish People in its creation, completely approved by God.
These are the five books of the Torah. They are divine books, but we need to see, as we see in Devarim, a form of contribution by Moshe on behalf of the Jewish People, a book that is not written in the third person, but in the second person.
This is an important message for each and every one of us.
If Torah is going to exist forever, if we’re going to continue to guarantee its eternality, both partners have to play a role. We need to play a role. We need to understand how to bring Torah into the modern era.
Not that we should water down Torah, not that we should compromise Torah. But what makes Torah “ki heim chayeinu ve orech yameinu”, what makes Torah eternal is when it can deal with contemporary situations, contemporary realities.
And the reality of the “Mishneh Torah” celebrates the human role in the scribing of the Torah. The second paradigm of God-speak.
The responsibility for each and every one of us, as we read through Sefer Devarim, to remember that God is looking for our voice – based on the principles that God has established – to guarantee His future role in society, and to guarantee our participation in making this a more perfect society.