For what nation is so great that it possesses righteous laws and statutes, as this Torah that I have given before you today. (Devarim 4:8)
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that careful analysis of the Torah’s statutes and laws provide evidence of their Divine source. A system of law devised by humans will inevitably benefit some groups and neglect the needs and interests of others. Even if the person or group that developed the system set as a goal the formulation of equitable and just laws, it would be impossible to remove the influence of personal bias. It is not surprising that a human created legal system may favor the wealthy or the ruling class. Another system may neglect the needs of certain minorities or create an underclass. Furthermore, even if it were possible for the framers to eliminate all person bias, a society is made of many elements; it is not realistic to expect these lawmakers to understand and appreciate everyone’s needs.
The Torah is unique in this regard. No group’s interests are treated above all others. For example, the kohanim have special privileges. They receive material support and respect from the people. However, they also are governed by unique restrictions. They do not receive a portion in the Land of Israel. Instead, they are required to devote themselves to the service of Hashem. This obligation precludes involving themselves in extensive agricultural endeavors. The laws regarding the king reflect this same phenomenon. The king has tremendous authority. Yet he is not above the law. He reminded of his obligation to observe and enforce the Torah through a special command. Upon becoming ruler, he must write a Sefer Torah. He is restricted in his ability to make decisions. In many areas, he is required to consult the prophet, Kohen Gadol or Sages. The Navi is replete with examples of prophets rebuking the king for overstepping his authority or laxity in observance. The first King, Shaul, was dismissed because he failed to follow the prophet Shemuel’s instructions.
The same analysis can be applied to every class or group governed by Torah laws and statutes. Rights and privileges are always accompanied by responsibilities, limits, and restrictions. A master’s treatment of his servant is strictly regulated in order to assure the material and spiritual welfare of the servant. The courts have vast authority but are severely restricted in their legislative prerogatives. For example, the courts are not permitted to create an original and fundamentally novel law that is not closely related to one of the six hundred thirteen commandments of the Torah.
Sforno observes that this remarkable characteristic of the Torah reflects its Divine source. It would not be possible for a human-created system to achieve this level of equity and justice. Any human-designed system will bear the imprint of its creator in some suggestion of bias or ignorance reflective of its creator’s prejudices and limited knowledge. It is this characteristic – optimal equity and justice – to which Moshe refers in this passage.
For now inquire of the first days that preceded you – from the day that Hashem created Adam upon the earth, from one end of the heavens to the other. Has any great thing like this occurred or has anything like it been heard? (Devarim 4:32)
This portion of our parasha is read during the morning service on Tisha B’Av. Moshe foretells Bnai Yisrael’s future. He tells Bnai Yisrael that they will settle the Land of Israel. The nation will become complacent. The people will begin to take for granted the blessings bestowed upon them by Hashem. Eventually, the nation will sin and adopt idolatrous practices. Hashem will punish Bnai Yisrael. They will be exiled from the Land of Israel. In exile, they will be persecuted and oppressed. The nation’s population will dwindle. However, Hashem will not forsake the Jewish nation. Although He punishes evil, He is a merciful G-d. He will remember the covenant that He made with the Avot – the forefathers. Eventually, Bnai Yisrael will return to Hashem. The people will be redeemed. They will be restored to the Land of Israel.
Then, Moshe tells Bnai Yisrael to consider the history of humanity. He observes that no other nation has shared the experiences of Bnai Yisrael. Bnai Yisrael experienced Divine revelation at Sinai. They communed with Hashem. No other nation was redeemed from bondage through wonders and miracles – an unequaled display of Hashem’s omnipotence. Moshe ends this address by telling Bnai Yisrael that they are uniquely prepared to realize that Hashem is the only G-d. He has no equal.
In summary, Moshe’s address includes three elements:
· He begins with two predictions. Bnai Yisrael will sin and be exiled. Moshe then tells the people that because of Hashem’s covenant with the Avot, they will repent and be redeemed.
· Moshe instructs the nation to survey the history of humanity and recognize the special relationship between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael.
· Moshe reminds Bnai Yisrael that they are uniquely equipped to appreciate Hashem.
In reviewing this address, an obvious question emerges. How are the components of the address related? One component seems especially difficult to explain. Moshe instructs the people to review the history of humanity. Apparently, this review is designed to confirm some aspect of Moshe’s message. What element of Moshe’s lesson is reinforced by this survey of history? What lesson are the people to learn from history? The commentaries offer various answers to this question. We will consider some of these answers.
Some of the commentaries contend that Moshe’s admonition to study history is related to his predictions. He is suggesting that the credibility of his prophecy regarding the nation’s future is supported by historical fact. However, in order to understand Moshe’s contention, further analysis is needed. Moshe made two predictions. He predicted exile and subsequent, eventual redemption. Does history reflect on both of these predictions or on only one of them? If history is relevant to only one prediction, then which prediction is supported through history?
Nachmanides suggests that Moshe’s instruction to review history is related to his first prediction. Moshe predicts that the nation will sin, and as a result, be exiled. This is an astounding prediction. Moshe is positing the existence of a firm, causal relationship between the religious devotion of Bnai Yisrael, and the national well being. This phenomenon is not commonly observable in history. Nations arise to power and fall into the abyss of obscurity. The process is influenced by some Divine calculation and design. Yet, there does not seem to be a concrete causal relationship between a nation’s religious conduct and its historical fate. Why is Bnai Yisrael different? Moshe responds that no other nation experienced Divine revelation. No other people were miraculously redeemed from oppression through on overt display of Hashem’s omnipotence. Bnai Yisrael is a unique phenomenon in history. Therefore, Hashem treats it differently.
Chizkuni explains this concept in more specific terms. He explains that Hashem revealed Himself to Bnai Yisrael through redemption from Egypt and the Sinai experience. Therefore, He expects more from Bnai Yisrael. The nation’s religious convictions are based on clearly established facts known through personal experience. The nation’s knowledge of Hashem demands a higher standard of conduct and justifies a more strict measure of judgment. Hashem will not overlook the iniquities of the Jewish people.
In short, according to Nachmanides and Chizkuni, Moshe predicts that sin will be punished by exile. He then instructs the nation to study history. This study provides the reason for Hashem’s strict treatment of Bnai Yisrael.
Rabbaynu Avadia Sforno adopts a similar approach to explaining the components of Moshe’s address. According to Seforno, Moshe’s directive to consider the lessons of history is related to Moshe’s second prediction. This prediction is that Bnai Yisrael will eventually be redeemed from exile. Essentially, this prophecy posits that Hashem will never forsake His relationship with Bnai Yisrael. The covenant with the Avot is permanent. The experiences of Bnai Yisrael confirm the significance of this covenant. Because of this covenant, Hashem redeemed Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. He revealed Himself at Sinai. No other nation experienced such a relationship with Hashem. Through remembering these experiences, Bnai Yisrael is assured of the permanence of their relationship with Hashem. In the depths of exile and oppression, the people can confidently anticipate eventual redemption.
Siach Yitzchak adopts a slightly different approach to explaining Moshe’s address. He agrees that Moshe’s admonition to consider history is related to his predictions. However, Nachmanides, Chizkuni, and Sforno maintain that history confirms or elucidates Moshe’s predictions. Siach Yitzchak contends that Moshe did not intend to support his predictions through history. Instead, Moshe’s intention was to address a dilemma that would confront Bnai Yisrael during the predicted exile.
Bnai Yisrael will experience a protracted period of exile and oppression. During this period of suffering, the people must not give up hope. They must remain confident of their eventual redemption. However, the redemption that Moshe predicts is a singular, unique event. Moshe contends that a dispossessed nation, after a period of oppression extending over an indefinite period, will eventually be rescued from mighty enemies. The nation will be restored to its land and greatness. Such an event does not have extensive historical precedent. Moshe’s prediction describes a miracle – a unique and singular historical event. Most historical events are not unique. Instead, history consistently repeats itself. Nations rise and fall according to a pattern that is constant.
In short, a nation in the depth of exile and oppression must affirm that the patterns of history can be contravened by an unprecedented event. Moshe tells Bnai Yisrael that, paradoxically, history itself confirms that singular, unique events are possible and do occur. Prior to Bnai Yisrael’s redemption from Egypt, no other nation had been rescued from oppression through a manifest expression of Hashem’s omnipotence. Before revelation at Sinai, no nation experienced direct communion with G-d. These events were unprecedented and inconsistent with the pattern of history. These events prove that singular, unique events do occur. Recalling these events will help Bnai Yisrael to overcome the inevitable temptation to respond to prolonged oppression with despondency and hopelessness. Through recalling these events, Bnai Yisrael will remain convinced of the plausibility of redemption.
Maimonides discusses Moshe’s address in his Eggeret Taiman. He seems to take a different approach to explaining Moshe’s instruction to consider history. The commentators previously discussed contended that Moshe directed Bnai Yisrael’s attention to history in order to support some aspect of his predictions. Maimonides contends that Moshe instructed Bnai Yisrael to consider history in relation to the last component of his address. In this last component, Moshe tells Bnai Yisrael that they are uniquely prepared to appreciate Hashem. In order to understand Maimonides’ explanation of Moshe’s address, we must begin with a new question. How is this last statement related to the rest of Moshe’s address?
Maimonides observes that exile and suffering are naturally difficult to accept. People experiencing persecution will ask, “Where is Hashem?” Personal suffering can lead to a crisis of faith. The afflicted victim feels abandoned and questions the existence of G-d or His involvement in the affairs of humanity. How can a just G-d allow such suffering? Moshe prophesied that Bnai Yisrael would experience exile and oppression. How was the nation to remain committed to Hashem and Torah? Moshe responded that Bnai Yisrael is uniquely equipped to face this challenge. He explains that no other nation witnessed Hashem’s omnipotence. No other nation received a revealed Torah directly from Hashem. Why did Hashem expose Bnai Yisrael to these unprecedented experiences? These experiences were designed to create the basis for a firm conviction in Hashem and His Torah. Only on the basis of this conviction can the nation remain committed to Hashem and observance of His Torah even in the darkest times.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 4:8.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 4:32.
 Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 4:32.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 4:32.
 Rav Yitzchak Meltzan, Siach Yitzchak, Commentary on Siddur Eshai Yisrael, p 89.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Eggeret Taiman, Chapter 1.