Rabbi Bernie Fox



Moshe’s Motives for Rebuking Bnai Yisrael

“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel on the east bank of the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the Aravah, near Suf, in the vicinity of Paran, Tofel, Lavan, Chatzerot, and Di Zahav.”  (Devarim 1:1)


Sefer Devarim is basically composed to three elements.  First, Moshe reviews some of the commandments.  In this review, he adds additional detail or emphasizes the importance of specific mitzvot.  Second, Moshe reveals mitzvot that he had not previously discussed with the nation.  Third, the sefer includes a rebuke.  Moshe chastises Bnai Yisrael for past behaviors.  He encourages the nation to guard itself against repeating these sins.


Moshe’s motives for discussing the first two elements are self-evident.  He knew he would soon die before the nation entered the Land of Israel.  Moshe was Bnai Yisrael’s teacher.  He was responsible to transmit the Torah he had received from Hashem.  This was his last opportunity to complete that task.  As teacher, he also had the duty of clarifying any areas of confusion and answering all questions regarding the law.  But a teacher is not only responsible for the transmission of knowledge.  A teacher must also inspire.  Therefore, it was imperative to urge the nation to observe the mitzvot. 


Moshe’s motives for rebuking the nation are less obvious.  The commentaries generally agree that Moshe wished to force the nation to review its past mistakes.  Understanding these errors would help Bnai Yisrael.  The nation would be better prepared to avoid repeating prior sins or reverting to the patterns of behavior that led to these sins.  However, Nachmanides explains that Moshe had an additional motive.


Moshe wished to demonstrate to Bnai Yisrael the mercy of Hashem.  The nation was poised to enter the Land.  This would occur despite past sins and failings.  This verified Hashem’s mercy.  Furthermore, Moshe felt this was a timely message.  The conquest of the Land would require a deep commitment from the people.  This commitment could be expected only from a nation confident in the outcome of its efforts.  The nation must know that its efforts and sacrifice would be rewarded with success.  This must have evoked within the people an important question.  Would they be able to seize and retain the Land?  Could the nation meet Hashem’s standards for behavior?  Perhaps, Bnai Yisrael would fail to achieve the righteousness demanded by Hashem!  If the nation failed, would it be ejected from the Land of Israel?


Moshe responded through demonstrating Hashem’s mercy.  Bnai Yisrael had committed grave sins in the wilderness.  Yet, Hashem did not abandon His nation.  He brought Bnai Yisrael to the border of Land of Israel.  They were now poised to occupy this legacy.  Certainly, the nation must strive to serve Hashem.  However, Hashem will judge His nation with mercy and kindness.  They will not be immediately exiled should they sin.  Hashem will provide ample opportunity to repent.  They can succeed in conquering and settling the Land of Israel.[1]







“On the east side of the Jordan, in the Land of Moav, Moshe began to explain this law saying:”  (Devarim 1:5)

This passage is an introduction to Sefer Devarim.  As mentioned above, much of the sefer is a review of mitzvot that had previously been presented to the nation.   In this review, Moshe does not merely repeat the material he had already taught Bnai Yisrael.  He clarifies the commandments and reveals additional details.  Rashi explains that in the process of review, Moshe explained the Torah to Bnai Yisrael in seventy languages.[2]   According to Rashi, this was part of the process of clarifying the Torah.  How does translation into various languages clarify the Torah?


This problem has an important parallel in halachah.  In order to understand this parallel, an introduction is required.  The Torah is divided into parshiyot – sections.  Generally, one portion is read in synagogue each Shabbat.  On some weeks two parshiyot are read.  In the course of a single year, the entire Torah is read.  The Talmud explains, in Tractate Berachot, that reading the weekly portion is not merely a feature of the Shabbat synagogue service.  We are also obligated to individually study the portion read on Shabbat.  The Talmud further explains that this personal study of the parasha has a specific structure.  We are required to read the entire parasha twice.  We are also required to read the targum once.[3]   What is targum?  Targum means translation. The term can also be understood as a reference to Targum Unkelus the Aramaic translation composed by the Sage Unkelus.[4]   This translation is included in many editions of the Torah.


The Tosefot record a dispute regarding this requirement of studying targum.  They explain that there are two opinions regarding the requirement of targum.  According to the first opinion, the requirement of a targum can be fulfilled by reading any translation understood by the student.  An English-speaking person can substitute an English translation.  The second opinion disagrees.  This opinion insists on the use of Unkelus’ targum.  The second opinion explains that stipulation of study with a targum requires more than a mere translation.  Although written in the form of a translation, Unkelous’ work offers invaluable insights into the meaning of various passages.  The inclusion of these insights and interpretations is essential to fulfilling the targum requirement.  Therefore, Targum Unkelus cannot be replaced by a translation.


This does seem to be a valid criticism of the first opinion.  The Talmud requires a targum.  This requirement is only meaningful if it assumed that a targum is more than a translation and that it includes commentary.  How can the first opinion presume that the requirement of a targum can be fulfilled by review with mere translation?  The Tosefot do not provide much information regarding this issue.  They make one brief comment.  They explain that every translation elucidates.[5]   The question is obvious.  How does a translation elucidate?  This problem parallels our initial question: how did Moshe’s multiple translations of the Torah lend clarity to its meaning? 


In order to answer these questions, we must begin by considering the requirement of reviewing the weekly parasha with a targum.  Why is a targum needed?  Why is it not sufficient to read the parasha without a targum.  It is clear that the law requires that the parasha be read and also interpreted.  This requirement creates a problem.  The activity of interpretation is open-ended.  The entire Oral Law can be viewed as an interpretation of the Torah!  What level of interpretation is required to fulfill the obligation of reviewing the weekly portion?  The Talmud is establishing this minimum level.  The targum represents this minimum.  Reading the parasha and studying the targum fulfill the obligation of studying the parasha.  But how does reading with a targum provide interpretation?

There are two possibilities.  One possibility – expressed in Tosefot’s second opinion – is that the passages must be restated in a form that includes insight and interpretation from the Oral Torah.  Targum Unkelus fulfills this function.  In translating the passages, it reworks and restates them based upon the Oral Torah.  Another translation cannot be assumed to fulfill this role.  It may not include elements of the Oral Torah. 


The first opinion in Tosefot maintains that the essential feature of a targum is translation.  How does mere translation provide interpretation?  This opinion argues that the very process of translation inevitably provides insight into the parasha.  Why is this?  There are two reasons.  First, some phrases in the Torah are unclear or ambiguous.  The process of translation clarifies these phrases.  It is impossible to translate the Torah without dealing with and elucidating these difficult passages.  Second, no two languages are completely parallel.  Every language has a unique vocabulary.  In translating a phrase, the scholar must choose the word or phrase that best reflects the meaning and sense of the original.  In making this choice, the translator inevitably provides insight into the meaning and implications of the original text.  According to the first opinion in the Tosefot, the interpretation, implicit in a translation, is sufficient to fulfill the element of interpretation included in the obligation of studying the weekly portion.


We can now answer our original question.  Moshe translated the Torah into seventy languages.  This was part of his explanation of the Torah.  How did these seventy translations elucidate the meaning of the Torah?  As we have explained, translation inevitably interprets.  In each translation, Moshe used the unique vocabulary of the language to describe the meaning and intention of the pesukim.  Each language added color to the entire picture of the passage’s meaning.  Through this process, Moshe was able to accurately define the simple meaning of the phrases.



[1]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim, Introduction.       

[2]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 1:5.               

[3]   Mesechet Berachot 8a.        

[4]   Tosefot, Mesechet Berachot 8a.        

[5]   Tosefot, Mesechet Berachot 8a.