August 7, 2018

Torah should be a free comodity (VaEtchanan)

Despite repeated pleading, Moshe is told by God that he will not step foot in Eretz Yisrael. Yet, notwithstanding his strong feelings of disappointment, Moshe channels his emotions and begins to teach the people about how life will be different once they enter the land. In contrast to the wilderness where food and water were miraculously provided, Bnei Yisrael would need to provide for themselves, and while the Mishkan took centre-stage within the Israelite camp, the division of the land of Israel into different tribal settlements would pose a new challenge to the concept of Jewish unity.

However, while life would certainly be different in Eretz Yisrael, there were other aspects of Jewish life that should remain the same despite the different surroundings. Thus, Moshe reminds the people about the belief in One God and reviews the 10 commandments, as if to say that while some aspects of Jewish life may change once they enter the land, the core elements of Jewish belief must not, and within this category of core beliefs is a profound lesson regarding the free access that all Jews must have to Torah.

Commenting on the verse “See ! I have taught you rules and laws as God my Lord has commanded me, so [that you] will be able to keep them in the land to which you are coming and which you will be occupying” (Devarim 4:5), our Rabbis explain (Talmud Bavli, Bechorot 29a) that just as God taught Moshe for free, and just as Moshe taught Bnei Yisrael Torah without demanding a fee, so too, we should teach other Jews Torah for free (nb. for specific rules on this issue see Rambam, Talmud Torah 1:7). Similarly, a different rabbinic teaching (see Mechilta on Shemot 19:2) states that the Torah was given in the desert in order to show that Torah should be something that everyone can access for free.

As Bnei Yisrael were preparing to enter the land of Israel, and knowing that he would not be there to join them, Moshe was worried that the tribal divisions in the land, and the new concept of ‘possession’ in the land, might change the attitudes of Bnei Yisrael. Consequently, Moshe tells the people that whatever may change when they enter the land, Torah should always be a free commodity to those who seek it.

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