A Lonely Torah Portion
Perashat Ve'Zot HaBeracha is a lonely Torah portion - unlike the other Perashot Hashavua, it does not have a specific Shabbat; instead, it's read on Simhat Torah as we transition into Sefer Bereshit. As a result, very few shiurim or sermons are dedicated to the content of Ve'Zot HaBeracha.
A verse familiar to many of us, that every Jewish child of school-age knows is
תּוֹרָה צִוָּה-לָנוּ, מֹשֶׁה: מוֹרָשָׁה, קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב
Moshe commanded us the Torah - it is an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob
A mishna in Pirkei Avot poses a seeming contradiction to the declaration that the Torah is "an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob". In Chapter Two, Mishna 17, we learn:
Rabbi Yosi said: ....Prepare yourself for the study of the Torah, for the knowledge of it is not yours by inheritance.
Is - or is not - Torah our inheritance? A simple solution: The verse is declaring that we are commanded to follow the mitzvot, such that the phrase מורשה קהילת יעקב simply rephrases the first half of the pasuk, "Moshe commanded us the Torah..." But what new information is conveyed through labeling the Torah as a "morasha" or inheritance?
Also, what does the term "Kehilla" connote? Why did the Torah not say that the Torah is the inheritance of בית יעקב - the House of Jacob? That expression appears no less than 26 times throughout Tanach?
The Gemara in Tractate Makkot, 24a, approaches our verse from a "Gematria" perspective: The Hebrew word תורה has a numerical value of 611. Says the Gemara: Moshe Rabeinu commanded us regarding 611 of the mitzvot. Only the first two of the עשרת הדברות - the Ten Commandments - were conveyed to us by G-d Himself.
Although this is an interesting 'derasha' - we should always pursue a deeper understanding of our sages' intentions. How does the Gematria calculation fit in with the plain meaning and context of our verse?
So we have three questions:
a) Is the Torah an inheritance or not? How do we reconcile the statement from Pirkei Avot with the verse in Ve'zot Haberacha?
b) What does the term "Kehillat Ya'akov" hope to convey?
c) How should we contextually understand the idea that Moshe commanded us 611 mitzvot, while Hashem conveyed only two?
Sukkot in Auschwitz, 1944
A number of years ago, Rabbi Binny Freedman met Ya'akov, a wealthy businessman from Caracas who was spending Pesach with his family at a hotel in Florida. At one point, Rabbi Freedman asked the man if there was anything in particular that stood out in his mind as the reason he had survived. Without hesitation, he responded: “It was one mitzvah; the sukkot I spent in Auschwitz. When he was a young man, the Venezuelan Jew had been assigned the job of divvying up daily rations in Auschwitz.
One day, while preparing the rations in the dark winter night, he heard banging on the door of the shed, only to discover a man he recognized as a prominent Torah scholar standing in the snow. His request? Sukkot started that evening, and the man needed two whole loaves of bread for "lechem mishne"; he promised to only eat a small amount, and to return the bulk of the bread to Ya'akov.
"Even more intriguing," Rabbi Freedman continues, "was how on earth this Rabbi had managed to build a sukkah in Auschwitz-Birkenau. As it turned out, that summer and fall of 1944 the Nazis were bringing hundreds of thousands of Jews in a last-ditch effort to complete the ‘final solution’ before the war would end. In the twisted organizational logic of the lager camps world, the Nazis needed to have additional barracks to hold the new prisoners for labor until they could be exterminated. As such, prisoners were dismantling tiers of bunks in the barracks while rows of bunks were being reconstructed in the central parade ground. Seeing the rows and rows of bunks outdoors and realizing the festival of Sukkot was coming, this rabbi had managed to secure some schach and place it atop some of the boards of the semi-constructed bunks beneath the open sky in such a way as to construct a minimally kosher sukkah (booth) for the festival."
Ya'akov consented to dispense the bread if the rabbi would allow him to join him in the sukkah for a couple of minutes. Despite the risk he would be taking, Ya'akov convinced the rabbi to accede to his request. “So together the two of them, and old Rabbi and a student, risked their lives and sat, for a few brief moments, in a sukkah in Auschwitz."
Both the rabbi and the youngster exhibited "Mesirat Nefesh" - a selfless dedication to their Jewishness - in the face of overwhelming danger, in an atmosphere that should have otherwise generated unbridled despair.
Ramban on Ve’zot Haberacha
This story recalls the commentary of Ramban on Ve'Zot Haberacha. The verse prior to תּוֹרָה צִוָּה-לָנוּ, מֹשֶׁה: מוֹרָשָׁה, קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב reads:
ג ... כָּל-קְדֹשָׁיו בְּיָדֶךָ; וְהֵם תֻּכּוּ לְרַגְלֶךָ, יִשָּׂא מִדַּבְּרֹתֶיךָ
3 .... all His holy ones--they are in Your hand; and they sit down at Your feet, receiving of Your words.
יאמר שהם מוכים בכל מכה במדבר ללכת אחריך בכל אשר תלך, לא יחושו לרעב ולצמאון ומכת נחש ועקרב, רק יצאו לרגליך ואחריך ירוצו וזה כענין שנאמר (ירמיה ב ב) זכרתי לך חסד נעוריך אהבת כלולותיך לכתך אחרי במדבר בארץ לא זרועה
....this means that they were smitten with every kind of affliction in the desert to go after You wherever You go...they are unconcerned with famine, thirst, snakes and scorpions, but follow your lead and run after you, reminiscent of the verse in Jeremiah, "Thus says the LORD: I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of your espousals; how you went after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown....."
This dedication and trust in Hashem generates a commitment that prompts the Jewish people to "carry" Hashem's words on their mouths, meditating on words of Torah at every turn. This is יִשָּׂא מִדַּבְּרֹתֶיךָ - they will carry Your words. According to Ramban, the next verse details the words that Israel will carry: "Moshe commanded us the Torah" It is this "mantra' that will be an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob, says Ramban, as subsequent generations remain forever dedicated to G-d's Torah and Mitzvot.
The juxtaposition of the pesukim teaches us that future commitment stems from bouts of Mesirat Nefesh during 40 years in the desert, and thousands of years later ... in Auschwitz. Bitachon, trust in Hashem, is bequeathed by committed ancestors to their grandchildren and great grandchildren....
Ramban takes this idea a step further;
ודרשו רבותינו (מדרש תהלים א), שלא אמר מורשה בית יעקב או זרע יעקב ואמר "קהלת יעקב" לרמז שיקהלו רבים עליהם ותהיה התורה לעולם מורשה ליעקב ולכל הנקהלים עליו, הם הגרים הנלוים על ה' לשרתו ונספחו על בית יעקב, ונקראו כלם קהלתו
Our sages taught: It does not say "the inheritance of the House of Jacob" or "the seed of Jacob", but the "congregation of Jacob" - to hint that many people will congregate and join them, such that the Torah will forever be an inheritance for Jacob and all those that "congregate to and join them" - these are the converts that come to serve Hashem and become part of the House of Jacob; they are called its "congregation"...
Ramban's citation of this midrash accentuates the power of the commitment and trust that fuels the eternal utterance of "Moshe commanded us the Torah.." Although we do not, as a matter of course, proselytize, the pure power of our commitment has a magnetic quality that attracts others in the Jewish community...and beyond. This is the concept of "Kehillat Ya'akov".
Returning to the Gematria and to R. Yosi
In addition to trust in Hashem, a healthy dose of humility perpetuates Torah and attracts others to Jewish practice and belief. Perhaps this is the context of the Gemara which notes that Moshe commanded 611 of the 613 mitzvot. Our level of prophecy at Matan Torah was not sufficiently developed to allow us to hear the mitzvot from Hashem directly; we begged Moshe to serve as an intermediary...
With this, maybe we can reconcile R. Yosi's comment in Pirkei Avot, "Prepare yourself for the study of the Torah, for the knowledge of it is not yours by inheritance." Rabbeinu Yonah understands R. Yosi as stressing the need to develop the kind of character traits that will facilitate the internalizing and retention of Torah. Only when we do that, can we inherit the Torah - and transmit it to subsequent generations. This is the message of the "611 Gematria"; it's also the message of the Ramban and of the rabbi and his student on that fateful Sukkkot in Auschwitz.