Too Much Exposition...

The entire story of God’s creation of the universe, earth, and life occupies no more than two chapters of the Torah. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Joseph – we read much about them and learn about their relationships with God, their families, and the people they lead, but the Torah remains characteristically concise. The Bible does not routinely include long passages of exposition; that is customarily the role of Midrash.

But when it comes to Moses’s final speech to the Israelites on the eve of his death and their entry into the land, the Torah offers a verbose and detailed account of the precise setting in which it took place:

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab, it is eleven days from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea by the Mount Seir route. It was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses addressed the Israelites in accordance with the instructions that the LORD had given him for them, after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt in Heshbon, and King Og of Bashan, who dwelt at Ashtaroth [and] Edrei. On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching.

Unlike (almost) any other Pentateuchal narrative, the Torah here provides us with the exact location, time, and specific historical context in which the ensuing speech took place. Five whole verses are devoted to this exposition; it’s so detailed that the sages were able to derive the entire Jewish calendar cycle from these verses (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 2b). Why so much detail?

Rav Yehuda Amital ZT”L suggested that the reason for this long account of the setting of Moses’s speech was to teach us the significance of the context and setting in which we present our Jewish teachings. Of course, the Torah is eternal: the Torah Moses received at Mount Sinai contains God’s immutable teachings. But in the book of Deuteronomy, “Moses undertook to expound this Teaching” in this particular place at this particular time. The way the Torah is presented and applied depends on the setting—on the people, the place, and the context. God’s purpose in presenting eternally enduring principles in His Torah was so that those very teachings are relevant and applicable to every generation in every place. Moses, our greatest leader and teacher, deliberately chose to highlight specific aspects of Torah and present them in this distinct manner for this distinct audience. A different group at a different time in a different location may have warranted a different presentation—not a different essence of the Torah, but a different presentation of the Torah.

The role of teachers and leaders in each generation is to interpret the Torah and apply it in ways that are relevant and meaningful to their constituents. Not, God forbid, to dilute its teachings or change them, but to discern which elements of the Torah to focus on and how to apply its teachings to the people around them. We live in a world and in a time in which the value of our Torah—and even the value of basic moral principles—are called into question by the surrounding society. As committed Jews, we are the ambassadors of the Torah and of God to the Jewish people and to the world; we are the leaders. It is incumbent upon us to know our setting: our time, place, and context. What are the elements of the Torah we focus on, what do we emphasize, and how do we apply those things in our lives and in the way we present our values to others? How do we “undertake to expound this Teaching” today?


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