Join our email list

Nitzavim-VaYelekh: The Value of Forgetfulness in a Culture of Tradition

No halakha can be introduced by prophecy, but the tools of Torah study are granted as ways of learning new halakhot throughout the ages
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Rabbi Avital Hochstein is a faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute and has learned, taught, and done research at the institute for more than 15 years. In 2016, she was among the first recipients of rabbinical ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute / HaMidrasha at Oranim Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis. Avital is currently working on her Ph.D., focusing on Talmud, in the Gender Studies Program at Bar Ilan University. Avital is President of

Nitzavim-VaYelekh: The Value of Forgetfulness in a Culture of Tradition

As we approach the end of Devarim, we also approach Moshe’s death. The tension rises: The only leader the Jewish people have known thus far is about to die. Even we – the readers of the biblical text from a distance of hundreds of years – sense the great fear that must have been felt by the Israelites. But there is another aspect to the tension, which we, the readers, are not only observers of, but also party to. In a culture that values tradition, which is largely founded on a connection to the past, moments of death and transition from one generation to another feel particularly threatening. These are moment that hold the potential for crisis and fragmentation. Dealing with them is particularly complex.

In the Babylonian Talmud, in a sugya in Massekhet Temurah, we find several descriptions of Moshe’s death and the moments surrounding it. At the center of some of these versions are verses taken from our parashah, which holds within them a tension between continuity and fragmentation. Interestingly, they are spoken by Moshe himself:

Devarim 30:11-14

This instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach: it is not in the heavens, that you should say ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

According to the simple reading of these verses, they describe the mitzvah, or the Torah, whose origin is the heavens, as something that is now within a hand’s grasp of the Israelites, and maybe of humans in general. Already in the verses themselves, one can sense a certain tension, which finds expression in the words of negation used by Moshe: “[it] is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” From between the lines one can hear echoes of a tension with regards to the relationship between tradition and continuity, between past and future, between old and new.

The Talmudic sugya which quotes these verses in the course of its description of Moshe’s death reveals something of the way in which our tradition perceives the meaning of tradition itself.

This is what is told in Massekhet Temurah (16a) in one of the versions describing Moshe’s death, on which we will focus:

Rav Yehudah reported in the name of Shmuel: ‘Three thousand traditions and laws were forgotten during the period of mourning for Moshe.’ [1]

The midrash describes a reality in which, immediately after Moshe’s death, a gap is formed between his Torah in his lifetime and the Torah that he leaves behind.

They said to Yehoshua: ‘Ask!’

The Israelites’ reaction shines some light on their consciousness: It is clear that they are aware of the gap that was created during the transfer of leadership between Moshe and Yehoshua, and they are not comfortable with it. In addition, they do not demand of Yehoshua “learn,” but rather “ask” – for this is what they were accustomed to with Moshe, who would turn to God with his questions. Out of this habit, and their demand of Yehoshua, the new reality with regards to the Torah is revealed, in the words of the verse taken from our parashah:

He replied: ‘It is not in heaven.’ [2]

Yehoshua’s answer is that the locus of the Torah, and in fact the source of knowledge from now on, is no longer in the heaven. With Moshe’s death, our role is to clarify knowledge ourselves. That is, while Moshe asked God his questions directly, after his death the relationship is not so direct. In essence, the very nature of the Torah changes: During Moshe’s lifetime, the Torah existed outside of human involvement, but from now on the Torah exists fully only when it comes into contact with human beings.

The verses actually add to the story an immense potential for the democratization of knowledge – it is now available to all, within reach of every single person who seeks it. According to these sources, Moshe’s death legitimises – and even brings to a requirement of – autonomous exegesis, since the Torah is no longer “in heaven.”

This description portrays no sadness or mourning over the forgetting of the halakhot; the creators of the aggadah reflect their perception of later generations as ‘dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants,’ rather than the alternative narrative of declining generations.

The aggadah then proceeds to describe the private communication between the dying Moshe and his student and successor, Yehoshua:

R. Yehudah reported in the name of Rav: When Moshe departed [this world] for the Garden of Eden he said to Yehoshua: ‘Ask me concerning all the doubts you have!’

Moshe attempts to leave a world without doubt behind him, but – ironically – it is exactly this attempt which creates a space filled with doubt:

He replied to him: ‘My Master, have I ever left you for one hour and gone elsewhere? Did you not write concerning me in the Torah: “But his servant Yehoshua the son of Nun departed not out of the tabernacle?”

Yehoshua is insulted by Moshe’s statement: He has been, indeed, the model of a devoted student, who never left his teacher’s side, and so the very thought that he might have doubts and questions affronts him. In essence, Yehoshua says to Moshe ‘I know everything that you know.’ It is unclear whether Yehoshua’s tone is one of innocence, insult or conceit.

But the emotional/mental reaction is not late in coming:

Immediately the strength of Yehoshua weakened.

And in other versions:

Immediately the strength of Moshe weakened.

The weakening described here (teshishut in Hebrew) is a very dangerous emotional situation, which is used in rabbinic aggadot to describe an affliction visited upon a person who injures another person, is injured by another person, or commits a terrible crime against another. Regardless of whether the injuring party was Moshe or Yehoshua, the results are identical:

And he [Yehoshua] forgot three hundred laws, and there arose in his mind seven hundred doubts. Then all the Israelites rose up to kill him.

The story describes a metaphysical interference with humanity, which contradicts human aspirations. While the figures of Moshe and Yehoshua in this midrash represent the human striving, at the moment of death, for complete congruence between what was and what will be, the desire to identify past and future generations, metaphysical circumstances – or natural human circumstances – do not allow for this, and this aspiration is ultimately replaced by forgetfulness.

The end of this midrash is not simple, since God’s suggestion to Yehoshua, in face of the wrath of the Israelites toward him, is a difficult one:

The Holy Blessed One then said to him: “It is not possible to tell you. Go and occupy their attention in war, as it says: ‘Now after the death of Moshe the servant of God, it came to pass that God spoke;’ and it further says; ‘Prepare you food,; etc. (Joshua 1).”

The quoted verse is found at the beginning of the book of Yehoshua:

Yehoshua 1:1-7

1After the death of Moshe, the servant of God, God said to Yehoshua son of Nun, Moshe’s attendant: 2My servant Moshe is dead. Prepare to cross the Jordan, together with all this people, into the land that I am giving to the Israelites. 3Every spot on which your foot treads I give to you, as I promises Moshe… 7but you must be very strong and resolute to observe faithfully all the teaching that My servant Moshe enjoined upon you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.

God reminds Yehoshua that he is a completely different person than Moshe, and that his role is also different than Moshe’s was. Although Yehoshua is defined, time and again, as Moshe’s successor, and is commanded to follow in his footsteps, he is also responsible for a completely different task -entering and conquering the land of Israel.

The commandment God gives Yehoshua, “do not deviate from it to the right or to the left,” demands special attention. The reading of a midrash that describes forgetfulness side-by-side with a midrash that includes the commandment of “do not deviate right or left” creates an amusing juxtaposition. Clearly, one can not observe the commandment not to deviate when one forgets some of the details to which this directive applies. In addition, the demand not to deviate becomes less clear when faced with new challenges and completely different circumstances than have existed in the past – such as would accompany the transition from the desert to the land of Israel.

This awareness also leads us to understand that there can be merit to forgetfulness. When one is faced with a new reality, there is a certain advantage to doubts. Only through doubt and questions can the future be something different, rather than a replication, a copy, of the world that was. Only through forgetfulness can a world with the potential of renewal exist, a world which is not static or dead, but rather relevant.

The Talmudic aggadah regarding Moshe’s death, in fact, teaches us that there can be no continuity of tradition that does not include forgetfulness, there is no continuity without a certain measure of fragmentation. A perfect replication of past circumstances can only lead to a stagnation, and ultimately to death.



[1] There is room to wonder about the reason that the laws were forgotten, which is not mentioned in this midrash: The midrash links the days of mourning and forgetfulness, and perhaps indicates that by focusing on a person we have lost, instead of on his Torah, we create a reality in which, at the end of the days of mourning, which were focused here on Moshe himself, Moshe’s Torah was forgotten.

[2] The story describes an additional, and identical, address, that occurs generations later and is directed at a different figure:

They said to Shmuel: ‘Ask!’

He replied: ‘”These are the commandments”-implying that [since the promulgation of these commandments,] no prophet has now the right to introduce anything new.’

There are different possible identifications of the verse that Shmuel quotes in this midrash, but it appears that the word that must be emphasized in his statement is the word ‘prophet.’ I.e., a prophet is not permitted to introduce anything new, but the rabbis are permitted, and are even required, to do so. This creates a situation in which, indeed, prophets may no longer ask God for answers to halakhic questions – no halakhah can be introduced by prophecy, but the tools of Torah study are granted as ways of learning new halakhot throughout the ages.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

More on
Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics