Monday, August 01, 2011

R' Mordecai Gifter's shocking solution to an ambiguity in Numbers 33:2

I see from Josh of ParshaBlog that R' Mordecai Gifter's has something of a a shocking solution to an ambiguity in Numbers 33:2 . Here's the verse:

וַיִּכְתֹּ֨ב מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־מֹוצָאֵיהֶ֛ם לְמַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־פִּ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וְאֵ֥לֶּה מַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם לְמֹוצָאֵיהֶֽם׃

There is an ambiguity here that's hard to capture in English. King James renders it

And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of the LORD, and these are their journeys according to their goings out: [#1]

but this disguises a problem noticed by Ramban, Rambam, and Ibn Ezra.

In Hebrew, the verse might mean that God commanded Moshe to write down the list of places the Israelites visited, which is how KJV takes it, but it might also mean that the travels themselves, and not the writing, were what God ordered. If translated according to this second interpretation the verse might read:

And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys THAT WERE MADE  by the commandment of the LORD, and these are their journeys according to their goings out: [#2]

Rashi doesn't specifically tell use which interpretation he prefers, but the content of his comment suggests that he read like #1.

Ramban and Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, make their preferences clear. Ibn Ezra chooses #2, without telling us why, while Ramban goes with #1. Citing Rambam, the Ramban argues that God wanted Moshe to write down the list of journeys for the purpose of making  it clear to later generations that the Israelites did not camp in civilized or cultivated areas "like the Arabs of our time". Their survival in the desert, therefore, had to have been the product of a miracle.  Ramban also criticizes Ibn Ezra, by pointing out that we already knew from a different verse that the travels were "made by the commandment of the Lord."

Several hundred years later, Rav Gifter delivered a rejoinder on Ibn Ezra's behalf,saying "we also know from other verses that the writing of the Torah was done at God's commandment." So if the Ibn Ezra can be disqualified on such grounds, isn't Ramban similarly imperiled?

The answer, Rav Gifter concludes, is that the section of the Torah that lists the travels (most of Numbers 33) was not part of the original Torah, the Torah for which we already have a writing commandment; rather, this section came from a separate diary kept by Moshe at God's command (that is a command that applied to Moshe alone.) For forty years, Moshe kept a record of the different places the Israelite visited and what they did there, and at the end of adventure,  Moshe abridged his account and added it to the Torah.

Rav Gifter supports this defense of the Ramban with a shrewd and novel re-interpretation of a snippet found on Bava Basra 14b, which tells us:

Moshe wrote his book, and the Parsha of Baalam. 

The standard interpretation is that "his book" refers to the Torah and that "Parsha of Ballam" is singled out to reinforce that this strange account of a talking donkey, and a non-Israelite prophet's adventures is actually part of the Torah. The Ritvah, Rav Gifter, notes disagree with the standard interpretation, and teaches that the " Parsha of Ballam" was in reality a long book, written by Moshe, that was abridged and added to the Torah. Drawing on this,  and pointing out that the Torah can not in any meaningful way be considered "Moshe's Book", Rav Gifter argues that what that phrase really refers to is the Travel Diary, mentioned above. Just as Moshe (per Ritvah) abridged his Balaam book and added it to the Torah, he also abridged his travel journal and added that to the Torah, as well.

Though Rav Gifter's chiddush  may offend and irritate stout traditionalists, I see no cause for alarm. There are many other examples of the Torah drawing on older, extra-biblical works.  For example, parshas Chukas provides quotes from "The Book of Wars of the Lord" and a snippet of poetry attributed to unnamed moshlim. The Torah also quotes Balaam's prophecy, and the private conversation of Egyptian and Philistine kings. So why should it trouble anyone, if the Torah also draws from Moshe's private diary? (or, for the matter  from the epic of Gilgamesh?)

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