Parashat Ha’azinu / Sacred Words as Raindrops

Yakov Z. Meyer
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'My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew' (Deuteronomy 32:2).Credit: Getty Images
Yakov Z. Meyer

In the opening part of the biblical poem that constitutes most of this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-52), Moses calls upon heaven and earth to solemnly swear that they will listen to the words he is about to say, which are to take the form he describes in the following image: “My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew; as the small [or gentle] rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb” (Deuteronomy 32:2). Moses’ “doctrine” and his “speech” will fall to the earth like rain and dew, respectively. The world will flourish thanks to those words, much as grass is nourished by water.

In the following homily, the sages interpret that image literally but in a limited fashion: “Just as the rain falls on the trees and gives each of them their unique flavor, in accordance with the unique essence of each kind of tree – the vineyard and its unique essence, the olive tree and its essence, and the fig tree and its essence – similarly, the Torah’s words have this kind of effect: Although they come from a single source, they contain the biblical text, the Talmud, the midrashim and the legends” (Sifre Deuteronomy: 306).

According to this interpretation, rain has an unusual quality: Although it derives from a single source, consists of one particular substance (namely, water) and falls on the ground in the same way all over the world, its uniformity allows for the creation of an endless variety of vegetation in the world of nature. Grapes are different from olives and olives are different from figs. The abundant variety of vegetation that rain helps to bring forth takes shape and becomes visible in nature.

In this midrash, rain serves as a metaphor for the Torah: Indeed, although its words stem from a single source, they appear in endless variety. That is, the Torah subsumes many different genres which are in turn divided into many small subunits – precisely like the richly variegated natural world of vegetation. The relationship between the immense diversity of words in the Torah and its single divine source is comparable to the relationship between the immensely diversified botanical world and its one, nourishing source of water: rainfall.

Although this homily does not offer any explicit explanation for the Torah’s rich diversity, it does offer a hint. The source of variety in the world of botany is not to be found in the heavens, but is rather an inherent trait of that world. Similarly, the words of the Torah that are characterized by such extensive variety – in terms of different genres and in the wealth of knowledge they contain, which can be further broken down into splinters and splinters of splinters of knowledge – those words are not an inherent part of the Torah, which God gave Israel at Sinai as a single monolithic entity. Rather, the diversity in the Torah springs from those to whom God’s words are directed, namely, the individuals who study its texts. The knowledge the Torah contains can be divided and interpreted endlessly, because that is its nature. Like the rain nourishing varies types of vegetation, the Torah has the capacity for enabling each of its readers to develop in a unique fashion.

The midrash does not present some metaphysical depiction of a cosmic Torah that is given at Sinai and now fills the world. Instead, it provides a realistic description of the Oral Law, whose minutest elements were the focus of the sages’ daily activities. The Oral Law’s various versions and its sections and subsections, as presented and debated by the sages, along with its legends, and the rabbinical and scholastic debates over its finer points (arguments that invariably need to be resolved) – all these constituted the core of the intellectual and religious tension that was so prominent in the era of the sages.

A commentary in the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Eduyot introduces a historic description of the early stages of the Torah’s compilation: “When the sages entered the Vineyard of Yavneh (Kerem B’Yavneh), they said: In the future, people will search in vain for the Torah’s words, as it is written, ‘Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it’ [Amos 8:11-12]. They will be unable to find the Torah’s words, which will be so abundant and seemingly so alike. We must therefore begin with what the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel have managed to do’” (Tosefta, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eduyot 1:1).

The situation described here is what prevailed when the materials of the Oral Law were being gathered and organized. The motivation driving the compilers was the fear that the material might be lost because of its very abundance. On the Day of Judgment, all members of the nation will be thirsty for the word of God, but what will prevent them from attaining that knowledge will be the similarities between the Torah’s words: There will be many of them and they will closely resemble one another. For that reason, Talmudic scholars began to classify the words according to fixed parameters. This classification began with a reliance on the techniques of the Schools of Shammai and Hillel. The breaking down of the material into its most minute parts – while making a distinction between the different positions that are stated, as well as between the details of the various laws and genres – all this is intended to preserve the fragments of God’s words that remain in our possession.

In the Tosefta commentary, the very abundance of God’s words is the problem, and the orderly compilation of the Oral Law is the solution. However, in the midrash discussed above, the abundance of the Torah’s words is seen as a source of wonder and is described in terms of the image of rain. The Oral Law continues to expand with each passing day because of its very essence, because it is knowledge that exists on everyone’s lips. And such knowledge, by its very nature, is fated to continue to develop and become more and more diversified. Moreover, the reason for that ongoing process is the very intrinsic nature of the one and only Torah that God gave Israel at Sinai.

For their part, the sages seek to interpret the way this complex situation has developed – a situation in which there is an overabundance of detail in the Oral Law. In explaining this complicated state of affairs, they essentially assume full responsibility for the situation: Like the botanical world that flourishes thanks to rainfall, the rain of the monolithic Torah handed down at Sinai germinates within us. Although the Torah contains the verses, as do the Talmud, the midrashim and the legends – it takes on a different form in the eyes of each and every reader.