2005The Torah often subliminally sets the tone of its surface-level comments through repeated words or phrases – things that we might not notice on our first reading, but that ring in our ear and stand out upon further inspection. In Hebrew, the term for this is "milah mancha." In English we call it a keyword. One of the words that keeps recurring in Parshat Vayelech is "this," zot or zeh in Hebrew. The word recurs in phrases like, "This Jordan" (31:2), "This people" (31:7) and "This song" (31:21-22). Most frequently we find "this" in the phrase "This book" or "This book of Torah."
This or That
"This" stands out not only because of its repetition, but also because of its concentration in this parsha and its preceding sister parsha, Nitzavim. The words zot and zeh occur a combined total of 208 times in the Torah. Of those, more than half (107) of the usages are found in Deuteronomy, and of those, nearly 25 percent are found in the three chapters that comprise these two parshot. Nowhere else in the Torah do we find such a concentrated dose of "this." The Torah is going out of its way to repeat the word. To what end?
One possibility is that the Torah is continuing its project of claiming authority for itself and its program. Just as the preceding portions described the centralization of power in the legal system and the future capital of the state, so we find with this self-referencing that the Torah is making itself into an identifiable object of power. "This Torah," "This book," is the book that contains within it all the instructions for how Jews are to live their lives. Not some other book, but this one, right here – this is the book with authority. Traditional Jews enact this authorization every week when the Torah is lifted in synagogue and, in the words of the Shulchan Aruch (O.H. 134:2), we point and call out, "This is the Torah that Moses put before the children of Israel by the mouth of God, by the hand of Moses."
A related, though slightly different, function of "this" is to establish a relationship between the subject and the object in question. We indicate a sense of closeness when we say "this." If we wanted to show distance we would say, "that [book, table, chair, painting]." But when we point to an object and say "this [book, table, chair, painting]," we imply that the object is in our immediate vicinity, that it is something right here, present in our lives. By repeatedly referring to "this book of the Torah," Moses connotes his own closeness to it and makes it a live thing in the lives of the people. He goes further and makes that intimacy explicit with his beautiful lines in Chap. 30: "For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it." (11-14)
Another function of this closeness is to bring comfort. It is interesting to consider that all of these "this"-es are being uttered by a man who is about to die. Moses is certainly trying to get across the message that this book that he is giving the Israelites should receive the same respect he got in his lifetime. He is trying to build a relationship between the Torah and the people. But from the viewpoint of Moses the man, one wonders whether he is also trying, in a way, to hang on. By constantly referring to "this book," "this land," "this people," Moses projects his life in relation to the things around him. In doing so, he comforts himself — as long as he can say "this book," he is still in the world with it. In this process, Moses comes full circle, mirroring the kind of object-identification that he first undertook as a baby. Now he does not bestow names on objects, but rather takes those names and refers to his relationship with them.
One cannot read all these "this"-es uttered by a dying man without also hearing Shakespeare's John of Gaunt in Richard II, who sings the praises of his land in his final words:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
Like Moses, John of Gaunt seems to be holding on to his beloved object as he prepares to leave it. He also imbues England with the sense of eternality that Moses gives to the Torah. Through this he inspires a feeling of awe and respect for England (or the Torah), and he does something more: He opens the gates to the next world, where this eternal thing will continue to exist. But in that next world, he will not be separated from it. Instead he will be one with it: John will be with England, Moses with Torah.
This tells us something about the challenge and the potential beauty of this world: We maintain our separateness from the things and people around us. They are "this" or "that" but are still distinct from us. And yet the possibility of "this" implies that we can come close, tantalizingly close, and can perhaps — if only for a moment — go beyond the bounds of self and find ourselves no longer alone. We can merge with our beloved — our spouse, our friend, our land or our Torah, not only in heaven, but in this world as well. "It is not in heaven," as this Torah says of itself. Rather it is "very near you; in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it."
Prepared by Rabbi Josh Feigelson, Campus rabbi, Fiedler Hillel Center at Northwestern University.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Vayelech at MyJewishLearning.com.