Hidden away in this week’s reading is a single tiny verse with implications that should take our breath away. During Abraham’s day, we are told, “the Canaanites were then in the land.” But the Torah is said to have been composed by Moses, and when Moses died, they were still in the land. The verse must, therefore, have been composed by an author living after Moses died.
Abraham Ibn Ezra (1091/2-1167), who gives us this insight, calls it a sod, a “secret,” and cautions, “The wise will keep silent.”
We usually explain Ibn Ezra’s caution by assuming that questioning Moses’s authorship of Torah was considered heretical. But Ibn Ezra doesn’t sound afraid. He repeats his discovery regarding several other verses, not just this one, and in Deuteronomy 34:1, he identifies the other author as Joshua. It turns out that the Talmud had already said that very thing. Maybe, then, Ibn Ezra was not just playing it safe when he said the wise would greet his sod with “silence.”
The word sod means more than “secret.” In the context of Torah, it is an advanced, even esoteric, interpretation that goes beyond the norm. It eventually comes to denote meanings that are specifically “mystical”; but in the 12th century, it may just have meant “profound” — so profoundly exciting that, as I say, it took Ibn Ezra’s breath away, as it should ours. Fools might indeed rush to judgement and charge him with heresy, but the wise would know better. His breakthrough brilliance would stop them in their tracks, inducing “silence” (as he says), but only to allow its full significance to sink in.
Ibn Ezra’s breakthrough would indeed, someday, change the very way we think about God, revelation, and religious truth itself, because in retrospect, we can see that he was anticipating the scientific study of the Bible: a method that revealed the Torah as a composite document repeatedly edited over the course of centuries. Its authors are legion.
Some people still worry that if the Torah was written by human beings over time, it cannot be sacred. But the exact opposite is the case. The miracle of Torah is not that God spoke it into being once and for all time, at Sinai. It is that the Jewish people, in covenant with God, discerned divine purpose uninterruptedly, generation after generation; that generations of such discernment were somehow edited into what we call “The Torah”; and that generations thereafter have been reading and interpreting that very same Torah ever since.
Rather than destroy religious sensibility, Ibn Ezra’s modest beginning only enhances it. God did not just speak at Sinai. God, we say, is melech ha’olam, and olam means not just “universe” but “infinity,” making God not just “ruler of the universe” (our usual translation) but “ruler of time and space”! God addresses us always and everywhere.
The very essence of rabbinic Judaism is the conviction that God speaks to every generation anew, as it grapples with Torah. That is why we have columns such as this, why rabbis sermonize, why we study sacred texts not just for what the original author intended, but for what the Talmud saw later on, what centuries of commentators intuited even after that, and what our own sages discover today.
The rabbis also insisted that God is revealed in the day-to-day events that set us wondering why we are here and what counts as a life well led. We encounter God also in mathematics and science, the ways through which the world works. Judaism provides blessings to greet the intricacies of nature: words to say when our own words fail.
Ibn Ezra may have thought he was discussing one single verse. He was actually unveiling the reality of a divine mind that cannot be limited to a single revelation at Sinai. To be fully human is to uncover one divine secret after another, and to have our breath taken away by the incredible mystery of it all.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.