Parashat Ki-Tetze 5769/ August 29, 20
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
“Silence! Hear, O Israel!”
Dr. Meir Gruzman
Department of Talmud
This article is devoted to two verses appearing between the passage detailing Moses’ instructions to the Israelites to set up stones and build an altar on Mount Ebal (Deut.27:1-8), and the passage detailing his instructions in the rite of the blessing and the curse on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal (Deut. 27:11-26):
Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your G-d. Heed the Lord your G-d and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you this day.
In this passage the people are told that they must obey and heed the Lord, the reason being: “Today you have become the people of the Lord your G-d.” Had the Israelites become a people only now, after forty years of wandering in the wilderness? Why make this pronouncement precisely at this point, shortly before the Israelites’ were about to enter their own land? Had the people not already been commanded numerous times to obey the Lord and keep His laws and commandments?
Looking at Song of Songs Rabbah (2.16) and the event that is recounted there can help us resolve some of these difficulties. The midrash is as follows:
Towards the end of the era of persecution, our rabbis convened in Usha. And these were they: Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Nehemiah, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Jose, Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, Rabbi Eliezer b. Rabbi Jose of Galilee, and Rabbi Eliezer b. Jacob. They sent out a notice to the elders of the Galilee, saying: whoever is learned, let him come and teach; and whoever is not learned, let him come and study. They convened and did all that they had to do. When the time came for them to disperse, they said: Shall the place where we have been received be left empty handed? So they paid homage to Rabbi Judah, who was from that town; not because he was more learned than they in Torah, but because one should honor a person in his home town. Rabbi Judah entered and spoke… Rabbi Eliezer b. Jacob entered and spoke: “Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your G-d. Heed the Lord your G-d and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you this day.” Had they received the Torah that day? Had they not received the Torah forty years earlier? Yet it says, “Today.” It is but to teach us that since Moses taught the Torah to them and they received it well, Scripture wrote of them as if they had received it that day from Mount Sinai. Therefore it says, “Today you have become the people of the Lord your G-d,” and all the more so for you, our brethren in Usha, since you received our rabbis so well. 
At this gathering in Usha, at the end of the term of study, Rabbi Eliezer spoke in praise of the hospitality they had received there, quoting the two verses from this week’s reading in support of what he had to say. Presumably this was the gist of his words: If the people of Israel (at the end of Moses’ time) merited the great complement of being told, “Today you have become the people of the Lord,” simply because they had persevered in their studies and had received the Torah willingly, even though they did not have to wait on their teachers and provide them all their needs, then all the more so the residents of Usha, who aside from persevering in their studies of the Torah had also hosted the rabbis who had come from all ends of the country, providing them lodging, food and drink. Surely they were worthy of receiving the complement, “Today you have become the people of the Lord.”
We can conclude from these remarks that Rabbi Eliezer viewed the two verses at hand as a congratulatory speech to the Israelites upon the conclusion of forty years of study. In the course of this “ceremony,” Moses and the levitical priests, the people’s teachers and mentors, beheld the people sitting before them and summed up the long period of study, with the knowledge that this period had been both fruitful and pleasurable. They did not conceal their satisfaction from this body of disciples, rather they openly conveyed their praise and esteem. The words, “Today you have become the people of the Lord your G-d,” are the epitome of all the can be said to this well-disciplined body of disciples. These words denote their perseverance, their faithfulness, their unity, and especially their being pleasing in G- d’s sight. Moreover, these words say explicitly that studying the Torah, accepting it and understanding it, are a precondition to us being a people, and the people on the verge of entering their own land did indeed reach this lofty position.
However it is not the way of the Torah to shower praise and voice compliments without noting milestones and giving instructions to guide the listeners along their way in the future and to give them the means to assure perpetuation of this state of affairs. Merely giving a pat on the back without assuring future achievements would in the end throw away all that it hoped to accomplish.
Therefore these two verses also contain guidance for the future to this body of disciples and to the people of Israel in general, and herein lies their main force. First it was said, “Silence! Hear O Israel.” Hasket, the Hebrew word used here for “Silence,” is generally interpreted as a call for focusing one’s attention so as to be spiritually receptive. The baraitha (Berakhot 16a) says:
When reciting the Shema one should focus one’s attention, for it says there, “Here, O Israel,” and further on it says, “Silence! Hear, O Israel.” Just as concentration is required in the latter, so too in the former.
Thus the baraitha confirms our interpretation. However in Tractate Berakhot 63b the word hasket is given three other meanings:
1. “Form small groups ( kitot) and study the Torah, for knowledge of the Torah is acquired only through group effort.”
2. “Beat (kitetu) the words of Torah into yourselves, for the words of Torah are maintained only by those who sweat blood over it.”
3. “Has (hush) followed by katet, like Rabba, who said: A person should always study Torah first, and only then open his mouth to speak.”
Looking closely at these three commentaries on the word hasket, we see that there are not actually three different interpretations here. This is a case of one person saying A, another person saying B, and there being no contradiction between the two. All the interpretations can be said to be correct, and taken together they constitute a method instructing us about how to approach the study of Torah, so that we understand and accept it. Someone who studies Torah must do so in company, must apply himself fully, toiling over it constantly, and must listen well to his teacher before speaking out, drawing conclusions and expressing his views on the subject being studied.
Furthermore, a close look at these commentaries shows that in order to arrive at the above interpretation of the word hasket one has to couple it with the words, “Hear, O Israel,” and understand that these words mean to study Torah, just as it is well known that the word shema means not only to hear and heed, but also to study. The word hasket, therefore, indicates the way, the method to be followed, and the words, “Hear, O Israel,” denote the object to which the word hasket refers.
So we learn that Moses and the levitical priests were praising the people for their accomplishments and their stature, but they were also instructing them how the Torah should be studied and how one can assure that this study will bear fruit now and in the future. The guidance, however, does not end here; an instruction is yet to follow indicating the purpose of this Torah study, and that is expressed in the words, “Heed the Lord your G-d and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you this day.” Heeding the Lord – studying Torah – is for the express objective of leading us to follow the commandments and obey the law.
Thus the first of the two verses we have discussed deals with the way one should study Torah and pays a complement to the people, while the second verse deals with the purpose of this study.
 Cf. Berakhot 63b.