Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the Faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat VaEra

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. 

Parashat Va-era 5760/2000

"I Will Give it to You for a Possession (morashah)" (Exodus 6:8)

Dr. Abraham Gottlieb

Center for Jewish Studies

At the end of last week's reading, Parashat Shemot, Moses realizes that he has failed in his mission and says to the Holy One, blessed be He: "O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me? (Ex. 5:22-23). In the context of this exchange the Lord promises Moses in Parashat Va-era that the Israelites, moaning under Egyptian oppression, will witness G-d's fulfillment of the covenant He made with the patriarchs, giving them the land of Canaan (Ex. 6:2-8).

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your G-d. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your G-d who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession (morashah), I the Lord.

Giving the promised land to the children of Israel as a morashah, as something which is to be bequeathed, immediately raises a linguistic difficulty in terms of the plain sense of Scripture, for the Israelites are the inheritors, not the bequeathers. Thus it might seem that the Torah ought to have said "I will give it to you as an inheritance (yerushah)." [In proper Hebrew, you morish, bequeath, a morashah; the yoresh, inheritor, receives a yerushah.]

The classical exegetes did not find any difficulty here and did not see any need to comment on this passage, whereas the rabbis of the Talmud saw plenty of reason for dwelling on this verse, in two separate places (Bava Batra 117a-b; 119b). What is more, two commentators -- Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor [1] and Ha-Shelah ha-Kadosh, Rabbi Isaiah ben Abraham ha-Levi Horowitz [2] -- who addressed the question, rely on the above-mentioned gemarot in Bava Batra in order to resolve the difficulty. Bekhor Shor does not even state that there is a difficulty but explains the text in such a way as to smooth over any problem[3]. In contrast, the Shelah notes explicitly that there is a difficulty, which he resolves by relying on the discussion in Bava Batra 117a-b, which is the source for the other sugya in Bava Batra 119b, cited by Bekhor Shor.
Bekhor Shor explains morashah as follows: "It is the inheritance given you from them; moreover, you shall bequeath it on to your children. Thus it is hinted to them that they shall not enter the land, as stated in [Talmudic chapter] yesh nohalin (Bava Batra 119b)." According to Bekhor Shor, it is clear why the Torah used morashah (bequest) here and not yerushah (inheritance): what is at issue is an inheritance which will not be realized, since those who took part in the Exodus would die in the wilderness and not enter the land.

Ha-Shelah ha-Kadosh, as we said, cites the earlier talmudic discussion:

"I will give it to you for a possession (morashah)." There is a difficulty here, since it should have said yerushah, inheritance, since they are the inheritors and not the bequeathers. Rather, one can explain this along the lines noted by the Sages (Bava Batra 117a): "This inheritance differs from all other inheritances in the world, for in the case of other inheritances the living become heirs to the dead, but here the dead become heirs to the living." Rashi cites all this in his comment on Parashat Phinehas (Num. 26:55). In other words, the inheritance returned [to the previous generation that died in the wilderness] to be bequeathed by them. This is the reason: those who died in the wilderness were the ones for whom the inheritance was destined but they did not have the fortune to enter the land, therefore the inheritance reverted to them (becoming the land that they would bequeath, morasha). This shows the Almighty's quality of fairness, having mercy and pitying those who were in distress.

Ha-Shelah ha-Kadosh, like Bekhor Shor, sees the question as one of bequeathing, since the inheritance at issue could not be realized. The difference, however, is that Ha-Shelah ha-Kadosh adds an important didactic element, that the Land was in a sense a memorial to the generation of the exodus from Egypt who did not live to enter the land. How so? According to the Sages, the allotment of the land was done in two stages, a first calculation being made on the basis of the number of people entering the land according to family; but from them the land reverted as it were to their fathers and was reapportioned according to those who left Egypt-- yots'e mitsrayim. Thus those who left Egypt -- the dead -- "inherited" back the Land of Canaan from those who entered the land -- the living, and re-bequeathed it to them.
The Maharam of Rothenburg [4] in his commentary on this verse [5] calls the reader's attention to the fact that the word morashah occurs only twice in the Torah, once here and once again in Ve-zot ha-Berakhah (Deut. ibid.). He refers the reader to his commentary on the latter, where he explains:
"As the heritage (morashah) of the congregation of Jacob" -- this is the second occurrence of morashah, the first being in Parshat Va-era: "I will give it to you for a possession (morashah)" (Exodus 6:8). The one [in Deut.] is said with respect to the Torah, the other with respect to inheritance, to indicate that the Torah is not a heritage (yerushah) which comes to a person easily; rather one must work for it and occupy oneself with it day and night, always pondering it.

Perhaps the Maharam was trying to say that both with respect to the Land of Israel and the Torah, morashah, as opposed to yerushah, means a possession which one toils over an entire lifetime, eventually bequeathing it to future generations. Of Israel we know the Rabbinic dictum that "the land of Israel is acquired with travail." Maharam points out that also Torah is not "a yerushah,"  [6] an easy inheritance, but a possession acquired by each individual with constant toil and attention. Thus the importance of the "slight" difference between two related words, morashah and yerushah.

  1. 12th century tosafist. See his commentary on the Pentateuch, ed. Yehoshafat Nevo, Jerusalem 1994, p. 105.
  2. Called Shelah after his book, Shenei Luhot ha-Berit. Rabbi, kabbalist, communal leader; among the formulators of Jewish moralism in the beginning of the modern era (16th cent.). Cf. his book, Musarei Ha-Shelah 'al ha-Torah, Jerusalem 1985, pp. 37-38.
  3. Relating to the gemara in Bava Batra 119b.
  4. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, from the city of Rothenburg, then Bavaria (now Germany). A posek and commentator on the Talmud, tosafist, spiritual leader of Ashekenaz Jewish community in the second half of the thirteenth century.
  5. Printed in Ta'amei Mesoret ha-Mikra,' which is Chapter I in: R. Meir b. R. Baruch of Rothenburg, Teshuvot, Pesakim, u-Minhagim, R. Isaac Ze'ev Kahana ed., Part I, Jerusalem 1957, p. 14; reprinted in Humash Torat Hayyim on Exodus, Jerusalem 1988.
  6. See Avot 2, 12: "Prepare yourself to learn Torah, for it is not an inheritance."