Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Parshat Haazinu

The Witnesses

Moshe begins his song about God’s greatness and Israel’s impending doom for disobedience towards Him, with a call to the heavens and the earth:

“Listen, O heavens, and I will speak. Let the earth hear the words of my mouth.” (Devarim 32:1)

Rashi says that Moshe calls upon the heaven and earth to act as witnesses. They will be able to refute a future claim from Israel that that they had never accepted God’s covenant, since the heaven and earth endure forever. Furthermore, as witnesses they will be the tools of God’s punishment as: “there will be no rain, and the ground will not give its produce” (ibid 11:17), since witnesses are the first to inflict punishment on the perpetrators of crime: “hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him” (ibid 17:7).

While the Ramban states Rashi comments, he goes onto say to say that the heaven and earth brought here, actually refer to the heaven and earth of the genesis, i.e. “in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Bereshit 1:1).

Rabbi Menachem Leibtag explains that in order to understand this comment, we must first read the few pessukim that introuduce the song that Moshe is about to record:

“My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them…and they will say on that day, 'Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us?' I will hide My face on that day…Now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel” (Devarim 31:17-19).

In the future, when Israel is suffering the consequences of their unfaithfulness, they will begin to question the existence of God. He will have appeared to have abandoned them, when in reality He has merely hidden His face from them. God says that this song that Moshe is recording will act as a witness. How?

When Israel questions God existence they will hear the song and know that the heaven and earth have been called as witnesses. When they see the heaven and earth they will recall the creation and realize that “God created the heaven and earth”. They will know that even though God has hidden His face and appears to have abandoned them, He still exists, for how did the heaven and earth otherwise come into being.
Therefore, while Rashi and the Ramban agree that the heaven and earth are witnesses, they disagree as to their role. Rashi sees them as executors of punishment while the Ramban sees them as witnesses for God’s eternal existence and relationship with Israel.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Parshat Nitzavim-VaYelech

The Hidden

This weeks parsha contains a passuk that we say a number of times during our prayers on Rosh Hashana:

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לָה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת

“The hidden belong to the Lord, our God, but the revealed belong to us and to our children forever; that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah” (Devarim 29:28).

The meaning of this passuk is unclear. What are the “hidden that belong to” God and what are the “revealed that belong to us”?

There are a number of ways to translate and understand this passuk.

A few pessukim earlier, Moshe had warned those who: “hear the words of this curse, and will comfort himself in his heart, saying, ‘I will have peace, even if I follow my heart's desires’” (ibid 18). People often behave one way in public and another way in private. It is likely that people will think that in private they can do what they like, without the fear of repercussions.

Moshe therefore warns those individuals that the “hidden belongs to” God. He knows your private thoughts and actions. There can be no escape from God’s justice.

Another way to understand the passuk is that it is referring to the actual curse that was mentioned in the previous chapter. A long list of sins were recorded whose violation would result in the most severe of punishments – the tochecha. The problem with this list is that it deals with crimes committed in private, for which there is no public knowledge (See ibid 27:15:26). How can all Israel suffer for the crimes of individual sinners, when the people had no knowledge of the crime in order to correct it?

Moshe comforts them saying that the “hidden (crimes) is God’s responsibility”, we do not have to be overly concerned with the goings on behind closed doors in our neighbor’s house. Nevertheless, he reminds Israel that that does not absolve them of responsibility of dealing with public crimes, for the “revealed (crimes) is our responsibility” to ensure that the rules of the Torah are obeyed.

There is one further way to understand this passuk. After the signing of a covenant, both parties receive a copy of the agreement. This is possibly why there were two luchot (tablets) of stone given at Sinai. One went to God and was stored in His “home”, i.e. the Mishkan, while the other went to the people’s representatives, i.e. the Kohanim, who stored it in their shrine, i.e. again the Mishkan.

So too, the covenant made in the Land of Moav was written on stone steels (ibid 27:2-3). One copy was to go to God, while another was to go to the people for them to clearly see the terms of the covenant.
Thereby the “hidden (stone) belongs” to God, while the “revealed (stone) is for us…forever, so that we can fulfill all the words of this Torah”.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Parshat Ki Tavo

The Tochecha

“These are the terms of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moshe to conclude with the children of Israel in the land of Moav…” {Devarim 28:69)

The terms are quite shocking.

It begins with hope. Israel is resting prosperously in its land. The farmer brings his first fruits to the sanctuary and declares that from being in: “Egypt with meager numbers”, Israel has become” a great and very populous nation” having been given this “land flowing with milk and honey” (ibid 26:5-10).

However, it all ends in gloom. By the end of the parsha: “The Lord will send you back to Egypt…you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies” (ibid 28:65). They have again become “few in number after having been as numerous as he stars in the sky” (ibid 62). As for the land of Israel; rather than “flowing with milk and honey” it now has: “scorching heat and drought” (ibid 22). Instead of: “rain for your land its season” (ibid 12), “The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky” (ibid 24).

The curses are so shocking and frightening, that the reader in synagogue utters them quietly and quickly as if to avoid them, and even more surprisingly, alters two of the words (ibid 27 & 30) in order to soften their blow.

The reversal of fortune is so savage and swift that: “you shall be in terror night and day, with no assurance of survival” (ibid 66). Just like King Josiah “rent his clothes, when the king had heard the words of the book of the Law” (II Kings 22:11), we too feel shell shocked at the frightening threats of God.

Unlike the parallel passage in Sefer Vayikra, where the rebuke ends with a promise of salvation, the Tochecha in our parsha offers no words of encouragement it ends on this sour note, and we are left with its bitter taste.

This is not really the kind of message we would like to hear in the run up to Rosh Hashana. Where is hope, where is God’s mercy?

The answer once again, lies in the delivery of the passage. The blessings that God promises come in one clean sweep. Faithfulness to Him leads to abundant prosperity. However, the curse for being disloyal comes in stages.

The first group of threats, a description of natural disasters and calamities and defeat in war (Devarim 27:15-44) is prefaced with a warning: “If you do not obey the Lord your God” (ibid 15). This is intended to be a wake up call to the people.

The second group of threats, a description of conquest by other nations (ibid 45-57), is also prefaced with a warning: “All these curses will befall you … because you did not heed the Lord your God” (ibid 45).

The third and final group of threats, that of disease, decimation and exile (ibid 58-65) is once again prefaced with a warning: “If you fail to observe faithfully…” (ibid 58).

Unlike with the rewards, God does not act on His threats in one swift movement. He brings the calamities in stages, in order to give us the opportunity to witness the results of our indiscretions, so that we can return to Him.

Furthermore, the final comparison to Egypt also brings us comfort. The Exodus from Egypt was believed to be an impossible escape, yet it happened. So too, our deepest darkest exile will be ended.

The tranquility of the beginning of the parsha will be restored and may we all: “rejoice with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given you” (ibid 26:11).