• Ekev

    Devarim

    manna for all seasons

    As Moses continues recounting to the Israelites the story of the journey through the wilderness, he describes the manna, the miraculous heaven-sent food that sustained the people of Israel on their travels:

    And he fed you with manna, which you had not known, that he might test you to know what was in your heart, and whether or not you would keep his commandments…(Devarim VIII:3 )

    According to the Bible the manna was a miraculous form of nourishment, with remarkable qualities. One Midrash even suggests that it would taste like whatever food the person eating it wanted. So why, in the verse above, would Moses describe this remarkable food as a “test”?

    Many of the traditional commentators suggest reasons why eating the manna may have been a test for the Israelites in the wilderness. Rashi (France, Cth) suggests that the test was whether the Israelites would observe the laws relating to the manna, in particular that they should gather a double portion on Friday, and none on the Shabbat. Nachmanides (Spain-Israel C13th) suggests that the trial was the strange nature of the food which neither they nor their fathers had known. Ovadiah Sforno (Italy, C15th), however, suggests an interpretation with a surprisingly contemporary ring:

    “That He might put you to the test” – to see if you will do His will even when He gives you sustenance without suffering.

    In this view, the test for the Israelites is whether, after years of slavery and hard work, they will able to be faithful and God-fearing in times of prosperity.  It is for this reason Moses recounts the “test” of the manna, just as the people are about to enter the land of Israel. For Israel too is a land of prosperity. As Moses tells the people:

    For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of books of waters of fountains… and land of wheat and barley, in which you shall eat bread without scarceness… Beware lest you forget the Lord your God. (Devarim V111:7-8)

    Moses recounts the test of the manna to remind the people that prosperity is not only a blessing; it is also a challenge – to their faith and their values. As the classic Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz notes:

    The Torah sings the praises of the land to emphasise also the moral dangers and pitfalls that such gifts might bring with them.

    While the manna only fed the Jewish people in the wilderness, its message was to accompany them throughout the generations. A jar of manna traveled with the Israelites, alongside the Ten Commandments, in the Ark of the Covenant throughout their travels, and it is a Jewish custom to recite “parshat HaMan”, the biblical passage describing the manna, at the end of the morning prayers every day.

    Today, when the State of Israel has a thriving economy, and when, in the space of a few brief decades, the country has transformed itself from being a fragile agricultural economy to an advanced and sought-after high-tech business environment, the message of manna is as relevant as ever: the challenge of the Jewish state is not simply to prosper, but also to retain its integrity and values in times of prosperity.

    In others’ words

    The Governor of the Bank of Israel on prosperity and education:

     

    “I have been asked to talk today about the Israeli economy. In brief, the economy is doing well… Our inflation rate is low. We have a current account surplus. We are about to enter the fourth year of growth that began in the middle of 2003, at the end of the deepest recession in the history of Israel… “Here is where higher education and the universities come in. The creation of the Hebrew University is in many ways a miracle. It was no small matter to establish a university that meets international standards in a community as small as that of the Yishuv in Palestine, as far as it then was from the centers of academic life. It is also no small matter to have established a system of higher education as good as that in Israel…. For a good university is far more than a source of technological progress; it is a repository and source of knowledge, of culture, of values, of civilization. That too is why a society – why Israel – needs to cherish and support its universities and its system of higher education.”

    Stanley Fischer, Governor of the Bank of Israel, Acceptance Speech for Honorary Degree,Hebrew University, June  2006

    On a lighter note

    Sarah and Chaim are lying in bed. Sarah rolls over to Chaim and asks: “Chaim, are you comfortable?”

    Without opening his eyes, Chaim replies: “I make a living.”

  • Vaetchanan

    Devarim

    an unanswered prayer

    Of the many prayers and requests that Moses makes to God throughout the Bible, only one is on his own behalf. At the start of this week’s reading Moses recounts his single request for himself: that he be allowed to go into the land of Israel.

     

    “Let me cross over and see the good land which is beyond the Jordan…” (Devarim III:25)

    Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, one of the leading Chassidic rebbes of the 19th century, notes the strange emphasis on the word ‘good’ in Moses’ prayer (“see the good land”). He suggests that Moses’ plea was more than simply a request to see the land of Israel; rather it was a prayer that his eyes should always see the good in the land of Israel, despite what may seem on the surface to be failings and shortcomings.

    Moses’ single request for himself is denied. Instead, God tells him that he may climb a high peak and see the entire length and breadth of Israel:

    “Get thee up to the top of the mountain peak, and raise your eyes, westwards and northwards, and southwards and eastwards, and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross the Jordan.” (Devarim III:27)

    From this description it sounds as though Moses is being shown the physical extent of the land of Israel from afar. But for the Rabbis, this description suggests that Moses was given a more profound overview. As the Midrash comments:

    “God showed Moses all of Israel both in its periods of tranquility as well as the oppressors who were destined to afflict it”.

    Moses was given a vision of Israel in its entirety, not just in space, but also over the whole span of history, with its periods of quiet and periods of oppression.

    Reading the comments of  Menachem Mendel of Kotzk together with this Midrash, suggests that Moses’  prayer was not just to be able to focus on the good in the physical land of Israel, but also, even in challenging and difficult periods,  to see the positive dimensions of  Jewish history.

    So it is fitting that this Parshat Vaetchanan is always read on the Shabbat after Tisha B’av, the fast marking the greatest tragedies of Jewish history. This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Nachamu , the Shabbat of comfort, on which we reaffirm that, notwithstanding the tragedies that have confronted us, we are committed to focusing on the positive dimension of our land and our history. And in our generation, this sense of the positive as we survey our land and history, is heightened by the knowledge that the privilege of entering into our land and living there, a privilege denied to Moses himself, is open to every one of us.

    On a lighter note

    As the EL  AL plane settled down at Ben Gurion airport, the voice of the captain came on:
    “Please remain seated with your seat belts fastened until this plane is at a complete standstill and the seat belt signs have been turned off. We also wish to remind you that using cell phones on board this aircraft is strictly prohibited.”
    The captain paused then added: “To those who are seated, we wish you a Merry Christmas, and hope that you enjoy your stay… And to those of you standing in the aisles and talking on your cell phones, we wish you a Happy Chanukah, and welcome back home!”

  • Devarim

    Devarim

    a manner of speaking

    The Hebrew name of the book of Devarim, meaning ‘words’, emphasises that the book is precisely that, a record of the last speeches given by Moses to the people. And perhaps there is a special irony that Moses, who missed out on his  life’s dream of entering the land of Israel because  he refused to speak when commanded to, now stands on the border of Israel doing nothing but talk – for an entire book of the five books of the Bible.
    The Bible introduces Moses’ long oration as follows:

    “Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses began to expound (‘be’er’) the Torah, saying…” (Devarim I:5)

    Moses has spoken to the people many times before, and every time the Bible has used the same verb – “diber” – to describe his speech. But now, at his final moments, the Bible uses a new verb, never used before in the bible: ‘be’er’ – meaning to expound or explain. In what way is Moses speech now different to all those he has made before?

    Three commentators suggest three different reasons why speaking to the children of Israel on the verge of leaving the wilderness and entering the land of Israel requires Moses to use a new and different form of expression.

    • Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, C12th) suggests that a new verb is required because Moses is speaking to a new audience. In the past Moses has been speaking to the generation of Israelites who left Egypt themselves. Now that that generation has died in the wilderness, Moses addresses a new generation who do not have first-hand experience of the Exodus. No longer is it sufficient for Moses to “tell them”; now he needs to “explain to them”. As Ibn Ezra comments:

    Moses began to explain to the children who were born in the wilderness the events that had occurred to their parents, and to tell them the commandments that their fathers had heard from the mouth of the Lord.

    •Jerusalemite scholar Rabbi Shlomo Fisher has suggested that the change in Moses’ manner of speaking is a result of his sense of his impending death. He will no longer be around to ensure the continuity of the tradition, and now must teach not simply so the people can understand for themselves, but so that they themselves can pass on the tradition. Noting that the word to expound is identical to the Hebrew word for a well (be’er), he explains: “Until now Moses has related to the people as a bor, a pit, that receives and keeps; now he treats them as a be’er, a well, which not only receives but also gives out”.

    •The classic German scholar Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that use of the new verb indicates that Moses was now conveying a message which was relevant not just for the Jewish people, but for the world at large. No longer a group of nomads wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites were about to enter their land and become a player on the international stage. As such, they had to be aware of the lessons they carried for humanity. Hirsch cites a Midrash on the word be’er which explains it to mean that the Torah was translated into the seventy languages of the world. Notes Hirsch: “Israel was from the very beginning to have to understand its mission for the spiritual and moral salvation of the whole of mankind”.

    Every Jew is, in his or her own way, a Moses, responsible for telling the story and passing it on to future generations. This week’s reading suggests that in doing so, we should make sure that we do not simply tell our story ( diber ) but we should expound and explain it ( be’er ). As these three commentators suggest, if we do so, we will help a new generation share the experiences of the past, we will make them in turn teachers for new generations, and we will convey an awareness of the lessons of our history, not just for one people, but for all mankind.

     In others’ words

    “Bechol dor vador… in every generation …
    In Jewish tradition, there are experiences so central to our identity, and to our mission, that we are obliged to recall them – and remember their lessons – in every generation.
    In every generation at the Passover Seder, we remember the Exodus. We recognize that each and every one of us was liberated from Egypt. We recognize the horror of slavery and the value of freedom.
    Every generation, we are taught, must remember that it, too, stood at Mount Sinai, accepting the moral message that the Jewish people has given to the world.
    The brutal history of the 20th century has given the Jewish people a new commandment to remember.
    Bechol dor vador… in every generation we have to remember the Shoah, and to recognize that we Jews – each and every one of us – were the intended victims of genocide.
    It is our duty to those who came before us – and even more, to those who will come after – to ensure that this chain of remembrance is never broken.”

    Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Inauguration of  Yad Vashem Museum, March 2005

    On a lighter note

    Two American Jews decide to sample Tel Aviv nightlife. They go to a café where an Israeli comic is entertaining an appreciative crowd in Hebrew, which neither of the Americans can speak. One of the Americans laughs uproariously with the audience. “What are you laughing at?” asks his colleague. “You don’t understand Hebrew.” “So what?” is the reply. “I trust these people!”

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