• Ki Tavo


    a retold story

    “A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt and dwelled there, few in number; and he became a great, mighty and numerous nation. But the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and afflicted us and imposed hard work on us. And we cried out to the Lord, God of our fathers, and He heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with awesome signs and wonders” (Devarim  XXVI, 5-8)

    These verses appear in this week’s reading as the declaration made by the Israelites when they brought their first fruits as an offering to the Temple. But these verses are also familiar to anyone has who participated in a Passover Seder, since they serve as the basis of the section of the Haggadah that retells the story of the Exodus from Egypt.   

    It seems strange that the Haggadah should choose to take as the basis of its account these verses from Sefer Devarim, recited by a generation that did not actually participate in the Exodus, when it could have instead quoted verses from the book of Shemot, which actually describe the Exodus itself. Why should the Haggadah base itself on this second-hand description, instead of the dramatic firsthand description of the event?

    The account of the Exodus in Shemot is indeed dramatic and powerful. But the brief verses that we read this week, which were recited by the Israelites when they brought their first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem, actually contain three elements missing from the original account, which make it especially appropriate as we try to recapture our history, and pass it on to future generations:

    • A model of memory:  A major theme of the Seder night is memory, and the obligation to relive the past experiences of our people, as if they were indeed our own. As the Haggadah states: “In every generation, each person is obligated to see themselves as though they personally came forth from Egypt.” It is fitting then that the account of the Exodus that we base ourselves on is not the one from Shemot, which describes the original participants in the event, but this one from Devarim, which was recited by the first generation to relive the past as if it was their own experience.
    • An unfinished journey: The Exodus story, as told in the book of Shemot is incomplete. It ends with the children of Israel leaving Egypt and entering the wilderness. But in fact the journey from Egypt ends not with the entry of the Israelites into the wilderness, but their arrival in the land of Israel. For this reason, it is appropriate that the account of the exodus that we take as our model for the Seder night is the one recited by the Israelites after they had entered the land of Israel. Indeed, the four verses quoted in the Haggadah, are followed in our reading by a fifth verse, highlighting the connection between the Exodus and the people’s arrival in the land of Israel:  “And He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey”
    • The purpose of freedom: The account of the Exodus in the book of Shemot places its focus on the national liberation of the children of Israel. Indeed, Moses’ call: “Let my people go!” has become a rallying call for movements of national liberation throughout history.  But in fact the concluding part of Moses’ statement is often forgotten: “Let my people go… in order that they may serve me.” Freedom is not an end in itself, but rather a means to enable us to engage in a higher form of service. For this reason it is fitting that the Haggadah chooses to base itself, not on the account of the Exodus in the book of Shemot, which focuses on the physical liberation of the Israelites, but rather on these verses in Devarim, recited as the Israelite farmers fulfilled their obligation to bring their first fruits to the Temple. What we celebrate is not freedom to do whatever we want, but the freedom to engage in a higher form of service.

    By choosing to take as the basis of the story of the Exodus these verses from this week’s reading, the Haggadah conveys three powerful messages about our relationship with our history: that our past is to be relived as a part of our own experience, that the journey it describes is unfinished until we arrive in the land of Israel, and that our journey to freedom is not an end in itself, but a means to be able to engage in a higher form of service.

    In others’ words

    “The horror of slavery is profoundly engraved in the experience of the Jewish people – a people formed in slavery. For hundreds of years the children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt until, as the Book of Exodus recounts, the call: ‘Let my people go’ heralded the first national liberation movement in history, and the model for every liberation which was to follow.

    “The Jewish response to slavery was remarkable. Rather than forget or sublimate the suffering of slavery, Jewish tradition insisted that every Jew must remember and relive it. And to this day, on Passover, every Jewish family reenacts the experience of slavery, eats the bread of affliction, and appreciates once again the taste of freedom. Through the ages of our exile this psychodrama has had a profound impact on the Jewish psyche: making sure that every child born into comfort knows the pains of oppression, and every child born into oppression knows the hope of redemption.

    “But remembrance of our suffering as slaves has a more important function – to remind ourselves of our moral obligations. The experience of oppression brings no privilege, but rather responsibility. We have a responsibility to protect the weak, the widow and the orphan and the stranger, because as the Bible says: “You yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Even God, in the first and most fundamental of the Ten Commandments, identifies Himself not as ‘Creator of the World’ or ‘Splitter of the Red Sea’, but as ‘the One who freed you from slavery’.

    “And indeed in every country in which they have lived, Jews have
    been in the forefront of the battle for human rights and freedom from oppression. The same urge for national liberation, that led to the Exodus, and that led to the Zionist dream that Jews could live in freedom in their land, was intrinsically bound up with the belief that not just one people, but all peoples must be free. It was this conviction that Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, expressed in his book Altneuland, as early as 1902:

    “There is still one problem of racial misfortune unsolved. The depths of that problem only a Jew can comprehend. I refer to the problem of the Blacks. Just call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who merely because they were black were stolen like cattle, taken prisoners, captured and sold. Their children grew up in strange lands, the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different. I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of Israel, my people, I wish to assist the redemption of the Black people.”

    “As Herzl understood, remembrance of slavery is integral to the Jewish experience. A Jew cannot be truly free if he or she does not have compassion on those who are enslaved.”

    Statement by Rabbi Michael Melchior, Deputy Foreign Minister, World Conference against Racism, Durban – September 2001

    On a lighter note

    A little boy once returned home from Hebrew school and his father asked, “What did you learn today?”
    He answered, “The Rabbi told us how Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt.”
    The boy said “Moses was a big strong man and he beat Pharaoh up. Then while he was down, he got all the people together and ran towards the sea. When he got there, he has the Corps of Engineers build a huge pontoon bridge. Once they got on the other side, they blew up the bridge while the Egyptians were trying to cross.”
    The father was shocked. “Is that what the Rabbi taught you?” The boy replied, “No. But you’d never believe the story he DID tell us!”

  • Ki Tetze


    a bird in the hand  

    Containing over 70 of the 613 commandments, this week’s reading is the most Mitzva-packed portion in the Bible. But of all of these commandments, only one promises us a reward, and an unusual commandment it is – to chase away a mother bird before taking the eggs from her nest:

    If you happen to come across a bird’s nest on the way, in a tree or on the ground, containing young birds or eggs, and the mother bird is sitting on the young or the eggs, you must not take the mother with the young. You should send the mother away, but take the young, in order that it will be well for you and you will have long days. (Devarim XXII:7-8)

    Why should the simple act of shooing away the mother bird merit a specific commandment – and why, of all commandments, should it be rewarded with “long days”?

    On the face of it, this commandment is an expression of compassion to animals, recognizing that it is wrong to take advantage of a mother bird’s maternal instinct and the fact that she stays near her young to protect them, rather than flee to protect herself.

    Yet the rabbis of the Mishnah seem to criticize this approach, stating that that one must not say the reason for this commandment is the Lord’s mercifulness:

    One who says in his prayers: “Your mercy reaches as far as the nest of a bird” … should be silenced. (Berakhot  5: 3)

    Many commentators suggest that this commandment is intended less to express compassion to animals, and more to ingrain compassion in ourselves. Nachmanides (Spain, C13th), for example, suggests that we should avoid becoming hardened to the pain of others: “The principle is not to manifest pity for the animal, but to implant in man the value of mercy”.

    But another Spanish commentator,  Don Isaac Abarbanel, the 15th century statesman and diplomat, suggests a very different approach – one with a modern relevance:


    The Torah’s intention is to prevent the possibility of untimely destruction and rather to encourage Creation to exist as fully as possible. Therefore, “In order that it will be well for you and you will have long days” means that “it shall be good for humankind when Creation is perpetuated so that we will be able to partake of it again in the future… since if we are destined to live for many years on this earth, we are reliant upon Creation perpetuating.

    Writing over 500 years ago,  Abarbanel describes the modern concept of  “sustainable development” – the need to ensure that our progress does not diminish the basic resources which continue to supply our needs.  According to Abarbanel, the reason we leave the mother bird is quite simply so that the breeding stock remains, and that there will be more eggs and young available in the future.

    The idea of sustainable development in fact is evident throughout many of the teachings of the Bible. Perhaps most prominently it is the theme of the second paragraph of the Shema prayer, which similarly draws a connection between following the Jewish laws and our ability to build a lasting agricultural society, concluding with the promise that if the laws are followed: “your days and the days of your children will be multiplied upon the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers to give them, as long as the days of the heavens are above the earth”.

    Commenting on this text, Nigel Savage, contemporary Jewish scholar and founder of the Jewish environmental movement Hazon, notes the connection between traditional Jewish teaching and the concept of sustainable development, and sees the State of Israel taking the lead in the area of environmental responsibility:

    “We challenge the natural order at our peril; the world daily faces reminders that there is a direct link between our behaviors and the world’s capacity to sustain us.

    “From the early days of Israeli agronomists in Africa, to this fall’s conference at Ben Gurion University on desertification, Israel has been at the forefront of seeking to heed the underlying realities of these words; of encouraging each of us to see the relationships between our behavior towards the planet and its consequences.

    “By 2030, on current population trends, many parts of the world will have reached population densities comparable with Israel’s today. From low-flush toilets to solar power to smaller homes and cars, Israel sets an environmental lead that much of the world in due course will follow if we are to protect and preserve our planet more effectively than we do today.”

    In others’ words

    “In peace, the Middle East, the ancient cradle of civilization, will become invigorated and transformed. Throughout its lands there will be freedom of movement of people, of ideas, of goods, and cooperation and development in agriculture will make the deserts blossom. Industry will bring the promise of a better life. Sources of water will be developed and the almost year-long sunshine will yet be harnessed for the common needs of all the nations. Yes, indeed, the Middle East, standing at the crossroads of the world, will become a peaceful center of international communication between East and West, North and South a center of human advancement in every sphere of creative endeavor. This and more is what peace will bring to our region.”

    Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Address on receiving the Nobel Prize, 1978

    On a lighter note

    Of all the Rabbis quoted in the Talmud, the award for the most irreverent sense of humor must go to Rabbi Jeremiah, who always had a wisecrack to test the limits of Talmudic logic. Here is one example of his approach, which finally led the sages of the Talmud to lose their patience:

    It was taught that if a fledgling bird is found within fifty cubits of a man’s property, it belongs to the owner of the property. If it is found outside the limit of fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it. Rabbi Jeremiah asked the question: “If one foot of the bird is within the 50 cubit limit, and the other is outside it, what is the law?” It was for this question that Rabbi Jeremiah was thrown out of the House of Study!  (Tractate Bava Batra 23b)

    But in fact Rabbi Jeremiah had the last laugh. Some time later the sages had to confront a problem that only Rabbi Jeremiah’s hairsplitting approach could solve – and had to call him back to the house of study! (Tractate Bava Batra 165b)

  • Shoftim


    pursuing justice

    “Justice, justice shall you pursue, in order that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord is giving you” (Devarim XVI:20)

    Moses’ call to the judges of Israel in this week’s reading: “Justice, justice shall you pursue” is rightly famous. Less well known, however, is the continuation of the sentence: “… in order that you may live and inherit the land”.   Strikingly, according to Moses, our security in our land is not dependent on our military might or our strategic capabilities, but on the moral quality of the society that we establish.

    The approach suggested by Moses goes against the common practice of states.  Indeed, it is in times of national insecurity that justice is most likely to come under threat or be compromised, as security threats become justifications for the infringement of liberties. But Moses takes pains to remind us that in fact the greatest risk to our society is internal: when we begin compromising on justice itself. As the 15th century Italian commentator Ovadiah Sforno comments on this verse: “There is no greater danger to the stability of national life than injustice.”

    In today’s world, most claims to sovereignty over territory are framed in terms of rights. This verse offers an alternative approach, in which our right to live on our land derives not from our rights, but from the fulfillment of our obligation to build a society based on justice.

    In seeking to create the ideal of a just society, the unusual wording of the sentence “Justice, justice shall you pursue” has led commentators to offer some interesting insights on the way in which we can work to achieve justice:

    • An ideal to be pursued: The 19th-century Hassidic commentator, Sefat Emet, focuses on the unusual word “pursue”. Moses’ command is not to achieve or create justice, but to pursue it. The reason, he suggests, is that as an absolute ideal, justice is elusive and unattainable. But that the fact that perfect justice cannot achieve can never be an excuse for us not to pursue it.
    • Justice in both ends and means:  A number of contemporary scholars, among them Rabbis Elya Meir Bloch and Simcha Bunem, have noted the curious repetition of the work “justice” (justice justice shall you pursue) and interpret this to mean that “the pursuit of righteousness must itself be pursued with righteousness.  We are not merely being taught to run after justice. We are told to run after justice with justice.  In other words just ends, however highly regarded, can never justify unjust means.
    • Two types of justice – absolute and compromise:  The Talmud sees the repetition of the word “justice” as signifying that there, are, in fact, two types of justice; the first based on strict law, the second based on compromise. The Talmud goes on to give a number of examples:


    It has been taught: ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue’. The first mention of justice refers to a decision based on strict law; the second, to a compromise. How so? Where two boats sailing on a river meet, if both attempt to pass simultaneously both will sink. However, if one makes way for the other, both can pass without mishap. Likewise, if two camels met each other while on a high mountain path, if they both ascend at the same time both may fall, but if they ascend after each other, both can go up safely.

    Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 32b


    While we may not be sailors or camel-riders, the situations described here are familiar to anyone who has driven down a narrow Israeli road, or pushed a cart down a supermarket aisle, and met another driver or cartpusher coming the other way.  The accommodating approach suggested by the Talmud is probably less familiar. But this too, the Talmud argues, is a kind of justice.

    In others’ words

    “The power of society to stand up against its enemies is based on its recognition that it is fighting for values that deserve protection. The rule of law is one of these values.”

    Chief Justice Aharon Barak, High Court of Justice Decision 168/1991 Morcos v. Minister of Defense

    On a lighter note

    Chaim, a small time businessman, was being sued by a major corporation. If he lost the case his business would never recover. He asked his friend Abe for advice.

    “Why don’t you bribe the judge to decide in your favour?” suggested Abe.

    The idea shocked Chaim, but the more he thought about it, the more it seemed that he had no choice. So late one night he went to the judge’s house and offered him $10,000 to decide the case in his favour.  The judge, to Chaim’s amazement, agreed to the offer, and took the money.

    On the day of the judgment, Chaim went confidently to court. But he was not aware that the judge had been given an even bigger bribe by the other side, and was shocked when he heard the judge decide in their favour.

    Late that night, Chaim went back to the judge and confronted him: “You took my money!” he exploded. “How could you decide against me!?”

    “But don’t you understand” smiled the judge calmingly. “I wrote my judgment so that you will win on appeal!”

  • Re’eh


    the choice before us


    See! I have placed before you today a blessing and a curse; the blessing that you shall listen to the commandments which I command you, and the curse if you will not listen…(Devarim XI: 26 – 28 )

    Moses’ famous call to the Israelites to follow the path of righteousness begins with the word “See!”  This is unusual, since the Jewish emphasis is far more on hearing than on seeing. In the Shema prayer, for example, not only do we stress the importance of hearing (“Hear O Israel…”), but we cover our eyes to avoid visual distractions.  But in this case the word “See!” is appropriate, because the choice between the path of blessing and the path of curse was to be presented to the Jewish people in a truly visual manner, in one of the most powerful psychodramas in the Bible.

    The Mishnah (Sotah 7:5) explains describes how this drama was enacted:

    When Israel crossed the Jordan and came to Mount Gerizim and to Mount Eval… six tribes went up to the summit of Mount Gerizim and six tribes to the top of Mount Eval. And the Priests and the Levites and the Ark of the  Covenant stood below in between…The Levites turned towards Mount Gerizim and uttered the blessings and all the people responded Amen. Then they turned their faces to Mount Eval and uttered the curses and all the people responded Amen… And afterwards they brought stones and wrote all the words of the law in seventy languages…

    It is hard to imagine a more dramatic enactment of a people at a moral crossroads, faced with a choice between two paths that would affect their common destiny. Although this enactment took place many centuries ago, three lessons from the ancient account still seem very relevant to the Jewish people as it confronts moral choices three thousand years later:

    • A just society is its own reward:  The commentators pick up on the curious wording of Moses’ commandment to the people.  Rather than saying ‘the blessing if (‘im’) you listen’, and’ ‘the curse if (‘im’) you don’t listen’, Moses only uses the word ‘if’ (‘im’) in relation to the curse. In relation to the blessing he uses the word ‘asher’ – ‘which’. So the verse is more properly translated as a saying: ‘the blessing which is that you listen to the commandments’. As the classic commentator the Malbim (Meir Lobush, Poland C19th) notes,  the wording suggests that the reason to follow these principles is not order to receive a blessing, but that building a society on these values is actually its own blessing and reward.

    • Our choices affect ourselves – and our society: Moses’ command is unusual in another respect; it begins in the singular but continues in the plural.  Every one of us, it suggests, must learn to see ourselves as bearing individual responsibility for the fate of the community. The significance of every individual, and the ability of each member of society to tilt the balance one way or the other, could not be made more vivid that by the picture of  tribes equally balanced,  on each mountaintop. Indeed, according to the Talmud (Tractate Shavuot 37b), it was at this very moment the Jewish people accepted the idea of communal responsibility.

    • The Jewish people – chosen to choose: Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the dramatic description of the event quoted in the Mishna above is not the standing on the mountain or the blessing and the curse, but the short verse which follows. Once the ceremony was over, the Israelites brought stones and carved the words of the law in seventy languages. As Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, C19th) points out, at the very moment of making their choice, the Jewish people were to acknowledge that the values to which they committed themselves were not just national, but were universal. The Jewish people were chosen to choose, and by doing so to be the bearer of basic moral values to the world at large.

    Modern Israel, situated as it is in the heart of the Middle East, finds itself almost as much of an anomaly in terms of the values it represents as did the ancient Israelites. In committing ourselves to preserve basic rights and freedoms, even in the face of pressures and challenges, the ancient ceremony recorded in this portion reminds us that the establishment of a just society is a reward in itself, that this effort has to be made by every individual to affect society at large, and that in building such a society we are carrying a message to our region and the world at large.

    In others’ words

    “Jewish legend tells of a tyrant who would play a cruel trick on his subjects. Holding a tiny bird in his hands he would ask, on pain of death, whether the bird was alive or dead. If the subject answered “dead”, the tyrant would release the bird; if the answer was: “alive”, he would crush the bird between his hands.

    “One day a wise sage was brought to the tyrant and asked the question: ‘Is the bird alive or dead?’ The sage, aware of the tyrant’s trap, thought long and hard. ‘The answer to that question,’ he said finally, ‘lies in your hands.’”

    Ambassador Dore Gold, Statement before Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, July 1997

    On a lighter note

    A Rabbi, a cantor, and a synagogue president were driving to a seminar when they were kidnapped. After stealing their money, the kidnappers told them that they could choose one final request before they were killed.

    “My last wish,” began the Rabbi, is to give a fascinating, complicated, long sermon that I have always wanted to but never been allowed to give.”

    “We will grant your wish,” the hijackers replied.

    “My last wish,” said the cantor, “is to sing a beautiful, Yemenite style song, one of my own composition, lasting two hours. I have never been allowed to sing it.”

    “We’ll let you sing it,” replied the hijackers.

    “What is your last wish?” the hijackers asked the synagogue president.

    “Please, please shoot me now.”

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