• Haazinu


    between history and memory

    As Moses’ final speech to the children of Israel draws to a close, he becomes more and more concerned with the question of continuity.  How will the Jewish people ensure that the story of their journey and their mission will not fade away? As we saw last week, the last two of the  commandments are  both different approaches to ensuring that Moses’ teachings are handed down  to future generations: the seven-yearly public reading of the Torah, and the commandment to every individual to write a Torah for themselves.

    In this week’s reading, Moses is still troubled by the challenge of continuity, and he introduces his final song by stressing the importance of preserving the past:

    Remember the days of old,
    Consider the years of  many generations;
    Ask your father, he will inform you, Your elders, they will tell you (Devarim XXXII:7)

    In relating to the past there is a crucial difference between memory and history. History is about the facts, about what happened. Memory is about the relationship between the past and ourselves; it is the past as it reflects itself in our identity.

    This difference is hinted at in Moses’ final words. The first half of the verse speaks of history:

    Remember the days of old,
    Consider the years of  many generations;

    “The days of old”, and the passing of “the years of many generations” are history in a distant and objective sense. The second half of the verse, though, suggests that an objective understanding of history is not sufficient:

    Ask your father, he will inform you,
    Your elders, they will tell you

    Here Moses tells us that we have to engage with the past, to ask questions and feel a personal connection to it, to realize that it is a message to us from our parents and ancestors. Here he speaks not of history, but of memory.

    The challenge of taking the past and transforming it from history to memory permeates almost every aspect of Jewish life. The major events of the calendar are attempts to give historic moments immediacy, and bring them to life, such as the recreation of the Exodus on Seder night, or the destruction of the Temple and exile on Tisha b’Av. Similarly many Jewish life cycle customs  are focused on remembrance, from the naming of babies after departed relatives, through the breaking of a glass at a wedding to recall the destruction of Jerusalem, to the Kaddish and Yizkor prayers said in memory of the dead.

    There is another crucial difference between history and memory in Jewish thinking. History is an academic discipline, one which is satisfied with simply knowing about the past. Memory in the Jewish understanding carries with it an obligation to learn lessons of the past and enact them in the future.

    The classic commentator Rashi (France C11th) suggests that this idea is also reflected in Moses’ words. “Remember the days of old”, he suggests, is a call to the Jewish people to recall the events that have taken place it he past. The continuation of the verse: “Consider the years of many generations”, relates, in Rashi’s view, not to the past but to the future. It expresses our obligation to consider the implications of the past for the future.
    This conception of Jewish memory, recalling the past so as to affect the way we relate to the future, is reflected in the use of the word  “Zachor” – “remember” , in the  Bible. Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, has pointed out that there are three occasions in the Book of Genesis in which God is spoken of as remembering:

    • “God remembered Noah” and brought him out of the ark onto dry land.

    • “God remembered Abraham” and saved his nephew Lot from the destruction of the city of Sodom.

    • “God remembered Rachel” and gave her a child.

    Every time that God remembers, Jakobovits concludes, it is not to dwell on the past, but to act as an impetus to protect the future.

    This then is the Jewish concept of memory: a process that begins with history, but never ends there. It calls on us not just to recall the past, but to internalize it, and to be ever aware of its message for the preservation and advancement of Jewish life in future generations.

    In others’ words

    “The Jewish people have a long memory, the memory which united the exiles of Israel for thousands of years: a memory which has its origin in God’s commandment to our forefather Abraham: “Go forth!” and continued with the receiving of the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai and the wanderings of the children of Israel in the desert, led by Moses on their journey to the promised land, the land of Israel.”

    Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Address at United Nations General Assembly, September  2005

    On a lighter note

    One night, Mollie and Izzy are sitting around the apartment and Mollie says “I think I’m going to go down to the corner and get myself an ice cream sundae.”
    Izzy says “Sit, darling. I’ll go down and get it for you.”
    “Forget it, Izzy. With your memory, you’ll never remember what I want. I’ll go myself.”
    “Don’t be ridiculous! There’s nothing wrong with my memory. Now tell me what you want.”
    “All right, all right. I want three scoops ice cream: cherry vanilla, chocolate chip and pistachio. I want colored sprinkles…not chocolate sprinkles …Izzy…maybe you’d better write this down…”
    “Don’t worry. I got a brain like a steel trap. Just tell me.”
    “All right. I want hot fudge sauce. Wet walnuts…not dry walnuts.
    Two cherries…one on the chocolate chip and the other one on the pistachio….Izzy…you sure you got all this?”
    “I got it. I got it. Is that it?”
    “No. I want a banana sliced in half, across the sides and some toasted coconut on the top. Izzy, maybe you should repeat it back to me.”
    “Don’t worry….it’s all up here,” he says, pointing to his head.
    Two hours later, Izzy comes back upstairs carrying a paper bag. He gives it to Mollie. She opens it up and takes out a bagel! “I knew it!” she says.
    “I knew it! I knew you would never get it right!” She looks at him accusatorily, and says, “So tell me…where’s the cream cheese?”


  • Nitzavim – Vayelech


    to hear and to write  

    The two shortest readings in the Torah, Nitzavim and Vayelech, are often read together, as we read them this week.  When placed next to each other, the contrast between their names is striking:  “Nitzavim” meaning “standing firm” on the one hand, and “Vayelech” meaning “he went”, on the other.

    The paradox is clear. In Nitzavim, the people of Israel who are about to move forward into the land of Israel are standing still. In Vayelech, Moses, who is not going with them, hurries about from tribe to tribe sharing his final words.

    This contrast between the community and the individual, and between the static and the dynamic, is reflected in the last two of the 613 commandments, which we learn about in this week’s reading:

    Commandment number  is known as “Hakhel” – or “Assemble”. Every seven years, at the time of Sukkot in the sabbatical year, the entire congregation of Israel – “the men and the women, and the children, and the stranger in your gates” – was to gather in Jerusalem and hear a public reading of the Torah.
    The book of Nehemiah (Chapter 8) gives a vivid description of the performance of the Hakhel ceremony by Ezra after the return of the Jews to Israel, following the Babylonian exile. As well as describing the dramatic public reading for which all the people gathered ‘as one man’, the description also includes a number of elements which have become the basis for the way in which the Torah is read in synagogues today: reading from a special bima or platform, making a special blessing over the Torah and lifting up the scroll so that all the congregation can see it.

    With the establishment of the State of Israel, there was discussion about reviving the historic Hakhel ceremony, and several years ago, on the last Sabbatical year, a large scale public Torah reading was actually held at the Western Wall.

    The 613th commandment suggests a different approach to ensuring the continuity of the tradition.  The commandment is derived from the verse:

    “Now write down this song for yourselves and teach it to the children of Israel and put it into their mouths”.

    According to most of the traditional commentators, the song referred to here is the entire Torah, and the commandment to write it down applies to every individual. While clearly not every member of the Jewish people is expected to become a scribe, the commandment to write a Torah can be fulfilled by possessing and studying Jewish books, and supporting their publication and education in general. In recent years there have also been a number of campaigns in the Jewish world to encourage people to “buy” a letter in a Torah scroll and so participate in the actual writing of a Torah.

    These last two commandments in the Bible both address the question of how Jewish teaching and tradition is to be preserved and passed on from generation to generation. But the two commandments suggest two very different models of how to achieve this. In particular, they suggest three contrasting approaches:

    • The community versus the individual:  The Hakhel ceremony takes place in front of the entire community of Israel. Writing a Torah, on the other hand, is a private and individual act, as the commandment itself emphasises (“Write… for yourselves”).
    • The passive versus the active:  The public reading of the Torah is a passive occurrence; all that is required from the people is that they listen. In writing the Torah, a positive act – of writing – is required. And the emphasis is less on the ear than on the mouth: the command is to place the Torah “into the mouths” of the children of Israel, so that they can actively expound the Torah.
    • The fixed versus the dynamic: The Hakhel reading can only occur at a fixed time and a fixed place. It follows a set format, and is designed to preserve the integrity of the tradition. The command to write one’s own Torah, by contrast, can be fulfilled at any time and place.

    Taken together, these two commandments suggest that in seeking to ensure continuity for Jewish tradition, we are likely to find ourselves in a continual tension between the community seeking to maintain a fixed and  universal understanding of the tradition and the individual seeking to give it a more creative and dynamic expression.

    Perhaps these tensions can never be adequately resolved; perhaps indeed they are not meant to be.  But as we confront them, we may find some comfort in a comment by Rabbi Yechiel Epstein (Lithuania, 19th century) who, in the introduction to his halakhic code, Arukh Hashulchan, asks why, in this week’s reading, the Torah is referred to as a “song”. His answer: The Jewish tradition is full of differences of opinion and arguments. For this reason the Torah is called “a song” – because a song becomes more beautiful when scored for many voices which join together, creating a beautiful harmony.

    In others’ words

    “You exemplify one God, one Jewish spirit, one Torah. When I see how you rejoice, I know there is a great future ahead of us. Your true role is to unleash the great energy of the Jewish people and to ride that energy for tikkun olam (repairing the world).”

    Ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, Address to Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University on the occasion of the ordination of 185 Rabbis, March 2006

    On a lighter note

    A Jewish boy comes home from school and tells his mother he has been given a part in the school play.
    “Wonderful,” says the mother, “What part is it?”
    The boy says “I play the part of the Jewish husband!”
    The mother scowls and says: “Go back and tell your teacher you want a speaking part!!”

  • 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.”

  • Ekev


    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


    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


    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!”

  • Mattot-Masei


    the wandering Jews

    The Book of Numbers, which started with the counting of the people, now draws to a close with the counting of places. In many synagogues a special tune is used to chant the 42 separate locations at which the Israelites encamped during their wanderings in the wilderness. But why is this long travel itinerary necessary?  

    Two traditional commentators suggest contrasting reasons for God’s command to Moses to record an exact list of all the places the Israelites camped during their years in the wilderness.

    Rashi (France, C11-12th) suggests that the travelogue is actually a tribute to God’s kindness, emphasizing that that the people had to move camp less than once every year. It also marks the care that they were shown at every stage of their long journey from slavery to freedom.  To highlight the point, Rashi cites a touching Midrash:

    This is compared to a king whose son fell ill, and he brought him to a distant place for treatment. When they returned, the father began enumerating all the journeys. He said to him ‘Here, we slept; here, we rested in the shade; here, your head ached…’

    Sforno (Italy, C15-16th) takes a converse approach: the list of places is intended to praise not God, but the Israelites, and to demonstrate their dedication throughout years of hardship. At the end of the book of Bamidbar, which chronicles the complaints and failings of the Jewish people, the Bible takes pains to balance the negative picture with a reminder of the trust they showed facing the challenges of the wilderness for forty long years.

    The history of the Jewish people is in many ways a history of journeys, and almost every family can record its own list of places that been have passed through by former and current generations. For some of these journeys, the approach taken by Rashi rings true, and we can point to the moments of respite and kindness that have marked different stages on the way. But for many of these journeys the approach suggested by Sforno seems more fitting, as we look back with awe at the courage shown by those before us, in the face of unimaginable challenges and hardships.

    Different as the two approaches are, both suggest that it is our responsibility to record and remember the journeys of previous generations that have led us to where we find ourselves today. The special nature of these journeys is hinted at in the curious verse that introduces the list of places in our reading:

    And Moses wrote their points of origin for their journeys (motzehem l’masehem) at God’s command, and these are their journeys to their points of origin (masehem l’motzehem).” (Numbers 33: 2).

    A number of commentators note the curious wording of this sentence, and particularly the way in which, at the end of the verse, the wording of the first part is reversed to refer to their people’s “journeys to their point of origin”. The unusual wording seems to suggest, that even as we move forwards we are bringing our past with us, and even returning to it. As contemporary scholar Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has put it:

    As we move down the road of time we must always keep in front of our eyes the places of our origin. We chart our future by rediscovering our past… The points of our origin must be the goal of our future.

    In others’ words

    “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.”

    Shai Agnon, Address on being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1966

    On a lighter note

    Heard from a Jewish stand-up comedian:
    And now I’d like to perform my impression of Moses’ wife: “Moses, we’ve been wandering for forty years in the wilderness. Ask directions already!”

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