Parshat Ki Teitze 5779

In this week’s parshah, we learn about war, and the circumstances surrounding it. The parshah begins by stating: When you go to war against your enemies…” (Deuteronomy 21:10). The Or Hachayyim asks why the Torah needed to write this whole introduction when it would have sufficed to write: “when you see an attractive woman among the prisoners, etc…” The whole of verse one seems extraneous to the subject matter under discussion. Furthermore, seeing the Torah did decide to write: “when you go out to war against your enemies, etc.,” why did we need the words “against your enemies?” Against whom does one go to war if not against one’s enemies? He answers that perhaps the reason is to be found in halakhic relaxations that apply to troops in wartime. A woman such as the attractive woman prisoner mentioned here would be totally out of bounds if not for the fact that she was captured in war; the same applies to other relaxations of the halakhah such as the prohibition of eating the hind parts of the pig. This gave rise to the Torah using a different style in this instance. Seeing that the soldier was aware of the halakhic relaxations which are applicable even to Torah law under conditions of war, the Torah was concerned lest some of the soldiers would actually look forward to the battle in order to avail themselves of these relaxations of Torah law. The Torah was keenly aware of this and reminded the soldier that when he goes to war, his only purpose should be to avenge himself on the enemies of the Jewish people, not in order to have an excuse to indulge in things which are normally forbidden. The words “ki tetzeh”, “when you go out”, are a reminder that although you depart from the normal rules of halakhic restrictions when your life is at stake, your mind must concentrate only on the war, on the battle, not on what you consider as the fringe benefits. The reason that the Torah adds the words “against your enemies,”, is to remind you that your enemies are God’s enemies, as we have been told by David in Psalms 139:21: “ O Lord, You know I hate those who hate You, and I loathe your adversaries.” Your entire reason for going to war must be for this sole purpose. If that will be the case, the the Torah’s assurance: “and the Lord your God will deliver them into your hand” will be fulfilled. From verse 1, you may therefore deduce that unless your motivation is the one the Torah expects of you, your success will not be assured.

 

The Torah tells us to put up preventive safeguards against damage caused by one’s property, as it states in Deuteronomy 22:8: “ If you build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house if a fallen one falls from it.” The Alshekh explains that the railing on your roof prevents you from becoming indirectly involved should someone fall from your roof. Even assuming that such a fall would not have occurred if the party falling were not in some way guilty, that person’s guilt might not have been sufficient to cause his death, had you not facilitated it by your negligence. Though both vineyard and fields are wholesome, and though you are to plan both, mixing species that do not belong together is something God knows more about than you do. Similarly, the degree of your contribution to someone falling off your roof due to the absence of a railing is beyond your ability to fathom.

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Shoftim 5780

Parshat Shoftim 5780

The parshah of Shoftim begins with the commandment that men of justice and enforcers should be placed in every locality which the tribes shall inherit. These judges are to ensure a righteous society, avoiding bribes and court favoritism in their steadfast pursuit of justice. Such behavior will enable the Jews to remain in their land. On the topic of being in the land, the parshah continues with the rules pertinent to planting trees of idol worship. Like such monuments, the trees are forbidden. On the topic of worship, the Torah reminds us that only
unblemished beasts could be used as korbanot, sacrifices. Additionally, anyone found guilty of idolatry is to be stoned at the gates of the city. It is from here that we learn that a Jewish court requires at least two witnesses, who themselves will lead the execution.

Judges could be appointed outside the land of Israel. For it is written in the Ethics of the Fathers, “Do not judge your fellow-man until you have stood in his place.” A court which sits in the land of Israel cannot know the trials and temptations which exist outside, or the difficulties of being loyal to one’s faith in a place of exile. The land of
Israel is a land where “the eyes of the L-rd your G-d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” It is a land of Divine grace. One cannot judge a man by its standards if that man lives outside its protection. So judges had to be drawn from the same environment as their defendants. They had not only to know what he had done; they had to experience for themselves the environment which brought him to it. Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch (the second Chabad Rebbe) was once giving private audiences, interrupted himself for some time . It transpired that a man who had had an audience wanted the Rebbe’s help in setting right a particularly degrading act he had done. The Rebbe later said to one of his close disciples that one must discover some analogous quality in oneself–on however refined a level–before one can help someone to remedy his sin. His interruption of the audiences had been to attempt to find in himself this point from which he could identify with the sinner. It was this principle that lay behind G-d’s command to Moses when the Israelites had made the golden calf: “Go, get thee down, for your people have dealt corruptly.” For at that moment, Moses was inhabiting the spiritual heights of Mt. Sinai, neither eating nor drinking, divorced from the world. The
Israelites were degraded through their sin. But by telling him to “go down” to “your people” G-d created a bond between Moses and the people, on the basis of which Moses was able to plead on their behalf.

The Torah states: “Neither shalt thou set thee up a pillar, which the Lord thy G-d hateth” (ch.16, v.22). Rabbi Hillel Geffen comments that our ancestors used pillars for the service of G-d, and he brings forth the following examples: When Jacob had slept in Beit-El on his way to Lavan, he “took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil on the top of it” (Genesis 28,18). On his return from Padan-Aram, Jacob comes back to Beit-El and again – “Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He spoke with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured out a drink- offering thereon, and poured oil thereon” (Genesis 35, 14). In contrast to this, it is said at the beginning of our portion -“Neither shalt thou set thee up a pillar, which the Lord thy G-d hateth”. The Torah was not satisfied with only determining that making a pillar is forbidden, but also added that it is
hated by G-d! Rabbi Abraham Iben-Ezra explains that the prohibition mentioned here relates only to pillars
being made for idolatrous worship, but a pillar being made for the sanctification of G-d was not banned. Rashi, however, claims that this prohibition relates to every pillar whatsoever, even in order to sacrifice on it to Heaven. Therefore he explains that although “it was pleased to Him in the days of our ancestors, now He hates it”. Why? “Because they (the Canaanites) made it an ordinance of an idolatrous character”. Rashi also explains the
difference between a pillar and an altar: a pillar is one stone made for sacrifice, and this is forbidden, while an “altar of stones and an altar of land He has commanded you to make.”

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Re’eh 5779

In this week’s parshah, Moses gives his second discourse. Instead of continuing to speak in general terms of the necessity to serve God and adhere to His commandments, Moses deals with laws that are to govern the Israelites when they arrive in the land of Canaan. These laws deal with religious institutions and worship, government,
criminal law, domestic life, and laws concerning the first fruits and tithes. We will focus on some of the laws outlined in this parshah.

 

Regarding idol worship, the Moses instructs the people: “You shall surely destroy all the places wherein the nations that you are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and upon the high
mountains” (Deut. 12:2). In the Mishnah 7 chapter 3 in tractate of Avodah Zarah we are taught: “there are three categories of houses; 1) a house which was constructed in order to serve as a place of worship. Such a house is totally forbidden. 2) A house which originally was not used or intended for such worship but has been redecorated in order to serve as a house of worship. 3) The Gentile made an addition to the existing house, which was intended and used as a residence. In the latter two instances, the Jew has to demolish all the new decorations or additions and he may have use of the rest of such a house.” The Or Hachayim explains that the Talmud elaborates on this mishnah saying that if someone prostrates himself in front of any house (indicating that he worships it) he has thereby made it completely forbidden to every Jew. From this, we deduce that even if someone had only joined together individual stones and attached them to the ground, they are still considered as if they were separate and the house is not forbidden until it was used for the purpose for which it has been designated! The Talmud answers that the mishnah taught us the law that even if the house had only been built for a purpose for which it had not yet been used it is already totally forbidden. Maimonides accepts this ruling in his treatise Hilchot Avodah Zarah
chapter 8. This ruling is reflected in what our verse says: “all the sites where the Canaanites used to serve idols.” The meaning is that it is irrelevant if the place had originally been built for the purpose or not. If idolatrous practices had been performed there the Israelites must destroy if even if only an addition to such a house had been used for idolatry.

 

In chapter 12 verse 8, Moses prohibits altars of a private nature, and that the people must offer sacrifices only in the central place of worship. The Alshekh comments that the only reason private altars had been tolerated so far was due to the fact that Israel had not yet reached a final destination. The whole paragraph from v.8-14 seems full of repetition of laws which had been previously stated. Actually, Moses, in his prophetic vision, talks about different periods in Jewish history. The tabernacle in Shiloh which preceded the temple in Jerusalem, though its ceilings were portable coverings such as had been used in the desert for the first tabernacle, was nonetheless a structure with solid walls. It contained the 5 elements that were absent during the period of the second temple. Moses called Shiloh ‘menuchah’- rest, and the temple of Solomon ‘nachalah’ – inheritance. Since the site of the temple
corresponds to the throne of God in the higher world, he describes search for God as ‘leshichno tidre-shenu’.
Concerning the temple, Moses says ‘uvata shamah’ – you will get there (v.6). In case people would think that only THAT temple would be a central place of worship, Moses stresses that there is another temple which shares most of the holiness character of the temple Solomon was to build – namely, the one in Shiloh. This temple would be available immediately after crossing the Jordan. Since the site in Shiloh is NOT opposite the temple in the higher world, it says only “which the Lord will choose where his name will rest” (v.11). In order that the people do not belittle the sanctity of that temple, Moses gives even more details of all the sacrifices to be offered there (v.11-12).

 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Ekev 5779

Parshat Ekev 5779

Parshat Eikev begins with a sentence that for the most part is straightforward, except for the word that gives the Parsha its name. “And it shall come to pass, “Eikev”, because you harken to these ordinances (as a result of your hearing) and observe and keep them, that God will keep his covenant with you.” (Devarim 7:12) There follows a lengthy cataloge of the blessings that will follow obedience: God’s love; the fruitfulness of the people, their land and livestock; good health and the defeat of all enemies – material success and well being (what may be likened to a virtual return to Eden, to the life that existed in the land of Eden, in days of old). Consistent with the apparent sense of the sentence,”Eikev” then is most commonly translated as “because” or “if only.” Other translations of “Eikev” include an emphasis on the Brit (the covenantal aspect of the law), and its attendant obligations, in order for it to be fulfilled. Hence “Eikev” is translated as “in exchange for” or “on account of.”

The mystery of “Eikev,” however, is that its literal translation is “heel.” And the puzzle that has intrigued the biblical commentaries, is why the word “heel” should be used in this context, and with such prominence. What special message lies within the use of “Eikev” in the context of the Parsha? The most familiar explanation is that of Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040 – 1105). Rashi teaches that “Eikev” stresses obedience to those Mitzvot, (those commandments) which a person is inclined to treat lightly. “Even if the lighter commands which a person usually treads on with his heels, which a personal usually treats lightly, you will listen to and obey, THEN G-d will keep His part of the Covenant and deal kindly with you.”

 

The frame of reference here seems to be those Mitzvot which usually don’t get the coverage they deserve because they are viewed as less important, or less pressing in the eyes of the people.

 

In order to better understand Rashi’s interpretation, Rabbi Yosil Rosenweig explains: I’d like to refer to the comments of the great leader of the Orthodox Jewish community in the 19th century Germany, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Zt”l (the righteous should be remembered as a blessing). Rabbi Hirsch explains Rashi’s interpretation in an interesting way: The message of “Eikev” is that we must treat commandments, great or small, with equal care and concern, in the sense that we should give no thought to whether our reward for obedience will be great or small. Rabbi Hirsch elaborates by saying “from time immemorial such arbitrary differentiations between laws that are supposedly ‘more important.’ and those presumed ‘less important,’ particularly between the commandments pertaining to the relationship between man and God and those pertaining to the relationship between man and his fellow man, those distinctions have had disastrous consequences for us.” The end of our first era of political independence – the destruction of our first Temple – is ascribed particularly to our neglect of those Mitzvot that deal without relationship with God. And the collapse of our second period of statehood is attributed to our neglect of the commandments that govern the area of human relationships. Hence, Rabbi Hirsch derives from the experience of our past an important insight into “Eikev”. We can expect future happiness only if we will accept God’s Law as a WHOLE, and strive towards its observance in its entirety, without any distinctions. Only as an all-encompassing, complete entity will the Law of God have its intended effect. I might still extend this one step further. In addition to Rabbi Hirsch’s message,”Eikev’s” message to man might also be that we are not to take anything for granted. Nothing should be viewed lightly. Nothing should be trampled on: “And it shall ‘Eikev’ come to pass, because you harken to these ordinances (as a result of your hearing) and observe and keep them, that God will keep his covenant with you.” In other words, if you hear the music in the rustle of the trees, if you do not ignore the simple beauty in everyday life, THEN you will find true fulfillment.

 

In the realm of Mitzvot (observance), as well as in our outlook on life, nothing can be seen as insignificant. And God exhorts us to pay attention to the ordinary, the regular and the commonplace. Living a life in the fast lane (as many of us lead today), it is so easy to run over and trample on simple beauty and everyday blessing. The Torah, then, in our parsha today, warns us against taking too great a leap in our quest for beauty and bounty. For in the midst of our search and climb, we often miss the first step

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Vaetchanan 5779

Parshat Vaetchanan 5779

 

In this week’s parshah, Moses continues his discourse to the Children of Israel. Moses, in chapter 4, renews his warning of idolatry to the people and their threat of exile, with, however, a promise of grace upon repentance. Moses, when discussing the future exile, says the following: “And the Lord shall scatter you among the peoples, and ye shall be left few in number among the nations, whither the Lord shall lead you away. And there ye shall serve gods, the work of men’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell”
(Deut. 4:27-28). The question is asked if the statement with the idols is a continuation of the previous clauses outlining the retribution lying in store for a rebellious Israel, or is it merely a further description of the sins they might commit? Here are the views of two commentators: a) Abravanel – As a result of their terrible sufferings, many Jews (so Holy Writ foretells) will be brought to forced conversion, worshipping idols but knowing full well that they are made of wood and stone. Their idolatry will be committed just to escape death…It is not mentioned here as a part of their sin but as the punishment for their misdeeds. This would constitute the climax of their sufferings – to be inwardly aware of the true faith and have to pay lip service to idols… b) Biur – This passage continues to outline the retribution that would overtake them. In my opinion, there is no greater punishment than this – for the soul to be caught in the toils of sin, till it cannot escape…as a result of the force of evil habit. There is no cure for such a soul till it makes every exertion to sunder the bonds of habit.

 

Nechama Leibowitz questions what the difference is between the above explanations. She explains: Both
commentators maintain that the passage describes the punishment that would overtake the Jewish people – being forced, against their better judgment, to worship idols – poetic justice for worshipping idols of their own free will, in their own land. But Abravanel interprets the passage in terms of his own age, when his
co-religionists were suffering under the terror of the inquisition, being forced to solemnly renounce their faith or be burnt at the stake. He saw them worshipping idols not because they believed in them, but only ‘to escape death.’ The 18th century author of the Biur saw the fatal attractions of Western secularism and ‘enlightenment’ as the greatest danger, threatening the integrity of the Jewish people in his own day. Emancipation beckoned the Jewish youth of his day, promising an entry ticket into European culture, in return for renunciation of their own traditional observances and faith. Each age has its own idolatry and suffering. Only one solution remained and this is outlined in the next verse: “But from thence ye will seek the Lord thy God; and thou shalt find him, if thou search after Him with all thy heart and with all they soul” (4:29). Abravanel detected in the Torah a
message of comfort to his sorely tried co-religionists. Even the Jew forcibly estranged from his faith was not lost, if he still remained true in his heart. Literalists will interpret “from thence” to allude to the places of Jewish
dispersion from whence the exiles would come to seek the true God. But Abravanel sees in it a reference to the tragic situation of the Marrano, the forced convert and evokes the ancient Rabbinic principle of the ‘The All
Merciful requires the heart.” The phrase: “if thou search after Him with all thy heart…” which is usually taken to refer to a maximum demand, calling on the whole of man to serve God, is taken, instead, to mean a minimum demand. Leibowitz explains that even if the Jew is reduced to the state of being only able to serve God inwardly, he would still find God. Does this do violence to the text? It is certainly not its plain meaning, but such
interpretation is legitimate and even obligatory. Each generation must view the Torah as personally addressed to it and directly applicable to the contemporary situation. Indeed, each individual must read and understand the sacred text in accordance with their own powers.

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Devarim 5779

Parshat Devarim 5779

This Shabbat we begin the reading of the last of the Five Books of Torah – the book of Devarim. In this book, Moses is the speaker as indicated by the fact that it states Hashem spoke to me” (1:42, 2:9, 3:2). Whereas in the rest of the Torah discourses begin by stating “Hashem spoke to Moses”. According to Nachmanides, the book of Devarim may be divided into three main sections: 1) 1:1-3:29. This section contains the words of reproof to the people. He discusses the experience of the children of Israel – the first generation – those who left Egypt and how they stood on the threshold of the Promised Land only to sin and defer their entry for thirty eight years. This section also witnesses Moses addressing the second generation; those who were permitted to enter the land of Canaan. 2) 4:1-26:15. This division contains the main subject matter of the book – a recapitulation and elaboration of the statutes and ordinances. 3) 26:16-end of the book. This section concludes the book with blessings, curses, and a song.

 

The Torah reading begins by stating: “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel” (1:1). The word ‘these’ or in Hebrew ‘eileh’ is restrictive, especially in regard to what has been written previously. The Or Hachayyim explains the seeing Moses recorded in this book only words which he had spoken on his own initiative, the Torah wishes to emphasize that only the admonition recorded in this book were spoken by Moses on his own initiative. We are told in Megillah 31 that Moses personally composed the curses recorded in this book, and that even legislation which Moses repeated in this book he had not been commanded to repeat, but did so on his own volition. The Torah was concerned that we might conclude that just as Moses had felt free to say things of his own volition in this book, he might have done so in the previous four books. This is why the book commences with the “Eileh devarim”, “ONLY these are the words Moses spoke of his own volition, none other.”

 

Moses addresses the judges of the people and reviews the laws of how to deal justly and rightly with the people that come before them. In our parshah, we have directives of how judges are to judge, and later on in Devarim, we have more instructions. It states later on in Devarim: Thou shalt not pervert judgement; thou shalt not respect persons” (Devarim 16:19). Similarly, in Leviticus 19:15 it states: “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgement; thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor favor the person of the mighty, but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor.” Nechama Leibowitz , in her introduction to the book of Deuteronomy comments that our Sages have taught us not to regard any text in the Torah as merely repetitive, and they elicit for us the separate and exclusive messages of each word and phrase. She examines the implications of the repeated references to favoring the “poor” and “mighty”. The word “poor” does not only mean the destitute in worldly goods. Here is the interpretation of our sages on the text in Exodus 23: If a disreputable and a decent person stand before you in judgement do not say that since he is a disreputable, I shall view his cause unfavorably , but “thou shalt not pervert the judgement of thy poor” – he who is poor in good works (mitzvot). The judge, Leibowitz explains, has to limit his consideration to the parties standing before him in court and take no account of a person’s past, but weigh up the matter objectively on the basis of the facts presented to him. We find a similar duplication in the case of the admonition not to favor the poor man. In Exodus, we are bidden not to favor the poor man in his cause; in Leviticus not to respect the person of the poor nor favor the person of the mighty. Malbim, who specializes in clarifying the subtle differences in apparently synonymous expressions in the Torah directed his expertise to explaining our text: He says that the phrase ‘nesi’at panim’ (“lifting up the face” translated in our text by “respect the person”) implies overlooking some transgression or unsavory matter. The word “favor” comes from a Hebrew root meaning external beauty (hadar) referring to whatever is attractive in man’s eyes. It is the way of the world to make allowances for poverty and to pay respect to external appearances. The Torah therefore forewarned us against both these pitfalls. But it could be argued that though forbidden to make allowances for the poor in the question of a lawsuit, it is permissible to pay him honor and give him respect, so that his opponent should forego some of his claim. For this reason, the Torah states that it is forbidden, too, to favor i.e. to honor the poor in his cause.

 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim