In the middle of this week’s Torah reading, the Torah seems to make a detour into the backwaters of Canaanite political history. For an entire chapter of 25 verses the Torah describes a war between the four kings and the five kings. Ostensibly, these events have little to do with the story of Avraham and the genesis of the Jewish People.
However, in the book “A Historical Backwater” by Rabbi Eliezer Breitowitz (in the name of the Maharal of Prague as heard from Rabbi C.Z Senter), the four kings and the five kings represent two inimical world-views. The four kings represent a world-view where everything in creation is subsumed under the ‘forces of nature.’ This view holds that there is nothing else in this world except this world. Four always denotes ‘this-worldliness’. There are four points of the compass. We speak of the ‘four winds’. The world is composed of four ‘elements’: earth, wind, fire, and water. The letter dalet which has the numerical value of four consists of two lines at right angles to each other, suggesting the four points of the compass. You can look a this world as being no more than what can be contained within this world — within the four directions, the four winds, and the four elements. Or you can look deeper and higher and see that this world is focused on an Existence beyond this world. This is the world-view represented by the five kings.
Five in Hebrew is represented by the letter heh. If you look at the letter heh you will see that it is composed of the letter dalet (the letter which stands for four and all it signifies) plus the letter yud. Yud is a unique letter. It is the only letter that doesn’t touch the line on which you write. It is no more than the smallest of dots floating above the line. The letter heh is a pictogram of this world focused and revolving around that which is above this world — the dalet (the “four” of this world) with the yud at its axis.
Avraham fought on behalf of the five kings against the four kings. Avraham was the first person to look at this world and see that there was an Existence beyond that which is contained in this world. If there was a ‘manor’, there had to be a ‘Lord of the manor.’ After Avram fought the war against the four kings, G-d added a letter to his name. Not surprisingly, that letter was the letter heh. For Avraham represents all that the heh represents, that this world revolves around a Higher Existence. It was also after the war against the four kings that G-d made a covenant with Avraham, the covenant of Brit Mila. Brit Mila represents the sublimation of the physical to the metaphysical. It signifies that the human body is only complete when we dedicate it to its Maker.
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At the outset of the parshah, the Torah tells us the following statement: “Noah fathered three sons” (Genesis 6:10). Why did the Torah have to state that Noah had three sons? We were already told this information in 5:32! The mention of ‘three’ sons seems quite superfluous in view of the fact that the Torah tells us the names of each of the three sons. And why did Noach’s name have to be repeated since it is evident that he is the subject of the verse? And finally, the word ‘banim’ or sons seems strange. All the Torah had to write was “Noach fathered Shem, Cham, and Japheth.” Why did the Torah add the word ‘et’ – and, in front of each of the names?
The Or Hachayyim explains as follows: The Torah considered Noah’s good deeds as his principal descendants, and this was on account that Noah had found favor in the eyes of God. This is why our verse is necessary. Had the Torah failed to repeat the information contained in 5:32, we would not have considered his three sons as a positive accomplishment on Noach’s part. The Torah does not report anything positive or negative about these sons. We would have thought these three sons as unfit either on account of their own poor characters or because Noah had not fathered them in order to fulfill God’s commandment. The Torah therefore lists the birth of these three sons immediately after the lists of Noah’s good deeds so as to include them in that list.
The Midrash relates that Noach foresaw that his sons would anger God, and as a result he decided there was no point siring children during the first five hundred years of his life. At that point, God commanded Noah to marry and to have children. He had children in order to keep alive the human species. Another reason for Noah’s tardiness in marrying and having children according to several midrashim, is that God commanded Noah to build the ark when he was 480 years old. The deluge would not occur for another 120 years. In those days, children were not held accountable for their sins until they were one hundred years old. Noah wanted to insure that when the deluge came his children deserved to be saved because they had not reached the age when God held them responsible for their deeds. Hence, he waited until he was 500 years old before he sired any children. Accordingly, Noah’s oldest child would be just under 100 years old at the beginning of the deluge.
The reason why Noah’s name is mentioned once more is a) to demonstrate again that he brought a new-found rest or satisfaction to life on earth (menuchah), and b) to remind us that were it not for their father, these sons would not have been saved. Surely, there were many youngsters below the age of one hundred at the time the deluge started and none of those were spared.
The three times ‘et’ – and – which appeared at first glance superfluous; refer to the wives of Noah’s sons who were also saved only on account of Noah. If the sons of Noah per se did not warrant saving, why did God consider it necessary to repeat the report of the three sons that were born to Noah prior to the deluge? Rabbi Chayyim ben Attar cites Sanhedrin 69 where the Talmud proves that the list of Noah’s sons presented by the Torah is not according to their seniority but is based on the sons’ relative intelligence. Shem is mentioned first as he was the most intelligent. If this were not so, he could not have been described as one hundred years old when he sired Arpachshad two years after the deluge (11:10). If the Torah had not mentioned the extra word ‘banim’ – or ‘sons’, we would have concluded that the list of their names was according to the order of their births.
At the end of the parshah, we read about our forefather Abraham’s father, Terach. The Torah states: “Terach took his son Abram” (11:31). Although Terach set out in the direction of Canaan, his motivation was only to get away from Ur Kasdim. He who goes to the Land of Israel only to get away from another place, does not usually succeed in his goal. He who moves to Israel for reasons of spiritual values to be found there is more likely to succeed. The last 65 years of Terach’s life he remained spiritually stationary. Once he had reached Charan, he was content to stay there. When Abraham’s journey to Canaan is reported, it says only where he aimed for (‘vayatzu lalechet artzah kenaan’) – they departed in order to head for the land of Canaan. The contrast in the method in which the Torah reports the two journeys is to draw our attention to the importance of the objective governing one’s quest.
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Reading the story of the dispersion and the Tower of Babel at the beginning of chapter 11, it is hard to see where the people went wrong. In the words of Targum Yonatan, they spoke one language, one kind of speech and had the same mindset. Their “achdut” (communal unity) should be a model for all! The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109a) has a few suggestions as to what the “dor hapalaga” had in mind when building their tower. The first suggestion, that they were trying to make a hole in the sky to create a constant flow of water, is quickly rejected. But then the Talmud explains that there were three groups. The first wanted to live in the heavens, the second wanted to worship idols on top of the tower and the third wanted to wage war. The latter group may have wanted to use their position as a command center from which they could fight off attackers, or, according to a different opinion, as a means to reach heaven to fight G-d. None of these explanations are evident from the text. The only indication the text gives us is that they were looking for collective glory, to avoid becoming dispersed (11:4).
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, of the Tanach Study Center (tanach.org), uses his “Migdal Bavel vort” as a primary base for teaching about Judaism’s mission in the world. They wanted to “make a name for ourselves,” (11:4) while Abraham went out of his way to “call in the name of G-d.” (12:8, 13:4. 21:33) They placed themselves at the center of their universe, while Abraham put G-d at the center of his universe.
Rabbi Avi Billet comments:” It is possible that they were building a tower to be prepared in case of a future flood. It is possible that they wanted to make a one building city in which everyone would live together. It is possible that they wanted to create a standard under which everyone would live, and a society in which everyone would be doing the exact same thing. To their credit, they all participated in the effort. To their credit, they seemed to share the same ideals. To their credit, they knew that when you want to live a certain lifestyle, you need to work hard to achieve that goal. And yet they were worthy of punishment, a punishment in which their unified language changed and they could no longer understand each other. Rabbeinu Bachya says their unity caused G-d to merely disperse them instead of destroy them as He destroyed the generation of the flood. But, he says, they sinned with their speech, in the sentiments they expressed about building a city and making themselves a name, and so they were punished with their speech. Perhaps their greatest sin was not in their admirable unity, but in their insistence that everyone be the same today. We live in a world of many colors and stripes, in which there is room for differences of opinion. People are free to choose how they want to live their lives, and must be flexible in “allowing” others to be free to make their own choices. We have to remember that it is never about us. When we make it about “us” and “our way of life” instead of “for G-d and the Torah” (and some people have a difficulty discerning between the two), we are as guilty as the generation of the dispersion, who were spread across the globe because of their misguided principles.”
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When reading the opening passage of this parshah, one may become aware that it is very similar to a specific passage in Isaiah 1:2. The Sifri contrasts the use of the word ‘ha-zanah’ by Moses in connection with the word ‘aretz’ – earth -, as reflecting Moses’ closeness to heaven. Isaiah, on the other hand, uses ‘shemiyah’ for hearing in connection with heaven, and ‘ha-azanah’ in connection with earth. This is supposed to reflect Isaiah’s relative closeness to earth.
There are, however, according to Torat Moshe, other differences between Moses and Isaiah, which deserve our attention. Isaiah uses the term ‘dabber’ for both heaven and earth, whereas Moses employs the term ‘dabber’ only when he addresses heaven, whereas he uses the verb ‘amar’. Also, when referring to the heavens, Moses invites ‘ha-azinu’ – listen first, whereas he presumes that the earth will listen only after his speech has already been made (‘imrey phi’), or at least begun. Moses illustrates that a tzaddik can command heavenly beings, seeing that the latter do not enjoy freedom of choice. Even a tzaddik, however, cannot COMMAND a fellow human being, unless that human being is agreeable. A tzaddik even can use harsh language, i.e. ‘dibbur’ when addressing heavenly creatures. When he addresses earthly creatures – such as human beings – he cannot dictate, and there is hence the word ‘amirah’ – which is to say but in a soft language and tone. All of the above, Torat Moshe explains, was applicable to a person of the caliber of Moses. Isaiah, a lesser mortal Although a major prophet did not presume to address heavenly beings in so peremptory a matter. He would communicate only the word of God, not his own. Hence – ‘ki Hashem dibber’ in Isaiah 1:2, where he commanded heaven and earth only to listen to the word of God. If the Midrash Hagadol relates that heaven and earth arrested their orbiting when addressed by Moses, just as they had stopped orbiting at the time of the revelation at Mount Sinai, the meaning may be this: At Mount Sinai, the giving of the 10 commandments and the immediate direct guidance of God was so evident, that anything based merely on natural law, such as the motion of galaxies, ceased. Also, this served as a warning to Israel that should they fail to accept the Torah, the motion of the galaxies would become meaningless since God would destroy nature; having creating it only for the sake of the Jewish people accepting his covenant. When Moses calls on heaven and earth as witnesses to his warning to the Jewish people to remain loyal to their God and their Torah, he reenacts the events of the time of the revelation at Sinai in order to bring home his point. An additional reason for calling up the heavens and the earth as witnesses is that according to Torah law, the witnesses must be the first to execute any punishment decreed by the Court, based on their testimony (Deut. 17:7). It will be heaven and earth, which by withholding their bounty will execute judgment on the Jewish people, should they fail to heed Moses’ warnings.
If we compare this weeks parsha, Haazinu, to parashat Netzavim (which we read before Rosh Hashanah), it seems to be very similar upon first glance. It begins with the idea of God taking Israel under His wings, and Israel repaying this kindness by worshipping idols. This -of course- is followed by God punishing Israel for forsaking Him. Both parshas end with an instruction to do good deeds, in order to ensure only reward from God. The obvious question which arises is why is Haazinu different? What does it add to Netzavim? Also, how is it special in relation to all the different types of tochacha -rebuke- we have already seen in Deuteronomy?
Just by looking at the verses, it is obvious that there is a difference in the poetic style of the parsha. It is a shira, a song, which according to the Netziv, is the only part of the Torah which was written before it was taught. But the Ramban finds a deeper meaning to the verses, explaining the parsha as both an account of Israel’s history, and a prophecy of their future. He explains the following verse: “and Moses came and spoke all the words of this song…” – to include everything that will happen to Israel in the future. Ramban demonstrates how each section of the shira refers to a different part of Israel’s history. It starts with God taking care of us in the desert, conquering the other nations. Israel then forgot how it was who had helped them, and God proceeded to turn to avoda zara -idol worship.
Ramban discusses certain things which were predicted to happen in the future – i.e.: that God would disperse Israel to the four corners of the earth. He points out that the end of the shira states that God will take revenge on their enemies. He stresses that the accuracy of certain predictions is proof that this promise of revenge (or rather a promise of final redemption- which is how he understands revenge) will also one day be fulfilled.
Nachshoni compares this logic to that of Rabbi Akiva, who looked upon the remnants of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, and still was able to rejoice because he understood that just as the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple had come true, so too would the prophecy of the geulah- redemption.
These commentators clearly see Haazinu as representative of something more than a harsh rebuke. They realize that Haazinu is a story of Israel’s history and future. They see in it the ultimate comfort of the promise of redemption.
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In Parshat Vayelech, Moses tells the Israelites that although he won’t be entering Israel with them, God will be with them and will triumph as long as they keep the covenant. Moses tells the people “I am no longer able to go out and come in…” (Deuteronomy 31:2). What this refers to is the fact that he will not lead them into the Promised Land and into war. The Or Hachayyim explains that Moses
wanted to explain to the people why he was convinced that he would die on that day. It is not in the nature of the religious to let onto their peers that they have some superior perceptions; this would be arrogant. This is why Moses cited two different reasons: 1) I am unable to lead you in war, i.e. I no longer have God’s permission to do so. This permission has now been given to Joshua. 2) God has told me: “you will not cross this river Jordan.” From these two indicators it was clear to Moses that he had outlived his usefulness and was about to die. The sequence of the words “and the Lord had said to me, etc…” which follow so closely on Moses’ statement: “ I
cannot go out, etc,” indicate his loyalty as a servant of the Creator. He suggested by this sequence that if, per chance, this same God would now give him instructions to cross the Jordan, he, Moses, would gird himself and be ready to lead the Israelites across though he did not feel capable of doing so at the moment. The only reason he did not insist on doing so was that God had told him not to.
Moses calls Joshua to command him to settle the people in the land. The Alshekh states that Joshua’s function is to be viewed NOT as THE CONQUEROR. The
Torah emphasizes that you will come with the people, instead of you will bring the people, as stated later in verse 23. Had Moses said to Joshua publicly in v.7, what he said to him privately in v.23, Joshua’s function could have been misunderstood. Since the statement in v.23 however, was not made ‘le’eynei bnai israel’ – in the presence of the Jewish people, no misunderstanding was likely. Joshua’s courage was needed, since, de facto, he was to be the leader. As long as the people view Joshua as one of them, they will be satisfied that God is doing the fighting for them. It states “The Lord will not let you weaken” (Deuteronomy 31:8). Joshua need not fear or be faint-hearted, because God will walk ahead of the nation.
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The parsha always shows us the way to realize the challenges of the moment, and this week’s parsha, Nitzavim is no exception. We learn how to prepare for the awesome days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The stirring opening words, “Atem Nitzavim HaYom” – “You are standing today” (Deuteronomy 29:9) – speaks volumes. In gematria – numerology – those words also mean “La’amod L’slichos” to stand in front of God and seek forgiveness. During the entire year we “run” from place to place, from activity to activity, and some of us run from relationship to relationship. But now, God’s Day of Judgment is upon us and we are commanded to stand still, probe our souls, examine our hearts, and give an accounting of our lives. The passage goes on to enumerate the various strata of the population: the leaders, the elders, the officers, the men, the women, the children, the proselytes, the hewer of wood, the drawer of water – and the question that arises is that since the Torah already mentioned that all of us are standing before God, what is the purpose of this enumeration which at first glance appears to be redundant?
Rabbi Osher Jungreis explains:The answer given is once again a prescription for this High Holiday season. We are all responsible one for the other. Our destiny is intertwined, so we must pray, not only for ourselves, but for K’lal Yisroel – all our people. This is especially relevant today when our brethren in Israel are in such a desperate state. We must bear in mind that when we study Torah and observe mitzvot, our entire nation is elevated and enriched. But tragically, the converse is also true; our abandonment of Torah and lack of observance diminishes the entire nation. There is a posuk – passage, in this week’s parsha that we repeat during the High Holiday services which truly teaches us our responsibilities: “The hidden matters are for God, but the revealed are for us” (Deut. 28:28), meaning that that which a person does privately and of which others have no knowledge, for that we cannot be held accountable – but that which is public and known, and is countenanced – for that we are held liable, and our silence testifies against us. We have a responsibility to remind one another of our G-d given destiny, of our Jewish heritage. So let’s approach Rosh Hashana with commitment to all our people Let us try to bring our brethren closer to Hashem. Let us unite in love and genuine concern, and in that merit, the Almighty will surely grant us a good, blessed New Year.
In his commentary Shem MiShmuel, the Chassidic commentator Rav Samuel Bornstein asks the question: What need is there to make a covenant before they entered the land; wasn’t the covenant made with them at Horeb (Sinai) enough? Said the Rabbi of Liadi (Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad), the author of the Tanya: the making of a covenant between two lovers is not for the present, at a time when their affection and love is strong. But there will be need for a covenant in the future, when over the passage of time, their love will be weakened. Therefore, they make a covenant that the affection might continue even once the causes that originally made them fall in love have ceased. During the lifetime of Moses, miracles were routine and whatever happened was supernatural. But there was anxiety, lest, when they entered the land and matters like plowing, planting, and harvesting had to happen according to natural laws, that their love for God might weaken. For this reason, a covenant was made, so that the love might never falter, enduring forever like a tent peg stuck deep in the earth.
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