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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The first eleven verses of this parshah deal with the laws surrounding the first fruits and the acknowledgement of Divine Providence. It reminds the Israelites that God saved them and fed them in the desert, and they in turn have to be thankful, and donate the first fruits to God. With regard to what happened to the Israelites and the hands of the Egyptians, the Torah states
“And the Egyptians dealt ill with us and afflicted us” (Deuteronomy 26:6). The Or Hachayim says that what this verse describes is the utter inability of the victim (Israelites) to resist their attacker (Egyptians) anymore. Figuratively speaking, he sees this as an attack of the evil inclination on people. He relates an interesting story involving this point in Kiddushim 81, involving Rabbi Amram, who was well known as Rabbi Amram the Pious. Some female prisoners from the Rabbi’s town of Nephardes had been rescued from their captors by men of his town, and entrusted their care to Rabbi Amram. The Rabbi provided accommodations for them in second floor of his house, and removed the staircase leading to the upper floor as a precaution to protect the chastity of these girls or women. It happened that when of the girls passed the space near where the ladder used to stand, Rabbi Amram experienced a sudden shaft of light which he considered as due to the physical beauty of that girl. This caused the evil spirit within him to be aroused to the point where he tried to put the ladder back in place. Although the ladder was far too heavy for one man to carry, his urge was so strong that he managed it. At the last moment before completing the climbing of the ladder, he was able to shout for help exclaiming that there was a fire in the house, which needed to be extinguished. Naturally, the townspeople, including the local scholars, came to help, and when they became aware of the true state of affairs, they chided Rabbi Amram for embarrassing them in such a way. Rabbi Amram retorted that it was better both for them and himself to be embarrassed before their peers on earth rather than be embarrassed after his departure from earth in the celestial regions in front of all the righteous keeping company with God.
The Rabbi implored the evil urge to leave him, whereupon the latter departed in a column of fire. Thereupon Rabbi Amram said to the evil urge: “although you are a column of fire, and I am only flesh and blood, I am superior to you”.
At the conclusion of the parshah, we read what the tribulations of exile will be. It states: “And the Lord shall scatter thee among the people…thou shall serve other gods which thou has not known, thou nor their fathers, even wood and stone” (Deuteronomy 28:64). Abarbanel explains that this fate of the Jews is part of the retribution of the Jews for the sins- the “tochechah”. They would be forced to serve idols, not out of conviction, but against their will, knowing it to be false and foolish. This Nechama Leibowitz adds, is a terrible fate, and punishment for having worshipped idols of their own free will in their ancestral homeland. Issac Arama, a contemporary of Abarbanel (who also lived during the time of the Spanish expulsion) finds an illusion in the Torah to his troubling times. We may possibly find an allusion in this verse to the time when thousands of Jews would change their religion as a result of suffering and persecution .Regarding this the Torah states “and among these nations, thou shalt have no repose”. For although they would assimilate among the nations, they would not find relief, since the nations would still constantly revile and denounce them as relapsed converts. We have seen this in our day (i.e. Middle ages) when a part have perished in the flames of the Inquisition, a part has fled, and yet others continue to live in fear of their lives. Indeed, as is foretold in our Scriptures, we have no rest among the nations, and our lives stand in doubt before us. We have not been so fortunate as the ten tribes who, when they were exiled, were not scattered, but were subject to a foreign yoke, as one people in Assyria and Babylon
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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.
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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.”
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