VeZos HaBeracha 5780

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The rejected gift[1]

ויאמר יקוק מסיני בא וזרח משעיר למו הופיע מהר פארן וגו’‏
He said: “Hashem came from Sinai, shined forth from [Mount] Seir; He appeared from Mount Paran…”[2]

In the last parsha in the Torah, Moshe gave each of the tribes a final blessing. Before these blessings, he describes the Torah itself and how the Jews accepted it. It says that Hashem “came” from Mount Sinai, having “shined forth” from Mount Seir and “appearing” from Mount Paran. We’ve all heard of Mount Sinai. That is where the Torah was given to the Jews, who gladly accepted it. What is Mount Seir and Mount Paran referring to? Mount Seir is usually associated with the descendants of Eisav[3], and Mount Paran is usually associated with the descendants Yishmael[4]. Picking up on this, the Midrash explains[5] the verse to be describing a historical backdrop to the accepting of the Torah.

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HaAzinu 5780

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The gift of forgetting[1]

צור ילדך תשי ותשכח קל מחללך
You forgot the Rock that formed you; you forgot the G-d that brought you forth[2]

This week’s parsha contains Moshe’s prophetic goodbye song to the Jewish people. It describes scenes from their past, as well as hints to their future. In a poetic sense, each verse is very terse, and contains many layers of depth and meaning. The commentaries offer many different approaches to each word and phrase. One verse focuses on the fact that the Jewish people forget their G-d. This isn’t just a fact, explaining how the Jewish people could have ever sinned. It’s in fact a very deep rebuke, which can be brought out very eloquently in a parable.

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Vayeilech 5780

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Childish matters[1]

הקהל את-העם ואנשים והנשים והטף וגרך אשר בשעריך למען ישמעו ולמען ילמדו ויראו את-יקוק אלקיכם ושמרו את-כל-דברי הורה הזאת: ובניהם אשר לא-ידעו ישמעו ולמדו ליראה את-יקוק אלקיכם כל-הימים אשר אתה חיים על-האדמה וגו’‏
Gather the nation, the men, the women, the taf, and the stranger in your gates. [This is] in order that you listen and in order that you learn and fear Hashem your G-d, and that you observe all the words of this Torah. And your children that don’t understand, they will hear and learn to fear Hashem your G-d, all the days that you are alive on the earth…[2]

One of the last mitzvos described in the Torah is the mitzvah known as Hakhel[3]. On the Sukkos following the Shemittah year[4], all Jews are commanded to come to the Temple[5] and hear the King read from the book of Deuteronomy[6]. The Torah says that this is so the people will learn to fear Hashem, and follow His commandments. The Torah stresses that all Jews are meant to be there, men, women, and children. The second verse clearly mentions children, and says they’re of an age where they don’t understand. The first verse, after mentioning men and women, says the “taf” are also meant to come. Who is this referring to?

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Nitzavim 5779

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Shared responsibility[1]

הנסתרת ליקוק אלקינו והנגלות ל̇נ̇ו̇ ו̇ל̇ב̇נ̇י̇נ̇ו̇ ע̇ד-עולם לעשות את-כל-דברי התורה הזאת
The hidden [deeds] are for Hashem our G-d, and the revealed [deeds] are for us, our children, forever, to fulfill all the words of this Torah[2]

This week’s parsha contains one of Moshe’s last major speeches to the Jewish people. He starts by pointing out that the entire people were present during this speech[3]. The leaders, the commoners, the women, the children, the converts. No one was missing. Moshe was bringing everyone into a covenant with G-d, for all generations. Part of this covenant involved a shared responsibility for one another. If some people sin, all could be punished. We should all ensure that our fellow is on their best behavior, and not turn a blind eye.

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Ki Savo 5779

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The unique G-d; the unique nation[1]

את-יקוק האמרת היום להיות לך לאלקים וגו’ ויקוק האמירך היום להיות לו לעם סגלה וגו’‏
Today you have he’emarta Hashem to be for you a G-d…Today Hashem he’emircha you to be for Him a cherished[2] nation[3]

This week’s parsha uses two unusual words to describe the relationship between Hashem and His nation, the Jewish people. These words seemingly don’t occur anywhere else in scripture[4]. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah expounded[5] these words as follows: Hashem said to the Jewish people: “You have made me one חטיבה in this world, as the verse says[6]: ‘שמע ישראל יקוק אלקינו יקוק אחד, Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One’. [Therefore], I will make for you one חטיבה in this world, as the verse says[7]: ‘ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ, Who is like Your nation, O Israel, one nation in the land’”. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah seemingly didn’t help us identify the meaning of he’emarta and he’emircha in this week’s parsha. He used the similarly uncommon word chativa to define them. What does this word mean?

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Eikev 5779

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The two types of yirah[1]

ועתה ישראל מה יקוק אלקיך שואל מעמך כי אם-ליראה את-יקוק אלקיך וגו’‏
And now Israel, what does Hashem your G-d ask from you, just to fear Hashem your G-d…[2]

This weeks parsha tells us the main thing that Hashem asks from us: to be ירא him. There are various ways to translate this word, usually “fear” or “awe”. We are commanded to have fear and awe of Hashem. However, there are two types of יראה. There’s יראת העונש, fear of punishment[3], and יראת הרוממות, awe of Hashem’s loftiness[4]. The former is easy to obtain, and the latter is considered a high level in the service of Hashem[5]. We can then ask, when the Torah tell us the main thing Hashem wants from us is to fear and have awe of Him, which יראה is this referring to? Fear of punishment, or awe of Hashem’s loftiness[6]?

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HaAzinu 5779

The retractable flame[1]

אם שנותי ברק חרבי ותאחז במפשט ידי וגו’‏
If I’ll whet My flashing[2] blade and My hand will grasp judgement…[3]

This week’s parsha contains Moshe’s parting song to the people. It contains prophetic insights into the Jewish people’s past, present, and future. Verses that seem merely poetic often convey deep concepts. One verse uses the word ברק to describe Hashem’s “blade”. Some2 explain it to connote “flashing”, but it literally means a bolt of lightning. Consequently, the Sages understand[4] the verse homiletically to be teaching us a unique aspect of Hashem’s power. Normally, when a person shoots an arrow, they are unable to retrieve it. Not so the Holy One, blessed is He. When He shoots an arrow, He is able to retrieve it. We see this because the verse describes His arrow as being a bolt of lightning, which is in His grasp. Besides the homiletical teaching, the verse also provides a resolution to a seeming contradiction apparent in one of the Sages’ opinions.

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Ki Savo 5778

Lively motivations[1]

לא-אכלתי באני ממנו ולא-בערתי ממנו בטמא ולא-נתתי ממנו למת וגו’‏
I did not eat of it during my intense mourning period, and I did not consume it in impurity, nor did I give of it to the deceased…[2]

The Torah obligates the separation and distribution of various types of tithes. Fruits and vegetables grown in the land of Israel are forbidden to be eaten until their various tithes are separated[3]. Some tithes are given to the Kohanim for consumption[4], some to the Leviim[5], and some to the poor[6]. One type of tithe is known as ma’aser sheni, the second tithe. It is for personal consumption, but only in Jerusalem[7]. Instead of transporting the heavy fruits to Jerusalem, a person can transfer the tithe status onto coins[8]. These coins are brought instead to Jerusalem, and used to purchase food and drink. These purchases are then consumed in Jerusalem. After[9] the third year of the seven-year agricultural cycle, everyone must remove all their remaining tithes which they have failed to donate or consume. There is subsequently a mitzvah to come to the Temple and perform vidui, confession[10]. The person proclaims that they have followed all the laws pertaining to tithes. They declare that they didn’t eat it at forbidden times. They state that neither they nor the food was impure when it was consumed. Finally, they say that they did not give of it to the deceased. What does this last confession mean?

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Ki Seitzei 5778

A mitzvah drags another mitzvah with it[1]

כי יקרא קן-צפור וגו’ והאם רבצת על-האפרחים או על-הביצים לא-תקח האם על-בנים: שלח תשלח את-האם ואת-הבנים תקח-לך למען ייטב לך והארכת ימים: כי תבנה בית חדש ועשית מעקה לגגך ולא-תשים דמים בביתך כי-יפל הנפל ממנו: לא-תזרע כרמך כלאים וגו’ לא-תחרש בשור-ובחמר יחדו: לא תלבש שעטנז צמר ופשתים יחדו‏
When you chance upon a bird’s nest…and the mother bird is crouched on the chicks or on the eggs, don’t take the mother bird [with]2 the children. [Rather][2], send away the mother bird, and take the children for yourself. This is so it will be good for you and it will lengthen your days. When you build a new house, make a fence for your roof. Don’t place blood in your house, since a person will fall from [the roof without one]. Don’t sow your vineyard with mixed crops…don’t plow [your field] with an ox and donkey together. Don’t wear sha’atnez, [which is] wool and linen together[3]

This week’s parsha contains within it more mitzvos than any other, totaling seventy-three. Sometimes it’s easy to understand why the Torah grouped certain mitzvos together, and other times not as much. There are a series of mitzvos that describe forbidden mixtures in this week’s parsha, and they are understandably grouped together. There is a prohibition on sowing mixed crops together in the same vineyard. There is a prohibition against doing field work with two different animals together. There is a prohibition for our garments to be made of a mixture of wool and linen. However, the mitzvos that precede these mixture-mitzvos seemingly have no connection to what follows them. First, the Torah describes how to interact with a mother bird and her children. If the passerby wants the chicks[4], they have to first send away the mother bird. Subsequently, the Torah commands building a fence on our roof when we get a new house. This will prevent any mishaps from occurring. Afterwards is the above-mentioned mixture-mitzvos. What can we learn from this confusing juxtaposition[5]?

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Shoftim 5778

Elul: the month of refuge[1]

ואשר לא צדה והאלקים אנה לידו ושמתי לך מקום אשר ינוס שמה
If he didn’t plan to kill [his victim], but G-d caused it to happen, then I will provide for you a place for you [the killer] to find refuge[2]

We have now begun the period leading up to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This period is the entire month of Elul. There are many allusions to Elul and its significance throughout Tanach. One famous example is the verse אני לדודי ודודי לי, I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me[3]. In Hebrew, the first letters spell the month of Elul. Another allusion is ומל יקוק אלקיך את לבבך ואת לבב זרעך, Hashem will remove the barrier in your heart and the heart of your offspring[4]. The first letters here as well spell Elul[5]. These allusions aren’t just cute discoveries. We can learn about different aspects of the month of Elul from the verses which allude to it. We see from the first allusion that during Elul there is a special relationship and closeness between us and Hashem. This comes from our desire to repent from our wrongdoings, and Hashem’s willingness to forgive us[6]. As well, during Elul any barriers between our innate desire to do good and our willingness to carry it out are weakened.

There’s an allusion to Elul from a topic that appears in this week’s parsha. The parsha discusses the dangers that face someone who accidentally killed another person[7]. The Torah is aware that the deceased’s relatives may take the law into their own hands, and murder the accidental killer. To protect this individual, the Torah mandates the establishment of six cities of refuge for them to flee. There, the deceased’s relatives can’t kill him. This mitzvah appears in different places throughout the Torah. In one instance[8], the Torah provides another allusion to the month of Elul. והאלקים אנה לידו ושמתי לך מקום אשר ינוס שמה. If G-d caused [the mishap] to happen, i.e. the killing was unintentional, then G-d provides a place for the killer to flee. The first letters of the words “caused it to happen”, and “I will provide for you”, spell Elul[9]. What can we learn about Elul from this seemingly random allusion?

The cities of refuge weren’t just average cities. It was where the Leviim lived. The entire city was full of scholars with outstanding character traits. One of the goals with sending the accidental killer to these cities was to also improve their behavior. Although the killing was an accident, there must be some reason this mishap happened to them[10]. Maybe this was a wakeup call to get them to become a better person. Perhaps they weren’t as careful as they could have been. There’s always room to improve. Being surrounded by these outstanding individuals was a guaranteed way to leave a lasting impression on them. However, this was only while the accidental killer remained in the city. If he left even momentarily, not only was he putting his life in danger, but he was weakening the influence others could have on them. This is why the Torah is stringent that they must stay in the city of refuge[11]. The exact same is with the month of Elul. It’s a month of refuge from all the things in our life which distract us from our purpose. It’s a chance to improve as individuals; to get a new lease on life. The lessons gained from Elul can be brought with us to the rest of the year. However, this is only accomplished by those who are fully in Elul. If someone is only haphazardly committed to improve, it’s like momentarily leaving the city of refuge. There won’t be lasting success.

However, this lesson is only learned from the second half of the allusion, which speaks about G-d giving us a city of refuge. The first half of the allusion describes that the killing was unintentional. It’s as if G-d caused it to happen. What does this teach us about Elul? One explanation is[12] that a person might think that this month is all a farce. Throughout the year a person naturally commits errors in judgement; they have slipups in their spirituality. Now, during this month of Elul, they’re going to be on their best behavior. Who are they fooling? This isn’t the real them…These are the thoughts that could go through someone’s mind. However, this allusion is teaching us that it’s the exact opposite: during this month, we are our real selves. The slipups throughout the year, weren’t really us. No Jew intrinsically wants to sin[13]. Looking back on our failures, we think: “How could I have done that? That wasn’t me”. This is just like the accidental killer of the Torah. His mishap is looked at as not his fault. It’s as if someone else caused it. We need to look at Elul as the opportunity to be our real selves. Hopefully then, we will have a better year than the previous.

Good Shabbos

 

[1] Based on a shiur given by Rabbi Reznick to parshas Shoftim in 5774

[2] Exodus 21:13, translation loosely based on The Living Torah ad. loc. For a different piece on this particular verse, see http://parshaponders.com/mishpatim-shekalim-5778

[3] Song of Songs 6:3. The last letters also have the numerical value of forty, corresponding to the forty days between the beginning of Elul and Yom Kippur

[4] Deuteronomy 30:6

[5] Mishnah Berurah 581:1. He presumably got this from the Abudraham Chapter 25 (Tefillas Rosh Hashanah), who quotes these allusions from the “Darshanim”. I only found earlier sources regarding the first allusion of אני לדודי ודודי לי, which are Rabbi Yehoshua ibn Shuaib at the end of parshas Shoftim, quoting a Midrash, and Derashos Maharach Ohr Zaruah § 32 (parshas Ha’azinu)

[6] Mishnah Berurah loc. cit. I saw this explanation in the Bach ad. loc. § 2, although it could come from an earlier source

[7] Deuteronomy 19:1-10

[8] Exodus loc. cit.

[9] Pri Etz Chaim Sha’ar Rosh Hashanah § 1, brought by the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:1. The latter also brings the previous two allusions, and provides a third one regarding sending gifts to friends (Esther 9:22).  He says the latter three allusions correspond to the three ways to annul a bad decree: (1) teshuvah / repentance (ומל יקוק), (2) tefillah / prayer (אני לדודי), and (3) tzedakah (gifts to friends). See the Unesaneh Sokef prayer in the Rosh Hashanah Machzor and Rosh Hashanah 16b

[10] See Rashi to Exodus loc. cit.

[11] Rabbi Reznick quoted this explanation of the cities of refuge from the Avnei Nezer

[12] Rabbi Reznick quoted this explanation from Rav Tzvi Mayer Zilberberg

[13] See Mishneh Torah Hilchos Gerushin 2:20