Devarim 5778

The necessity of unity[1]

לא תוסיפו הביא מנחת-שוא קטרת תועבה היא לי וגו’‏
sDo not continue to bring worthless Mincha offerings; incense offerings are abominable to me…[2]

Parshas Devarim always occurs on Shabbos Chazon, the shabbos before Tisha B’Av[3]. This shabbos got its title from the first word of its haftarah: the chazon, or vision, of Yeshayahu (Isaiah). The theme of this time of year is reflecting on the twice destroyed Temple and its subsequent exiles, as well as their underlying causes. Yeshayahu prophesied during the period leading up to the first exile. His mission was to try to inspire the people to change their ways. But alas, the people didn’t listen. They went about their daily routine, while committing heinous crimes on the side. Chazal say[4] that the first exile was due to idol worship, murder, and illicit relations. Despite these horrific sins, the Jews continued to bring Temple offerings. While they were in fact fulfilling a mitzvah by bringing them, the Temple service is meant to bring the people close to Hashem. By committing these horrible crimes, considered the worst possible[5], they in fact distanced themselves from their Creator. As such, this week’s haftarah describes Yeshayahu’s rebuke of the people. Their G-d was no longer interested in their offerings. Their hypocrisy had made their offerings despised. But why did Yeshayahu specifically single out the Mincha and incense offerings, as opposed to any other part of the Temple service?

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VeZos HaBeracha 5778

Sometimes the basis of the Torah comes through its annulment[1]

ולא-קם נביא עוד בישראל כמשה אשר ידעו יקוק פנים אל פנים: לכל-האותות והמופתים אשר שלחו יקוק לעשות בארץ מצרים לפרעה ולכל-עבדיו וכל-ארצו: ולכל היד החזקה ולכל המורא הגדול אשר עשה משה לעיני כל ישראל
No prophet arose in Israel like Moshe, who knew Hashem face to face. [As shown by] all the signs and wonders that Hashem sent him to perform in Egypt to Pharaoh, all of his servants, and his entire land, [and all] the mighty hand, as well as all the great astonishments that Moshe performed before the eyes of all of Israel[2]

The conclusion of the Torah describes the uniqueness of the prophecy of Moshe, as well as all the amazing feats that he performed in his life. The last words, לעיני כל ישראל, before the eyes of all of Israel, are understood by Chazal[3] to be hinting to the breaking of the two tablets after the sin of the Golden Calf[4]. Upon witnessing the Jews worship the idol they had made, Moshe took the tablets which contained the Ten Commandments, which he had received directly from Hashem, and smashed them on the ground. The Jews witnessed this dramatic reaction of their leader, and immediately halted their idol worship. One would have expected the Torah to end on a more positive note[5]. The incident of the Golden Calf was one of the lowest points in the Jews’ history in the wilderness. Why did the Torah end with a hint to the breaking of the tablets?

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Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5777

The choice of a lifetime[1]

ועתה כתבו לכם את השירה הזאת ולמדה את-בני-ישראל שימה בפיהם למען תהיה-לי השירה הזאת לעד בבני ישראל
And now, write for yourselves this song; teach it to the Children of Israel; place it in their mouths. [This is] in order that this song will be testimony for Me regarding the Children of Israel[2]

Towards the end of Moshe’s life, Hashem commanded him to write down a prophetic song that he was to reveal to the Jewish people[3]. Many learn[4] from this verse that it wasn’t simply a mitzvah for Moshe for that specific time, but it was also a mitzvah for every Jew[5] to write their own sefer Torah[6]. The verse also commands that what is written should be taught to others. The gemarra learns[7] from here an additional obligation: that a teacher is obligated to teach their student until they’ve successfully learned the material. The gemarra follows this ruling with an interesting story that demonstrates how far a teacher must go to fulfill their duty.

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Ki Savo 5777

Taking the first step[1]

דרשו יקוק בהמצאו קראהו בהיותו קרוב: יעזב רשע דרכו ואיש און מחשבתיו וישב אל-יקוק וירחמהו ואל-אלקינו כי-ירבה לסלוח
Seek out Hashem where he is found, call out to Him when He is close. The wicked one will abandon his ways, the sinful man his thoughts; he will return to Hashem, who will have mercy on him, and to Our G-d, since He is wont to forgive[2]

The Midrash says[3] that once the Jews started to approach the land of Israel, Moshe pleaded with Hashem that he be allowed to join them. He had recently been barred from entering the land[4]. He asked: “Please can I see it”[5]. Hashem responded by asking how could He annul His decree against Moshe and yet maintain Moshe’s earlier decree? When the Jews sinned during the episode of the spies, Hashem was going to annihilate the nation. Moshe said: “Please forgive them”[6]. Hashem fulfilled his decree. By asking to enter the land, Hashem informed Moshe that it was like he wanted to hold on to a rope from both ends. If Hashem’s decree is nullified, Moshe’s decree can’t stand. Once Moshe heard this, he desisted from his prayers. This Midrash on the surface is astounding. How come one decree is dependent on the other? Why does letting Moshe into the land remove their earlier forgiveness?

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Ki Seitzei 5777

Sending away the mother bird[1]

כי יקרא קן-צפור לפניך בדרך בכל-עץ או על-הארץ אפרחים או ביצים והאם רבצת על-האפרחים או על-הביצים לא-תקח האם על-הבנים: שלח תשלח את-האם ואת-הבנים תקח-לך למען ייטב לך והארכת ימים
When you chance upon a bird’s nest on the way, on any tree or on the ground, [with] chicks or eggs, and the mother bird is crouching on the chicks or on the eggs, don’t take the mother bird with her children[2]. [Rather][3], send away the mother bird, and [then] take the children for yourself, in order that it should be good for you and for Him to lengthen your days[4]

This week’s parsha introduces a very exotic mitzvah. If a person finds a bird’s nest with either chicks or eggs, it is prohibited to take the mother bird along with her children2. The Torah commands that first the finder must send away the mother bird, and only then take the children3. As with many mitzvos, there are various explanations among the commentators as to the purpose behind this mitzvah. Why did Hashem command us to send away the mother bird?

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Shoftim 5777

The seeds of potential[1]

כפר לעמך ישראל אשר-פדית יקוק ואל-תתן דם נקי בקרב עמך ישראל ונכפר להם הדם
Hashem, grant atonement for your nation Israel which you have redeemed, and don’t let guilt for innocent blood remain among your nation, Israel; and they shall be absolved of punishment[2]

The beginning of parshas Vayeira involves the story of three Angels who came to visit Avraham. Acting as a generous host, Avraham is described as serving their every need. The verses testify[3] that he offered them water, he prepared dishes of cream and milk in addition to a small calf, and he waited on them hand and foot. The gemarra teaches us[4] that for these three acts of chesed, his descendants merited to three acts of chesed from Hashem. While the Jews wandered in the wilderness for forty years, they were given munn, the manna that fell from heaven, the Clouds of Glory which guided the way and protected them from the elements, and the travelling well of water. However, this teaching doesn’t appear to be consistent with another teaching in the gemarra[5], that the Jews received these three gifts due to the merits of Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam[6]. How can these two teachings be reconciled?

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Re’eh 5777

Helping the poor[1]

כי יהיה בך אביון מאחד אחיך…לא תאמץ את-לבבך ולא תקפץ את-ידך מאחיך האביון: כי פתוח תפתח את ידך לו…השמר לך פן-יהיה דבר עם-לבבך בליעל…‏
When there will be amongst you someone destitute from one of your brethren…don’t harden your heart, and don’t clench your hand from your destitute brother. Rather you must open your hand to him…Guard yourself lest there will be a rebellious matter in your hearts…[2]

This week’s parsha introduces a multitude of mitzvos, the third most[3] of any parsha. Many of them are between man and his Creator, and many of them are been man and his fellow. One of the crucial interpersonal mitzvos in this parsha is the mitzvah of tzedakah. It is given more attention than others, with the Torah having devoted to it five verses. This is opposed to the usual one or two for a specific mitzvah. This seems to connote its importance. This isn’t surprising considering how many mitzvos there are related to providing for the poor[4]. Hashem wants us to make sure that no one is lacking what they need.

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Eikev 5777

Order matters[1]

בעת ההוא אמר יקוק אלי פסל-לך שני-לוחת אבנים כראשנים ועלה אלי ההרה ועשית לך ארון עץ: ואעש ארון עצי שטים ואפסל שני-לחת אבנים כראשנים ואעל ההרה ושני הלחת בידי
At that time Hashem said to me: “Carve for yourself two stone tablets, like the first ones [that you broke], and come up to Me to the mountain and make for yourself a wooden Ark. I [then] made an Ark of Shittim-wood, and I carved two stone tablets like the first ones; I went up to the mountain and the two tablets were in my hand[2]

In this week’s parsha, Moshe continues his rebuke of the people. He reminded them of their sin with the Golden Calf[3], and all the events that happened afterwards. In his fury at their betrayal, Moshe broke the stone tablets which had the Ten Commandments engraved on them. Moshe then had to plead with Hashem that He not destroy the people. After receiving forgiveness, Hashem commanded Moshe to make new stone tablets to replace the ones that were smashed. He then told Moshe to create a temporary[4] wooden Ark to store them in, until the golden Ark would be created. However, a careful reading of the verses shows Moshe didn’t exactly follow these instructions.

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Vaeschanan 5777

What are totafos?[1]

וקשרתם לאות על ידך והיו לטטפת בין עיניך
You shall bind [these words] as a sign on your arm, and they shall be totafos between your eyes[2]

The Torah when it describes the mitzvah of tefillin[3] describes them as being a sign on your arm and as totafos between your eyes[4]. The word totafos is hard to translate. Menachem Ibn Seruk, a tenth-century Spanish-Jewish philologist often quoted by Rashi[5], relates it to the verse והטף אל דרום, and speak to the south[6]. This verse tells us that the word totafos connotes speech. Tefillin are meant to be understood as a reminder[7]: that people will see the tefillin on a person’s head, remember the miracles of Egypt and begin to speak about them[8]. This is because two of the parshiyos, paragraphs, written in the tefillin discuss the Exodus from Egypt. In a simpler fashion, Ramban writes[9] that totafos is just the name that the Torah gave to the head tefillin.

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Devarim 5777

Judging ourselves favorably[1]

ואלה הדברים אשר דבר משה אל-כל-ישראל בעבר הירדן במדבר בערבה מול סוף בין-פארן ובין-תפל ולבן וחצרת ודי זהב
These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel, on the other side of the Jordan River, in the wilderness, in Aravah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan and Chatzeiros and Di Zahav[2]

The book of Devarim, also known as Deuteronomy, takes place right before Moshe’s death. It’s essentially a goodbye speech to the people. He takes the opportunity to teach them new laws, as well as recount past experiences. The first verse in the book takes great pains to detail the exact geographical location of Moshe’s speech. Rashi explains[3] that some of these aren’t even real names of places, but rather subtle references to past sins of the people. Moshe was rebuking the people, hoping they would catch the hint and learn from their mistakes. The last four cities mentioned, Tofel, Lavan, Chatzeiros and Di Zahav refer to three separate incidents. Tofel and Lavan refer to the sin of the Jews complaining about the munn, the manna that they ate in the wilderness[4]. Tofel implies complaining[5], and Lavan means white, the color of the mun[6]. Chatzeiros refers to the Korach rebellion[7]. Di Zahav, which means “enough gold”, refers to the creation of the Golden Calf from the abundance of gold they had been given[8]. The obvious question on this list of sins, is why was the Golden Calf listed last[9]? It was the first to occur chronologically, and was undoubtedly one of the worst sins the Jews ever committed.

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