Army Strike Well Planned
by RABBI LEIBY BURNHAM
והיה כי תבוא אל הארץ אשר ה’ אלקיך נתן לך… והלכת אל המקום אשר יבחר ה’ אלקיך לשכן שמו שם
“You shall take of the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your Land that your G-d gives you, and you shall… go to the place that your G-d will choose” (Devarim 26:1-2).
The mitzvah of bikurim requires a farmer to take the first ripened fruits to the Temple and present them to the kohen (priest), where the farmer declares his gratitude for G-d’s guiding Hand throughout Jewish history.
The Da’at Zekeinim commentary asks why this commandment follows that of eradicating Amalek (Devarim 25:17-19). The answer can be found in the nature of Amalek’s attack against the Jewish people as they left Egypt.
Upon hearing of the miracles in Egypt, the nations of the world greatly feared G-d and the Jewish people. No one dared lift a finger against the Jews. When Amalek attacked, he knew he would lose. However, his goal was not to win but to show the world that the Jews did not enjoy any special Divine protection, that their fate was subject to the same variables as other nations.
In recounting the battle with Amalek the Torah states, “Remember what Amalek did to you… that he happened upon you on the way…” (Devarim 25:17 -18). The Hebrew translation of “happened” implies just that—a chance occurrence with no planning or forethought (see Rashi, Devarim 25:18). A close reading of the verses, however, shows that Amalek’s attack was anything but chance. His army knew when, where, and who to strike, and exactly why they were going to war. The use of the term “happened” demonstrates that Amalek’s intention was to convince the world that everything happens by chance with no Divine guidance.
This is why bikurim follows the commandment to destroy Amalek. Bikurim ingrains in us a sense of gratitude to G-d as the source of everything we have been given—our nation, our history, our land, and even the fruits of our own labor.
After working his field for an entire season, a farmer can very well feel that the success of his crops is due wholly to his hard work, rather than as a result of any assistance from Above. Instead, the farmer declares his understanding that G-d is not only the driver at the helm of Jewish history, but also the source of his own personal bounty. In so doing, he strengthens the awareness of G-d’s presence in the world and adds another nail in Amalek’s coffin.
The following anecdote illustrates this point: An American news reporter once asked David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, how it was possible for the fledgling Jewish state to have any realistic hope of surviving, let alone thriving, amidst a sea of hostile enemies. In response, Ben Gurion simply stated, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”
The media, academia, and society in general are all collaborating to create a tremendous sense of doubt regarding Jewish values, the role of the Jewish people in the world, and even our own history as a people. Reflecting on the many blessings G-d has brought and continues to bring to us, individually and nationally, is a powerful tool to dispel such doubts and replace them with a sense of hope and inspiration for the future.
More Than Lip Service
by RABBI OZER ALPORT
וענית ואמרת לפני ה’ אלקיך
“Then you shall call out and say before Hashem your G-d.” (26:5)
A farmer is required to bring to the Temple the first ripened fruits of the seven species for which the land of Israel is praised. There, he presents them to the Kohen as a sign of appreciation to G-d for giving him a successful harvest. He must also recite a declaration of gratitude for G-d ’s role in the miraculous course of our national history. Rashi writes that this proclamation must be made in a raised voice. Why does the Torah require the farmer to make this statement in a loud voice?
The following story may help us appreciate the answer to this question. Amuka, located in the north of Israel, is the burial place of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel. Amuka is famous for its mystical ability to help those who are longing to get married to find their matches. People travel there from around the world to pray for a mate.
As it is common to observe people praying in Amuka with intensity that appears to emanate from personal pain, somebody was once surprised to see a married woman praying there with great joy. In responding to the onlooker’s curiosity about this, she imparted an inspiring message.
“I had a very difficult time with dating. Somebody finally suggested that I travel to Amuka, where I poured my heart out in prayer. Shortly thereafter, I was introduced to the man who is now my husband. I felt that if I came here to cry out from pain, it was only appropriate to return here to joyfully express my gratitude.”
Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, better known as the S’fas Emes (1847-1905), explains that while every person’s livelihood is dependent upon G-d ’s decree, this correlation is often masked by natural events, making it appear that the person earned his income through his own creativity and hard work. A farmer, on the other hand, has no difficulty recognizing that his financial situation precariously rests in the Hands of Heaven. As diligently as he works his land, he realizes that the success of each year’s crop depends upon the rains, which are beyond his control. After putting in his best physical efforts, he then pursues spiritual avenues, praying daily with great intensity for G-d to bring the rains in the proper amounts and at the proper times.
When his petitions are answered and he is able to see the first “fruits” of his labors, it would be very easy for him to take credit for the successful harvest. The Torah requires him to bring the fruits to the Temple to remind him that his success is ultimately dependent on G-d , and he must express the appropriate gratitude for G-d ’s kindness. One might assume, however, that it suffices to mutter a quick “thank you” under his breath to fulfill this obligation and to quickly return home.
The Torah therefore teaches that in expressing appreciation, it is insufficient to merely pay lip service. The feelings of gratitude must be conveyed with the identical fervor with which one initially prayed. Just as the farmer screamed out with his entire heart beseeching G-d to bless him with a bountiful harvest, so too must he express his thanks with the identical raised voice.
We often cry out to G-d from the depths of our hearts for a miraculous salvation which we need so desperately. When our prayers are answered, we must remember the lesson of the first-fruits and loudly call out our thanks with the same intensity with which we prayed in our time of need.
Tsunami Towers But Doesn’t Break
by RABBI LEIBY BURNHAM
וכתבת עליהן את כל דברי התורה הזאת
“When you cross, you shall write upon them all the words of this Torah, in order that you may come to the land which Hashem, your G-d, is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as Hashem, G-d of your forefathers, has spoken to you.” (Devarim 27:3)
In this week’s parsha, Moses gives the Jews instructions to be carried out upon entering Israel. One of them is difficult to understand. Moses tells the people, “When the day comes that you cross the Jordan to the land that Hashem, your G-d, is giving you, erect large stones and coat them with whitewash. You are to write on them all statements of this Torah while crossing; in order that you come to the land that Hashem, your G-d, is giving you, a land flowing milk and honey, as Hashem, the G-d of your forefathers, promised.”
It would be quite understandable if Moses told them to write the Torah on special stones immediately after crossing into Israel, or even just before, but the wording indicates that he instructed them to write the Torah on stones while in the middle of the Jordan River! (Malbim, Devarim 27:3)
Furthermore, the Talmud tells us that a great miracle occurred while the Jews crossed the Jordan. The water stopped flowing, as though there was a dam, to allow the Jews passage on dry land. Normally, when there is a dam the river water backs up creating a lake, but here the water stacked up higher and higher, until it reached towering heights! (Talmud, Sotah, 35A) This surely did not create a serene writing environment, where scribes could sit quietly, etching the Torah into stone. The Jews were in a stressful and frightful environment, which would make it quite difficult for the people to do their task. What could be behind this unusual set of instructions given to the Jews?
Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rubin, author of The Talilei Oros, explains that this was exactly the type of environment that Moses wanted, so they could learn an important lesson. The Jews had lived in the desert for forty years, existing in a protected environment with all their needs miraculously met. They had fresh food delivered to them daily in the form of manna, they had a miracle well that would emit streams of water which would pass by each tribe, and they had the Clouds of Glory protect them from their enemies. Once they entered Israel, their life would be radically different. They would have to toil diligently to draw food from the ground, draw water each day, and go to war to protect themselves. The idyllic life they had in the desert would be a thing of the past.
Despite the dramatic change in lifestyle, they were determined to continue studying the Torah. Torah study had to become a central aspect of their life even with a hectic and stressful schedule. This was the message that Moses gave to them on their way to Israel: that they must continue to engage in Torah study even in their new, taxing environment. What better way to obtain that skill than by etching the Torah into stone while thousands of feet of water tower above you!
Rabbi Zelig Reuven Bengis (1864-1953, Russia – Israel) was renowned for the diligence he applied to his Torah study, and would make a siyum (a celebration upon finishing a book or section of Torah or Talmud) every time he finished the entire Talmud, a common occurrence for him. Once, only two weeks after one of these siyums, he called his family together for yet another one. Even though Rabbi Bengis could study at such a rapid pace, no one could possibly finish the entire Talmud in two weeks. They asked him how it was possible that he was completing it again so soon.
He explained to them that this was for a separate learning cycle. Wherever Rabbi Bengis went, he would carry with him a small Talmud. Whenever he had an extra few minutes, whether it was a delay in a wedding, funeral, or bris where he was officiating, a long line at the grocery store, or if he arrived early to a meeting, he would take out that Talmud and study. It took him fifteen years, but eventually he finished the entire Talmud simply by using those moments that one can steal out of our hectic day, before they get stolen from us!
While few could match Rabbi Bengis’ regimen, the message is clear. Despite his many other obligations, he managed to find free time that would have been otherwise unproductive. This message is more relevant today than ever. Despite all the technological marvels that “save us” so much time, we seem to be busier than ever. Pausing to discover ways to make the raging river of modern life come to a stop so that we can have some dry land, will afford us the opportunity to etch Torah knowledge into our hearts.
Fleeing in All Directions
יתן ה’ את איביך הקמים עליך… בדרך אחד יצאו אליך ובשבעה דרכים ינוסו לפניך
“G-d will render your enemies who rise up against you fallen, along one path they will attack you and in seven directions they will flee from you.” (Devarim 28:7)
Ever heard of anyone scattering in seven directions? There are four directions on a compass, and I may even add two for up and down – but there is positively no seventh direction. So what can the Torah mean by implying that our enemies will be so overwhelmed that they will scatter to seven directions?
The Torah is hinting at a deeper truth. To get to it, let’s begin by asking: Why are the enemies of the Jewish people attacking us, and what is making them flee? It can’t be superior military might; one could assume that the Jewish army is a known commodity and its strength is readily measured. If an enemy chooses to wage war against such odds, they will charge the battlements regardless.
The verse tells us what will cause the nations to fear us: “And the nations will see that the name of G-d is recited upon you, and they will fear you” [Devarim 28:10]
When going out to battle, the nations will regard Israel as just another foe. They will ride into war in a unified charge. But when they arrive at the battlefield, they will be completely thrown. Not by conventional weapons and not by divine lightning bolts; they will be flummoxed by the identity of those they wish to destroy. They will see that the Jews are not just a people, they are G-d’s very representatives — they are adorned with His name!
How will the nations then flee? In pursuit and recognition of this awesome truth.
The menorah in the Holy Temple had seven branches. Our Sages teach us that this was a representation of the seven branches of Divine wisdom. Its light was the light of Torah. These seven branches are the seven directions that the nations will run to.
How will our enemies recognize us as G-d’s ambassadors ?
In the Talmud (Menachot 35b), Rabbi Eliezer the Great says, “…the Name of G-d is recited upon you” is referring to the tefillin of the head. (Tefillin, or phylacteries, are worn on the head and the arm. See Devarim 6:8)
The Vilna Gaon reads the above statement critically and points out that Rabbi Eliezer didn’t say the tefillin upon our heads, but rather the tefillin that we embody within our heads!
The Torah’s teachings are not meant to be mere anecdotes, neither should they be viewed as a penal code. The Torah’s wisdom can and should be assimilated into who we are!
We should not merely perform kindness, we should become kind people!
And when we manage to blossom forth as the Torah’s wisdom personified, we will certainly be worthy of bearing G-d’s divine name tag. And this tag will definitely send any foes scattering to all seven directions.
Singular and Plural
by RABBI OZER ALPORT
והיה אם לא תשמע בקול ה’ אלקיך לשמר לעשות את כל מצותיו וחקתיו אשר אנכי מצוך היום ובאו עליך כל הקללות האלה והשיגוך
“If you do not hearken to the voice of Hashem, your G-d, to observe, to perform all His commandments and all His decrees that I command you today, then all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.” (Devarim 28:15)
Parshat Ki Tavo is commonly referred to as the parsha of “tochacha” – rebuke. It is full of frightening threats of unimaginable punishment to be meted out to those who brazenly refuse to observe the Torah’s laws. It is interesting to note that this is not the first Torah portion full of rebuke. Parshat Bechukotai, which concludes the book of Vayikra, is similarly filled with a terrifying list of punishments which will befall those who fail to observe the mitzvot.
This raises two questions. Why was there was a need to repeat the threats after they were already described in gruesome detail in Parshat Bechukotai? Further, why don’t the terrible curses described in our parsha conclude with words of consolation as do those mentioned in Parshat Bechukotai (Vayikra 26:44-45)?
Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, known as the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh (1696-1743), answers by noting that the curses detailed in Parshat Bechukotai are written in the plural, while those in our parsha are expressed in the singular. He suggests that the punishments mentioned previously are national in nature and will only transpire if the entire nation engages in inappropriate activities. For this reason, they are written in the plural. Our parsha, on the other hand, is expressed in the singular, as it addresses individuals who sin, even at a time when the nation as a whole is behaving properly.
This distinction can help explain why the rebuke contained in Parshat Bechukotai, which pertains to the Jewish nation as a whole, ends with words of encouragement. No matter how far they may stray, the Jewish nation is guaranteed continuity in the merit of G-d’s covenant with our forefathers. Individuals, however, aren’t as fortunate. Our parsha,which discusses individuals who sin, therefore does not conclude with words of consolation, as individuals have no such assurance.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, known as the Alter of Kelm (1824-1898), uses this concept to resolve an apparent contradiction regarding the nature of Rosh Hashana. On the one hand, it is legally considered a festive day, on which we dress in our finest clothes and eat enjoyable meals. On the other hand, the tone of the day is solemn. Hallel, the joyous prayer recited on most Jewish holidays, isn’t recited due to the fear we experience when the books of life and death are open on this day. As Rabbi Ziv explains we are confident as a nation in G-d’s mercy and conduct ourselves with joy and optimism. At the same time, each individual is filled with awe at the recognition that he has no such guarantee.
While this thought is sobering and may raise most people’s anxiety level, Rabbi Ziv eventually sees it as a source of optimism. Yes, if we live our life in a vacuum, we will be judged on our own merits, which could be cause for trepidation for some. Our Rabbis however teach that if we involve ourselves with a community, becoming part of our synagogue and volunteering to help with communal projects and organizations, we all share in their collective merits. As a result, we will enjoy an inscription for a year of health, happiness, and all good blessings!
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
Moses instructed the people (Devarim 27:8) to write on stones all of the words of the Torah well-clarified. Rashi explains that “well-clarified” means that it should be written in all 70 languages, so that it may be easily read by anybody who wishes to do so. Why was it necessary to make the Torah accessible to the other nations of the world when the Talmud teaches that each of them was offered the Torah and refused to accept it? (Meged Yosef by Rabbi Yosef Sorotzkin)
Upon entering the Land of Israel, the Jews were told to assemble on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival. Twelve commandments were enumerated with the tribes pronouncing “Amen” after each, as a way of reaffirming their commitment to G-d and to the Torah (Devarim 27:11-14).
1) According to the Talmud (see Rashi on Devarim 27:12), each commandment was pronounced along with a blessing for its observance and a curse for its rejection. The Torah, however, spells out only the curse. Since serving G-d out of love is better than serving Him out of fear, why are the consequences highlighted instead of the blessings?
2) Several commentaries note that these twelve commandments share a common thread: each can be done secretly. Why was a focus on avoiding secret sins (as opposed to all the commandments) so critical upon the Jewish People’s entry into the land of Israel?
As per G-d’s command, Moses related a long list of blessings and curses to the nation.
Moses promises (Devarim 28:2) that if the Jewish people will properly observe the commandments, all of the blessings will catch and overtake them, which seems to imply that the Jews will be running from the blessings. Why would they flee from blessings? (Taima D’Kra by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky)
Why is the section (Devarim 28:1- 14) detailing the blessings for those who observe the commandments so much shorter than the section (Devarim 28:15-68) describing the punishments and curses for those who disobey, when Rashi writes that G-d’s reward for those who listen to His commandments is 500 times greater than the punishment meted out to sinners? (S’fas Emes by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter)
Before describing the harsh consequences, the Torah first lists the abundant blessings the Jewish people would experience for fulfilling the commandments (Devarim 28:1-14). Here, however, there is no mention of the need to serve G-d with “gladness and goodness of heart.” If a lack of joy in observing the commandments is a reason to impose such dire consequences, why, when mentioning the blessings, would the Torah omit reference to the need to serve G-d with joy?
The section detailing the blessings for those who observe the commandments (Devarim 28:1-14) contains 14 verses, while the section describing the punishments and curses for those who disobey (Devarim 28:15-68) contains 54 verses. Rashi says that G-d’s reward for those who listen to His commandments is 500 times greater than the punishment meted out to sinners. Why, then, is the section with blessings so much shorter than the section with curses?
Q: The Talmud (Taanis 8b) derives from Devarim 28:8 that blessing is only found in something which is hidden from view. On the other hand, items and good news which are publicly flaunted are subject to being damaged by an ayin hara (evil eye). If a person deserves something good, how can another person’s jealousy cause it to be taken away?
A: Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler explains that when G-d originally decided and decreed that somebody is entitled to something, He found the person worthy and meritorious to enjoy a certain personal benefit. However, if he uses the item in an ostentatious manner which causes pain or jealousy to others, G-d makes a new calculation. Although the person was deserving of the pleasure for himself, the fact that his flaunting of it causes suffering to others must be taken into account. Although it is feasible that he will still be found meritorious, it is also quite possible that this new consideration will cause G-d to decide that he no longer deserves the benefit due to the consequences of the manner in which he uses it. As a result, the “evil eye” can indeed indirectly cause him to lose his blessing, and he would be wise to take the advice of our Sages and enjoy it in a modest and private manner. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: Moses blessed the Jewish people that if they act properly and fulfill the commandments, all of the nations of the earth will see that the name of G-d is called upon us and they will fear and revere us (Devarim 28:10). The Talmud (Megillah 16b) understands the reference to the name of G-d being called upon us as referring to tefillin, which contain an allusion to one of G-d’s Divine names, which are worn in our heads. Why does the Talmud refer to tefillin as being “in our heads” instead of the seemingly more accurate description of it being on our heads?
A: The Vilna Gaon was once lodging at an inn when he heard loud cries and screams for help coming from the innkeeper’s room. Although the Gaon was in the middle of the morning prayers, he quickly ran to the aid of a fellow Jew. He threw open the innkeeper’s door and discovered a non-Jew mercilessly beating him. The attacker looked up at the door, and upon seeing the Vilna Gaon wearing his tallit and tefillin, was overcome with terror and promptly fainted.
After pulling himself together and recovering from the shock of the incident, the innkeeper expressed his tremendous gratitude to the Vilna Gaon for coming to his rescue. He added that while he was certainly appreciative, he was also curious as to the Gaon’s “magic weapon” which had inspired such fear in the heart of his attacker. He replied by citing the aforementioned Talmudic passage and explained that the sight of him adorned in his tefillin had caused the non-Jew to faint. The innkeeper respectfully asked for clarification, as he himself had been wearing his tallit and tefillin prior to the attack, but they had clearly proven ineffective.
The Vilna Gaon pointed out that the Talmud uses a peculiar expression. It doesn’t interpret the verse as referring to the tefillin which are on one’s head but rather to the tefillin which are in one’s head. He explained that merely placing the tefillin on one’s body is insufficient. Rather, one must contemplate the message of the portions contained therein until they are internalized. While the innkeeper had not yet done so, the Vilna Gaon was clearly on such a level, and when the non-Jew perceived his spiritual loftiness, he was overcome with dread to the point of fainting – exactly as promised by the Talmud! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
The reprimands outlined in this week’s Torah portion (Devarim 28:15-68) are “because you did not listen to the kol (sound or voice) of Hashem, your G-d, to observe His commandments and decrees that He commanded you. They will be a sign and a wonder in you and in your offspring forever. (These tribulations will be visited upon you) because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d with gladness and a good heart, when everything was abundant.” (Devarim 28:45-47)
The Torah here seems to offer two explanations for these terrible tribulations: a) not listening to G-d’s kol and b) not serving G-d with joy and a good heart.
1) As the Torah is both precise and concise, and as the consequences described here apparently apply to not following the word of G-d (rather than to not listening to Him), why would the Torah describe the offense as not having listened to the kol (voice or sound) of G-d? There seems to be a kol to which we are expected to pay attention. What could that mean?
2) The first explanation is initially presented as the only reason for these consequences, suggesting that the second reason is similar or has the same root cause as the first. What do these seemingly dissimilar causes have in common?
3) The blessing recited on Rosh Hashanah on blowing the Shofar is “lishmoah kol Shofar,” to hear the kol (the sound) of the Shofar. What insight can be gleaned from the shared choice of the word “kol” in this blessing and in the reprimands described in this week’s Torah portion?
This week’s portion includes an extended warning to the Jewish people, along with the painful consequences they would experience if they would forsake G-d and fail to observe the commandments. (Devarim 28:15-68)
The Torah states (Devarim 28:47) that the terrible curses described throughout the parsha will come as a result of not serving G-d with gladness. If this is indeed such a terrible sin, why is there no commandment to do so?
This week’s Torah portion includes an extended warning to the Jewish people, including the painful consequences they would experience if they would forsake G-d and fail to observe the commandments.
- In the midst of this warning, the Torah adds an additional reason for these consequences: “Because you did not serve your G-d amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant” (Devarim 28:47). While there is a clear imperative to serve G-d with joy, in practice a nation that serves G-d (but with a lack of joy) and a nation does not serve G-d at all are very different. In what way can they possibly be equated?
- Before describing the harsh consequences, the Torah first lists the abundant blessings the Jewish people would experience for fulfilling the commandments. Here, however, there is no mention of the need to serve G-d with “gladness and goodness of heart.” If a lack of joy in observing the commandments is a reason to impose such dire consequences, why, when mentioning the blessings, would the Torah omit reference to the need to serve G-d with joy?
Q: In mentioning that the shoes of the Jewish people miraculously didn’t wear out during their sojourn in the wilderness (Devarim 29:4), the Torah states explicitly that the Jews wore shoes during their travels through the desert. How can this be resolved with Rashi’s earlier comment (8:4), in which he writes that the feet of the Jews miraculously didn’t swell during their travels in the desert as is customary for those who walk barefoot?
A: Rabbi Yosef Rosen, more well-known as the Rogatchover Gaon, resolves the apparent contradiction by suggesting that when the Jewish people exited Egypt and entered the wilderness, they were indeed wearing shoes. However, after the sins of the golden calf and the spies, they were legally considered in נידוי –excommunicated – until the end of their 40-year sojourn in the desert. Somebody who has been excommunicated must observe certain signs of mourning, including the removal of his shoes. The earlier verse is addressed to the Jewish people, who were forced to wander without shoes for this period, and emphasizes the miracle that their bare feet didn’t swell during this time. The latter verse is addressed to the Levites, who remained righteous and didn’t take part in these sins, and weren’t punished with excommunication. They were allowed to wear their shoes during their sojourn in the wilderness, and this verse refers to the miracle that their shoes didn’t wear out while wandering through the hot desert for so many years. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: A farmer is required to bring bikurim – the first ripened fruits of the seven species for which the land of Israel is praised – to the Temple. The Talmud (Bava Kamma 92a) teaches that the rich brought their bikurim in baskets made of gold and silver, while the poor placed their fruits in reed baskets made from willow branches. The Kohanim (Priests) gave back the expensive baskets to the wealthy, while keeping those brought by the poor. Since the rich farmers could much more easily afford to part with their baskets than the poor, wouldn’t it have made more sense to do just the opposite?
A: Rabbi Aharon Bakst explains that although financial considerations would dictate keeping the baskets of the rich, there were also emotional and psychological factors to be weighed. The baskets of the wealthy are filled with fruits numerous in both quantity and quality, while those of the poor contain but a few meager fruits. If the Kohanim would remove the fruits from the reed baskets of the poor and return the baskets to their owners, their poverty would be on display for all to see, which would leave them embarrassed and humiliated. As much as they could have used the baskets when they returned home, the Torah was concerned first and foremost about their dignity. In accepting their entire offerings while taking only the fruits from the wealthy farmers, the Torah allowed them to feel pride about the importance and value of their contributions in the eyes of Hashem. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
by RABBI ELAZAR MEISELS
“And you shall take from the choicest fruits of the ground…and you shall place it in a basket…” Devarim 26:1
Place it in a basket – Ideally, one would not combine all the fruit in one basket, but bring each one up in a separate basket. Even if he did use only one basket for all, he would not mix them together, but layered them one species on top of the other and separated them with twigs or some other material. – Maimonides, Hilchos Bikkurim, 3:7
Place it in a basket – Rava said to Rabbah bar Mari, “From where can we see the truth of the popular saying, ‘Poverty begets poverty?’” He answered, “For it is written, [When bringing the Bikkurim], the wealthy folks would bring it in a basket made of gold and silver. Less affluent folks would bring it in a lattice basket and give the fruits and the basket to the Kohen [in contrast to the wealthy folks who only gave the fruits, but not the basket].” – Talmud, Tractate Bava Kamma 92a
Why did the poor have to surrender their baskets while the wealthy folk were allowed to keep theirs?
- It was done to spare the feelings of the poor because the wealthy folks brought the most beautiful fruits, which were removed from the basket by the Kohanim (Priests). The fruits offered up by the poor were of significantly lesser quality and not fit to be displayed. Therefore, the Kohanim took the fruit along with the basket so that no one should have the inferior quality of his fruit visible to the masses.– Rabbi Aharon Baksht
- The wealthy person believed that his beautiful basket and fruit were signs of his prominence and grew haughty as a result. By refusing to take his basket, he was reminded that G-d detests haughtiness and was disinterested in his wealth. The poor person, on the other hand, who struggled mightily just to afford a simple lattice basket, showed up with a humble heart wishing he could do even more. To demonstrate the great love that the Almighty has for those who serve him with humility, the simple basket too, was taken as part of his offering. – Darchei Mussar
Mei HaShiloach by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1804-1854) points out that a lattice basket has holes in it and is a symbol of the need for one to behave consistently both inwards and outwards. If one performs a mitzvah unhappily, but gives off an outer appearance of being thrilled at the opportunity, the mitzvah loses much of its value. This is especially true with regards to the mitzvah of Bikkurim (first fruits), which is an open acknowledgment of our thanks and appreciation to the Almighty for the gift of the Land. Insincere expressions of gratitude are hypocritical and unappreciated by the Almighty.
THE PRODUCE PRODUCTION
“And it will be when you come to the Land that Hashem, your G-d, gives to you as territory, and you inherit it, and you settle in it. And you shall take from the choicest fruits of the ground…and you shall place it in a basket.” Devarim 26:1,2
From the choicest fruits – One need not offer Bikkurim (first fruits) from all fruits, only from the seven species [Wheat, Oats, Grapes, Figs, Pomegranates, Olives, Dates] for which the Land was praised. – Rashi
In a basket – Wealthy folks would bring it in a basket made of gold and silver. Less affluent folks would bring it in a lattice basket.
The mitzvah of Bikkurim entailed seven distinct mitzvot:
1. Bringing it to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) or Beit HaMikdash (Temple)
2. Placing it in a proper basket
3. Reciting the special text
4. Offering the sacrificial offerings expressing thanks and appreciation
5. Singing songs of praise and happiness
6. Waving it together with the Kohen (Priest)
7. Staying overnight in Jerusalem before departing
Maimonides writes that this mitzvah was done with an extraordinary degree of love and excitement on the part of all involved. As the people traveled toward Jerusalem many people would join them on their journey, feed them, play music, and a great delegation would greet them from Jerusalem. All of this was done in order to demonstrate their gratitude to the Almighty for giving them this wonderful Land and produce, and it never allowed the people to forget from whence their good fortune came.
JUDGING OUR LEADERS
“You shall come before the kohein who will serve during those days and you will say to him, “I declare today to Hashem, your G-d, that I have come to the land that G-d swore to our forefathers to give us.” Devarim 26:3
Before The Kohein Who Will Serve During Those Days – These words teach us that this obligation extends only to a time when there is a functioning Kohein Gadol [High Priest]. – Ibn Ezra- Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra (1093-1167)
The Kohein Who Will Serve During Those Days – And you may not wait until a relative is installed as Kohen Gadol so that your gifts can go to him instead. – Chizkuni-Rabbi Chizkiyah ben Manoach Chizkuni circa 1250
Before The Kohein Who Will Serve During Those Days – You have no one except the Kohein who serves during your time, as he is. – Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki)
Rashi points out that we may not refuse to perform this mitzvah due to our disappointment in the spiritual level of the Kohen Gadol, even if that disappointment is well founded. Each generation merits leaders specific to the challenges of that generation, and not necessarily would an earlier and more scholarly leader, have been as effective as the current leader. Another important idea can be gleaned from this, as well. Regardless of how saintly our leaders may, or may not be; that is never an excuse to cease practicing Mitzvot. Our obligation to serve G-d transcends the personal morals of our spiritual leaders.
AN UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCE
“When you finish tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year…and you have given to the Levi…You shall declare before Hashem, your G-d, ‘I have removed all the sacred portions from my house. I have given the appropriate ones to the Levite and to the orphan and widow, following all the commandments You prescribed to us. I have not violated your commandment, nor did I forget.” Devarim 26:13
Nor did I forget – I did not forget to bless you for the setting aside of tithes. – Rashi
To bless you for the setting aside of tithes – This cannot refer to the blessing recited over the mitzvah for that is only of rabbinical origin. Rather, it means that he did not forget to bless and praise the Almighty for the mitzvah to give these tithes. Instead, they were given with the greatest joy and love. – Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loew, 1525-1609)
Although the obligation to recite a blessing before the performance of a mitzvah is only of rabbinical origin, in truth, it has its roots in Scripture. This is because we are scripturally obligated to perform a mitzvah with joy and love for the Almighty. It is this overwhelming excitement that our sages asked us to express verbally through the recital of the blessing beforehand. The blessing reflects our eager anticipation to performing His mitzvot, and the more intensely we feel this excitement, the greater effect the mitzvah will have upon us. The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter), explains that the words, “Nor did I forget,” should be understood to refer to the excitement experienced prior to the mitzvah and subsequently as well. Since it was done with joy, it became a truly “unforgettable” experience.
NO EXPIRATION DATE
“This very day, Hashem, your G-d, commands you to perform these statutes and the laws; and you shall observe and perform them wholeheartedly and with all your being.” Devarim 26:16
This Very Day – Each day let these words appear novel to you, as if, on that very day, you had been commanded to perform them. – Rashi
These words were spoken forty years after the Jews stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai, received the Torah, and spent the next forty years studying them. How could Moses suggest that the people view them as something novel? Moses’ point was not merely to suggest that we pretend that we’ve never heard these words before, but rather, to emphasize the timelessness of the words of Torah. The people were about to leave the desert and enter Eretz Yisroel (the Land of Israel) where conditions would be altogether different. Yet, the words and ideas of the Torah were equally relevant in the Land of Israel, as they were in the desert. The same is true for each new land, culture, and time period in which we find ourselves. The words of Torah transcend time and location.
HOLD-UPS ARE GOOD
“’Accursed is whoever will not uphold the words of this Torah to perform them;’ and the entire people shall say, ‘Amen.’” Devarim 27:26
Whoever Does Not Uphold – Here, he encompasses all of the Torah in its entirety, which they accepted by an imprecation and an oath.– Rashi
Who Does Not Uphold – Every Jew must accept the Torah’s validity in full, and must not claim that even one of the commandments is no longer relevant. This curse however, is not pronounced upon one who merely commits a sin, rather, on one who denies that a part of the Torah is G-d given or applicable. This curse also applies to one who can have a positive influence on others but remains unconcerned with their spiritual welfare and fails to assist them. – Ramban
Studying and observing Torah is a vital aspect of Judaism, but monumental as those accomplishments may be, it doesn’t end there. Everyone is obligated to do all in their power to “uphold” the words of Torah so that others can learn from them as well. This includes offering financial support to Torah institutions, volunteering of ones time to study with others, and behaving in a manner that reflects positively on those who study Torah. Failure to live up to ones’ potential in any of these areas, is tantamount to failing to uphold the words of Torah.
“Moses and the Levitical priests [i.e. the Kohanim] spoke to all of Israel, saying: ‘Pay heed and listen, Israel, today you have become a nation to your G-d. You must therefore obey your G-d and guard His commandments and decrees, as I am prescribing them to you today.’” Devarim 27:9-10
Moses and the Levitical priests – This term refers to the tribe of Levi, which includes the Kohanim and the Levites. It is notable that the tribe of Levites joined with Moses in conveying this message to the Israelites, something unique to this episode. Why were they not among those whom Moses addressed during this speech? Earlier the Almighty had entered into a covenant with the Jewish people, which they subsequently violated when they worshipped the Golden Calf. Moses was now leading them into forging a new covenant with the Almighty to replace the earlier broken one. The tribe of Levites, however, had not participated in that sin, and were not in need of a new covenant. Therefore, they were able to join Moses in helping the Israelites forge a new one, rather than be numbered among those who were required to do so. – Meshech Chochmah
Today you have become a nation – Since you have accepted upon yourselves to observe the Torah and mitzvot, I consider it as if today you became My nation. G-d’s love for us was as strong on that day as on the day that we stood at Sinai and accepted His Torah. – Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt”l points out that Moses said these words prior to their entry into the Land of Israel. “Today you have become a nation,” said Moses, although they hadn’t yet entered the Land. How, indeed, did they become a nation if they didn’t even have their own land? Don’t nations require a land to be considered a nation? Moses explained to them that the Jewish people are not like all other nations. Our national identity is not tied to a land, but to the special bond we have with the Almighty through adherence to Torah and mitzvot. We are a nation by virtue of the fact that we accepted upon ourselves Torah and mitzvot. Moses knew that there will come a day that we will be driven from the land, yet, we will not lose our identity because we will still have Torah and mitzvot.
WHAT WILL THE NEIGHBORS SAY
“Cursed is one who dishonors his father and his mother.” Devarim 27:16
Dishonor – Dishonor of one’s parents often takes place in a private setting and is not punishable in court. That is why the Torah placed a curse upon one who is guilty of this disgraceful behavior lest he think that he can get away with it. Included in this is doing something dishonorable that is not specifically directed at them, but nevertheless causes them shame. – Malbim
Dishonors his father – Included in this is one who behaves in a manner that troubles his parents, reasoning that they will eventually forgive him because they would not wish for him to be punished. While they may forgive him, the Torah places a curse upon him. – Meshech Chochmah
It is said that as a young teenager, the Brisker Rav [Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik zt”l], was seen jumping through the window of his house rather than entering through the door. When questioned about his strange behavior, he explained that his sainted father, Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, insisted on standing up whenever he entered a room because he felt that his level of Torah scholarship demanded that he be shown honor. The young boy could not tolerate the thought that his own father would stand up for him, so he decided to enter the house in a manner that would avoid passing through the room where his father studied throughout the day.
SHHHH! IT’S A SECRET
“Cursed is one who strikes his fellow clandestinely.” Devarim 27:24
Strikes his fellow clandestinely – This refers to one who speaks lashon harah [evil speech]. – Rashi
Strikes his fellow clandestinely – This refers to murder, which is one of the three cardinal sins and which non-Jews are also warned against committing. Included in this category is lashon harah, which is a form of murder. – Malbim
Ktav V’Kabbalah writes that the Hebrew word used for fellow, “rei’ehu,” is a term that indicates kinship. This is because the verse intends that the victim be an upstanding person. It does not refer to those who engage in conflict and cause disharmony among men, because it is perfectly permissible to speak ill of such people and to point out their shortcomings in order to limit their ability to harm others. This dispensation, however, only applies when one’s intent is for the sake of heaven, not in order to exacerbate the existing conflict.
GROPE FOR HOPE
“You will grope about in broad daylight just like a blind man gropes in the darkness, and you will have no success in any of your ways. You will be constantly cheated and robbed, and no one will help you. Devarim 28:29
Robbed and cheated – Whatever you do will be subject to altercation. – Rashi
No success – The verse uses terms which imply that our lack of success will be unlike that of any other nation. No nation will suffer the degradation that the Jewish people will suffer. Conversely, when the verse promises us success, it too, will be abnormal in the degree to which we will enjoy, even more so than any other nation. – Rabbeinu Bachya (Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakudah, 1263-1340)
Like a blind man gropes in darkness – This is worse than the manner in which a blind man gropes in broad daylight, because then, even if he cannot see, others can and they can assist him. When he gropes in darkness, others are of no help to him either. – Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor, Toldos Yitzchak
You will grope about – When the persecutor shows up, the escape route will be an easy one, but you will grope about like a blind man and have no success in finding it. – HeEmek Davar (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin)
Ktav Sofer (Rabbi Abraham Samuel Benjamin Sofer) explains this verse to refer to the sorry state of the Jewish people in exile who always seek means of escaping our troubles. Just as a blind man gropes helplessly about and rarely find what he’s looking for, so too, the Jewish people will attempt all sorts of means to escape persecution without success. They’ll forgo their unique heritage in an effort to blend in with the populace. They’ll dress in the latest styles and fashions so as not to stick out and draw attention to themselves. They’ll refrain from educating their children Jewishly so as to ensure a top-notch secular education. They’ll refuse to circumcise their sons so their Jewish lineage should never be discovered. All of these evasions won’t help them one iota, and they’ll eventually have to realize that the only way a Jew will ever escape the trials of the exile will be through a return to Torah, the true source of his special status.
SHIN, NOT SIN
“And all the nations of the world will see that the name of G-d is pronounced upon you, and they will fear you.” Devarim 28:10
The name of G-d is pronounced upon you – Rabbi Eliezer the Elder said, ‘This verse refers to the Tefillin worn upon the head.’ – Rashi
We have a tradition that dates back to Moses that upon the Tefillin of the head must have a letter Shin. The letter Shin is the first letter of the word, “Shechinah” – Divine Presence. In this manner, the Tefillin of the head symbolize that the name of G-d is upon us. Additionally, the letter Shin has a numerical value of 300 and this is the total number of days throughout the year when Tefillin are worn, since Shabbat and Yom Tov make up a total of 65 days out of the year. – Rabbeinu Bachya (Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakudah, 1263-1340)
In Hebrew, the words “The name of G-d is pronounced” read, “Shem Yud-Hey-Vov-Hey Nikra.” The first letters of these three words is Shin, Yud, and Nun, which spell Shin. This alludes to the Shin on the Tefillin that symbolize G-d’s name upon us. – Baal HaTurim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher)
Although every person is created in the image of the Divine, not all radiate His presence equally. Through the mitzvah of Tefillin, a Jew is endowed with a special radiance that strikes awe and engenders deep respect from the nations who seek to emulate the example of the Jew who exude this aura. Of course, we must not contradict this important message through actions that are inconsistent with our mission, lest this effect be lost upon them.
DYING TO BE UNDERSTOOD
“Moses called to all of Israel and said to them, ‘You have seen everything that G-d did as you watched, in the land of Egypt, to Pharoah and to all his attendants, and to his entire land. The great miracles that you witnessed, the great signs and the wonders. Yet G-d did not grant you a comprehending heart, eyes to see, and ears to hear, until this day.’” 29:1-3
A comprehending heart – To recognize G-d’s benevolence, and adhere to him. – Rashi
Yet G-d did not grant you a comprehending heart – This speech was delivered by Moses forty years after they entered the desert. Nevertheless, although most of his examples were of events that occurred more than forty years earlier, he still claimed that it was only now that the people fully comprehended how great those events truly were and how indebted they were to the Almighty as a result. Our sages derive from this that a person does not fully comprehend the words of his teacher until forty years have passed. – Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarrah 5b.
Until this day – Moses delivered this speech on the day that he passed away. – Medrash Rabbah 7:11
Meshech Chochmah (Rav Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, 1843-1926) explains that while Moses led the nation, there were a great many people who believed that he was the one who was responsible for the occurrence of the miracles. Regardless of how hard Moses tried to convince them that he was only an emissary of the Almighty, Who controls all things, they refused to believe him and remained convinced that he was in charge of their destiny. Ultimately, only Moses’ death could convince them that he was human, and not a deity. Thus, it was only on this day, the day of his passing, that the people would finally grasp what Moses had been trying to tell them all along – that he was only an emissary and that their trust must be placed in the Almighty alone.
Hey, I Never Knew That
by RABBI MORDECHAI BECHER
The Torah exhorts the Jewish people to serve G-d with joy (Devarim 28:47). Rabbi Nachman of Breslov writes, “It is a great mitzvah to always be happy” (Likutei Maharan II:24). Maimonides rules, “The happiness that one experiences in performance of a mitzvah and in the love of G-d Who commanded them is a great duty” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Lulav 8:15). Rabbi David ben Zimra comments on Maimonides, “The idea is that one should not fulfill the mitzvot because they are obligatory, as though forced to do them. Rather he should rejoice in their performance, and should do good because it is good, and choose truth because it is true. The effort should be light in his eyes, and he should understand that this is why he was created. And when he fulfills his purpose he will be happy. For happiness due to anything else is dependent on things that are temporary and finite, but the happiness of doing a mitzvah and of learning Torah and wisdom is the true happiness.”
The Torah portion begins with the laws of ma’aser sheni, second tithes. Most of the tithes and agricultural taxes were given to the priests (kohanim — plural of kohen), the Levites, and the poor; however, this tithe was actually brought by the owner, either as produce or as money, to Jerusalem. There, the owner and his family were commanded to eat the tithes in purity and joy inside the walls of Jerusalem. It seems strange that we give tithes to ourselves and not to those who normally receive them. Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak Kook explains that the Torah describes the Jewish people as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). He maintains that the goal of the second tithe is to bring home this idea to each and every Jew, and to demonstrate by our actions, that each one of us is a priest, a kohen, administering to the whole world as our “congregation.” Most of the time we give tithes to the kohanim and Levites, but every few years the Torah tells us to act as though we ourselves are priests. We take our tithes, give them to ourselves, and eat the food in holiness, in the city of Jerusalem (Ein Ayah, Shabbat 22b).
One of the reasons punishments befall the Jews is, “… Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid gladness, and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant” (Deut. 28:47). We also find that King David exhorts us to “Serve G-d with happiness, come before Him in joyful song” (Psalms 100:2). Maimonides actually legislates this as an obligation, stating, “The happiness one experiences in pe1rforming a mitzvah and in the love of G-d Who commanded them is a great duty” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Lulav, 8:15), citing the verse from our parsha as evidence. We also see the obligation to be happy from the Talmud’s famous statement, “Just as when Av (the month in which we mourn the Temple’s destruction) begins we reduce our happiness, so, too, when Adar (the month in which Purim falls) begins we increase our happiness” (Ta’anit 29a). This implies that the correct status quo of a Jew is happiness. We reduce it in Av and increase it in Adar, but happiness, to some degree, should always be there.
Word of the Week
by RABBI MORDECHAI BECHER
Meshuga means mad, or insane. When the Torah lists all the terrible punishments that will befall the Jewish People in exile, it states, “You will become משוגע — insane — as a result of what your eyes see” (Devarim 28:34). This word is commonly used in its Yiddishized version as “meshugena” — a crazy person, or “meshugass” — a crazy idea or trend. In modern Hebrew, an experience that is particularly enjoyable, is described as “meshageiah” — so good it “makes you crazy.”
“And it shall be on the day that you cross the ירדן — the Jordan…” (Devarim 27:2). What is the origin of the name Jordan, Israel’s largest river? The Talmud states that the word is a composite of יורד מדן — yored midan¸ meaning “it comes down (yored) from Dan (midan). Dan is a region in the north of Israel, loosely corresponding to the Golan Heights, where the three rivers, the Hizbani, Banyas, and Dan, are the sources of the Jordan River. So the water in the Jordan “comes down from Dan” (Bechorot 55a). The name is also related to the concept of דין — din — strict justice, because the rainfall in Israel comes down in accordance with the merits of the Jewish people, יורד בדין — yored bedin (Pri Tzadik, Kedushat Shabbat 6, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, shlita).
On numerous occasions the Torah describes the Land of Israel as “a land flowing with חלב—chalav and honey” (see Devarim 26:9). Chalav is almost always understood as “milk,” in this case, goat’s milk (Rashi, Shemot 13:5). However, Rabbi Reuven Margalis notes that ancient Israel was not known for its dairy products but was much more famous for its wine. He cites the Midrash and other sources to show that in the context of praising Israel, the word chalav should, in fact, be translated as “white wine” and not as milk (Hamikrah Vehamesorah, pp. 62-64).
It is customary for the ba’al koreh (Torah reader) to chant the rebuke, which lists all the terrible curses of the exile, in a low voice (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 78:4). This is a sign of contrition and embarrassment that our sins brought these curses upon us, and also because we are scared by these curses. In the 1940s, just after the Second World War, a great Chassidic leader, Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam (known as the Klausenberger Rebbe), who lost his wife, eleven children and most of his followers in the Holocaust, was in New York listening to the Torah reading. As is customary, the reader chanted the portion in a low voice. The Rebbe asked him to read louder, and louder still, until he was chanting even louder than usual. Afterwards, the Rebbe explained that we no longer have to be scared of the curses, nor hang our heads in shame when we hear them. During the Holocaust, we already experienced all the curses, and we survived. The fact that we are in the synagogue, listening to the Torah reading despite the Holocaust, is a reason to be proud and confident when listening to the curses, not fearful or ashamed.
by RABBI MORDECHAI BECHER
It is customary for those present to fast when, G-d forbid, a Torah scroll falls to the ground (Magen Avraham, 44:5). What is the source for this custom? Rabbi Shmuel ben Moshe Kalai cites the verse in this week’s Torah portion, “Cursed is he who does not uphold… this Torah” (Devarim 27:26). Nachmanides, quoting the Jerusalem Talmud, explains the verse as referring to one who does not properly hold up the Torah scroll while it is raised up before the community (hagbah). Rabbi Kalai says that perhaps the whole community fasts because they feel that had they been more attentive or quicker, they could have prevented the Torah from falling, and so as atonement for that sin, they all fast (Mishpatei Shmuel, cited by Magen Avraham).
by RABBI MORDECHAI BECHER
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef was asked if there is an obligation for the community to fast if they witness a Torah scroll falling. In a characteristically exhaustive discussion of the subject, he cites the Jerusalem Talmud that the verse “Cursed is he who does not uphold the words of this Torah” (Devarim 27:26) is referring to one who does not ensure that the Torah scroll is lifted and shown to the community in a proper fashion. Some maintain that if the Torah scroll fell, the community should fast in order to “change from cursed to blessed.” However, his conclusion is that the fast is not obligatory, and certainly for those who are weak, old or sick, who teach Torah or are hired workers, it would be preferable to redeem the fast by giving the value of the food eaten that day to charity. He also suggests that, better than fasting, the community should assemble and declare a day of not speaking about anything but Torah or absolute necessities (Responsa Yabia Omer 2:28).
Parsha at a Glance
This week’s portion opens with a discussion of the details of a commandment that was first mentioned in Shemot (23:19). After the land was conquered and allocated to the different tribes, farmers were obligated to take their first ripened fruits to the Temple and present them to the Kohen.
This ritual of the First Fruits (Bikkurim) included a declaration by the farmer expressing gratitude to G-d for His eternal role as Guide of Jewish history. Farming is an occupation that requires great sweat and toil in order to succeed. It is a prototypical human endeavor. As such, when a Jew declares that all of his accomplishments are really a gift from G-d – no matter how much personal effort he has invested in them – he fulfills one of the primary goals of creation.
The portion continues with Moses preparing the nation to accept a new commitment to G-d and Torah upon entering the Land, which they did only a few weeks from this point in history. This commitment was not merely a matter of personal intention, but was accompanied by an elaborate national ceremony. This ceremony included the inscribing of the entire Torah on twelve huge stones and was accompanied by offerings.
However, the most striking aspect of this ceremony was the gathering of the entire nation at two mountains, Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebel, to affirm their allegiance to G-d and His Torah. This allegiance was expressed by the nation declaring “Amen” to a series of blessing and curses announced by the Levites.
Twelve subjects are covered in the blessing and curses and focus on the kinds of sins that transgressors are able to do in secret. The public declaration was designed to send a powerful message that there could be no contradiction between public and private morality. Any erosion in private morality would inevitably affect the wider social fabric of the nation.
The portion now turns to Moses’ stark warning to the Jewish people regarding the horrific punishments they would face if they spurned G-d and the Torah. It was the second admonition given in the Torah. According to Nachmanides, the first admonition referred to the years leading up to the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile.
This admonition refers to our era – the waning years of the Second Temple during with the Roman Empire first gained a foothold and then cruelly oppressed the Jewish people. The Romans eventually destroyed the Temple and exiled the nation from the Land of Israel – an exile that has existed for 2000 years.
However, before recounting the many, dire consequences of rejecting G-d and the Torah, Moses enumerated a wide range of material blessings – health, abundance, security – that were promised to the Jewish people as reward for their loyalty.
After enumerating the long series of curses, the portion concludes with Moses issuing a final charge to the Jewish people. He pointed out that only now, after forty years of wandering in the desert and witnessing so many ongoing miracles, was the nation fully able to appreciate the tremendous devotion they owed to G-d. In essence, Moses declared that the nation had reached a level of maturity that demanded more of them now that they were about to enter the Land of Israel and embark on a new phase in Jewish history.