This week's Torah portion is called Ki Teitzei — meaning literally, "When you go out." It is a reference to violence and war. "When you take the field [literally, "When you go out"] against your enemies, and the Eternal your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive ... " (Deuteronomy 21:10).
This sentence is but a tiny portion of more than a thousand verses in the Tanach that deal with war. Our Holy Scriptures came into history in a world in which fighting was a normal and often necessary activity. The ancient communities of the Middle East were governed according to tribal custom and law, and each ethnic community was in a combative relationship with its neighbor. There was no United Nations in those days, no European Union designed to administer diverse people according to collective rules and laws. Some tribal federations such as the twelve tribes of Israel pooled their resources, but that was for protection rather than for advancing peaceful relations with the rest of the world. The harsh social-economic and political reality of the ancient world often triggered violent and deadly conflicts between communities and peoples, and it is rare that we read a comment such as is found in Judges 3:11: " ... and the land had peace for forty years."
This week, the Israelites are instructed that after they enter the Promised Land and begin to farm it, each head of household is to fill a basket with the very first fruits produced there and bring it to Jerusalem. They are to bring the basket before the priest and recite a story that we read every year in our Pesach seders:
My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried out to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me (Deuteronomy 26:5-10).
Nitzavim comes in the cycle of Torah readings just before Rosh HaShanah and is particularly appropriate for the High Holidays because it stresses the importance of repentance. The tone of the passage is at once both lofty and terrifying.
It begins with Moses' inspiring address to the entire people of Israel shortly before he is to die, "You stand this day (Atem nitzavim hayom), all of you, before the Eternal your God — you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer" (Deuteronomy 29:9-10).
"And Moses went (Vayeilech) and spoke these words to all Israel" (Deuteronomy 31:1). This opening marks the beginning, not only of the parashah, but also of the long death scene for Moses that will not be completed until the very end of the Torah two portions hence. Traditional commentators noticed an unusual locution. Usually the Torah reads "And Moses spoke … " Only here does it say "And Moses went and spoke … "
Haazinu is one of the shorter sections of the Torah, and it is made up almost entirely of a breathtaking and chastening poem. The term "awesome" tends to be overused today, but this poem is truly awesome. Unfortunately, the power of the Hebrew rhythm and poetic style is lost in the English translation, but we can still sense some of the majesty.
Sukkot is known in Rabbinic tradition as the "Festival of Our Joy" (Z'man Simchateinu, a name that derives from Leviticus 23:40: "You shall rejoice before the Eternal your God seven days"). Sukkot is the only festival for which the command to rejoice is given. It is a commandment — a mitzvah: us'mach'tem — "be happy!"
We read about Amalek in Parashat B’shalach. As the first to attack the Israelites once we are freed from Egypt and wandering through the desert, Amalek gains some level of notoriety. In M’chilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Rabbi Eliezer of Modi’in suggests this is due to the tactics Amalek used in the attack. “Amalek ‘sneaked’ under the edges of the cloud and snatched the souls of Israel and killed them,” (as the Torah hints later in Deuteronomy) — “When you were weary and worn out, [Amalek’s army] met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God” (M’chilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Amalek, on Exodus 17:8).
Parashat Mishpatim offers a myriad of rules to guide us in how to treat other individuals and nations. It makes us wonder: Why is it easier to think and behave humanely when we consider individuals rather than nations?
Parashat T’rumah provides precise instructions on how to build the Mishkan and its contents. But those guidelines, like the design for the Temple menorah, have been interpreted in various ways throughout the ages. What does this teach us about the nature of communication?