There are multiple occasions in the Torah requires that people respond to something:

לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ – Do not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. You should return them to your brother. (22:4)

The key ethic of the instruction is “don’t ignore”; it could perhaps be better phrased, “If you see x, don’t ignore it”. Why is the instruction and prohibition on the incidental seeing, “Do not see..,”, and not on the critical ignoring part?

The Sfas Emes notes that “seeing” is not a purely a a visual function. It also means perception and understanding.

There are different classes of mitzvos, and different reasons for them.

For example, tzedaka, authentic charity, is when the donor feel genuine empathy and affinity towards the recipient. If a person were to just give money away because it’s a mitzva, but didn’t feel empathy towards others, they’ve either done it wrong, or perhaps not at all!

That is precisely the point in this instruction. The prohibition is not just on ignoring over here; and the seeing element is not incidental at all. It is addressing the way we look at things.

לֹא תִרְאֶה… וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ – Don’t see… but ignore!

What the Torah truly demands is that our vision should be free from blindness. When seeing something, notice it, feel it, and respond to it with real feeling.

Moshe makes a point of telling the gathered people not to overlook things they aren’t keen on:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם-וְשָׁמַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – When you finally listen (עֵקֶב) to the laws, observe and perform them; Hashem will safeguard you, and uphold the covenant sworn to your fathers. (7:12)

עֵקֶב is the word for “heel”; it denotes some definition of stepping. Keep the mitzvos that are neglected, and God safeguards you.

R’ Shlomo Farhi observes that the conclusion of that section evokes nearly identical imagery:

כָּל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר תִּדְרֹךְ כַּף רַגְלְכֶם בּוֹ לָכֶם יִהְיֶה מִן הַמִּדְבָּר וְהַלְּבָנוֹן מִן הַנָּהָר נְהַר פְּרָת וְעַד הַיָּם הָאַחֲרוֹן יִהְיֶה גְּבֻלְכֶם. לֹא יִתְיַצֵּב אִישׁ בִּפְנֵיכֶם פַּחְדְּכֶם וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם יִתֵּן | יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תִּדְרְכוּ בָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָכֶם – Every place the soles of your feet tread will be yours… No man will rise up before you; the Lord will cast fear of you and the dread of you on the land upon which you tread… (11:24,25)

The conquest of Israel is through תִּדְרֹךְ כַּף רַגְלְכֶם. But that is not actually a method of acquisition at all. R’ Farhi teaches that the meaning here mirrors that of earlier. The beginning and end of the parsha denote the entirety of a journey – by understanding the true sanctity of what is “stepped on” – you become someone who treads carefully, and grows and acquires through his steps.

However – this is only true if we internalise the lesson of וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן. What if we don’t get it?

The very next sentence, the opening of the next section, addresses this:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָֽה – See how I place before you a blessing and a curse… (11:26)

רְאֵה – “Look; see! I need you to get this!”

The definition of the curse is not having the crystal clarity of the lesson. It would be impossible to sin, the way you don’t put your hand in a fire. It’s about perception; like associating a cigarette as death.

Through not following everyone else’s footsteps you blaze a trail of your own.

It is common knowledge that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. Less talked about is the First Temple, which is surprising. Surprising, because the precursor to it’s destruction was well documented; the First Temple was still the era of prophecy. God Himself spoke in His own words about the problems of the era, lamenting through the prophets what had ruined the society of the time.

We are told that each generation that does not see the Temple rebuilt has participated in it’s destruction. This is very harsh, but logical. It means that were such a generation to have a Temple, it’s deeds would eventually lead to it’s eventual destruction. We are part of the problem if we cannot develop and sustain a society that is morally and ethically upright. 

The Shabbos before Tisha b’Av is Parshas Dvarim, known as Shabbos Chazon – named for the opening words of the Haftora, Chazon Yishaya. An extract:

שִׁמְעוּ דְבַר-ה קְצִינֵי סְדֹם הַאֲזִינוּ תּוֹרַת אֱלֹהֵינוּ עַם עֲמֹרָה. לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי. כִּי תָבֹאוּ לֵרָאוֹת פָּנָי מִי-בִקֵּשׁ זֹאת מִיֶּדְכֶם רְמֹס חֲצֵרָי. לֹא תוֹסִיפוּ הָבִיא מִנְחַת-שָׁוְא קְטֹרֶת תּוֹעֵבָה הִיא לִי חֹדֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת קְרֹא מִקְרָא לֹא-אוּכַל אָוֶן וַעֲצָרָה. חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח נִלְאֵיתִי נְשֹׂא. וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶם כַּפֵּיכֶם אַעְלִים עֵינַי מִכֶּם גַּם כִּי-תַרְבּוּ תְפִלָּה אֵינֶנִּי שֹׁמֵעַ יְדֵיכֶם דָּמִים מָלֵאוּ. רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ. לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה

“Listen to Hashem, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to the law of our God, people of Gomorrah!”

“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”, says Hashem. “I am stuffed from your burnt offerings and sacrifices of rams and the fat of cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me!

“Your celebrations of Rosh Chodesh and Shabbos and your fast days, are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings! I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you raise your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you might offer many prayers, I will not listen, because your hands are covered with the blood of innocents!

“Wash yourselves and become clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways; learn to do good. Seek justice! Help the oppressed and vulnerable! Defend the cause of orphans! Fight for the rights of widows!” – (1:10-17)

There were many prophets whose stories did not make the canon of Tanach; the ones that were included were selected because of their resonance beyond their time.

The prophet goes too mention corrupt leadership and bribery. It is impossible to rid society of evil completely; even in the most ideal world, there would still be a justice system. This is a recognition of human choice and error. But this is when a society is challenged; when evil rears it’s ugly head, how do we respond? It ought to be forcefully and definitively dealt with. This is why perversion of justice may be the ultimate crime. If a society is too corrupt and bent to protect it’s citizens, people can be trodden on without ramification. That society, in a subtle, but very real way, endorses and protects criminals and predators. If only individuals care, that society is morally bankrupt. Where is the compassion?

How many of our vulnerable people are unprotected? Every year there is another scandal, another cover up, another aguna, another molester, another abuser. When our institutions and leaders fail to remove criminals or call them out for what they are, it is a betrayal at our expense. We are not a community if we do not protect and ease the burdens of our brothers and sisters. There is grave injustice when individuals proven dangerous beyond reasonable doubt are allowed to retain influence. That this could be a veiled reference to any one of numerous incidents says a lot about where we are.

A generation that does not see the Temple rebuilt has participated in it’s destruction. The prophet’s words echo, and it is chilling. 

Don’t misunderstand this. This is not a polemic against our leaders. This is a call to action directly to you. Don’t rely on other people for a job you could and should be taking on. We need you.

We have much to be proud of today, but make no mistake; we cannot launder or buy off mediocrity in one area with excellence in another. The people of that time were diligent and meticulous in their prayer and sacrifice, yet so awful at other things. The amount and scale of Torah study and charity in the world today is phenomenal, and unprecedented in history. But how much is it really worth if we do not act like God’s ambassadors on this world? God Himself addresses this:

לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי – “I am stuffed from your burnt offerings and sacrifices of rams and the fat of cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats!” (1:11)

The lessons we ought to learn from history knock on our door, repeatedly, louder and louder. In Moshe’s parting address to the people he spent his life trying to save, he says to them:

אֲדַבֵּר אֲלֵיכֶם וְלֹא שְׁמַעְתֶּם – “I spoke; yet you would not listen!” (1:43)

We see problems around us, and we do not fix enough of them. Praying more, with greater intensity, is not the solution that these problems require. We just need to fix them! If we had a Temple today, we would lose it; otherwise it would be here. How can we fast, weep, and pray when there are so many poor, hungry, abused, and other vulnerable people around us? Is it something to be proud of that we are in dire need of so many excellent charities and outstanding individuals? Such individuals and organisations lead the way for the rest of – but they do not remove our own obligations.

It is so easy to make that difference; resolve to be better, in a real, substantial, accountable way. 

Volunteer more. Give more charity. Give food and clothes away. Make sure no child is left without a school. Participate in your community. Use any influence you have, talk to influential people, and make that difference. Even if it’s just you alone. Take responsibility for the people around you, who don’t yet know that you are someone they can rely on to help them.

Our enemies label us as cruel; but they could not call us cruel, unless on some level, we are also cruel to our own. In 2014, some Jews killed someone; something unheard of. While there was a unanimous and load global outcry from our communities, something about the way we educate and raise young people generated that grotesque tragedy. They killed a person, another human being, who was so “other” in their minds that it did not matter that he was innocent. And we all think that way to some extent.

So read Chazon. Because it reads like it was written especially for us. If it’s too hard to motivate yourself to cry for what happened long ago, then cry for now; for how far we are from where we are meant to be, for the agony in our communities. Cry for the all the injustice around you that you can’t seem to do anything about; tears that burn. I know I will. 

צִיּוֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה וְשָׁבֶיהָ בִּצְדָקָה – “Zion will be redeemed through justice; it’s restoration will be through righteousness.” (1:27)

Midrashim are cryptic, and often misunderstood. They are metaphors, literary devices that encode how Chazal understood stories in the Torah.

There is a Midrash that teaches that before Creation, God went to all the nations that would one day be and offered them the Torah. Each time the offer was made, all the nations inquired what they would be bound to do. All the nations, except the Jews, who accepted without knowing what it entailed.

What is this Midrash about?

The Midrash does not say the Jews would not care what was in it. If they had been asked, perhaps the response would have been about gossip, and the Torah would be declined! The Midrash does not mean that the Jews do not care about the pitfalls. R’ Chaim Brown explains that the Midrash is about something else entirely – relationship. R’ Binyamin Finkel gives a simple analogy.

If a broker you do not know calls, and gives a half hour window to make a large investment that he assures you would give large returns, there would be a lot of questions to ask. It is perfectly reasonable to want to know what you’re getting yourself into – the Midrash is not speaking of a deficiency in the nations for their questions. The questions are fair. “What would this agreement require from me?”

Instead, consider that your parents, or in-laws, were the ones on the phone, offering a half hour window in which to join a venture of theirs. Undoubtedly there are risks, but with the love and trust of the relationship, there needn’t be any questions.

This is what the Midrash is about. Whatever duties the Torah requires are worth taking on, because it is our Father offering the package.

A fundamental precept of Teshuva is that it is not necessarily confined to the individual’s personal relationship with Hashem. The obvious examples are transgressions against other people, in the event of which their forgiveness must be sought; and acts of public disgrace – Chillul Hashem.

When Moshe exhorts the people to commit to being God’s people, he warns them not to ascribe any negativity to God, because it is only projection:

שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם: דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ, וּפְתַלְתֹּל – Destruction is not His; it is His children’s defect, crooked and twisted generation. (32:5)

R’ Avrohom Shor points out that by saying this, Moshe was raising awareness of the realities people create. Transgressions and mistakes are genuinely bad – for you and the people around you. It’s quite simple – if you gossip a lot, the people you surround yourself with will gossip lots too. If you shout, people will shout at you, etc.

When a person wishes to change, although ideally, the slate is wiped clean, that is not always so simple. There are some things that can’t be taken back. Imagine the angry, rude, gossip around young children over a period of time. If, some time in the future, this person wished to change, he could change his behaviour – but what of all the young, impressionable people who observed and learnt from his conduct? The children don’t necessarily see the changed man, his Teshuva – they see the example that was set.

This was Moshe’s warning – שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם – wayward children are not God’s fault. We are the ones responsible.

In our prayers over the Yamim Noraim, we frequently say how only God truly knows the reality of all things as they are:

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם – What is hidden is for Hashem; the revealed things are for us and our children together. (29:28)

R’ Ahron Belzer would often remark in the buildup to the Yamim Noraim that sometimes, it’s ok to reveal certain hidden things. Let your family see the changes in you, and not go on thinking that you’re just the same. This is especially important regarding young children – make sure that who you really are is someone worth showing them.

There is a skill to receiving a compliment, and stating the truth of things, that does not have to be arrogance. There is nothing more arrogant than faux humility – always be proud to say you’ve work hard for something.

One of the traits heralded by the Gemara as particularly Jewish is humility. Moshe emphasised that the people’s lack of stature was a good thing:

כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לה אֱלֹהֶיךָ: בְּךָ בָּחַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, חָשַׁק ה בָּכֶם–וַיִּבְחַר בָּכֶם: כִּי-אַתֶּם הַמְעַט, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים. כִּי מֵאַהֲבַת ה אֶתְכֶם – You are a holy people to God. It is you He has selected, to be His chosen people, from all other nations on the face of the earth. You have not been chosen because you are mighty; in fact, you’re small. Purely because He loves you so… (7:6-8)

The Midrash says that this is a reference to humility – we are beloved because we make ourselves “small”.

The Sfas Emes says that the רֻבְּכֶם / מְעַט dynamic, of majority versus minority, frequently recurs. Jews have always been a minority; there are fewer Jews alive today than the margin of statistical error in the Chinese census! But in content, Jews contribute a disproportionate amount of knowledge and achievements to the world. This is our heritage from our ancestor, Yakov.

Yakov was so called because his name derives from being marginalised and disadvantaged, against all odds – or, מְעַט. He was Yakov because he was born clutching the heel – עקב – of the mighty Esav. He had to run away as Yakov. It requires shrewdness to overcome the challenges faced – shrewdness also being a derivative of the word עקב.

But after surmounting everything in his way, he is no longer the disadvantaged, shrewd Yakov. He is given a new name, Yisrael, a derivative of שר א-ל – a minister of God. The name שר indicates his mastery over all the obstacles he has overcome, to face the world and lead – or, רֻבְּכֶם.

The names linger on in our identity. But not everyone is equally gifted or talented; some people are predisposed to greatness with all the tools at their disposal. So is it not a level playing field?

The Sfas Emes explains that the מְעַט aspect of Yakov in everyone is the same. Everyone can do with reducing the mundane aspects if their lives. Everyone can display a little more gratitude and humility. Everyone would do well to not take their things or relationships for granted.

It is the מְעַט aspect that makes the difference, because that is what really makes the רֻבְּכֶם aspect. Yakov could only become Yisrael after dealing with the challenges that every ordinary Yakov has.

Not everyone can save the world, because not everyone is blessed with such ability. But everyone can certainly contribute that little more, to make the world that little bit better.

Moshe tells the Jews that the Torah is the focal point of life and living, around which all other things revolve:

ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ דִּבֶּר אֵלֵינוּ, בְּחֹרֵב לֵאמֹר: רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת, בָּהָר הַזֶּה. פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם, וּבֹאוּ הַר הָאֱמֹרִי וְאֶל-כָּל-שְׁכֵנָיו, בָּעֲרָבָה בָהָר וּבַשְּׁפֵלָה וּבַנֶּגֶב, וּבְחוֹף הַיָּם–אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַלְּבָנוֹן, עַד-הַנָּהָר הַגָּדֹל נְהַר-פְּרָת – “Our God spoke to us at Sinai, saying, “You have dwelt long enough at this mountain. Travel to the mountain of Emori, and to all its neighbouring places, in the plain, on the mountain, and in the lowland, and in the south and by the seashore, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, until the great river…”” (1:6,7)

Sinai was a monumental event. Rashi notes how at that moment, the Jews were given Torah, mitzvos, the Mishkan, its utensils, government.

R Ahron Bakst notes that the opening mention of Sinai does not continue with further discussion of that incredible moment, but rather, that the Jews must move on. Moshe says that once Sinai is achieved and actualised, פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם – it’s time to get going.

The Torah is תורת חיים – instructions for living. R Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the Torah is given in the desert – a bubble, a vacuum of civilisation. Their economy was suspended for forty years – everything was free, easy, and abundant. Life was elemental. Life was stripped of its grandeur, power and glory; they were in the womb, so to speak. This is how the Torah is earned and acquired.

This is also the function of exile – a return to the wilderness, a return to the womb to reacquaint ourselves with our duties.

Moshe told the people that if the heights of the Torah can be retained, going out into the world is not scary; it is natural. This is the shining light we can be.

One of the mitzvos recited daily is the duty to love God:

וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ – Love Hashem your God, with all your heart, soul, and things… (6:5)

The question commonly asked is how exactly can emotion be commanded? Emotions are responses; they are there or they aren’t. How is the feeling of love demanded of us?

The Sfas Emes explains that the existence of the instruction can only mean that the emotion is not borne in a vacuum. The ability to love God is imbued in everyone, and is only dormant. The instruction is to find it.

The same is true of most (all..?) things. The Gemara says to believe someone who claims to discover something after hard work. Curiously, it says “discovers”, not “earns”. The word “discover” means dis-cover, or uncover. Electricity was discovered, not invented.

It is said that an angel teaches a child the entire spectrum of knowledge to a baby in the womb, but at birth, it is tapped on the face and forgets it all. This serves to illustrate that knowledge alone is not the goal. The curse of Adam is to toil and work hard. The Vilna Gaon points out that the knowledge is always there, but birth and life are a gift to enable the ability to earn it. Perhaps the curse of Adam isn’t really a curse at all then. The achievement has accrued value due to the effort put into its acquisition.

Perhaps then, the initial question is fundamentally flawed. Something has slipped under the radar. One of the Ten Commandments is לא תחמוד – Do not covet. Jealousy is an emotion too, yet there are no questions about commanding emotion.

The Ibn Ezra explains that emotions can actually be worked on – that is the subtext of the mitzva. The way to not be jealous of someone’s property is to view it as out of your league. Most normal people aren’t jealous that a billionaire owns a fleet of yachts or a private island in the Caribbean. The way to not be jealous is to understand that some people have yachts and islands, your friends have a house or car, and you have what you have. Jealousy is completely suppressed in this way – mitzva accomplished.

Working on this is deeply significant beyond the applications of jealousy. Simply put, is jealousy really one of the top ten laws of Judaism this top ten in Judaism? Consider then, that it appears in the Ten Commandments.

Perhaps the instruction is that emotional development is required of us. It starts with not being jealous, and can develop into וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ

Rivka had a difficult pregnancy and was often pained. One particular time, she lamented:

וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-ה.
(25:19-20)

Chazal understand that each time she walked past a holy place, one child would agitate, and each time she walked past a place of idolatry, the other would agitate.

Not yet knowing it was twins, she could not understand what she was experiencing – לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי – (Literally) “Why is this happening to me?”.

She inquired her about her condition, and learned she was expecting twins, calming her:

וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-ה וַיֹּאמֶר ה לָהּ, שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנך – She went to a prophet, and he said to her, “There are two nations within you”.

But if what bothered her was the children moving around, how does the new information that she was expecting twins address the issue?

R’ Chaim Brown suggests a fascinating resolution. When Moshe reviews the Torah in his final speech to the people, he tells them:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָֽה – See how I place before you a blessing and a curse… Good and Evil. (11:26)

The obvious meaning is that there is a choice between two archetypes: good and evil, and we are implored to choose wisely.

But there is a different implication. אָנֹכִי means the first person, the self, “I”. What kind of אָנֹכִי do we each wish to be?

Tying this to Rivka’s problem, R’ Brown frames her problem and resolution in a different light:

לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי – where is the אָנֹכִי in this child? Does he want to go to holy places, or serve idols? This child has no אָנֹכִי – he is confused! And the prophet replied to her:

שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵך – It is not one confused child, there are two distinct אָנֹכִי archetypes. With this, she was comforted. In a sense, this is the choice laid before us each and every day. With each choice and action, we get to choose to align closer with one way or another. Let’s make it count.

On certain special milestones, a blessing called שהחיינו is made, that thanks Hashem for the opportunity of living to see the momentous event. The completion of the Torah cycle on Simchas Torah seems to fit the criteria of such a milestone event, yet it is not said. Why not?

It isn’t said on Shavuos either, which commemorates the Torah being received, because the blessing of שהחיינו is only said at conclusions – Shavuos is only the beginning.

R Shlomo Farhi points out that the first word in the Torah is בראשית, and the last, ישראל. The first and last letters in the Torah spell out the anagram לב – heart. The Gemara says that what God wants from us is an emotional commitment.

But in the correct order, it also spells out בל, as in בלבל or מבלבל, meaning “confusion” or “mixed up”. When we look at the ocean of Torah looking forwards, it is בלבל – uncharted and unknown territory. But looking back, it is לב. A cycle is never isolated – every new cycle lends further light on previous cycles, and new insights abound.

Truly, this lends light on the adage that the Torah never finishes, and we immediately start again from the beginning. There is truly no end, only a constant battle against בלבל by way of לב, finishing again. And again. And again.

The job is never done, never finished, and as such, no שהחיינו is made – or in other words, there’s no והגיענו!

Moshe reiterates to the people the responsibility they took on when they agreed the covenant at Sinai:

הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה–וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ. אֶת-ה הֶאֱמַרְתָּ, הַיּוֹם: לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו, וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְו‍ֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו–וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ. וַה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו. וּלְתִתְּךָ עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, לִתְהִלָּה, וּלְשֵׁם וּלְתִפְאָרֶת; וְלִהְיֹתְךָ עַם-קָדֹשׁ לה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר – Today, Hashem your God commands you to perform these laws and statutes; to guard and keep them – with all your heart and soul. Regarding Hashem you have said today, that He will be a God to you; that you will walk in his ways, to keep his laws and statutes; and listen to His voice.
Hashem has said of you this day, for you to be a Chosen People for Him, as He has said to you; and you will keep His mitzvos. And He will place you supreme, above all the nations He made; for praise, honour and glory, that you would be a holy nation dedicated to Him, as was said. (26:16-19)

The former part relates to our commitment to the relationship, and the latter, Hashem’s commitment to us. The transition though, is quite difficult: וַה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו – Hashem has said of you this day, for you to be a Chosen People for Him, as He has said to you; and you will keep His mitzvos.

The opening is clearly Hashem speaking of us, but the ending is clearly back to our commitment. How is adherence to Torah related to being called עַם סְגֻלָּה? Whose commitment is this about? And what is the supremacy granted as a result?

Rabbeinu Bachye teaches that being called עַם סְגֻלָּה – “chosen” – is not what it seems at face value. It is not a status we are born with; it is a title earned, an achievement, that we have to strive towards.

In a similar vein, a man does not make the blessing שעשני איש the way a woman says שעשני כרצונו – because איש – to truly be a “man” – is what we spend our lives striving towards.

So too with circumcision, the first mitzva a newborn is party to, is a microcosm of the Jewish mission; perfecting what we have with everything we are given, working towards the ultimate goal of perfection.

Rabbeinu Bachye says that the entire verse pertains to our commitment – לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו – we just have to earn it.

So being chosen is in fact a bestowing of responsibility, but is in turn rewarded with being עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם – supreme over the other nations.

R Shamshon Refael Hirsch writes how when the responsibilities are met, the world becomes a better place. The world is damaged, and being better people bring harmony back, repairing it.

Adam was commanded to “conquer” the world, when he was still all alone. His conquest would be through exercising his free will to listen to God; this is how all the animals knew to come to him to be named – they perceived godliness in him.

The same is true of Yakov – the Torah emphasises how he left Beersheba and went to Charan. The former seems redundant – it should only matter that he arrived somewhere. Clearly, his departure does matter. When someone righteous leaves or goes somewhere, the environment and atmosphere of the place fundamentally change.

There is a story told of a young Chafetz Chaim, who saw the ills of the world, and decided to change the world. Seeing that the task was too monumentally large, he changed his mind, and set out to change his community. After seeing that this too was impossible, he downgraded his ambitions again, and decided that if he could not make them better, he’d start with the man in the mirror.

And by making himself better, he really did change the world.

R Hirsch teaches that by being better people, the world becomes a better place. There is famine, war, child slavery and kidnapping in the world, and while people attempt to deal with the symptoms, it is ultimately futile if humans aren’t more humane.

This is also what we mean when we make brachos, when we say אשר קדשנו במצוותיו; and what we mean we say אתה בחרתנו on Yomim Tovim – וקדשתנו במצוותיך.

The Torah assures us that perfection of the world comes through perfection of ourselves. Introduce a little more humility, kindness and gratitude into your life; and a little less being mundane and materialistic. The world around you may just change.

One of the sections of Moshe’s farewell speech opens with a reiteration on how important it is that people put in real effort:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם-וְשָׁמַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – When you will listen to the laws, observe and perform them; Hashem will safeguard you, and uphold the covenant sworn to your fathers. (7:12)

The Alshich points out the peculiarity of the word עֵקֶב – it is very infrequently found. In addition to which, it doesn’t even seem to change the basic message in the context – were it not to say עֵקֶב, the meaning would remain the same – it hasn’t even been translated above, for this reason.

It seems to be a conditional term, but this raises an issue – in Judaism, we do not perform our duties like workers with the expectation of reward at the end. We are meant to dedicate ourselves regardless. So what is the implication of the conditional incentive clearly stated?

R’ Shlomo Ganzfried explains that the reward is not actually for the net result of the action performed.

The Gemara in Berachos tells how R’ Zeira took a short break from his learning, left the study hall, and decided to sit on the steps outside; so that if a rabbi walked by, he could stand up out of respect and deference, gaining merit while nonetheless being idle from learning.

This evidently indicates that positive attitude and care are independently valuable characteristics to display and exercise, outside of the set mitzvos and laws.

Similarly, the Torah requires anyone who witnesses an event to not withhold testimony. This also means that a witness can not be paid to testify – they are already obligated. However, if someone is hired to investigate something, and they find evidence or the like, they can be still be paid, not violating the above requirement.

This is because they are not being paid for the testimony or presentation of evidence. The payment is for the work and effort put in.

The same is true of the Torah’s affirmation of the reward, exemplified by the story of R Zeira. There may be no reward for the actual mitzva in this world – but showing respect for the accoutrements of Torah is very different.

This is why it is specifically here that the word עֵקֶב – literally “heel” – appears here. It is not conditional on performance at all; indeed, the Torah must be observed under any and all circumstances.

But the legwork, the walking, the effort, are what matters. That makes all the difference. This is the imagery of עֵקֶב.

The entire book of Devarim is one long event – Moshe’s parting words with the nation. It begins with Moshe listing the locations they travelled through, which Rashi notes are thinly veiled hints to the sins and tragedies that took place at each of them.

But if Moshe goal was to rebuke, the way to do that ought to have been through subtle references to the events. The locations were incidental to the events that took place – so why list the places at all?

Perhaps it is because the places themselves are central to understanding how they went wrong.

Teshuva – as delineated by the Rambam – is only fully achieved when the same person, in the same situation, in the same place, do not make the same mistake. The specification of the place is important – sin harms the atmosphere it occurs in, which is then rectified through repentance.

Moshe referenced the locations because they had been damaged by the impact of their behaviour. The Jews were on the cusp of entering Israel – he pleaded with them not to make the same mistakes that they had in the desert. The desert events had been bad, but not catastrophic. Israel would not be like anything they had experienced though, and their actions would have an effect on the environment. We testify this every day in the third paragraph of Shema.

The land of Israel is sensitive to the actions of its residents – Moshe hinted to them to take care of it.

In Moshe’s parting words to the nation, having dispensed his duties, he informs them how they need to face their responsibilities:

ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה – Hashem, your God; He will cross you over, He will destroy the nations before you. (31:3)

The repeated emphasis on הוּא, that “He” will do it, seems strange. Why not just describe how God would take care of them in general?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that the Jews were worried that by losing Moshe, they would lose two advantages; first, that he could and would intercede on their behalf if they erred, such as with the Golden Calf, where his prayer ended the plague and prevented their annihilation; and second, that he would not be leading them in the wars they would inevitably fight on entry into the Land of Israel. They did not (could not?) lose a war with Moshe at the helm.

Moshe addressed the first concern by telling them that they were misplacing their trust – it had never been about him. הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ – the same word used to describe Hashem’s characteristic of forgiveness – עובר על פשע. Moshe explained that in reality, it had been Hashem all along, that He had planted the idea of praying for the Jews in Moshe, and that the desire to forgive would remain. Moshe had simply been a tool for forgiveness, and not the root cause.

Regarding the concern of losing battles, Moshe expressed the same idea – it had never been him leading them to victory – הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה – Hashem had been with them all the time, and would remain so evermore. They didn’t win wars because of Moshe, but because Hashem was orchestrating events.

Perhaps it also sheds light on the law that an army preparing for war did not enlist men who were frightened to fight. Someone who has done all they can to train and prepare must have proper faith in God – fear indicates a lack of belief, and such people cannot take up arms in His name.

The Seforno explains that the whole speech conveys this critical message – that they ought not get caught up in the medium. Hashem supervises and controls everything, and wanting a conduit is dangerous, and in parentheses, possibly idolatrous – this was precisely the rationale behind the Golden Calf. Moshe emphasised that every person alone has a relationship with Hashem, and that intermediaries are not valid representatives for the people themselves.

R Tzadok HaCohen notes how the whole Sefer Devarim – Moshe’s entire speech – can be read as speaking directly to the reader.

Teachers and guides are critically important influences – the Mishna in Avos requires it of us. But living vicariously through a proxy is something else entirely. Moshe was telling the Jews that after 40 years of maturation, they were finally ready to become what they left Egypt to be.

Eventually, the training wheels have to come off.

As part of Moshe’s final speech, he recounts what the Jews went through on their journey through the desert, and how central the Torah was to how they perceived reality:

וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם: אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה לְעֵינֵיכֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לְפַרְעֹה וּלְכָל-עֲבָדָיו, וּלְכָל-אַרְצוֹ. הַמַּסּוֹת, הַגְּדֹלֹת, אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ, עֵינֶיךָ–הָאֹתֹת וְהַמֹּפְתִים הַגְּדֹלִים, הָהֵם. וְלֹא-נָתַן יְהוָה לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת, וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה – And Moshe called all the Jews, and said to them: “You saw all that Hashem did in Egypt, with your own eyes, to Paroh, his servants, and his land. The great miracles and signs; you saw. Hashem didn’t give you a heart to understand, eyes to see, nor ears to hear, until this day.” (29:1-3)

Rashi elaborates that עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה refers when Moshe wrote the Torah in the form we have it, and give it to the Levi’im, who were the tribe entrusted with the responsibility of safeguarding and teaching Torah. What changed then, that he recognised in them understanding and perception?

Rashi explains that when Moshe gave his Torah to the Levi’im, the other Jews protested them being singled out for keeping it, with the worry that perhaps Levi could exclude the other tribes with their monopoly. When Moshe saw their passion and the esteem in which they held the Torah, he praised them.

R’ Leib Salomon inquires what the line of protest may have been. They couldn’t be be concerned that perhaps Levi would misappropriate the Torah for themselves; because how could they? Levi are clearly delineated for public service – would would they serve?

R’ Matisyahu Salomon explains that they were not concerned about an exclusive claim to mitzva performance, but the capacity to be a Torah scholar. When Moshe saw people fighting for the right to study the Torah, he understood how much the Torah meant to them.

R’ Matisyahu points out that “The great miracles and signs you saw” were not enough to persuade Moshe that they had לֵב לָדַעַת, וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ – it was their desire and passion for Torah that precipitated this realisation.

Seeing miracles don’t makes someone a true ambassador of God; it is the struggle, the toil, that comes with intensive Torah study that transforms a Jew; which Moshe called the heart, eyes and ears.

Without it, we are dull, deaf, dumb, blind, and insensitive.

The Jews were assembled on two mountains, Grizim and Eival, for blessings and curses contingent on their observance of the Torah. The tribes were split and ascended the respective mountains as instructed. The people on each peak then answered in unison to the other peak, in a kind of very loud conversation spanning mountains:

אֵלֶּה יַעַמְדוּ לְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הָעָם, עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, בְּעָבְרְכֶם, אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן: שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי וִיהוּדָה, וְיִשָּׂשכָר וְיוֹסֵף וּבִנְיָמִן. וְאֵלֶּה יַעַמְדוּ עַל-הַקְּלָלָה, בְּהַר עֵיבָל: רְאוּבֵן גָּד וְאָשֵׁר, וּזְבוּלֻן דָּן וְנַפְתָּלִי – These tribes will ascend to bless the people, from Har Grizim, (…), and these are the tribes that will ascend for the curse, on Har Eival (…). (27:12-13)

The instructions are not identical. The people blessing ascended “to bless” actively – יַעַמְדוּ לְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הָעָם, whereas the people answering curses ascended “for the curse” – יַעַמְדוּ עַל-הַקְּלָלָה – passively. Why the disparity?

The Kli Yakar explains that curses can only only result from human action. The nature of reality is that all order disintegrates into chaos; and God protects people from this. If people create a distance between themselves and God, bad things may well happen, but it is not a new reality; rather it is due to their protector being masked. The lack of blessing is the curse. When a person feels a distance between them and God, it is not God who has gone anywhere.

But this is not a fixed situation. In Moshe’s opening words to the people at the mountains, he says:

הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה–וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ – On this day, Hashem your God commands you to keep these statutes and laws, and you will guard them and perform them, with all your heart and soul. (26:16)

This is monumental in its context, but equally so today. Rashi notes the use of the present tense; indicating that the same obligations exist every day, no different to the day the Torah and mitzvos were first accepted.

The curse, or lack of blessing, is dynamic. Anything can change, so the commitment has to be constantly fresh – הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה – today is a new day. Be all you can be.

One of the less understood laws of the Torah is that of the Ben Sorer u’Moreh, the rebellious son:

.כִּי יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ וְאֶל שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ. וְאָמְרוּ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקֹלֵנוּ זוֹלֵל וְסֹבֵא. וּרְגָמֻהוּ כָּל אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ בָאֲבָנִים וָמֵת וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ – If a man has a wayward and rebellious son, who does not obey his father or his mother, and they rebuke him, and he still does not listen to them; his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; he is a glutton and a guzzler.”
And all the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die. So shall you cast out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear. (21:18-21)

The underlying reason that a Ben Sorer u’Moreh would theoretically have a death sentence is that Chazal understood that such a child has no boundaries and will eventually murder an innocent person. It is better to die young and innocent than a guilty man later on. This is very difficult to understand, even setting aside the free will paradox implied.

The Torah sets impossible parameters and conditions: the parents have to be united in agreement in every regard for their son be sentenced to death – what parent would do such a thing, let alone both? Furthermore, the age at which Ben Sorer u’Moreh applies is limited to the three months after his 13th birthday; he needs to have stolen a certain amount of meat; itself cooked a particular way; he needs to have drunk a certain amount of wine; all the while on his fathers property. These conditions are so improbable that the Gemara in Sanhedrin writes it off as impossible. The Gemara states that a Ben Sorer u’Moreh never happened, and never will; it is in the Torah simply so that it will be analysed, and its students will be rewarded.

But what reward can the Gemara mean? It cannot be more Torah study, and it cannot be academic. Even without this section, in a hundred lifetimes a person could not hope to complete the entire Torah. The Torah is not lacking material that it needed “filler” content. So what does the Gemara mean that it should be analysed, and those who do so will be rewarded?

R’ Moshe Mordechai Epstein concludes that the laws of a Ben Sorer u’Moreh have a more subtle reward than the ability to study more Torah.

By studying this episode, one discovers the Torah’s approach to parenting, how to raise them properly; and how to prevent straying.

When a child is overindulged, it is detrimental to everyone – the word we use is “spoilt” – this person has literally been ruined. The Ben Sorer u’Moreh is someone who is out of control from adolescence, and the Torah tells us to recognise this characteristic. This is what the Torah means when it says ובערת הרע בקרבך, וכל ישראל ישמעו ויראו – So shall you cast out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear.

The Torah wants kind, balanced human beings; not wild, carefree and selfish people. This tasks us with preventing evil in our children, before it is too late. We are meant to learn from the Ben Sorer u’Moreh as the paradigm of what not to do – וכל ישראל ישמעו.

Perhaps the Gemara itself hints to this. The Gemara says that the function of Ben Sorer u’Moreh is דרוש וקבל שכר – analyse it and receive reward. The Gemara does not say למוד, to study it, but דרוש, analyse it. The reward is וכל ישראל ישמעו, how to raise balanced children.

A tree can be straightened with a splint while still a sapling. It takes twenty years to grow an oak tree, but just a few months to grow a cucumber.

The Torah affirms the importance of charity:

עשר תעשר – you shall tithe… (14:22)

A double statement means to repeatedly do it, an unlimited amount of times. The difficulty this poses is that the Gemara in Kesubos caps the permissible amount of charity at no more than 20% income. These are mutually exclusive concepts.

The Vilna Gaon deduces that if the Torah requires endless generosity, it can only be that the reward for charity is the ability to give more, without hindering the giver. The Gemara in Taanis therefore says that עשר בשביל שתתעשר – a person will never be limited in their ability to to give charity over time.

Moshe calls on Heaven and earth to be witnesses and guarantors to the covenant between God and the Jews:

הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וַאֲדַבֵּרָה וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ אִמְרֵי פִי – Listen, Heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth. (32:1)

In parentheses, it is important to note that Heaven obviously does not mean the sky – there aren’t choirs of angels in the stratosphere. The Torah speaks in metaphors people can understand – Heaven simply means “Beyond”. Earth here likely means the physical, observable universe.

The “action” undertaken is not the same; Heaven is requested to “listen” to the proceedings, literally “to incline an ear”, whereas the earth is merely told “to hear”. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that “inclining an ear” expresses greater attentiveness than “hearing”. Hearing can be done without exerting effort, and without even intending to; but “inclining an ear” clearly indicates a desire to listen.

This is poetic and metaphorical, but still means something, so worth analysing. Why is Heaven a more active participant than earth?

Perhaps it is because while Creation is a fusion of Heaven and earth, Heaven is where the natures and reality of all things are rooted. Things unfold on earth, but more passively, because most (all?) things – outcomes, developments, social conditions, pretty much everything that isn’t based on free will – hinge on extraterrestrial cosmic conditions we call “Heaven” – the control room. Nature is the ultimate servant of God – it has stayed on the path set during the six days of Creation. It couldn’t be otherwise, what with the lack of free will. Nature remains confined to the laws it was created with.

This is why earth is given a more passive role, while Heaven is the back end of things, so given an active role.

As we approach the end of the Torah, it coincides with many of the Chagim. It is vital to remember that all you can do is make a choice – everything else is out of your hands. Be grateful for all the good granted to you, and pray.

Bikkurim is a fundamental mitzva. Rashi at the very beginning of the Torah notes that one of the ways the world is perpetuated is through this mitzva.

This is probably quite surprising to learn. Why is it so fundamental?

The answer is exceedingly simple: it is a microcosm of the entire corpus of Judaism.

Someone acquires a plot of land; weeds it; ploughs; sows; prunes; weeds some more; reaps; dries; processes… And so on. A phenomenal amount of labour and energy is expended to produce something to eat or sell. This mitzva teaches that credit is not due to the farmer. The first thing that flowers and sprouts is taken to Jerusalem, and given to the Kohanim, and part of the presentation ceremony requires him to say, “Thank You, God, for the land and fruit that you have given me,”.

This illustrates that no matter what mankind’s status is; whatever it took to bring home the daily bread; ultimately everything is sourced from Above.

This incorporates kindness, gratitude, faith and humility. If the world was full of kind, humble, grateful, faithful people; wouldn’t the world be magnificently beautiful? It shouldn’t be so surprising then, that bikkurim is one of the reasons justifying the entire Creation.

When a farmer presents bikkurim to the attending kohen, there is a prescribed dialogue that must take place, tracking the early history of the Jewish people:

וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב. וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. וַנִּצְעַק, אֶל-ה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ; וַיִּשְׁמַע ה אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ. וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ ה, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל–וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים. וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, ה; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ – You will answer and say before your God, “The Aramean pursued my father, and he descended to Egypt, and dwelled there, where he became a nation, great and many. Egypt evilly afflicted us, and they gave us hard labour. We cried out to Hashem, God of our fathers, and He heard our cries, and saw our suffering and affliction.
He extracted us from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great wonders and miracles; and brought us to this place. He gave us this land, flowing with milk and honey. And now, see I have brought my first fruit, which God has granted me, and I place it before God,”.
He shall place it before God and bow, and rejoice at all the good he has been given. (26:5-11)

On Pesach, part of the above is quoted in the Haggada, which tracks the development of the Jewish people. This is odd – the actual events are recorded in Shemos, this is only a paraphrase of events there; and not about leaving Egypt at all!

Why does the Haggada quote from bikkurim and not from its proper historical place?

The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the mitzva on Pesach of reciting the story of the exodus is not limited to just telling the story; it must be contextualised with an angle of gratitude, which the historical sections do not have.

Bikkurim is self-evidently about gratitude for the Land of Israel, which has extra special value in the context of liberation from Egypt. So, in reality, discussing Egypt makes a lot of sense in the context of how appreciative we are for the Land; and it also makes sense for the Haggada to quote from somewhere out of place to display gratitude.

Proper gratitude can be learned from the laws of the thanksgiving offering – the Korban Toda.

Along with the animal offering, there were 40 accompanying loaves of bread, with very little burnt or taken by the kohen. They are essential parts of the offering, and are subject to the laws of leftovers – if not consumed by the following morning, they must be destroyed.

This is an impossible task for the owner. Clearly, he is not meant to eat an entire animal and 40 loaves of bread on his own. This is a feast – one he needs to invite many guests to.

The aspect of gratitude this evidently imparts is the innate requirement to publicise it. The Korban Pesach is identical – an entire roast animal that is to be consumed after a full meal, in a tiny amount of time, before midnight. To avoid issues with leftovers problems you need to invite lots of guests and tell them about Egypt – which is precisely how the Seder begins.

The Korban Pesach is essentially a national Korban Toda – brought on release from jail; crossing a sea; crossing a desert; and recovery from illness. The Jews were in bondage and released from Egypt; went through the sea; through the desert, and when the Jews stood at Sinai, they were cured from all ailments.

To really contextualise what gratitude entails, the concluding pasuk in Bikkurim says that וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ – you should rejoice in all Hashem does for you. One just one blanket ‘thank you’, but thank Him בְכָל הַטּוֹב – for each thing individually!

Gratitude means so much more when it is spelled out properly.

One of the terrible realities of war is that civilian populations are often subject to atrocities. Women are particularly at risk from invading forces – such savagery has only recently been recognised as a war crime.

The Torah demands more of its adherents – that all wars be fought with minimal harm and collateral damage to civilians, but recognises the desperation of armies at war. Under such a reality, the Torah introduces a law called Yefas Toar – the captive woman:

כִּי תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֶיךָ וּנְתָנוֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ. וְרָאִיתָ בַּשִּׁבְיָה אֵשֶׁת יְפַת תֹּאַר וְחָשַׁקְתָּ בָהּ וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ לְאִשָּׁה – If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver them into your hands, and you take captives. If you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take her for yourself as a wife. (21:10,11)

Rashi explains that this is not a command, but permission. Soldiers are not required to take captives home; rather, the Torah addresses mankinds evil inclination. But note that the following laws after Yefas Toar are the case of a despised wife, and then a rebellious son. Chazal understand that the juxtaposition means that if the returning solider married the Yefas Toar, he will come to hate her, and their children will be rebellious.

However, the Rambam codifies it as a mitzva, not just permission.

If it’s a mitzva, why does a negative outcome result from it? There is a principle that people doing a mitzva are protected from harm. Secondly, if it is a mitzva, how does it address the evil of mankind?

Perhaps this mitzva demonstrates that the Torah guides the way even when things aren’t going smoothly – בשעת הירידה. The Torah does not say to “marry” her, but to “take her” – as an emergency measure. The laws continue that for 30 days she must shave her head bald, be unkempt, in mourning, and dressed in black rags. This is not meant to be a romantic, attractive and happy marriage. Perhaps the intent of these laws is that the man will realise precisely who he has brought into his house – and will send her home.

Perhaps then, the “evil of mankind” remark is isolated to the heat of the moment. The Torah recognises the impulse and permits the indiscretion, albeit temporarily. He is meant to get rid of her after 30 days. If he marries her after the 30 day window, the Yefas Toar “loophole” expires, and he is, in fact, committing a sin. He is certainly not doing a mitzva, and Chazal identify that marrying this captive non-Jew will cause marital strife and discord, and the offspring of this relationship will not be model Jews.

This is implicit in the statement that it is specifically “if the returning solider married the Yefas Toar, he will come to hate her, and their children will be rebellious,” – if he gets rid of her, he is safe – but after 30 days he is doing no mitzva.

The Torah is the guiding light under all circumstances. This mitzva illustrates that assistance is available to people in need – but people have to take responsibility eventually – there are consequences of not living up to expectations.

One of the laws of a witness who presents evidence in a capital crime, is that if he is caught lying under certain circumstances, he is subject to the punishment he attempted to implicate the innocent man of:

וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְאָחִיו וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ – You shall do to him as he plotted to do to his brother. (19:19)

Rashi notes that the Gemara in Makos deduces that this only occurs if the liar is caught before his plot succeeds, and the innocent man has not yet been framed and killed. The underlying assumption is that the word ‘brother’ implies the innocent man still lives, as ‘brotherhood’ refers to living people.

The Ritva queries out that Yibum references brotherhood, and can only exist when a brother has died, and that Nadav and Avihu are also referred to as brothers after their deaths.

Clearly the answer lies in the definition of brotherhood. What is the difference?

R’ Ezriel Hildesheimer explains that there is a difference between a biological brother and a fraternal brotherhood. A biological brother remains so after death – the relationship is in the blood. It then makes sense for the Torah to refer Yibum and Ahron’s sons as brothers after death.

However, witnesses intrinsically cannot have any blood relationships to people they testify about, as a condition of testimony. The brotherhood then, can only mean the ideological kind – they are brothers in being bound to observe the Torah, the fraternity of the Jewish people. However, once deceased, they are free from the mitzvos – there is nothing binding them as brothers.

This can only mean that כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְאָחִיו refers to a still living person!

The people are presented with a very clear choice regarding their futures:

רְאֵה אָנכִי נתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה – Behold, I am giving before you today a blessing and a curse. (11:26)

Curiously, there is transition from singular – רְאֵה – to the plural – לִפְנֵיכֶם. The choice presented is clearly by God – why specify אָנכִי then; who else would be speaking? It is also given in the present tense – נתֵן – when it ought to say נתתי – ‘I have given’, and with emphasis on הַיּוֹם – today. Further, why is the choice לִפְנֵיכֶם – ‘before you’, and not לכם – ‘to you’?

The Vilna Gaon explains that the choice is not a general stand alone principle; it is a personal, ever-relevant choice. Anyone, at anytime, can become something more, and can repair past misdeeds. Hashem is נתן – ‘giving’ us the choice – in the present tense. The opportunity is always there.

This is accentuated – הַיּוֹם – ‘today’; forget about yesterday. Chazal understand that a Baal Teshuva is like a newborn; a new person by turning over a new leaf.

Despite the niggling self-doubt in the recesses of the mind at the ability to change, Hashem assures that you are not alone – אָנכִי – “I am with you in the struggle”. The Gemara teaches that the evil inclination seeks to consume and destroy mankind, and without God’s help we would be powerless to resist. God is with us.

But the choice remains ours. We have to exercise our free will and make the decision. God can only present the opportunity – אָנכִי נתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם.

R Yitzchak Lande points out that the Torah frequently switches from plural to singular, to teach that although there is an expectation of society – every single Jew has to participate. And if society aren’t doing it, you have to do it on your own.

In a world of fugitives, the person taking the opposite direction will appear to be running away.

In Moshe’s final address to the people, he tells them how each one of them is important:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ לְךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – It will be because you listen to these ordinances, keep and perform them, that the Lord your God will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. (7:12)

When addressing the audience, Moshe alternates between תִּשְׁמְעוּן, the plural, to לְךָ, the singular. Why?

The Gemara in Shabbos records how a non-Jew approached Shamai and offered to convert if Shamai would teach him the entire Torah, standing on one leg. Interpreting the gentile’s words as mockery, Shamai threw a piece of building rubble at him. The gentile approached Hillel and proposed the same. Hillel said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary, now go and study.”

What was the premise of the man’s request? Clearly, the request to learn Torah on one leg is absurd, let alone to ask it of the greatest rabbis of the era. Hillel’s response is curious too. How does his answer incorporate mitzvos such as Shabbos, tefilin, tzitzis etc.?

Moreover, it is simply impossible to accomplish all 613 mitzvos, ever; many are mutually exclusive. Some are specific to gender, age, caste eg Kohanim and Levi’im, kings, during the time of the Temple and so on. One cannot possibly hope to do so.

Shamai spurned him with construction material. The imagery alludes to a building that has many sections, rooms and floors. Without multiple components, it’s not a building. In the same vein, the Torah has many levels, and many mitzvos. Without them all, the Jew is incomplete – there is no “Jew” without “the Jews”. Shamai’s response indicates that the Torah cannot be actualised by an individual; it is paradoxically impossible to fulfill each and every mitzva, one must simply recognise their place in the nation.

Hillel proposed that individuals can associate with all mitzvos – a cog in the machine is inseparable from the machine itself. His directive of וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ means that with unity, the rest of the Torah is innately there. The benchmark of unity is כאיש אחד בלב אחד – one man with one heart. A hat belongs to you, not your head. Similarly, if a Jew performs a mitzva, the entire nation tap into it. With a few simple words, Hillel explained to the gentile how to contextualise Torah directives.

Back to Moshe’s speech, he says וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם – keep and perform them in the plural form, which is said to the entire nation. But nonetheless, in spite of the inability of being able to actually do them all, וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ, Hashem will protect you – the individual. That is, each person should keep what they are truly able, and will be rewarded as such.

This explains why it was necessary to be united at Sinai; without unity, there would be no point in receiving a Torah that could not be fulfilled.

R Yitzchak Lande points out that the Torah switches from plural to singular many times, because although there is a communal responsibility, this doesn’t assuage the individual’s duty to pitch in – even if the job is done!

Everyone has to pull their weight – leave apportionment of credit to God.