“The Best of Parashat HaShavuah” Articles taken from list subscriptions on the internet, edited, reformatted and printed for members of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu




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THE PARADOX OF WARFARE AND THE INTRODUCTION OF HIGHER IDEALS

The above episode affords us a striking example of the troubling ethical contrasts that dot the story of Israel's conquest of the land. On the one hand, the defenders of the A’i and its inhabitants, "men and women, all of them" (8:25), are killed, and the town is burned to the ground. On the other hand, the body of the king is not left to ignominiously rot on the gallows, but is instead removed according to Yehoshu’a's directive, and thus preserved from further degradation. As an earlier example of this dissonance, consider the complete obliteration of Yericho and its people in Chapter 6 of that book, even while Yehoshu’a meticulously fulfilled the oath of preservation vouchsafed to Rachav the Harlot (!) and to her extended family (see Sefer Yehoshu’a Chapter 2).

While the moral aspects of Israel's war of conquest is a discussion that merits a more thorough treatment that is beyond the scope of this article, let us for now take note of the fact that while the account in Sefer Yehoshu’a clearly speaks of defeat, death and destruction, it lacks any triumphalist tones whatsoever, and nowhere glorifies the acts of conquest that it describes. The blood that is shed in the passages of the book is nowhere degraded nor is the enemy anywhere portrayed contemptuously, and in this important sense, the narratives of Sefer Yehoshu’a differ from all other accounts of wars that have descended to us from antiquity. It therefore seems that the minor act of humanity described above – the burial of the defeated king of A’i – must be understood from this perspective, for it is in fact indicative of more comprehensive truths.

The deference shown to the defeated king of A’i constituted a glimmer of hope in the otherwise barren moral landscape that was the ancient (and is still the modern!) Near-Eastern world. The text obviously took pains to point out that the king's body was removed from the gallows at sunset, even though this detail was certainly extraneous to the larger story. By so doing, the narrative not only aimed to indicate to us that Yehoshu’a was a conscientious student of the Book of Devarim, but perhaps more importantly to emphasize that although 'war is hell', the army of Israel was called upon to execute their strategic objectives without wanton cruelty or gratuitous violence. There was no MILITARY reason for the king's body to remain on the gallows indefinitely. Combatants that would cheer such a grotesque display willingly nurture a feral blood lust that is, in the end, self-consuming. In war, the enemy must be neutralized, but the image of God in which man was created must not be forfeited.

THE ALTAR AT MOUNT ‘EVAL

The theme is therefore amplified by the unusual episode that follows, namely the fulfillment of our Parasha’s directive:

Then, Yehoshu’a built an altar to God Lord of Israel at Mount ‘Eval. (He built it) as Moshe the servant of God had commanded the people of Israel, as is stated in the book of Moshe's Torah, that whole stones should be used, stones that had not been hewn by implements of iron. They offered burnt sacrifices to God and presented peace offerings. He inscribed upon the stones the repetition of Moshe's Torah that he had presented to the people of Israel…Afterwards, he read all of the words of instruction, the blessing and the curse, in accordance with what is stated in the Book of the Torah. Nothing that Moshe had commanded was omitted, for Yehoshu’a read all of it in the presence of the entire congregation of Israel, the women, the children, and the converts who were among them… (8:30-35).

No wonder Rabbinic tradition insisted, against the straightforward chronology of Sefer Yehoshu’a and at the danger of introducing serious geographical difficulties to the account, that the people of Israel fulfilled the injunction to erect the altar at Mount ‘Eval ON THE VERY DAY that they crossed the Yarden and entered the land, as the literal reading of Devarim implies: "on the day that you pass over the Yarden into the land that God your Lord gives you, than you shall erect large stones and cover them with plaster…" (27:3). The intent of their reading was to emphatically declare that Israel could only survive the passage over the Yarden and the entry into Canaan if they put God's Torah at the forefront of their concerns and their mission as His people as their national objective.

And in the context of the war against idolatry as recorded in Sefer Yehoshu’a, the message was especially pertinent. Israel's war of conquest could not be allowed to become a war of pillage, booty and sacrilege. Their army had to adopt much more exalted aims. Though they would need to shed blood in order to secure their place in the land, they were not to be consumed by that bloodshed so that it would become the foundation of their state and the essence of its regional policies. Though they were not permitted to brook any compromises with idolatry, nevertheless they were to remain cognizant of the spark of divinity that animates and ennobles every human being.

Therefore, like the dignified removal of the King of A’i from the gallows, in spite of the complete annihilation of the town's inhabitants that preceded it, the description of the building of an altar at ‘Eval in the aftermath of Israel's bloody victory should not be understood as a study in irreconcilable contrasts. Rather, it is the deliberate introduction of more exalted ideals that, if adopted and nurtured, can yet transform the world of men, even as evil must be engaged and soundly defeated.

B) SICHAT ROSH YESHIVA


HhHhHhHhHhHhHhHhHhHh

7- AISH HATORA

(C) 1999 Aish HaTorah International - All rights reserved. http://www.aish.com/

A) WHAT'S BOTHERING RASHI (Avigdor Bonchek)

Deuteronomy 11:27

"The blessing, that you heed the commandments of Hashem, your God, that I command you today."

RASHI

The blessing - RASHI: On condition that you heed.

This short comment is, what I call, a Type II Rashi comment. That means that Rashi has inserted just a few of his own words in between the Torah's words. In such cases, Rashi usually is not bothered by something in the verse; rather, he wants to guide us around a possible misunderstanding. But, I would say here that in spite of the style, Rashi is bothered by something.

What would you ask here?

QUESTIONING RASHI

A Question: What has Rashi told us here and why the need to comment at all? What prompted his comment?

Hint: Compare our verse with the next verse.

WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?

An Answer: Verses 27 and 28 speak of the blessing and the curse that will follow as a consequence to those who follow God's word and those who do not.

Do you see the difference between the wording of these verses?

Verse 27: "The blessing: That you heed the commandments of Hashem..." Verse 28: "The curse: If you do not heed the commandments of Hashem..."

We have highlighted the difference between the two verses.

"The blessing that you will heed..." "And the curse if you do not heed..."

Why does our verse use the word "that" ( Hebrew "asher")? The conditional "if" ( Hebrew "im") would seem more fitting. This is what we have in the next verse. This is what Rashi is responding to.

How does his two-word comment help matters?

UNDERSTANDING RASHI

An Answer: Rashi's use of the words "on condition" (Hebrew "al menas") has a precise meaning in the Talmud. The Sages tell us that whoever says "on condition that" is as if he said "from now."

This can be illustrated when we compare two sentences.

If I say to a car mechanic: "You have $100 on the condition that you repair my car."

Or if I say: "I will pay you $100 if you repair my car."

In the first case the money is given up front with the condition that the mechanic do the work. In the second case, no money is given unless and until the work is done.

With this in mind, let us look at these verses and see what difference this verbal nuance makes. What difference do you see?

An Answer: The blessing is given "on condition," says Rashi. This means that God gives His blessing even before we have fulfilled His conditions. God is willing to give us of His bounty on credit; on the understanding that we will, in the future, fulfill His conditions. The curse, on the other hand, is not given "on condition"; it is not inflicted unless and until the people transgress God's commandments.

THE LESSON

This is an encouraging and benevolent picture of God's ways in this world. His blessings of food, shelter and security are basic givens of this world. He placed them here for us to enjoy. Only if and when we transgress his Torah - which is a Torah of Life - are we in danger of losing these blessings. The punishments, on the other hand, come only if (when) we don't follow His ways. We could say the punishments are inherent, natural, outcomes of straying from His path, from His Torah of Life.

This idea is, in fact, built into these verses. You may have noticed that even though we are talking about conditional phrases, nowhere are the consequences mentioned.

"The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of Hashem, your God..."

Notice that the blessing is nothing extrinsic (for example: becoming rich) to fulfilling God's word; it is identified with "heeding the commandments of Hashem." It is as if the Torah says: Doing good is its own reward.

Likewise, as regards the curse. The Torah says:

"And the curse, if you do not heed the commandments of Hashem..."

The curse, itself, is identified with not heeding the commandments. Again, the message is that doing evil is its own punishment.

The Sages in Pirkei Avos put it succinctly: "The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah; the reward of sin is sin."

B) FAMILY PARASHA


HhHhHhHhHhHhHhHhHhHh

8 Covenant and Conversation

Covenant and Conversation, a unique new Torah commentary from the Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks

Listen to these stories. Behind them lies an extraordinary insight into the nature of Jewish ethics:

Story 1. Rabbi Abba used to bind money in his scarf, sling it on his back, and place it at the disposal of the poor. [Ketubot 67b]

Story 2. Mar Ukba had a poor man in his neighbourhood into whose door socket he used to throw four coins every day. Once the poor man thought, “I will go and see who does me this kindness.” That day Mar Ukba stayed late at the house of study and his wife was coming home with him. As soon as the poor man saw them moving the door [to leave the coins] he ran out after them, but they fled from him and hid. Why did they do this? Because it was taught: One should throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than publicly put his neighbour to shame. [Ketubot 67b]

Story 3. When Rabbi Jonah saw a man of good family who had lost his money and was ashamed to accept charity, he would go and say to him, “I have heard that an inheritance has come your way in a city across the sea. So here is an article of some value. Sell it and use the proceeds. When you are more affluent, you will repay me.” As soon as the man took it, Rabbi Jonah would say, “It's yours is a gift.” [Vayikra Rabbah 34:1]

These stories all have to do with the mitzvah of tzedakah whose source is in this week’s parsha:

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need . . . Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land. [Deut. 15: 7-8, 10-11]

What we have here is a unique and still remarkable programme for the elimination of poverty.

The first extraordinary fact about the laws of tzedakah as articulated in the Oral tradition is the concept itself. Tzedakah does not mean “charity”. We see this immediately in the form of a law inconceivable in any other moral system: “Someone who does not wish to give tzedakah or to give less than is appropriate may be compelled to do so by a Jewish court of law” (Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 7:10). Charity is always voluntary. Tzedakah is compulsory. Therefore tzedakah does not mean charity. The nearest English equivalent is social justice.

The second is the principle evident in the three stories above. Poverty in Judaism is conceived not merely in material terms: the poor lack the means of sustenance. It is also conceived in psychological terms. Poverty humiliates. It robs people of dignity. It makes them dependent on others – thus depriving them of independence which the Torah sees as essential to self-respect.

This deep psychological insight is eloquently expressed in the third paragraph of the Grace after Meals:

Please, O Lord our God, do not make us dependent on the gifts or loans of other people, but only on Your full, open, holy and generous hand so that we may suffer neither shame nor humiliation for ever and all time.

As a result, Jewish law focuses not only on how much we must give but also on the manner in which we do so. Ideally the donor should not know to whom he or she is giving (story 1), nor the recipient know from whom he or she is receiving (story 2). The third story exemplifies another principle: “If a poor person does not want to accept tzedakah, we should practice a form of [benign] deception and give it to him under the guise of a loan” (Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7: 9).

Maimonides sums up the general principle thus: “Whoever gives charity to the poor with bad grace and averted eyes has lost all the merit of his action even though he gives him a thousand gold pieces. He should give with good grace and with joy and should sympathise with them him in his plight, as it is said, ‘Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor?’ [Job 30:25]” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10: 4).

This is the logic behind two laws that are otherwise inexplicable. The first is “Even a poor person who is dependent on tzedakah is obliged to give tzedakah” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7: 5). The law seems absurd. Why should we give money to the poor so that they may give to the poor? It makes sense only on this assumption, that giving is essential to human dignity and tzedakah is the obligation to ensure that everyone has that dignity.

The second is the famous ruling of Maimonides that “The highest degree of charity, exceeded by none, is when a person assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment – in a word by putting him in a situation where he can dispense with other people's aid” ((Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10: 7).

Giving someone a job or making him your partner would not normally be considered charity at all. It costs you nothing. But this further serves to show that tzedakah does not mean charity. It means giving people the means to live a dignified life, and any form of employment is more dignified, within the Jewish value system, than dependence.

We have in this ruling of Maimonides in the 12th century the principle that Muhammad Yunus rediscovered in our time, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize: the idea of micro-loans enabling poor people to start small businesses. It is a very powerful idea.

In contradistinction to many other religious systems, Judaism refused to romanticise poverty or anaesthetise its pain. Faith is not what Karl Marx called “the opium of the people.” The rabbis refused to see poverty as a blessed state, an affliction to be born with acceptance and grace. Instead, the rabbis called it “a kind of death” and “worse than fifty plagues”. They said, “Nothing is harder to bear than poverty, because he who is crushed by poverty is like one to whom all the troubles of the world cling and upon whom all the curses of Deuteronomy have descended. If all other troubles were placed one side and poverty on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.”

Maimonides went to the heart of the matter when he said (The Guide for the Perplexed 3:27) “The well-being of the soul can only be obtained after that of the body has been secured.” Poverty is not a noble state. You cannot reach spiritual heights if you have no food to eat or roof for your head, if you lack access to medical attention or are beset by financial worries.

I know of no saner approach to poverty, welfare and social justice than that of Judaism. Unsurpassed in its time, it remains the benchmark of a decent society to this day.

HhHhHhHhHhHhHhHhHhHhH

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