Destruction and Centralization – Monopolizing the Worship Market


I want to take a moment to explore Deuteronomy 12:1-7. In doing so, however, I want to make an analogy to the economics of contemporary technology. This is part of a larger goal of “hitting refresh” on the metaphors and analogies we use to talk about God and Judaism. Most of our analogies stretch back aeons and now lack the everyday sensibility that makes metaphors and analogies helpful. The best example of this is traditional comparison of God to a king, when few, if any, people living today have experienced living under a real king. Finding new ways of talking about God and Judaism enables us to better understand God and Judaism, as well as integrating them more into our everyday lived experience. However, analogies and metaphors don’t just convey information, they also shape it. Changing the way we speak about God and Judaism also changes how we think about them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact it offers up exciting possibilities, but it is something we should do with our eyes open. I want to explore some of these possibilities in this post on Deuteronomy 12:1-7, and at least one more on a different topic.

Deuteronomy 12 discusses the laws of centralization and sacrifice that the Israelites must observe after they enter the land of Canaan. These laws open not with Israelite cultic worship, however, but with how they should destroy the physical sites of worship that they find in the land, only thereafter going on to the topic of centralization

These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that the Lord, God of your fathers, is giving you to possess, as long as you live on earth. You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.

Do not worship the Lord your God in like manner, but look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices, your tithes and contributions, your votive and freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Lord your God, happy in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:1-7)

These two paragraphs are generally understood as two contrasting ideas; “here’s how you treat bad worship, here’s how you treat good worship.” The religions of the natives are bad and must be destroyed, while the good religion of the Israelites is meant to be performed at a single location. In what follows I would like to propose that these two paragraphs are not meant to be contrasting ideas but complementary ones, both part of securing the Israelites involvement in the proper form of religious activity.

To get to that idea, I want to look at a two instances from the recent history of the technology market. The first is the role the iPhone played in the competition between Verizon and AT&T in the United States cell phone market.

Back in 2006 Apple sought to release the original iPhone on Verizon; the leading carrier in the U.S., though, was wary of Apple’s demands that there be no Verizon branding, no Verizon control of the user experience, and no Verizon relationship with iPhone users beyond managing their data plan. Therefore, Apple launched the iPhone on the second-place carrier (AT&T née Cingular); AT&T accepted Apple’s demands in full with the hope that Apple’s famously loyal customers would see the iPhone as a reason to switch.

That, of course, is exactly what happened: in the five years following the iPhone launch, AT&T went from trailing Verizon by $400 million in wireless revenue to leading by $700 million; that’s a $1.1 billion switch thanks in large part to Apple loyalists’ willingness to switch carriers to get an iPhone. The effect was even greater on smaller carriers, which had no choice but to accede to Apple’s increasingly demanding terms: not only would Apple own the customers, but carriers had to agree to significant marketing outlays and guaranteed sales to carry the iPhone(Ben Thompson, “Apple Should Buy Netflix”)

Before the iPhone was released, Verizon was the unquestioned leader in the United States, seemingly because of their better service and plans, and they felt very secure in that position. What they did not count on was the power and influence of the physical devices that customers used to access their services. It turned out that the physical devices had the power to be a determining factor. Once the iPhone was introduced, people flocked to it, and that meant flocking to the only cell phone service to which iPhones gave access.

Something similar happened with the introduction of the Windows operation system on IBM computers, before the OS market was really even getting off the ground.

IBM spun up a separate team in Florida to put together something they could sell IT departments. Pressed for time, the Florida team put together a minicomputer using mostly off-the shelf components; IBM’s RISC processors and the OS they had under development were technically superior, but Intel had a CISC processor for sale immediately, and a new company called Microsoft said their OS – DOS – could be ready in six months. For the sake of expediency, IBM decided to go with Intel and Microsoft.

The rest, as they say, is history. The demand from corporations for IBM PCs was overwhelming, and DOS – and applications written for it – became entrenched. By the time the Mac appeared in 1984, the die had long since been cast. Ultimately, it would take Microsoft a decade to approach the Mac’s ease-of-use, but Windows’ DOS underpinnings and associated application library meant the Microsoft position was secure regardless. (Ben Thompson, “The Truth about Windows versus the Mac”)

Demand for the IBM personal computer was high, and it came preloaded with Windows. By virtue of that connection between the physical device and the operating system, Microsoft dominated the market for years, without Apple ever really having a chance. This is exactly the same as what happened with the iPhone, except that the iPhone was being introduced into  preexisting market while the IBM personal computer was basically creating a new one. In this new market, one physical device dominated, and therefore the operating system connected to this device also dominated.

The common idea in both of these examples is that physical objects, like iPhones or personal computers, determine the market, and that when these physical devices are connected to other things, like cell phone plans or operating systems, they give the market to those things. Returning to Deuteronomy 12:1-7, I would like to propose that we should see the laws recorded there as working off this idea in an attempt to shape the Israelites’ religious practice. Instead of iPhones and personal computers, the physical objects here are the places and paraphernalia of worship. When the Israelites destroy any place where the Canaanites worshipped, when they destroy the altars and pillars and trees that the Canaanites used in their worship, they are limiting the physical objects available to them in their worship. If the Canaanite objects are available, the Israelites may flock to them, and thus to the deities connected to those objects. Getting rid of those objects means that the Israelites have no choice but to worship with objects connected to God. Similarly, when God says they have to worship only at one central location, this means that the nature of worship in this one, easily controlled, environment, shapes the Israelites’ religious experience. These are not contrasting laws about how to treat good and bad religion but complementary laws ensuring God’s monopoly in the worship market.

As I said above, however, this new analogy requires some new understandings. This is all based on the idea that there is such a thing as a worship market, that the Israelites will necessarily participate in worship and religion, with the only question being with what physical objects and to which god(s). This assumptions is, I think, fairly well born out by the existence of religion throughout human societies across history. Moreover, it seems fairly evident from Tanakh. The book of Judges is full of the Israelites straying after foreign gods, seemingly for no other reason than the fact that they were there. Once we take that reality as a given, it makes sense that God would attempt to limit the available objects and sites of foreign worship, so as to manage and direct that basic religious impulse.

Perhaps more dramatically, this analogy allows us to move away from seeing Deuteronomy 12:1-7 as being about “bad” religion versus “good” religion. The reason that the Canaanite sites of worship must be destroyed is not because they are “bad” but simply because they are competition. This isn’t to say that they’re “good,” but simply to reevaluate the way we think about issues of idolatry and foreign worship. It is possible that the problem with worshipping gods other than God is less that they don’t exist and that the worship is false and more that we are supposed to be dedicated to God specifically. What other nations do is their own business (which, again, doesn’t make them “right” or “good,” just not our concern). In fact, something like this seems to be expressed in the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, where it is said that the heavenly bodies were given to the nations to worship (4:19) (see my piece on this understanding of idolatry here).

In conclusion, reimagining the laws of destruction and centralization in Deuteronomy 12 as attempts to shape and control a worship market highlights the idea that there is a “demand” for religion and the importance of “customer loyalty.” More importantly, I hope that it makes this passage more understandable to the average reader, and that it makes the ideas therein make more sense and more familiar to them. In another post, I want to look at another new analogy, exploring the connection between the commandments and the reasons for the commandments in light of the connection between hardware and software.

Ki Tavo 5775 – Because You Were Not Happy?

Ki Tavo 5775 – Because You Were Not Happy?

Parashat Ki Tavo describes at length the consequences that the Israelites are threatened with if they do not follow through on their half of the covenant. In the midst of this description there is a verse that has captured the modern imagination.

Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you. (Devarim 28:47-48)

Verse 27, “Because you did not serve out of happiness…” seems to indicate that all of the punishments enumerated in Ki Tavo are enacted solely, or perhaps largely, because the Israelites served God, but were not happy about it. This has given life to mounds of divrei torah and derashot attempting to explain exactly why not being happy is deserving of punishment. But is this really what the verse means? Without yet going into what exactly makes the idea that unhappiness is a reason for punishment so problematic, it’s worth first examining the text to understand why this idea developed and why it is incorrect.

Understanding this Devarim 27:47 means taking a look at it in context of both the pesukim that precedes it and the one that follows it.

מה וּבָאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל-הַקְּלָלוֹת הָאֵלֶּה, וּרְדָפוּךָ וְהִשִּׂיגוּךָ, עַד, הִשָּׁמְדָךְ: כִּי-לֹא שָׁמַעְתָּ, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ–לִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּךְ. מו וְהָיוּ בְךָ, לְאוֹת וּלְמוֹפֵת; וּבְזַרְעֲךָ, עַד-עוֹלָם. מז תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָבַדְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּשִׂמְחָה, וּבְטוּב לֵבָב–מֵרֹב, כֹּל.

45 All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you. 46 They shall be a sign and a wonder against you and your offspring forever. 47 Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things,

So if you start from verse 45 and read through 47, it does seem like maybe the the verse is saying that a lack of happiness is the reason for the punishments. However, there’s already a reason given in verse 45 for why the kelalot will befall bnei yisrael. Meanwhile, verse 47 does not mention so much as and “and” or “also”. If “happiness” is a reason, it sounds like the reason, which contradicts the reason already given in verse 45.

The real problem arises when you look at the language used in each verse. Verse 47 begins with the word “תחת.” Despite the commonness of this translation, “תחת” doesn’t really mean “because” so much as “in place of.” While this is a viable language for “because”, it’s definitely not the simplest way describe a reason. This is all the more striking since verse 45 gives a reason using the more typical language, “ כִּי,” meaning “because.” So it seems like we should look at verse 45’s statement, “because you did not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you,” as the reason for the punishments rather than verse 47. We can then understand verse 47 in it’s proper context of verse 48, and using the proper translation of it’s beginning.

מז תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָבַדְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּשִׂמְחָה, וּבְטוּב לֵבָב–מֵרֹב, כֹּל. מח וְעָבַדְתָּ אֶת-אֹיְבֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ יְהוָה בָּךְ, בְּרָעָב וּבְצָמָא וּבְעֵירֹם, וּבְחֹסֶר כֹּל; וְנָתַן עֹל בַּרְזֶל, עַל-צַוָּארֶךָ, עַד הִשְׁמִידוֹ, אֹתָךְ.

In place of how did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you.

Looking at verse 47 next to the pasuk that follows it, it seems clear that the two verses are a pair. Further, there are strong parallels between the two pesukim, between serving God verses serving “your enemy” and between “an abundance of everything” and “a lack of everything.” The verses are not giving reasons for the punishment but describing two opposing states of existence for the people. The ideal of serving God with plenty, gratitude, and happiness as opposed to serving an enemy in poverty and suffering. Gratitude and happiness are still a part of the discourse, but they are not the reason for the kelalot.

Happiness is hard. It is important, but it is hard. We live in the real world and that means riding the ups and downs of our fortunes. This is affirmed by Devarim 26:11, “You shall rejoice in all that the Lord your God has given you.” Happiness develops based on a complex mix of purpose, meaning, and comfort in life. It would be unfair to say that people must always be happy, and even more so to say that people should be punished for not being happy. Moreover, mitsvot often require self-sacrifice. The Torah asks that of us, and it asks that we make following these mitsvot our way of life, but it does not ask that we hide our eyes from the difficulty often involved. Following the mitsvot is part of a rich way of life, and part of what makes it rich is the dedication and investment involved. Trying to ignore that leads to shallow, self-centered, understandings of the Torah and mitsvot, and ignores the real nature of human beings living in the real world. “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.” (Kohelet 12:13)

Shoftim 5775 – Two Symbolic Interpretations of a Mitsvah.

Shoftim 5775 – Two Symbolic Interpretations of a Mitsvah.

“Do not erect a sacred stone, for these the LORD your God hates.” ~Devarim 16:22

The prohibition of creating a monument stone, a “matsevah“, is side-by-side with a discussion of the altar, “mizbeah“, that the Israelites are allowed to create (16:21).

Contrasting the two structures enables a few suggestions as to why one might be encouraged and the other forbidden.

  1. A matsevah is a single stone while the mizbeah is built of many stones. Unity is less about being contiguous, about being of a single cloth, then about the unity of disparate elements towards a single purpose, the service of God and the fulfillment of God’s Law.
  1. Being a single stone, the matsevah is essentially a natural object, produced by God. The mizbeah is artificial, coming about only through the strength of human hands (Devarim 8:17-18). Holiness and the service of God have less to do with the innate nature of things and more to do with the importance of human action. God has given us a world and asked us, through his law, to sanctify and to distinguish, to elevate it and make it holy (Vayikra 10:10).

Pesah 5775 – The Narrative of Narratives

Pesah 5775 – The Narrative of Narratives

The Mishnah (Pesahim 116a) states that the discussion of the Exodus from Egypt at the seder must “begin with disgrace(גנות) and end with glory(שבח).” The exact understanding of this “disgrace” is the subject of a debate between Rav and Shmuel, with Rav saying that the requirement to start with disgrace is fulfilled by reciting a verses from Sefer Yehoshua (24:2-4) detailing how Bnei Yisrael are descended from idolaters like Terah before they ever went down to Egypt, and Shmuel saying that it is fulfilled by reciting a verse from Sefer Devarim (6:21, 5:15) discussing how Bnei Yisrael were slaves to Paroah in Egypt before ‘א redeemed them.

In the liturgy of our Haggadah we include both passages, making sure we have all of the disgrace covered[1]. This “disgrace to glory” structure dictates the nature of the story of the Exodus from Egypt that is discussed at the seder, ensuring that we cover the full story of ‘א rescuing Bnei Yisrael. This narrative makes it clear just what depths he pulled them out of, whether the spiritual depths of the post-Bavel depths of Bereishit 11 or the physical degradation of the slavery in Egypt. Against the background of this “disgrace” it becomes clear just how great the redemption from Egypt was.

However, the “disgrace to glory(שבח)” structure does more than just give the necessary limits of the recounting of the Exodus. Thanks to the multiplicity of meanings of the word “שבח,” it also creates the basic structure of Magid, the “retelling” portion of the seder. Maggie starts with calls for anyone who even now is in a state of “disgrace” to come and join our table. Then through the retelling of the redemption we pass through the glory of ‘א’s deeds to the point where we burst forth with joyous praise(שבח) of  ‘א with the beginning of Hallel (which we return to after the meal). Thus the experience of fulfilling the seder takes a person from one end to the other of the mishnaic dictum to “begin with disgrace and end with praise(שבח).”

The continuation of the Mishna tells us that out to expound upon the verse, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Devarim 26:5), and in fact a large portion of Magid is dedicated to midrashic exegeses of that whole passage from Devarim (26:5-11). What makes this passage an interesting choice is that it is not itself a passage from the Exodus story. If the goal of the seder, and Magid in particular, is to recount the story of the Exodus, the it would seem more logical to choose a passage from the first half of Sefer Shemot where the Exodus is actually narrated by the Torah. Certainly there is no lack of passages from the Exodus that simply cry out for exposition. Instead, the Mishna says we just delve into the passage recited by a farmer upon bringing the Bikkurim, the first fruits, to the temple. Upon bringing the fruits, the farmer recites a length retelling of the history of Bnei Yisrael from Avraham through the Exodus to their arrival from Egypt into the fruitful land of Canaan. By picking this passage the Haggadah directs our attention not to the Exodus but to the recounting of it.

While this at first glance seems strange, it finds a strong resonance within the other passages of Magid. The passages that Rav and Shmuel each chose are not from Bereishit 11 or from the slavery of Sefer Shemot, but from Yeshoshua’s discussion of Terah and Sefer Devarim’s  to tell your son that we were slaves to Paroah. Thus Rav and Shmuel are also focusing not on retelling the Exodus but on retelling the Retelling of the Exodus. Many of the other passages of Magid are even more explicit in this focus on “retelling the retelling.” In Magid we recount the story of the sages who stayed up all night talking about the Exodus, we discuss the debate between R’ Zoma and the Sages about when you have an obligation to talk about the Exodus, and we talk about the exegesis of the sages regarding how the plagues add up. The passages in which we retell the retelling of the Exodus story are a huge portion of the liturgy of Magid, almost outweighing the passages where we simply retell the story of the Exodus. In speaking these passages we affirm our place in a chain of speakers, in the line of “retellers” going all the way back to first generation out of Egypt.

This chain of speakers itself participates in the narrative of Yetsiat Metsrayim, in the journey from disgrace to glory and praise. In speaking the words of the seder we place ourselves in a chain that stretches back to the Exodus itself, a line of people who have experienced and told of ‘א glorious redemption, from generation to generation, heading to a time when the whole world will sing out in praise of ‘א.

[1] It is possible that the halakhah was decided like Rav and we just have both passages anyway. For more on that, see here.

Parashat Nitsavim-Vayelekh – Following Man vs Following God

הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ

The joint parashot of Nitsavim-Vayelekh begin Moshe’s final farewell to the nation, including a formal covenant, the commandment of Teshuvah, his transferal of leadership to Yehoshua, the commandment of the mitsvah of Hak’hel, and the writing of a Torah scroll to be kept by the Aron. While not the most dramatic or stirring of these events, the appointment of Yehoshua presents us with problematic doublings and contradictions which, when given serious consideration, not only explain or cast new light on various passages in Sefer Devarim and beyond, they also point toward the Torah’s radical conception of leadership and responsibility.

The passage at the beginning of Devarim 31 depicts Moshe telling the people that he will not be leading them any longer, and that Yehoshua will be leading them in his stead. However, that’s not quite what it says.

1 And Moses went and spoke these words to all of Israel. 2 And he said to them: ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no longer go out and come in; and the Lord has said to me: You shall not cross over this Jordan. 3 The Lord your God, He will cross over before you; He will destroy these nations from before you, and you shall dispossess them; and Joshua, he shall cross over before you, as the Lord has spoken.

The first thing that stands out here is that Moshe present’s two reasons for why he will not be leading Bnei Yisrael anymore, (1) that he is too old and therefore physically he is no longer up to the challenge of leadership, and (2) that ‘א has said to him that he shall not cross the Jordan. Either one of these reasons would be sufficient, and certainly once the second has been stated, as it was in Bamidbar 20:12, the first is not only unnecessary but also not quite correct, as ‘א could certainly have strengthened Moshe if he was to continue leading. Moving on from there, we see that in verse three, parallel to these two reasons, there are in fact two leaders. Moshe tells the people that in contrast to himself, their former leader, that the new leader will “cross over before you,” “הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.” However, he uses this phrase not once but twice, by both ‘א and Yehoshua. Moshe seems to say that his role will be filled by both ‘א and Yehoshua. This is, to say the least, odd, and it requires explanation. This explanation can be found in the appointment of Yehoshua in Bamidbar 27.

The twenty-seventh chapter of Sefer Bamidbar starts with the story of the Daughters of Tselophehad, which is really attached to the census that preceded it, and then begins something new, the question of who will lead after Moshe.

12 And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Ascend Har HaAvarim, and behold the land which I have given to the children of Israel. 13 And when you have seen it, you also shall be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother was gathered; 14 because you rebelled against My commandment in the wilderness of Zin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify Me at the waters before their eyes.’–These are the waters of Merivat-Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. 15 And Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: 16 ‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, 17 who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd.’ 18 And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Take you Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him; 19 and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. 20 And you shall put of your honor upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken. 21 And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation.’

This section (Bamidbar 27:12-21) is composed of two distinct passages (27:12-14 and 27:15-21). It is important to note that these are in fact two separate passages[1] (there’s even a break between them), because this pair of passages correspond exactly to the dual pairs of reasons and leaders in Devarim 31. In the first passage, ‘א tells Moshe that he will not be going into the Land of Israel, and, importantly, no replacement leader is mentioned. In the second passage, Moshe asks ‘א to choose a person to replace him after he dies, in order that the nation not be “as sheep which have no shepherd.” This second passage also uses the same language of “going out” and “coming in” (27:17, 21) that Moshe uses in Devarim 21:2, where he says that the reason that he needs a replacement is his physical inability to lead. This dichotomy matches the two reasons and leaders given in Devarim 21, one where ‘א tells Moshe that his leadership is over, and therefore ‘א will lead, and one where Moshe feels he is too old to lead and asks for a replacement, Yehoshua.

This is tied into the hotly debated understanding of the mitsvah[2] regarding appointing a king from Devarim 17.

14 When you have come to the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you shall possess it, and shall dwell in it; and you shall say: ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me’; 15 you shall in any wise set him king over you, whom the Lord your God shall choose; one from among your brethren shall you set king over you ; you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.

Verse 15 certainly does seem to say that the nation is commanded to appoint a king over them, but it is preceded by verse 14, which seems to indicate that the commandment would only apply in the case where Bnei Yisrael indicate that they want a king, like the nations around them, meaning that it is optional. This debate is expressed in the Sifri[3], the halakhic midrash on Sefer Devarim.

“And you shall say, Let us appoint over ourselves a king’ – R’ Nehorai says: This is a matter of disgrace to Israel, as it is written (Shemuel I 8:7) ‘For it is not you whom they have despised, but Me whom they have despised from ruling over them.’ R’ Yehuda said: But it is a mitzva from the Torah for them to request a king for themselves, as it is written, ‘You shall surely appoint over yourselves a king.’ So why were they punished for this in the days of Shemuel? Because it was too early for them to ask. ‘Like all the nations around us’ – R’ Nehorai said, They did not ask for a king for any other reason but so that he would institute idolatry, as it is written (Shemuel I 8:20), ‘And we, too, shall be like all the nations, and our king will judge, and he will go out before us and fight our wars.” (Sifri Shoftim 156)

This debate is picked up in the Rishonim both in their enumerations of the mitsvot and in their commentaries on the Torah. Stepping back to the Tannaim, it is important to note the proof text R’ Nehorai brings indicating that having a king is less than ideal. “For it is not you whom they have despised, but Me whom they have despised from ruling over them” (Shemuel I 8:7). This verse from Shemuel I depicts ‘א stating that desiring a king is not simply choosing from amongst types of human authorities, but choosing a human leader over Divine Authority[4], which is a fairly strong argument for the opinion that having a king is optional at best.

Taking that back to the anointment of Yehoshua, Moshe’s request for a replacement is granted by ‘א, not initiated by Him, which would indicate that in an ideal sense there was never supposed to be any replacement for Moshe, and the people were supposed to be directly under ‘א’s leadership, with no human leadership in between, as is the case in Sefer Shoftim, after Yehoshua’s death, where there is no centralized national leadership. Unfortunately, the people failed to live up to the responsibility of guiding themselves and their society according to the Torah, and so eventually the institution of a King became necessary. Ideally, there was never supposed to be a king, but once there was a need for a king, there was an ideal way for the king to act. The king was never supposed to displace ‘א’s leadership, but his leadership was supposed to encourage the people to follow the Torah. Hence Divrei HaYamim I 29:23, “Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king,” where it’s made clear that the seat of human authority is also meant to be a representation of Divine authority. However, Bnei Yisrael failed in that too, as is clear from most of Sefer Melakhim. This idealization of human leadership as an expression of divine leadership is depicted in  Devarim 31:23, “And he gave Joshua the son of Nun a charge, and said: ‘Be strong and courageous; for you will bring the children of Israel into the land which I swore to them; and I will be with you.” Yehoshua’s strong leadership will be a function of ‘א being with him.

Reading this back into Sefer Devarim sheds new light on many passages. Devarim 17:15-20 depicts the specific laws of the King which put a strong emphasis on the fact that the king must be of the brethren of Israel, and greatly restrict the amount of wealth, horses, and wives that the King may acquire. On the surface these laws would seem designed to keep the king from becoming too arrogant and becoming corrupted by his wealth and power but, based on the above, this would seem to be part of the larger goal of emphasizing that the king is just another member of Bnei Yisrael under the Kingship of ‘א.

Another passage that takes on fascinating new meaning in this light is part of Moshe’s final pep-talk to the people in Devarim 30.

11 For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ 14 But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.

The basic message of this passage is that the people are capable of keeping the Torah, that they need not worry, and cannot claim, that it is too hard for them to keep. However, the specific messages are that the Torah is not in heaven, where the people would need someone to go get it for them, nor is it across the sea, which would bar the people from going to get it. These two impassable obstacles, the breadth of the sea and the height of heaven, were those that were crossed by Moshe as he split the sea and ascended Har Sinai. Thus the message of this passage is not just that the people have the capability to keep the Torah, but more specifically that they do not need Moshe, or his replacement, in order to do so. They themselves are up to the challenge.

Perhaps the most revolutionary thing to appreciate in light of this idea is the mitsvah of Hak’hel (31:10-13). Every seven years, when the people are all in Jerusalem for Sukkot, they are to gather around the king as he reads to them from the Book of the Torah[5], in order that they learn to revere ‘א and follow His Torah. This ceremony is essentially a reenactment of the Revelation on Har Sinai, and there are numerous textual and thematic parallels indicating this[6]. However, it is also parallel to the covenant ceremony described in parashat Ki Tavo that was yet to be enacted on Har Eval, which itself has strong textual and thematic parallels to the Revelation on Har Sinai[7]. The two covenants, that of Har Sinai and Har Eval, are each thought of as the people accepting ‘א’s Torah upon themselves, and they are that. In this vein, Hak’hel reenacts the giving of the law, with the King standing in place of Moshe and Yehoshua[8]. However, the two events were each also the forging of a covenant, and this covenant is a direct relationship[9] between ‘א and the Nation of Israel. Taken in this light, the mitsvah of Hak’hel is not about gather every 7 years for the people to brush up on their knowledge of the laws, but in order for them to reaffirm that they are ruled not by the king but by ‘א. This also helps explain why every member of Israel is supposed to be there, even children who cannot understand the law but can certainly grasp that ‘א is in charge.

Since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, Judaism has gone from a centralized, nation-oriented religion to a much more personalized, individual-centered religion[11]. We have returned to the status quo of Sefer Shoftim, and we must not fail as Bnei Yisrael did then.The mitsvah of Hak’hel arises every year as we approach Rosh HaShanah. More than it is a day of judgement, Rosh HaShanah is about the declaration and affirmation of ‘א’s Kingship[11]. Rosh Hashanah is a time where we take upon ourselves the responsibility of a direct relationship with’א, with all the culpability that entails. Bnei Yisrael in Sefer Shoftim were incapable of taking ‘א’s Kingship upon themselves, and so they required a human king. We cannot be vicariously religious. Communities require leaders , but they are meant to help guide us, not to be intermediaries between us and ‘א. There are no “holy men” in Judaism, only individuals, and thus no individual can throw off his responsibility to ‘א by saying that they are not a “holy man.” The Torah commands Bnei Yisrael to turn to their leaders for guidance only when they cannot determine what they should do (Devarim 17:8), otherwise we must turn to ‘א. On Rosh HaShanah, as in the mitsvah of Hak’hel, we reaffirm the covenant we have with ‘א, and recognize the responsibility that is thus incumbent upon us, and only upon us[12]. Only in this manner do we return to ‘א and to who we are meant to be.

[1] For an excellent discussion of the relationship between the two passages and, more particularly, the grammatical and chronological issues involved in understanding the first passage, see this excellent essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[2] For more on this discussion, see this excellent essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[3] A similar formulation is also found in a beraita, Sanhedrin 20b, and Tosefta Sanhedrin ch. 4.

[4] The alternative was that the people in asking for a king were simply rejecting Shemuel the Prophet as their leader, but ‘א’s statement makes it clear that ‘א’s Prophet is not a leader in and of himself, but rather a mouthpiece, a vehicle for the expression of Divine Authority.

[5] There are a variety of opinions as to what was actually contained in this torah, as reading the entirety of the Torah would be quite difficult in practice. See the commentaries on this passage for more details on the various opinions.

[6] For more on this, see this essay by R’ Menachem Leibtag.

[7] For more on that, see this essay by R’ Tamir Granot.

[8] See Hizkuni on Devarim 31:11.

[9] Peshat in Shemot 20 is certainly that ‘א spoke all ten of the commandments directly to the people, but it is possible to suggest otherwise, and the forging of the covenant from the beginning of Shemot 19 through Shemot 24 does seem to be done via Moshe. However, the covenant is repeatedly affirmed and accepted not by Moshe, but by the people (19:8 and 24:7, for example).

[10] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Berakhot, 8a.

[11] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Rosh HaShanah, 16a.

[12] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, 17a.

Parashat Shoftim 5774 – On National Unity and Self-Criticism

וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ


Parashat Shoftim begins by introducing the leadership of the judges and officers of the Nation of Israel (Devarim 16:18). The rest of the parashah is spent discussing various legal situations, when it is appropriate to go to which leaders, such as the King, whose position and laws are also introduced (17:14-20). The first case introduced is the case of an idolater found “in the midst of” the people, who is to be executed if his transgression is attested to by at least two witnesses (17:2-7). This case is closed by a final condition of the execution, namely, that it has to be initiated by the witnesses. “The hand of the witnesses shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people” (17:7). This condition seems a bit odd. The witnesses just did a favor, of sorts, for society by enabling the functioning of the judicial system, and suddenly they are saddled with additional, not to mention unpleasant, responsibilities. A similar situation is found in 13:7-12, where a person’s closest companion suddenly attempts to draw them into idolatry, and not only do they have to ensure that the person is killed, but they have to strike first. “For you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people” (13:10). Both of these oddities, however, can be explained by taking a look at some larger linguistic phenomenon, and the ideas they introduce, throughout the laws of Parashat Shoftim and Sefer Devarim.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the archetypical legal case, introduced almost immediately after the command to appoint officers and judges in 16:18.

If there is found in your midst, within any of your gates which the Lord your God gave you, a man or woman that does that which is evil in the sight of the Lord your God… and it is told to you, and you hear it, then you shall inquire diligently, and, behold, if it is true, and the matter is certain that such abomination was done in Israel; then you shall bring forth that man or that woman, who has done this evil thing, to your gates and you shall stone them with stones, the man or the woman, that they die. By the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death; at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death. The hand of the witnesses shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people, and you shall burn the evil from your midst. (17:2-7)

The first thing that’s notable here is that in contrast to the discussion of the judicial system as it is described in Shemot 19, the case does not begin with the bringing of a query before the judge, but with a wrongdoer that is “found” in the midst of the people. Only when the case cannot be solved is it taken to higher authorities to adjudicate (17:8-13). This is connected to one of the unique features of Sefer Devarim’s style, the emphasis on things happening “בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ,”“in your gates.” The word “שְׁעָרֶיךָ” shows up exactly one time in the Torah outside of Sefer Devarim, in Shemot 20:10, whereas in Sefer Devarim alone it shows up a grand total of twenty-seven times. The laws of Sefer Devarim put a lot of emphasis on the way things will occur at the various Israelite towns and cities throughout the Land of Israel. This is due to the focus on centralization that simultaneously appears in the laws of Sefer Devarim, as shown by the predominance of the phrase “הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ׳הוָה,” “the place that ‘א will choose.” All of the proper judicial and religious institutions are located at one central location, which is something that works fine when you’re traveling in the desert, but not when you’re scattered in permanent cities throughout the Land of Israel. Thus Sefer Devarim indicates that the legal system, rather than being a matter of top-down enforcement, is something that has to come from the people. The people are responsible for making sure that the laws are enforced and that the system works.

Intimately related to this is the way that many of the legal cases of Sefer Devarim conclude with the rather unique phrase, “וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ,” “And you shall burn the evil from your midst.” In the basic legal case from 17:2-7, this phrase appears at the very end of the passage, but it also referenced at the very beginning with the phrase, “כִּי-יִמָּצֵא בְקִרְבְּךָ,” “If there is found in your midst.” Barring a few slight differences, the phrase “וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ” appears 10 times throughout chapters 13-24 of Sefer Devarim, in a variety of legal contexts, from idolatry (13:6) to the judicial process (17:12; 19:18) to kidnapping (24:7). Bnei Yisrael are one nation with one “midst,” and where evil is allowed to fester, the nation rots from within. The purpose of the judicial system is maintaining the legal and moral uprightness of the Nation of Israel[1]. Justice isn’t about ‘א, it’s about national integrity. Part of maintaining an upright and lawful nation is making sure that evil is not allowed to fester and grow within the heart of the society.Caring for the Nation of Israel is not a task relegated to it’s leaders. The unity of the nation that requires each citizen to be responsible for the whole. Therefore, when a person is confronted with such evil, they cannot simply ignore it, but instead they must stand up and confront it, as each person is responsible for this. It is this incredible responsibility that is the basis for the law of “The hand of the witnesses shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people” (17:7). When a person “finds” (17:2) evil in the midst of the nation, they are responsible for ensuring it is removed.

It is unfortunately clear that the Jewish People enjoy no innate moral superiority. Our communities certainly have our share of issues. This doesn’t make us bad, it just makes us human. The responsibility is on us however, to stand up for how great our society can be. Achdut and Ahavat Yisrael are not reasons to shy away from being self-critical as a nation, they are reasons to embrace being self-critical. In Sefer Devarim the responsibility of the individual is emphasized due to the physical remoteness of the Judicial system; In our times, we don’t even have a proper Judicial system to be distant from[2]. Our Ahavat Yisrael, our sense of national unity, should motivate us to try and drive the Nation of Israel to new heights of morality, not to withhold our critiques. We are our brothers’ keepers, and we all bear a responsibility for the nation. Simultaneously, any self-critiques of the Nation of Israel must be motivated by a sense of unity and love. We are our brother’s keeper exactly because they are our brothers. Driving Bnei Yisrael to be the best can be is a communal act of love. The prophets were perhaps the best example of an authority attempting to improve the moral nature of Israel and, on the whole, they failed dramatically. Despite the public recriminations of the prophets, Bnei Yisrael did not repent. Top-down enforcement has never effected great change in Israel; It is average people creating a moral atmosphere in their daily lives that awakens the heart of the nation. If we want to truly be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation (Shemot 19:6), we have to do our part to make sure that the nation lives up to the moral and legal requirements of ‘א’s Covenant.


[1] Notably, when the judges and officers are appointed (16:18-20) in this context, the reason given for avoiding bribery is that it corrupts the wise and the sagely, as opposed to at the beginning of Sefer Devarim where the reason is that Justice belongs to ‘א, and so to corrupt it is to corrupt that which is His (1:17).

[2] This is in terms of a Bet Din system, of which we have a facsimile today, but we lack authentic judicial leadership. Secular courts are a separate issue.

Parashat Re’eh – On being a Redeemed Slave and a Redeeming Master

עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וַיִּפְדְּךָ יְ׳הוָה אֱ׳לֹהֶיךָ


Parashat Re’eh begins Sefer Devarim’s legal code in earnest. It begins with the requirements regarding emptying the Land of Israel of Idolatry, and ensuring that it stays emptied in chapters 12 and 13. Chapter 14 discusses what foods may or may not be eaten by Bnei Yisrael, and chapter 15 contains the laws regarding providing for the poor of the Israelite society. These laws, perhaps the most emphatic legislation of social justice in the entire Torah, contain one of the many apparent legal contradictions between Sefer Devarim and other books of the Torah. The laws governing the freeing of a slave, found in Devarim 15:12-18, are also found in Shemot 21:2-11. However, a closer look at the differences between the two passages demonstrates that they really need not be thought of as contradicting[1], and, in fact, their differences are a manifestation on the way the two pericopes focus on different aspects of what it means to be human.

The laws regarding Freeing a Slave in Sefer Shemot are found at the beginning of the Covenant Code, “ספר הברית,” that Moshe presents to the people after his first stay on Har Sinai (Code – Shemot 21-23; Presentation – 24:1-11).

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve for six years and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in [to slavery] by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he is married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she bore him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be the master’s, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant shall plainly say: I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free; then his master shall bring him to the judge, and shall bring him to the door, or to the door-post; and his master shall bore through his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him for ever. And if a man sold his daughter to be a maid-servant, she shall not go out as the men-servants do. If she is not pleasing to her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no power to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he takes another wife, her food, her raiment, and her conjugal rights, he shall not diminish. And if he does not provide these three for her, then shall she go out for nothing, without money.

These laws are largely similar to those found in Devarim 15 that are part of the legal framework of the Israelite society that will be created in the Land of Israel.

If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you for six years; and in the seventh year you shall send him free from you. And when you send him free from you, you shall not send him empty; you shall furnish him liberally from your flock, and from your threshing-floor, and from your winepress; From that with which the Lord your God has blessed you shall you give to him. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today. And it shall be, if he says to you: ‘I will not go out from you’; because he loves you and your house, because he fares well with you; then you shall take an awl, and thrust it through his ear and into the door, and he shall be your slave for ever. And also to your slave-woman you shall do likewise. It shall not seem hard to you, when you send him free from you; for double the work of a worker has he served you six years; and the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.

There are many similarities between these two passages, but there are also several key differences. The verses in Devarim fail to mention that the slave who enters single leaves single, and one who enters married leaves married, but it adds the mitzvah to provide your former slave with produce and livestock in order to help him get back on his feet. The passage in Devarim treats male and female slaves the same, while the passage in Shemot explicitly differentiates between them[2]. The slave in Shemot wants to stay with his master because he loves his master, his wife, and his children, whereas in Devarim the slave loves his master and his master’s house.

These differences are all manifestations of a larger dichotomy, which becomes clearer when looking at a linguistic difference between the two pericopes. The verses from Shemot consistently refer to the slave leaving with the master as the slave “going out,” while the passage from Devarim refers to it as the master “sending the slave free.” The passage in Devarim seems to be focusing on the actions of the master, where the verses in Shemot are speaking about the actions of the slave. This dichotomy is compounded by the way in which the master is spoken about in each passage. Whereas in Shemot the master is referred to as “the master,” in Devarim the master is addressed directly as “you.” This all seems to indicate that the passage in Devarim is discussing the laws in terms of the master, whereas the one is Shemot is speaking of the perspective of the slave. With this in mind, the differences between the two sets of laws make perfect sense. The slave’s marital status and the special marriage/servitude of the slave-woman are only spoken of in Shemot, which deals with the slave’s perspective, while Sefer Devarim focuses on the need to release the slave at the end of six years and to grant the slave property, obligations that are incumbent upon the master. The split between the two books of the Torah also makes sense, in that the Covenant Code was addressed to people who had only recently been slaves in Egypt, whereas Moshe’s speeches in Sefer Devarim were said to their children who not only had never been slaves, but were about to go into the land as new owners of houses, fields, and presumably servants as well. The laws of regarding the freeing of slaves are spoken to both former slaves and future masters, and both of these are alluded to in the reason that the Torah gives for the laws. “And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today” (Devarim 15:15). These laws must be kept because the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and so they remember what it is like to be a slave, but also because ‘א is the Redeemer and the Israelites, in imitation of ‘א must also be redeemers.

The tension between the mindsets of a slave and a master is ingrained in the Israelite consciousness. The freedom granted to slaves in the Yovel year is ultimately a function of servitude, as ‘א declares, “For Bnei Yisrael are to me as servants; they are my servants that I took out of the Land of Egypt” (Vayikra 25:5). Yet being a master, owning slaves, throughout the Torah, brings upon a person many laws obligating them in the way they must provide for and take care of the slave. A person who acquires a slave has acquired for themselves a master[3]. This tension is part of a greater set of tensions that make up what it means to be human. Perhaps the primary tension, underlying all of the rest, is found in the first chapter of the Torah. Man is an anomaly the orderly process of Creation, the only created thing that resembles the Creator (Bereishit 1:27). The tension between the created and the creator in Man underlies much of the stories throughout Tanakh[4], but also in the laws of the Torah. The commandment to rest on Shabbat is given two different reasons in the Torah. Bnei Yisrael must rest on Shabbat because they are like ‘א (Shemot 20:7-10), who rested on Shabbat, but also because they are like the rest of the created (Devarim 5:11-14), all of whom must rest equally.

We are complex beings, neither masters of our own domain nor slaves, without a hand in the course of history. Not quite created or creator, we are unique. However, this uniqueness is not a reason for us to sit back and rest on our heels. No part of the complex mosaic that is man provides an exemption from responsibility.  Having been slaves does not entitle the Israelites to mistreat others, and being endowed with Creator-hood, far from granting us privileges, enjoins us to rest from the act of creating. Whether we are created to conquer and to dominate (Bereishit 1:28) or to serve and to protect (Bereishit 2:15), it is clear that we are created to be responsible, both to our Creator and to our fellow creatures.


[1] I am indebted for much of the textual analysis in this composition to an essay by Rav Yonatan Grossman.

[2] Rashi actually explicitly deals with these contradictions in his commentary on Devarim 15:12, “Has the Torah not already stated ‘and when you buy a Hebrew servant’ Rather, the repetition here adds two new details. Firstly, that the female servant also goes forth after six years, and secondly, that the parting servant is to be provided with gifts.”

[3] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Kiddushin, 20a.

[4] The story of the first transgression of Man in Bereishit 3 is a great example, as it is explicitly mentioned in Bereishit 3:5&22.