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.

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Parashat Ki Tavo – That Which We Have Received and That Which We Have Made

כָּל מַעְשַׂר תְּבוּאָתְךָ

 

Parashat Ki Tavo concludes the long code of laws that takes up the middle of Sefer Devarim (chapter 12-26) by introducing the covenant that will take place on Har Gerizim and Har Eval, once the Israelites enter the land of Israel. However, before it talks about the covenant, with its long list of blessings and even longer list of curses, it introduces the prayers (Devarim 26:1-15) that are to be said when a person brings the offering of their first fruits, bikkurim,  and the tithes of their produce, ma’aser, the laws of which had been introduced previously (Devarim 14:22-29 and Shemot 23:19, respectively). These two commandments take very similar forms, bringing food before ‘א, and reciting a short passage. However, the content of those passages varies greatly. The Bikkurim Passage focuses on ‘א’s actions and concludes with the individual bringing his first fruits in thanks. The Ma’aser Passage involves a list of actions that the individuals affirms having done, or refrained from doing, and then a prayer to ‘א for continued abundance. While the two rituals are superficially similar, they are different enough that their prayers did not need to be grouped together at the end of the law code, and could instead have been put with their laws. However, as a closer reading demonstrates, these two passages bear a strong correspondence to chapters 6 and 8 of Sefer Devarim[1], and they are structured accordingly.

The sixth chapter of Sefer Devarim discusses how Bnei Yisrael should relate to the gift of the land of Israel that they are about to receive from ‘א.

10 And it shall be, when the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land which He swore unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give thee–great and goodly cities, which thou didst not build, 11 and houses full of all good things, which thou didst not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which thou didst not hew, vineyards and olive-trees, which thou didst not plant, and thou shalt eat and be satisfied, 12 then beware lest thou forget the LORD, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.[2] (Devarim 6:10-12)

There is a strong emphasis in this passage on the various things that Bnei Yisrael would receive as part of receiving the land, none of which they would have earned or created for themselves. Possessed of all this newfound wealth, the Israelites might lose focus on the source of this great gift, and so they are charged to “beware lest thou forget the LORD” (6:12).

In contrast, Devarim chapter 8 focuses on the products of Bnei Yisrael’s effort, rather than the things they received.

12 lest when thou hast eaten and art satisfied, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; 13 and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; 14 then thy heart be lifted up, and thou forget the LORD thy God, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage;

After receiving the land, the people are going to build on it, and work it, and make themselves wealthy with it, and as they raise themselves into a position of power they may forget the gifts they were given by ‘א. To combat this, the people are told to keep in mind where their resources and abilities come from.

17 and thou say in thy heart: ‘My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth.’ 18 But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God, for it is He that giveth thee power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore unto thy fathers, as it is this day.

The Torah does not deny that the people made this wealth, that they earned it for themselves, but it does remind them that they could not have done so without the abilities and materials that ‘א gave them. Thus between chapters 6 and 8 of Sefer Devarim the Torah has made it abundantly clear that whether the people’s wealth has come directly from ‘א or they made it for themselves with the gifts that ‘א provided them with, they must remain conscious of their debt to ‘א.

This consciousness of ‘א is manifest in the two prayers of chapter 26. The Bikkurim prayer makes it clear that the Bikkurim offering is not about being grateful for the fruit, but rather for the land that the fruit grows from[3]. Corresponding to Devarim 6, the emphasis is totally on ‘א’s actions.

7…And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. 9 And He hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (26:7-9)

Then once the recognition that ‘א has given the individual this bountiful land, the person states that in thanks and gratitude they are bringing the first of the fruits of the land before ‘א. The prayer of the Ma’aser is spent discussing what the person did with the produce that they had grown from the land that ‘א had given them.

13 Then thou shalt say before the LORD thy God: ‘I have put away the hallowed things out of my house, and also have given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, according to all Thy commandment which Thou hast commanded me; I have not transgressed any of Thy commandments, neither have I forgotten them. 14 I have not eaten thereof in my mourning, neither have I put away thereof, being unclean, nor given thereof for the dead; I have hearkened to the voice of the LORD my God, I have done according to all that Thou hast commanded me. 15 Look forth from Thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Thy people Israel, and the land which Thou hast given us, as Thou didst swear unto our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey. (26:13-15)

Once the person has declared that they have used their produce to feed those in need, Levi’im, orphans and widows, foreigners, etc, then they ask ‘א to continue to bless them with bounty and abundance.

The Torah recognizes two distinct forms of wealth, that which we have received, and that which we have made. While it might seem obvious that we should be grateful for the first category, it is much less obvious that we should be grateful for the second. The Torah therefore reminds us that we have to be grateful for that as well, not because our actions are in and of themselves meaningless[4], but because our abilities and resources are gifts from ‘א. What is most novel, however, about the Torah’s approach to wealth, is the use to which we must put it. Wealth that comes to us from ‘א must be returned, in part, to ‘א as a way of showing our gratitude. Wealth that we have made from His gifts, however, must be given to those in need. In this act we take up the Image of God upon ourselves, and the same way He redeemed us from Slavery and granted us a land we did not deserve, we give of our wealth to those who are downtrodden and in need, without thought to whether or not they deserve it. In our position as receivers of wealth, it is incumbent upon use to be grateful; In our position as creators and possessors of wealth, we are responsible to give to those in need[5].

[1] I have spoken more about these passages here.

[2] Translations form www.mechon-mamre.org

[3] This is discussed excellently by R’ Elchanan Samet here.

[4] I note this due to the fact that many, many, commentators and thinkers throughout the years have used the verse, and thou say in thy heart: ‘My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth’ (8:17) to mean that our hands and power truly accomplish nothing, and that everything comes to us straight from ‘א.

[5] I have spoken more about the dualities in the nature of man here.

Parashat Matot – Human Initiative and the Divine Will

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-רָאשֵׁי הַמַּטּוֹת

 

Parashat Matot contains the story of Bnei Yisrael’s war with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8), which finishes the story of Pinhas and the sin of Bnei Yisrael at Baal Peor (Bamidbar 25). Chapters 26-30 are an interjection, interrupting the story of Bnei Yisrael’s encounter with Midyan. While some of the sections in these chapters might be chronologically in order (see 26:1, for example), other law sections could have gone anywhere, and thus their placement in the midst of the Midyan narratives strange. However, a close analysis of the parshiyot of chapters 26-30 demonstrates that the whole unit, starting from Bamidbar 25 and stretching through chapter 30, explicates and demonstrates different aspects of the tension between the Divine Will and Human Initiative.[1]

This unit breaks down into (A) Pinhas, (B) the Census and the Daughters of Tselophehad, (C) Moshe being told to go up on the Mountain and Yehoshua’s Appointment, and (D) The Laws of the Festival Sacrifices and the Laws of Personal Vows. While Pinhas’ Narrative stands alone, the rest of the sections are pairs, half of each emphasizing the Divine Will and half emphasizing Human Initiative. Together, they create what seems to a very full picture of the different aspects of the tension between Divine Will and Human Initiative, one which is built upon in the following narratives of the Spoils of War (Bamidbar 31:9-54) and the Request of Reuven and Gad (Bamidbar 32).

In the story of Pinhas, Bnei Yisrael had sinned, and were suffering from a plague in consequence (25:1-3). Then ‘א said to Moshe, “Take the leaders of the people and execute them before ‘א, that ‘א’s wrath may be turned back from upon the nation” (25:4). Moshe then instructs the judges of Israel to take the sinners that are under their jurisdiction and to kill them. This is a valid reading of ‘א’s command, based on interpreting “them” to mean the sinners, and that “take the leaders” means that Moshe should act with them. It is not the intuitive reading, which would mean simply to kill the leaders themselves, but it is certainly valid, and we do not see that Moshe is punished or corrected for his interpretation. However, there is an implied critique on Moshe in the extensive praise and reward lavished on Pinhas, who did indeed fulfill the more intuitive reading of ‘א’s command, and turned ‘א’s wrath back from upon the people. Interestingly, we do not see that Pinhas heard the command to Moshe, or was a prophet in his own right, or anything of the like. Rather he seems to have decided on his own that this was the correct thing to do, and thus he was acting both in accordance with the Divine Will and his own, human, initiative.

The census of chapters 26 and 27 serves to detail all the families of all the tribes for the purpose of dividing the Land of Israel up evenly between them. In this census, only males inherit land and thus only male heirs of the tribes are delineated, with the exception of Serah Bat Asher (26:46) and the daughters of Tselophehad (26:33). The daughters of Tzelophehad are uniquely mentioned here in order to pave the way for their taking  of the stage at the beginning of Chapter 27, where they approach Moshe and ask to inherit the land of their father, in order that his name not disappear from his tribe[2], and after Moshe speaks to ‘א, they are granted this right. Thus the original Divine law, that only sons inherit, was changed by Human Initiative.[3]

The narrative of the Daughters of Tselophehad is followed by a brief command to Moshe that he go up on Mount Avarim to see the Land of Israel before he dies[4] (27:12-14), which is followed by his request from ‘א that He appoint a leader to take Moshe’s place. The careful reader will notice that ‘א makes no mention here of a replacement for Moshe, rather Moshe asks for it on his own[5] (27:15-17). This is a case where the Divine will accepting a completely Human Initiative and acting upon it, as opposed to the previous case where the Human Initiative simply led to a slight Modification in the divine plan.

The final section before the War with Midyan is not a narrative but two sets of Laws, intimately related. The first section of laws (Bamidbar 28 & 29) is the laws of public sacrifices, both the daily sacrifices and the additional sacrifices for festivals. This is followed by the laws for personal vows (Bamidbar 30). While at first glance these appear to be separate, they are connected by the institution of the vow-offerings. If a person vows to bring an offering, it would be brought at one of the festivals. Thus the laws of chapter 30 are really part and parcel of the laws of chapters 28 & 29[6]. Thus one might consider the whole section part of the Divine Will category. However, the laws of chapter 30 are all about voluntary vows a person might take upon themselves. Therefore this is in fact a case of where the Divine Will includes space for Human Initiative.

The War with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8) completes the Pinhas story (Bamidbar 25) disrupts the thematic tensions of Divine Will and Human Initiative with an absolute Divine command. It leads into a series of events involving the spoils of the war that build upon and contrast with the themes of Bamidbar 25-30.

Immediately after the war with Midyan, before the soldiers can even return to the camp, Moshe and the other leaders of Israel confront the returning army. They had failed to wipe out the women of Midyan who had caused Bnei Yisrael to sin in the first place (25:1-3), instead keeping them for themselves. The soldiers are reprimanded, and told to rectify their mistake. Here, while lacking an explicit and obvious Divine command, it is clear that the Human Initiative still went astray.

This story is followed by the divvying up of the spoils of the war to each member of the nation. Percentages were taken from all of the spoils for the Levi’im and for ‘א. This portion for ’א was taken and given to Elazar the Kohen Gadol. Then at the end of the section, the officers of the army come before Moshe and Elazar and say that because none of their soldiers died in the war, they want to give a tribute to ‘א from their finest spoils. They do so, and it is clear that this is considered somehow greater than the first percentage given to ‘א from the spoils, as that was simply given to Elazar, where this is “brought into the Tent of Meeting for a memorial for Bnei Yisrael before ‘א.” Thus in this case the Human Initiative does not stray, but rather builds on and succeeds the Divine Will.

The final case is that of the Request of Reuven and Gad to dwell on the far side of the Yarden River. This on first appearance seems to be incredibly problematic, as Moshe points out by comparing them to the Spies (Bamidbar 13-14). They are rejecting the Land of Israel, which ‘א has given them an inheritance, in favor of land that’s better pasture for their livestock. Not only that, but they outdo the spies by trying to separate from the rest of the nation by dwelling apart, thus damaging national unity. However, upon further questioning they reveal that their intent was not to reject the Land of Israel nor to harm national unity. Not only are they not trying to separate from the rest of the people, but they are willing to lead the charge into the Land of Israel, putting themselves in harm’s way for no gain of their own. They are not rejecting ‘א’s Land, they are asking to expand it, defining the Land of Israel as the Land in which Israel dwells[7]. Their Human Initiative is not rejecting the Divine will, but embracing it and surpassing it.

Man takes a position of great power and importance in the Torah. He is created in the Image of ‘א, the Creator of the World. Tehillim 8 sees man as “מעט מא׳לוהים”, “a little less than Divine.” And yet his first great act is to disobey the Divine Will, to push against ‘א. Man is powerful, but also fickle. This portrayed strongly as Bnei Yisrael make ready to enter the Land of Israel and live under their own control at the end of Sefer Bamidbar. Perhaps the strongest indication of this is the ambiguity of Reuven and Gad’s request. Based on their request, Moshe predicts Bnei Yisrael having to wait another 40 years in the desert. But this is a false perception, as the tribes intend not evil but great good. Man’s will can go either way, it can be lowly or it can be great. It can even intuit the Divine. It’s up to us what we do with it.

 

[1] Many of the Ideas in this composition come from this piece by Rav Yonatan Grossman of Michlelet Herzog and Bar-Ilan University: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.64/42matot-masei.htm.

[2] For a discussion of why this story is not a feminist one, see here: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.60/41pinhas.htm.

 

[3] The tension here is aptly displayed by the midrash brought by Rashi on Baidbar 27:7. “Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly: As the Targum [Onkelos] יָאוּת, rightly. [As if God said,] This is the way this passage is inscribed before Me on high (Sifrei Pinchas 18). It teaches us that their eye perceived what Moses’ eye did not. – [see Mid. Tanchuma Pinchas 8]”. (translation from chabad.org).

[4] The exact nature of this command is complex, for an excellent and fascination discussion of the differing views and possibilities by Rav Elchanan Samet of Michlelet Herzog, see here: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.63/41pinchas.htm.

[5] It’s entirely possible that without Moshe’s request there would not have been a replacement leader, part of a much larger discussion about the ideal form of leadership and government of Bnei Yisrael, which goes far beyond the scope of this composition.

[6] See the Rashbam’s comment on Bamidbar 30:2-3. There are also linguistic parallels between this section and it’s neighbors.

[7] This sets the stage for any further conquest Israel might perform from Yehoshua until the Exile.

Parashat Behar – The Property Law of Man and God

לַצְּמִיתֻת לַקֹּנֶה אֹתוֹ

 

Parashat Behar discusses a variety of laws all based upon the idea of ‘א’s property rights. The laws of Shemittah assume that ‘א owns the land and thus Bnei Yisrael must treat it in accordence with His wishes (Vayikra 25:23). Similarly, the laws of the redemption of properties and the return of ancestral lands in the Yovel is due to ‘א being the one true owner of the land, and thus has the unique ability to apportion it as He sees necessary (Ibid.). Even the laws of the slaves are included, as ‘א has taken Israel to be in His service, and thus they cannot serve others, at least not as formal slaves (25:42). This in itself, the idea that ‘א owns things and that people therefore cannot treat those things however they wish, is of great importance. But it is the exception to the rule of property return that teaches us perhaps the most important idea of all.

The exception to the return of property in the Yovel is any property inside a walled city. This property can be redeemed within a year of its sale, but after that it belongs fully to its new owner (25:29-30). If the law of the return of property is based on the idea that the land belongs to   ‘א, then it seems a little incongruent that there would be an exception to this rule. It seems to imply that urban properties don’t get returned in the Yovel because urban land doesn’t necessarily belong to ‘א but rather whomever legally acquires it. Due to its location, what would otherwise be the property of ‘א is instead the property of Man.

An argument against this might be that ‘א as Creator of the World owns everything in it, and thus there must be some other explanation for this exception. However, ‘א’s conditional ownership is clear from the contrast between the laws of Israelite and non-Israelite slaves in Vayikra 25:39-46.

39 And if thy brother be waxen poor with thee, and sell himself unto thee, thou shalt not make him to serve as a bondservant. 40 As a hired servant, and as a settler, he shall be with thee; he shall serve with thee unto the year of jubilee. 41 Then shall he go out from thee, he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return. 42 For they are My servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as bondmen. 43 Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God. 44 And as for thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, whom thou mayest have: of the nations that are round about you, of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. 45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them may ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they have begotten in your land; and they may be your possession. 46 And ye may make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession: of them may ye take your bondmen for ever; but over your brethren the children of Israel ye shall not rule, one over another, with rigour.

Israel belongs to ‘א as a result of His taking Israel out of their slavery in Egypt. By contrast the nations who live around Israel are not ‘א’s, and can thus be taken as slaves. Clearly not everything belongs to ‘א as a result of being created by Him.

While it is clear that urban property has left the realm of ‘א’s property and moved over into that of man, it is far from clear whether or not this is a good thing. On the whole, cities in Tanakh are not depicted very positively. The first city ever mentioned is Bavel, in the Tower of Bavel narrative in Bereishit 11. That city is so negative that ‘א has to personally intervene and destroy it. The next big city mentioned is Sodom, which is also destroyed by ‘א. It continues like that, with really the only positive city being the priestly city of Nov until the founding of Jerusalem by King David. The prophet Tsephaniah in particular takes a harsh view of city life, considering it to be innately evil and corrupt. He predicts the total destruction of the cities of Israel, utilizing imagery from the Flood and Tower of Babel narratives in order to make it clear that the destruction is due to the absolute corruption of the cities. In their place he suggests that society move back toward the more pastoral, shepherding lifestyle of the forefathers. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggested that this tension between cities and shepherds is a theme throughout the entirety of the Tanakh, going all the way back to the first conflict in the Torah. While Abel was a Shepherd, Cain was a farmer, whose descendants would go on to develop much of civilization (Bereishit 4:21-22). When the Jews go down to Egypt, the fact that they are shepherds is appalling to the Egyptians, who maintaine an agricultural society (Bereishit 46:31-47:4). The one real exception might be Yeshayahu’s prophecies on Jerusalem. Much like Tsephaniah, Yeshayahu uses imagery from the Tower of Bavel to demonstrate the total corruption of the city. However, instead of predicting the city’s destruction, Yeshayahu declares that the city must become better. It seems that in Yeshayahu’s view, urban life is not innately corrupt, and could in fact be ideal if the people acted properly. Thus the portrayal of cities in Tanakh is definitely not particularly positive, but also doesn’t have to be negative.

Just as the Tanakh’s view of cities seems more complex than simply ‘good or bad’, we can’t really determine if the nature of urban land as the property of Man is positive or negative. Certainly, it could potentially be either, which highlights the incredible fact of the exception itself. The Torah describes the laws of Shemittah, Yovel, Redeeming the Land, and the Return of the the Land, as all being based on ‘א’s ownership of the land. And then it says that by building walls and cities, the land becomes the property of Man. Bnei Yisrael are apparently able, in this case, to overwrite ‘א’s ownership with their own. This is an example of a much larger theme in Tanakh and Judaism, that of the importance and value of human initiative. Human initiative is real and has meaning, despite the presence of an all-powerful god. In Sefer Shoftim, the measure of a good leader is how little he requires ‘א’s involvement in saving the people. When ‘א helped the people conquer the land, the Kedushah was only temporary, but when the people returned of their own volition in the period of Bayit Sheni, the Kedushah was permanent. The ability for Bnei Yisrael to make property their own through urbanization is an incredible demonstration of the power of human actions. However, the Tanakh makes it clear that this has the potential to be either incredibly good or incredibly bad, and it might even be easier for it to go bad. If humans have such great power, then incumbent upon them is also great responsibility. We are meant to build a perfect world, and we have the power to do so. This by definition means we also have the power to ruin the world we’ve been given to work with. This is the great challenge of humanity. We’ve been given great ability and the material to utalize. What we do next is up to us.

 

[1] Translations from Mechon-Mamre.org

[2] One could still argue that ‘א, as Creator, owns everything, but one still has to explain the distinctions between the the rural and urban properties and the Israelite and non-Israelite slaves as per Vayikra 25 as being somehow different levels of ownership, and so nothing has really been accomplished in terms of ‘א’s ownership.

[3] ספר שמואל א’, פרק כ”ב, פסוק י”ט

[4] Divrei HaYamim Alef 11:4-5

[5] Rabbi Hayyim Angel, “Zephania’s use of the Genesis Narratives”, available on yutorah.org

[6] As a massively agricultural society, Egypt was actually the first civilization to develop leavened bread, which may explain the prohibition of Chametz on PEsach. For more information, see this link: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2014/04/why-do-we-eat-matzah-on-pesach.html

[7] Rabbi Hayyim Angel, Op cit.

[8] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Yevamot, 82b.

[9] Voltaire, “Œuvres de Voltaire, Volume 48.” Lefèvre, 1832; Uncle Ben, Amazing Fantasy #15.