Parshat Noach: Between Individual and Community: Societal Balance

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bereishit, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


In Parshat Noach two doomed societies are presented for our attention: the generation of the flood and the generation of dispersion (the Tower of Bavel).

In response to sin, God destroys the first of these generations through a flood which encompasses the entire world. The only survivors are Noach, his family and the animals that Noach, upon God’s command, brings into the ark.

The second generation is punished through divinely decreed linguistic confusion. In response to the building of the Tower of Bavel, God creates a myriad of languages. The builders of the tower, unable to communicate with each other,  disperse across the face of the earth.


How are we to understand the concept of trial and error as applied to God’s creation of the world? Why did a perfect God create two societies that He then felt compelled to destroy?

The Torah states that, upon seeing the evil of the generation of the flood, “God regretted that He had created man in the land, and He was saddened unto His heart.” How could God regret the creation of man when He knew from the outset that man was destined to sin?

The Torah cites violent theft as the crime that seals the fate of the generation of the flood. The sin of the generation of dispersion, however, is not clearly defined in the text. What was wrong with building the Tower of Bavel?

Why did God feel compelled to destroy this second society, as well? Why did the punishment of the two generations differ and how did the “punishment fit the crime” in each case?


As a first step, we must understand that the “trial and error” implicit in the stories of the flood and the Tower of Bavel does not exist on God’s part but on man’s.

God creates a world based upon free will, and the existence of free will is predicated on the possibility of human failure. God knows from the very beginning that man will sin, but He does not interfere. He, instead, retreats to allow man room to succeed or fail on his own.

As indicated in our earlier discussion concerning prescience, predestination and free will (see Bereishit 4, Approaches a), God’s knowledge of the future does not affect man’s ability to choose.

God’s regret upon the occasion of man’s failure at the time of the flood is explained in a famous conversation between Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Korcha and an Epicurean.

The Epicurean questioned how God could possibly regret a tragedy that He knew was bound to occur.

Rabbi Yehoshua responded by asking, “Did you ever have a child and, if so, did you celebrate his birth?”

“Of course! I rejoiced and encouraged others to rejoice!” answered his adversary.

“How could you celebrate the child’s birth?” asked Rabbi Yehoshua. “Did you not know that he would eventually die?”

“So, too,” continued Rabbi Yehoshua, “God celebrated the creation of man in its time and mourned the pain of man’s failure in its time.”

Granted free will, civilization, in its infancy, stumbles and falls. The Torah apparently details the initial tragic missteps of man in order to ensure that we learn from the errors of the two earliest societies whose story it records.

What societal lesson, then, is the Torah conveying through the contrasting stories of the generation of the flood and the generation of the Tower of Bavel?

The answer lies in a clearer understanding of the failure of each of these two civilizations.

While the generation of the flood was, according to tradition, guilty of a multitude of heinous crimes, the sin that actually sealed the fate of that society was hamas, violent theft.

It remains, however, for the rabbis in the Talmud to fully describe the nature of the theft that characterized the generation of the flood.

“Rav Acha asked, ‘What did they steal? A merchant would walk through the marketplace with a container filled with grapes and each passerby would reach forth and steal a small amount, less than he could be called to judgment for.’”

From the rabbinic perspective, the sin of the generation of the flood lay in their mocking of societal norms and laws. Driven by personal greed, each individual steals from his neighbor. He does so in such a way, however, as to escape the reach of the law. By the time the merchant reaches the end of the marketplace he has no grapes left. No one, however, can be taken to court. Societal rules have been rendered ineffective in the face of personal greed.

The sin of the generation of the Tower of Bavel, in contrast, is more difficult to ascertain. As indicated earlier, the Torah does not clearly delineate the crime of this generation.

To fill the gaps in the story of the generation of dispersion, a variety of approaches are offered within rabbinic literature. Many suggest that the tower was built as a direct attack upon God’s authority. Others maintain that the sin of this generation lay in their attempt to stay together in one place as one people instead of populating the world in fulfillment of God’s command. Yet others suggest that the people of the time were simply trying to protect themselves from a calamity similar to the flood of Noach’s era. According to this interpretation, the builders of the tower ignored the moral lessons of the flood (see Bereishit 3, Approaches d2).

Among all of the approaches offered, however, one specific Midrashic interpretation is particularly telling. The Midrash describes the following scene: “Seven levels were created to the tower from the East and seven to the West. The bricks would be brought up from one direction while the descent was from the other. If a man fell down and died during the process of construction, no attention was paid to him at all. If one brick fell, however, all would sit down and weep: ‘Woe to us! When will we find another to take its place?’”

This Midrash (clearly based upon hints in the text which describe the driving force behind the creation of the tower as the desire to create a societal name) details a frightening civilization in which communal need takes total precedence over individual value. Those working on the Tower of Bavel cared not at all about the lives of their neighbors. All that mattered was the creation of the tower and the society that it represented.

In the eyes of the rabbis, the two civilizations described in Parshat Noach reflected polar extremes. The society of Noach’s time was characterized by individual greed at the expense of communal structure. The generation of dispersion, on the other hand, was willing to sacrifice individual life to the creation of society.

The ultimate punishments inflicted by God upon each of these generations perfectly fit their crimes. The generation of Noach, which was marked by individual greed and corruption, could only be addressed through total destruction. None of the individuals, other than Noach and his family, could remain. When it came to the builders of the Tower of Bavel, however the problem was with the society, not the individuals. In this case, therefore, only the society is destroyed.

In each era, man struggles to strike a balance between two opposing forces: the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. Each of these forces, by definition, impinges upon the other.

In order to create and maintain the rules necessary for communal governance, a society must, of necessity, place limits upon personal freedoms (you cannot, to cite the well-known example, allow someone to yell fire in a crowded theater with impunity). On the other hand, a society must limit the restrictions it places upon its citizens in order to allow for individual freedom of expression and action.

The particular balance that a society creates between these two forces determines the very nature of the society itself. The difference between Communist Russia and the United States of America lay in the vastly different ways these two societies chose to strike this very balance.

Far from fairy tales, the two major narratives found in Parshat Noach inform us concerning the development of our race. At the dawn of history, two generations fail in their attempts to create an equilibrium between individual and community, with the failures occurring at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The cautionary tales of Parshat Noach remind us of the difficult task that confronts any society as it attempts to address these potentially conflicting needs. Only those civilizations which succeed will eventually endure.

How appropriate that Parshat Noach ends with the introduction of Avraham Avinu and with the launching of Jewish history.

In the aftermath of the failures of both the generations of the flood and dispersion, a new society emerges: one that will successfully create a delicate balance between the needs of the community and the needs of the individual. This society, the Jewish nation guided by its Torah, is therefore destined to endure across the ages.

Festivals of Faith: Sukkot – The Starry Night

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays

The Starry Night*

“Religion should change with the times.” I am sure that everyone in this congregation has, at one time or another, been accosted by this ubiquitous slogan. I know that I have had to contend with it ever since my first youthful venture outside my native Williamsburg.

“Religion should change with the times.” This is the kind of profound platitude that everyone who utters it thinks he has invented. Like so many other clichés, which at first sight seem to possess so much wisdom and upon reflection prove utterly vacuous, this popular motto is thoroughly banal. It offers simple bromides for enormously complex problems. It issues a fog of vague and imprecise but terribly up-to-date sentiments, where clarity and analysis are called for. It has as much to offer to religious philosophy as “twinkle, twinkle little star” has to contribute to the science of astronomy.

Does this mean that we are “against change”? Of course not. To be against  change is to be against life, because we are always moving, always changing, always either growing up or growing down, progressing or retrogressing. Change is the law of the universe. Life is always in flux. A great Greek philosopher once said that life is like a river, always changing and moving, and, because of its constant motion, you cannot step into the same river twice. Whereupon another Greek philosopher offered his opinion that so constant a state of flux is it in, that you cannot step into the river even once.

So we do not deny that life does change, and we do not even piously wish that it would not change. But we do maintain that intelligent human beings try to balance change and continuity, motion and stability. Just as complete immutability spells petrifaction and stagnation, so does constant changeability imply  fickleness, unreliability, and irresponsibility. Thus, for instance, all of us want our children to change: to study, to grow physically, to better their characters, to improve their personalities. We want them to be weaned from us protective parents, to have their own careers, to marry and build their own homes, and to make their own reputations in life. But we also want them to be stable, always to remain honorable, responsible, loyal, to keep a word and a commitment once made, and to maintain throughout life their love for parents, brothers, and sisters. Is anyone ready to abandon these qualities with the facile argument that honor should change with the times? Or love should change with the times? Or friendship, or character, or integrity?

Certainly there is change. But a man cannot spiritually or psychologically survive change that is so radical, so abrupt, so unceasing that there is no continuity or stability in his life. He must have something in life that is fixed, some reference point by which to measure new ideas, new promises, new demands, and new phenomena.

That fixed point is Torah. The psalmist sang, “Thy word is a lamp unto my foot and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119:105). Of course, we use our feet to tread on different paths in life. We live neither in a forcibly imposed East European ghetto, nor in the voluntarily self-isolated communities of Western Europe, but in the open and pluralistic and technological United States—and it is an exciting and adventurous life. Our feet stake out new paths constantly. But the lamp and the light for our feet and our paths are the same—Torah and mitzvot. Without them we stumble, we lose our way, and our adventure turns into a horror, and the excitement into unbearable anxiety.

The more a society is in a state of change, the more it needs some anchor of permanence to give it a sense of stability. When I don my tallit or tefillin, when I hold my lulav and etrog, I suddenly am aware of myself as standing in the grand tradition of my parents and my grandparents and their grandparents before them. I perceive myself as part of a great and noble historical continuum which emerges unshaken from the vicissitudes of the various ages. These observances are both symbol and essence of my roots. And, indeed, in the performance of the Jewish mitzvot, I am aware of my roots such that no matter what winds may buffet my branches, no matter what storms may swirl about me, I remain firm and stable. I feel like a tree, not like a mushroom which appears out of nowhere and disappears into nothing. Thus, the tallit and the tefillin, the lulav and the etrog, kashrut and Shabbat, are more important here and today than they were in Volozhin or Pressburg or Hamburg of a hundred years ago. Our life in these times is obsessed by veneer, by the appeal of the new and the fashionable, by the attraction of tomorrow’s style. Marshall McLuhan, for all his sensationalism, has enunciated a truth in his famous statement that “the medium is the message.” Considering the proliferation of the various new media in our times, our minds are bombarded by all kinds of novel and evanescent messages, so that the timeless verities are displaced from our consciousness. We have become the generation of the spiritually dispossessed, and our own permanent values have turned unstable and illusory. We are thus perpetual adolescents, internal transition. With all our scorn for the hippies, we must acknowledge in gratitude that they point to a problem that is ours: they, on the margins of society, are the psychopathic symptoms of our inner pathology, our inner emptiness, our inner sickness. We are so caught up in change, so enamored of motion, so mercurial in our spiritual orientation, so volatile in our ethical lives, so fickle in our culture, that we are left without identity, without self, without reality. And it is against this emptiness that the hippies attempt, so pathetically, to reassert the eternal and stable truths of love and beauty and simplicity. It is a pity that their “flower power” has no roots.

In a society of this kind, we need Torah more than ever before. We need a religion which does not change with the times, but which offers the permanence and stability we crave. Religion should not be a mirror that reflects the crazy whirl of life’s mad currents. It should be a rudder that keeps us afloat, that tells us where we are going and guides us there, that helps us attain perspective and prevents us from being overwhelmed by the empty foam of life. Were religion to change with the times, it would not be worth the effort to stay religious!

I believe that this idea is implicit in a remarkable statement of the Rabbis of the Midrash (Yalkut Shim‘oni, Psalms, 682). They taught that ein Melekh ha- Mashiah ba ella litten le-umot ha-olam . . . sukkah—the King-Messiah will come to the world only to teach the nations of the world about the sukkah. How strange! For over two thousand years, Jews have pined away for the Messiah. For the last eight hundred years or so, we have sung daily of our hearts’ deepest yearnings and proclaim courageously our ani ma’amin, our belief and our faith that the Messiah can come at any time, any day. And what for? To teach the gentiles how to build a sukkah! Did not the prophets conceive of the Messiah so much more nobly? Isaiah taught that the function of the Messiah would be to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning forks. Micah taught that the Messiah will establish the House of the Lord on the mountain in Jerusalem so that all nations will proclaim, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord” (Mic. 4:2). And the Rabbis of the Midrash? That the Messiah will come, gather up the nations in the UN, and teach them the prosaic laws of how to build a little sukkah!

What did they mean? I suggest it is this. The sukkah is a symbol of change. The Rabbis refer to it as dirat arai, a temporary abode. Its very flimsiness is an index of its temporariness. It is a symbol of the makeshift booths which our  ancestors used on their journey through the Sinai wilderness. It implies, therefore, transition, transience, impermanence. The very insignificance of its defannot, or walls, and the requirement that the covering, or sekhakh be impermanent are further indications of sukkah as a symbol of change and transition. Now, transition is a dangerous period. Consider adolescence and the early years of marriage, or historical transition from one age to another, or economic change and displacements. At a time of this sort, disaster dogs us at every footstep, calamity is just around every corner, and man is threatened by being swept up in change and losing his moorings. A world of this kind needs a Messiah; it needs his lesson of how to survive the sukkah! The Messiah will teach the world what the Jews always should have known; that we can and must find stability in the midst of change and movement. The Halakhah teaches us that in order for a sukkah to be valid, the covering, or sekhakh, must not be too tightly packed. Specifically, we must be able to see the stars through the sekhakh. Like the ancient mariner who without instruments was able to guide himself by the stars, or like the contemporary interplanetary satellite which moves unerringly through the vast and open reaches of empty space by latching on to a star, so man, caught up in an ever-moving and ever-changing sukkah of life, must be able to see the stars through the sekhakh. That star is—Torah, faith, God.

When the artist Van Gogh was asked about his famous expressionistic painting The Starry Night, he said, “I felt a need of—shall I say the word?—religion, and so I went out and painted the stars.” It is the very permanence of the stars and the solace they offer to an unstable society that makes them the symbol of religion. It is this fixity amidst flux that Torah offers and that the Messiah will teach.

The religion of Torah, therefore, does not change with the times. It is not subject to the whims of the public opinion poll. Its strength derives from its perennial reliability.

Nevertheless, we must also stress a corollary: that while Torah is changeless, it must always be relevant to a changing society. It must not be so changeless that it has nothing to do with man, who is always in a state of change. Judaism must address man in his changing conditions; it must speak to man of values and faith, of loyalty and honor and meaning, as they apply to his times and his society. But Judaism cannot do this if the teachers of Torah turn their backs on the rest of mankind. This is what we mean when we appeal for the relevance of Orthodox Judaism, and this is our argument with those in our own camp who would cut themselves off from modern society completely. The stars can guide man only when they are visible. If clouds of distrust and diffidence cover the stars, they are of precious little use to man. So the advocates of Torah must speak to modern man in his own idiom; they must respect his intelligence and feel with him in his misery.

When the Rabbis of old complained that Torah munnahat be-keren zavit, Torah lies neglected in a hidden corner (Kiddushin 66a), they did not mean for us to crawl into that corner with it and turn our backs on the world. Rather, they meant for us to take Torah out of that keren zavit and bring it into the center of the world scene, into the maelstrom of daily events, into the midst of the raging torrents of the times, and with it to offer man abiding faith and enduring stability.

Of course, by the same token, overemphasizing relevance can destroy the stable character of religion of which we speak. When you are too relevant, you turn religion into a newspaper; and nothing is as meaningless as yesterday’s news…Torah, therefore, must not be a sealed book written in an ancient and undecipherable language, nor must it be a running commentary of religious journalese. It must be the Sefer Hayyim, the Book of Life. That is a difficult task—to be permanent and yet relevant, changeless and yet germane. It means that while affirming the unchanging nature of Halakhah, we must be able to explain it in terms of a changing society; that while teaching the timeless truths of Torah, we must relate them to issues that are timely. Above all, we must not be afraid to say that we do not have all the answers, and yet we must never cease searching for them.



The full excerpt can be found in Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays


Jonah: Prophetic Hesitation

Excerpted from Dr. Erica Brown’s Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

The Book of Jonah, simply put, is misnamed. This is not the account of a prophet. although an unusual Hebrew prophet stands at its center. This is a book about God, a God associated with a particular nation, Israel, who expands His divine embrace to include non-Jews, animals large and small, and vegetation. Nowhere since the first chapters of Genesis do we find, in so few pages, mention of the world’s totality and God’s utter and urgent concern for the whole of creation. Jonah will serve as God’s ultimate foil in this magical story, just as the sailors, the king of Nineveh, and the animals become foils for the prophet. Jonah’s personal theological crisis will become the platform upon which God models divine compassion, urging Jonah to become more godly, more like his Creator. God serves Jonah as parent, friend, mentor, and teacher. God’s props – from a fish to a storm to a gourd to a worm – are the teaching tools by which God patiently encourages the prophet to confront his ugliest self, predominantly his churlish disregard for a universe outside of his narrow, parochial concerns.

The world around Jonah is in constant flux. A group of sailors became a group of believers. A city and its king transformed themselves. A tree grew and died overnight. Everything and everyone changed, including God – but the prophet did not change. For this reason, we have no idea what happened to Jonah when the words written about him end, unceremoniously, as if in mid-sentence or mid-story. There are only so many chances given to a person who fails to believe in personal transformation, let alone radical collective change. But more than the transformations personal or collective that appear in the book, it was God’s ability to change that was the source of Jonah’s caustic resentment.

We read this book on Yom Kippur not because of Jonah but because of the God of Jonah. If God can change, we can change. If God recruits all of nature to fight human  nature in the story of one individual, then surely we can all overcome the barriers to compassion, the niggling resistance to being different than we are, and the narcissistic pull that keeps our own worlds small and limited. Jonah was unmoved, but perhaps we will read his book as his critics and be moved precisely because he was not. Maybe we will see in the God of Jonah, the God of each and every one of us, a God who cares for us intimately and personally, a God who marshals the world’s resources for our reformation, who asks us questions that force introspection. Can we adjust, adapt, amend, refine, and modify who we are on this holiest of days because God also changes? Or are we, like Jonah, secret believers, that nothing ever changes, least of all who we are? The God of Jonah changes; that should be motivation enough. It was not enough for Jonah. Will it be for us?


Festivals of Faith – Rosh HaShana: The Sense of Shame

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays

The Sense of Shame*

We moderns have, to a large extent, lost the ability to feel ashamed. Young people grow up with an attitude of sneering cynicism, and moral restraint is treated like an anachronism, an outdated inhibition. Shame is unknown. Our theaters and our entertainment places glorify profanity and immorality. But we are not shocked; we no longer have shame. Television, radio, newspapers, and magazines often publish the kind of pornography that once would have occasioned wide embarrassment and a public outcry; but today we accept it as inevitable, and no one is ashamed. People come to weddings in the synagogue dressed immodestly; Jewish organizations openly and aggressively flout the most sacred Jewish traditions; Jews, especially college professors, proudly proclaim their religious ignorance from the rooftops—and for all this there is no shame.

And yet, bushah, or shame, is an integral part of teshuvah, repentance or the genuine Jewish religious experience. Maimonides counts bushah as one of the fundamental aspects of repentance, the dominant theme of this holiday. It is mentioned repeatedly in our Selihot prayers and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If, then, we are ever to change for the better, if Judaism is ever to advance and Torah ever to triumph, the first thing we must do is recapture the ability to blush; we must relearn the art of feeling ashamed.

What is shame? Our inquiry is not merely for a dictionary definition. The problem of what it really is has been discussed by some of the world’s greatest  literary figures, psychiatrists, and philosophers. Allow me to present to you the findings of one writer who recently devoted a whole book to the subject (Helen Merrell Lynd, On Shame and the Search for Identity, 1958).

Shame is the feeling of a sudden loss of identity. Every man has a picture of himself as he likes to think of himself and have others think of him. When he suddenly stands exposed as something less than that, something inferior, not at all the kind of person he thought he was and others thought he was, when he is astonished at how he has fallen short of his own ideals, when his own image of himself is cruelly jolted and disarrayed, and another, unpleasant identity is revealed—that is shame.

Shame is thus a reaction to the blow to our self-esteem, the discrepancy between our exalted view of ourselves and the sudden revelation of a lower, more vulnerable, and less worthy self. Shame is therefore relative to a person’s standing in the eyes of others and, even more, in his own eyes. Mr. Average Citizen who cheats a little on his income tax is engaging in a mischievous national sport; there is no shame attached to it. But the elected official who won office on a platform of “honesty in government” and who is so apprehended—he is filled with shame. The college sophomore who cannot solve a differential equation may feel bad. The math professor who suddenly forgets how to do it is ashamed.

If you have a high image of yourself, then you feel shame when you fail that image. If you have a low image of yourself, shame is improbable, for your self-identity has not been questioned. The root of the sense of shame is as old as the human race itself. The first human couple experienced it. In the beginning, Adam and Eve were naked, but ve-lo yitboshashu, “they were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). Later, they sinned— and they futilely looked around for something to cover themselves with, for now they were ashamed. Ashamed indeed: they thought of themselves as worthy, Adam as the yetzir kappav of God, the creature of God’s own hands; Eve as the em kol hai, the mother of all life (Gen. 3:20). They inhabited Paradise; they were the most perfect of God’s creatures; they spoke with God. Suddenly, rudely, crudely, they were shocked by their own failure, by their inability to resist a miserable piece of fruit—and so they were ashamed. A new and cheaper self was exposed.

And how wonderful and invaluable, how civilizing, is this sense of shame! For when we experience it, we are shaken by our failure to live up to the ideal picture of ourselves, and so we are compelled to change our real self, just discovered, and transform it so that it will conform to the higher, more ideal image we entertained. This, indeed, is the essence of teshuvah, repentance. That is why Maimonides teaches that after the sense of bushah or shame comes repentance, which attains its highest expression when a man is be able to say, “Ani aher, ve-eini oto ha-ish—I am another, I am no longer the same man” who committed those evil follies (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:4). I have transformed my identity, my very self, my whole character, so that now I really am the person I originally thought I was! No wonder the Sefer Hasidim taught that ha-boshet ve-ha-emunah nitzmadot; ke-she-tistallek ahat, tistallek havertah, “shame and faith are intertwined; take away one, and the other disappears” (ed. Margaliyot, #120, #350).

If, therefore, we moderns have largely lost the sense of bushah, it is not because we have a high opinion of ourselves. Quite the contrary, it is because we have too low an opinion of ourselves, because we have almost no self-esteem, no image of dignity to be jolted and hurt. Our sophisticated generation has been nurtured on Freud and weaned on Kinsey. We have been taught to expect the worst in ourselves. We have become conditioned to the beast in man, so much so that if we sometimes are confronted with a genuinely human act, we are surprised. Our problem is that we have so contemptible a view of our own inner value, our own moral worth and significance, that that which is mean and despicable seems to us to fit into the picture we have drawn of ourselves. And if there is no discrepancy, no exposure, no jolt, there can be no bushah, and hence there can be no impetus to grow and improve and transform ourselves.



Parshat Ki Tavo: One Nation, All Alone, Under God

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Deuteronomy, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

One Nation, All Alone, Under God*

In the portion of this week’s reading which describes the blessings that will come upon Israel, we read one verse that is outstanding by its magnificence: “And all the nations of the world will see that the name of the Lord is called upon you, and they will be afraid of you” (Deuteronomy 28:10).

What does Moses mean when he says that “the name of the Lord is called upon you?” The Talmud (Berakhot 6a) quotes an answer by one of the greatest of all sages, Rabbi Eliezer the Great. In a pithy comment of but three words, he says: “elu tefillin shebarosh,” the “name of the Lord” that is “called upon us” refers to the tefillin that we wear upon the head.

How remarkable! Is that all it takes to frighten away the anti-Semite bent upon a pogrom? Is the tefillin worn upon the head really sufficient to neutralize the venom of the anti-Jewish enemy, his plentiful arms and allies?

If we turn to the Talmudic passage from which this quotation is taken, and study it in context, we discover what I believe is the real meaning of the statement of Rabbi Eliezer the Great. Immediately after quoting his response, the Talmud asks: We know that in the tefillin of man is written the profession of unity, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” But what is written in the tefillin that, so to speak, God Himself wears? The answer given is that the tefillin of God bear the message: “Who is like unto Your people Israel, one nation upon earth” (I Chronicles 17:21). As the Rabbis explain: The Lord said to Israel, “You made of Me a unity in the world, so I too will reciprocate and make of you a unity in the world.” Our espousal of God’s oneness is reciprocated by God’s affirming our uniqueness in the world.

Now, reading our original passage in context, we see that “the name of the Lord” refers not to man’s but to God’s tefillin shel rosh! Hence, what the Sages really meant to say is this: What will win respect and inspire awe in others is the Jewish ability to stand alone, to be a “unity in the world,” to risk loneliness, to remain secure though friendless, to hold our own if necessary against the entire world. When Jews have sufficient faith in “the name of the Lord” to act on the basis of the confidence that we will remain “one nation upon the earth,” then we will survive and we will flourish.

That is true for us as individuals. If we are embarrassed by our Jewishness and fearful of being outsiders and aliens in a non-Jewish culture, if we yield easily to the majority’s pressures upon us to conform, then we will deserve no respect for us, because we will have dishonored ourselves. Those pseudo-WASPs, those Jews who would have preferred to be re-born non-Jewish, who do not acknowledge their ethnic origins or religious traditions, are in truth not authentically human. The self-deniers have, as it were, ripped the tefillin off the head of God and left themselves both headless and heartless.

What Rabbi Eliezer is telling us is that we must have the courage of our convictions and ignore the pressure of numbers. If you think you are right, if you are convinced that what you are doing is correct and moral, then do not be worried by the fact that most people are against you, that you may look silly, that people will gaze at you as though you came from another world. If you are right, proceed to do what is right in your eyes and do not be worried that you offend majority opinion.

Indeed, Rabbi Eliezer the Great himself beautifully exemplified this principle. He was born to a very wealthy father who, like most wealthy fathers, preferred that his son become a well-to-do businessman. But when Eliezer was twenty-two years old he decided that he would rather become a scholar and so, at a relatively advanced age, he made his way to Yavneh and enrolled in the academy of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. His father was furious at him for abandoning the family business and going into something as impractical as Talmudic scholarship. He made up his mind, after some time, that he would himself travel to Yavneh and there publicly disinherit his son. When he came to Yavneh, the great teacher Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai noticed him and called out to Eliezer, saying: “Amod uderosh,” “rise up and deliver the lecture.” Eliezer was truly frightened, because he regarded himself as only a beginner disqualified and unprepared for such a task. But the teacher insisted, and Eliezer delivered a brilliant and scintillating Talmudic lecture. So impressive were his words that the audience gasped and the teacher kissed the student upon the forehead. When Eliezer’s father Hyrkanos saw this, he arose and declared that although he had come to disinherit Eliezer, he now wished to announce that he is so overwhelmed that he is going to leave all his money and estate to his son (Avot DeRabbi Natan 6:3).

All through his life, Rabbi Eliezer continued to demonstrate this single-minded stubbornness of following what is right no matter who is in the opposition. At one crucial point of his life, when he was already a world-famous teacher and had distinguished students – counting among them no less a figure than Rabbi Akiva – Rabbi Eliezer clashed with his colleagues on a point of law. They declared a certain oven as ritually unclean and, he pronounced it ritually clean. When the matter was taken to a vote and the opposition won, Rabbi Eliezer refused to go along. The matter led to a confrontation, and as a result of Rabbi Eliezer’s persistence and his refusal to accede to majority rule he was placed in excommunication – and remained in this ban for many years, until his death. He was beloved by his colleagues and students, revered universally, and yet in order for the Halakha to survive they felt it necessary to take this extreme action against him. But he refused to be budged. The principle he found in the divine tefillin shel rosh was something he implemented in his own life.

If this is true for us as individuals, it is certainly true for Israel as a people today. We must be prepared for what is coming upon us. We must recognize that the State of Israel is in for some difficult times in the diplomatic and political world, and possibly even militarily. Israel is more and more facing isolation. It has earned the enmity of the Soviet Union. It is isolated from the Third World who in their recent assembly repeated the ritualistic condemnation of and hatred for Israel. The UN continues treating Israel like a pariah, and the Civil Airlines Organization, which always procrastinates and dawdles when hijackings are carried out against Israeli aircraft, springs into a sudden burst of zealous efficiency when Israel takes action and try to prevent hijacking, without any loss of life or property. Arab oil is now being used, perhaps for the first time, in a deliberate attempt to isolate Israel diplomatically. The energy crisis in the US is exaggerated in order to fall in line with this pressure. Russian-American détente promises no great help for Israel. A weakened presidency leaves Israel in a most difficult position. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that pleased as we are at having the first Jewish Secretary of State in American history, we are also worried lest he will bend over backwards in an attempt to prove that he is not prejudiced in favor of Israel.

So we must be prepared to remain alone, friendless, and isolated.

At times of crisis, it has been our experience for this past quarter century that Israelis usually rally, whereas Diaspora Jews usually cave in. To the dismay of most Israelis, we Jews of the Diaspora panic rather quickly. So, Israel must certainly continue to seek friends where it can, and we American Jews must use our political influence and clout discretely and wisely. But we must not panic. We must remember that our normal condition is “a people that dwells alone.” We must draw strength and not weakness from the knowledge that we are often alone and different in the world. It is during these times of loneliness – when we are “one nation upon the earth,” as the statement in God’s tefillin declares – that we will draw the admiration and respect of others who will appreciate our strength and courage during these periods of solitude, who will recognize “that the name of the Lord is called upon you,” and then we shall prevail.

I do not mean to say that American Jews must offer blind support for every Israeli policy, whether foreign or certainly internal. But if the decision of the Israelis should be to go at it alone, let us not try to move them on the basis of our own inner panic. At such times we must give them strength and not infect them with our weakness.

It is at times of this sort that we must be aware of the principle enunciated in the divine tefillin – that we have been, we are, and will probably always remain “one nation upon the earth.”

This is our burden and glory, as the Name of the Lord is called upon us. We shall remain one nation, all alone, under God.

*September 15, 1973.

Parshat Ki Tetzei: Mandated Memory

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Devarim, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers.


With the final three sentences of Parshat Ki Tetzei, the Torah turns its attention to the mitzva of remembering the crimes of the nation of Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people.

Zachor, remember that which Amalek did to you, on the way as you left Egypt.

Asher korcha ba’derech, how he happened upon you on the way, va’yezaneiv becha kol hanecheshalim acharecha, and he struck those who were hindmost among you, all the weakest at your rear, v’ata ayeif v’yageia v’lo yarei Elokim, and you were faint and weary, and [he] feared not God.

And it will be when the Lord your God gives you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance to possess it, timcheh et zecher Amalek mi’tachat hashamayim, you shall erase the memory of Amalek from under the heaven – lo tishkach, you shall not forget!

The rabbis eventually ordain a special reading of this passage each year on the Shabbat before the festival of Purim, a Shabbat that consequently becomes known as Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of remembrance. This reading is ordained in order to ensure the yearly fulfillment of the positive biblical mitzva conveyed by the passage itself: the mitzva to remember the crimes of Amalek. The Shabbat before Purim is chosen for the fulfillment of this mitzva because Haman, the villain of the Purim story, was a descendent of Agag, the last king of Amalek.


No other nation is singled out by the Torah for enduring enmity as is the nation of Amalek.

Why must an eternal battle be waged against this nation? What was the exact nature of its crimes? The Egyptians enslaved and tormented the Israelites for centuries; the Canaanites and Emorites attacked the nation during its wilderness travels; the Moabites and Midianites conspired to spiritually destroy them; the Edomites refused to allow them to pass through their land and denied them water to drink. Yet, while these nations are chastised – and in some cases ostracized – by the Torah, none of them earn the enduring enmity that is reserved for Amalek. What aspects of Amalek’s crimes warrant this treatment?

Furthermore, whatever Amalek’s crimes may be, how can the Torah mandate perpetual hostility towards this nation? Does the Torah accept the concept of collective guilt? Are descendents to be blamed for crimes committed by their forefathers centuries earlier? What are the practical ramifications of the mandate to erase the memory of Amalek across the ages?

Finally, the mitzva of remembering the crimes of Amalek, as outlined in the text, seems to be inherently contradictory. The Torah enjoins us to remember, and yet, the ultimate goal of remembering is to reach the point when we will “erase the memory of Amalek from under the heaven.” It seems as if the Torah is commanding us to remember, in order to forget? The Torah then deepens the mystery by closing the passage with the admonition: “You shall not forget!” On a practical level, how are we meant to understand this mitzva?



The Torah’s terse description of Amalek’s original attack upon the Israelites conveys volumes concerning the nature of the evil that this nation represents.

1. Asher korcha ba’derech, “how he happened upon you on the way…”

To underscore the unique nature of Amalek’s attack, the Torah utilizes an unusual verb, korcha, that is not conjugated in this form anywhere else in the Torah.

According to the pshat, the straightforward meaning of the text, the  verb korcha is derived from the word mikreh (happenstance). The central feature of Amalek’s sin, the Torah informs us, was the casual nature of their attack upon the Israelites. The Israelites did not threaten Amalek in any way; they were not passing through their land; these nations were not engaged in physical or philosophical conflict. They simply “happened” to meet each other on the way. Amalek’s attack was entirely unprovoked, motivated by the “pure joy of massacre.”

The connection between Amalek and Haman, the villain of the Purim story, now becomes clearer as well. Haman is not simply the biological descendent of the nation of Amalek, but the philosophical descendent of that nation, as well. Faced with one individual’s stubborn unwillingness to bow down before him, a “normal villain” would be satisfied with vengeance wrought upon the perpetrator alone. It takes an Amalekite, like Haman, to use the opportunity to spitefully attack not only that individual but his entire people. Unreasonable, reasonless hatred is the mark of Amalek – a mark clearly reflected in Haman’s reactions.

A Midrashic interpretation, quoted by Rashi, adds another layer of significance to the verb describing Amalek’s crimes. The Midrashic scholars discern the term kar (cold) embedded in the verb korcha. When you left Egypt, God informs the Israelites, you were “boiling hot” to the touch. No nation, upon hearing of the miracles wrought on your behalf during the Exodus, would dare attack you…until Amalek attacked. And then, just as an individual who enters a hot tub cools the water for those who follow, Amalek’s brazen attack upon you “cooled” your image and rendered you vulnerable to attack from other sources, as well.

2. Va’yezaneiv becha kol hanecheshalim acharecha…, “and he struck those who were hindmost among you, all the weakest at your rear…”

Once again, the Torah underscores the extraordinary nature of Amalek’s crimes through the unique conjugation of a verb, va’yezaneiv, found in this form nowhere else in the Torah text.

Derived from the noun zanav (tail), the verb va’yezaneiv underscores the despicable, cowardly nature of Amalek’s attack. Amalek fails to attack the Israelites head-on, but deliberately targets the hindmost section of the Israelite column: the sector containing, as the Torah testifies, kol hanecheshalim acharecha, “all the weakest at your rear.” The weakness of others does not move the nation of Amalek to compassion and sympathy, as it would any human being imbued with the spirit of God. Instead, discerned weakness and vulnerability only awakens the bloodlust and scorn embedded in Amalek’s heart.

3. V’ata ayeif v’yageia v’lo yarei Elokim, “and you were faint and weary, and [he] feared not God.”

We have translated the final notes on Amalek’s attack according to the interpretation of the vast majority of scholars from Midrashic times onward.  These closing comments, the authorities maintain, can only be understood if we divide the text into two sections, each referring to a different subject. The phrase “and you were faint and weary” refers to the Israelites, while the phrase “and [he] feared not God” refers to Amalek.

In summary, the Torah thus declares, Amalek attacked you at the point when you were, as a whole, weakened from the journey. This brazen assault and its despicable characteristics showed a total lack of any God awareness on Amalek’s part.

Some scholars, however, suggest a different, bold approach to these closing notes – an approach that is also based on a Midrashic source. Noting that the text literally reads, “and you were faint and weary, and feared not God,” these commentaries insist that the entire textual description, including the statement “and feared not God,” applies to the Israelites. The Torah informs us of the true source of the nation’s vulnerability to Amalek’s attack. Not only were the people physically weary but, at this moment, they were also “bereft of mitzvot.” A related tradition, found in many sources, connects Amalek’s attack to the event recorded immediately prior in the book of Shmot. There, the Torah describes that, at a location known as Refidim, the Israelites complain to Moshe over a lack of water. These protests, according to Moshe, ultimately descend into an overall test of God, as the nation asks, “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” The spiritual weakness demonstrated by the people during this event ultimately leaves them open to the assault by Amalek that immediately follows.


A clear picture thus emerges from the Torah’s brief description of the crimes for which the nation of Amalek is singled out. This is a people filled with spite and hatred – a nation that attacks without warning or cause, that preys upon the physically and spiritually weak, that revels in violence, and that represents the antithesis of all the Torah stands for. Good cannot triumph while Amalek exists.


While the Torah makes a cogent case for opposition to Amalek, however, the permanent character of this mandated hostility gives us pause. What are the practical ramifications of the commandment to erase the memory of Amalek in our day? Do the descendents of an ancient people bear continuing responsibility for crimes committed by their ancestors centuries ago?

A broader analysis of these issues can be found in our earlier study concerning the approach of Jewish law to war (see Bamidbar: Matot-Masei 2). For the purposes of this study, however, we will summarize some of the salient points that apply specifically to the laws surrounding Amalek.

1. The questions we raise are not new. An early Midrashic source reflects the ambivalence felt by the rabbis as they consider the Torah’s approach towards Amalek. The Talmud suggests that Shaul, the first king of Israel, engages God in poignant debate after receiving the divine command to utterly destroy the nation of Amalek and all of its wealth.

When Shaul raises concerns over the morality of killing countless souls – men, women, children and animals – God refuses to address the issues directly and commands the king “not to be overly righteous. Through this Midrashic medium, the rabbis perhaps give voice to their own concerns and conclude that, while the answers to the issues raised will forever remain elusive, God’s will must be obeyed.

2. Some authorities, over time, increasingly perceive Amalek as a conceptual rather than as a physical entity. The evil represented by this ancient nation, these authorities maintain, continues to exist and must be eradicated if good is to triumph. An argument might be made that this transition to the conceptual is reinforced by the text itself when it speaks of the obligation to eradicate the “memory of Amalek,” without reiterating the requirement to physically destroy the nation.

3. Most scholars, in contrast, continue to interpret the Torah’s commandment concerning Amalek in concrete terms. The physical obligation to destroy the Amalekite people, these authorities maintain, continues over time.

The practical application of this law, however, runs into a serious roadblock. How does one identify an Amalekite?

Complicating this question is a conclusion reached in the Mishna allowing the acceptance of a convert of Ammonite descent into the Jewish community, in spite of the biblical injunction “An Ammonite or a Moabite may not enter the congregation of the Lord, even their tenth generation… to eternity.”

This allowance is made, the Mishna explains, because of the actions of the ancient Assyrian king Sancheriv (sixth century BCE), who, upon embarking on a campaign of conquest in the ancient Middle East, completely subdues his enemies by exiling them from their homelands and scattering them across the face of his empire. Tragically, Jewish history is indelibly altered when the Kingdom of Israel is conquered and treated in this fashion by Sancheriv. As a result, ten tribes of Israel assimilate into surrounding cultures and disappear from the historical stage.

Like the “Ten Lost Tribes” of Israel, the Mishna claims, other ancient biblical nations, including the Ammonites and the Moabites, were scattered by Sancheriv, resulting in the loss of their independent identities. Even someone claiming to be of Ammonite descent, therefore, is not treated as such and may become a full-fledged member of the Jewish people. The Rambam codifies the Mishna’s conclusion in broad terms: “When Sancheriv, the King of Assyria, rose, he confused all the nations and commingled them with one another and exiled them from their places.… Therefore, a convert who comes in our time, in all places, whether he [claims to] be Egyptian, Ammonite, Cushite or of any other nationality, both men and women, are immediately permitted to join the congregation.”

Centuries later, the concept of commingled nations again becomes part of the halachic discourse when a number of halachists revisit the biblical commandment to blot out the nation of Amalek. Rabbi Yosef Babad mirrors the position of many when he emphatically states in the Minchat Chinuch, his renowned commentary to the Sefer Hachinuch, “And today we are no longer commanded in this [commandment to blot out the remembrance of Amalek] because Sancheriv has already risen and confused the whole world.” Due to Sancheriv’s policies of conquest, these authorities maintain, after the sixth century, the archenemy of the Jewish nation is no longer recognizable.

4. A fascinating “blended” position is offered by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the Rav, based upon a subtle discrepancy in the rulings of the Rambam.

The Rav notes that the Rambam clearly states in his codification of the law that the obligation to destroy the seven Canaanite nations no longer applies because “their memory has long since perished.” Strikingly, however, the Rambam makes no such allowance concerning the obligation to destroy the nation of Amalek.

Why, asks the Rav, does the Rambam assume that Amalek survives while the memory of other ancient nations “perishes”?

To explain this legal disparity, the Rav suggests that two distinct commandments concerning Amalek emerge from the Torah text reflecting two different categories of Amalek.

The verse “You shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek” mandates the destruction of each individual genealogical descendent of Amalek. This commandment loses its force when Sancheriv’s method of conquest robs the ancient nations of their independent identities. The verse “the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” establishes the obligation to obliterate any nation across the face of history that seeks to destroy the Jewish people. This second commandment, which defines Amalek in broad conceptual rather than biological terms, remains unaffected by Sancheriv’s actions. “There still exists,” the Rav maintains, “a category of Amalek [as a people] even now after the peoples
have been intermingled [and there are no longer individual Amalekites].”

The Rav explains that within the context of this commandment, Hitler and the Nazis were the Amalekites of the 1930s and ’40s, while “the mobs of Nasser and the mufti” were the Amalekites of the 1950s and ’60s. We can safely assume that the Rav would similarly identify the members of Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and others as the Amalekites in our day.

The Rav thus agrees that the concept of obligatory warfare based on genetic national identity becomes moot after Sancheriv’s conquests. He maintains, however, that a second type of national identity emerges from the Torah’s commandments concerning Amalek – an identity determined by behavior rather than bloodline. This national identity remains intact to this day, obligating the Jewish people in each generation to ongoing struggle against the Amalekites of their day.


Finally, we turn our attention to the character of the mitzva concerning Amalek. As noted earlier, a fundamental inconsistency seems to emerge from the text.

The Torah clearly commands us to “remember that which Amalek did to you…” The text then explains, however, that the goal of this remembrance is to reach the point when we will successfully “erase the memory of Amalek from under the heaven.” The Torah seems to be commanding us to remember, in order to forget. Deepening the mystery, the text then closes with the admonition “You shall not forget!” On a practical level, how are we to understand this mitzva?

The key to understanding the mitzva of zachor lies in recognizing that the Torah clearly distinguishes between two distinct phenomena: “forgetting” and “erasing.”

When something is forgotten, that condition still exists. We have simply sublimated our awareness of the issues involved. In contrast, when something is erased, that condition is obliterated. We have successfully confronted the issues involved and dealt with them.

Once this distinction is noted, the Torah’s approach to Amalek becomes abundantly clear and profoundly relevant: “Zachor, remember, that which Amalek did to you…” Keep this memory alive, for if you “forget,” the challenges and horrors of Amalek will resurface over and over again.

Timcheh et zecher Amalek mi’tachat hashamayim, “you shall erase the memory of Amalek from under the heaven…” Remember, until you have convinced the world to erase, to eradicate, Amalek in all of its forms from its midst. Remind the world of the lesson that you have learned through bitter experience – that for good to triumph, evil must be destroyed. Speak out and oppose evil, wherever it may exist.

Lo tishkach, “you shall not forget!” Do not take the easy way out. Do not succumb to temptation. Do not forget until you have succeeded in the eradication of Amalek. And if the world fails to listen, continue to remember and remind them, until the end of days.


How prescient the commandment to remember the crimes of Amalek seems today as we consider our world, seventy years after the Holocaust.

The rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout Europe, even in countries almost bereft of Jews; anti-Zionism and the devastating double standard applied against Israel by the world community; countless atrocities committed against ethnic, racial and religious minorities in countries across the globe – all these and other phenomena give lie to the public proclamations, resolutions and commitments for a better world that followed the close of World War II.

The world grows tired of hearing about the horrors of the Shoah. In the presence of a dwindling community of survivors, there are already those who loudly deny that the Holocaust ever occurred. Such a world is doomed to see horrors recur. We are, therefore, obligated to change the world by insisting that its inhabitants “remember.” And when, with God’s help, we finally do succeed in fully “erasing the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens,” there will no longer be a need to “remember.”

Points to Ponder

The discerning reader might have noticed that we “dodged” a particularly difficult question in our study.

We noted that, according to many authorities, the commandment to destroy “genetic Amalekites” cannot be fulfilled today. We failed to answer, however, how God could issue such a commandment. Is the Torah preaching the mantra of collective guilt? Are descendents to be blamed for crimes committed by forefathers centuries earlier? How do we relate to the fact that, according to most authorities, if we could definitively identify a genetic Amalekite today, we would be obligated to summarily execute him or her?

We have stated many times before that questions like these are based on the erroneous assumption that Torah morality must always correlate to the temporal mores of our day. We may never fully comprehend the philosophical underpinnings of the commandment to eradicate the nation of Amalek. The rabbis clearly made this point in the Midrash positing Shaul’s struggle with God’s decree (see study).

Nonetheless, a glimmer of understanding of these difficult issues might emerge from our own unfortunate experience.

As the State of Israel continues its arduous search for peace with its neighbors, one fact, ignored by the world, becomes clearer each day. As long as the Palestinians and so much of the Arab world continue to educate their children towards violence, martyrdom and hatred of Jews, no peace will ever take root. In classrooms and mosques, in textbooks and over the airwaves, young Palestinians are bombarded with images portraying Jews as subhuman enemies, worthy only of destruction.

Can a child from such a culture be “blamed” when he reaches adulthood and acts in consonance with these images? Is a suicide bomber, raised since childhood in a seething cauldron of hatred, fully responsible for his actions? Was the ordinary German, pummeled by Nazi propaganda, guilty when he turned a blind eye towards genocide?

Certainly, in the heat of battle, such delicate debates concerning “personal fault” have no place. The evil must be confronted and eliminated without hesitation.

In the quiet moments that follow, however, blame must be assessed, certainly upon the perpetrators, but also upon the guilty society, as well. A society that educates its young towards hatred, violence and murder must share responsibility, as a whole, for their crimes. In Amalek, the Torah confronts such a society and the resulting mandate is abundantly clear.

Parshat Shoftim: A King in Israel

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Deuteronomy, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

A King in Israel*

The Torah’s concept of a limited monarchy, with a king subservient to the law and to God, is first outlined in this morning’s sidra: “When you reach the Promised Land, and you will say, ‘I wish to set over myself a king like all the other nations that are about me,’ then you shall set over yourself a king whom the Lord your God will choose” (Deuteronomy 17:14-15).

Now the Rabbis faced a basic question in approaching this biblical passage. Is this declaration of the Torah to be considered an obligation, namely, that upon arriving in the Promised Land the people of Israel must establish a strong central leadership? Or is it to be understood as a grant of permission, i.e. that in the event that the leaders of the people will decide upon a monarchy and request it, that the Torah does not object to such a strong government?

This question was an issue between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehorai (Sanhedrin 20b). Rabbi Judah considered this a positive commandment, an obligation, while Rabbi Nehorai regarded the statement as permission, but not an absolute obligation. Most of our medieval commentators, the Rishonim, are of divided opinion as to the verdict of the Halakha; but the majority seems to favor the opinion of Rabbi Judah who considers the passage concerning the king as an obligation.

Now, if indeed we consider the statement of the Torah as obligatory, this raises a serious and perplexing historical problem. For we read in the Prophets (I Samuel, chapter 8) that when the Children of Israel finally did request a monarchy, the prophet Samuel was furious, and God Himself was highly displeased. The elders approached Samuel, and said to him, “Now that you are old and we can find no worthy successor to you from amongst your children, therefore set for us a king to judge us, like all the other nations.” The prophet was incensed and he prayed to God, who answered him, saying: “You are right, the people have committed a wrong in requesting a king. Nevertheless, let them have their king, for they have rejected not you, but Me.”

Is there not a bold contradiction between the passage in today’s sidra, indicating that it is an obligation to appoint a king, and the chapter in Samuel which clearly implies that it was wrong for the Children of Israel to request a king?

A number of answers have been offered in an attempt to resolve this problem. Permit me to commend to your attention some of them, which are both significant in their own right and also shed light upon contemporary life.

The first of these solutions, chronologically, was offered already in the days of the Mishna. It seeks to differentiate between the request itself, which is considered legitimate, and the reason for the request, which is not. Thus the Talmud (ibid.) relates:

Rabbi Eliezer says, “The wise elders of that generation presented a most proper request: they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ Certainly there was nothing wrong with this. But the ordinary people, the ignoramuses amongst them, where the ones who erred when they gave as the reason for their request the wish to be like all other nations about them.”

There is nothing wrong with the desire for a strong centralized leadership. The mistake lies in the motivation for the request – the urge towards assimilation and imitation. When a nation assimilates, as when an individual abandons his own individuality in order to conform to social pressure, moral principle is violated. In both cases we have an abdication of selfhood, a sudden and irreparable damage to self-respect.

Our sidra anticipated this moral weakness. The Torah divides the problem into two parts: If you will say “I desire a king,” and explain it by the desire to imitate other peoples, then the answer is that your request for a king is granted. It is a proper request. However, I reject the reasons for your demand – assimilation and imitation; instead, you must choose a king not because other people have one, but “a king whom the Lord your God will choose.” Not assimilation to the mores and manners of other people, but obedience to the will of God must dictate the choice of a Jewish leader.

The second answer is one offered by the great medieval scholar, Rabbenu Nissim. He maintains that Samuel’s contemporaries erred in seeking to merge two incompatible functions. They asked for one individual who would combine within himself the features of king – secular- executive government, and judge – the spiritual-legislative office: “Give us a king to judge us,” one person who will be both king and judge.

This was the crux of their error. Our sidra keeps these functions strictly apart. First it tells us the laws that relate to the judge, and then a separate chapter is assigned to the qualifications of the king. When we confuse the two roles, we leave the way open to royal and judicial corruption. The two offices must have a relationship, but they are not interchangeable.

Such indeed is the case with religion and state. There is a clear and positive relation between them. To speak of an “absolute wall of separation” between Church and State is to ignore the evidence of history. Nevertheless, they must never be identical. Politicians ought not to offer verdicts on religious questions; and rabbis ought not become politicians and run for political office. When prime ministers of Israel try to pronounce on matters of Halakha, they are both dangerously adventurous and downright silly. And when rabbis in the United States venture into city politics they jeopardize their vocation and appear hopelessly naïve, as babes in the woods, and they thus constitute a source of embarrassment to the faith and the people they represent.  The two functions of king and of judge are two separate concepts! Never ought they to be mistaken one for the other. God Himself is incensed when they overlap.

The third and last answer I wish to comment to you is offered by the author of the Keli Yakar, who bases his remarks upon a subtle but forceful distinction between two Hebrew prepositions. It is a solution which yields valuable lessons on the philosophy of leadership and especially spiritual leadership.

This commentator tells us that the Torah, in articulating the obligation to form a kingdom, utilizes the preposition “al” which literally means “on” or “upon”; whereas Samuel’s elders utilized the preposition “le,” in its contracted form “lanu,” which means “to” or “for.” Thus the Torah has the Israelites saying, “I want to set upon myself, or over myself, a king”; and the commandment in response is “you shall set over yourself, or upon yourself a king.” However, the elders of Samuel’s days said to the prophet, “Now set for us a king,” and “give for us, or to us, a king to judge us.”

What is the difference? The very nature of leadership! Al, when applied to leadership, means that the leader has certain inherent and intrinsic qualities which mark that individual as a person of unusual foresight, strength, and courage. He must be able to inspire his followers, who must be willing to follow their leader. Once these followers have indicated their confidence in that person as their leader, they should be willing to submit to his discretion. The Torah does not believe in an absolute monarchy or in blind obedience by the king’s subjects; that is why the Torah in today’s sidra severely limits the king’s rights. But he must not be a milquetoast. A leader, especially in a spiritual sense, must not be merely a broker of popular opinion. A leader must lead – he must be al, one who is beyond the people and can take them along with him to new horizons. However, Samuel’s contemporaries wanted a king lanu, for us, they wanted someone who will carry out our wishes, and do our bidding. They wanted a royal messenger-boy, not a leader whom they could trust and follow.

There is no doubt that a lanu leader is more popular than the al leader. But in the long run the truth must come out. Rule by consensus alone, leading merely where the public opinion polls indicate the public wants to go, is not an exercise of leadership or commitment or orientation. It is merely a specialized craft, a talent, a technique. A community is not enlightened, and humanity does not make strides, when its leaders merely pamper its talent for prejudices.

This is true of the leadership of government, and is also true of mass movements. Zionism, for instance, was blessed with great leaders who achieved great successes. But, especially in its later years, its leadership experienced failures as well. They emphasized only the political dimensions and goals of Zionism, the founding of a viable, independent state. But they were not able to bring their people along to the awareness that Zionism had, and should have had, cultural, educational, and religious goals as well. It turned into a lanu rather than an al kind of leadership.

There must be reciprocity and interplay between leader and followers. The leader must not be too far ahead of his people; but never must he abdicate his pedagogic and educative function.

And what we have said of human leadership as a mortal king is equally and even more so true of divine leadership, the immortal King of kings. We fulfill a great mitzva if we accept God as a king “upon” us. We commit a major spiritual crime if we expect Him to be a little God “for” us who does our bidding.

Let it be clear: For Judaism, God is not an Executive Vice President of the Cosmos in charge of Human Happiness. A truly religious person does not wake up in the morning and say to God, “What have You done for me recently?” God is not looking for our votes in an election or popularity contest. He is not interested in our approval.

An authentic religion does not cater to what people want and think they need. It teaches them to want what they really need. It leads them to aspire to higher deeds and more sublime ideals.

If Judaism may, as indeed its “modernist” versions have averred, be cut and truncated and transformed and reformed to conform to the latest ephemeral intellectual currents and fads of fashion and tastes, then it reveals that at the bottom there is an immature conception of God as a kind of divine Servant or at best a divine Insurance Agent who will provide for our happiness and convenience. God is not a King for us; He is a King over us: “You shall set over yourself a King.” That is the essence of Torah and the meaning of Halakha.

Indeed, this is what God told Samuel when Samuel complained to Him about the people’s request. Samuel, God said, the failing of the people is not political but fundamentally religious. “They have not rejected you, they have rejected Me.” Their political immaturity reflects a fundamental religious bankruptcy. The real Jew, the authentic Godfearing person, does not regard God as Servant of mankind but mankind as the ambassador of God.

This, indeed, is the proper way to prepare for Rosh HaShana, that holiday on which we emphasize the malkhut theme, the sovereignty and Kingship of God. It is an illustration and expression of fundamental Jewishness to declare then, as we declare every day in our prayers, “And the Lord shall be King over all the earth.”

Bayom hahu, on that day, when He is accepted as King over all the earth, shall the Lord be One and His Name be One.

*September 4, 1965.

Parshat Re’eh: Truth or Consequences

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Devarim, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


As Moshe turns his attention to a series of internal forces that might endanger the nation after his death, he begins by outlining the potential challenge presented by a navi sheker, a false prophet.

He warns of the possibility that “a prophet or a dreamer of a dream” might successfully produce “a sign or a wonder” in an attempt to convince the people to follow the gods of others.

“Do not listen to the words of that prophet,” he cautions, “for the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”


If the individual in question is a charlatan, why does the Torah refer to him as a “prophet or a dreamer of dreams”? Shouldn’t the appellation “prophet” be reserved for someone who is telling the truth?

Even more importantly, why would God grant this individual the power to produce “a sign or a wonder”? Shouldn’t such power be divinely granted only to a true prophet? Would God truly grant supernatural powers to an imposter, simply to “test” the people’s belief? Given that God knows from the outset what lies in man’s heart, what would be the purpose of such a test?

Finally, Moshe indicates in this passage that the production of “a sign or a wonder” by a possible prophet does not, in and of itself, confirm the veracity of the messenger. In Parshat Shoftim, however, when the Torah discusses the general method for determining the truthfulness of a potential prophet, the text states that veracity is determined by whether or not an event predicted by the prophet “comes about.”

Under what circumstances is the production of “a sign or a wonder” proof of a prophet’s truthfulness and under what conditions is it not?


A number of commentaries, Rabbi Saadia Gaon and Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher among them, maintain that the Torah labels the false prophet as a “prophet” as a reflection of his own claims. From the perspective of these authorities, the term prophet in this case refers to someone who “claims prophecy.”

After first considering the above interpretation, the Ramban offers an alternative approach. Perhaps the text refers to an individual who possesses a natural talent for divination. Such an individual, who in our day might be referred to as a psychic or a medium, could justifiably be called a “prophet” by the Torah because of his innate ability to predict the future. Unlike a true prophet, however, this individual remains unaware of the source of his talent and enjoys no special relationship with God.

Whatever explanation we accept for the Torah’s reference to the false prophet as a “prophet,” the deeper question remains. What is the source of this individual’s power? Why would God grant an imposter the power to produce “a sign or a wonder”?

This question serves as the focus of a debate recorded in the Babylonian Talmud between two towering figures of the Mishnaic period:

Rabbi Yossi the Galilean stated: “The Torah understood the intentions of idolaters and therefore granted them dominion. Even if he [the false prophet] causes the sun to stand still in the middle of the heavens, do not listen to him.”

Rabbi Akiva said: “God forbid that the Holy One Blessed Be He would cause the sun to stand still in the heavens on behalf of those who transgress His will. Instead, [the Torah passage that references miracles generated by a false prophet] speaks of an individual such as Chanania ben Azur, who began his career as a true prophet and subsequently became a false prophet.”

Rashi explains Rabbi Akiva’s position to mean that the “sign or wonder” attributed in the text to the navi sheker was actually performed before this individual rebelled against God, while he was still a true prophet.

The debate between these two great Talmudic luminaries is clear. Rabbi Yossi the Galilean maintains that, at times, God will grant transgressors the ability to perform miraculous acts, in order, as the Torah testifies, to test the nation’s loyalty. Rabbi Akiva demurs and insists that under no conditions would God grant supernatural power to those who disobey His will. Any apparent evidence to the contrary is simply incorrect.

With the above Talmudic debate serving as a backdrop, scholars across the ages continue their struggle to understand what, if any, powers God might grant a false prophet, and why.

As noted above, for example, the Ramban suggests that the power of a navi sheker rises out of a natural talent for divination. God allows such abilities to develop even among those who would use them for ill, the Ramban insists, in order to “test” and ultimately benefit those targeted by the false prophet. Consistent with his general approach to God-administered tests, the Ramban explains that God tests man to increase man’s awareness of his own capabilities and to actualize man’s own potential (see Bereishit: Vayeira 4, Context). Through their resistance to the words of the navi sheker, in the face of the “wonders” that he performs, the people will become more aware of their own attachment to God. More than that, the very experience of crisis will transform them. The potential love of God that exists in their hearts will be converted into concrete behavior that will subsequently shape their future actions and character.

In contrast to Rashi, who appears to accept the possibility that God would grant supernatural strength to a navi sheker in order to test the Israelites, the Rambam views any seemingly miraculous sign generated by a false prophet to be the product of magic or sorcery. As to the purpose of the encounter with the navi sheker, the Rambam, like the Ramban, remains true to his own general approach to divinely administered tests, explaining as follows:

“If a man should rise, pretend to be a prophet, and show you his signs…”

Know that God intends thereby to prove to the nations how firmly you believe in the truth of God’s word, and how well you have comprehended the true essence of God, that you cannot be misled by any tempter to corrupt your faith in God.
Your religion will then afford a guidance to all who seek the truth, and of all the religions man will choose that which is so firmly established that it is not shaken by the performance of a miracle. For a miracle cannot prove that which is impossible; it is useful only as a confirmation of that which is possible…”

God tests an individual, or a group, the Rambam believes, in order to proclaim that individual or group’s greatness to others (see Bereishit: Vayeira 4, Context). This interpretation is reflected in the fact that the biblical term for test, nissayon, comes from the root nes (banner). God will test the nation as a whole through their encounter with false prophecy, in order to “raise the banner” of the nation’s greatness to the world. When surrounding nations discern the Jewish people’s ability to retain their belief in God’s word, they will be moved to explore a religion that is “so firmly entrenched” in the hearts of its adherents “that it is not shaken by the performance of a miracle.” In the Rambam’s eyes, successful resistance to the words of the navi sheker furthers the Jewish nation’s mission to the world.

Unwilling to accept the prospect that God would grant any unusual power to a navi sheker, the Ibn Ezra offers two possible explanations for the navi’s apparent ability to produce “a sign or a wonder.” Perhaps the false prophet, this scholar suggests, overhears the predictions of a true prophet and “steals them,” presenting them as his own to bolster his reputation and position. Alternatively, the Torah’s terms ot (sign) and mofet (wonder) may not refer to miraculous signs at all, but to volitional acts performed by the navi. The navi Yeshayahu, for example, proclaims: “Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and wonders for Israel…” The unique acts that I perform and the unusual names that I have bestowed upon my children are all “signs and wonders,” God-commanded deeds designed to represent events that will befall the nation of Israel.

Similarly, says the Ibn Ezra, the “signs and wonders” associated with the false prophet in the text may well refer to conscious acts that he performs in order to convey his message. God’s “test” of the nation, the Ibn Ezra concludes, does not consist of granting powers to the navi sheker, but simply allowing him to survive in spite of his designs against the nation. The purpose of the test is to “demonstrate the righteousness of those tested.”

Likewise maintaining that “the Holy One Blessed Be He would not strengthen the hand of evildoers by granting them the power to change the course of nature or to perform wonders for the purpose of perpetuating lies,” the Abravanel notes a nuance in the text concerning the false prophet’s approach to the nation. The Torah states: V’natan lecha ot o mofet, “and he will present to you a sign or a wonder,” and not V’asa lecha ot o mofet, “and he will create for you a sign or a wonder.” The power of a navi sheker, the Abravanel explains, is limited to the presentation through magic or sorcery of that which already exists, while the power of a true prophet extends to the creation of wonders that transcend the natural world. The test of the nation consists of God’s refusal to sabotage the navi sheker’s presentation by changing the course of natural events.

Ultimately, however, the role of seemingly miraculous signs in the realm of prophecy remains confusing.

On the one hand, as we have seen, the Torah clearly informs us that such signs are not to be believed when determining the character of a navi sheker. The litmus test of a prophet’s veracity is the content of his prophecy, rather than the wonders that he performs. Thus, the Talmud clearly proclaims, “He who prophesies to uproot anything that is in the Torah is culpable and we pay no heed to his ‘signs and wonders.’ ”

On the other hand, as noted before, the text in Parshat Shoftim indicates that the presentation of signs is a critical component in the process of a true prophet’s self-identification. This point is legally codified by the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah, where he states that when a navi is divinely sent to speak to a people, “he is given a sign or a wonder [to present] so that the nation will know that God has sent him.”

Are signs and wonders acceptable proof of a prophet’s veracity, or not? The evidence seems contradictory. If the validation of a potential prophet is based on the content of his prophecy, why must the candidate present a sign? And if signs are significant, how are we to discern which signs are truthful and which are not?

Our guide in this area will be the Rambam, who, in his Mishneh Torah, outlines a halachic approach to a nation’s encounter with prophecy. In his unique, brilliant style, this great sage marries the esoteric realm of prophetic vision to the rational world of Jewish law.

Public awareness of a potential prophet’s personal characteristics and spiritual dedication, the Rambam maintains, is an essential prerequisite towards this individual’s acceptance as a true navi. Not everyone is worthy of becoming a prophet. Prophecy will only visit an individual who is innately wise, strong of character and in full control of his passions; who possesses an extremely wide breadth of true knowledge; and who consciously cultivates communication with the Divine through separation from the outside world and full immersion in the contemplation of heavenly mysteries. Only such an individual, known to be “worthy of prophecy in his wisdom and actions,” can be considered a candidate for prophecy from the outset. If an individual who is not known to possess these qualities claims prophecy, he is not to be heeded by the people, no matter what signs or wonders he may produce. If, on the other hand, an apparently worthy individual does present himself to the nation as a prophet, they cannot ignore his approach. Upon his successful production of a sign or a wonder the nation is bound by law to accept his prophecy.

At this point in his analysis, the Rambam makes a striking assertion. Even an apparently worthy individual who claims to be a prophet may be a charlatan, and the sign that he produces may be sleight of hand. “We are nonetheless commanded to heed him,” the Rambam asserts. “Since he is great, wise and [apparently] deserving of prophecy, we accept him upon his assumed merit.”

This situation is actually comparable, the Rambam explains, to a much more familiar set of circumstances. Throughout Jewish jurisprudence, a fact is established through the testimony of two halachically acceptable witnesses. Although it remains completely possible that these witnesses are testifying falsely, we rely upon their established legal acceptability. In these matters, the Rambam concludes, the operant Torah passage is: “The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, to carry out all the words of this Torah.” The “truth” is immaterial to our actions, the Rambam argues, because we can never be certain of the truth. Certainty remains in God’s realm and not in ours. Our behavior is determined by the law. When that law is satisfied in cases of uncertainty, whether through the testimony of two “kosher” witnesses or through a sign produced by a seemingly worthy navi, we have no choice but to follow the mandated path. We accept a potential navi’s sign, not because we are convinced by the sign itself, but because the Torah commands that a “worthy” candidate for prophecy must be accepted upon
his presentation of a sign.

There is one circumstance, however, under which even a seemingly worthy navi’s sign will not be accepted: if the candidate preaches the overturning of any aspect of the Torah.

Once again, the Rambam maintains, this ruling is eminently logical. We accept the prophecy of Moshe, not because of the miraculous signs that he produced, but ultimately because of the monumental corroborating evidence that we ourselves saw and heard, together with Moshe, at Sinai. The situation of a navi sheker, therefore, is comparable to two halachically acceptable witnesses who offer testimony that directly contradicts what we ourselves have observed. Such testimony is clearly not acceptable, no matter how reliable the witnesses themselves may seem to be. Similarly, the signs presented by a potential navi who directly contradicts the prophecy of Moshe will not sway us, no matter how worthy that candidate for prophecy seems to be. “Given that we only accept a potential navi’s signs because we are commanded to do so [by God through Moshe], how can we accept such a sign from one who endeavors to refute the very prophecy of Moshe, prophecy that we ourselves have seen and heard?” Here again, the law leads us. Just as we are mandated by law to accept the sign of a worthy candidate for prophecy who does not contradict Torah law, we are equally mandated by law not to accept the sign of an apparently worthy candidate who does contradict Torah law.

When all is said and done, the ultimate veracity of a prophet will be determined by what he says and not by how he says it. Substance, and not form, the halacha mandates, should convince us of the truth.

Parshat Ekev: An Unusual Sales Pitch

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Devarim, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


On two separate occasions in Parshat Ekev, Moshe describes the nature of the land promised to the Israelites.

Towards the beginning of the parsha, Moshe declares:

For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land: a land of streams of water, of springs and underground pools emerging forth in the valley and in the mountain; a land of wheat and barley and grapes and figs and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat bread without scarceness; you will lack nothing within it; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will mine copper.

Further in the parsha, Moshe states:

For the land to which you come, to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you left, where you would plant your seed and water it on foot, like a garden of vegetables. And the land to which you cross over to possess it is a land of mountains and valleys; from the rain of the heavens you shall drink water. A land that the Lord your God seeks out; constantly the eyes of the Lord your God are upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end.


Moshe’s first description of the land in Parshat Ekev is uniformly positive. Canaan, he explains, is a well-irrigated land of plenty that will produce a multitude of important crops and is rich in natural resources. Clearly, this description is designed to encourage the nation as it prepares, with both excitement and trepidation, for its entry into an unknown land.

Moshe’s second description of Canaan, however, might well give the Israelites pause. The land from which you have come, says Moshe, is sustained through a regular source of irrigation, the overflow of the Nile. The land towards which you travel, however, is not automatically irrigated with such regularity. This land depends instead upon rain from the heavens. God’s constant care is needed for those who live upon this land to thrive.

Why would Moshe deliberately share this unsettling information with the nation? In what way does it help the Israelites to know in advance that life in Canaan will be uncertain? We have seen that Moshe is desperately afraid that this generation might, like their parents before them, fail on the very brink of success; that they might lose heart in the face of the challenges before them (see Devarim 3, Approaches A). Why, then, would this great leader transmit discouraging information to the people at a time when encouragement is so desperately needed?


After clearly rejecting the possibility that Moshe would deliberately compare Canaan unfavorably to Egypt, Rashi searches for and discerns in this great leader’s words an allusion to the agricultural superiority of Canaan. Irrigation in Egypt through the Nile’s overflow, Rashi explains, does not create consistent results. While low-lying areas in Egypt are automatically well watered, elevated terrain remains dry. Water, therefore, must be manually carried by farmers and workers to the higher terrain, as they are required to “water [the land] on foot, like a garden of vegetables.” In contrast, the land of Canaan is irrigated “from the rain of the heavens.” God will water the fields of the Israelites while they “lie comfortably in their beds.”

Across the ages, other scholars follow Rashi’s lead by suggesting additional benefits to the agricultural model of Canaan as compared to the Egyptian model. The nineteenth–twentieth-century scholar Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, for example, maintains that the man-made canals dug in Egypt to spread the waters of the Nile over distant areas create an unhealthy, damp environment that breeds disease. In contrast, the natural topography of Israel allows for water to flow from mountains to valleys, yet remain long enough to benefit each area before escaping to the sea.

Other scholars, including the Ramban and the Rashbam, adopt a totally different approach to Moshe’s second depiction of Canaan in Parshat Ekev. Moshe’s words in this case, these authorities argue, are not designed to reassure and encourage the Israelites but to warn them.

Couched directly after an admonition to observe the mitzvot and directly before the second paragraph of the Shma, with its clear description of divine reward and punishment, Moshe’s message to the people concerning Canaan is succinctly summed up in the words of the Rashbam: “This land is the best of all lands for those who observe the mitzvot, and the worst of
all lands for those who do not.”

You are entering a land, Moshe tells the nation, that will be completely responsive to your actions. Vastly unlike Egypt, which is irrigated regularly by the Nile, Canaan is a land that requires God’s constant attention. If you obey His law, He will cause the rain to fall and you will thrive. Conversely, if you rebel against His will, disaster will result.

This warning, the Ramban maintains, serves as a perfect introduction to the passage that immediately follows, the second paragraph of the Shma, which outlines a clear vision of divine reward and punishment in response to man’s actions (see next study).

Yet other scholars go a striking step further in their interpretation of Moshe’s words. Representative of this group, the Malbim asks: Why didn’t God simply bequeath the land of Egypt to the Israelites instead of orchestrating their journey into the land of Canaan? Egypt is a fertile land in its own right. Given the collective guilt of the Egyptians, it certainly would have been appropriate (and simpler) for the Israelites to dispossess their erstwhile masters and acquire their land.

The answer, suggests the Malbim, is embedded in Moshe’s description of the land of Canaan. Unlike Egypt, where irrigation occurs with regularity, Canaan is a land clearly dependent upon daily Divine Providence. Rain, in appropriate measure and in appropriate season, is essential for the sustenance of those living within its borders. After their entry into Canaan, therefore, the Israelites will be forced to continually turn their hearts heavenward in search of God’s blessing.

God, Moshe emphasizes, wants the Israelites to live in a land where their dependence upon Him will be clearly before them, front and center, each day of their lives.

If we accept the approach represented by the Malbim, we can combine the positions of the earlier quoted scholars by suggesting that Moshe’s description of Canaan is consciously multi-textured, designed to both encourage and warn the nation at once. Canaan, Moshe emphasizes, is the Israelites’ geographical destination, not only because of its physical attributes, but also because of its spiritual character:

The land to which God takes you does not lie. The fundamental truth that has been taught to you through the daily delivery of the manna in the wilderness (see Shmot: Beshalach 4, Approaches C) will now confront you daily upon your entry into Canaan, as well.

You are dependent upon God’s Providence each and every day of your lives. This fact would be true, of course, no matter where you might live.

But in a land like Egypt, where sustenance seems guaranteed, it is a truth easily forgotten. God, therefore, in His kindness, takes you into a land that does not lie, a land where the truth of your dependence upon heaven is inescapable, where that truth will confront you each and every day of your lives. 

There is, of course, a price to be paid for living in a land that does not lie. You will be held directly accountable for your actions in ways that will concretely affect your physical destiny. This is, however, a small price to pay for the gift of living in a land where God’s presence is so clearly felt each and every day.

Points to Ponder

Many of us spend our days in worlds where it is easy to forget our dependence upon God. Concrete cities and suburban enclaves shield us from the rhythms of the natural world; abundant produce fills the shelves of our stores, regardless of the season; we surround ourselves with creature comforts designed to distance us from any uncertainty that might touch our lives. Striking scientific advances, particularly in the health-related fields, make it easy to lose our way – to stumble, as Moshe warns us we might, into believing that “our strength and the might of our hands has brought us all this wealth.”

In such worlds, the ongoing rituals of Jewish tradition become critical aids in the maintenance of a Jew’s spiritual balance. Daily contact with God through study, prayer and concrete observance prompts each Jew to regularly consider his own vulnerability and the truth of his reliance upon God for the most basic essentials of life.

In this struggle for perspective, the Land of Israel plays a central role, as well. Not only has this land retained the unique spiritual character referred to by Moshe so many centuries ago, but the concrete manifestations of that character have dramatically increased. Israel remains to this day a land that does not lie, a land that conveys dependence upon God on so many levels and in so many ways.

Agriculturally, in spite of the State of Israel’s world-leading technological advances, the Israeli farmer must still rely upon rain in its season; the water level of the Sea of Kineret is closely monitored each year and water rights remain a consistent point of contention between Israel and its neighbors.

Historically, not only did the dream of return to the Land help sustain the nation through its turbulent exile journey, but God’s promise of that return helped refine each Jew’s awareness of his continued reliance upon his Creator.

Politically, with the restoration of the Jewish homeland, the pattern continues. Ensconced in a region of perpetual instability, surrounded by intractable foes, often isolated within the world community, the State of Israel continues to defy the odds through the grace of God and the strength and ingenuity of its citizens. Why does this small country, described by one observer as a tiny beauty mark on the face of an expansive globe, command so much of the world’s attention? Why has this land, across the flow of history, consistently been at the center of so much religious, political and emotional conflict? Why does the Jew constantly find himself praying for true peace within its borders and for the safety and security of its citizens?

Perhaps because, from the beginning of time, the Land of Israel was always meant to be a land that does not lie, a land in which our dependence upon God confronts us front and center, each and every day of our lives.


Parshat Ekev: One Small Detail

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Devarim, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


As Moshe recounts the events following the sin of the golden calf, he adds a detail not mentioned in the original version of these events, recorded in the book of Shmot.

Moshe relates that when God commanded him to carve a second set of Tablets of Testimony to replace the first, God also instructed him to fashion an aron etz, a wooden ark, in which to house the new tablets. Strikingly, Moshe mentions this wooden ark no less than four times within the span of five sentences:

At that time the Lord said to me, “Carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first and ascend to Me to the mountain and make for yourself a wooden ark. And I shall inscribe on the tablets the
declarations that were on the first tablets that you shattered, and you shall place them in the ark.”

And I made an ark of cedarwood and I carved two stone tablets like the first, and I ascended the mountain with the two tablets in my hand. And He inscribed on the tablets, according to the first writing, the Ten Declarations that the Lord spoke to you on the mountain from the midst of the fire, on the day of the congregation, and the Lord gave them to me. And I turned and I descended from the mountain and I placed the tablets in the ark that I made, and they remained there as Hashem had commanded me.


Why is the creation of the aron etz mentioned by Moshe here, yet omitted in the original narrative concerning these events?

Why does Moshe place repeated emphasis on the fashioning and use  of the ark? What aspect of the aron etz captures the attention and fires the imagination of this great leader? And again, if the ark is so important, why isn’t it mentioned until now?

Why did Moshe apparently alter the sequence of God’s instructions surrounding the aron etz? God commanded Moshe to first carve Tablets of Testimony and then to fashion the ark. Moshe, however, responded by first fashioning the ark and only subsequently carving the tablets.

Why did God command Moshe to fashion an ark only in connection with the second set of Tablets of Testimony and not in connection with the first?

Finally, what ultimately happens to the aron etz? Does it continue to be used? What is the relationship between this wooden ark and the gold-covered Ark first detailed in Parshat Teruma as part of the overall construction of the Sanctuary and its utensils?


Addressing our last question first, a dispute emerges among the classical commentaries concerning the ultimate role and fate of the aron etz fashioned by Moshe at Sinai.

Mirroring a position quoted in Talmud Yerushalmi and elsewhere, Rashi and the Da’at Zekeinim Miba’alei Hatosafot identify Moshe’s wooden ark as one of two arks that were destined to stand in the Sanctuary. These scholars explain that for a short period of time – after Moshe’s descent from Sinai until the creation of the Mishkan – the simple wooden ark held both the shards of the first tablets as well as the complete second set. With the building of the Mishkan, a primary, gold-covered Ark was created at God’s command to serve as the permanent home for the second complete set of tablets. Fashioned by Betzalel and his artisans, this second ark was designed to remain in the Sanctuary as the centerpiece of the Holy of Holies. The creation of Betzalel’s Ark, however, did not render Moshe’s first ark obsolete. The wooden ark remained in use as the lasting home for the shards of the shattered first tablets. Housed in the Sanctuary as well, this humble ark was periodically removed to accompany the nation in battle.

Noting that the Talmudic view postulating two arks in continual use is a minority opinion, the Ramban insists that only one ark, Betzalel’s Ark, stood in the sanctuary. This gold-covered Ark housed both the shards of the shattered first tablets as well as the complete second set. Moshe’s wooden ark was meant to be temporary from the outset. Once the Sanctuary’s Ark was created, the aron etz was stored away in preparation for respectful burial, as are all sanctified items that have fallen into disuse. The absence of a similar temporary aron in connection with the first tablets, the Ramban adds, reflects God’s awareness that those tablets were destined for immediate destruction by Moshe at the base of the mountain.

The Ramban also offers a second, alternative reading for this entire passage – a reading that completely changes our understanding of God’s message to Moshe at this critical moment.

In his second approach the Ramban contends that God did not command Moshe to create a separate wooden ark at all. Only one ark was built at Sinai: the Ark fashioned by Betzalel as part of the Sanctuary’s construction. This Ark, although covered and lined with gold, was primarily built out of cedarwood and could be rightfully referred to as a “wooden ark.” The divine instruction to Moshe, “Make for yourself a wooden ark,” therefore, does not refer to a new ark at all, but to Betzalel’s Sanctuary Ark. God deliberately repeats the instruction to create this ark in conjunction with the second tablets, in order to put Moshe’s mind at ease.

Moshe, explains the Ramban, was uncertain as to the extent of God’s forgiveness in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf. Did that forgiveness, he wondered, extend to the building of the Sanctuary, as well, or would that sanctified edifice be denied to the nation as a result of their failing? God, therefore, simultaneous with His instructions concerning the second set of tablets, commands Moshe, “make for yourself a wooden ark. I reiterate, Moshe, the first mitzva associated with the Sanctuary’s creation – the fashioning of the Ark – as an indication of the extent of My forgiveness. Rest assured that the nation will not be denied the Mishkan as a result of the sin of the golden calf.

If we accept the Ramban’s second reading of the text, the question as to why the aron etz only seems to appear in conjunction with the second set of tablets becomes moot. God is not commanding the construction of a new ark, but instead reaffirming His commitment to the ark that has already been mentioned.

Also understandable is Moshe’s preoccupation with the construction and use of this ark in his recollections of these events in the book of Devarim. Traumatized by the nation’s sin, Moshe was deeply afraid that the Mishkan would be denied to the Israelites. His profound joy and relief upon realizing that his fears were unfounded are now expressed by his repeated emphasis on the ark.

The Ramban refers to his second approach – that only one ark was created at Sinai – as the pshat of the text. The vast majority of scholars, however, accept the more obvious reading: that God commands Moshe to fashion a separate wooden ark at Sinai, distinct from the primary Ark of the Sanctuary. If we reconsider the creation of this wooden ark against the backdrop of surrounding events, another explanation for its significance can be suggested.

Travel back for a moment to the scene at Sinai, to the swiftly moving events following the sin of the golden calf. The nation has failed grievously at the very foot of Sinai, moving Moshe to smash the first tablets at the mountain’s base; the primary perpetrators of the sin have been punished; God has threatened further penalties against the nation as a whole; Moshe has prayed; God has fundamentally forgiven. And now, God commands Moshe to begin again, to carve a second set of tablets. Only one question remains: What will be different this time? What must the nation learn from their previous failure, so that they will not fail again?

To convey the essential changes that must occur if the second attempt at Sinai is to succeed, God subtly varies His instructions concerning the tablets. These variations allow for the transmission of two critical lessons with the giving of the second tablets: the lessons of partnership and context.

The first of these lessons emerges from an obvious distinction between the tablets themselves. While the first Tablets of Testimony were both carved and inscribed by God, the second set is to be fashioned by Moshe himself, and only inscribed by divine hand. To a people whose sin may well have been an unwillingness to relate directly and closely to God, God’s primary message is clear:

This is a partnership that we are forging, you and I. You cannot be passive, distant participants in the process. I am giving you a living law that you will be required not only to obey, but to study, analyze and apply to ever-changing circumstances. 

You are full partners in the task of bringing My sanctity into the world. To symbolize that partnership, we will create these second tablets together. Moshe will carve the tablets and I will inscribe My word upon them.

If the nation is to succeed in this second attempt, however, another lesson must be taught as well. It is the lesson of context: the Torah is valueless in a vacuum. The words of God’s law are only significant when they find a ready home in the heart of man, shaping the actions of those who receive them. As we have previously suggested (see Shmot: Ki Tissa 4, Approaches E), this second critical lesson is conveyed not only through the second tablets themselves, but also through the newly commanded aron etz.

Moshe recognized a hard truth upon descending from Sinai with the first set of tablets in his hands. Confronted by the horrific scene of his nation celebrating before a golden calf, he realized that they were unready to accept God’s word. The Torah had no place to “land,” no ready context within which to exist. Had the law been given to the people in their present state, the Torah itself would have become an aberration, misunderstood and even misused. Moshe had no choice but to publicly destroy the Tablets of Testimony before the eyes of the people. Only then, at God’s command, could he begin the process of their reeducation.

This teaching process begins as God alters the details concerning the Tablets of Testimony. God will inscribe His decrees upon this second set, but this time, only on stone carved by Moshe. The tablets thus represent the word of God finding a home in the actions of a man. To further convey this point concretely, God also commands that these new tablets be immediately placed into a physical home, Moshe’s aron etz – a simple ark of wood. The symbolism is clear. Only if the contents of these tablets also find their home (in the humble hearts of man) – only if the Torah finds context – will this Torah be worthy of existence.

If these lessons of partnership and context are so critical, however, why  does God wait until the transmission of the second set of tablets to convey them? Couldn’t the horrific failure of the egel hazahav and the devastating ensuing pain and punishment have been avoided had these points been shared from the outset, with the transmission of the first tablets?

With these questions we once again enter difficult territory that we have already explored (see Bereishit: Noach 1, Approaches A; Shmot: Teruma 1, Approaches B; Bamidbar: Shelach 1, Points to Ponder). Why does God allow man to fail, at times educating him to his errors only after the failures have occurred? Why not avoid, through divine intervention, the devastation of the flood in Noach’s time, the sin of the spies after the Exodus or the sin of the golden calf at Sinai?

As we have previously suggested, it would seem that God’s education of man does not follow a linear course. By creating a world predicated upon the existence of free will, God accepts the inevitability of human failure. In such a world certain values cannot be taught frontally but must emerge through a process of human trial and error. Like the wise parent who hurts for his child’s pain, yet recognizes that his child must experience failure, God stands back and allows his creations to stumble, knowing that upon rising they will be better for the process. The values embedded in the second set of tablets and the accompanying aron could not have been fully appreciated by the Israelites until after their failure at Sinai. God therefore waits until the transmission of the second Tablets of Testimony to convey the lessons critical to the nation’s success.

God also appreciates the powerful impact that Moshe’s own dawning realizations can have upon the people. He therefore holds back any mention of the wooden ark in the initial narrative of the events, instead allowing this powerful symbol to emerge only in Moshe’s recollections. The repeated stress that Moshe places upon the aron as he speaks to the nation in retrospect drives home this great leader’s own critical recognition of the ark’s importance. Telling, as well, is Moshe’s self-admitted deviation from God’s instructions. While God commands Moshe to create the second tablets and then to fashion the ark, Moshe insists on creating the aron first. This great leader recognizes that the Tablets of Testimony cannot exist even for a moment outside of their proper spiritual context. For the nation to learn that lesson, these tablets must be placed immediately in their physical home, as well.

Points to Ponder

Every once in a while, we rabbis hit what we consider to be a sermonic “home run,” a critical speech that truly finds its mark.

From the reactions received, it seems that my Kol Nidrei drasha this past year was one such “home run.” This drasha, in fact, hit such a sensitive nerve with so many of my congregants that, with a bit of editing, I submitted it as an op-ed to my local area Jewish newspaper, again to strong reaction.

This piece deals in its own way with the lesson of context that we have discussed in our study, the recognition that Torah is only valuable when it shapes the character and actions of man. I therefore offer it for your attention, as well.

So there we were, Barbara and I, on a two-week vacation to the Canadian Rockies.

The trip was exceeding even our high expectations: majestic mountains, roaring crystal rivers, emerald lakes in hanging valleys, and wildlife – bear, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, an elk that we thought was a moose (we never did see a moose) – a nature lover’s dream. Ma nora ma’asecha, Hashem, How awe inspiring are Your works, God!

But as the days wore on, I unexpectedly found myself captivated by a different “life form.” I began to take note of the people we met along the way – non-Jews, mostly – along the trails, in the parks, at the picnic tables…

And you know what I found? They were nice! I mean, really nice! They were open, friendly, pleasant and engaging. Their children were polite, well mannered and cooperative. And strangely enough, the more people I met, the more uncomfortable I became. Because I began to feel that in some ways, they are nicer than us.

Now I know what some of you are saying to yourselves. Wow, the rabbi is skating on thin ice. He goes on a two-week vacation, meets a couple of people in passing, and returns to insult us. So let me make some things abundantly clear from the outset: Our congregations are exemplary in so many ways. The extraordinary human resource and wealth of spirit that exist within them are incomparable. The personal support that we extend to each other at critical life moments, whether joyous or challenging, sets a standard towards which other faith communities can aspire. When the chips are down, there is no one I would rather be with than the members of our Jewish community.

I also recognize that my chance meetings with a series of people on vacation in the Canadian Rockies hardly qualify as a scientific survey of the non-Jewish world.

Nonetheless, the High Holy Day season is a time for honest selfappraisal. Let me, therefore, ask you a question. Don’t you sometimes feel that we Jews could use an attitude adjustment? Don’t you sometimes think, and I don’t know how else to put it, that we need to get over ourselves a bit? The signs are readily apparent: How many of you in the service fields have come to me over the years and told me that you would rather deal with your non-Jewish customers than with Jews? How many of us, in the public arena, from the shul to ShopRite, have acted, or seen our coreligionists act, in ways that are a bit condescending, entitled, even pushy? And what about our children? Are we pleased with the way they talk to each other, to us, or to other adults?

If you are not convinced yet, try this little litmus test. Some of you may know the story of the El Al plane landing at Tel Aviv during Chanukah, in a year when Chanukah falls when it most often does. As the plane taxis towards the gate, the copilot announces over the loudspeaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, please stay in your seats. The plane is still moving; we have not yet reached the gates.” A few moments later, he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, once again, the plane is still moving. It is not safe. Please be considerate of yourselves and others – please remain in your seats.” And a few moments later: “Ladies and gentlemen, stay in your seats!” Finally, he announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to tell you that we have arrived at the gate. To all of you who are standing, happy Chanukah! To all of you who are still seated, merry Christmas!”

The litmus test: Could this story be true?

I almost feel as if there is an attitudinal veneer that blocks the basic goodness in our hearts from rising to the surface. It seems to automatically kick in, like a switch that’s pulled, whenever we feel a bit stressed, tense, harried or pushed.

The reasons for this phenomenon are potentially manifold: Perhaps we have been pushed so often and so long throughout our history that given the opportunity, we naturally tend to push back. Perhaps we still feel a bit uncertain and vulnerable. Clearly many of us misinterpret our role as God’s chosen people to mean that we are inherently superior, rather than that we have greater responsibility. And to be honest, for some of us, it’s simply our affluence and our success that makes us feel that we can do anything or say anything with impunity. After all, there is no mitzva to be nice. Six hundred thirteen commandments, and not one of them says outright that we have to be nice, right?

Wrong! Dead wrong!

During this holiday period, as we return to basics, let me tell you what one of our greatest scholars has to say about the mitzvot. Rav Abba bar Aivu, who is known within Talmudic literature simply as Rav (“teacher”), emphatically declares: “The sole purpose of the mitzvot is to refine mankind.” He goes on to explain that our detailed performance of the mitzvot does not make a difference to God. It makes a difference to us. The mitzvot simply are created to refine us. To make us nice.

Let’s understand what this means. If we are punctilious in the performance of the mitzvot, yet that performance does not change us, refine us, make us better human beings, then the system simply isn’t working. If the performance of mitzvot doesn’t knock the chip off our shoulder, if it doesn’t bring us down a peg by making us realize that we stand on equal footing with all human beings before an all-powerful God, if it doesn’t bring us up a notch by making us recognize the majestic potential that lies within our souls, then we are not performing mitzvot properly. If the system of Jewish law does not produce nicer people, then something is desperately wrong.

The reason there is no specific mitzva to be nice is that the purpose of  all the mitzvot is to make us better human beings.

Now, you may say, You know, the rabbi is right. This is all fine and good. How, however, can we act upon this knowledge? How can we break through our own familiar attitudinal veneer? I would like, therefore, to prescribe a simple exercise.

This exercise is not mine. It was prescribed by the rabbis of the Talmud, centuries ago. Thankfully, they even hinged this drill upon an abundantly familiar biblical passage, so that it is very easy for us to remember: V’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha b’chol levavcha u’v’chol nafshecha u’v’chol me’odecha, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your
soul and with all your might…” How, ask the rabbis, is it possible to “love God”? How can love apply to an entity that lies so far beyond our understanding? Among the answers they propose is the following powerful suggestion: “And you shall love… that the name of heaven should become beloved through you.” In other words, you should act in such a way that your very actions increase the awareness of and the love of God in this world. Others should see your behavior as a Jew and say, “How wonderful! What a mensch! If this is what Judaism produces, what a beautiful system it must be.”

So here’s the exercise: This year, every time you are about to lash out at the person next to you, every time you feel entitled to be rude, every time you become frustrated because the cashier at ShopRite (who is so obviously inferior to you in your mind, because she needs to work behind the counter to put herself/her children through college and you don’t) is too slow, every time you feel righteously entitled to criticize someone in your synagogue and you don’t feel the need to do so in a non-hurtful way (because you so obviously know better than the person you are about to criticize), every time you are about to be rough on your housekeeper (who is also so obviously lesser than you, although she is only doing the work that your grandmother once had to do for someone else; and there, but for the grace of God, go you)…

Every time, stop and ask yourself: “Is this really what God wants? Is what I’m about to do or say going to increase God’s presence in this world? Are my actions or words going to enhance the appreciation of God’s will and the love for His word?”

If the answer is no, then don’t do it. Don’t say it. Period!

And, who knows, maybe if we stop and regularly ask ourselves these questions, we will succeed in being nicer to each other, to those with whom we regularly deal, to those whom we glancingly meet on the journey.

We will succeed in bringing out the innate goodness that lies in each of our hearts. We will fill the world with a bit more love and respect for the Divine.

We will truly do “what God wants” and we will show our love for Him by bringing Him nachat.