A Brief Note on Tone and Substance – Parsha Nitzavim

Great orations survive long after their utterer’s death because they convey a fundamental message in a concise manner that is timeless and its inspiration cuts between the planes of time. Lincoln at Gettysburg offered reason for the deaths of so many during what seemed an endless war: : “It is rather for us the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” In a more modern forum, Winston Churchill, a master of language and brevity of message intoned to a very anguished and beleaguered nation a brief phrase that he hoped would stir the hopes of his countrymen: –“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.

In the course of his lifetime Moses had spoke very often to the Children of Israel, mostly to repeat God’s various pronouncements, or as a teacher on matters of law and theology. He also, much too frequently, was compelled to demonstrate anger and to express frustration, especially following on rebellion from within the ranks of the Israelites.  The generation of the Exodus had been a difficult cohort to lead and their descendants were marginally better.

The previous forty-two years had been challenging ones for Moses. It is difficult to glean whether he felt a sense of accomplishment for having successfully brought the Israelites to the western border of the Promised Lands. The battles he led had gone fairly well and the various wars had been prosecuted with a minimum number of casualties; however, the battle to convince the Israelites of God’s gifts and God’s punishments was far from over and would prove a campaign without end. Moses’ last hours would not be filled with words of triumph, but with yet another plaintive plea.

Parsha Nitzavim is a very short chapter, only forty verses, but it contains some of the most dramatic statements in Sefer Devarim, delivered with an economy of words and expressing the essence of the Israelites’ faith: abide by the Covenant and receive the blessing of God; reject the Covenant and serve other gods, and suffer for your sin with a cursed existence. Simpler still: “I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou may live, thou and thy seed”.

Moses’ words were personal; for once he was not the messenger of God, but a simple dying man who had borne much disappointment yet convinced that his last gift to his people would instil hope in them and all future generations, and reflect the spirit of a man who had borne much suffering yet remained convinced of a hopeful future he would not share. “Choose life—if you and your offspring would live. By loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them had to dare his people to greatness”.

His promise of redemption has formed the basis for Israel’s hopes and dreams as they faced their many enemies; “then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.  Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there He will fetch you.  And the Lord your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers.”

Moses at this critical moment in his people’s destiny relied only on words and clarity of purpose to convince his countrymen that their destiny remained, and would always remain in their relationship with God.  Lincoln and Churchill’s words still inspire today, as do those carefully chosen by Moses, because they speak to eternal values – great leaders understand that. And Moses was a great leader.

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A Brief Note on Political Theory – Parsha Devarim

One of the most stirring and memorable messages of Sefer Devarim is found in this week’s Torah reading, Parsha Shofetim. The Parsha continues the record of the last lessons that Moses imparted to the Children of Israel. Here, Moses spoke to some very advanced ideas concerning the nature of relationship between a man and the state, including a mode of governance and a justice system. Paramount, is a just justice system. Continue reading

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A Brief Note on the Jew and Society

Parsha Re’eh continues the record of Moses’ final teachings to the Children of Israel. He approaches a number of discrete topics. Some are esoteric – for example, the laws of redeemed offerings and consecrated meat. Other of the teachings remain central to the modern day practices of Judaism – for example, the identification of both permitted and forbidden animals, fish and fowl and the remission of loans in the seventh year, as part of the Shemmitah ritual. Permitted and forbidden foods form the basis for the laws of Kashrut, and the Shemmitah, which was first discussed in Parsha Behar, introduced the revolutionary principle of a somewhat anachronistic concept, loan remission. Continue reading

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A Brief Note on Anti-Semitism – The Church Against the Jews

Christianity Becomes the Official Religion of Rome

Before the end of the 1st century, the Roman authorities recognized Christianity as a separate religion from Judaism. They were granted an exemption from paying the Fiscus Iudaicus, the annual tax upon the Jews. Continue reading

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A Brief Note on Anti-Semitism – The Jew in the Ancient World

And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them. Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land”. (Exodus 1:7-10) Continue reading

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A Brief Note on the Power of Words – Parasha Devarim

The Children of Israel were encamped on the Plains of Moab, pasturing their flocks, having completed a victorious military campaign. Their goal of the Promised Land lay just beyond the horizon. It was winter; no doubt cold and rainy. Further battles would have to wait until conditions improved. It was at this juncture that Moses rose before his people to deliver his last remarks. He was fated to die before the Israelites would cross the Jordan River and begin their conquest of Canaan. Continue reading

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A Brief Note on Vengeance and its Prevention – Parashot Matot and Masei

In this week’s twinned Torah reading, Parashot Matot and Masei, there are two teachings about vengeance. The two readings appear quite separate. The first we will discuss, relates to the human need to “get back”; the second describes God’s almost unslakable thirst for vengeance.  Continue reading

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A Brief Note on all the Begetting – Parsha Pinchas

The events recorded in Parsha Pinchas take place about thirty nine years after God had decreed the death of a generation; those that had shown doubt in the power of God and in the strength of leadership by Moses had (almost) all perished in the wilderness. Only three men, who bore witness to the escape from Egypt and the subsequent revelation at Mt. Sinai, remained alive: Caleb, Joshua and Moses. Continue reading

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A Brief Note on a Greek Bearing Gifts – Parsha Balak

The Torah’s gaze leaves the Children of Israel, who are busy fighting their way to the Promised Lands and records a story that took place away from the Israelites’ camp and presumably without their knowledge. It’s the first time that Moses was not an eyewitness to the events occurring during his tenure as leader. Continue reading

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A Brief Note on the Probability of a Possibility – Parsha Korach

The Children of Israel had reached their nadir. They faced a horrible fate; death in the desert. They would never see the land they had dreamed of since Moses had led them out of slavery. They were full of despair, a breeding ground for desperation “Behold, we perish, we are all lost, we are all lost.”  Continue reading

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