Sunday, September 30, 2007

Chag sameach

"You shall keep the feast of Shavuot... You shall rejoice before Hashem your God - you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite within your gates, and the stranger and orphan and widow who are amongst you - in the place Hashem your God will choose for His name to dwell in." (Devarim 16:10-11)

It's worth noting where this holiday feast will take place, as well as where the participants come from. The holiday of course must be celebrated in Jerusalem. But "you", the average person, are coming from somewhere else in Israel. So, for that matter, are the stranger/orphan/widow/Levite who are sharing your hospitality - they, who live "amongst you" and "in your gates", not in Jerusalem. It is not just a matter of inviting them for one meal. You have to invite them for the entire holiday, and pay all their travel expenses as well, if they themselves cannot afford it. Otherwise they would not be able to come, and you must ensure that they can come.

When we make reservations for our exclusive glatt kosher hotel holiday vacations, how many of us remember to pay for the local poor people to come along with us? But, at least when the Temple stands, that is exactly what the Torah requires.

Desert booths

There are many Jewish holidays on which we not only remember, but are required to reenact and see ourselves as participating in the events we commemorate. The most obvious example is Pesach, on which "a person must see himself as if he left Egypt" (Pesachim 116b). Another good example is Yom Kippur; in mussaf we reenactment that day's Temple service, to the point of bowing down at the same occasions when people in the Temple would have.

Sukkot may be another such holiday. Sukkah is one of the few mitzvot for which the Torah gives a particular rationale: "So that your generations know that I housed the children of Israel when I took them out of the land of Egypt" (Vayikra 23:43). Part of the mitzvah's purpose is therefore to reminds us of our temporary housing as we traveled from Egypt to Canaan. We accomplish this by moving to temporary housing of our own. What is the point of this reminder?

Once you leave the desert and establish a rich and powerful country, you are in danger of ascribing your accomplishments to your personal strength, "kochi veotzem yadi", and not to God's help. Sukkot takes place at the end of the agricultural year, when fruit has ripened on the trees and the harvested grain is gathered in from the field. Specifically in this season, when you are richest and most at ease, you are most in danger of forgetting the reliance on God you learned in the desert.

For that reason, on Sukkot you are called to reenter the desert. You rely not on the walls and ceiling of your house, but on the weak and permeable sukkah. In truth the sukkah doesn't really protect you at all from the elements, and you are really relying directly on God, on His metaphorical "clouds of glory" which surround you. This is the same situation you were in in the desert, and during Sukkot you reenact it. The word "atzeret" in Shemini Atzeret is related to "maatzar", meaning confinement. Once Sukkot ends you are once again "confined" to your permanent home, no longer roaming around the desert as you symbolically did during Sukkot.

The theme of reentering the desert is especially relevant this year, at the beginning of a shemitah year. For shemitah, too, is a kind of reentry into the desert. Once every seven years, you rely not on the crops you have farmed, but on the natural growth which God has placed in the fields. It is the closest you can come to reenacting the gathering of manna in the desert. And on Sukkot at the conclusion of every shemitah year, you hold the "hakhel" ceremony, in which the entire nation gathers to hear the Torah and reenact the covenant at Sinai.

Thus, on Sukkot following the shemitah year, you return to the desert in terms of your food supply (which has grown during shemitah), your dwelling (the transient sukkah), and acceptance of the Torah (the hakhel assembly). This year we have the first two elements; we are living in sukkot and we are already forbidden to plant new crops.

Sukkot takes place at the end of one year and the beginning of the next. Perhaps for this reason we read Kohelet, which talks about the meaninglessness of the constant repetition of life. Periodically, we must soul-search and make sure we are in fact changing and advancing. To spark this process, we recreate the unique spiritual experience of the desert, with its Divine protection, sustenance, and revelation. Charged with enthusiasm from this experience, we can then rededicate ourselves to living meaningful permanent lives in the symbolic and literal land of Israel.

(Mostly from R' Yaakov Medan, some from R' Yoni Grossman and myself)

Thursday, September 20, 2007


אלקי, עד שלא נוצרתי איני כדאי
ועכשיו שנוצרתי - כאילו לא נוצרתי.

"My God, before being created I was not worthy (?).
Now that I am created, it is as if I was not created."

(Yom Kippur shemoneh esreh, at the very end)

I was created for a purpose.
I was not worthy - I did not have a purpose (before being created).
It is as if I was not created - I have failed to fulfill my purpose.

(R' Kook)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Thoughts on Yonah

Yonah arose to flee to Tarshish from before God... (1:3)

We read Sefer Yonah on Yom Kippur because it mentions not only the repentance of the sailors and Ninevians, but also the repentance of Yonah. God gives him a task, yet he flees from that task, as quickly as he can to as far away as possible. Of course, fleeing from your assigned task does not work. After three days in the fish, Yonah realizes that his only option is to flee back to God, through his prayer, to the task which has been assigned to him.

It is in our nature to flee from our assigned tasks in life. Hopefully we can realize the futility of this flight before reaching the metaphorical "belly of the fish", the lowest and most degraded point imaginable. But in the event that we have fled this far, we must realize that only one further destination remains, and that is to flee back to God.

"And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time." (T.S. Eliot)

(cf. R' Baruch Gigi, 9/15/07)

"Should I not have pity on Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120000 people who cannot discern between their right and left hands, and many domestic animals?" (4:11)

The weird part of this rhetorical question is clearly the mention of animals. How can they be equated with human beings in terms of God's attention and mercy?

There is one previous mention of domestic animals in Sefer Yonah. When Yonah first came to Nineveh and announced that the city would be destroyed, the people decided to repent. They fasted and put on sackcloth - and made their cattle and sheep fast and put on sackcloth as well. (3:7-8) It seems that God's final comment to Yonah, mentioning the people of Nineveh along with their animals, is an allusion to the people's previous choice to include the animals in the fast.

Now, thinking that your animals too must fast is not exactly an example of spiritual sophistication. It seems that the Ninevians do not fully comprehend the nature of moral autonomy and free choice, which humans possess and cattle do not. As God says, they "cannot discern between their right and left hands" - they are spiritually clueless. And yet, given the opportunity, they leave their evil deeds and choose to repent.

We, who are better educated and recognize that cattle are cattle and humans are human beings, can learn from the example of Nineveh. If even these spiritually clueless people can and do make the choice to repent, then what about us?

What sin?

Why do we say "vehu rachum yechaper avon" immediately after Yom Kippur, right at the moment when our sins have just been forgiven?

Perhaps this is because you cannot really ask for forgiveness until you realize the magnitude of what you have done. Once you reach this point, even if you have formal atonement, you will run to ask for forgiveness on your own initiative.

We fully reach this point only at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

(R' Haim Druckman, Hoshana Rabba '06)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Oseh Hashalom

This time of year, some of us replace the phrase "hamevarech et amo yisrael bashalom" in our prayers with "oseh hashalom".

The reason is apparently kabbalistic. According to R' Chaim Vital, the word "hashalom" has the same gematria as "Safriel" - the name of the angel who records people in the book of life. Thus "oseh hashalom" alludes to the special character of the day.

(I find this explanation reasonable because "oseh hashalom" adds little to the meaning of "hamevarech et amo yisrael bashalom", and in fact takes away the reference to Israel. Thus at face value it is hardly an enhancement to the text. The only possible gain is in the gematria. Furthermore, the gematria would also explain the shift from "shalom" to "hashalom" in kaddish.)

I should perhaps mention that I personally do not say "oseh hashalom" in shemoneh esreh, though I might say it in kaddish.


Monday, September 17, 2007


For the first time in... ever?, I have zero messages in my Gmail inbox. Incredible.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Day of Shofar

There are a number of ritual mitzvot - lulav, shema, megillah, chanukah candles, prayer, bedikat chametz - regarding which you may not be allowed to eat in the morning/evening before performing the mitzvah. This is meant to encourage you to do the mitzvot ASAP and not delay. But for the mitzvah of shofar in particular, this prohibition on eating may not exist, or else may be weaker than for other mitzvot. Why?

I would like to add an explanation to the ones in the above-linked article. For most normal mitzvot, the mitzvah is to do a particular action. For example, once you have finished "taking" the lulav and "talking of" the shema, you have "gotten these mitzvot over with" and there is no more obligation. To discourage unnecessarily delays in "getting them over with", you are not supposed to eat beforehand. (The phrase "get them over with" makes it sound like mitzvot are an annoying burden, which they shouldn't be, but it accurately conveys the attitude of "when it's done, it's done".)

Shofar is different. The Torah does not say "you shall blow the shofar", but rather "you shall have a day of shofar-blowing". The mitzvah of shofar is not to perform a particular action, but to create a certain mood for the entire day. No matter when you blow the shofar, the exact same day becomes imbued with the essence of shofar. In a sense, blowing the shofar is not the mitzvah but just a means to the mitzvah. Therefore, it is less crucial that it be done at the first possible opportunity.

There is another possible approach which follows from the same basic ideas. Rosh Hashanah is a "day of shofar-blowing", but it is also a day characterized by other things, such as eating a yom-tov meal. There is no reason to privilege one aspect of the day over another, so you are allowed to eat first as well as blow the shofar first.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Perspectives on Rosh Hashanah

Summarized from "Berosh Hashanah Yikatevun" (Michlelet Hertzog, edited by R' Bazak)

The calendar and the new year (R' Yoel Bin Nun)

RH is not quite the "beginning of the year" as a literal translation would indicate. From Tanach it is clear that the entire period between RH and Shemini Atzeret is the "beginning of the year". RH is simply the "beginning of the beginning of the year", the first day of the period which marks the transition between years. Thus, Yovel is announced on Yom Kippur, which is not after the beginning of the year, but rather in the middle of the beginning of the year.

We can also explain why Yom Kippur is on the 10th day of the month, unlike any other holiday. In a non-leap-year, Yom Kippur falls 364 days, plus or minus one, after the previous RH. Thus, we are being judged, almost exactly, for what we have done over the previous solar year - from last RH until this Yom Kippur. RH and YK are different dates from each other, but they fall within the same *period* of transition between years.

Reenactment (R' Yoni Grossman)

Pesach is obviously a holiday in which we not only remember, but are required to reenact and see ourselves as having left Egypt. Other holidays also require us to "pretend". Chanukah candles have several laws which are taken from the laws of the Temple menorah, implying that our lighting is a reenactment of the Temple lighting. And Yom Kippur mussaf includes a reenactment of that day's service, in which we bow down just when people in the Temple would.

The same may be true of RH. In your thoughts and prayers, you experience the creation of the world. That is to say, you feel what it means to have creation from nothingness, and are aware of the fact that you are such a creation.

The Rosh Hashanah offering (R' Avraham Walfish, plus a little from myself)

RH is the only holiday on which the main mitzvah of the day is not related to the Temple. (This is of course connected to the fact that it is also probably the most universal holiday, and the one least centered on the Jewish people.)

On the three agricultural holidays (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), special offerings were brought in the Temple (omer/barley, bikurim/fruit, water libations, respectively) as recognition of the fact that Israel was about to be judged regarding that season's agricultural aspect (grain harvest, fruit harvest, rain). In each case, what you offered as a sacrifice was the same product which you hope to receive.

On RH, judgment is not passed on a particular agricultural product. Instead, general judgment is passed on humans as individuals. Therefore, the "offering" which we need to bring consists of ourselves - that is to say, our attitude during the prayers, reflecting our new and improved moral qualities. We have been working on these aspects of our personality during Elul, and now it is time to present them to God.

The mitzvah of the shofar is unusual in that we are required not to blow the shofar, but to hear its blowing. (Granted, there is controversy about this in the sources, but certainly there is some independent value to the hearing.) The mitzvah thus focuses on your experience of the shofar, and not simply on the physical action. Apparently this is because the shofar's main purpose is to affect us emotionally. It helps us achieve the emotional state which we can then "offer" to God as a "sacrifice".

Kiddush hachodesh (R' Yehudah Shaviv)

The mishna in RH starts off with two chapters on kiddush hachodesh and only then discusses the shofar and the RH prayers. This is the case because kiddush hachodesh is actually, functionally, a crucial mitzvah on RH. When kiddush hachodesh was not automatic, everyone would be staring up at the sky on the night of RH to find out if they were really celebrating RH or if it was just a weekday after all. The "night" mitzvah of RH was kiddush hachodesh, and the "day" mitzvah was shofar, so it makes sense that kiddush hachodesh is listed first.

On selichot

We are taught at every level of Jewish education to be proud of our level of religiousness. In a world where so many people are not Jewish, and so many Jews are not religious, we see ourselves as the sole representatives of God. This message is good and necessary because without it, it would be much harder to motivate ourselves in sometimes hostile surroundings.

However, at one time of year - during selichot - we need the opposite message. The main theme of selichot is that we are utterly worthless. We begin with a long list of praises of God's greatness, and we are insignificant in comparison. We ask for mercy not because we have any legitimate claim to mercy, but only because of promises to the Avot, Moshe, and appeals to God's honor.

It is like someone asking for a job, who admits they are incompetent, but wants the salary anyway in return for a favor his relative once did for the employer. Anyone would be embarrassed to ask in such a manner. We too should be embarrassed to approach God this way, but we have no alternative.

(Summarized from a shiur by R' Ezra Bick, 9/16/2006)

Friday, September 07, 2007

The paragraph we say seven times

(Tehillim 47)

1 (For the conductor; a song by the descendants of Korach.)

2 Let all the peoples clap ["tiku"] their hands, and shout ["hariu"] to God with a voice of exultation.
3            For Hashem is supreme, awesome; a great king over all the earth.
4            He subdued peoples beneath us, and nations under our feet.
5            He chose our inheritance for us, the pride of Yaakov whom He loves. (Selah)
6 God has ascended amidst [shofar] blowing, Hashem amidst the sound of the shofar.

7 Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.
8            For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises in skillful song.
9 God reigns over the nations; God sits upon His holy throne.

10 The princes of the peoples are gathered, together [with] the people of the God of Avraham; for to God belong the shields of the earth; He is greatly exalted.

[This was hard to translate well; I had to check NIV online as well as JPS. Wish I had time to look this up in the beit midrash.]

Before blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we say this paragraph of Tehilim seven times. I am surely not the first person to have mumbled it repeatedly without having any idea of what it means or why we are saying it. So this year, I decided to take a closer look at it ahead of time.

As I divided it above (there are other possibilities), it seems there is a "byline" (verse 1), as well as a conclusion (verse 10). In between there are two similar sections. Each section follows the same pattern: (1) a request that the nations praise God; (2) reasons why they should praise God; (3) what happens once they praise God. The conclusion verse (10) summarizes the entire scene.

The setting is apparently in the Temple, where Jews and non-Jews have gathered for some kind of worship. The historical background, according to verses 4 and 5, is military success. Due to our preeminence over the other nations, those nations come to recognize the (more meaningful) preeminence of our God. Thus they come to Jerusalem and join our worship service.

Assuming that (as part of Sefer Tehilim) this psalm was written in the time of David Hamelech, the military background makes perfect sense. In David's time the Israelites conquered most of modern Syria and Jordan as well as Israel. For the first and only time Israel became an international "superpower", with all the attention that status entails. One generation later, when Shlomo was king, the queen of Sheba famously came to check out his kingdom as well as his religion. This psalm seems to be talking about a similar visit, occurring a few years earlier, in David's lifetime.

The language in verse 2 is interesting. The non-Jews clap their hands and sing, but the verbs used to describe this normally refer to shofar blowing, not to voices. I think there is a deep thematic meaning to this choice of words. We Jews praise God through mitzvot such as shofar. Non-Jews do not have these mitzvot, so they praise God through simpler means - their voices and clapping. While their method of praise is different, the language used to describe it is the same. This implies that the praise of Jews and non-Jews is integrated together, is regarded as if from a common source, resulting in a single unit of praise arising from all mankind.

The psalm's connection to Rosh Hashana should be clear. Of course there is the obvious mention of the shofar, but the connection is much deeper than that. God is recognized as supreme, awesome, ruler not only of Jews, but of the entire world. This is the main theme of Rosh Hashana, and it is reflected perfectly in this psalm. Also, along with the sounds of the shofar come the voices of individuals who accept God's dominion through their song and speech. This combination introduces us to the shofar blowing and to Rosh Hashana mussaf, in which the shofar is paired with and complemented by our prayers.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Mimacharat hashabbat

The mitzva of counting the Omer begins "mimacharat hashabbat" (Vayikra 23:11) - on the day after the "shabbat". "Shabbat" here is traditionally understood by Jews to mean the first day of Pesach, not the 7th day of the week. The question of whether this traditional interpretation is correct has been discussed to death. I have just one thought to add on the matter.

I was reading a book on Ethiopian Jewry, which said that according to their tradition, "mimacharat hashabbat" refers to the seventh day of Pesach.

Now, we know that Ethiopian "halacha" as it has reached us bears no apparent relation to the halachic traditions of the Mishna, Gemara, and later mainstream Jewish authorities. Rather, it seems to be based on a "literal" understanding of the written Torah, similar to the Karaite approach. Indeed, as we see here, the Ethiopians disagreed with the rabbinic interpretation that "shabbat" means the first day of Pesach. And yet, they did not concur with the Karaite opinion either. Independently of the rabbis, Ethiopian Jews came to the conclusion that "shabbat" actually refers to a holiday.

How did the Ethiopians reach this conclusion? I don't know. By reading the articles I linked to above, you will find a variety of arguments for this view, which is our view. I presume that the Karaites can produce a similar array of arguments in the opposite direction. Deciding the correct meaning of the verse may be the kind of judgment call which depends as much on your prior expectations and modes of thought as on the objective strength of the arguments. And I don't know what were the prior expectations of the Ethiopians, nor of the Karaites.

But let it not be said that the only tenable interpretation is that "shabbat" means Saturday, that the rabbis distorted or overrode the verse's plain meaning. We have a data point which proves otherwise. The Ethiopians had no "rabbinic agenda" and nevertheless decided that the basic rabbinic view was most reasonable.

Perhaps, as hard as it is for Karaites and certain scholars to admit this, the rabbinic tradition is not a series of wanton distortions for partisan purposes, but rather an honest attempt to integrate textual analysis and intellectual reflection with the received body of tradition.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Last Sunday I visited the city of Shechem (or "Nablus" from the Roman "Neapolis") in the northern West Bank. Not the actual city, which would probably have resulted in my lynching at the hands of a Palestinian mob, but the Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh next door. This is a very out-of-the-way location; it took three buses to get there and another three to get home again. But after Jerusalem, Shechem is probably the most historically and Jewishly significant location in Israel, so it was worth the time spent traveling.

Shechem became important due to its unique geographical location. It is in a narrow valley between two prominent mountains, Mt. Gerizim and Eival. The modern city of Nablus fills the length of the valley, but ancient Shechem was located right at the valley entrance, where two of the most important roads in ancient Israel meet. Forming a triangle with Mt. Gerizim and Eival is Mt. Kabir, a smaller mountain standing opposite the entrance to the valley. Elon Moreh is located on the slope of Mt. Kabir.

Standing on Mt. Kabir, you can look west and see Shechem. Looking north and east, you see the road which leads from Shechem, around Mt. Kabir, and down a fertile valley towards the Jordan River. This road was perhaps the most important entryway to Israel in ancient times. When Avraham Avinu came to Israel from Mesopotamia, the first location he stopped in was Shechem (Breishit 12:6). Similarly, when Yaakov returned from Haran, the first place he settled was in Shechem (33:18).

In last week's parsha (Devarim 27:1-8), Moshe commands the people to write the "words of the Torah" on large stones, which would be placed on Mt. Eival - right next to Shechem. This may be because so many visitors entered Israel through Shechem. Just like Ellis Island is accompanied by the Statue of Liberty, which declares American values to newcomers, so newcomers to Shechem would be greeted by the text of the Torah - our own statement of values.

Returning to Yaakov, his story in Shechem continued. He bought a piece of land, settled down, became a respected citizen, and like Avraham built an altar to spread awareness of God. But one day his daughter Dinah was kidnapped and raped by the local prince (Breishit 34). This prince then requested Yaakov's permission to marry her. Yaakov's sons asked the prince and his people to be circumcised first. But this offer was insincere; while they recuperated from circumcision Shimon and Levi came and massacred them. Whether or not the prince and his people deserved this punishment, the manner in which Shimon and Levi carried it out was a gigantic "chillul hashem". Yaakov and his family were forced to retreat southward from Shechem, in fear and disgrace.

(Interaction between Jews and non-Jews is a constant theme in Shechem. Avraham and Yaakov both built altars there, evidently trying to spread monotheism to the local population. Yaakov's efforts ended in failure when his sons committed an embarrassing massacre. Later on Yehoshua apparently had friendly relations with Shechem and did not have to wipe out its population. Regarding the current inhabitants of Elon Moreh and neighboring settlements, I wonder: do they tend to follow the model of Avraham? Or the model of Shimon and Levi? I don't really know and will avoid expressing an opinion on the matter.)

We next hear of Shechem in Breishit 37:14-17. Yaakov's sons had gone to herd sheep in Shechem, and Yosef went to meet them. He wandered around Shechem for a while looking for them, until a helpful person spotted him and told him they have moved on to Dotan. In Dotan, of course, Yosef was abducted by the same brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt.

When the Israelites left Egypt centuries later, Shechem was the first place they visit in Israel (after the initial battles of Jericho and Ay). Why did they go there so soon? I and others have argued that there was a prior familial alliance between the Israelites and the people of Shechem. Thus it was natural, as well as possible, for them to visit Shechem and hold the ceremonies described in Devarim 27. Six tribes gathered on Mt. Gerizim and six on Mt. Eival, with the Levites and the Mishkan in between (see Yehoshua 8:30-35). There they read the blessings and curses, built an altar and offered sacrifices on it, and wrote the "words of the Torah" on large stones as mentioned above.

Devarim 27:11-13 lists which tribes were to stand on Mt. Gerizim (Shimon, Yehudah, Levi, Binyamin, Yosef, Yissachar) and which on Mt. Eval (Reuven, Gad, Zevulun, Dan, Naftali, Asher). The division is puzzling, but I think it can be understood geographically. The tribes on Mt. Gerizim, the southern/southwestern mountain, inherited land in southern and central Israel. The tribes on Mt. Eival, the northern/northeastern mountain, inherited land in northern and eastern Israel. (Compare the order of tribes above to that in "Vezot Habracha", another geographical listing.)

In between the mountains, and the groups of tribes, is Shechem - the geographic center of the land of Israel. The biblically commanded borders of the land (Bamidbar 34:1-15) exclude much of the Negev desert, but they do include a significant part of modern Lebanon. Thus the center of the country was north of the modern center (let us say Jerusalem) - and in fact, was probably very close to Shechem. Mt. Gerizim therefore represented the southern half of the country, and Mt. Eival the northern half.

Also in between the mountains were the Levites (at least some of them) and the Mishkan. When the 12 tribes looked across the valley at each other, they also looked at the Mishkan in between them. The Mishkan was in the valley of Shechem, literally at the center of the country. Each Israelite, whether located on the north or south mountain, literally looked towards the Mishkan for spiritual guidance. Symbolically, this was to continue after they went to live in the the north and south of the country. This is the significance of the ceremony at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival.

When the land of Israel was apportioned among the tribes, Shechem became a Levite city and a city of refuge. (Yehoshua 17:7, 20:7) It is the middle of the three refuge cities in the newly conquered land, testifying to its centrality. The body of Yosef, which had been taken from Egypt, was buried in Yaakov's old plot of land in Shechem. Nowadays "Kever Yosef" is a Jewish holy site, which unfortunately was sacked and Islamicized by Palestinians a few years ago.

A few years later, another ceremony was held in Shechem (Yehoshua 24). There Yehoshua (perhaps rhetorically) offers the people the chance to leave God and worship idols instead. They refuse, and a new covenant with God is concluded. At this point the Mishkan was still in Shechem, though later in Yehoshua's life it moved to Shiloh, where it would stay for several centuries.

After Yehoshua's death, the Israelites turned to idolatry and, despite the efforts of the "judges" (actually, for the most part, military leaders), they gradually did worse and worse in conflicts with their enemies. One of the most successful judges was Gideon. After his greatest military victory, the people asked him to become king, but he refused (Shoftim 8:22-23). But after his death, his son Avimelech declared himself to be king, and ruled for 3 years in Shechem before precipitating a civil war in which he died (Shoftim 9). The monarchy was only (re)established much later, with Shaul.

After Shlomo Hamelech died, his son Rechavam went to Shechem to be appointed king over all Israel (Melachim A 12:1-19). But when Rechavam declared his intention to increase their labor load, the 10 northern tribes rebelled and formed a kingdom of their own. Their first king was Yeravam, whose initial capital was Shechem.

From the stories of Avimelech, Rechavam, and Yeravam, we see that Shechem was the natural seat of the Israelite monarchy. Kings Shaul and David had located their capitals in their respective tribal centers (Givah and Hebron), and David later moved the capital to a compromise location, Jerusalem, on the border between his tribe and Shaul's. But except for these tribal locations, the only capital considered was Shechem. (Later on the capital of the northern kingdom would move to Penuel, Tirtzah, and Shomron - for reasons probably related to tribal and dynastic conflict.)

To summarize, Shechem was traversed and settled by generations of our ancestors, from Avraham, Yaakov, and Yosef to Yehoshua, Gideon, and Rechavam. In addition to simply being an important city with historical associations, Shechem was the literal and symbolic geographic center of the land of Israel, and thus the most central city of refuge and the historical seat of the Israelite monarchy. This political centrality was supplemented for a time by the spiritual centrality of the Mishkan and the covenant which was made in Shechem. Furthermore, as an important entryway to Israel, it symbolized the land, and the values of its inhabitants, to outsiders.

Jerusalem is the overall center of the Jewish religion. But Shechem is the center of the Land of Israel, and for centuries was the center of the Jewish nation. For this reason it is worth visiting, even if only once, even if you cannot actually approach but must simply look from afar.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

We're on sabbatical

There is a fancy new apartment building under construction outside my (old) apartment here in Haifa. However, it is still very much under construction. Until very recently, the windows and doors were giant holes and interior had not progressed beyond bare concrete.

So it was weird when, on or around Tu Beav a few weeks ago, a truck arrived at the building site full of vegetation. When I walked by later that day, a nice row of trees had been planted in the front yard of the unfinished building. What were they doing landscaping the building now, when it was so far from completion?

A bit later I found out it was because of shemitah. The sabbatical year is next year, and it is forbidden to plant trees not only during that year, but for one month and two weeks beforehand (see Rambam Shmita+Yovel 3:11). Thus, Tu Beav is about the last day on which you can plant trees (draw from that whatever homiletical conclusions you desire). And the construction company was engaged in a mad rush to meet the deadline and get all its trees halachically planted now, not 13 months from now, which will be long after the tenants move in. Only in Israel!

Thoughts on Ki Tavo

"...Because you did not serve Hashem your God - in happiness and goodheartness, and an abundance of all.
You will serve your enemies, whom Hashem will send among you - in hunger and thirst and nakedness and lack of all."

Chassidim love to quote the first verse, to show why you must always be happy and smiley and touchy-feely when doing mitzvot. After all they say, it talks about people who kept all the mitzvot, but in a dour Lithuanian manner, and God exiled them for it!

Fortunately, this is a total misinterpretation of the verse. Look at the next verse, and the parallels between the two verses. Serving God vs. serving enemies; abundance of all vs. lack of all. In each verse, the object of service comes first, followed by conditions in which you serve them.

In the second verse, "Hunger and thirst and nakedness and lack of all" does not describe your attitude - how can you have a hungry and naked attitude? - but rather the physical conditions you are in. Similarly, "happiness and goodheartness, with an abundance of all" in the first verse must describe the conditions you were in. You were rich and successful and living at ease, yet you did not bother to serve God. Thus you will now be punished, and lose your comfort and wealth.

Thus, the first verse is best translated as "...because you did not serve Hashem your God - WHEN YOU HAD happiness and goodheartness, and an abundance of all."

Happiness is of course legitimate. There is a verse in Tehillim which says "ivdu et Hashem besimcha" (100:2). But there is also a verse which says "ivdu et Hashem beyirah" (2:11). The two have to be balanced. Each emotion is appropriate in some situations - and inappropriate in others.

"These are the words of the covenant which Hashem commanded Moshe to make with the children of Israel, in the land of Moav - besides the covenant He made with them in Horev [=Sinai]." (28:69)

"These words" means chapter 28 - an actual specific text which was passed back and forth, or signed, or whatever else was appropriate, in order to make it into a binding covenant. What is the comparable covenant at Sinai? The whole giving of the Torah was a sort of covenant. But more specifically, by comparison with Ki Tavo, it would seem that that the covenant at Sinai was a particular written text.

Luckily, we possess a very similar text which we know comes from Sinai - parshat Bechukotai. There we have a blessing and curse which are extremely similar to the ones in Ki Tavo. It seems that they too form a written covenant. They date to Sinai, even though due to the verbosity of Sefer Vayikra they come long after the main Sinai story.

God and the Jewish people talked to each other, promised, warned, agreed, and discussed many things at many times. It seems that all of this is condensed and crystallized into a single written "contract" at the end of each story. The rewards, punishments, and promises - in short, the terms of the contract - are recorded in the form of a covenant. There is one such covenant at the end of Vayikra, at the end of the Sinai story. There is another in Ki Tavo, when a new generation finished its desert experience and prepared to enter Israel.