Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Contains three positive mitzvahs and three prohibitions
Conquest and settlement of the land
Bekurim (first fruits offering)
Viddui Ma’aser (declaration at triennial distribution of tithes)
There exists the need to feel and to express gratitude to God for our life, for our successes and for the gift of the Land of Israel
Instructions upon crossing Jordan River reminiscent of the Mt. Sinai experience…
o Setting huge stones on which to write the Torah (or Book of Devarim)
o Building Altar out of whole stones
o Bringing offerings (korbanot)
o Blessings (at Mt. Gerizim) and curses (at Mt. Aival) that
mirror the Ten Commandments; the Israelites answered Amen after each
Blessings for observing the mitzvahs. The Lubavitcher Rebbe asserts that one needs to be prepared to receive blessings by having complete faith in God even if we do not understand Him. One needs to “walk in His ways”, emulating Him as much as possible to achieve perfect harmony
Curses for disobedience (Towchecha)
Moshe’s final address again urges guarding and observing this Second Covenant with God since…
The earlier Covenant at Sinai had been abrogated by the sin of the Golden Calf
Bekurim (First Fruits)
“When you come to the land that God your Lord is giving you as a heritage, occupying and settling it, you shall take the first fruits of every fruit of the ground…You must place it in a basket and go the site that God will choose…there you shall go to the priest officiating at the time and answer and say to him ‘I have declared already to God your Lord that I have come to the land that God swore to our fathers to give to us’…you shall then answer and say before God your Lord ‘Arami Ovaid Avi’…”
The Torah describes the ritual in the Temple that accompanies the bringing of the first fruit with which the Land of Israel is blessed—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil and date honey. The fruits are presented to the priest in a basket. The individual identifies himself by describing his early roots (Arami Ovaid Avi), the Egypt slavery experience, the Exodus, and finally being brought to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. This background leads up to his offering thanks …”and now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land that HASHEM HAS GIVEN ME.”
Here is the scene as the Mishnah describes it:
“Throughout Israel, villagers would gather in the nearest of 24 regional centres. There, overnight, they would sleep in the open air. The next morning, the leader would summon the people with words from the book of Jeremiah (31:5): ‘Arise and let us go up to Zion, to the House of the Lord our God.’
Those who lived near Jerusalem would bring fresh figs and grapes. Those who lived far away would bring dried figs and raisins. An ox would walk ahead of them, its horns plated with gold and its head decorated with an olive wreath. Someone would play a flute. When they came close to Jerusalem they would send a messenger ahead to announce their arrival and they would start to adorn their first-fruits. Governors and officials of the city would come out to greet them and the artisans would stop their work and call out, “Our brothers from such-and-such a place: come in peace!”
The flute would continue playing until the procession reached the Temple Mount. There, they would each place their basket of fruit on their shoulder – the Mishnah says that even King Agrippa would do so – and carry it to the Temple forecourt. There the Levites would sing (Psalm 30:2), ‘I will praise you, God, for you have raised me up and not let my enemies rejoice over me.’”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the scene, “as groups converged on the Temple from all parts of Israel, must have been vivid and unforgettable. However, the most important part of the ceremony lay in what happened next. With the baskets still on their shoulders the arrivals would say, ‘I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’
“…each would then hold their basket by the rim, the Cohen would place his hand under it and ceremoniously wave it, and the bringer of the fruit would say the following passage, whose text is set out in our parsha: ‘My ancestor was a wandering Aramean. He went down into Egypt and lived there as a stranger, few in number, and there became a great nation, strong and numerous. The Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labour. We cried out to the Lord, God of our ancestors. The Lord heard our voice and saw our suffering, our toil and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with terrifying power and signs and wonders. He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now I am bringing the first fruit of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me.’ (Deut. 26:5-10)
Biblical prayers are meant to be spontaneous, reflecting the individual emotions and words of the one praying. Rabbi B.S. Jacobson discusses why, when offering Bekurim, the Torah provides the exact words that need to be said:
Aaron Halevy (Sefer Hachinukh) stresses the educational importance of the words which arouse thoughts and stir the heart to realize God’s loving-kindness. Both speaking and praying aloud influence our behavior.
Rambam views the declaration as a way of creating humility in us by forcing us to remember those times in our history that were filled with abundance. Amassing wealth may cause haughtiness and insolence. To put things in perspective we are commanded to return the first of our bounty to its source, God:
First grains (terumah)
First fruit (bekurim)
First dough (challah)
First shearing (reshit hagaz)
First male child
Isaac Arama stresses the ritual’s role as another reminder that it is God who is the source of our prosperity and it is our responsibility to express our gratitude to Him for everything He has given us.
Abravanel thinks that the purpose of bringing the first fruits is to curb farmers’ instinct to immediately benefit from this most treasured possession. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus believed that the keys to sin avoidance are sustine et abstine (“bear up under hardship and contain yourself from indulgence”). The Torah laws are designed to help us make a habit of self-control. Aaron Barth, an Israeli commentator, adds that the purpose is to help us gain mastery over our impulses and to convert our impulse into our will.
Martin Buber’s pays attention to the style and structure of the text, particularly the recurrence of certain words and phrases. The text repeats variations of “to give” seven times and variations of “coming/bring” five times. Gifts and giving; coming to the land; and demonstrating appreciation are the keys to this ceremony.
The individual announces that he is bringing/giving to God a token of his appreciation for the land that He has given (and continues to give) to both him and the nation. The presenter does not say “my fathers came…” but “…I have come…” as if he himself is entering the land for the first time. He tries to capture the powerful emotions that must have been felt by the first Israelites who came to the Promised Land.
Every Bekurim offering provides the opportunity to…
• Acknowledge and verbalize once again our gratitude
• Capture the experience of entry into the land
• To identify with the nation of Israel, now and in the past.
The mitzvah is collective “you all shall come” (in the plural) but the duty is individual, “you shall bring” (in the singular). The acquisition of the land promised in the Covenant with Avraham is a gift from God that He is constantly renewing.
Rabbi Marc Angel underscores the importance of the farmer’s recounting the history of the nation since the time of our Patriarchs:
• Slavery in Egypt
• Ensuing miraculous Exodus,
• Arrival into the Promised Land
The Torah emphasizes the need for a person to recognize and verbalize that he is part of a larger historical context and tradition. “We are not disconnected fragments of humanity, but are part of an extended family. We gain strength and resilience when we know who we are, where we belong”.
Rabbi Sacks perceives the uniqueness of the ritual to be…
• “That our ancestors saw God in history rather than Nature...
• The birth of Israel as a nation…
• The redemptive power of God who liberated our ancestors from slavery”
This story is the basis of our national identity as the Nation of Israel. Standing in the Temple courtyard and declaring that it is one’s own personal story gives the group a shared identity and a sense of purpose. In retelling the story about ourselves annually, we reinforce our shared history and shared experiences. We become a “people bound by collective responsibility—to one another, to the past and future, and to God”. Redemption is possible, and we can change the world.
The opening statement “I have declared already” by the farmer even before he has said anything leads Rabbi David Fohrman to conclude that the farmer’s very presence, his very standing before God in the Holy Temple is in and of itself a (non-verbal) testimony and declaration of thanks. Furthermore, the instructions to the farmer to “answer and say” even though no question has been asked suggests that there is an assumed but unspoken question being asked that the farmer must answer. Namely, “do you truly realize that your presence here and now gives testimony to the long-deferred fulfillment of God’s promise to the Patriarchs of a nation and homeland?” The farmer responds in the affirmative with his telling the history of God’s promise (Arami Ovaid Avi) that has culminated in his offering of the Bikurim.
The significance of these prescribed words (Arami Ovaid Avi) is evident in their inclusion in the Passover Seder when we begin the recollection of our history starting with disgrace and ultimately concluding in praise. “In every generation, a person is obligated to perceive himself as if he, too, was there to experience the historic event …” is the essence of the Bikurim and Seder ceremonies
Rabbi Angel also relates the Bikurim ceremony to contemporary life. A criminal justice Professor at the University of Alabama, Dr. Adam Lankford, thinks that some people who don’t achieve their unrealistic expectations are plagued with feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction with life. “Some of these disillusioned Americans become so alienated that they resort to acts of crime and violence. By going out in a ‘blaze of glory’, mass shooters attain the power and fame (notoriety) that they could not achieve in their lives”.
The disgruntled ask themselves why they have so little compared to the athletes and entertainers, business moguls and con artists, who have amassed great fortunes, who live in huge mansions, who seem to have a monopoly on “success” and whose images we are constantly bombarded with in the media.
The Bikurim ritual, explains Rabbi Angel “reminds us to look back at our humble origins; to remember our past hardships and struggles. By doing this we, …
Come to appreciate how far we’ve progressed since then.
Become grateful for what we have.
Are taught to share what we have with others; the grandeur of being happy with what we have; and to appreciate the blessings we enjoy.
“Success” is not measured by how close we have come to fulfilling an often-unrealistic goal, but by how much satisfaction and happiness we enjoy through our work and our ability to share with others.”
Arami Ovaid Avi
The meaning of this opening phrase is somewhat ambiguous:
o Arami usually means Aramean
o Ovaid could mean lost or losing or cause to be lost
o Avi means my father or ancestor
The usual translation for the Hebrew “Laban the Aramean sought to do to my father” in the Haggadah (when the Magid section begins in earnest)) is that “Laban the Aramean sought to harm my forefather Jacob” or “Laban the Aramean tried to cause my father to be lost (i.e., destroyed)”. Avi is the direct object (and refers to Jacob) and ovaid is a transitive verb.
• Ibn Ezra, arguing that ovaid is intransitive thinks avi is the subject and arami refers to Jacob. The phrase means “When my father was in Aram, he was ready to perish” …and ultimately God took his offspring out of Egypt and made us into a great nation.
• Rashbam’s translation is “A wandering Aramean was my father”. Avi, my father, refers to Avraham who was born in, lived in and wandered in the land of Aram.
• Wolf Heidenheim, a nineteenth century philologist, notes that ovaid is a specific form of the verb that means continuous past action which failed. Our enemies intended (and continue to try) to destroy us, but have failed thanks to you, God.
• Benno Jacob thinks that the Hebrew word arami does not refer to a country but to an occupation as a shepherd. The phrase means “my father (Abraham? Jacob?) worked as a shepherd.”
Why Do the Mitzvahs of Mikra Bekurim and Viddui Ma’aser Belong Here?
Logically, these mitzvahs belong in Parshat Re’eh where the Torah discusses the place that God has chosen to bring offerings (Holy Temple) and details the laws of the three-year cycle of tithes.
Moshe has just concluded his major speech whose primary purpose was to teach the Israelites the laws needed to be observed upon their entry into the Promised Land. Rabbi Menachem Leibtag reasons that “apparently, the Torah felt that after Moshe’s presenting the people’s required behavior it was important to direct them to express their gratitude for the Land He gave us”. The Torah dictated the precise language to use to express our thanks for the fertile Land! Mikra Bekurim is our annual sampling of first fruits brought as a token of our appreciation for the gift He has given us.
Viddui Ma’aser takes place on erev Passover of the fourth year of the tithing cycle. The farmer is obligated to remove from his possession any tithes, terumah, and first fruits that he inadvertently failed to give to the proper recipients. His prayer asserts that he has now fulfilled his obligations and implores God to do what He promised to our forefathers to bless the nation and the land.
The word viddui, which usually means confession of a wrongdoing, cannot be translated that way here because the farmer says just the opposite-- that he has done everything God has commanded regarding tithes. A translation of viddui when the word appears in Divrei Hayamim is “expressing gratitude”.
Moshe’s final urging to his people before his death is to feel and express gratitude.
Blessings and Curses at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Aival
Moshe commands the people that, when they cross the Jordan River, six tribes are to stand on Mt Aival and the other six on Mt. Gerizim. The Priests, the Levites and Aharon are to stand in the separating valley. They are to first face Mt. Gerizim and pronounce in a loud voice the blessings that will accrue to those who follow the twelve commandments they cite. They then turn to Mt. Aival and pronounce the curses that will result from failure to follow these commandments.
Rashbam’s insight (cited by Rabbi David Fohrman) is that the twelve curses selected were for behavior generally done in secret for which there could be no punishment by the courts. Some relate to above [between Man and God]; some to below [relating to the less fortunate]; and some across [among peers]. Four of the twelve deal with sexual matters.
Rav S.R. Hirsch’s understanding is that the blessings will be denied to those who outwardly appear to be pious and caring but who…
o Privately feel superior
o Are lacking in true faith
o Wallow in sexual licentiousness
o Remain indifferent to, and intolerant of, those less fortunate
Rabbi Leibtag’s analysis of the curses demonstrates how they mirror the Ten Commandments…
“Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image” clearly parallels the first two Commandments
“Cursed be he who insults/disgraces [or makes light of] his father or mother” reflects the commandment to honor one’s parents
“Cursed be he who moves his fellow countryman’s landmark” echo’s the commandment not to steal
“Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person on his way” broadly includes not giving bad advice to another--like persuading him to sell a property to acquire it himself-- and corresponds to the prohibition to not covet (excessive desire for another’s property or spouse)
“Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the orphan and the widow” may correspond to at least one aspect of the observance of Shabbos (fourth commandment) that demands fair treatment of people and humans alike in commemoration of our Exodus from Egypt
“Cursed be he who lies with his father’s wife…with any animal… with his sister… with his mother-in- law” is the commandment to not commit (the prohibited sexual act of) adultery
“Cursed is he who strikes down his fellow countryman in secret” parallels “Thou shalt not murder” [Note: This also includes maligning an individual, “killing” his good name and reputation.]
“Cursed be he who accepts a bribe” is about dishonesty in the courtroom [addressed to either the witness or the judge or to both], behavior encapsulated in the commandment to not testify falsely
“Cursed is he who will not uphold the terms of this Torah,” which is about the oath to keep the Torah (according to Rashi), parallels the third Commandment to not say God’s name in vain.
Towchecha (chastisement, rebuke)
“If you listen to/obey God…all these blessings will come upon you…but if you do not listen to/obey God…all these curses will come to bear on you.” In Judaism, one does not see God. Instead one is reminded over and over to listen and to hear to understand the word of God.
This admonition of the evils that would befall us for failure to observe Torah b’simcha uvetuv layv--with joy and goodness of heart -- differs in certain respects from the earlier Tokhecha at Mt Sinai [Note: According to the Rebbe, simcha breaks down all barriers including exile and has the unique potential to bring the Final Redemption.] This Towchecha …
• Contains 98 curses, double the size of the earlier one
• Uses much more frightening, chilling imagery
• Is spoken in the singular rather than in plural
• Ends in bleak despair without the national consolation of the earlier one
Rabbi Sacks notes the emphasis placed in this week’s parsha on “joy” and its pursuit. The Hebrew root-word for joy, s-m-ch, appears but once in each of the first four books of the Torah but fourteen times in this Sefer Devarim. Joylessness in worship (and in life?) is cited in this Towchecha as a reason for national disaster. In contrast to “happiness” [ashrei in Hebrew], which is an attitude about life and is something experienced by an individual, “joy” in the Torah is about something shared. It is the “social emotion” experienced and shared with others, yielding a sense of connection to other people or God. A newly-married man is exempt from serving in the army for a year so that he may bring joy to his new wife. Offerings to be brought in the Temple provided another opportunity for families to together eat and to rejoice over God’s blessings. The Festivals are times for collective celebration, “…and you should be joyous on your Festivals”.
Rabbi Sacks reasons that it is the capacity for joy that gives our people the strength to endure our historic fate of being surrounded by enemies who seek to destroy us both psychologically and physically. By focusing on the moment; by permitting ourselves to dance, sing and give praise; and by celebrating together we are bound up as a nation and can replace our fears about tomorrow with “our grateful acceptance and celebration of today”.
The great composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was deaf for nearly twenty years yet, towards the end of his life, composed his powerful Ninth Symphony [“Choral”], thought by many to be one of the greatest pieces of western classical music. In the fourth movement, he set to music Friedrich Schiller’s poem, “Ode to Joy” embodying dramatic and soaring themes of freedom and brotherhood [“all men will become brothers”].
Rabbi Sacks thinks of Judaism as an ode to joy. “Like Beethoven, Jews have known suffering, isolation, hardship and rejection, yet they never lacked the religious courage to rejoice. A people that can know insecurity and still feel joy is one that can never be defeated, for its spirit can never be broken nor its hope destroyed.”
This Towchecha is filled with frightening words, haunting images and an awesome array of curses far exceeding and overwhelming the immediately preceding blessings:
• “God will strike you with Egyptian inflammation…
• With hemorrhoids, boil scars and itch from which you will never recover…
• With insanity, with blindness and with bewilderment
• You will be nothing but wronged and downtrodden all the time
• You will be constantly abused and robbed with none to give help
• Even the most sensitive and squeamish woman will slaughter and eat in secret (her own children)
• You will go insane from the things your eyes will see
• God will inflict extraordinary plagues on you and your offspring, strange and lasting plagues, malignant and chronic diseases
• You will remain few in numbers with…
• A trembling heart, dashed hopes and a suffering soul
• The life you face will be precarious, you shall be in terror night and day with no assurance of survival and
• You will not be certain of your life
• In the morning, you will say if it was only evening and in the evening you will say if it would only be morning…”
Ramban’s view is that the two Towchechas refer to the destruction of the first and then the second Holy Temple.
Rav J. B. Soloveitchik’ s opinion is that the first Towchecha relates to God’s past Covenant with us, while this one relates to the future. Like the earlier one, this Towchecha ends with consolation...except the consolation appears in next week’s Parsha, Netzavim. The consolation is that after all the punishment and all the suffering, the Jewish people will repent and return to God.
Rav Yissocher Frand elaborates: “The Destruction of the First Bais HaMikdash and the Babylonian exile which followed it had a prophesized finite end to it. The prophets foretold that the people would be in exile for 70 years and following this 70-year period, the Jews were given permission to return to the Land of Israel (where they eventually rebuilt the Bais HaMikdash). Therefore, it makes sense that the Tochacha which foretells the Babylonian Exile features the consolation in close proximity to the end of the chastisement.
We do not know of a specified date for the redemption from the Destruction of the Second Bais HaMikdash. We have now been in this exile for close to 2000 years! However, there will be an end to this exile. When will that occur? We do not know, but it will come. This is precisely why the consolation does not immediately follow the Tochacha here. We need to wait. We need to wait until we return to our God. Eventually, we will get out of it because in the end Israel will repent and immediately thereafter they will be redeemed …but we do not know when that is going to happen.”
The Ohr HaChaim (1696-1743) suggests that the earlier Towchecha is in the plural because it was meant for a time when the entire nation would sin. But in this week’s Parsha the Towchecha is expressed in the singular because it is addressed to individuals who act inappropriately even if the nation is not sinning.
As the Jewish people are about to enter the holy land as ish echad blayv echad, with a keen sense of national unity and identity, they are spoken to as one organic whole, in the singular. Some forty years earlier at Mt. Sinai the Israelites were spoken to in the plural because they were a rag-tag group of many individuals and not yet a nation.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that the earlier Towchecha is read before Shavuoth and provides a spiritual framework for accepting the Torah anew. Today’s reading is in Elul and prepares us for the upcoming High Holydays. The reading, hearing, study and consideration of the Torah’s words is designed to help us achieve meaningful repentance.
Is Exile a Blessing in Disguise?
The Towchecha states that when God scatters the Jews among all people of the world …” there you shall serve other gods, with which you are not familiar even wood and stone”, a statement that does not seem to fit because acceptance of idolatry does not seem to be a punishment for the very behavior that precipitated our Exile.
Nechama Leibowitz cites two approaches to understanding this puzzling text:
Abravanel thinks the punishment is that we will be forced to worship idols against our will, all the while knowing the worship is foolish and false.
Isaac Arama reasons that the real tragedy is that even if we do accept their religion, the nations of the world will never accept us as part of their societies and will continue to maintain exclusionary barriers.
But this inability to assimilate may prove to be a positive for us in that it will leave us with no choice in Exile but to hold on to our faith and to work to return to our Homeland. A Midrash confirms this idea with its comments on the verse in the Towchecha “…and among these nations you will have no repose and there will be no rest for the sole of your foot”. Says the Midrash, “if we had found rest [and acceptance] we would not have returned”.
The interpretations of Abravanel and Isaac Arama, both of whom lived during the time of the Spanish expulsion, were no doubt influenced by the religious persecutions they observed and experienced. In our lifetime, the Zionist/Aliyah/NefeshB’Nefesh movements and organizations are both the catalysts and facilitators for our people’s return from Exile to our Homeland.
A Second Covenant
Rabbi Leibtag notes that the Second Covenant described here incorporates ceremonies that are almost identical to those some forty years earlier when the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai:
• Building an altar
• Offering korbanot
• Erecting twelve large stones
• Reading the tokhecha
Because the Israelites of this generation on the threshold of the Promised Land were not present at the original ceremony, it was necessary to repeat so that the Israelites could “re-live” and then re-affirm their commitment to the Covenant.