The Arameans are still trying to destroy us!
As the Five Books of Moses come to an end, Moses sets the scene for the grand entrance and settling of the Jewish people into the Promised Land: “When you come to the land that The Lord your G-d is giving you as an inheritance, you shall acquire it and settle it.” (Deuteronomy 26:1).
Rabbi Dr David Nossel
Moses then informs the people of a most dramatic ceremony to celebrate their arrival, and the arrival of the first fruit. A person is to bring a basket containing the fruits to the Temple, and present it to the priest. Then, at the height of the proceedings, he is to make a declaration of thanks to G-d.
The Torah provides the divine text of that declaration. It starts off as follows: “And you shall respond and say before the Lord your G-d: ‘An Aramean seeks to destroy my father’…” (Deuteronomy 26:4-5).
What a let-down! One would expect the opening words of the proclamation to be impactful and stirring. Instead they are cryptic and confusing – a note about a vengeful Aramean! If the purpose of the introductory words of the proclamation was to recall the historical background to the arrival of the Jewish people in Israel, it could have said it directly, “Lavan [the Aramean] tried to destroy Jacob, but thankfully he failed…”
Instead, the proclamation makes mention of “an Aramean” instead of Lavan, it uses the word “seeks” in the present tense instead of the past, and it uses the term “my father” instead of Jacob. Why?
Rashi’s commentary says that Lavan was trying to destroy Jacob by undermining that which Jacob stood for and that which we, his descendants, are all about: the kindness of the Omnipresent.
There are two possible approaches to how the world should be run. The first is the approach of justice. This approach seeks to uphold the law, ensure fairness and integrity, and safeguard the sustainability and maintenance of the world. Lavan represented this approach. But as high as the Arameans, their Aramaic language, and their approach to the maintenance of the world are, they fall short of the approach of the Jewish people.
There is a second approach to how the world should run. It is one of kindness. It is higher than the first earthly, man-made approach, for it comes from Heaven. It seeks to give to the world, to improve it, and ultimately perfect it.
The Aramean mindset of basing our world on justice instead of on kindness seeks to remove us from our mission in the world, not just in the time of Lavan. It seeks to destroy us up to this very day.
Therefore, the Torah tells us what we need to do when we eventually return to our land, farm it, and gather its first fruits. We need to come before G-d, and declare that we have not forgotten our mission. We must declare our recognition of the kindness of the Omnipresent, to dedicate ourselves to emulating His kindness, and to give those first fruits to others.
What makes you wealthy?
Some time ago, a friend shared a personal anecdote that has stayed with me because of the simple yet powerful message it conveys.
Beggars are, sadly, a fixture of the South African landscape. One particularly eccentric panhandler has lived in our neighbourhood for as long as any of us can remember. He is a colourful fellow who regularly changes outfits, likes to sport sunglasses, earphones (not that they’re plugged into anything), and quirky cardboard signs. He always makes a point of getting the kids in passing cars to smile. Truth is, we haven’t seen him for months now. The other day, someone reported a sighting, in a different suburb, and it brought back the memory of this story.
It must have been a chilly July night when my friend stopped to fill his car, and popped into the Quick Shop to buy a drink. As he stepped up to pay, our eccentric beggar-friend approached him for a donation. Apologising, my friend mentioned that he was unable to help the fellow. In fact, he promptly realised, he didn’t even have enough cash to pay for his own drink.
“How much are you short?” asked the homeless man.
“Two rand,” my friend admitted sheepishly.
Without hesitating, the older man drew out his bag of coins – a day’s “salary”, and happily handed over two rand! My friend was astonished by this needy man’s largesse.
This Shabbos, we’ll read of the half-shekel. G-d baffles Moses by instructing him to have each member of the nation contribute exactly half a shekel towards the maintenance of the sanctuary and communal sacrifices. Just half a shekel, yet these simple donations were supposedly enough to atone for the Golden Calf debacle. Moses grappled with the notion that a token contribution could repair such a heinous mistake.
Here’s one possible angle to the story: everyone bought the story of investing in the Golden Calf because they all anticipated that it would offer solid returns (a replacement for Moses, the oracle they feared would never return).
Still today, people happily throw millions at business or even philanthropic opportunities if they forecast a decent payback. But, when stocks crash and fortunes halve, we downscale and hang on to what we have. We often also become charity-averse. If a billionaire should lose a few hundred million, he may well feel the need to tighten the purse-strings.
Then, we hear of a fellow who lives hand to mouth, yet is able to part with a few bucks to help someone better off than himself because the man was stuck.
As long as you can still give, you are wealthy. When you cannot share your money, regardless of how much of it you may still have, you have become poor.
Perhaps that was G-d’s message in the half-shekel – a reminder that big bucks to float a golden project don’t indicate wealth, but giving away even just a small contribution does.
Believing in Hashem; believing in ourselves.
When would Hashem ever want us not to daven? In Parshat Beshalach, as the Jewish people were standing between the sea, the Egyptian army, and the desert, they naturally turned their faces upwards and pleaded to the Almighty for help. Remarkably, Hashem responds: “מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י (Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward).”
It’s not as if Hashem doesn’t want our tefilot (prayers). On the other side of the sea, we are attacked by Amalek, our long-standing enemy, and the Torah tells us when Moshe’s arms were raised, we took the upper hand. Moshe’s arms didn’t magically cause us to win, but rather, when the Jewish soldiers looked at Moshe’s posture of prayer, they were inspired to daven, and through the combination of G-dly intervention and human effort, we were victorious. What’s the difference between these two confrontations – against the Egyptians where we shouldn’t daven, and against the Amalek, where we had to?
One needs to understand the purpose of both wars. The Izhbitza Rebbe explains that the battle with Egypt was one of the awareness of the creator. Hashem displayed His might through the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. We just needed to walk, and Hashem would do everything, supernaturally, to respond to Pharaoh’s original response to Moshe when he asked for the Jews to be free to worship Hashem: “’מִ֤י ה (Who is the Lord?)”
On the other hand, Amalek, who descended from Eisav, believed that our existence was meaningless and coincidental. Eisav sold Yaakov his birthright for the quick satisfaction of hunger. He wasn’t interested in the long term commitment of temple service. Eisav exclaimed, “Here I am going to die, so why do I need the birth right?” Amalek despised the idea of a world to-come where we receive reward or punishment for the actions we do here on earth. In order to persuade the world otherwise, we needed to fight him with meaningful human action. We partnered with Hashem through physical effort and prayer to display how, together, the creator and created can make a difference.
On Purim, we celebrate the fact that the Jews defeated Amalek once again. Hashem was, of course, behind our success, but He would remain quite hidden, allowing Esther and the Jewish people to come forward with bravery and self-sacrifice. At first, Esther refused to step up on behalf of her people. But after Mordechai inspired her asking, “Who knows, perhaps for the sake of a time such as this you have come to join royalty?”, she accepted responsibility and asked Jews to pray. Through her cunning and leadership, Haman, descended from the Amaleki King Agag, is trapped, and eventually hung on the gallows he built to kill Mordechai the Jew! Coincidence? I think not!
There are times in life where we raise our hands in prayer knowing that only Hashem can help as He overcomes the natural laws He put in place. At other times, He beckons us to act and overcome our natural tendencies to remain stagnant and passive and “join” Him to bring about the change. Esther revealed her hidden G-d-given potential to save the Jews, and for that we are eternally grateful.
Blueprint for a holy society
In Exodus: 25:1-2, “G-d spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take my offering.’” Exodus 25:8-9, “And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst according to all that I show you, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its vessels; and so shall you do…”
Now if I was a real Israelite, my first reaction might be to roll my eyes and say, “Great! I just spent all of these years slaving in Egypt, toiling over all of these pyramids, and now I have to do more building?” And of course, G-d isn’t content to let the Israelites use their expertise at turning sand and dirt into bricks. G-d has more specific plans, asking those who act generously, and using only the best of materials.
You get the idea. The Torah offers so many specifics, right down to the details of the golden cherubs. The Talmud (BT Yoma 54a) describes the cherubs as a boy and a girl. Rashi writes, “Their faces bore the images of the youth,” reminding us that the true custodians of the Ark and the Torah are our children, the sons and daughters of Israel, in contrast to the tradition’s literal count of the Israelites – 600 000 adult men, we are told. This portion reminds us that in all the institutions we build in accordance with G-d’s plan, our children, our youth count, and through them, we hear the voice of G-d.
This verse from Exodus 25:8-9 usually sparks discussion about the necessity of having a building in order for G-d to be present. We are so used to having a building as a symbol of G-d’s presence, but I believe we can find that sense of G-d in so many places. It may not be within a formal building. Perhaps it’s the fact, as it has always been, that we find G-d where we allow our souls to let G-d in, that the sanctuary within which G-d dwells must begin with our own soul. If our soul has been created to live with a foundation of faith and spiritual practice, then surely G-d will dwell within it.
But back to the tabernacle story. We have a G-d who can turn water into blood, sand into lice, the very air we breathe into a thick darkness that makes it impossible for others to move. This is a G-d who split the Sea of Reeds, who saved the Israelites from a future of slavery. Why does G-d need to draw a blueprint and then ask us to complete the plan?
The text offers the answer. When G-d is placing this very lengthy, detailed order, G-d says “they will make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst.” G-d didn’t build the tabernacle alone, nor assign it to Moses to build on his own. There was a blueprint and detailed instructions that were shared with everyone.
In my work as a rabbi, and indeed in our efforts as a Jewish community as a whole, we must be prepared to sit together, generate ideas, shape plans, and draw blueprints.
The future of the Jewish community is our shared responsibility. But if we are really involved in this, if we do it with all our heart, then by working together, we can build a magnificent holy society.
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