Parshas Ki Savo

Bris: Above and Beyond the Curses


When you come to the land which Hashem your G-d is giving to you as an inheritance, and you inherit it and settle on it ... (Devarim 26:1)
It is interesting to note that this week's parshah starts off with the mitzvah of Bikurim-the mitzvah to bring up the First-Fruits-directly after the previous parshah ended with the obligation to not forget what Amalek did to the Jewish people when they left Egypt. One can't but help feel there is a connection between the two, especially since:
There are three mitzvos incumbent upon the Jewish people when entering Israel: Appointing a king, eradicating the seed of Amalek, and building the Temple. (Sanhedrin 20b)
From last week's parshah we know Amalek's crime:
Remember what Amalek did to you along the way of your leaving Egypt, how he chanced upon you along the way and attacked the stragglers among you (va-yezaneiv becha) while you were faint and weary ... (Devarim 25:17-18)
Amalek sounds like a bullying nation. However, what angered G-d most is what Rashi explains:
Stragglers among (va-yezaneiv becha) ... he severed the place of circumcision, and threw it towards Heaven. (Rashi)
Rashi is quoting the Midrash Tanchuma that plays on the word "va-yezaneiv becha" which can mean the "tail-end of you," referring either to the stragglers, or the place of Bris Milah. And why did Amalek provoke G-d in this way? To make the statement to the Jewish people and the world in general: There is no eternal relationship between G-d and Israel!

How could Amalek be so bold as to make such a statement, especially under the watchful eye of G-d? Did he not witness the decimation of Egypt on behalf of the enslaved Jewish people? Did he not hear about the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea? Did he not know about the miraculous bread that fell each day for the entire Jewish nation-from Heaven yet!

The answer is, it was especially because he heard about all these miracles that he attacked the Jewish people!

"What?" you say. "Was Amalek that ignorant a nation, that masochistic a people that they could throw themselves willingly into the fire to burn (as Rashi seems to indicate on 25:18)?"

The answer is the difference between what is called "Z'chus Avos" (literally, "Merit of the Fathers") and "Bris Avos" ("Covenant of the Fathers") which Amalek took to be the same idea. Z'chus Avos, as it sounds, is merit built upon based upon previously performed good deeds. It has a limit; it can be used up.

"Yes," Amalek thought, "G-d promised to help Avraham's descendants in the future. But that was because Avraham had sacrificed so much for G-d and truth in the past. Therefore, measure-for-measure, G-d will sacrifice for this descendants as well."

Up to a limit, that is, Amalek concluded. Merits run out, and by his calculations, the miraculous redemption from Egypt, and the phenomenal splitting of the Red Sea, and the remarkable food that fell from Heaven used upon a lot of merit. "Perhaps, all of it, or enough of it," Amalek thought, "that we can successfully overcome the Jewish people once-and-for-all!"

It is not unlike what Achashveros did when he counted down the prophecized seventy years of exile, after which time he used the vessels from the Temple for his own, profane use, and then gave the Jewish people over into the hands of Haman (who descended from Amalek). It is also not unlike the calculation Hitler (may his name be erased) made, when he said:

"When over long periods of human history I scrutinized the activity of the Jewish people, suddenly there rose up in me the fearful question whether inscrutable destiny, perhaps for reasons unknown to us poor mortals, did not with eternal and immutable resolve, desire the final victory of this little nation." (Hitler's Words, op. cit., p. 64; 1925)
Obviously, like Achashveros and Amalek before him, Hitler felt it was worththe risk. And, thank G-d, like Achashveros, Amalek, and even Lavan the Arami (from this week's parshah), he lost the gamble. We're still here today (perhaps at a tremendous cost), and they are not. Why? Because of something called Bris Avos, which is beyond the realm of merit and demerit, symbolized by Bris Milah, perhaps, but not dependent upon it.

This is what Amalek failed to understand. Once Bris Avos was sealed in Avraham's time, it became immutable. Even should the Jewish people exhaust the merits built up by our Ancestors (something according to the Talmud and Tosfos we have already done; Shabbos 55a), there is still the eternal covenant between G-d and Avraham-Bris Avos-which incorporates all of his descendants through Yitzchak-forever.

"Then I will remember My bris (covenant) with Ya'akov, and also the covenant with Yitzchak; also My covenant with Avraham I will remember ... (Vayikra 26:42)
And as this week's parshah and the mitzvah of Bikurim come to teach, there is very little else that proves the point than the Jewish people's eternal connection to the land of Eretz Yisroel. The viduy, the special confessional prayer recited as part of the Bikurim ceremony was a testimony to the power of Bris Avos.
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This day Hashem your G-d has commanded you to do these statutes and judgments; you shall therefore keep and do them will all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim 26:16)

"This day Hashem your G-d has commanded you ... Each day they should be to you like something new, as though you received the commandments that very day." (Rashi)

From the Torah, it seems as if it is enough to remember to do the mitzvos. However, Rashi (quoting the Midrash) says that it is not enough to remember and do the mitzvos, but that one should have the enthusiasm to do mitzvos as if they were just commanded to do them for the first time! Does he really mean this?

It is part of the human condition to become accustomed to something. It is very difficult to look at something new the next day after receiving it the day before, and certainly many years down the road. That is, unless the "thing" is something that one's life depends upon. It is fair to say that our lives depend upon doing mitzvos and learning Torah.

The problem, and this is what Rashi is alluding to, is that we don't always see it that way, and many don't believe it. The World-to-Come is too distant a reality for many, and middah-k'neged middah (measure-for-measure) is not always clear to us. We can't see how mitzvos bring sparks of holiness into our bodies and provide us with life; there's just too many veils between the sparks and the physical reality we see and live within. For many, mitzvos are merely a matter of faith.

However, Rashi is alluding to the fact that one can come to understand the importance of mitzvos and their live-giving ability, and thereby come to appreciate their importance. This is evident in all areas of life, and in the following story as well.

There is a man who, at the age of 22, returned to Judaism. He had been content with his previous life, and was going places. This is why when, after attending several classes and deciding to learn more about Judaism, he felt he was doing G-d a favor by even entertaining the possibility of being more religious.
"I don't have to do this, you know ..." he told G-d. "So don't expect too much from me. I could be like everyone else in the society I have come from, and never miss this a bit."
After about a year of intense study, he developed a greater appreciation of Torah and the value it has in life, and changed his tone somewhat. He said:
"Thank you for showing me Torah. It is wonderful and will certainly enhance my life. You and I can be partners, but I don't know just how religious I'll end up being ..."
Many years later, after even more intense study and a deeper understanding of the importance of Torah, he completely changed his point of view. Humbly he said,
"Thank You so much for saving my life! How could You have waited so long for me? I could never have ... I am eternally grateful for all You have done for me!"

When one values Torah and mitzvos like any other aspect of life that keeps one going and provides quality-life, then the resulting sense of gratitude makes it possible to look at Torah as new as well. This is not just a positive character trait, simply a way to enhance mitzvah-performance. As the rest of the parshah teaches, this attitude is crucial for maintaining a connection to mitzvos, and avoiding the disaster of straying from Torah.

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Cursed be the man who makes any graven or molten image, an abomination to Hashem ... (Devarim 27:15)
The Jerusalem Talmud makes a remarkable statement:
We find that The Holy One, Blessed is He, overlooked Israel's sins of Idol Worship, Illicit Relationships, and Murder, but He did not overlook their sin of disgracing Torah ... (Yerushalmi, Chagigah 6b)

"They did not make Torah-learning a regular occurrence for their children, since it was despised in their eyes ..." (Korban HaEidah)

Furthermore, says the Yerushalmi:
That they forsake Me, I can overlook, since perhaps they will observe My Torah; if they leave Me and observe My Torah, the seor (literally, yeast) within it will bring them back to Me.

"I.e., the allusions to secret wisdom; another version is "meor" (light)." (Korban HaEidah)

How can this be so? The truth is, history proves this very point. The idea of "G-d" is a concept, a very abstract one to say the least, and as we see around the world, one that is also open to countless understandings, and His will, even more interpretations. How many innocent people have been murdered in the name of G-d, including defenseless woman and children-sacrificed on the altar of false religions.

However, the Torah, though it is something eternal and ultimately abstract, still it has a tangible quality about it. Furthermore, the Ramban says this about Torah:

"We have yet another mystic tradition that the whole of Torah is comprised of Names of The Holy One, Blessed is He (Zohar, Yisro 87a), and that the letters of the words separate themselves into Divine Names when divided in a different manner, as you may imagine by way of example that the verse Bereishis divides itself into these words: berosh isbare (bais, raish, aleph, shin ... yud, tav, bais, raish, aleph) Elokim ... It is for this reason that Scroll of the Torah in which a mistake has been made in one letter's being added or subtracted is disqualified ... It is this principle which has caused the Biblical scholars to count every full and defective word in the Torah and Nach and to compose Masoretic text, going back to Ezra HaSofer ... It would appear that the Torah "written with letters of black fire upon a background of white fire" (Yerushalmi Shekalim 13b) was in this form we have mentioned, namely, that the writing was consecutive, without break of words, which made it possible for it to be read by way of Divine Names and also by way of our normal reading which makes explicit the Torah and the commandment. It was given to Moshe Rabbeinu using the division of words which expresses the commandment, and orally it was transmitted to him in the rendition which consists of the Divine Names ... (Ramban, Introduction to his commentary on the Torah)
The whole point of the Torah that Moshe brought down to earth was to draw down the holy light of Hashem Yisborach through the people who are constantly learning it and are involved in it and through this remove all spiritual impurities from the earth and reveal His Oneness Above and Below until the world is brought to the level of complete unity ... The Torah is the source of all of this and therefore it has the ability to refine and rectify all of existence and bring it to the level complete unity ... To remove any veil that is the result of physicality and reveal the good that is hidden within ... (Dayah 2:31a)
It is to this that the Yerushalmi refers. To pursue G-d without Torah is to be confused about G-d and His will. However, to pursue Torah results in both Torah and G-d who commanded it. Therefore, this parshah, just as was the case with Parashas Bechukosai, demands that we make a point of establishing set periods of Torah study every day, and making them holy enough that day-to-day distractions don't interfere with the process of drawing godly light and blessing toward us.

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It shall come to pass that if you diligently listen to the voice of Hashem your G-d ... (Devarim 28:1)
So begins Moshe's review of the blessings and curses, which last year's parshah sheet discussed, at least conceptually. However, there is a story in the Talmud that also sums up the bottom line of all these lines of blessings and curses:
Our rabbis taught: Rebi Yochanan ben Zakkai was once riding on a donkey outside of Jerusalem, and his disciples had followed him. He saw a young woman picking barley out of dung of an Arabian's cattle. As soon as she observed him, she covered herself with her hair, stood up and said to him,
"Rabbi! Help me!"
He answered, "Whose daughter are you?"
She said, "I am the daughter of Nakdimon ben Guryon" (a previously wealthy man for whom miracles had occurred; see Ta'anis 19b).
"My daughter!" he said, "What has become of your father's house?"
"Is there not a saying in Jerusalem, 'The salt of wealth (i.e., that which preserves it) is its diminution (i.e., charitable deeds) and some say through benevolence?" was her answer.
"And what about your father-in-law's house?" he continued.
"Ah," she answered, "one destroyed the other." Then she asked him, "Rabbi, do you remember signing my marriage contract?"
"I remember," he said, turning to his students, "When I signed her marriage contract, I read in it that her father gave her a dowry of one million golden denars besides that of her father-in-law's!"
Rebi Yochanan ben Zakkai then burst into tears, and said,
"Happy are you, Israel. As long as you perform the will of G-d, no nation or people can rule over you. But when you fail to perform the will of G-d, you are delivered into the hands of a humiliating nation; and not only the hands of a humiliating nation, but also into the hands of the beasts of the humiliating nation." (Kesuvos 66b)
Fourteen days until Rosh Hashanah ... And counting.

Have a great Shabbos,
Pinchas Winston

Kesiva v'Chasima Tova,
Pinchas Winston

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