Parshah Dashboard

KI TAVO: "Accursed Will You Be..."

September 1, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

After G‑d, through the voice of Moses, tells us the many blessings we will receive if we follow G‑d's commands, He tells us the bad news – and it's really bad – if we're sinners.

You will encounter horrible plagues (fever and swelling lesions), attrition, confusion and worry in every undertaking. Your carcasses will be food for every bird of prey. You will grope at noontime as a blind man gropes in the darkness. You will betroth a woman, but another man will lie with her. You will eat the fruit of your womb. You will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as slaves and maidservants, but there will be no buyer. And this is just a taste of what will befall us—enumerating the rest here would be too painful.

So, consider this: as a parent you need to discipline your children. You tell them the rewards that will be theirs if they adhere to your wishes. But can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, any parent of sane mind ever telling his/her children this parade of horrors if they are disobedient?

G‑d is our Father, our Parent. How can we understand this form of remonstration by G‑d of His children? And maybe more important, why would G‑d Almighty believe that this means of disciplining children would actually work? Because, truth is, it doesn't seem to have succeeded over the course of our history.

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, it is interesting to compare the warnings that are given by G‑d at the end of Leviticus and the warnings given here by Moses at the end of Deuteronomy. While they both include harsh penalties for the rejection of G‑d and His mitzvot, the warnings given by Moses are far longer and more descriptive than the warnings given by G‑d. And, in this distinction perhaps lies the answer to your question.

You agree that warnings of punishment for lack of good behavior are in place in any parent-child relationship and therefore appropriate in the relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people which on Rosh Hashanah we use as the paradigmatic father-son relationship. Yet, in Leviticus, these warnings are straightforward and do not get overly dramatic.

Moses, on the other hand, at the end of his life is faced with a serious dilemma. How is he to relate G‑d's warnings and to insure that the people continue to listen to G‑d even after Moses has passed away? Thus he added some drama and painted a graphic picture of the punishments that will befall the people if they do not heed the word of G‑d. This is Moses' role at the end of his life to guarantee the future adherence to G‑d's word.

Nachmanides argues that the shorter admonition at the end of Leviticus relates to the first exile that lasted seventy years, while the longer admonition at the end of Deuteronomy relates to the present exile following the destruction of the Second Temple that continues to this day. Accordingly, he explains, the warnings are not merely a scare tactic on behalf of G‑d and Moses, they are an actual description of the persecutions that the Jews will experience in the future. (For more on this, see Forewarning.)

We can only read this long admonition and consider the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people throughout history.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:


Growing up in South Africa, an Anglo-Saxon country, I – along with all my friends – was keenly aware of the cane that the principal owned. This cane was prominently displayed behind his desk, a symbol of what could happen if we misbehaved. (Even then there were rules regulating when the principal could and could not use this power. Subsequently the use of corporal punishment was suspended.) We knew that there would be consequences to our actions. While he most certainly could have, I cannot recall our principal ever using the cane. But its mere placement and existence were deterrents enough for us from engaging in too much mischief.

Every single action has a reaction, a positive action is met with a positive reaction, and a negative action is met with, G‑d forbid, a negative reaction. Whether we physically experience this effect or it has "only" a spiritual effect—the reaction exists.

Kabbalah explains that G‑d originally envisaged creating the world with gevurah (judgment; discipline) but in order for the world to be able to flourish, G‑d introduced chesed (kindness). Because we are not all perfect beings, a.k.a. angels, G‑d needed to create that balance of kindness and judgment so that there would be able to be continuity.

G‑d chose two locations in the Torah to remind us of the consequences of our actions: one in Bechukotai (my bar mitzvah parshah) and the other in this week's reading. The Torah scroll contains an average of 248 columns—a mere five of which are devoted to the "curses."

While they seem scary, they too are necessary: they serve as a reminder about the consequences. A reminder that we are a chosen people and that with the position comes a special responsibility, and if that trust is breached there are consequences.

Yet even these "curses" or "consequences" cannot be taken merely at face value, and they contain deep spiritual significance.

The universe is like a large painting, if we stand to close to the painting we may get caught up in the details of the painting and miss the larger picture. This is illustrated by a story about Rabbi Akiva recounted in the Talmud:

Rabbi Akiva traveled with a candle, a rooster, and a donkey: the candle so he could study Torah at night, the rooster—his alarm clock—to wake him up to study Torah, and finally the donkey to carry his possessions. Rabbi Akiva once stopped at a city. He tried to get lodging at an inn but there was no room available. Rabbi Akiva went from house to house but nobody would let him in.

Rabbi Akiva walked into the neighboring woods and set up camp. All of a sudden, a strong wind kicked up and extinguished the candle. A few moments later, a ferocious lion emerged from behind his tent and killed his donkey. What was left? The rooster. A ravenous cat appeared and devoured it.

Rabbi Akiva was completely stuck. The next morning, Rabbi Akiva discovered that a band of robbers had attacked the town during the night, mercilessly killing the people and stealing their money. The robbers escaped into the forest. If they had seen the candle, or heard the noise of the rooster and donkey, Rabbi Akiva would have met the same fate as the townspeople. G‑d had saved his life by extinguishing his candle and taking his animals.

So to with the Torah's admonitions. According to mystical teachings, they in fact contain deep blessings, as is evident by this story, as told by Yanki Tauber (The Positive Curse):

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi himself served as the reader of the weekly Torah portion in his synagogue. One year, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was out of town for the Shabbat that the section of Ki Tavo is read. In the Rebbe's absence, another person did the reading.

Ki Tavo contains the Rebuke, a harsh description of the calamities destined to befall the Jewish people should they forsake the commandments of the Torah. That week, Rabbi DovBer (son and successor of Rabbi Schneur Zalman), a pre-bar-mitzvah child at the time, was so greatly affected by the curses of the Rebuke that he developed a heart ailment. Three weeks later, when Yom Kippur came round, he was still so week that his father was hesitant to allow him to fast.

When the young DovBer was asked, "don't you hear the Rebuke every year?", he replied: "When father reads, one does not hear curses."

KI TEITZEI: The Woman Of Beautiful Form

August 24, 2009 5:25 PM

Joel Cohen's Question:

So the Taliban or the Mujahadein or the Khmer Rouge go to war against their respective enemy.

War is hell, despite their perception that G‑d is on their side. Still, the soldiers have lustful desires—they are men, after all. One soldier encounters a woman of the enemy, a civilian, but too tempting to resist (a "yifat toar"). He is smitten with love for her—not some cheap, tawdry, sexual thing. He would marry her. Although she despises him and his people, she doesn't get to vote. He takes her home to be his wife after combat. He has her head shaven, he lets her nails grow, he has her remove the garments of her captivity, and he gives her one month to mourn her parents' death at war or separation from her. If he still wants her, he marries her. If he doesn't, he simply ships her back home. Still no vote for her. Pretty raw, huh?

Nonetheless, we don't need to consider the examples of the Taliban, the Mudjahadein or the Khmer Rouge, assuming that is their way, to encounter this code of conduct (and accepting that their conduct may indeed be even worse). All we need to do is look to the Torah. Because, gentlemen, as you well know, this conduct is precisely what the Torah authorized for "When you go out to war against your enemies." For after G‑d delivers the enemy into the hands of the Children of Israel and "you capture its captivity," the soldiers of Israel were accorded the right to proceed precisely the way described.

How can this be?

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Joel, it is interesting that you have focused on this point. The Torah here is concentrating on the realities of human nature, and attempting to counter the yetzer hara (evil inclination). For if there was no (halachic) legal process for the union between the soldier and the captive woman to be actualized, the soldier would probably take her illicitly, and not treat her with the respect that needs to be accorded to a fellow person, as is all too common in war throughout the generations to present day. Therefore the Torah allows that he take her as a wife.

It is for this reason that the Torah insists that she must shave her head and grow her nails. This is on order to allow her to make herself unattractive to this soldier, so that he should lose interest and send her free, or express his true love for her by committing to marry her. Unlike what was done in other all-too-recent societies, the Torah instructs that this women must be accorded all the honors of a wife. "And it will be, if you do not desire her, then you shall send her away wherever she wishes, but you shall not sell her for money. You shall not keep her as a servant, because you have afflicted her."

Nevertheless, as the Sages point out, the Torah does not view this positively, and if the soldier marries her, he will ultimately come to despise her, as it says after this, "If a man has two wives—one beloved and the other despised..." (verse 15). Moreover, he will ultimately father through her a wayward and rebellious son (see verse 18). For this reason, these three laws are juxtaposed.

To conclude though, there is a deep mystical insight in this law as well. The Ohr Hachaim (Rabbi Chaim Attar, 17th-18th century) writes that sometimes a most holy soul is imprisoned in the depths of the kelipot (the "husks" which conceal G‑dliness in our world). Thus it comes to pass that the Jewish soldier is attracted to a captive woman, because his soul recognizes the "beauty" imprisoned within her. (This is why the Torah refers to her as a "beautiful woman," even though – as the Sifri derives from the verse – the same law applies if one is attracted to a physically ugly woman.) Hence the Torah provides the procedure by which she is to be cleansed of the impurity of the kelipot and "brought into your house"—included in the holy community of Israel...

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, your question this week was asked by the rabbis over two thousands years ago. They explain that the law of the captive woman was included in the Torah "as a response to the yetzer hara. This means, according to the rabbis, that if the Torah did not allow for the taking of the beautiful woman in battle, the Jewish soldiers would have done it anyway.

This idea that the Torah recognizes the frailty of people and responds to it is a profound notion in rabbinic Judaism and allows us to realize that the rabbis did not live in an ivory castle.

However, the rabbis do not conclude their comments on this episode with this comment. They continue to explain the juxtaposition of this law with the laws of two wives and the wayward son as follows, "However, if he marries her he will come to hate her and they will have a wayward son." Here the rabbis remind us that while the Torah recognizes the frailty of people, it nevertheless reminds us of the risks of succumbing to this frailty.

The Torah at the beginning of this week's reading offers an insight into the rabbinic view of the nature of people through its insights into this ancient law.

RE'EH: The Jewish "Slave"

August 12, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

Yes, gentlemen, I know the party line: Even though the institution of the eved ivri (a Hebrew slave) would not be tolerable in today's society, "it really wasn't so bad" in Biblical times. After all, Hebrew slaves were neither beaten nor mistreated and, in fact, they were free – even required – to leave that status after six years. Some actually didn't want to leave—it was "so good" for them. (Remember, though, some Negro slaves during American slavery didn't want to leave their masters either). And, I know that we often label the eved as a "bondman" in polite conversation, lest the concept of master/servant be "misinterpreted."

Even, though – if accurate – the eved occupied that status because (1) he volunteered himself into it because of his financial situation, or (2) he was ordered into it by a court to pay off his debt for having stolen (presumably from the "master"), why does G‑d's Law tolerate – even direct – such a status? If, as the Torah say, the eved "must" be released after six years because we, too, were slaves in Egypt, why should any Hebrew occupy the status of anything remotely slave-like for any period of time?

If someone needs to repair his financial condition, employ him! If someone needs to make restitution to his victim, order him to do intense work to regain the money needed to make full repayment (when, if imposed, his term of incarceration is completed).

Why does G‑d want to take us back to Egypt?

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Joel, you depict the eved as one sold as punishment for stealing; humiliated by the prospect of facing the one he stole from for the next six years.

But let's truthfully analyze the facts before discrediting the "bondsman" translation, which I, too, humbly feel doesn't do justice to the concept.

The eved is not sold as a punishment for stealing. If he has the money to make restitution, he is more than welcome to pay back the victim of his crime, and walk away scot-free!

(Incidentally, in certain circumstances, the Torah – which does not condone incarceration as a punitive measure – levies upon a thief a fine, requiring that he pay back double the amount of his theft. Nevertheless, the thief can only be forced to become an eved if he is incapable of paying back the principle. He can not be sold for failure to pay the fine.)

If the thief has no cash, in a society where one can't just declare bankruptcy and walk away from his responsibilities, he is in effect compelled to hire himself on a long term contract, to provide him with a lump sum of money to pay back his creditor. He is hired out to anyone who would like his services, with no connection to the person from whom he stole.

He is then treated like any other hired worker, and is provided room and board. Jewish law is very clear about the fact that he is not considered the property of his "master." (This idea has many, many halachic implications, chiefly among them his total right to personal property.) At any point during his contract, he, or his family or friends, can pay off the rest of the contract, and he can walk away from the deal, with no penalties incurred. It's actually a pretty good deal.

The same is true regarding the person who of his own volition decides to become an eved.

Now, the term slave conjures horrible images of unfairness and maltreatment, and rightfully so. In light of the above, therefore, to translate eved as a slave would totally misconstrue the reality.

Bondsman (translated by dictionary.com as "1. a person who serves in bondage; slave. 2. a person bound to service without wages.") doesn't really do it for me either. I believe that "indentured laborer" is the most accurate description of the eved.

And nevertheless the Torah tells us: "For the Children of Israel are My servants; they are My servants, who I have taken out of the land of Egypt: they cannot be sold..." And the Torah looks askance at the eved arrangement—as the Sages derive from this verse: "They are My servants, and should not be servants of [My] servants."

Because only one who can not be instructed by another in any matter of his life can be free to serve G‑d in the truest sense.

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, in this case, I believe that the Torah forces us to imagine ourselves in the place of these Jews as they stood on the edge of the Land of Israel. They were, by then, a generation that had not experienced the slavery in Egypt directly but had only heard about it from their parents. How was Moses to instruct this generation as they prepared to enter the land without him as their leader?

As in many other instances in Deuteronomy, Moses recognizes the weaknesses of the people and speaks to those weaknesses. The fact that Moses connects the role of the eved ivri with the slavery of the Jews in Egypt identifies a major concern that Moses expresses—will the Jews, as rulers in their own land, turn into the Egyptians oppressing and mistreating those who are less fortunate? As strange as it might sound, the psychology of slaves is to take out their feelings of insecurity by oppressing other people.

Now, Moses, or G‑d earlier in the Torah, could have forbade slavery and that would have been the end of the story. But instead Moses tells the people that they can have slaves but the very existence of slaves should remind them of their slavery in Egypt. This reminder which plays a role in Shabbat, Passover and so many other places in the Torah guarantees that the Jews will never exhibit the ingratitude of their parents. Ironically, having slaves and treating them fairly makes this point more clearly than not having slaves at all.

As always, it is fascinating to learn Deuteronomy and to appreciate the complicated relationship between Moses and the Jewish people on these last few days of his life.

EIKEV: The Carved Images of Their Gods

August 2, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

When, in March 2001, Mullah Mohammed Omar of the Taliban directed the dynamiting of the Buddha statues carved into the mountain-faces of Bayman, Afghanistan, the world was aghast—perhaps even the observant Jewish world. Even accepting the Taliban's supposed "justification" that there was no longer a Buddhist population in Afghanistan, the Mullah's claim that they were "idolatrous" fell on the world's deaf ears. Seemingly rightly so. How could it, indeed, be a justification—did the Taliban, did Islam, not have sufficient faith in the Muslims' belief in Allah to allow such a seemingly barbaric act?

But yet, G‑d directed the Israelites to do precisely the same thing. Explaining that the Israelites would conquer the nations little by little, G‑d ordered that when they did conquer them, the carved images of their idols should be burnt in fire—"lest you be ensnared by" an abomination. Presumably Sharia law sees it exactly the same way.

We moderns are exceedingly disturbed by the narrow-mindedness (or worse) of what the Taliban insists on. But at the same time we seem at ease with what Moses was directed to do by G‑d Himself, not simply some latter-day decisor of G‑d's Law.

Is this the only way G‑d could deal with the difficult problem of the Israelites' temptation by idolatry?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

The Book of Deuteronomy contains certain points of emphasis. One of these points is G‑d's command to the people of Israel to destroy all of the idols that they find in the Land of Israel upon entering and conquering it.

It is often difficult for people living in the twenty-first century to appreciate the risks of idols as they do not constitute our primary, or even secondary, temptation any more. Actually, the Talmud writes that the temptation of idolatry no longer exists (unlike the temptation posed by illicit sexual acts, which remains very much alive and vibrant).

If we accept the premise that people in the ancient world were easily enticed to worship idols, G‑d's command to destroy the idols makes perfect sense. You raised the question about whether or not G‑d should trust the Jews as they enter the Land of Israel. What in the story of the forty-year journey in the desert would give G‑d confidence in the Jew's ability to withstand the temptation of idolatry? They worshipped the golden calf, they were enticed by the people of Midian and they questioned G‑d's power at almost every turn. G‑d was bringing the people into the land and empowering them to create their own society without constant divine intervention that they had gotten used to in the desert. In order to improve the chances of success, G‑d needed to remove a major impediment, the idols of the nations.

With their entry in to the Land of Israel, they needed to remove all idols. Only then did they have a fighting chance to create a society committed to G‑d and His Torah.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Imagine this:

Deep in the South of the USA there is a large statue depicting a white plantation owner mercilessly beating his slave. This magnificent statue has stood for more than two hundred years.

Should we destroy it?

What about the statue of Saddam that the Iraqis destroyed seven years ago? Do you condemn those who gleefully pulled it down?

If something is offensive to the point of disgust, why should it not be destroyed?

A statue of a Buddha is a slap in the face of G‑d—according to Islam, and Judaism, too. So I can not pass judgment on the Muslim who felt the need to destroy it.

I would suggest that those who have problems with the destruction of idols, it is due to the fact that they do not appreciate how offensive they are to a monotheist.

As for the Torah's directive to destroy the idols:

The Jewish nation was to be the new owners of the Land and all that was in it. An idol is not a nice harmless souvenir. It is a spit in G‑d's face, the G‑d who lovingly took them out of Egypt, gave them His precious Torah, fought their wars, etc.

Is it mentchlich to leave them around?

Taking this a step further, all would agree that a "harmless" idol has no place in a synagogue, a place of holy worship. The Holy Land, which the Torah refers to as "a land that the L-rd, your G‑d, looks after; the eyes of L-rd your G‑d are always upon it," is, in effect, the "synagogue of the world." An idol can not be allowed within its borders.

Each week, Joel Cohen poses questions on the weekly Parshah (Torah reading). These questions are addressed by Rabbis Adam Mintz and Eli Popack.

About the Participants:
Joel Cohen, a former federal and state prosecutor, practices criminal defense law at a prominent NYC law firm, and is an Adjunct Professor of Professional Responsibility at Fordham Law School. He also authors a column at the New York Law Journal.

Rabbi Adam Mintz has served as a pulpit rabbi for over twenty years. He is an adjunct professor in Jewish History at Queens College, and lectures widely on a variety of topics. His weekly streaming video, “This Week in Jewish History,” is featured at rayimahuvim.org. Rabbi Mintz has recently published Jewish Spirituality and Divine Law (Ktav, 2005).

Rabbi Eli Popack grew up in South Africa, and is the founder and president of Map International, a socially responsible business engaged in Electronic Financial Infrastructure in Africa. In the summer he serves as spiritual guide to the Beach Minyan in Westhampton Beach, NY.