A long drama had taken place. Moses had led the people from slavery to the beginning of the road to freedom. The people themselves had witnessed G-d at Mount Sinai, the only time in all history when an entire people became the recipients of revelation. Then came the disappearance of Moses for his long sojourn at the top of the mountain, an absence which led to the Israelites’ greatest collective sin, the making of the Golden Calf. Moses returned to the mountain to plead for forgiveness, which was granted.
Framing the epic events of this week’s sedrah are two objects: the two sets of tablets – the first given before, and the second after, the sin of the Golden Calf. Of the first, we read: “The tablets were the work of G-d; the writing was the writing of G-d, engraved on the tablets.”
As soon as we read the opening lines of Terumah we begin the massive shift from the intense drama of the exodus with its signs and wonders and epic events, to the long, detailed narrative of how the Israelites constructed the Mishkan.
Wherever the term “and these” is used, it signals continuity. Just as the commands in Parshat Yitro were given at Sinai, so too were the commands in Parshat Mishpatim. Why are the civil laws in the beginning of Parshat Mishpatim placed in juxtaposition to the laws concerning the altar at the end of Parshat Yitro? To tell you to place the Sanhedrin near to the Temple.
The revelation at Mount Sinai – the central episode not only of parshat Yitro, but of Judaism as a whole – was unique in the religious history of mankind.
The Song at the Sea was one of the great epiphanies of history. The sages said that even the humblest of Jews saw at that moment what even the greatest of prophets didn’t. For the first time they broke into collective song – a song we recite every day.
Throughout all Egypt the dust turned into lice. But when the magicians tried to produce lice by their secret arts, they could not. The lice attacked men and animals alike. The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of G-d.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen.
The sedra of Shemot, in a series of finely etched vignettes, paints a portrait of the life of Moses, culminating in the moment at which G-d appears to him in the bush that burns without being consumed. It is a key text of the Torah view of leadership, and every detail is significant. I want here to focus on just one passage in the long dialogue in which G-d summons Moses to undertake the mission of leading the Israelites to freedom – a challenge which, no less than four times, Moses declines. I am unworthy, he says. I am not a man of words. Send someone else. It is the second refusal, however, which attracted special attention from the sages and led them to formulate one of their most radical interpretations.
The drama of younger and older brothers, which haunts the book of Bereishit from Cain and Abel onwards, reaches a strange climax in the story of Joseph’s children. Jacob is nearing the end of his life. Joseph visits him, bringing with him his two sons, Manasheh and Ephraim. It is the only scene of grandfather and grandchildren in the book. Jacob asks Joseph to bring them near so that he can bless them. What follows next is described in painstaking detail:
Joseph is now the ruler of Egypt. The famine he predicted has come to pass. It extends beyond Egypt to the land of Canaan. Seeking to buy food, Joseph’s brothers make the journey to Egypt. They arrive at the palace of the man in charge of grain distribution:
The deception has taken place. Joseph has been sold into slavery. His brothers have dipped his coat in blood. They bring it back to their father, saying: “Look what we have found. Do you recognize it? Is this your son’s robe or not?” Jacob recognized it and replied, “It is my son’s robe. A wild beast has devoured him. Joseph has been torn to pieces.”
Jacob and Esau are about to meet again after a separation of 22 years. It is a fraught encounter. Once, Esau had sworn to kill Jacob as revenge for what he saw as the theft of his blessing. Will he do so now, or has time healed the wound? Jacob sends messengers to let his brother know he is coming. They return, saying that Esau is coming to meet Jacob with a force of 400 men. We then read: “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed” (Genesis 32:8).
Rebecca, hitherto infertile, became pregnant. Suffering acute pain, she went to inquire of the Lord – “vateilech lidrosh et Hashem” (Bereishit 25:22). The explanation she received was that she was carrying twins who were contending in her womb. They were destined to do so long into the future.
The call to Abraham, with which Parshat Lech Lecha begins, seems to come from nowhere: “Leave your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house, and go to a land that I will show you.”
Is there such a thing as an objective basis of morality? For some time, in secular circles, the idea has seemed absurd. Morality is what we choose it to be. We are free to do what we like so long as we don’t harm others. Moral judgments are not truths but choices. There is no way of getting from “is” to “ought,” from description to prescription, from facts to values, from science to ethics. This was the received wisdom in philosophy for a century after Nietzsche had argued for the abandonment of morality – which he saw as the product of Judaism – in favor of the “will to power.”
It is the most famous, majestic and influential opening of any book in literature: “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth.” What is surpassingly strange is the way Rashi – most beloved of all Jewish commentators – begins his commentary:
Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement, is the supreme moment of Jewish time, a day of fasting and prayer, introspection and self-judgment. At no other time are we so sharply conscious of standing before God, of being known by Him. But it begins in the strangest of ways.
By now Moses had given 612 commands to the Israelites. But there was one further instruction he still had to give, the last of his life, the final mitzvah in the Torah: “Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be My witness against the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31: 19).
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a kind of clarion call, a summons to the Ten Days of Penitence that culminate in the Day of Atonement. The Torah calls it “the day when the horn is sounded,” and its central event is the sounding of the shofar.
It would be reasonable to assume that a language that contains the verb “to command” must also contain the verb “to obey.” The one implies the other, just as the concept of a question implies the possibility of an answer. We would, however, be wrong. There are 613 commandments in the Torah, but there is no word in biblical Hebrew that means “to obey.” When Hebrew was revived as a language of everyday speech in the nineteenth century, a word, letsayet, had to be borrowed from Aramaic. Until then there was no Hebrew word for “to obey.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness...” (Dr. Martin Luther King).
There is a fascinating detail in the passage about the king in this week’s parshah. The text says that, “When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll before the levitical priests” (Deuteronomy 17:18). He must “read it all the days of his life” so that he will be God-fearing and never break Torah law. But there is also another reason: so that he will “not begin to feel superior to his brethren” (Kaplan translation), “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers” (Robert Alter). The king had to have humility. The highest in the land should not feel that he is the highest in the land.
Having set out the broad principles of the covenant, Moses now turns to the details, which extend over many chapters and several parshiyot. The long review of the laws that will govern Israel in its land begin and end with Moses posing a momentous choice.
Something implicit in the Torah from the very beginning becomes explicit in the book of Devarim. God is the God of love. More than we love Him, He loves us. Here, for instance, is the beginning of this week’s parshah: “If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love [et ha-brit ve-et ha-chessed] with you, as he swore to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers” (Deuteronomy 7:12-13).
Near the end of Parshas Va’etchanan, so inconspicuously that we can sometimes miss it, is a statement with such far-reaching implications that it challenges the impression that has prevailed thus far in the Torah, giving an entirely new complexion to the biblical image of the people Israel: