While human beings have acquired the ability to launch rockets and people into space and explore the heavens, Deuteronomy in Parashat Nitzavim tells us that Torah–the totality of our received tradition from God–is “lo bashamayim hi,” “it is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). This phrase has been understood that the Torah is not an esoteric document. It is meant for human beings in this world to explore, interpret and reinterpret. This verse plays a central role in one of the most famous passages in the Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b, in which Rabbi Eliezer is in a dispute with Rabbi Joshua and the majority of sages. Rabbi Eliezer performs miracles and even has a divine voice from the heavens call out that the law is in accordance with him. Rabbi Joshua, however, says “Lo bashamayim hi,” “[The Torah] is not in heaven.” God laughs in response and says, “My children have defeated me.” The Torah is meant to be studied and reinterpreted in each generation.
The Ice Bucket Challenge is so “last year!” Get into the 5775 groove and take the #TTShofar Challenge!
Parashat Ki-Tavo opens with the passage describing the Bikkurim/First fruits offering. The Talmud describes this offering as the centerpiece of Shavuot, the second of the major festivals. One can picture a humble farmer bringing precious first fruits to the Temple for this thanksgiving offering. The Torah provides a specific liturgical text to be said upon presenting this gift to the kohen/priest. The text notes the humble origins of the Israelites, their plight in Egypt as slaves, their miraculous freedom and their return to the Land of Israel. While this text was originally associated with this ritual on Shavuot, after the destruction of the Temple and the end of sacrifices, the rabbis re-appropriated this text as a central passage in the Passover Seder. The cornucopia of fruit on this week’s tie represents the gift of first fruits.
Parashat Ki Tetze, ends with the mitzvah of Zakhor: Zakhor et asher asah lekha Amalek: 17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19 Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
This Shabbat we remember Steven Sotloff, z”l. An American journalist from Miami, he was also Jewish. In 2008 he made aliyah and held dual American and Israeli citizenship. As a journalist, he was committed to uncovering the truth, even if it meant putting himself in great danger. While on assignment in Syria last year, he was kidnapped by the Islamic State. When another American journalist, James Foley, of blessed memory, was brutally murdered and beheaded by ISIS, the terrorists announced that Sotloff was next. Despite an emotional appeal by his mother, Sotloff was brutally executed and beheaded this week. Our nation mourns. Within our shock and outrage, we ask how it is that these ISIS terrorists can imagine the brutality that they have committed.
Within our tradition, the rabbis ask the same question about Amalek. In the Midrash, the rabbis ask what was Amalek’s motive? After all, following the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites showed the world they had God on their side. What could a nation hope to gain by attacking Israel?
The Midrash uses the analogy of a boiling hot bath. The first person that jumps in gets badly burned – but cools the bath off considerably, making it easier for the next person to jump in. Amalek so badly wanted the Israelites destroyed, that they were willing to attack Israel even after having witnessed how God’s powerful hand had protected them. Amalek was defeated, as the Torah tells us, but their gutsy, almost suicidal, attack on the Jews did a lot to alter the prevalent thinking of the time that the Jews and their God were invincible.
The world has a bad habit of standing by watching terrorists brutalize innocent civilians. The world has been particularly tolerant of Hamas terrorists who threaten the lives of millions of Israelis with rockets and tunnels and then put their own children in harm’s way as defensive shields when Israel retaliates against the rocket fire. When the democratic nation of Israel defends her citizens from terrorism, Israel is reviled throughout the world and accused of war crimes. What many around the world fail to understand is that if terrorism fueled by Islamic fundamentalism is allowed to exist in Israel, it will spread to the rest of the civilized world. As Prime Minister Netanyahu says, if Israel is forced to tolerate terror, it will come soon to a theater near you. Tragically, that is what we are witnessing with ISIS. President Obama called ISIS a cancer that must be stopped before it spreads even more. It’s an apt metaphor; however, we must recognize both the source of the cancer and prior failures to fight it.
James Foley and Steven Sotloff are hardly the first Americans to fall victims to the diabolical terror of Islamic fundamentalism. This week, we mark the 13th anniversary of 9/11 when 3,000 people died on our soil. The mitzvah of Zakhor extends beyond words and tributes to those who perished at the hands of terrorists. Zakhor requires further action.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I believe our nation failed to seize the moment to challenge Americans to make our society better and more respected in the world. The mitzvah of remembering Amalek caps a parasha with more mitzvoth than any other parasha: fair weights and measures in business, safe building practices in home construction, and protection of the weaker members of society. It’s as if a message of our parasha is that the best antidote to evil is a society that lives by laws and high moral principles. When there is a breakdown of that structure, Amalek is invited to enter.
In the midst of self-reflection of how we in Western civilization have allowed terrorism to spread, there’s another angle to explore. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, wrote three years ago how Osama bin Laden thought he could get away with it. The same question applies today to ISIS and their genocidal rampage. Rav Sacks writes that bin Laden thought he could get away with it because he saw the West in decline.
Sacks writes about the moral decline of our society and the diminishing commitment to communal values throughout the West. He writes: “Whenever Me takes precedence over We, and pleasure today over viability tomorrow, a society is in trouble. If so, then the enemy is not radical Islam, it is us and our by now unsustainable self-indulgence.
The West has expended much energy and courage fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq abroad and defeating terror at home. It has spent far less, if any, in renewing its own morality and the institutions — families, communities, ethical codes, standards in public life — where it is created and sustained. But if I am right, this is the West’s greatest weakness in the eyes of its enemies as well as its friends.”
ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas and other radical groups scoff at our values in which preservation of life reigns supreme. Like Amalek generations ago, they willingly jump into a hot bath to show the world that beheadings can be done. Our leaders must have the moral gumption to fight this tyranny and stop it. Moreover, we as citizens must continue to build a society rooted in the highest values of human dignity.
Rav Sacks’ words about 9/11 ring true today. He writes:
“The only way to save the world is to begin with ourselves. Our burden after 9/11 is to renew the moral disciplines of freedom. Some say it can’t be done. They are wrong: it can and must. Surely we owe the dead no less.”
May we be inspired by Parashat Ki Tetze to create a just society that prevents Amalek from rearing its ugly head. That will be the best way we can honor Steven Sotloff’s memory, may his memory be for a blessing.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki-Tetze, begins and ends with accounts of war. The midrash interprets the various laws of the opening section (Deuteronomy 21: 10-21) as a narrative thread underscoring the ravages of war. A soldier in the heat of battle covets a female prisoner and, under the power of lust, marries her (vv. 10-14); in the end, he will lose feelings of affection for her and for the children he fathers with her (15-17), and those children will grow up disrespectful (vv. 18-21) of their parents.
The very end of the portion (25: 17-19) recounts the Amelekites’ surprise attack on the Israelites in which they preyed upon the most vulnerable. We have the paradoxical instructions both to “Remember!” and to “blot out the memory of Amalek.” Rashi notes that immediately prior to this section we have the commandment to keep fair weights and measures. He says that the juxtaposition of these texts shows that when we are lax in business ethics, we open ourselves up to communal disaster in which the weakest members of the community will pay the steepest price. Indeed, all of the laws in Ki-Tetze underscore what Rabbi Harold Kushner calls “the irreducible dignity and worth of a human being.” Without this societal norm, we are vulnerable to the scourge of war.
“Justice, justice you shall pursue.” This is the clarion call of Parashat Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16: 20). It is in the context of Moses instructing the Israelites to create the institutional infrastructure for a just society. The scales of justice on my tie evoke this central and eternal Jewish quest for justice.