Monthly Archives: August 2012

Do the Mitzvot Count Outside of Israel?

A friend of mine once taught me a song some campers and counselors used to sing in Camp Moshava of Ennismore, which has the following line in it:

Everybody make Aliyah;

Mitzvot don’t count in Canada!”

Intuitively, we would say that not only is this opinion incorrect, but that it has no place in Orthodox Judaism. How could mitzvot not count somewhere? Is there a source for this assertion? Furthermore, what exactly do they mean when they say the mitzvot “do not count”?

I came across what i assume is the source for this in a book I’m researching for a paper, which is pretty exciting, since now we should be able to answer all of these questions. Of course, for all I know this could be in 35 midrashei halakha (unlikely as that seems to me), since I’m just not familiar with them. Having the opportunity to look at some now, I highly recommend it to everyone.

Anyway, in piska 43 of Sifre on Dvarim, it explains the following quote from Deut. 11:16-18:


הִשָּֽׁמְר֣וּ לָכֶ֔ם פֶּ֥ן יִפְתֶּ֖ה לְבַבְכֶ֑ם וְסַרְתֶּ֗ם וַעֲבַדְתֶּם֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶ֖ם לָהֶֽם׃ 

וְחָרָ֨ה אַף־יְהוָ֜ה בָּכֶ֗ם וְעָצַ֤ר אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֣ה מָטָ֔ר וְהָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן אֶת־יְבוּלָ֑הּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּ֣ם מְהֵרָ֗ה מֵעַל֙ הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם׃ 

וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־דְּבָרַ֣י אֵ֔לֶּה עַל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וְעַֽל־נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם

16:Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and you turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them:

17:and then the Lord’s anger be inflamed against you, and he shut up the heavens, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not its fruit; and you perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord gives you.

18: And you shall lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul…1

In the Sifre2, the Sages explain that God is saying the following to the Jewish people:

Even though I am about to exile you from the Land (of Israel) to a foreign land, you must continue to be marked there by the commandments, so that when you return they will not be new to you.”

So basically, according to this source, for someone who lives outside of Israel, the mitzvot are just for practice, so that we know what we’re doing when we live in Israel again.

The Sifre continues:

A parable: A king of flesh and blood grew angry with his wife and sent her back to her father’s house, saying to her, “Be sure to continue wearing your jewelry, so that whenever you return, it will not be new to you.” Thus also the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, “My children, you must continue to be marked by the commandments, so that when you return, they will not be new to you.”

Well, I think that pretty much confirms our reading that according to this opinion, we are commanded to perform the mitzvot for practice outside of Israel, which I assume is what campers at Ennismore mean when they say (or sing) mitzvot “don’t count in Canada”. Still, I think saying mitzvot don’t “count” is very misleading, and that is not the intention of the Sages here.

Anyway, the opinion of the Sifre here is also famously quoted by Ramban in his commentary on Levitcus 18:25 and he takes it very seriously, and personally I have come across many people in Israel who take this to be the normative opinion.

However, we should not forget that the Sifre lists another opinion just after this, which goes as follows:

Another interpretation: And ye perish quickly from off the good land (11:17): You will be exiled from the good land to a land that is not like it in goodness. R. Judah says: Good refers to Torah, as it is said, For I give you good doctrine-(In the Land of Israel)-forsake ye not my Torah (Prov. 4:2)- outside the Land.

This seems to imply that God is commanding us to keep the mitzvot even though we have been exiled, and implies no connection to their practice in Israel in the way the first opinion does.

While the first opinion assumes the mitzvot are really supposed to be performed in Israel, so that when we are outside of it they are only performed for practice, the second opinion says the verse is a warning/commandment to remember to keep the mitzvot no matter where we are, because it makes no difference; we are always commanded to keep the mitzvot.

This opinion is the simple understanding of the Mishnah in Kiddushin (36b) that “Any commandment that is not dependent on the Land (of Israel) must be performed outside of the Land, and any of them that is dependent on the Land is not performed except for in the Land.”

The gemara takes R. Judah’s opinion (which we listed earlier) as the normative one, so that mitzvot “(incumbent on) the body” apply anywhere in the world, while commandments that can only be performed in Israel due to their dependence on the Land-such as shmittah- do not. Of course, being that so many of the commandments have to do with the Temple, we should not forget how big this number is.

This seems also to be the opinion in Sifre 59, which appears to be cited by the gemara here as well, and of Sifre 613 as well. So, the mitzvot can be categorized into those that only apply in Israel, and the ones that apply everywhere, including every “Lo Taaseh” (prohibitive commandments), and I think this is also the opinion of the Talmud in Sotah 14A, where we are told Moses wanted to enter Israel so that he could practice the mitzvot specific to it.

Keep in mind, if the opinion that mitzvot are just for practice outside of Israel is correct, it seems likely that the entire first generation of Jews given the mitzvot practiced for nothing, or only so that their children would be familiar with the mitzvot when they would go into Israel 40 years later. This interpretation does not seem to be the simple reading of the giving of the Torah to me, but I’m not qualified to make that call.

Going further, my wife pointed out an even stronger question on this opinion to me: If the mitzvot are performed for practice outside of Israel, then we should practice all of the mitzvot- including those that pertain to the land- so that we are familiar with them.

Since we see that only mitzvot “of the body” are performed outside of Israel, while no practice is required for those of the land, we see the halakha presumes that mitzvot are actually commanded upon us no matter where we are, and some only apply to the Land of Israel.

Anyway, it seems from the sources we have just listed that the mitzvot do “count” in Canada, the U.S., etc. This being the case, the song should be edited a bit. Since it encourages children to make aliyah, I will try and leave the spirit of the song intact.

The new lyrics will say “Everybody make aliyah; Mitzvot still count in Canada!”. This will imply that it is a mitzva to make aliyah no matter where you live, which I think the Moshava people will approve of. This is of course despite the fact that Rambam famously does not codify living in Israel as a commandment.

I feel we have righted the wrongs of this song, and I can get back to my paper now.

Shabbat Shalom!

1Tanslation from the Koren Jerusalem Bible.

2I’ve taken the translation from the Yale Judaica Series, Volume XXIV, “Sifre on Deuteronomy”, which is translated, introduced, and annotated with notes by Reuven Hammer. (Yale University Press 1986)

3Both on parshat Re’eh, entitled “These are the laws” and “You should shatter” respectively.


Filed under Miscellaneous

Is It Possible to Keep the Mitzvot Without Believing?

With all the talk about “Orthopraxy” lately, I thought I’d just add something interesting I found. For those of you who don’t know, ‘orthodoxy’ refers to believing as everyone else does, in our case the Orthodox Jewish beliefs, and ‘orthopraxy’ refers to acting as everyone else does, which in our case refers to keeping the mitzvot. Orthoprax people have their own reasons for keeping the mitzvot, but oftentimes they do not actually believe in what they are doing.

I found a letter in “I Wanted to Ask You Prof. Leibowitz: Letters to and from Yeshayahu Leibowitz” where he addresses this exact issue, so I thought I would post a translated version of the exchange. The translation will be my own, and I apologize for any errorsi. I also want to note that Leibowitz is not considered a mainstream Orthodox Jewish thinker, which may become obvious from this letter. None the less, I think the exchange is very interesting and worth looking at.


To the honorable Prof’ R’ Yeshayahu Leibowitz,

The revered and distinguished!                                                                                     9 Shvat 5750

For quite some time a question has raged in me in regards to matters of faith that I don’t have an answer to, and although I know that his honor is extraordinarily busy from many things that he deals with, and at his ageii, and that he’s also endlessly busy with people like me who turn to him for some guidance, I haven’t found anyone else who can answer me except for him and I ask forgiveness for the niusance.

My question- it’s a personal one. And I would be very happyiii to receive a personal answer. The environment I grew up and lived in my entire life, the Jezreel Valley, I see where its educational style has led to: the second and third generations of us are already completely cut off from anything that minimally has to do with Judaism- anyone who isn’t in this environment will have a hard time believing how much, it is my feeling, that only the ways of our grandfathers and their forebears will preserve the future of the Jewish peopleiv and not necessarily the Jewish state, etc. But it’s hard for me to believe in Reward and Punishment and (I don’t believe at all)v in the World to Come. For example, I’m convinced that a Mezuza must be on every door in a Jewish home, but I can’t believe in the charms that it brings with it, or God forbid, that terrible things happen in the case where there is not one.

I accept upon myself the obligation to keep the Mitzvot and the prohibitions for the sake of preserving Judaism…in the same way that I have to pay income tax, for example, but how can I convince others, some of whom claim “why all the seclusion and the troubles when there’s no reward for it in this world or the next?” and some of them don’t even know what’s been lost and where the future generations will end up?! And there are some who hold onto the smaller beliefs while they belittle Shabbat and Yom Kippur and every other holy thing, and they think what kind of way is this for a man to choose in our time and place (ie:to keep the mitzvot)? I’ll be boundlessly grateful if his honor would set aside some time for me, the small one, from his time and give me an answer or some guidance for my doubts or direct me to an answer written somewhere that I haven’t found yet.

With wishes for long days and years for his honor and with thanks,




To S’ Shalom U’Brakha

16 Shvat 5750, 11.2.1990

I really valued your letter, which completely reflected the honesty with which you’re thinking about the matter of faith, and the way to faith and observing the commandments. I’m including for you a paper I wrote that deals with this great issue, and possibly you’ll find something of value in it.

I want to note a few things on the main points of your letter. The Torah- in which faith and mitzvot are fastened one to the other- is not a means for the preserving of (the nation of) Israel. For the faithful- one who accepts the yoke of the mitzvot- it is the goal itself and not an aid to something, and the goal the service of God: The acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. From the perspective of religious faith, we should not see religion as a helpful-means to human interests, nor to the national interests of the nation of Israel. Religion as fulfillment of needs and interests has no value at all.

The Mezuza is a commandment from the mitzvot of the Torah, and the Mezuza on the door of a house testifies that the people who live in it recognize the meaning of performing the mitzvot. One who sees the Mezuza as a means for defense of a house and on its inhabitents belittles religion and has been ensnared in idolatry, which is completely rejected from the perspective of faith in God and His Torah. Faith in God is not dependent on the belief in reward and punishment, and a truly faithful person recognizes that faith itself is the reward.

As to the World to Come- I refer you to Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, which give expression to the highest form of religious consciousness, the consciousness that is highest on Musaf of Rosh HaShana and the Neila prayer on Yom Kippur- And Behold, there is no mention or hint of the World to Come! Yom Kippur does not deal with matters that pertain to after death, but instead proposes a question: Are you, the man who lives in Olam HaZe (this world), aware of your position before God in your life, and why this status obligates you in your life?

The acceptance of the yoke of heaven and the yoke of the Torah and Mitzvot is the great moral decision for man, and it cannot be rationalized by outside rationales. And know, that this is the rule for any decision in regards to values. If a man will ask: Why should I be fair and upstanding, when I can be despicable and benefit from it?- There is no answer for this other than the proposition that fairness is a value in it of itself. If a man will ask: Why should I cling to my people and its land, if by leaving Israel I can improve my situation?- There too, there is no other answer other than to propose that clinging to the nation and the land is a value, for which a price must be paid. And so there are those who see the yoke of heaven and the yoke of the Torah and the Mitzvot as the highest value, even if it is a yoke and not a promise of wellbeing.

With Sincere Wishes,

Yeshayahu Leibowitz


iThe letter to Dr. Leibowitz is very fluidly written in Hebrew, so translating it was very difficult. I added some punctuation to make it readable in English, and as you can see, I skipped a couple of points that I thought might prove distracting due to the particular style of the writer. I hope that doesn’t take anything away from it. The original can be found on page 119 of the book, which is published by Keter Publishing House Ltd., 1999

ii“Begilo”.I think this is the correct translation, but it doesn’t sit right with me.

iii“esmach”. I think the connotation is “very happy” but that is not literal.

ivAdat Yisrael

v“velo”. It was hard to translate this. Leibowitz undertands the writer to be saying what I presented, so that’ how I wrote it, but it could be interpreted that the author has trouble believing in reward and punishment but then not believing in the world to come.


Filed under Miscellaneous, Rationalism

“We Follow Our Rabbis Until It’s Inconvenient, Right?”

“We Follow Our Rabbis Until It’s Inconvenient, Right?”

Boy have I heard that (rhetorical) question a million times. This is usually how it goes.

Person A advocates a lenient position in Halakha, which some or many Rabbis disagree with.

Person B responds by asking a rhetorical question: “We follow our rabbis until it’s inconvenient, right?”.

With this little question, the responder implies that the aforementioned leniency was suggested out of a lack of commitment to Judaism. “Judaism is hard”, Person B tells us, “and you’re not trying hard enough”.

Let’s talk about this question for a moment, and examine whether or not it’s actually a good question that should be taken seriously. We’ll do this by looking at the implications of the statement.

1)“We follow our rabbis”: Now Orthodoxy is predicated on following Jewish law as set down in the Talmud, and interpreted and passed on through the generations. So there are many rabbis from over the generations who will be “our rabbis” to both sides in the aforementioned argument. However, not all rabbis are followed by everyone.

With this in mind, make sure that when a person starts telling you about who your rabbis are that you’re talking about the same people. Otherwise, the statement is already meaningless. For example, if somebody tells a Modern Orthodox person about the Satmar Rebbe’s view’s on Zionism, they are no longer dealing with shared leaders. Another example of this might be when a little girl asked my wife “why are you wearing red if you’re Jewish?”. Presumably, my wife and I do not have the same rabbis as that little girl and her family.

2) “Until it’s inconvenient”: This statement implies that halakha doesn’t take seriously when a person is inconvenienced. While I’m not an expert, I do know enough to say that’s not true. That’s why the Talmud discusses the concept of “istinus” (a particularly sensitive person) numerous times, why we are told God is sensitive to the economic needs of the Jewish people, why Hillel made the Pruzbol, why there is the concept of ‘tirkha d’tzibura’ (inconvenience to the congregation) and many other laws.

This is not to say that “inconvenience” is a valid reason to not follow halakha. But everyone should know that rabbis do care about what’s convenient for their followers, or at least that they should.

3)This statement shifts the conversation away from the actual content being discussed. Instead of saying “your statement is factually incorrect”, or any other statement that actually has substance to it, this statement is a personal attack on the commitment of another person. However, the personal commitment of the person advocating a lenient position is not what is up for discussion, so much as whether or not their statement is correct.

Being that oftentimes (or perhaps usually) the commitment of Person A, who advocates s a lenient position, is no less strong than anyone else’s, this actually turns into an unfair and often vicious accusation, which hurts the reputation of another person or a group of people.

How many halakhot are violated when someone tells you that “We follow our rabbis until it’s inconvenient, right?”?

A whole bunch.

So don’t imply you have the same poskim if you don’t, don’t imply that halakha does not take into account the condition of the Jewish people, and don’t attack people personally in what is at best a distraction.

I admit, you may encounter a person who actually argues that we should not follow halakha when it becomes inconvenient. At that time the statement we have just discussed (hopefully for the last time ever) will become perfectly relevant, if perhaps too sarcastic and rude. In that case, rephrase it as a polite question, and go for it.


Filed under Miscellaneous

What’s So Bad About Sports?


With the Olympics and Siyum HaShas coinciding, it is not surprising that so many people have started to compare and contrast the values that stand behind these events.

Anu Ratzim, V’hem Ratzim”…We run to the service of God, while they run to play around and worship their bodies.

Forgetting for a moment how every person I have seen point this out seems rude, are they correct?

While the Siyum HaShas represented learning God’s Torah, engaging in Mitzvot, and the best that we can do to live up to our religious ideals, what does the Olympics stand for?

Sports? Showing off? Nothing important, to say the least.

However, this perspective entirely ignores the many positive things about sports, and I would like to look at a few of them here.

  1. Sports can help us celebrate the gifts God has given man, so that we may better appreciate Him, and serve Him better. Who told you sports has to be about showing off? In the same way that running to shul or the beit midrash is a good thing, so too is running to show everyone how amazing the human body is, if it helps us serve God better. 

    Actually, the Sages tell us that being made in the “image of God” includes our bodies, and this is the simple explanation of many psukim. Why would we assume it’s bad to celebrate the achievements of the human body? 

  2. Sports provide an opportunity to exercise in an enjoyable way, and the benefits of this are self explanatory in my opinion. We need to be healthy to use the lives that God gave us, so why are looking down on people who take care of themselves? 

    Additionally, people who get fat learning Torah don’t make learning Torah look good, and this takes away from the prestige of the service of God. Those who emphasize that learning is important should also emphasize that health is important. 

  3. The Olympics symbolizes man coming together and meeting in peace, again, in the image of God. I’m not defending everything about the Olympics, and especially this one, but that’s not relevant to my point here. We should celebrate the value of camaraderie, and support representatives from countries worldwide while they show us how to treat others with respect.

I wanted to touch on some other benefits we can get from sports which will help us serve God better (eg. learning about leadership and cooperation), but I’ve forgotten about most of them, and my underlying point is a short one anyway.

Let’s just ask ourselves: Does this help us serve God better?

If yes, great, then the Olympics are good. If not, well then, perhaps we should abstain.

Sports and the Olympics will always be what we make of them, just as eating to have energy to greet the day is different than eating out of gluttony. Our actions are not “good” or “bad” inherently, and will be defined by whether or not we are guided by the principles of our Torah when we act.

This is the rule for everything we do, including watching the Olympics.


Filed under Miscellaneous, Rationalism

‘He is Charedi’: A Short Response to Rabbi Rosenblatt

I am charedi. I was born in Brooklyn, went to mainstream charedi elementary and high schools, spent two years in Mir Yerushalayim and attended Kollel at Beth Medrash Gevoha in Lakewood, New Jersey. I wear a black hat on Shabbos and dark pants and a white shirt much of the week. My yarmulke is large, black and velvet and being a frum and inspired Jew is my most basic self-definition, on par with being human and being male.

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This morning I glanced at Cross-Currents  (while avoiding my studying) and saw an interesting and enjoyable post from Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt, who is the CEO of a meat company, a rabbi at NCSY- Dallas, and a self-identifying Charedi. This last point is a large part of how he sees himself, and he seeks through some short examples to carve out a niche for himself in between those to his right and left on the Orthodox spectrum, which I think he does successfully.

However, there were two things his post left me wondering about.

1)Rabbi Rosenblatt writes that he believes in the “utter supremacy of Torah wisdom to secular knowledge”. What intrigues me about this statement is that it assumes something that is true could be inferior to something else that is true.

 Presumably, Rabbi Rosenblatt assumes our ability to learn and discover information outside of the Torah is God-given, so it is odd that this information should be any better or worse than other information that comes from God.

Perhaps the author could argue that not all of that information brings a person to the service of God, and therefore the Torah, which does, is superior. However, he himself admits that analysis of the physical world may bring one to a “richer appreciation” of God. That sounds like “Torah wisdom” to me. So what causes the “utter superiority of Torah wisdom” to “secular knowledge?

As Maimondies wrote in his “8 Chapters”, (from the Twersky “A Maimonides Reader”) “one should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds”. He similarly states in Laws of the New Moon, chapter 17 that “we need not be concerned with the identity of…authors, whether they were Hebrew prophets, or Gentile sages….we rely on the author who has discovered them only because of his demonstrated proofs and verified reasoning.”

It seems to me that Rambam holds all truth is the same, as long as it leads to ‘avodat HaShem’ (serving God).

2)Rabbi Rosenblatt says that part of being Charedi is the belief that “Torah study is a most worthy pursuit”, as is value to “lionize” great scholars. To me this implies that the Modern Orthodox do not believe these things.

I can only strongly disagree. At least from my own experience, the great majority of the Modern Orthodox would profess that Torah study is a most worthy pursuit, even while refusing to write a cheque for a local Kollel and hoping that their kids end up working as lawyers or doctors. These values and desires do not necessarily contradict each other, as Rabbi Rosenblatt seems to be aware of, since he says he is no longer certain that “Kollel-for-the-masses” is a good idea.

Similarly, many people simply want their children to prosper, and do not believe that Kollel is the proper way to live in a non-utopian society.

At any rate, I did like his post, and it’s always nice to see normal people trying to influence others in that direction. Best of luck Rabbi!

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If Not Now, When?

If I am not for myself, who is? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”-Hillel

This famous quote appears in Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers, 1:14), and while there are many interpretations, I would like to suggest that its meaning is actually a terse parallel to our understanding of Moses’ speech in Va’etchannan(Deut. 4:1-40), where he discusses levels or performing the service of God (

As we said, Moses urges the people of Israel to keep the mitzvot, telling them they must care about their own livesi, that it is better to seek wisdom and praise for itii than to live just for the sake of livingiii, and that even above seeking wisdom is the service of God that is performed out of a loving loyalty, which is called “cleaving”iv

With the goals of Moses in mind, I think we may now see that Hillel’s 3 short questions will each help to bring us to a higher level of Avodat HaShem (Service of God).

If I am not for myself, who is?”: Hillel tells us that we must love ourselves enough to be “for” ourselves, since there is no-one else who would or could do this on our behalf. This is addressed towards those who do not even care for themselves enough to be “for” themselves. While most of us find it obvious that we have to care about our lives, Hillel tells those who don’t understand this that it is the place to start, in a parallel to Moses’ urging to love ourselves as God loves us in Deut. 4:32-40.

Once we begin to care about ourselves and lead our own lives, we may realize that being in control means we are each responsible for the way we act and the direction our lives are going in. This is a parallel to v. 5-31,where Moses urges us to keep the mitzvot out of being “for” ourselves.

And when I am for myself, what am I?”: However, Hillel tells us, having chosen to be responsible for ourselves, we are not to choose to live purely for our own benefit, since what would we be then? Someone who lives and serves God only for his own well-being has brought about the paradoxical situation where his mitzvot are directed towards worshiping himself! This is far from the best life we can choose.

Hillel instructs us that if a person worships herself instead of God, she must ask herself “what am I?” and be unsatisfied by the answer. This will bring her to work towards the goal of serving God out of a loving loyalty, and to “cleave” to Him, as Moses tells us in v.1-4.

And if not now, when?” Of course, once we have decided to strive towards the service of God in a way that is for the very sake of serving Him, it is altogether another thing to actually begin this process, since it is exceedingly difficult. Hillel thus encourages us to begin right away.

In short, Hillel’s questions do not seek answers, since the answer to 1) would be “no-one”, to two we would answer “lowly”, and to three, we would not answer at all, since it is a rhetorical question. Rather, he is a looking for a reaction to each of them, which will hopefully bring us to keeping the mitzvot in the best ways that we can.

iDeuteronomy 4:32-40

iiIbid. v.5-8

iiiIbid. v.9-31

ivIbid. v.1-4

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Filed under Rationalism

Why Does God Tell Moses to Look the Wrong Way?

Yesterday we read Va’etchannan, which begins with Moses’ rejected plea to enter the Land of Israel. While Moses is not allowed to go, God does tell him to “Go up to the top of the Pisga, and lift up thy eyes westward, northward, southward, and eastward, and behold with thy eyes, because you will not cross the Jordan (river)” (Deuteronomy 3:27)

The question (which someone pointed out to me in shul), is why does God tell Moses to look the wrong way? Israel is to the west of where Moses is standing, and even to look north(west) and south(west) may make sense. But why east? That is simply the opposite direction from where Moses should look!

We will suggest 5 answers to this question, but of course this list isn’t exhaustive, and you may find none are acceptable to you.

1) God tells Moses to look in all 4 directions as this is merely an expression for “look everywhere/around”. It does not literally mean he should look east, but rather that he should look as much as he likes. This would appear to be a sort of concession to Moses. God will not let him in, but will let him look.

2) It is an angry expression, meaning “look everywhere”. This is actually not quite the same. In this understanding, God tells Moses “Look as much as you want, but you will not cross the Jordan”. In this reading we understand God to be angry with Moses for asking, as He “was angry, and would not hear me”(v.26). Perhaps according to this reading we may understand that Moses was in fact allowed to look at Israel the entire time, and did not need special permission for this. After all, why would he? Therefore, when he asks to go in, God tells him he may continue to look all he likes, but that’s all he’ll get.

3) Perhaps we might look for a deeper lesson in this strange command to look in the wrong direction. I’ll split this suggestion into two for Mystics and Rationalists.

a) Mystical Interpretation- God tells Moses to look east to teach him about the status of the east. Just as the land of Israel (to the west) is inherently holy, so too the land of Jordan (to his east, which two and half tribes have recently decided to settle in) is inherently holy as well. Thus it is exactly like the rest of Israel.

b) Rationalist Interpretation- God tells Moses to look east to teach him that just as Jordan’s land (eastward) is not used for mitzvot, and is therefore not holy, so too Israel will not be holy if it is not used for the performance of mitzvoti.

4) My wife mentioned to me that she was once taught that God in fact transported Moses to Israel in a vision, and then told him to look around in all four directions. I have not found the source for this, but this obviously would answers our question as well.

To be honest, my immediate reaction to the question was to shrug, and suggest the first answer listed here. The classical commentators (or at least all the ones included in the Torat Chaim Chumash) don’t address this question at all, so I’m inclined to think they agree with me that it’s just an expression.

While this question isn’t the strongest one in history, I think it’s worth looking at because how we answer it tells us a little bit about how we each read Tanakh (Bible), and of course, because of the general value of learning.

Let me know if you can find the source for the last suggestion!

Shavua tov

iThis ties in nicely with the explanation (BT Sotah 14A) that Moshe wanted to enter Israel so that he could perform the mitzvot that are specific to it, which is cited by Abravanel and Chizkuni on 3:25.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Miscellaneous, Parshah, Rationalism

Dvar Torah for Va’etchannan: Instruction and Encouragement

“And O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe…You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it…”(Deut. 4:1-2)

In this week’s parsha, we begin where we left off last week, towards the end of Moses’ historical survey. This leads into his instruction that they must keep the mitzvot. Tying his statements to some of the events he has just described, Moses explains that the Israelites must serve God in a four part sermon.

The first argument Moses offers is that the Israelites should loyally and lovingly cleave to God, as they have just seen their own fates and those of the worshipers of Baal-Peor.

Second, he tells the people they should keep the mitzvot because they are “proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples”, who will praise them for keeping the commandments(v. 5-8).

Following this, Moses tells the Jews to keep the mitzvot “for your own sake” (4:15), because God is a jealous God, and a “consuming fire”(v. 23). To avoid decimation (v.26) the Jews must keep the commandments, and especially make sure to stay away from idolatry, as they were told by Sinai.

Fourth, the Israelites are told that “they have but to inquire” (v.32)about the past, and they will understand that it is imperative to serve the one God of history, who has taken them out of Egypt(v.33-40).

As you may have noticed, Moses ties each of his exhortations to events in reverse chronological order: His fourth statement corresponds to history and the redemption from Egypt, the 3rd(self preservation and avoidance of punishment) arises from Sinai, the 2nd (wisdom and glory from keeping the commandments) is associated with the giving of the specific commandments which followed this, and the first argument (loyalty) is associated with the loyalty and betrayal displayed most recently in the incident of Baal-Peor.

Why did Moses present his sermon in a backwards order? Shouldn’t he have listed them in the other direction?

In order to understand this seemingly backwards presentation, we will explain each of Moses’ statements a little more in depth.

The first argument Moses proposes is that the Israelites should serve God out of selfless and loving loyalty. This is the highest kind of observance, called “cleaving”, and often referred to as “Lishmah”. This is service of God performed for its own sake, and not for the benefit of the servant.

However, it is difficult to serve God “lishmah”, so Moses suggests that those who cannot do so should serve God out of a desire to earn the respect of the nations, who will be impressed by the wisdom of the commandments.

Noting, however, that not everyone desires respect or seeks wisdom, Moses tells the people that for the sake of the their own survival, they must keep the mitzvot. While it seems that the person who performs the mitzvot purely to avoid punishment is acting in a shallow and selfish manner, this is a place all of us are at one time or another, I think, and Moses wants us to perform the mitzvot, even if only for this reason.

Lastly, Moses almost begs the Israelites to merely “ask” questions, so that they might see the God of history commands them, has redeemed them, and they should serve Him.

While before it seems Moses is merely speaking with the people, it seems like he is begging them in his fourth statement, almost like he is trying to shake them to action. I believe this change in style is due to the fact that the members of Israel addressed here are passive, and retain a slave mentality.

Unlike the group of people who will keep the mitzvot in order to survive, this last group does not even care about themselves enough to do this! As slaves they were treated as though they were worthless, and they internalized this message, causing them to not even worry if they live or die.

Moses’ four statements take us from the highest level of service, to the lowest level of being possible. Moses presents the most desired first, in order to emphasize the importance for all to strive for this goal, before continuing down to more selfish reasons for serving God, before addressing those who do not even know enough to care about themselves at all.

Each reference to an event refers to the level the Israelites were at as they traveled from Egypt towards the Holy Land, starting from their low points, and going to their highest.

At first, when they were taken out of Egypt, the people had a slave mentality, and thought themselves to be worthless. No one can live with this attitude, which is a complete rejection of the value of being made in the Image of God. Moses begs the people to notice that God cares about them, has taken care of their ancestors and them, and therefore they should likewise do so.

After the people have learned of their own value, they will naturally begin to care about their own survival. At Sinai the people reached this point, and were treated accordingly.

However, when they received the commandments in more detail, many realized the wisdom in them, and that there is more to life than just being alive! This sense of selfishness can be a difficult state to reach.

Of course, Moses really wants the Jews to serve God for the sake of serving Him, because they cleave to Him with loyalty and love. This is the best possible way to serve God, and this is the level many of the people reached when they abstained from worshiping Baal-Peor.

In order to emphasize the desired nature of this level, Moses presented it first, and continued downward in order of most desired to least. It is now clear that his backwards presentation was intended to emphasize not only what is most desired, but also that he believes the people have progressed through landmark events, and may continue to do so with more time and effort.

Though God recognizes that we may reach incredible low points in our lives, and that we often act in ways that are less than perfect, Moses issues the challenge to work towards the highest level of service described here. We may take his words here to be both instruction and encouragement.

A challenge indeed.

Shabbat Shalom!


Filed under Miscellaneous, Rationalism