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Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Desert in Words: Seeing the Whole Picture and the Torah Portion of Ki Tavoh

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavoh, begins with the description of the offering of the first fruits in the Temple and contains a long series of "curses" if the Jewish people do not follow Hashem's commandments.

In the ritual of bringing the first fruit, there is a fascinating recitation that each individual makes, in which he retells the story of the Jewish people. Its beginning, and particularly the choice of words used, is the subject of much commentary and debate:


5. And you shall call out and say before the Lord, your God, "An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation. 

RASHI - An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather: [The declarer] mentions [here] the kind deeds of the Omnipresent [by stating]: “An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather.” That is, Laban, when he pursued Jacob, sought to uproot [i.e., annihilate] all [the Jews], and since he intended to do so, the Omnipresent considered it as though he had actually done it (Sifrei 26:5)...

who then went down to Egypt: And [apart from Laban,] still others came upon us to annihilate us, for after this, Jacob went down to Egypt [“and the Egyptians treated us cruelly…”]. 

with a small number of people: [Namely,] seventy persons. — [Sifrei 26: 5; see Gen. 46:27


The following verses go on to speak of how the Jews were miraculously saved by G-d's mighty hand and outstretched arm, and how they were brought now brought to the Land of Milk and Honey, and to the Temple.

Not only is the verse about the "Aramean" puzzling,  but Rashi's comment, as well as its placement, is even more so. How is a description of the suffering of our forefather Jacob, as well as continued the suffering in Egypt and beyond, part of the description of the "kind deeds of the Omnipresent?" Yet, that is exactly the case. Rashi is coming to teach us that the end of the story is dependent on its beginning. The suffering in the hands of the Aramean is what helped transform Jacob into Israel. The suffering the Jewish people as a whole is what made possible for them to have such a close and deep bond with G-d, to the point that they merited the revelation of G-d Himself and His miraculous redemption.

When one is in the middle of the suffering, one cannot hope to see how the present struggle will ultimately lead to positive and even miraculous outcome. When one plants a seed, that seed is stuffed into the ground and even decomposes. It is hard to see how this could lead to something good. Yet, when one has the first fruit in hand, and merits to bring it as an offering to G-d in the Temple itself, then it becomes clear that all that suffering was not in vain, but rather was fundamental in developing a closer relationship with G-d and in the success that followed.

This message is equally applicable to the curses that come towards the end of the Torah portion. The suffering described is also not for naught. It is part and parcel of the ultimate, highest blessings that are still to come. In fact these blessings are included in the very words used for the curses, albeit in a hidden fashion. It is simply a matter of interpretation.

Similarly, in a sense, Laban the Aramean did "destroy" Jacob, since Jacob was no longer the same after his experience living with such an evil and deceiving individual. The suffering and "destruction" that Jacob underwent made a him a better and stronger person, both spiritually and physically. This is true for Jacob as well as for all of his descendants. This was seen clearly in the times of the Tabernacle and of the first two Temples, and will be seen clearly again soon, with the building of the final Third Temple, speedily in our days.  
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