Weekly Cycle

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Desert in Words: Destroying by Failing to Destroy and the Torah Portion of Re'eh

This week's Torah portion begins by Hashem laying out two paths before us: the path of blessing if we follow Hashem's commandments, and the opposite if we do not. The Torah then begins to enumerate some of those statutes, and contains a very puzzling statement:
1. These are the statutes and ordinances that you shall keep to perform in the land which the Lord God of your fathers gives you to possess all the days that you live on the earth.
2. You shall utterly destroy from all the places where the nations, that you shall possess, worshipped their gods, upon the lofty mountains and upon the hills, and under every lush tree.
3. And you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their asherim with fire, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place.
4. You shall not do so to the Lord, your God.
How could we possibly thinking of doing so to Hashem? Rashi picks up on this, and addresses it in a long comment:
RASHI - "You shall not do so [to the Lord your God]: to burn sacrifices to God in any place you choose, but rather at the place that He will choose. Another explanation is: “And you shall tear down their altars… and destroy their name… [but] do not do so [to the Lord your God]”; this is an admonition [addressed] to one who would erase the Name [of God from any writing] or remove a stone from the altar or from the courtyard (Mak. 22a). Rabbi Ishmael said: Would it enter your mind that the Israelites would tear down the altars [of God]? Rather, [the meaning of “You shall not do so” is that] you should not do like the deeds of the nations so that your sins would cause the sanctuary of [i.e., built by] your fathers to be destroyed. — [Sifrei]"
Obviously, no one of the Jewish people would intentionally try to destroy Hashem's altar or His name. However, what the Torah is trying to tell us is that by allowing the worship of other gods, one would be in fact hurting Hashem's presence in the world. The utter destruction mandated by the Torah here parallels the total destruction of Amalek. Failure to destroy Amalek has a similar impact on Hashem's name: “And he said, For there is a hand on the throne of the Eternal, [that there shall be] a war for the Lord against Amalek from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:16)
RASHI - For there is a hand on the throne of the Eternal: The hand of the Holy One, blessed be He, was raised to swear by His throne, to have a war and [bear] hatred against Amalek for eternity. Now what is the meaning of כֵּס [as opposed to כִּסֵא and also [why is] the Divine Name divided in half? [I.e., why is the Name יָ-הּ used instead of י-ה-ו-ה ?] [The answer is that] the Holy One, blessed be He, swore that His Name will not be complete and His throne will not be complete until the name of Amalek is completely obliterated. And when his name is obliterated, the Divine Name will be complete, and the throne will be complete, as it is said: “The enemy has been destroyed; swords exist forever (לָנֶצַח)” (Ps. 9:7); this [who they are referring to] is Amalek, about whom it is written: “and kept their fury forever (נֶצַח)” (Amos 1:11). "And You have uprooted the cities-their remembrance is lost" (Ps. 9:7) [i.e., Amalek’s obliteration]. What does it say afterwards? “And the Lord (וַיהוה) shall sit forever” (Ps. 9:8); thus [after Amalek is obliterated] the Name is complete. "He has established His throne (כִּסְאוֹ) for judgment" (Ps. 9:8). Thus the throne is complete [i.e., thus the throne, here spelled with an “aleph,” is now complete]. — [from Midrash Tanchuma, end of Ki Theitzei]
Amalek affects not only Hashem's name, but also his throne. Perhaps that is also why this week's Torah portion complements the discussion of the need to destroy altars and images of alien gods with a discussion of the ultimate place of G-d's throne, Jerusalem:
5. But only to the place which the Lord your God shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there.

6. And there you shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and your vows and your donations, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep.

7. And there you shall eat before the Lord, your God, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors you and your households, as the Lord, your God, has blessed you.
We find a similar parallel in Maimonides' ruling regarding who is Mashiach, the messiah (Laws of Kings and Wars 1:4):
If a king will arise from the House of David who diligently contemplates the Torah and observes its mitzvot as prescribed by the Written Law and the Oral Law as David, his ancestor, will compel all of Israel to walk in (the way of the Torah) and rectify the breaches in its observance, and fight the wars of God, we may, with assurance, consider him Mashiach.
If he succeeds in the above, builds the Temple in its place, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is definitely the Mashiach.
It is only after there is proper observance of Torah and the wars of G-d have been successfully fought, only can the Temple be built in its place. Then, as we say in the end of the Aleinu prayer, which concludes each of our daily services, "One that day, He will be One and His Name, One."

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