Tag Archives: David

Shvi’i shel Pesach – Yeshuah

All nations have enemies, and all nations fight wars. The primary purpose of a leader of a nation is to defeat these enemies and provide security for his people. The term used in the Tanach for defeating enemies is “ישועה,” deliverance. There are many stories in the Tanach of G-d appointing leaders in order to bring about “yeshuah.”
One of the earliest examples of this is found in Shoftim, when Midian had been raiding Jewish towns in the north of the country. An angel of Hashem came to a young man who was threshing his wheat in a wine press, so that the Midianites wouldn’t find it and steal it, and said to him:

…וַיֹּאמֶר לֵךְ בְּכֹחֲךָ זֶה וְהוֹשַׁעְתָּ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִכַּף מִדְיָן הֲלֹא שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ:
He said, ‘Go with this strength, and deliver Yisrael from the hand of Midian; as it is you that I am sending.’ (Shoftim 6:14)

This young man was Gidon, who went on lead the Jewish People to a decisive victory over Midian, and entirely eliminated them as a threat. The same term appears when describing the actions of other leaders, and in particular, the kings Shaul and David, who were appointed to bring yeshuah by defeating Israel’s enemies.

However, the first time that the enemies of the Jewish People were soundly defeated, the yeshuah did not come from a human king or leader. The term first appears at the Splitting of the Sea, which is the Torah reading for the last day of Pesach, the anniversary of that event.

וַיּוֹשַׁע ה’ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּד מִצְרָיִם וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת מִצְרַיִם מֵת עַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם:
Hashem delivered Yisrael on that day, from the hand of Egypt. Yisrael saw Egypt dead on the shore of the sea. (Shemot 14:30)

It was G-d Himself who defeated Egypt and delivered the Jewish People from their enemies. The magnitude of the defeat was such that they expressed their stunned reaction in song:

עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה…ה’ אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה ה’ שְׁמוֹ… ה’ יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד:
My strength and my song is G-d, He became my deliverance… Hashem is a man of war, Hashem is His Name … Hashem will be the king for all eternity!
(Shemot 15:3-4,18)

By effecting this yeshuah, G-d showed us not only that He is all-powerful, but that He is specifically our King, and that He uses His power to defeat our enemies.
But if G-d is our king, why did He need to appoint mortal leaders to bring about yeshuah?

It seems that it is not ideal for G-d to directly intervene and miraculously get rid of our enemies. Part of the function of the Jewish People as the Nation of G-d is that we have a partnership with Him. He doesn’t fight our battles for us while we stand around helplessly wringing our hands, He expects us to defend ourselves. At the same time, we must realize that we will not succeed without His assistance, and it is vital that we continue to see Him as our King, and the source of our yeshuah. It needs to be clear to us that we will only defeat our enemies if Hashem, Ish Milchama, is with us.

A prime example of this is yet again with Gidon:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל גִּדְעוֹן בִּשְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת הָאִישׁ הַמֲלַקְקִים אוֹשִׁיעַ אֶתְכֶם וְנָתַתִּי אֶת מִדְיָן בְּיָדֶךָ וְכָל הָעָם יֵלְכוּ אִישׁ לִמְקֹמוֹ:
Hashem said to Gidon: with these three hundred men who lapped up the water, I will deliver you, and I will hand Midian over to your hand; everyone else should go home. (Shoftim 7:7)

Gidon took these three hundred men and used them to wreak mayhem on the Midianite war camp, who turned on each other in their confusion. As a result, the victory of the very few over the very many was credited to G-d.
That brings us to the Haftarah that we read on the last day of Pesach, after reading of the Splitting of the Sea. It is the song that David composed to praise G-d for delivering him from his enemies:

אֱ-לֹהֵי צוּרִי אֶחֱסֶה בּוֹ מָגִנִּי וְקֶרֶן יִשְׁעִי מִשְׂגַּבִּי וּמְנוּסִי מֹשִׁעִי מֵחָמָס תֹּשִׁעֵנִי. מְהֻלָּל אֶקְרָא ה’ וּמֵאֹיְבַי אִוָּשֵׁעַ
My G-d is my rock that I can shelter in, my shield and the ray of my deliverance, my sanctuary and my refuge, my deliverer – from injustice, You deliver me! Praised, I will call Hashem, from my enemies I will be delivered. (Shmuel II 22:3-4)

None of David’s victories were miraculous; no seas were split. It would have been natural for him to credit his own courage, his military prowess, and the dedication and training of his staff. Instead, he attributed all of his victories to G-d.

As the king of the Jewish People, David HaMelech was responsible for fighting and defeating our enemies. As the king of the Jewish People, David HaMelech was also responsible for making it known to everyone that the victory belongs to our true King:

עַל כֵּן אוֹדְךָ ה’ בַּגּוֹיִם וּלְשִׁמְךָ אֲזַמֵּר: מִגְדּוֹל יְשׁוּעוֹת מַלְכּוֹ וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לִמְשִׁיחוֹ לְדָוִד וּלְזַרְעוֹ עַד עוֹלָם:
Therefore, I praise Hashem among the nations, and to Your name, I sing. The greatness of His deliverance for His king, with devotion to His anointed, to David and his descendants, forever. (Shmuel II 22:51)

And so, even as we wait for the descendants of David HaMelech to do their part in defeating our enemies, the yeshuah that we hope and wait for, is from Hashem, our King.

Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my parents, Peter & Nella Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ואמי מורתי חנה בת זעליג ז”ל

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Machar Chodesh – Darkest Hour

When Rosh Chodesh comes out on Sunday, then, on the previous Shabbat, instead of reading the Haftarah that is appropriate to that Parsha, we read a special Haftarah called “Machar Chodesh” – “Tomorrow is Rosh Chodesh.” This is rather puzzling. When Rosh Chodesh falls out on Shabbat itself, it makes sense that we would read a special Haftarah. But what does it matter what the next day is? We don’t have a “Machar” anything else – no “Machar Pesach” or “Machar Shavuot,” only “Machar Chodesh.” It must mean that the day before Rosh Chodesh has intrinsic meaning, one worth marking with its own prophetic message.

The definition of Rosh Chodesh is the night that the sliver of the new moon appears in the sky. The night before, Machar Chodesh, is a night with no moon at all. It is completely dark.

The Haftarah of Machar Chodesh describes the darkest time in the life of David HaMelech. Until this point, he had been the golden boy of the kingdom: he defeated Goliath, was married to the king’s daughter, the king’s son was his best friend, and the entire country was singing songs about him. Now, all of a sudden, for no reason that he can discern, the king has turned against him. He barely escaped arrest and execution – his wife Michal helped him sneak out the window and lied about him to the guards. Yet, as far as he knows, he has done nothing wrong, and none of it makes sense.

Yonatan, Shaul HaMelech’s son, does not understand it, either. He is sure that his father loves David as much as he does, and that he would know if something were wrong. The Haftarah tells us about the plan that David and Yonatan devise to figure out how Shaul really feels about David, a plan that is carried out the next day – on Rosh Chodesh. And indeed, when Shaul hears that Yonatan let David be absent from the Rosh Chodesh celebrations, it is sufficient pretext to ignite his fury, and he lashes out not only at David, but at Yonatan himself.

Now David has no choice but to run and hide from the king. This means that he loses everything – his family, who are also in danger and go into exile in Moav, his position in the king’s army, his role in the court, his wife Michal, and worst of all, his dearest friend, Yonatan. As we read about the two of them standing there crying on each other’s shoulders, we wish that we could tell David that his future will be a bright one, that he will become king over all of Yisrael, and that he will establish a dynasty that will be the aspiration and hope of all of the Jewish People for all generations.

And indeed, when we sanctify the new moon at Kiddush Levana, it is our tradition to say, “David Melech Yisrael Chai Ve’Kayam” – “David, the king of Israel, lives on forever!” The Rema, when citing this tradition in his gloss to the Shulchan Aruch, explains the relevance of David HaMelech to the moon:

ונוהגין לומר: דוד מלך ישראל חי וקיים, שמלכותו נמשל ללבנה ועתיד להתחדש כמותה וכנסת ישראל תחזור להתדבק בבעלה שהוא הקדוש ברוך הוא, דוגמת הלבנה המתחדשת עם החמה שנאמר: שמש ומגן ה’ (תהילים פד, יב) ולכך עושין שמחות ורקודין בקידוש החדש דוגמת שמחת נשואין.
It is customary to say: “David Melech Yisrael, lives on forever!” because his reign is compared to the moon, and is destined to be renewed like the moon, and Knesset Yisrael will return and reconnect with her spouse, which is HaKadosh-Baruch-Hu, just as the moon is renewed with the sun, as it says, “Hashem is the sun and the shield” (Tehillim 84:12); therefore, we dance and rejoice at the Kiddush HaChodesh as one does at a wedding.
(Rema, Shulchan Aruch, Hilchot Rosh Chodesh 426)

The Rema explains that the moon symbolizes David HaMelech. Just as the moon waxes and wanes and disappears but then waxes again, so, too David’s dynasty waxes and wanes. It might look like it has completely disappeared, but it will reappear. When we see the renewed moon, we are filled with the hope that we will also be privileged to see the renewal of David’s kingdom.

The Rema takes this idea one step further: the moon is a metaphor not only for David, but for the Jewish People as a whole. We, too, wax and wane. We, too, sometimes feel like we’re in danger of disappearing entirely, and that G-d’s light no longer shines upon us. The renewal of the moon gives us hope and reminds us that our relationship with G-d is also renewed.

Machar Chodesh, the darkest night of the month, symbolizes the Jewish People at our most vulnerable. The Haftarah of Machar Chodesh presents us David HaMelech at his most vulnerable, as he stands before a future that looks bleak and dark. His life, and the life of his descendants, will not move in a straight line. There will be highs that will reflect light and hope for millennia, and there will also be lows that last for generations on end.

So, too, the Jewish People. Our story also does not follow a straight line. Yet, as the Haftarah of Machar Chodesh reminds us, no matter how bleak and dark a given moment in Jewish History might be, we know that the future we face is full of light.

Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

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Shmini – Hazard, Beware!

Parshat Shmini and the Haftarah of Shmini both contain stories of tragic deaths. Parshat Shmini describes how, just at the culmination of the dedication of the Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu lit a fire for the incense, and were killed by the Divine Fire that appeared. The Haftarah of Shmini describes how, while bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Yerushalayim, Uzah, one of the people leading the procession, reached out to keep the Ark from falling, and was struck down by G-d. What did they do that was so terrible that caused them to lose their lives?

To understand Uzah’s story, we need some context. Several decades before the events described in this Haftarah, the Ark had been captured in a battle with the Plishtim. Its presence caused plagues to break out in the Plishti towns, and ultimately, the Ark was placed in the care of Avinadav from Kiryat Yearim, where it stayed without incident for many years. After David HaMelech made Yerushalayim his capital city, he arranged for the Ark to be brought there. The descendants of Avinadav placed it upon a cart and walked before it. Then the following happened:

…. וַיִּשְׁלַח עֻזָּא אֶל אֲרוֹן הָאֱ-לֹהִים וַיֹּאחֶז בּוֹ כִּי שָׁמְטוּ הַבָּקָר: וַיִּחַר אַף ה’ בְּעֻזָּה וַיַּכֵּהוּ שָׁם הָאֱ-לֹהִים עַל הַשַּׁל וַיָּמָת שָׁם עִם אֲרוֹן הָאֱ-לֹהִים:
…Uzah reached for the Ark of G-d and grabbed it, because the oxen had slipped. Hashem’s anger was kindled at Uzah, G-d struck him down due to the error. He died there, with the Ark of G-d. (Shmuel I 6:6-7)

Uzah reached out to keep the Ark from falling off the cart, and lost his life. The Midrash explains what his error was:

אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא הארון נושאיו נשא, עצמו לא כל שכן
G-d said to him, the Ark carries those who carry it — to carry itself, how much more so! (Bamidbar Rabbah 4:20)

The Midrash refers to the crossing of the Jordan River, when the Jewish People entered Eretz Yisrael. As soon as the Cohanim who were carrying it stepped into the water, the river stopped flowing, allowing the Jewish People to cross safely. Then:

וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר תַּם כָּל הָעָם לַעֲבוֹר וַיַּעֲבֹר אֲרוֹן ה’ וְהַכֹּהֲנִים לִפְנֵי הָעָם
When all the people finished passing, the Ark of Hashem, and the Cohanim, crossed before the people. (Yehoshua 4:11)

It does not say “the Cohanim with the Ark of Hashem crossed;” it says “the Ark of Hashem crossed.” The Ark made it possible for the Cohanim to cross the river, not the other way around.

The Midrash points out that Uzah should have known that the Ark was not an ordinary object that follows the laws of nature; it did not need him to keep it from falling.

Nadav and Avihu made a similar mistake for similar reasons.

וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיֵּצְאוּ וַיְבָרֲכוּ אֶת הָעָם וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד ה’ אֶל כָּל הָעָם: וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’ וַתֹּאכַל עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ אֶת הָעֹלָה וְאֶת הַחֲלָבִים וַיַּרְא כָּל הָעָם וַיָּרֹנּוּ וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל פְּנֵיהֶם: וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה’ אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם:וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’ וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי ה’:

Moshe and Aharon came to the Tent of Assembly. They went out, and blessed the nation. The Glory of Hashem manifested itself to the entire nation. Fire went forth from before Hashem and ate what was on the Altar, the offerings and the fats; the entire nation saw; they sang out, they fell to the ground in worship. The sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each took a fire pan; they put in them fire, and on that they placed incense; they brought before Hashem an external fire that He had not commanded them. Fire went forth from before Hashem and ate them. They died before Hashem. (VaYikra 9:23-24, 10:1-2)

According to Rashbam, the “fire that went forth” in both verses is the same fire. The order of events then is as follows:

Everything had been laid out the final stage of the dedication of the Mishkan, and all that was missing for the fulfillment of its purpose of “I shall dwell among you” was the manifestation of the Presence of G-d. While waiting for it to appear, Moshe and Aharon left the Mishkan and went out to bless the nation. After their blessing, G-d’s Presence manifested itself, in two ways: the Cloud of Glory appeared on the Mishkan, and Divine Fire came down and consumed the offering.

The verses then shift to Nadav and Avihu, who had remained inside the Mishkan, and were waiting for G-d’s Presence to appear. For whatever reason – perhaps impatience, perhaps arrogance, perhaps a misplaced sense of devotion – instead of continuing to wait like they were supposed to, they decided to take matters into their own hands, and make their own fire. But the Divine Fire did come down, without their help. It started at the internal incense Altar, where they were standing, and went out to the external Altar where the sacrifices had been laid out. Nadav and Avihu, who were not supposed to be there, were caught in its path.

Nadav and Avihu must have thought that they were operating in the physical world, where fire is lit by human beings. But just as G-d did not need Uzah to keep the Ark from falling, He did not need Nadav and Avihu to make fire in the Mishkan.

Disobeying the laws of the Torah regarding objects that do not quite obey the laws of physics can be hazardous to one’s health.

Copyright © Kira Sirote

In memory of my parents, Peter & Nella Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ואמי מורתי חנה בת זעליג ז”ל

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Ha’azinu – Being ‘Tamim’

In Parshat Ha’azinu, Moshe uses a poetic form to describe how G-d runs the world, in particular, how He deals with the Jewish People. He starts off by saying:

הַצּוּר תָּמִים פָּעֳלוֹ כִּי כָל דְּרָכָיו מִשְׁפָּט אֵל אֱמוּנָה וְאֵין עָוֶל צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר הוּא:
The Rock, His work is ‘tamim’, for all His ways are just; a G-d of faithfulness, no evil, righteous and straight is He. (Devarim 32:4)

‘Tamim’ is usually translated as “perfect” or “unblemished.” The reason for that translation is the numerous times this word is used to refer to sacrificial animals, which are required to be “tamim,” free of blemish. The word for “blemish” is “moom”, and it is used to contrast the behavior of the Jewish People with that of G-d:

שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא בָּנָיו מוּמָם דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ וּפְתַלְתֹּל
They have corrupted, His non-children, with their blemish; a generation that is perverse and cunning. (Devarim 32:5)

The Parsha is not talking about animals, which might have a torn ear or a broken leg. What, then, is the blemish of the Jewish People, and conversely, what is the quality of ‘unblemished’ that is ascribed to G-d?

There is a commandment in the Torah,

תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ:
Be ‘tamim’ with Hashem, your G-d. (Devarim 18:13)

If the quality of ‘tamim’ belonged only to G-d, we could have translated this term as “perfect” and “unblemished.” But what does the Torah mean when using it in reference to human beings? How can we be commanded to be perfect and unblemished?

In the Haftarah, King David lists the different ways in which he has done G-d’s will. On that list we find:

וָאֶהְיֶה תָמִים לוֹ
I have been ‘tamim’ to Him. (Shmuel II, 22:24)

So whatever this quality might be, David has been successful in achieving it.
Like Parshat Ha’azinu, the Haftarah describes how G-d runs the world, in particular, how He deals with the Jewish People. This is how King David puts it:

עִם חָסִיד תִּתְחַסָּד עִם גִּבּוֹר תָּמִים תִּתַּמָּם: עִם נָבָר תִּתָּבָר וְעִם עִקֵּשׁ תִּתַּפָּל:
To a loyal person, You are loyal; to an ‘tamim’ man, You are ‘tamim’
To a clean person, You are clean, and to a perverse person, You are cunning
(Shmuel II, 22:25-26)

According to the Haftarah, if a person is ‘tamim’, then G-d is ‘tamim’ to him back, and if a person is perverse, than G-d is cunning to him back – just like the terms used in Ha’azinu. But here, the opposite of ‘tamim’ is not “blemished,” it is “perverse” and “cunning”.

“Perfect” is not a fitting antonym of “perverse” and “cunning.” What, then, is this quality of ‘tamim’, that is one of the ways we describe G-d, and is also one of the ways that we are expected to behave?

The commandment, ‘Tamim be with Hashem Your G-d’ appears in the context of fortune telling. We are forbidden to engage in any form of spiritualism, necromancy, or divination. Instead, we are asked to be ‘tamim’. The Torah is telling us not to play games with G-d, not to try to outguess Him, not to try to get insider information that we are not meant to have. The blemish that we need to avoid is guile.

The Haftarah says that when a person acts toward G-d without guile, without attempting to manipulate Him or trick Him, then G-d, too, acts toward him without guile, and rewards him according to his actions, pure and straightforward. King David points out that the converse is also true – when a person attempts to be perversely crooked, and thinks that G-d will not notice and will just go along with his plans, in fact, the opposite happens. G-d continues to reward him according to his actions, but being that his actions are crooked, the outcome is anything but straightforward.

In the ancient world, there were theologies and pantheons whose gods were cunning and manipulative, toward each other, and toward their worshippers. They would destroy or reward based on their transitory whims and fleeting desires.

When Moshe Rabbeinu and David HaMelech teach us how G-d runs the world, the most important point they make is that our G-d is not like that. He is a “rock,” He does not act on whims; He is ‘tamim’, guileless. He has a plan for the Jewish People and a plan for the world, and He acts to further that plan. Moreover, our own actions dictate how He acts towards us. When we are “perverse and crooked” and figure that we know better how the world should be run, and try to force G-d to our will, then that is a blemish that G-d does not tolerate in us. When we let Him run the show and follow His ways, then He protects us from all obstacles so that we can fulfil His plan.

We do not always see this happening. To our human eyes, it sometimes seems that the world goes in every which way but straight. As prophets, Moshe Rabbeinu and David HaMelech were able to see G-d’ ways as ‘tamim’. We are not prophets, but we are the descendants of prophets. Maybe if we do our part, if we are ‘tamim’, guileless, with G-d, and don’t try to manipulate or outguess Him, then we shall see it, too.

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The Haftarah of Shmini is about King David getting the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and a tragedy that happened at that time that is similar to the tragedy of the death of Aharon’s sons described in Parshat Shimini.

Linear annotated text of the Haftarah of Shmini

The Haftarah of Shmini sometimes gets pre-empted by Shabbat Parah.

To read about what the tragedy in the Haftarah teaches us about the tragedy of the Parsha, see: Hazard, Beware!

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Filed under Sefer Vayikra, Shmini

Terumah – A House for G-d

Parshat Terumah contains the instructions for building the portable sanctuary which we call the Mishkan. The purpose of this sanctuary is stated at the beginning of the Parsha:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם
They will make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them. (Shemot 25:3)

Even though the word Mishkan means “place of dwelling,” G-d makes it clear that His intention is not to have a place to live, but rather to allow His Presence to be felt by the Jewish People. He will not dwelling in “it,” He will be dwelling “among them.”

The same phrase is used in the Haftarah, which describes the construction of the first permanent sanctuary, the Beit HaMikdash, built by Shlomo in Yerushalayim. After the description of the massive effort and architectural marvels, the Haftarah tells us that G-d has a message for Shlomo:

הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בֹנֶה אִם תֵּלֵךְ בְּחֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשֶׂה וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹתַי לָלֶכֶת בָּהֶם וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת דְּבָרִי אִתָּךְ אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי אֶל דָּוִד אָבִיךָ: וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא אֶעֱזֹב אֶת עַמִּי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
About this House that you are building: if you follow My statutes and carry out My laws, and keep all My commandments, to walk in their ways, then I shall keep My word to you as I spoke to your father, David. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and I will not forsake My people, Israel. (Melachim I 6:12-13)

Here too, G-d stresses that the purpose of this building is for Him to dwell among the Jewish People, and refers to an earlier conversation that He had with Shlomo’s father, David. In order for us to understand the full import of what G-d was telling Shlomo, we need to go back to the context of that earlier conversation.

Soon after David established his kingdom and built his own palace in Yerushalayim, he decided that he felt uncomfortable living in such grandeur, while the Sanctuary that contained the Ark of the Covenant, also in Yerushalayim, was housed in a simple goatskin tent. He mentioned to his court prophet, Natan, that the right thing to do would be to build a permanent structure for the Sanctuary. At first, Natan was enthusiastic about the idea and told him to go right ahead and implement this plan. However, that very night, G-d appeared to Natan with the following message for David HaMelech:

בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלַּכְתִּי בְּכָל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֲדָבָר דִּבַּרְתִּי אֶת אַחַד שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי לִרְעוֹת אֶת עַמִּי אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר לָמָּה לֹא בְנִיתֶם לִי בֵּית אֲרָזִים .. וְהִגִּיד לְךָ ה’ כִּי בַיִת יַעֲשֶׂה לְּךָ ה’
For all that I walked with all of children of Israel, did I ever say to one of the tribes of Israel, that I had appointed to herd My people Israel, saying, why haven’t you built Me a house of cedar? … Hashem said to you that Hashem will make you a house (Shmuel II 7:7)

In a prime example of prophetic sarcasm, G-d points out that in the four hundred years since the Exodus, He had never once asked them to build Him a house. He assures David that if He had had a problem with the tent where the Sanctuary was placed, He would have let them know. The house that David needs to worry about is his own “house”, his dynasty, that G-d is building for him. Only after this dynasty is firmly established, would his son be permitted to build a permanent structure for the Sanctuary.

After hearing this message, David put aside his dream of building a House for G-d, and focused on building his kingdom and raising Shlomo to be the first ever hereditary ruler of the Jewish People.

In the Haftarah, we are at the point where Shlomo has fulfilled David’s dream. And now that Shlomo has built this architectural wonder of a Beit Hashem, a House for G-d, G-d reminds him that He doesn’t particularly need or want it.

What, then, does He want? On this point, G-d is very clear, both in the Parsha and in the Haftarah. The purpose of the beautiful impressive House is the same as the purpose of the simple goatskin tent: “to dwell among the Jewish People.”

This phrase, “dwelling among us” refers to the prophetic experience of G-d by the entire nation. Part of the purpose of the Revelation at Sinai was the profound sense of the “Glory of Hashem” which was manifest by a “cloud” that “dwelled” on the mountain:

וַיִּשְׁכֹּן כְּבוֹד ה’ עַל הַר סִינַי וַיְכַסֵּהוּ הֶעָנָן שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִתּוֹךְ הֶעָנָן
The Glory of Hashem dwelled on Har Sinai; the cloud covered it for six days; He called to Moshe on the seventh day from the cloud. (Shmot 24:17)

When the Mishkan that is first described in Parshat Terumah was finally completed, its dedication was accompanied by a similar description:

וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד ה’ מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן
The cloud covered the Tent of Assembly, and the Glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan. (Shemot 40:34)

The Mishkan provided ongoing access to the experience of G-d’s Presence that they had known at Har Sinai. This is the meaning of “and I will dwell among them.”

But this is not something that happens automatically. In the pagan world. people believed that “if you build it, they will come.” If the deity gets a temple, the deity can be found in the temple. This is not the case for the Jewish People. The purpose of the Revelation at Har Sinai was to receive the Torah. The prerequisite for a direct relationship with G-d has always been fulfilling the commandments that the Jewish People committed to at Sinai. It is impossible to conceive of G-d allowing them access to His Presence while they ignore His laws.

Therefore, when Shlomo builds a House of G-d to rival any temple in the known world, G-d makes a point to tell him that building it is not enough. If the Jewish People keep the Torah, He is present among them, and He is happy to use this House as the focal point for His Presence, cloud and all, as indeed happened at its dedication:

וַיְהִי בְּצֵאת הַכֹּהֲנִים מִן הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְהֶעָנָן מָלֵא אֶת בֵּית ה’
As the Cohanim left the Sanctuary, the cloud filled the House of Hashem
(Melachim II 8)

But if not? If the Jewish People renege on their commitment at Sinai, then it’s just wood and stone. G-d dwells among the Jewish People, not in some grandiose building.

Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

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VaYechi – Unfinished Business

Parshat VaYechi describes the last will and testament of Yaakov to his sons. He blesses each of them, according to their specific talents and the future that he foresees for them.

וַיִּקְרְבוּ יְמֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָמוּת
The time of Yisrael’s death drew near… (Breishit 47:29)

The Haftarah of VaYechi describes the last will and testament of King David to his son, the newly crowned King Shlomo. David does not bless Shlomo; instead, he asks Shlomo to dispense justice to people whom he had been unable to punish in his lifetime.

וַיִּקְרְבוּ יְמֵי דָוִד לָמוּת
The time of David’s death drew near… (Melachim I 2:1)

It appears that Yaakov leaves his sons with closure while David leaves Shlomo with all his unfinished business. However, the comparison of the two bequests show us that what both fathers had in common at their death, that they each bequeathed to their children, was the gift of perspective.

The first, and most difficult realization that David shares with Shlomo is his realization that Yoav had been guilty of murder. Yoav was David’s kinsman and his closest companion throughout his life; he was also the general of the armies of Israel and David’s right hand man. Years ago, soon after Shaul’s death but before David was crowned as the king of Israel, Shaul’s former general Avner had come to make a treaty with David. Yoav asked to speak with him in private, and stabbed him in the gut. Yoav defended his action by saying that he was protecting David and the nascent kingdom, that he was sure that Avner would betray David. At the time, David believed him, and disciplined him only for making it look like David assassinates his enemies, but he did not judge it as a murder.

More recently, however, after the civil war started by Avshalom, in a gesture to reunite the nation, David had offered Avshalom’s general, Amasa, to serve as his own general, displacing Yoav. When Yoav heard this, he met up with Amasa, and under the guise of greeting him, stabbed him in the gut.
At that time, David was too vulnerable politically and militarily to lose Yoav. He was also still grieving for his son Avshalom, who had been killed in the civil war; the thought of losing Yoav must have been intolerable. He was not in a position to execute him, or even to judge him with a clear mind.

But now, “the time of David’s death drew near, ” and he sees clearly that Yoav must pay for his crimes. David is also worried about his son’s future as the King of Israel. He now believes that Yoav’s loyalty to the crown takes second place to his own agenda, and he cannot leave Shlomo with a wild card in his cabinet. His goal is to bequeath to Shlomo a strong uncontested monarchy, and that means that he has to tell him to beware of Yoav.

Yaakov, too, uses the time of saying goodbye to his sons to take care of unfinished business. Some of the blessings that he gives his children bring up issues that had long been buried:

רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת וְיֶתֶר עָז: פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל תּוֹתַר כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ אָז חִלַּלְתָּ יְצוּעִי עָלָה:
Reuven, you are my first-born, my strength, and the first of my might. Ahead in dignity, ahead in power. Unstable as water, you shall not have extra. For you went up on your father’s bed, thus you profaned, having gone up on my couch. (Breishit 49:3,4)

In his blessing to Reuven, Yaakov accuses him of having “gone up on his father’s bed”. This is a reference to a story that happened back in VaYishlach:

וַיְהִי בִּשְׁכֹּן יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו וַיִּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל פ
וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר:
When Yisrael was living in that land, Reuven went and slept with Bilha, his father’s concubine. Yisrael heard….. The sons of Yaakov were twelve.
(Breishit 35:22)

Soon after Rachel’s death, Reuven is recorded as sleeping with Rachel’s maid, his father’s concubine. The verse says that Yaakov heard, but does not record any reaction. It then points out that Yaakov had twelve sons. The implication is that Yaakov did nothing. He did not punish Reuven and he certainly did not exile him from the family. Perhaps, as the verse implies, he did not even say anything to Reuven.

But now, “the time of Yisrael’s death drew near…”, and Yaakov is ready to have this conversation. The Midrash explains why Yaakov had waited until right before his death.

מפני ארבעה דברים אין מוכיחין את האדם אלא סמוך למיתה, כדי שלא יהא מוכיחו וחוזר ומוכיחו ושלא יהא חברו רואהו ומתבייש ממנו, ושלא יהא בלבו עליו, ושלא יהיו המוכיחין מתוכחין, שהתוכחה מביאה לידי שלום, …וכן אתה מוצא ביעקב ויקרא יעקב אל בניו ראובן אומר לך מפני מה לא הוכחתיך כל השנים הללו כדי שלא תניחני ותדבק בעשו אחי
There are four reasons why one doesn’t rebuke a person until one is near death: so that he will not repeat his rebuke again and again; so that his friend will not be ashamed when he sees him; so that he will not carry a grudge against him; and so that the rebuke does not degenerate into an argument, as the rebuke is meant to bring peace… So we see with Yaakov, Yaakov called his sons, and said, Reuven, do you know why I did not rebuke you all these years? So that you wouldn’t leave me and go to my brother, Esav. (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni Yehoshua 34)

The reason that Yaakov did not react immediately when Reuven sinned was that he was afraid of alienating him. Reuven knew that he had done wrong, he did not need his father to explain that to him or to prevent him from doing it again. But if Yaakov were to have words with Reuven then, he would have been so ashamed that he could not look him in the eye. Eventually, Reuven might have found it easier to just leave the family. Perhaps he would even have started seeing himself as a sinner, and feel more comfortable with Esav, who had lower expectations, at least in this area of morality.

But now that Yaakov is about to die, he is not afraid of his son being ashamed to look him in the eye, or of leaving the family. Enough time has passed to give them all some perspective. Yaakov can now tell him that his actions did not go unnoticed, and that they have consequences, and that those consequences are in proportion to the ultimate effect of the deed. Reuven may have made a mistake, but it did not turn him into a sinner. He may not get the double portion of the first-born nor the leadership of the nation, but neither is he excluded from the Jewish People.

Yaakov’s words to Shimon and Levi are much harsher:

שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אַחִים כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם: בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר: אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל:
Shimon and Levi are brothers; instruments of crime are their swords. Let my soul not enter their conspiracies, let my honor not be included in their gang. For in their anger, they killed a man, by their will, they uprooted an ox. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; their fury, for it is cruel. I will disperse them in Yaakov, scatter them in Yisrael. (Breishit 49:5-7)

In this “blessing”, Yaakov denounces Shimon and Levi’s actions in Shechem. When they went to rescue Dina, who had been abducted and raped, they did not limit themselves to getting her out, not even to killing only those who had actually hurt her. They went and killed all the men in the entire town. At the time, Yaakov did protest, but he accepted their reason that they were protecting the honor of their sister and of the family.

Also in this “blessing”, Yaakov makes veiled references to their role in the sale of Yosef (“the ox” is the symbol of Yosef). Perhaps it is only now, after years in Egypt, that Yaakov puts together what may have happened to Yosef, and that it was not a coincidence that the first thing that Yosef did when he saw his brothers again was to separate Shimon from Levi. Now that the nature of their character is clear to Yaakov, he distances himself from their potential for fierce, destructive, anger. They must not be allowed to gang up, or they would destroy the entire nation.

The approach of death had given Yaakov, as well as David, the ability to see things with a sharper, clearer perspective. From this vantage point, they could see the long-term consequences of earlier events, and they could also see what the future would need. Ultimately, taking care of their unfinished business brought closure, as well as blessing, to the sons of Yaakov and to the son of David.

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Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my parents, Peter & Nella Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ואמי מורתי חנה בת זעליג ז”ל

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Re’eh – The Standard of Leadership

As the third of the series of seven Haftarot of Consolation, the Haftarah of Re’eh talks about a time when the nations of the world will turn to the Jewish People for guidance and leadership.

הַטּוּ אָזְנְכֶם וּלְכוּ אֵלַי שִׁמְעוּ וּתְחִי נַפְשְׁכֶם וְאֶכְרְתָה לָכֶם בְּרִית עוֹלָם חַסְדֵי דָוִד הַנֶּאֱמָנִים: הֵן עֵד לְאוּמִּים נְתַתִּיו נָגִיד וּמְצַוֵּה לְאֻמִּים: הֵן גּוֹי לֹא תֵדַע תִּקְרָא וְגוֹי לֹא יְדָעוּךָ אֵלֶיךָ יָרוּצוּ לְמַעַן ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ וְלִקְדוֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי פֵאֲרָךְ
Lend me your ears, and come to me, listen and your souls will live! I will make with you an everlasting covenant: like that of David’s steadfast loyalty. Truly, I have made him a witness to the nations, a leader and a commander of nations. Truly, you will call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you, will run to you, for the sake of Hashem, your G-d, for the Holy One of Israel, Who glorifies you! (Yeshayahu 55:3-5)

This is a reference to an earlier prophecy of Yeshayahu, which describes this era in greater detail:

וְשָׁפַט בֵּין הַגּוֹיִם וְהוֹכִיחַ לְעַמִּים רַבִּים וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבוֹתָם לְאִתִּים וַחֲנִיתוֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת לֹא יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל גּוֹי חֶרֶב וְלֹא יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה
And he will judge between nations, and reprove many peoples, and they will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning forks. Nation will not lift sword against nation,and they shall learn war no more (Yeshayahu 2:4)

In order for there to be peace among the nations, there first needs to be justice and leadership. The Tanach’s gold standard against which all leaders are measured is King David. Whenever the Tanach judges his descendants, it uses what one might call a Davidic scale. For instance, his great-grandson Asa is described thus:

וַיַּעַשׂ אָסָא הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה’ כְּדָוִד אָבִיו
Asa acted in an upright manner in the eyes of Hashem like his father David (Melachim I 15:11)

And a later descendant, King Amatziah ben Yoash, who did not quite live up to the standard:

וַיַּעַשׂ הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה’ רַק לֹא כְּדָוִד אָבִיו
He acted in an upright manner in the eyes of Hashem, but not like his father David. (Melachim II 14:3)

Apparently, to be “like his father David”, one has to ” act in an upright manner in the eyes of Hashem.” The parallel description of the kings in Divrei HaYamim uses a slightly different wording – a king has to be not only upright, but also good:

וַיַּעַשׂ אָסָא הַטּוֹב וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה’ אֱ-לֹהָיו:
Asa acted in a good and upright manner in the eyes of Hashem, his G-d. (Divrei HaYamim II 14:1)

Parshat Re’eh uses this term as well. When Moshe tells the Jewish People what G-d expects of them, he says:

שְׁמֹר וְשָׁמַעְתָּ אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּךָּ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ עַד עוֹלָם כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַטּוֹב וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ
Observe and listen to all these things that I command you; in order that it will be good for you and your children after you forever, if you will act in a good and upright manner in the eyes of Hashem your G-d. (Devarim 12:28)

So, then, what is this “good and upright manner”, and how does it differ from simply “observing and listening to all the commandments”? The Ramban explains the term:

והכוונה בזה, כי מתחלה אמר שתשמור חקותיו ועדותיו אשר צוך, ועתה יאמר גם באשר לא צוך תן דעתך לעשות הטוב והישר בעיניו, כי הוא אוהב הטוב והישר:
וזה ענין גדול, לפי שאי אפשר להזכיר בתורה כל הנהגות האדם עם שכניו ורעיו וכל משאו ומתנו ותקוני הישוב והמדינות כלם, אבל אחרי שהזכיר מהם הרבה, כגון לא תלך רכיל (ויקרא יט טז), לא תקום ולא תטור (שם פסוק יח), ולא תעמוד על דם רעך (שם פסוק טז), לא תקלל חרש (שם פסוק יד), מפני שיבה תקום (שם פסוק לב), וכיוצא בהן, חזר לומר בדרך כלל שיעשה הטוב והישר בכל דבר
…The idea is that first it says to keep all the laws that He commanded, and now it says that even the things that were not commanded, one should set one’s mind on acting in a good and upright manner in His eyes, because He loves what is good and upright.

This is an important concept, because it is impossible for the Torah to list all the ways a person behaves with his friends and neighbors, and all his business dealings, and all policies for running a society. However, after listing many of them, such as “do not gossip”, “do not take revenge or bear a grudge”, “do not stand by when your friend is in danger”, “do not curse a deaf person”, “stand up before the elderly”, and so on, it also repeated it in a general form, that one should act in a good and upright manner in every way. (Ramban Devarim 6)

The Ramban says that it is not sufficient to scrupulously keep the commandments of the Torah. G-d expects more. He expects us to extrapolate, based on the commandments that He gave us, what He means by “good and upright”, and use that as our standard of behavior.

The time of peace among the nations will come when the Jewish People are a beacon of what is good and upright in G-d’s eyes, the way that King David had been, the way the Torah expects us to be. It is a very high bar to reach, but when we have done so, when our leaders are of the caliber of King David in justice and righteousness, then the nations of the world will no longer resort to war to solve their problems. Instead, they will look to Jerusalem for moral guidance and do what is good and upright in G-d’s eyes.

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Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

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The Haftarah of VaYechi continues the story of the Haftarah of Chayei Sarah, the transition from King David to King Shlomo.

Despite only being 12 verses long, because it references events and personalities in David’s life, it required quite a bit of back story to explain those few verses. And, by popular request, I included a post-script that describes how things actually work out.

Linear annotated translation of the Haftarah of VaYechi

As for connections – just as it says “ויקרבו ימי דוד למות “, The time of David’s death drew near, and it says, “ויקרבו ימי ישראל למות” – the time of Yisrael’s death drew near.

They each use this time to reflect on their lives and tie up loose ends – and leave things for their sons to deal with, for better or for worse. See : Unfinished Business

Here’s a Midrash that I like very much:

אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני וכי ימים הם מתים אלא אלו הצדיקים אע”פ שהן מתין ימיהן בטלים מן העולם אבל הם עצמן קיימים
R’ Shmuel Bar Nachmani said: it says (literally) “The days of David came close to death”. Do days die? Rather, righteous people, even though they die and their days are gone from this world, they themselves live on. (Tanhuma Zot Habracha 7)

This Parsha is called VaYechi – “he lived”. We say, “David Melech Yisrael Chai VeKayam!” – David lives. And we say, “Od Avinu Chai!” our father, Israel, lives.

In the consciousness of the Jewish People, Yaakov and David are both still very much alive.

And now I’ve done the Haftarot for all of Sefer Breishit.  Chazak Chazak VeNitchazek!

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Chayei-Sarah: Repetitions

The Haftarah tells the story of the succession to King David’s throne. He is old and ill, and his son Adoniah acts as if he will succeed to the throne, despite King David’s preference for Shlomo. Adoniah takes on some of the overt signs of monarchy and makes a feast, inviting the entire court – with the exception of Shlomo and his supporters.

The Haftarah repeats this story several times. First, we hear it from the point of view of the narrator, then Natan tells it to Batsheva, then Batsheva to David, and finally Natan to David. The repetitions do not add any detail, nor do the different perspectives add any new insight. What, then, is the purpose of that repetition?

Our Parsha exhibits similar characteristics. Chayei Sarah is famous for the repetition of the story of Eliezer and Rivka at the well. First, we are told of his plan: the girl he is looking for will be the one that offers to give water both to him and to the camels. Then, we hear it as it actually happens: Rivka comes, gives water to Eliezer and to the camels, and turns out to be Avraham’s niece. He then goes to Rivka’s house, and we hear all about it yet again, in detail, as he retells it to Rivka’s family.

Finally, as if to tease us, when Eliezer brings Rivka to Yitzchak, this is how the entire event is described:

(סו) וַיְסַפֵּר הָעֶבֶד לְיִצְחָק אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה:
The servant told Yitzhak all the things that he had done. (Breishit 24:66)

Could this not have sufficed earlier, too?

Some suggest that the purpose of the first two repetitions is to learn about Eliezer’s faith, that he relied on G-d and He came through for him. This explains the first two parts, the story of Eliezer’s request for a sign, and the sign working out even better than he had hoped. But what could be the purpose of knowing exactly what he told Rivka’s family? Could it not have said, “The servant told them all the things that he had done”?

This prompts Chazal to make the following statement:

א”ר אחא יפה שיחתן של עבדי בתי אבות מתורתן של בנים פרשתו של אליעזר שנים וג’ דפים הוא אומרה ושונה ושרץ מגופי תורה ואין דמו מטמא כבשרו אלא מריבוי המקרא
R’ Acha said: The conversations of the servants from the Forefathers’ houses are more valuable than the Torah of their children. Eliezer’s story takes up 2-3 pages, and repeats itself, but we learn the Torah law that an insect’s blood does not cause impurity from a hint. (Breishit Rabba 60)

Important Halachot, practical laws, are not spelled out in the Torah; they need to be painstakingly derived from hints in the text. Our sources for important practical laws such as which text needs to be inside Tefillin, or whether or not we need to eat Matza for seven days or only one day, are derived from unusual phrasings or apparent contradictions. It is as writing the laws out explicitly were a waste of ink.

Yet for the story of Eliezer, there’s plenty of room. Pages and pages of it, most of the Parsha, when the entire thing could have been summed up in about three verses.

The Midrash draws the obvious conclusion: the Torah cares more about the conversations of the servants of our forefathers, than it does about making sure that important laws that you and I must keep are written clearly.

Why? What is the value of recording what Eliezer said to Betuel and Lavan? What is the lesson that could not have been conveyed in any other manner?

Nechama Leibowitz (Studies in Breishit, Chayei Sarah), in her analysis of the differences between the version of the narrator and the version of Eliezer, points out that Eliezer’s story has a particular slant that makes it obvious that he had an agenda. In his speech, he keeps repeating that everything came from G-d: his master’s fabulous wealth, the mission itself, the choice of the woman for his master. He points out that as a servant, he has no will of his own, and likewise, his master Avraham, as a servant of G-d, has no will of his own. Eliezer keeps drilling in the point that G-d is the cause of everything that has happened.

It is nice to hear of the faith that Eliezer had in G-d. Yet to suggest that Eliezer was simply sharing his view of the world is inadequate. He is now at a critical juncture of his mission. Once he found the girl, the very worst thing that could happen is that she will not come – or that she will not be allowed to come. The Torah implies that Rivka does not require much convincing. She recognizes very quickly that unlike her home, her life with Avraham’s son will be full of truth and purpose. But Eliezer also needs to convince her family. While Betuel is Rivka’s father, in the ancient world, the brothers had a say in their sisters’ welfare. It appears that the real decision of whether or not Rivka marries Yitzchak is in Lavan’s hands. We get to know Lavan later on, as the father of Rachel and Leah, and we see that he has absolutely no scruples when it comes to getting his own way. We also see that he is very possessive about his family , and prefers to have them firmly under his thumb. Eliezer’s task is not easy: how to get Lavan to let Rivka go?

Betuel and Lavan were pagan; as we say in the Haggada, “originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers”. The pagan relationship with their gods is a manipulative tug-of-war: if you come up with the proper offerings, your god will give you what you want, but if he’s made up his mind, it’s fate, and you can’t do anything to change it . Eliezer thus phrases his entire narrative in a context that they could relate to: Hashem has given Avraham great wealth (point: this god is powerful). Avraham serves Hashem (point: the wealth is conditional on the service). Hashem has miraculously singled out Rivka to be the bride (point: Hashem has made up His mind, and it is impossible to try to get out of it). Indeed, he presents his case so well that he elicits the perfect response:

(נ) וַיַּעַן לָבָן וּבְתוּאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵה’ יָצָא הַדָּבָר ;לֹא נוּכַל דַּבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ רַע אוֹ טוֹב:
Lavan and Betuel answered: This came from Hashem; it doesn’t matter what we say.

They might not be particularly happy about it, but they bow to what they perceive to be fated, and let Rivka go. Eliezer achieves his goal and his mission is a success.

In contrast, when he reports on his mission, he does not need to put on a show for his master, and the Torah can comfortably sum it up as: “The servant told Yitzhak all the things that he had done.”

Now we are suitably impressed with Eliezer’s skill as a negotiator, with his understanding of the mindset of his target audience, and the difficulty of his mission.

Still the question remains: why is this in the Torah? Why is Eliezer’s skill as a negotiator so important that it rates pages and pages of text?

Perhaps what we need to look at is the alternative, the other way it might have gone, if the servant were not a member of Avraham’s household.

Several chapters earlier, in Parshat Breishit, when the Torah talks about why the world needs to be destroyed, one of the reasons it gives is that great men would “take themselves wives, whoever they chose” (Breishit 6:2). If it sounds romantic, that they married for love, that is not the intention. The Midrash says: “took wives: women who were already married to someone else” (Breishit Rabba 26:5). If a wealthy and powerful man would see someone he liked, he would take her. He would not ask permission – not from her family, not from her husband if she had one, certainly not from her. He would just take.

Avraham is wealthy. He is respected, even powerful. He needs a girl from a specific family for his son. If he sends his servant, and the servant finds a suitable girl, but she doesn’t want to go, what should happen? Would his servant make her family “an offer they can’t refuse”?

Avraham? Never.

Is that because after the Flood, taking women by force was no longer acceptable by the newly rebuilt society, and wasn’t an option for anyone? Hardly. When the strikingly beautiful Sarah appears in the court of Pharaoh, there are two alternatives: if she’s married, her husband can be killed so she can be taken. Or, if she is under the protection of a brother, the brother can be paid, and she can be taken. The brother doesn’t need to agree; it’s not up to him at all.

But for Avraham, about whom Hashem himself said, “For I know him; that he will command his children, and his household after him; they will keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice “, this is not how things are done. Eliezer, a member of Avraham’s household and his representative, who keeps the way of Hashem, would not dream of using force, or guile, or bribery, to take Rivka from Lavan.

How, then, does one get what one desperately needs, if one can’t take it?

That is where diplomacy comes in. It is possible to get people to cooperate. It is possible to convince them of your need, of the rightness of your way, to create a narrative that they can identify with, to cause them to do the right thing.

To show us how this is done – that this is done – the Torah is prepared to invest a little bit of ink and a few pages of parchment. It is not something that one can derive through logic, from a hint in the text. It needs to be explicit.

Using his wits and his faith, Eliezer convinced Lavan, the most selfish man in all of Tanach, to let his sister out of his clutches. If this is possible, then other things are possible, too. Justice and righteousness, “the way of Hashem”, can succeed in this world.

In the Haftarah, the story has the same structure as the Parsha. Like Eliezer, we hear Natan and Batsheva making a plan to ensure that Shlomo is crowned, and we see them carrying it out. Unlike Eliezer, they did not ask for Divine Intervention. Nor did they need to manipulate David into doing the right thing. Why then, is their plan recorded in the Tanach? What were the alternatives there, what did not happen that might have?

In the ancient world, a contested royal succession meant inevitable bloodshed. Whichever of the princes wound up taking the throne would immediately murder the remaining contenders and their supporters. In a lesser kingdom than David’s, one that was not founded on “justice and righteousness”, Natan and Batsheva would have arranged for the warriors that sided with Shlomo to attack Adoniah’s supporters.

But that is not what happened. Natan and Batsheva needed something very desperately – it was a matter of life and death – and yet they did not take it by force. They achieved their goals through polite, well-considered discourse, maintaining respect and dignity – their own, and that of the aging King David.

The lesson of Eliezer’s diplomatic success is the lesson of Natan and Batsheva’s diplomatic success. In a society based on justice and righteousness, there is power in words.

And that is a lesson worth repeating.


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Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my parents, Peter & Nella Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ואמי מורתי חנה בת זעליג ז”ל

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