Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Parashat Ki Tavo: Return to Origins

  Return to Origins

Thoughts on Parashat Ki Tavo 2020

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As Moshe began to mention potential blessings and curses to Am Yisrael, he said:

This day Hashem your God charges you to do these statutes and these laws… (Devarim 26:16)

And several sentences later, he stated:

This day you have become a people to Hashem Your God. (27:9)

The description of these events occurring on “this day” is puzzling. The missvot and berit with God were established long before these final words of Moshe! Why, then, did he describe them as happening “on this day”? Rashi explained that by referring to “this day” Moshe was instructing the people to continuously return their hearts and minds to the original moments of receiving the commandments and establishing a covenant with God.[1]


In a well-known passage, the Rabbis envisioned every experience of talmud Torah as one of “return.” R. Simlai taught that the embryo is taught the entire Torah as it crouches in its mother’s fetus. As soon as the baby sees light, however, an angel comes and slaps it on the mouth, causing it to forget the entire Torah.[2] “When a Jew studies Torah, he is confronted with something…familiar,” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l explained, “because he has already studied it and the knowledge was stored up in the recesses of his memory.”[3] Strikingly similar to the Platonic theory of knowledge as recollection, R. Simlai taught that we return to our origin every time we study words of Torah.


This lesson of “continuous return” is perhaps latent in the game of baseball, as well. Beginning with their stance at “home,” baseball players then circle the bases with the goal of getting back to “home.”

The 20th Century poet T.S. Eliot memorably wrote about the irony of a life-long “journey to return”:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.[4]

But it was long before, in God’s words to Adam and Hava after sin, that He mapped out our life trajectory as circular in motion, ending just where it began:

By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the soil, for from there were you taken, for dust you are and to dust shall you return. (Bereshit 3:19)

Moshe’s words to the people, then, represent a broader perspective regarding our life’s direction. He taught that although we spend most of our time marching forward to the beat of innovation and progress, we will inevitably return to our humble place of origin at some point. Each of us will retreat to our “true” self, coming back to the time we first received the missvot and committed ourselves to God.


R. Adin Steinsaltz z”l pointed to Daniel Pearl’s final words as evidence of our innate drive to return. Pearl, an assimilated Jewish journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002, famously said in his final moment alive: “My name is Daniel Pearl. I am an American Jew. My father is Jewish, my mother’s Jewish. I’m Jewish.”[5]


The current global pandemic has had me thinking more and more about our individual and collective return to beginnings.

The threat of coronavirus has spurred a mass movement out of the fast-paced, human-built cities and into the idyllic space of the primordial countryside. Young adults have returned from college campuses to live in the childhood quarters of their parents’ homes. And many men and women are now spending their daytime hours outside of the workplace inside their homes. Though I’m aware that these changes probably won’t last long after the discovery of a vaccine, I’ve nonetheless seen this time as an important “reality check” for us all. It has caused a widespread return to origins.


The lesson of “return” is particularly relevant to Jews during this period of the year. Teshuvah signifies a circular motion. “When one finds oneself on the circumference of a large circle, it sometimes seems that the starting point is becoming farther and farther removed,” R. Soloveitchik remarked, “but actually it is getting closer and closer.”[6]


Our current lives have forced upon us Moshe’s lesson of a continuous return to origins. Opening our eyes to this reality will provide direction for a successful journey of teshuvah in the weeks and days ahead.

[1] Commentary of Rashi to Devarim 26:16, s.v. ha-yom, and 27:9 s.v. ha-yom.

[2] Nidah 30b.

[3][3] R. Joseph B. Solovetchik, Confrontation and Other Essays (New Milford, CT, 2016), pg. 81.

[4] T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Orlando, FL, 1988), pg. 59.

[5] R. Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, The Soul (New Milford, CT, 2018), pg. 38.

[6] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 33.

Parashat Ki Tesse: Memory


Thoughts on Parashat Ki Tesse 2020

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As Moshe continued his final sermon to Am Yisrael, he reflected upon their battle against Amalek, which took place forty years earlier:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out of Egypt, how he fell upon you on the way and cut down all the stranglers, with you famished and exhausted, and he did not fear God (Devarim 25:17-18)

Foreseeing the future conquest of the Land of Israel, Moshe commanded:

You shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens, you shall not forget. (25:19)

Interestingly, the God had already taught about the “memory” of Amalek in His command to Moshe immediately after the battle:

And God said to Moshe: “Write this down as a remembrance in a record…that I will surely wipe out the name of Amalek from under the heavens.” (Shemot 17:14)

In the initial telling, it was God who would wipe out the name of Amalek, with the “memory” of Amalek stored in writing. The command now voiced by Moshe, in contrast, placed the responsibility of “memory” and destruction upon the people, with no mention of any written text.


Let us consider, for a moment, a basic difference between “history” and “memory. The contemporary Jewish thinker Yehuda Kurtzer wrote, “History liberates while memory obligates.”[1] We study history in order to learn from the past about how to act in the future. Realizing that history often repeats itself, we use our knowledge of it to break free of previous mistakes in similar contexts. But memory is different. Consider, for example, the way that memory of trauma or suffering controls our minds and actions. And since the memory may never be erased, we turn to therapy and psychoanalysis in attempt to, at the very least, reinterpret its harmful influence. While history informs, memory commands.


History is an external force which we use to our advantage. Memory is an internal reality which takes advantage of us. I’m reminded in this context of a story that is told about R. Haim Volper, a student of the great Magid of Mezeritch, who once lodged at an inn where a young Lithuanian rabbi was staying. The Lithuanian rabbi was curious about the teachings and traditions of the Magid of Mezertitch, who was well-known as a Hasidic legend. He waited for the Volper Rebbe to fall asleep, and quickly rifled through his suitcase, hoping to find some writings from the Magid. “Can I help you?” the Volper asked, awakened by the sound of an intruder in his room. After the rabbi admitted his intentions, the Rebbe quipped, “Writings?! There are no writings! Everything the great Magid taught was etched into our hearts!”[2] History is written in the static pages of a book and preserved as an eternal lesson. Memory, however, is “etched onto the heart,” constantly guiding its bearer on the road ahead.


Following Am Yisrael’s early fight against Amalek, God commanded Moshe to record the war as history – “Write this down as a remembrance in a record.” The history would affect the people’s future perspective, providing guidance for life ahead. But it wouldn’t command any forthright action from the people. Moshe’s final words shifted that directive. They taught that the battle against Amalek was not merely a historical event; it was a memory. And memory has a life of its own. It actively lives on with its bearer, determining their future course of events and forcing their decisions. Moshe thus taught that memory of the war with Amalek demands action – “You shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek.”


Moshe’s method for instructing to remember and seek the destruction of Amalek sheds a broader light onto a life governed by Torah. It teaches that the Torah is more than just a book of history which provides perspective and direction. It is a “living memory” which determines our existence and decides our actions.

[1] Yehuda Kurtzer, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past (Waltham, MA, 2012), pg. 30.

[2] See Dovid’l Weinberg, Birth of the Spoken Word: Personal Prayer as the Goal of Creation (Jerusalem, IS, 2020), pg. 293.