This Shiur is in memory of Rabbi Cyril Harris, former Chief Rabbi of South Africa.
Life and Death
The sefer of Devarim opens with the first three parshiot of Devarim, Vaetchanan, and Ekev essentially surveying the wilderness years, analyzing those years critically with a view to the future from the experiences of the past. The last four parshiot, Nitzavim, Vayelech, Haazinu and Vezot Haberacha serve as a summary of the entire Torah, and the relationship between the people of Israel and the Almighty; that relationship not only being reflected by an ‘official agreement’, but also by the berachot given by Hashem to each Tribe in the final parasha. In truth, the concluding process of sefer Devarim really begins in Parashat Ki Tavo at the start of Chapter 27.
In between the first and last sections of sefer Devarim we have four parshiot – Re’eh, Shoftim, Ki Teitze, and the first section of Ki Tavo. These parshiot are arguably the real content of the sefer, the underlying theme of the sefer should be reflected in these parshiot, yet at first glance it appears that we are being inundated with a list of many mitzvoth covering subjects that vary from national issues such as appointing a king, to family issues regarding marriage and children. Indeed it appears to be extremely difficult to see any real pattern or theme that connects these parshiot together, thus leaving our overall understanding of sefer Devarim wanting.
I would like to suggest two ways of explaining these four parshiot, firstly by way of peshat, and secondly, by way of derash:
An explanation through peshat:
Sefer Devarim contains the concluding words of Moshe Rabbeinu to Am Yisrael. If we accept this as our starting point, it is easy to comprehend as to why Moshe would begin his final speech by referring to the events that occurred during his leadership; it is equally logical that towards the end of the sefer, Moshe would be interested in emphasizing the inherent relationship between Am Yisrael and the Almighty, firstly by reiterating the obligations that the people are committed to fulfill, and secondly by blessing the people through prophecy, and thus in the name of God.
Yet besides recapping the past forty years whilst at the same time confirming our unique relationship with the Almighty, Moshe has a third objective – to prepare the people for the ideal scenario – living as a people in the land of Israel.
A recurring theme in parashat Re’eh is “the place that God will choose” – that place being Yerushalayim. That is our goal that is where we aim to reach – the Bet Mikdash in Yerushalayim. Hence when the chagim are ‘repeated’ in parashat Re’eh they are not all listed as they were in parashat Emor, only the ‘Shalosh Regalim’ – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot; only those festivals when we are obliged to go to Yerushalayim are mentioned in parashat Re’eh, because parashat Re’eh defines for the people the ultimate objective – the Bet Hamikdash.
Having defined the goal, Moshe then goes on to explain in detail, how we should attain that objective.
Rambam in the very first Halacha of Hilchot Melachim, explains that we are commanded to do three things upon entering Eretz Yisrael: Firstly, we must anoint a King; we must then destroy Amalek, and only after that may we build the Bet Mikdash. In fact this is exactly what happened (though it did take some time); Shaul was appointed King, he failed to destroy Amalek and was replaced by David, who was symbolically at war with Amalek at the very same time that Shaul was fatally wounded. And as we know David’s son Shlomo built the Bet Mikdash.
The parasha of Shoftim deals with the first of the three obligations as cited by Rambam – ‘Malchut’: The parasha deals with the appointing of a King, waging war, and municipal responsibilities.
The parasha of Ki Teitze continues the theme of war but concludes with the commandment to destroy Amalek.
The parasha of Ki Tavo begins with the mitzvah of bringing Bikurim to the Bet Mikdash; the ‘vidduy’ – confession, said at the time of bringing Bikurim is very much reflective of the ultimate realization of an objective. We are commanded not only to bring our first fruits, but also to briefly summarize our history as a people, with the bringing of Bikurim to the Bet Mikdash in Yerushalayim symbolizing the realization of everything that we have been working towards.
Thus if we now look at sefer Devarim we can see a very complete logical pattern: At the start of the sefer. Moshe the leader summarizes and analyzes the events of the wilderness years, with a look towards the future. In the next section of the sefer Moshe defines to his people the objectives that lay ahead and the order in which things must be done. Having defined to the last detail our objectives for the future, Moshe then reiterates our commitment towards Hashem, and His commitment towards us.
(*The three mitzvoth referred to by Rambam can also be explained from the individual’s perspective: As human beings our objective is to build our own personal Bet Mikdash, yet how are we to achieve such a goal? Firstly we must accept the Almighty as our King. We must internalize that Hashem is the only real force in this world. We must then destroy Amalek. Amalek in chassidut represents ‘doubt’; in fact in Hebrew the numerical value of the word Amalek is equal to that of the word doubt. Even once we have accepted God to be our King, there are always doubts. Indeed the Baal Hatanya states that every transgression reflects a lack of true belief, an element of Amalek. Thus having established our King we must then destroy any further doubts. It is only after these two stages are complete that we can truly establish our own individual Bet Mikdash.
It is also of great interest that the three festivals of the month of Tishrei can be paralleled to our three-point plan: Rosh Hashana is all about declaring God to be King. The essence of Rosh Hashana is accepting upon ourselves ‘Ol Malchut Shamayim’ – the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. Rosh Hashana is followed by Yom Kippur (Kippur is ‘like Purim’ – the day where we celebrate the destruction of Amalek); on Yom Kippur we are like angels, we have no doubts, there is no Amalek, we are absolute in our dedication to the Almighty, and He is absolute in His dedication towards us on this wonderful day.
Yom Kippur is followed by Sukkot, the only one of the three festivals where constant celebration takes place – in the Bet Mikdash, by way of Simchat Bet Hashoaiva. So once again we see, Malchut, Amalek and the Bet Mikdash.)
An explanation through derash:
When Moshe our leader addresses the people of Israel, he is not only addressing the Nation as a whole, he is at the same time addressing the individual. We exist not only as Am Yisrael but also as individual people. Thus when Moshe recaps the history of the people he is on the one hand speaking to us as a nation, yet at the same time he is speaking to us as individual human beings who are responsible for our actions.
Similarly, at the end of the sefer when berachot are being given and commitments are being made, we cannot for one moment presume that these commitments only involve the Nation as a whole, the Nation is made up of individuals!
Yet how can we understand the middle parshiot on a micro level? If one follows Netivot Shalom through from parashat Re’eh until parashat Ki Teitze we can see a very clear message being sent to each and every one of us, by Moshe Rabbeinu.
At the beginning of parashat Re’eh we are being told that Hashem has laid before us the chance to really live our lives. Our lives can be extremely positive, or Heaven forbid, we can spoil our incredible opportunity. Our life can be a ‘beracha’ or it can be a ‘klalla’ – a blessing or a curse – it very much depends on how we approach our lives, on how we use our time. We have been given clear ways of how to infuse spirituality into a physical world, through kashrut, through festivals. Will Yerushalayim be the center of our life? Will Hashem be the priority, or will we choose wrongly.
Parashat Re’eh, sets for each and every one of us the goal, we are told what we must do, all is in place.
Then we proceed to parashat Shoftim: Here we are told to set for ourselves Judges and Policemen at our gates. Netivot Shalom explains that before we do any given action we must firstly assess the correctness of that action; we must judge the reality with which we are faced. However, judging any given situation is not sufficient, there needs to be a way of enforcing our conclusions. It is not good enough to conclude that a particular action is not good; we need to ensure that we keep as far away from the temptations in front of us as possible. Hence we need judges and policemen, judges to assess and police to enforce. The objective in parashat Shoftim is to create inner Malchut, inner control and supremacy over the inclination from within.
Yet it does not end with the establishment of Malchut, with a stable sovereignty. The first stage is to control the inclination from taking over from within – to defend; the next stage, however, is to initiate war against that inclination – to attack, culminating in the absolute destruction of Amalek – doubt. The parasha of Ki Teitze, is taking the Malchut established in the previous parasha and moving forward. Here we are not defending ourselves against the evil inclination; we are attacking the evil within us, with an aim at taking control in absolute terms.
The two stages as described in Shoftim and Ki Teitze can be compared to the distinct sections in the Bet Mikdash:
Outside the Heichal we have the ‘Mizbaiyach Hanechoshet’ – the altar on which animals are offered. Inside the Heichal we have the Golden Altar where only ‘ketoret’ – incense, are offered; the inner altar being surrounded by the menorah and the shulchan. The first stage in our service of Hashem is control of the animal within us, symbolized by offering up the animal on the altar; the second stage is to be so in control of the animal within us that our entire being is spiritual as symbolized by the inner mizbayach and the ‘ketoret’.
Having lived our lives as defined by parashat Re’eh – having established Malchut, and having fought our battles, we reach the age of 120, and are required to bring our first fruits to the Almighty.
Or Hachaim Hakadosh has a remarkable essay at the start of parashat Ki Tavo, where he parallels the bringing of bikkurim – first fruits in the Bet Mikdash, to the day of final judgment when we die and go to Heaven:
‘Ki Tavo’ is referring to the end of our life when we go to Heaven. In our hands we have a basket of first fruits, a basket containing our real achievements in this world. At the end of days, we will be required to stand before the Almighty and explain what we have done with our precious gift of life. Will our basket be full? Will the fruits be ripe? We will stand before Hashem and try to explain why we went wrong where we went wrong.
The parasha of Re’eh defines the potential, the parasha of Ki Tavo reminds us that these are real issues; we are not talking about some detached theological theory, but rather our truest reality. The potential is there, the gift has been given, it is our duty to fulfill to the full, and we will be expected to account for our actions.
This week’s parasha falls during the Shiva of Rabbi Harris, the former Chief Rabbi of South Africa; I would like to end this shiur with a few words in memory of this truly great man.
There were two Rabbis in England who influenced me deeply during my years of childhood and young adulthood.
Rabbi Isaac Bernstein of blessed memory passed away almost eleven years ago exactly; He was my true mentor and teacher in my years at Jews College and for many years afterwards. He was and remains a source of absolute inspiration, and I miss him daily.
Rabbi Cyril Harris was Rabbi in Edgware (my home town) during the mid 70s, these were my formative years, and it can be by no coincidence that I remember Rabbi Harris so well. I have spent much of the last week thinking about the Rabbi, and that fact speaks for itself. If after almost thirty years a teacher still remains a distinct part of his student, it says an enormous amount about the teacher.
Rabbi Harris had a presence about him, when he entered the room, a form of malchut entered with him. When he taught us in cheder we sat in awe. He would ask a question, if we answered incorrectly we would get a very stern response, that was inevitably followed by a huge smile and the regular comment in his strong Scottish accent that if we didn’t get it right next time he would ‘box our ears and send us to Hong Kong’.
To this day I remember the Shabbat afternoon shiur between mincha and maariv. Is it not remarkable that I remember the Gemara that he taught us – Beitza? I understood very little, but the man was an inspiration. When my mother or father wanted me to do something, it would be endorsed by the view of Rabbi Harris. In fact this spiritual leader had such an effect on my family, that when he decided to leave Edgware, I remember my mother taking me aside and sharing the news in an atmosphere of mourning. The fact that he would not be able to address me at my barmitzvah was a disappointment for us all.
This was a Rabbi who was everywhere. I would see him in shul on Shabbat afternoon giving shiur, in cheder on Sunday morning, and then playing cricket with the community in the afternoon. His presence was everywhere, and his influence followed closely behind.
When I returned from Israel, and was looking towards my future, my parents sent me to St. Johns Wood to meet the Rabbi. I remember the encounter to this day. You had to respect a man of such stature, his opinion always had to be considered.
Rabbi Harris was a man of principle. On numerous occasions whilst studying in Jews College I saw that Rabbi Harris was exactly who he appeared to be. When not in front of his congregants he was still the same person, his sincerity and strength stood out. I saw him argue matters of principle, and time and again I stood back in awe.
When I visited South Africa two years ago, I asked to meet with the Rabbi, and I was honored that he found half an hour in his busy schedule for me. He showed genuine interest in what I was doing, and once again gave me strength and input with which to move forward.
When his sefer was released I asked my parents if they would get me a copy. The inscription that was addressed to me as ‘yedid nefesh’ – ‘soul friend’, once again touched me. It is hard for me to express the inner sadness that I feel at his passing. For the past week things just haven’t been the same. I feel a deep sense of mourning, and personal loss, and I am sure that there are many who feel the same way.
My most influential teachers from my days in England have both passed on to the world of truth, and being orphaned from ones mentors leaves one feeling rather empty. Both great leaders were taken from us in Ellul – the month that expresses the mutual love between God and His people. My Rabbis from Ireland and Scotland are now in Heaven surely reaping the rewards of lifetimes spent dedicated to the community.
I, like so many others have prayed thrice daily for Rav Shlomo Zalman ben Malka, and for his speedy recovery. Alas, the Almighty decided that our great Rabbi was needed in Heaven, his plans for retirement were not to be. The South African Ambassador to Israel spoke of celebrating great men, in the long run he is undoubtedly correct, but for now we mourn the passing of a great leader; a man who was in the right place at the right time, a man of true perspective, a man of principle.
We are left with the memories and actions of our great teachers that will continue to inspire and strengthen us. My heartfelt condolences go out to the Rebbetzin, and the Rabbis two sons, Rabbi Michael Harris and Jonathan Harris. I am comforted by our Rabbis who tell us that::
“Those who busy themselves with the needs of the community, the Almighty will pay their reward”.
May his memory be blessed.