It’s been noted that the Mishkan which the Israelites were commanded to build in the desert bears a striking resemblance to the royal military tent of Pharaoh Ramses II. Further, the Ark of the Covenant appears to have been modeled after an Egyptian sacred boat. What are we to make of these parallels? Are they merely a matter of historical curiosity or is there a deeper meaning?
This week’s parashah takes place in the midst of the dramatic ceremony of the Covenant at Sinai. The Israelites have accepted the terms and conditions and now stand poised to sign on the dotted line. Now comes the small print: the actual terms and conditions they are to keep. But there’s something very odd about the way the names of God come up in presenting these laws….
In the immediate aftermath of the exodus, the Israelites are faced with a series of tests designed to ascertain whether this newly constituted nation can escape their mental slavery in order to take on the mission that God has in mind for them. The results illustrate that it’s easier to take the people out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of the people!
When Moshe is told to go back to Egypt and free the Israelites, he asks “What if they won’t believe me?” God’s answer is in the form of symbolic wonders, each of which involve things becoming something contrary to their nature: a healthy hand that becomes leprous, and a staff that becomes a snake. But why a snake? The choice of this particular animal is no coincidence. In fact, it’s the key to Moshe’s mission!
While the Torah explicitly cautions against putting the younger before the elder in terms of inheritance, time and time again, the narrative portions of the Torah provide a lesson to the contrary: Yitzhak before Yishmael, Yaakov before Esau, Rahel before Leah, Yoseph before all his elder brothers, and Ephraim before Menashe. What is the meaning of this odd discord between law and example? What is the Torah trying to tell us?
Why is Avraham depicted coming back from the Akeda alone? Where was Yitzhak? The sages of the Talmud offer a strange answer: he was off studying Torah with Shem, the favored son of Noah! What are we to make of this notion? Are we to conclude that Yitzhak put on a suit and hat and sat down in a classroom? Such a simplistic understanding misses the point entirely. The less literal interpretation is both richer and more meaningful.
History shows that civilizations rise, reach their peak, and decline into oblivion. And yet, one small nation somehow managed to escape that fate. But how? This weak’s parashah offers a recipe to escape the cycle, but it is a drastic one indeed!
“Not only with you am I making this covenant and this oath, but with those standing here with us today before the Eternal our God, and with those who are not here with us, this day.” Every generation is the Jewish people. And every generation must choose life or death: do we pass on our traditions to our children or do we let the Jewish people die with us?
Parashat Ki Tavo begins with the description of the ritual whereby the Israelite farmer is to offer the first fruits of the harvest at the Temple in Jerusalem. However, the second half of the parasha describes the horrendous fate that will befall the nation of Israel in the future. The juxtaposition of these two discordant descriptions is no coincidence. Parashat Ki Tavo is a lesson in learning from history.
This week’s parasha includes the celebrated “law of the birds nest”, the observance of which is associated in the Torah with long life. But what kind of long life is meant here? A case can be made that what is at stake is not the life of the individual but of the society as a whole.