The Law of the King, in the Book of Deuteronomy sets out the rules for a constitutional monarchy for the nation of Israel. For over a thousand years, kings were judged by how well they followed its precepts. But in the writings of the later prophets, the Law of the King suddenly became applicable to individual citizens. What was behind this radical shift?
This week’s parashah continues Moshe’s orations to the Israelites in the desert. The setting plays a crucial role in understanding what is going on: it is the eve of their transformation from a group of wandering tribes into a nation. It is no coincidence that this parashah is called “ekev”, literally “because of”. This parashah is about historical consequences.
Although the commandments—the contract between God and Israel—were written on stone, the voice of God never ceased speaking; it is heard to this day, if we will only listen.
This week’s Torah reading includes the troubling story of how Moshe performed a miracle to provide water for his thirsty people, and how he was punished for it. But what did Moshe do wrong? Why was he punished for doing more or less what God had commanded him to do? The answer lies in a comparison of this story with a parallel narrative found elsewhere in the Torah.
The mitzvot of Shmittah and Yovel set out a complete program of social and religious life that encompasses respect for others, for the the land, and for God. Israel’s right to live in peace and prosperity in its own land is conditional on its building a model society, which provides a safety blanket for its weakest members. We aren’t just told to have compassion on those who are down on their luck; we are legally mandated to act toward them as we would toward our closest family.
The receiving of the Torah marks the official incorporation of Am Yisrael—the final step in the transition from disparate individuals with a common kinship and history into a people, bound to each other by irrevocable decree. And yet, there is some question of whether the Covenant was a voluntary agreement.
In our parasha, we first hear Ya’akov’s sons referred to as “Bnei Yisrael”—the sons of Israel, rather than “Yoseph’s brothers”. While Yoseph’s brothers may make individual choices and mistakes and Ya’akov’s sons may decide for the family, it is Bnei Yisrael who represent the entire Jewish nation—past, present, and future. It is by that designation that they take their first step into what will soon become Egyptian slavery and subsequent nationhood. What brings about this first nominal hint of history in the making? To answer that, we need to go back two parshiot, to the incident of Tamar and Yehuda.
While the story of Ya’akov was a story of deceit, the story of Yoseph is a story of tests—wheels within wheels, and intrigue within intrigue. It can be easy to miss the most subtle test of all—that of Yoseph himself. Yoseph is the prototype assimilated Jew—the Jew who rises to the top by dint of clear thinking and hard work, but who has to jettison his connections to his past to do so. Can he reclaim his identity before it is to late?
The story of Yoseph is propelled along by the motive force of dreams. These dreams come in pairs, and each of them is a window into a possible future—perhaps a future that would never come to pass had the dream never been told. Where do dreams untold go? Perhaps we’ll never know. After all, we are the product of those that were told.
The deception of his brother and his father has weighed heavily on him. For nearly two decades, he has lived away from home; ample time for the event to magnify itself in his mind and become a fixation. He knows that he did wrong. He also knows that it was necessary. Now, he’s about to face his ultimate challenge…himself!