Most people know that the story of Noah contains the first reference to law: the Seven Noahide Commandments are seen as the minimal requirements for civilized human society. But what many don’t know is that there is a second set of “Noahide Commandments” derived from this week’s parasha. These laws are not about human society, but about the survival of all life on earth.
A secret is concealed in the juxtaposition of Parashat Ki Tavo and Nitzavim. We are told how to relate to our history, and that we will not face it alone. “When all this has come upon you…” The procedure for bringing the first fruits contains a holographic image of all of our history. It is the model for the period in which we now find ourselves, now that all of this has come upon 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.
Civilizations tend to peak and then die out without a trace. In fact, often enough the success of a nation is a sign of its imminent demise. And yet, we’re still here. The Jewish people was a “nation” long before the invention of the modern nation. It reached its peak of power and, by all the rules governing the evolution of civilizations, should have peaked and collapsed. And yet, that isn’t the way the story ended. Could it be that the dire prophecies at the end of our Torah were a blessing in disguise?
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.
This week’s Torah reading, parashat Mattot-Masai, rounds off Sefer BaMidbar (Numbers). Among the narratives of battles, conquests, and politics, we can also discern a subtle shift in divine-human relations: only in the last few parshiot do human beings begin bringing questions and requests to change the law. What brought about this change?
The Torah calls attention to two dangers facing the Israelites in their encounter with Moav. The first is the danger of cultural assimilation. A clash of cultures need not involve active enmity; it is possible for a culture to succumb to too much love just as surely as to oppression. But there is a second danger as well: that of moral degradation. Israel’s encounter with Moav involved both of these pitfalls and resulted in a rift between the two nations that would not be healed for generations.
One of the lessons of Parashat Balak is that things aren’t always what they seem, that human intentions don’t always pan out the way we imagine, and that there is an overall scheme of things invisible to the limited sight of a single generation.
Self-fulfilling prophecies are often crucial to the birth of a people. When Jews bless their sons on Friday night, they say, “May you be like Ephraim and like Menashe”. Why not “like Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Yakov”? After all, we bless our daughters that they be like the four matriarch’s: Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, so why not bless our sons that they be like the patriarchs? Why Ephraim and Menashe?
It’s been said that the first chapter of B’reishit (Genesis) contains polemics against just about every worldview common in the ancient world. One of those worldviews is the notion of destiny, that a person’s fate is written in the stars. B’reishit puts the emphasis from the very beginning on human free will.