“Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.”
– Deuteronomy 32:1, JPS 1917 Tanach
As Moshe prepares to pass on his leadership to Joshua, he focuses on the conclusion of his speech to B’nei Yisrael. H’Shem explains to Moshe that at some point after being established in Eretz Canaan, on the other side of the Jordan River – the land that will be called Eretz Yisrael – the people will “go astray after the foreign gods of the land, whither they go to be among them, and will forsake Me, and break My covenant which I have made with them” (Deuteronomy 31:16, JPS). Therefore, H’Shem instructs Moshe to teach them a song – to be remembered – that will serve as a witness against them in future generations.
Moshe calls upon the heavens and the earth to serve as witnesses, since they will outlast the generations, always serving to remind Israel of this song. On another level, according to Rashi, the heavens and earth would actually play an active role in chastising Israel – the nourishing rains of the heavens would diminish, and the produce of the earth would be withheld. On a more subtle note, not only the words of this song reverberate throughout the heaven and earth; even H’Shem’s words, intent and guidance span the continents and the skies, reaching out to all who will listen intently for His voice.
“And it came to pass after these things, that G-d tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, [Hineni] Behold, here I am.” – Genesis 22:1, JPS 1917 Tanach
“Such is the answer of the pious: it is an expression of meekness and readiness.”
– Rashi, Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 22, sefaria.org
Abraham was called to bring his son Isaac as an offering to Mount Moriah – the future location of the Temple. He responded, without having specifically been told yet what commandment he was to fulfill. He answered with one word, “hineni,” “an expression of meekness and piousness.” Meekness denotes humility, in the face of G-d’s greatness. Readiness to serve H’Shem connotes the ideal mindset of a righteous person. Abraham made a commitment to carry out G-d’s will, inasmuch that his response was one of unequivocal piety, in regard to the will of the L-RD.
It is an even greater tribute to his merit, that upon hearing that he was to bring up Isaac as an offering, he did so without wavering. Consider the ramifications: Sarah was barren for thirty nine years, before G-d fulfilled the promise of a child. Abraham was ninety nine when Sarah gave birth. Isaac was the sole heir to the legacy of Abraham and Sarah, the next in line to fulfill the mission, whereof Abraham was called out from his homeland, to a place that he would be shown. To bring up Isaac as an offering was tantamount to the end of all the hope and aspirations of over fifty decades of patient waiting.
Yet, both father and son, Abraham and Isaac went willingly up Mount Moriah. Isaac permitted himself to be bound to the mizbeach (altar). Yet, when Abraham reached out for the macholes (knife), an angel stayed his hand, saying, “‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me’” (Genesis 22:12, JPS). Abraham was further blessed, “in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18, JPS).
Although the ram “caught in the thickets” was offered up instead of Isaac, Rashi comments that it was as if Isaac was offered up (Metsudah siddur). One reason why this reading may have been selected for Rosh HaShannah, is because the offering up of Isaac is seen as an atonement and source of merit for the Jewish people. As further mentioned in commentary, “As long as Israel makes mention of Isaac’s Akedah before Him, it continues to serve as an atonement for them” (Beit ha-Midrash, part V). And, “When you appear on trial before Me on Rosh ha-Shanah, come with the shofar. Then even if there are many accusers against you, I shall recall Isaac’s Akedah and acquit you” (Pesikta Rabbati, 167a).
Rosh HaShannah is a time of renewal. Through teshuvah (repentance) we prepare ourselves to face H’Shem: Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) on the Day of Judgment for the New Year. Through proper reflection, and rooting out our sins well in advance of that day, we hope to begin the new year with the resolve to start anew.
Inidentally, in regard to the renewal of the moon, on that day, when the first sliver of the new moon becomes visible, it is written that it is a time of atonement (Rosh Chodesh musaf service). The waning of the moon, until it is completely diminished by the end of the month, serves to remind us of our own deficiencies, faults, and weaknesses. At the end of the year, when the moon wanes towards the end of Elul; at this time, what merit can we claim in our lives over the past year. Knowing our spiritual paucity, we pray to H’Shem for His mercy.
Rosh HaShannah is considered to be a day of judgment for the new year. We would like to be judged favorably, so we make an accounting of the soul (heshbnon hanefesh), in order that our conscience will permit ourselves to stand before the King. According to the Zohar, “’You stand this day all of you before the L-RD your G-d’” (Deuteronomy 30:9) refers to Rosh HaShannah, when we stand before H’Shem in judgment for the New Year.
When we examine our conscience, we may be brought to a place of moral compunction as a result of guilt and remorse. During the Ten Days of Repentance, otherwise known as the Days of Awe, we continue to search our souls for the flaws that need to be brought into the light . During that time, any judgments against us for the year may be diminished through our efforts at “teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer), and tsedokah (charity),” the mitvoth (good deeds) that “avert the severity of the decree,” for the decrees are not sealed until Yom Kippur.
“And it shall come to pass, when all these things come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, – thou shalt bethink thyself among all the nations, wither the L-RD thy G-d has driven thee, and shalt return unto the L-RD thy G-d, and hearken to His voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul; that then the L-RD thy G-d will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the peoples, whither the L-RD thy G-d hath scattered thee.
– Deuteronomy 30:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach
The promise of return to the Land of Israel includes a reassurance of teshuvah; in other words, that the Jewish people will be moved by H’Shem to do teshuvah (repentance). The commandment to repent is phrased in the future tense, rather than in the imperative command form, because G-d wanted it to be an assurance to the Jewish people that in due time we would repent. Thus, as Rosh HaShannah approaches, we are reminded of the inevitable call towards teshuvah (repentance).
Commentary relates that the phrase vahasheivosa el–l’vavecha (then you will take it to your heart;” Deuteronomy 30:1) conveys the understanding that, an intellectual knowledge alone, concerning the importance of the service of G-d, is not enough; rather, it is necessary to bring this awareness into one’s heart – the seat of the emotions. As a result of this endeavor, repentance will follow.
The sense of renewal within the context of the ingathering of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael hints at the level of teshuvah that will occur at this time. The prophet Ezekiel spoke of an unprecedented restoration when we will be gathered in from the nations where we have been scattered:
“And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh; that they may walk in My statutes, and keep Mine ordinances, and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their G-d.”
– Ezekiel 11:19-20, JPS 1917 Tanach
As we approach Rosh HaShannah, we will soon hear the sounds the shofar. This may serve to remind of the time of the ingathering, “All ye inhabitants of the world, and ye dwellers on the earth, when an ensign is lifted up on the mountains, see ye; and when the horn [shofar] is blown, hear ye” (Isaiah 18:3, JPS 1917 Tanach)
Ki Tavo begins with the commandment of bikurim (first fruits). This commandment was to be performed after B’nei Yisrael entered Eretz Canaan, after taking possession of their inheritance, and living in the Land of Israel. This means that it was only incumbent upon them to observe the mitzvah of bikurim, after they were well established in the land. It was to serve as a reminder of their heritage. The declaration that is made at the time, encapsulates our history, beginning with Jacob, who went to Egypt with his entire family, during the famine, when Joseph provided for them. And, how we became slaves in Egypt; yet, H’Shem redeemed us, and we became His people, bound by covenant to the Torah.
This declaration, made after bringing a basket of the first fruits of one’s harvest to the Kohein, concerns our history, how we began as a small people, and became populous. And, after our redemption from slavery, were brought into “a land that flows with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 26:9). Therefore, bikurim is an expression of gratitude to H’Shem, as well as a tribute to His powerful redemptive act of bringing us out of Egypt, and a reminder of our past bondage. Our humble origins as a people, had to do with the sobering recollection that we were once enslaved in a foreign land. And, the import of this declaration brings to light all of the provisions bestowed upon us since that time.
The bikurim (first fruits) were brought to Yerushalayim, between Shavuot and Sukkot, the harvest season. The seven species from which they were selected were wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, olives, grapes, and dates. Today, these grains and fruits serve to remind us of our connection to the Land of Israel. We may enjoy these foods, especially at certain times, according to tradition, in the same spirit that B’nei Yisrael was called upon to rejoice in Yerushalayim, when they brought the bikurim.
“A perfect and just weight shalt thou have; a perfect and just measure shalt thou have; that thy days may be long upon the land which the L-RD thy G-d giveth thee.”
– Deuteronomy 25:15, JPS 1917 Tanach
The Torah commands us that we should have perfect and honest weights and measures (see above-mentioned verse, Deuteronomy 25:16). Rashi explains, that it is forbidden to use a large weight when buying, in order to get a grater quantity; and, a small weight for the sake of selling, in order to lose less. Sforno states clearly, “It’s forbidden for a Jew to own inaccurate weights and measures. Otherwise, the seller would be misled to give more than the buyer paid for; and, the buyer would receive less than actually paid for. G-d forbid.
In both of these cases, it is considered dishonest to deceive the seller or the buyer. Rather, H’Shem would have us be honest in all of our means of business. So, this commandment may be applied in other ways, to modern-day application as well. H’Shem would also like us to have the quality of honesty in our own lives as well that is perfect. Honesty should be an integral part of our character, so that we may live a life according to the ways, articulated by G-d’s words.
As Rosh HaShannah approaches, when we begin to weigh our lives in the balance, during the month of Elul, determining for ourselves by way of “examining our conscience,” whether we have been living according to H’Shem’s standard (the Torah), we will benefit from the endeavor when we do not cheat ourselves. For example, it may be too easy to weigh our good deeds against our faults, tipping the scale to the positive by ignoring some of the negative aspects of ourselves. Yet, on the other hand, if we focus too much upon the negative in regard to ourselves, we may risk bringing our emotional levels down too low. Rather, we should seek an honest account and balance the scale, with the help of H’Shem.
“A prophet will the L-RD thy G-d raise up unto thee, from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken.”
– Deuteronomy 18:15, JPS 1917 Tanach
Moshe speaks to the B’nei Yisrael (Children of Israel), concerning their own implied request for an intermediary, “according to all that thou didst desire of the L-RD thy G-d in Horeb [Sinai] in the day of the assembly, saying: ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the L-RD my G-d, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not ‘” (Deuteronomy 18:16).
H’Shem responded: “‘They have well said that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee; and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto My words which he shall speak in My name, I will require it of him’” (Deuteronomy 18:17-19).
Who is this mysterious prophet like unto Moshe, who speaks in H’Shem’s name? “As the first Redeemer [Moses], so the last Redeemer [Messiah]” (Numbers Rabbah 11:2). Moses was the first redeemer, who led the B’nei Yisrael out of Egypt; according to the sages, the final Redeemer, Messiah will be like unto Moses. The prophet mentioned, here, in this passage is Moshiach. He is raised up from amongst his own brethren (the Jewish people); and he speaks the words that H’Shem commands him to speak.
“For thou art a holy people unto the L-RD thy G-d, and the L-RD hath chosen thee to be His own treasure out of all the peoples that are upon the face of the earth.”
– Deuteronomy 14:2, JPS 1917 Tanach
The children of Israel are an am segulah – a treasured people – unto the L-RD. As a people, we are still His treasure, that He values “out of all the peoples that are upon the face of the earth.” In the words of the Targum, “a people more beloved than all the peoples who are upon the face of the earth” (Targum Jonathan; sefaria.org). Within the overall context of the passage, wherein this verse is found, this is the reason given for the children of Israel not to disfigure yourselves as is the custom of the nations to do when mourning. Additionally, as follows in the passage, also, not to eat anything considered to be an abomination.
This is the basis of holiness, whereas the Hebrew word translated as “holy” is kadosh, having the basic meaning of “to be separate,” as in separated unto the L-RD, or separate from the nations. According to Rashi, one reason for this spiritual status is because of the merit of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moreover, it is the children of Israel that H’Shem appeared to at Mt. Sinai; and, He gave us the Torah, when He made an eternal covenant with us. The eternal nature of this covenant is expressed as follows:
“Thus saith the L-RD, Who giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, who stirreth up the sea, that waves thereof roar, the L-RD of hosts is His name: If these ordinances depart from before Me, saith the L-RD, then the seed of Israel shall cease from being a nation before Me for ever. Thus saith the L-RD: If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, then will I also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith the L-RD.” – Jeremiah 31:35-37, JPS
In other words, our relationship with H’Shem is as sure as the heights of heaven and the foundation of the earth; by signifying our bond to H’Shem by way of this comparison, it is made clear to us that we are truly a treasured people unto the L-RD, despite all of our transgressions against Him. Even so, we are called to turn our hearts to Him, through sincere teshuvah (repentance), a heartfelt confession of our sins, with a commitment not to repeat them; rather, that our lives may be changed for the good.
“Everything is in the hands of G-d, except for the fear of G-d.” – Berachos 33b
“And now, Israel, what doth the L-RD thy G-d require of thee, but to fear the L-RD thy G-d, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the L-RD thy G-d with all thy heart and with all thy soul; to keep for thy good the commandments of the L-RD, and His statutes, which I command thee this day?” – Deuteronomy 10:12, JPS 1917 Tanach
Yiras H’Shem (fear of G-d) is a major component of one’s relationship to G-d; fear, in the sense of awe, reverence, and respect. The Torah records, “What doth the L-RD thy G-d require of thee, but to fear the L-RD thy G-d?” The quality of yiras H’Shem is what will determine the level of kedushah (holiness) in a person’s life. For our response to constant acknowledgment of G-d, will compel us to watch our own thoughts, speech, and behavior at all times, thereby elevating our level of kedushah.
Our response to H’Shem’s directive, through His commandments, requires giving Him the due respect that He deserves as our King. As a consequence of our reverence towards Him, we bring kedushah (holiness) into our lives through our obedience. We become sanctified through His commandments; every aspect of our lives may become sanctified (made holy). “Happy is everyone that feareth the L-RD, that walketh in His ways” (Psalm 128:1, JPS 1917 Tanach).
“Ye that did cleave unto the L-RD your G-d are alive every one of you this day.”
– Deuteronomy 4:4, JPS 1917 Tanach
During Moshe’s speech that lasted thirty-seven days, he prepared B’nei Yisrael to enter the Promised Land. He cautioned them, admonished them, and reminded them in a tactful way of previous sins. Rather than naming the sins, he would mention the place where the transgressions occurred.
One such instance that appears a little more direct is when he mentions the matter of Baal-peor, whereof H’Shem punished “all the men that followed the Baal of Peor [the deity of the Midianites]” (Deuteronomy 4:3). He further mentions that those who cleaved to H’Shem, rather than follow the deity, “are alive every one of you this day” (Deuteronomy 4:4, JPS 1917 Tanach).
This juxtaposition makes it clear that those who did not transgress through idolatry and licentiousness were preserved by H’Shem because they “cleaved” to Him. The Hebrew word used for “cleave,” in this instance, is “deveykut.” The word connotes a clinging to H’Shem in the sense of one who is dependent on Him for his sense of well-being.
Deveykut is necessary for hitbodedut (Jewish meditation). Within the practice of hitbodedut, one pours out his heart to H’Shem, hoping for an answer to all of his prayers. Yet, in complete deveykut, one lives his life in constant acknowledgement of the L-RD. Furthermore, he is able to speak to H’Shem from within in his heart in the quiet moments of the day. May we avoid the secular deities of modern society, so that we can cleave to the L-RD in our own lives.