This class is taking place in Manhattan on 9/11. Here, eighteen years ago, the most horrendous terrorist attack in history occurred at the Twin Towers. We dedicate today’s class to the memory of the thousands who perished, as well as to the heroes who saved so many, to the wounded, and to everyone else who was impacted by this tragedy.
I am an Israeli and we have experienced horrible terrorist attacks of our own. From far away, we watched the American people, cope with this tragedy, understanding that radical Islam had now become our common enemy.
And here we are now, in Manhattan, reading the first passage in this week’s Torah portion Ki Teitzei.
1. When You Go to War
כִּי תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֶיךָ וּנְתָנוֹ ה‘ אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ
“When you go out to war against your enemies and the Lord, your G-d, delivers them into your hand and you take prisoners from them.” (Deut. 21:10)
Many commentators tell us that this is not a description of an ancient war somewhere in the desert, but of a war that is happening now. A cultural war. A war of civilizations. And there is another sentence ithis week’s Parash, also very relevant:
זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם
It is my first time here in this date. I understand that for you, 9/11 was Biblical in its dimensions. Nearly 3,000 perished in an instant–ground to death, burned alive, or fell to their deaths–in the most famous symbols of the West’s material success, while the entire planet watched on live, international television.
I want to quote words of wisdom written by Professor Benjamin Blech, of Yeshiva University, on 9/11 and on its lessons:
“religion is fire and fire warms, but it also burns, and we are the guardians of the flame
“The great tragedy of life,” Kierkegaard wrote, “is that it must be lived forward and can only be understood backwards.”
We cannot truly understand events as they unfold. It is only with the perspective of time that we can begin to grasp their true meaning. It is a truth that rabbinic commentators point out is expressed in the Torah.
In response to the request from Moses that he be allowed to see God’s glory, the Almighty tells him, “You can see My back, but My face you cannot perceive.” The Almighty obviously has no physical form; what He meant was that His relationship to the world could only be understood in retrospect.
A decade has passed since the horrifying attack of 9/11 on American shores. Life has never been the same since then, neither here nor in the rest of the world. And what new insights have we gained since that tragic moment in September of 2001?
In one sense, we share the feeling of Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, who when asked in the mid-twentieth century what he thought about the impact of the French Revolution of 1789, responded simply, “It is too soon to say.” We cannot yet fully grasp all the consequences of that seminal moment in history when Bin Laden chose to begin the war of East versus West, of Muslim fanaticism against Judeo-Christian values.
But what we have learned in these last ten years is that we are engaged in a conflict rooted not in a desire for more land, for more wealth, for more power, but a war that is meant to decide between two visions. “The difference between you and us,” Osama Bin Laden famously said, “is that you glorify life and we glorify death.” There cannot be a starker and more succinct summary of what is at stake in this battle. To call our enemies terrorists is to diminish the scope of their evil intentions.
Today at the very least, we recognize that what we are fighting for is nothing less than the survival of civilization. And our goal must therefore be the Biblical mandate we have been given from God in the Torah to “choose life.”
But this war is not merely a physical conflict and many commentators emphasize that we do not read this parasha during the month of Elul by chance.
The war, our commentators explain, is a war against the yetzer, our evil inclination. Yes, the parasha deals with a physical battle, but take a look at a story taken from the book “Hovot Halevavot” (Duties of the Heart), whose main idea is found in other sources, too:
There was a certain chasid who saw soldiers walking happily along while beating drums since they had just been victorious in a war against a neighboring country. The chasid addressed them with these words: “Why are you so happy? Yes, the little war you have won, but the big war still awaits.” The soldiers said to him: “But this was a very big war. Why say it was a small war?” The chasid answered them: “Because every war in the world is considered small in comparison to the war against the evil inclination, since it is the big war in our lives. It is a constant, sophisticated war without end, a fight against our undesirable qualities, our unrefined speech, our improper thoughts and actions.”
As is well known, military generals who are admired and glorified and lead huge armies can fail in fighting this big war.
While we occupy ourselves with little wars, studying and analyzing them in great detail, debating tactics, strategy, and the correct battlefield moves that need to be made – the big war of our lives is minimized and removed from our thoughts.
And there is a deep connection between this big war – which concerns our principles, values, ethics, and spiritual life – and the outcomes on the battlefield. And off course, The month of Elul is the month for self-improvement and character refinement, the month of the big war.
Let’s move on. After the main headline of the parasha –“When you go out to war against your enemies” – let’s dive a little deeper. There are no less than 74 mitzvot in this parasha, more mitzvot than in any other Torah portion. We have been given more than 70 “weapons” in this war. Many commentators tried to find a common thread or organizing principle for these mitzvahs.
What we are dealing with here is a continuation of Moses’ farewell speech to the people. Moses enumerates many commandments and prohibitions, some of which were mentioned previously in the Torah, some of which were not. Some of them receive special emphasis here or are further developed.
We will speak about two mitzvot only – of the “obvious” variety – that do not typically receive much attention. They are the most “banal” and familiar mitzvot, but we will seek to find in them additional depth.
2. Returning a Lost Object
לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ... וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְכָל אֲבֵדַת אָחִיךָ אֲשֶׁר תֹּאבַד מִמֶּנּוּ וּמְצָאתָהּ לֹא תוּכַל לְהִתְעַלֵּם
You shall not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall return them to your brother… So shall you do with his donkey, and so shall you do with his garment, and so shall you do with any lost article of your brother which he has lost and you have found. You will not be able to ignore [it]. (Deut. 22:1-3)
רש“י: לא תוכל להתעלם – לִכְבֹּשׁ עֵינְךָ כְּאִלּוּ אֵינְךָ רוֹאֶה אוֹתוֹ
You must not remain indifferent. (תרגום)
Rashi: You will not be able to ignore it – by averting your eyes, as if you did not notice it.
Rav Michael Yammer, head of Yeshivat Shaalvim, opened the first day of learning in the yeshiva last year with the final words of the third verse quoted above. He said that they are the foundation for building or becoming a Ben-Torah.
And so he explained: “Why is ‘you will not be able to ignore?’ It’s not ‘it’s forbidden to ignore’ or ‘it’s not nice to ignore’, but rather ‘you will not be able to ignore’. This is a strange use of language, since, obviously, if I want to ignore, I can ignore. And therefore, the goal is to educate yourself so that you will simply be incapable of ignoring a lost object.
The Torah wants us to change our character by developing a keen and abiding awareness of mitzvah obligations and then to fulfill them. The goal is to instill a mitzvah mentality within us, that mitzvah observance will be transformed into an inseparable aspect of our personalities to the point where we are unable, for example, to ignore a lost object.”
You found a donkey, a dog, a piece of clothing, a necklace, a tablet – in order to properly develop your personality, you must return it. It’s not easy to do this again and again – but, as the saying goes, “one mitzvah pulls along another,” not only quantitatively, but qualitatively too, so that mitzvot are not only done mechanically, but with proper intention. Ultimately, through this process of personality and character development, you will become a changed person.
But what we are discussing does not apply exclusively to a lost physical object. There are spiritual losses, too, that all of us are in the process of retrieving. It is necessary to understand that there is a spiritual aspect to everything. Just as there is physical hunger, there is spiritual hunger; just as there is physical thirst, there is spiritual thirst; just as there is saving a physical life, there is saving a spiritual life. In this manner, Rabbi Hayim Ben Attar, the holy “Or Hahayim,” interprets the following verses:
You shall not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall return them to your brother. (Deut. 22:1)
פרשה זו באה לרמוז בפרטות חיוב התוכחות שצריכים בני אל-חי צדיקים עולם לעשות לעם ה’
“This verse is an allusion to the need for the scholars to admonish the plain people in order for them to become the true people of Hashem”.
ox – these are people who have fallen to a low spiritual level and are compared to beasts of burden, but they are still a holy herd
your brother – the Holy One, Blessed be He. Hashem.
straying – those who violate G-d’s commandments, but G-d commands us not to ignore them, rather to bring them back to their ‘brother,’ eternal G-d.
In other words, you cannot ignore the spiritual loss of another. In an era of pluralism, inclusiveness, and narratives, we say: “I care about you,” which is a revolutionary declaration.
Now let’s go a little deeper. This is not only about running after and changing others. This is about fixing ourselves. This is not only for someone else, this is for us.
The Sefat Emet wrote: “Everything that a person sees relates and belongs to him and he needs to repent for it. By doing so, he brings thoughts of repentance to his friend”.
Rav Eyal Vered writes an explanation to the above words of the Sefat Emet:
“During the day, different scenes pass before our eyes, and we gaze upon them as detached observers. It’s as if none of this affects us.
None of this happened to us. This happened to someone else. We were only there by chance. We saw, we watched, we passed by.
The Sefat Emet suggests another way of looking. What I see – relates to me. Whatever I see was shown to me because it relates to me in some manner, and if I will only look into it sufficiently, I will be able to discover how it is connected to me.
The reading of this verse, according to the Sefat Emet, addresses the one who sees – who sees his friend detached, straying, doing something that is improper. “Do not ignore,” says the Torah. Do not turn away from this fellow who now requires rebuke and repentance. But the path suggested here by the Sefat Emet is most surprising: the process of improving someone else begins with the self-improvement of the observer, the one who saw the sin. The work the observer needs to do is based on seeing something that exists inside himself. The defective behavior that I saw – if it did not exist in me, it would not have been shown to me.
This is a real revolution. Looking becomes a significant act and is no longer merely detached observation – curiosity without commitment – but now something that demands my getting involved.
Here, a new world of improvement and refinement opens up before us, a world in which everyone, first of all, turns inward, improves himself and, by doing so, returns what his fellow has lost by means of self-refinement and introspection.
I want to tell two stories about people who looked at reality and derived a lesson in returning what was lost:
We’ve had a beautiful Shabbat with the KMS community in Silver Spring, Maryland. On Shabbat morning, we heard during the Torah reading the following verse: “Thou shalt be wholehearted with the LORD thy God.” How hard it is for us to be wholehearted, honest and simple. During Shabbat I spoke there about a bus driver from Israel, Moshe Yeret, whose bus a mother and her young daughter boarded last week. They did not have enough money on their pre-paid card, so he explained to them that they should get off the bus at the next bus-stop, charge the card cheaply and continue the drive, instead of the other option which was to buy a ticket from him with more money. The mother said in response: “Thank you very much! Really, thank you very much!” The girl heard this and told her mother: “Mom, what did the driver do wrong that you speak with him like this?” The mother did not understand: “He helped us, so I thanked him.” And the daughter insisted: “You said: ‘Really, thank you very much!’. This is what people say to someone who did something wrong.” The driver grasped at how our speech has become so cynical. Such a young girl hears the words: “Really, thank you very much!”, but she is already used to hearing these words said with so much sarcasm, as something that is said not as a real thank you, but as a reproach. Thou shalt be wholehearted with the LORD thy God. May we merit to be wholehearted and simpler.
Now to the second story: Many have posted and reposted this picture and wondered whether this is a result of PhotoShop or a real advertisement: Yeshivat Orot HaZor’im started a new year with studying the Tractate of Shabbat.
Here is the lovely answer. These are the words of Rabbi Gad Hermann, 12th grader teacher at Orot HaZor’im Yeshivah in the north of Israel:
“At the end of last year, there was a big ad on the billboard next to the Yeshivah about a new crime series on cable TV. It was viewed by all of the people who drove to the Yeshivah. In one of my talks, I spoke sorrowfully about the fact that this ad assumes, simply, that all of us are waiting and anticipating for this series to begin. The phrasing of the ad assumes that it is obvious that this is the kind of culture that everyone consumes and wants, ‘for they are our lives and the length of our days, and we will think about them day and night’. I told my students: Just imagine if they would have advertised something completely different, positive things that take place – for example, that our class will soon begin learning a new chapter in the Shabbat Tractate in the Beit Midrash! These words entered my students’ hearts. I didn’t know anything about this, but during the summer vacation they worked, saved money and donated from their earnings to create such an ad. After designing the ad, they turned to the advertising company and rented the advertising space on this billboard. The project cost them over 2,000 shekels. On the first day of school I drove to the Yeshivah and just couldn’t believe my eyes. Just like me, thousands of other drivers who pass by Moshav HaZor’im in the month of Elul are very moved when they see an ad of a totally different kind.”
Here I want to return to my family’s experience as “immigrants.” It would be so easy to ignore a new immigrant, a new member of the community, but I have seen that there are those who don’t ignore and I am so grateful to them. I am updating here my latest weekly failures: I sent my children with sandwiches and I discovered that here, during morning break, they only eat snacks; my daughter gave me the wrong date regarding PRA-1A, since I did not understand what it meant; I thought Israeli identity cards would be considered adequate validation of my children’s birth dates, but I did not know that original birth certificates from Israel are needed, and on an on… I am so grateful to everyone who helps (I nag my neighbors with so many questions), and ask of you, when you see people in a similar situation, not to (be able to) ignore them.
3. Guard Rail
כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ וְלֹא תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ כִּי יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ
רש“י: מעקה – גָּדֵר סָבִיב לַגַּג
When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof]. (Deut. 22:8)
Rashi: guard rail – a fence surrounding the roof
It’s interesting to note that thousands of years later, the same Hebrew word for guard rail (maakeh) in the above verse is applicable and relevant. We speak about the same guard rail, in the Torah and in life. I know that some of those listening to this speak biblical Hebrew and sometimes there are large gaps between it and modern Hebrew. Last Shabbat in Silver Springs, Maryland, I heard someone arranging to meet an Israeli next to a bush say, “Let’s meet next to the sneh.”
So let’s speak about the guard rail, then and now. Here’s an explanation from Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, otherwise known at the Natziv:
הנצי“ב: “מי שאין לו מזוזה רשאי לדור בביתו בלא מזוזה, רק שעליו מצווה לקבוע מזוזה כשישיג… מה שאין כן מעקה, שתלוי בבניין הבית, שאסור לדור בבית בלי מעקה, משום הכי שייך יותר לחדש ביתו במצוות מעקה“
“A person is allowed to live in his house without a mezuzah, as long as he will put one up as soon as he can get it . . . which is not so with a guard rail, that depends on the construction of a house, since it is forbidden to live in a home without a guard rail, and therefore it is more appropriate to validate his building of a new home with the guard rail mitzvah.”
Do we relate to safety rules as to mitzvahs? Before getting into a car, we need to check oil, water, and tire pressure. We need to pay attention that our windows have baby-proof bars, that when we rent a cabin, there is a rail around the swimming pool, but we must still look carefully after the children, and not let them go into the water at the beach where there is no lifeguard. Does this sound banal? It does not. It’s a mitzvah. This appears to be a simple, primary level of observance but it is super important. It is forbidden to live in a house without a guard rail.
Now let’s go a little deeper. Rav Berel Wein writes that this is not only a physical guard rail but also a spiritual one, a warning sign and symbol for “don’t,” what is not allowed in this house. When we put up a house, we need to establish rules regarding Shabbat, festivals, food etc. Otherwise, there will be “blood” in our house as we “fall” to “spritual death”.
Life without a guard rail is something fearful and dangerous, but when there are limits it’s easier to move around. Limitations not only make a safer building, but serve to build up your life as well.
Our commentators give many explanations as to why the verse speaks about “a new house.”
For instance, we enter a new house each time we rise to a new rank or higher level in life. Rabbi Nachman writes: “It is known that the evil urge frequently provokes the person who keeps rising, one level after the next, in life. Therefore, he must be very careful, about making a guard rail for his roof and his stairs, that he should make for himself a barrier and a fence in order not to fall, heaven forbid.”
Or, for example, the Lubavitcher Rebbe writes that a “new house” is really a wedding, a new marriage. The bride and groom need to set up a guard rail, to establish rules and restrictions in their new relationship, around which they should put up a sign: “Caution, under construction!”.
And the commentator “Degel Mahaneh Efraim,” Rebbe Moshe Hayim Efraim, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, says that the new house is Rosh Hashana, the new year. “This day is the beginning of your deeds (for the new year), and on every Rosh Hashana the world is renewed and ‘a new house’ or a new world is constructed, for which you must make a guard rail”. You should take upon yourself a new restriction, build a new guard rail, in the New Year.
“When you go out to war against your enemies” – we should know and truly feel that we are in a cultural war and that we will triumph in this war b”h,
We should merit to return lost objects, including ourselves and others, each to his or her proper place, from the word teshuva, meaning “return”,
And we should put up a guard rail – a boundary and a fence – around each new stage, each new level reached, in our lives.
Thank you very much. Next week I am in Israel for the elections, so we will meet b”h in two weeks.