In Moses’ fifth book, commonly known as the Book of Deuteronomy or the “second telling,” he revisits the narrative of his journey with the Children of Israel. Reflecting on their forty years in the desert following their liberation from Egyptian slavery, this journey holds importance for both the people in the desert at that time and for future generations.
As Moses nears the end of his life, he shares poignant reflections and sorrows before joining his Creator. He recounts his fervent pleas to enter the promised land, ultimately denied. The Book of Deuteronomy is often called Moses’ “last will,” wherein he reviews his experiences, expresses regrets, and imparts instructions for future generations. In the twilight of life, it becomes imperative to scrutinize our triumphs and shortcomings, leaving behind a legacy for those who follow. This reflective process aligns with Elul’s annual observance, a self-reflection period leading to the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
Rosh Chodesh Elul consistently marks the commencement of this introspective journey, occurring forty days before Yom Kippur. This temporal parallel resonates with the historical event of Moses delaying his descent from the mountain, prompting the Israelites to fashion a Golden Calf. In response, G-d, appalled by their actions, threatened the entire tribe with obliteration.
“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10)
However, Moses dared to challenge G-d, declaring:
“Why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth?’
Moses fervently implored G-d for forgiveness, adding:
“But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” (Exodus 32:32 New International Version)
Moses faced the crisis alongside the people and G-d, ascending the mountain again.
After forty days, he descended with a new set of tablets, conveying G-d’s message with these decisive words:
“Salachti k’idvarecha/I have forgiven as you, (Moses), requested.”
This is the day we continue to celebrate every year as Yom Hakippurim,/Yom Kippur/The Day of Judgement.
Here, the Divine One sets an eternal example of justice tempered with mercy—din v’chesed—seeking not perfection but urging continuous improvement in our ways. The Supreme Judge meticulously assesses every action, offering second chances for even small advancements. G-d stands as our ultimate judge, and for Jews, there is no other.
On Yom Kippur, communal prayers meticulously enumerate various sins, yet the accountability for each rests solely with the individual. Have you treated others with respect? Have you been fair in your dealings? The confession within our prayers is a private dialogue whispered solely between individuals and G-d. We acknowledge that the ultimate judgment lies in G-d’s hands. On Yom Kippur, we recite the poignant prayer popularized by Leonard Cohen’s song, contemplating the diverse fates that await each of us—the fitting consequences in the coming year.
“Who by Fire… Who by Water…”
Legend has it that Moses lived to the age of one hundred and twenty, and the traditional Jewish blessing for longevity is “ad meah v’rim,” meaning “May you live to one hundred and twenty!”
Moses, known as Moshe Rabbeinu, provided a leadership blueprint throughout his life, characterized by dedicated service to others. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses reiterates many previously given biblical commandments and lays a blueprint for establishing a just community—a timeless challenge.
For a glimpse into Moses’ instructions, consider some of the commandments highlighted in this week’s Torah reading, Parsha Ki Tetze (When You Go Out to War). The Parsha commences with the scenario of Eshet Y’fat To’ar, addressing the situation of a beautiful non-Jewish woman taken captive in war. Subsequently, the Torah outlines the procedures for a Jewish soldier seeking to marry such a woman captured in battle.
Other topics among the 41 Mitzvot included in this week’s parsha are:
How to deal with the rebellious son;
the command to shoo away the mother bird before taking her young (“shiluach haken”);
the prohibition (“sha’atnez”) of mixing wool & linen together,
adultery, & kidnapping;
the permissibility of divorce when a marriage fails;
the need to pay one’s workers (especially day labourers) in a timely fashion.
And in this chapter again, Moshe warns us to show extra care for the widow & orphan, due to their increased vulnerability;
Andthe mandate to be honest in all our business dealings (this is one of 3 Mitzvot that promise long life).
We are bidden to recall on a daily basis the Exodus from Egypt, (This is frequently mentioned throughout our daily prayers/tefilot and in the Kiddush/the brief prayer/blessing of sanctification of the Sabbath and holidays/Shabbat & Chag, performed over wine at our tables before every holiday meal.)
Our Parsha closes with the admonition to utterly wipe out Amalek & their progeny – (the nation that attacked the nation of israel while they journeyed in the desset, falling even on the weary and the women and children, for no evident cause) until no memory remains of them or their hateful, barbaric behaviour.
Watching Rabbi Stewart Weiss‘ insightful discussion below, I gained a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the laws discussed in Parsha Ki Tetze.
These fundamental values and principles should always be at the forefront of our minds, deserving regular reflection, much like the periodic revisiting of one’s marriage vows.
In this week’s assigned Haftorah, Rani Akara (Isaiah 54/Yeshayahu 54), part of the five “Haftorot of Consolation for Churban Yerushalayim” or the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the prophet Isaiah foretells a second chance for the people of Israel. This prophecy envisions a future Jerusalem with expanded borders, welcoming new residents, and filling the streets with joy and celebration. Some believe that this vision has been realized with the current return of Jews to their promised land after two thousand years of exile.