Do not forget to remember

‘… thy sheep shall be given unto thine enemies; and thou shalt have none to save thee’ (Ki Tavo; Deuteronomy 28:31).

September 16, 2011 17:06
4 minute read.
Picture from the Parasha

Wolf and goats 521. (photo credit: Israel Weiss)

‘I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house… I have not transgressed any of your commandments; and I have not forgotten’ (Deuteronomy 26:13) This week’s portion, Ki Tavo, is filled with crucial ritual and social commandments, the blessings and the curses, and a concluding, climactic promise that if we keep God’s commands, we will inherit our land and succeed in all of our undertakings.

It opens, however, in a rather unusual way. Throughout the five books of our Torah, God and Moses are the “speakers,” as it were, whereas the Israelites must obey and listen. Our portion, uniquely, begins with two speeches to be made by the Israelite householders themselves: The first is a quintessential thanksgiving, recited by the individual bringing his first fruits to the Holy Temple, and the second is a declaration made by the householder when he has discharged his tithe obligations to the Kohen-Levite ministers, as well as to the poor of Israel.

Let us begin with the second of these speeches: “You shall declare before the Lord your God: I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house (and the fields; the percentage of the harvest which is ‘holy’ unto God) and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow in accordance with all your commandments which You commanded me; I have not transgressed any of your commandments, and I have not forgotten.” (Deut. 26:13).

Why does the householder conclude, “I have not forgotten”? Obviously, if he has fulfilled all of his commitments, he has not forgotten the commandments which deal with the tithes. Moreover, there is no parallel to such a declaration associated with any other commandment.

Rashi interprets this to mean: “I have not forgotten to make the proper blessings” on the various tithes. A blessing before a ritual commandment certifies that the ritual is an act of service and devotion to God. In the performance of a social commandment, however, the element of “for the sake of heaven” is secondary; giving tithes to the poor is salutary whatever the giver’s true intent may be. Moreover, the generally accepted halachic rule is that the lack of a blessing – even when performing a ritual act – does not vitiate or detract from the act itself. Hence it would be strange for the Bible to be so concerned about the utterance of the blessing.

I believe that the words “I have not forgotten” in this context have a different meaning. The previous portion, Ki Tetze, concludes with the command: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the road after you left Egypt; he chanced upon you on the road, attacking from behind all of the straggling, weaker people lingering in the back, those of you who were weak and weary; he did not fear God. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you secure rest from all your enemies round about, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; do not forget.” (Deut. 25:17-19) Amalek is the arch-enemy of Israel; my revered teacher and mentor, Rav Joseph B Soloveitchik, would often cite his renowned grandfather, Rav Haim of Brisk, who taught that Amalek was not to be seen as a specific nation, rather as the prototype of any nation in any generation and in any part of the world which – for no reason and without provocation – attacks the most vulnerable people; specifically singling out the people of Israel as the target of their destructive plans. “Amalekism” is the philosophy and raison d’être of Haman, Hitler, Stalin and Ahmadinejad. If the world is to be home for free peoples, living in security as everyone created in God’s image should live, then Amalekism and all that it stands for must be wiped off the face of the earth.

“Remember… Do not forget” is the message which concludes Ki Tetze. Ki Tavo opens with the farmer bringing his first fruits and giving a first-person account of Jewish history: “My father was a fugitive, almost destroyed, by the Aramean [his uncle, Laban]. He went down to Egypt... where we were afflicted and given heavy labor.... The Lord took us out of Egypt and brought us to this land, flowing with milk and honey...”

(Deut. 26:5-10). We recite these words every Passover, on the Seder evening when we celebrate our freedom; and although it is now almost 4,000 years after the events occurred – we recite it in the first person, as it is biblically written. The Egyptian experience is a seminal one for the Jews. We dare not forget it and we must relive it every day of our lives: “You must love the stranger [the other], because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Jewish ritual turns history into a contemporary, personal experience – which cannot and dare not be forgotten.

Similarly, after giving the tithes to the religious functionaries and the poor, the householder declares: “We are now living in Israel; we are sharing with those who are teaching us morality, we are sharing with those who are weaker and poor. We remember Amalek – and that we must destroy Amalekism. We have not forgotten!” The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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