Monday, December 30, 2013

On the Plains of Moav

For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life
William Blake

Like most observant English-speaking households across Israel, every Friday evening we pick up a copy of ‘Torah Tidbits’ from shul. Most weeks, when the kids were younger, we used to go over the ‘ParshaPix on the second page, but now I usually skip directly to the divrei Torah and the ads.

(ParshaPix, for those not in the groove, are a collection of pictures that, somehow, have to do with the weekly Torah reading.)

This week, however, for some reason, we did look at the ParshaPix, and I laughed out loud at this one.


The Torah readings at this time of year relate to the slavery in and exodus from Egypt, i.e., the Pesach story. The stupid frog represents two of the ten plagues.  I'll let you figure it out, if you haven't already seen the ParshaPix.

What is slightly disconcerting is that the exodus and the beginning of the desert experience, which occurred in the spring, is read in the winter, while the winter events – those occurring 40 years later at the end of the desert experience – are related in the heat of the summer.

It was on the first day of the month of Shvat (which falls this week) that the children of Israel came to the plains of Moav[1], their last stop before they entered the Land of Israel after 40 years in the desert. Rosh Chodesh Shvat has been compared by our sages to a mini-Shavuot, because between Rosh Chodesh Shvat and his death on 7 Adar (almost six weeks), Moshe Rabeinu taught the Nation of Israel the book of  Devarim (Deuteronomy) (which is read in the summer), a book that is basically about the mitzvot of the Land, the importance of living in the Land and keeping the mitzvot, and remembering G-d and the rewards and punishments that follow.

The Plains of Moav
Living in Eretz Yisrael, as we know, is no simple matter, not now, and not then either.

Life in Egypt – even a life of slavery – was very simple. Egypt was a rich land, independent of outside forces. The Nile River supplied water, the land was fertile, and people were well off. At a time when the whole region suffered from famine, Egypt always had not just enough food for its own people but enough to sell to other nations. Bnei Yisrael benefited from that abundance. Recall that in the desert, Bnei Yisrael missed the cucumbers and garlic and fish of Egypt). Egypt was one big fleshpot. 
An Egyptian fleshpot???
The Egyptians lived an entirely materialistic life, and Bnei Yisrael were completely dependent on the Egyptians for everything they needed. If they worked hard, they got food; if they didn't work, they were punished. No choice was given to them. 

After leaving Egypt (which we will read about this coming Shabbat) and an initial period of doubt and fear – which is natural, few people like change even when it’s for the better – Bnei Yisrael switched from a 100% material lifestyle – of work in order to get food and water – to a 100% spiritual lifestyle. They no longer had to work. Food came to them from the sky in the form of manna. Water was provided by a well that traveled with them until the death of Miriam 40 years later. Their clothes never wore out. They were protected by the Clouds of Glory by day, and a Pillar of Fire by night. They spent their days learning Torah. Indeed, our sages say that that one reason the spies did not want to go to Eretz Yisrael was because they loved learning all day. Instead of being completely dependent on the Egyptians for their every need, they were now completely dependent on G-d for their every need. Instead of living a life of 100% materialistic (גשמיות), they were living a life of 100% spiritualism (רוחניות).

Which brings us to Rosh Chodesh Shvat on the Plains of Moav. The people have wandered in the desert for 40 years. In that time, they have received the Torah, and turned into a nation. They are no longer called the Children of Israel (Bnei Yisrael) but the Nation of Israel (Am Yisrael). Now it was time to enter the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael), the Land that G-d had promised them.

Moshe tells them that living in the Land will not be simple. Living in the Land will be different than living in the fleshpots of Egypt, and different than living in the barrenness of the desert.

You will have to work, Moshe tells his new nation. You will have to fight. You will have to settle the Land; plant trees; build cities; educate your children. But above all, while you are working and fighting and planting and building, you have to remember G-d and that it is G-d who is giving you the Land, and the bounties. You will have to educate your children in the ways of G-d. If you remember G-d and do His mitzvot, you will be blessed, and the rains will fall, and your days in the Land will be long. But if you forget G-d, Moshe tells his people, if you forget that it is G-d who is giving your enemies to you, that it is G-d who is giving you your Land and your food and your wealth, then the rain won’t fall, and the Land will expel you.

G-d does not want us to live a life of total materialism like in Egypt. But neither does He want us to live a life of total spiritualism like in the desert. Living in Eretz Yisrael is supposed to be a combination of two. We are required to work. But our work must be such that we remember that it is G-d who is responsible for our well-being. We have to work. But every chore that we do encompasses mitzvot. We plant trees, and we have the mitzvoth of orla, truma and maasser, shmita. We open a business, and we have the social mitzvot of payments, benefits, securities. We build a society and we must care for the poor, the orphans and widows. We have children; we are obligated to educate them in Torah. Our simplest tasks are surrounded by mitzvot. We eat, we say a bracha; we wash our hands, another bracha; we see the ocean or a rainbow, yet another bracha. There is no aspect of our lives – no matter how mundane – that is not suffused in holiness. According to the Vilna Gaon – there are two mitzvot (not including mikvah) which are done with the whole body. One is living in the succah and the other is living in Eretz Yisrael.

We are living holy lives.

May this month begin in goodness and with blessings, may we be blessed with long life, a life of peace and a life of goodness, a life of blessings and a life of sustenance, a life of health and a life in which there is an awe of Heaven and a fear of sin, a life in which there is no shame or humiliation, a life of wealth and honor, a life in which we love Torah and are in awe of G-d, and a life in which our requests of G-d are fulfilled for the good.  

Translated and paraphrased from the Hebrew blessing of the month


The new moon









[1] Today the eastern edge of the Dead Sea in Jordan. Moav was inhabited by the descendants of Lot.