Parshat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29: 9 – 30: 20)
a.k.a God tells the people that
they can return to him
Moses continued with his speech to the Israelites. “You stand here before God in order to
enter into the Covenant of God and take the oath that God makes with you, so that God may fulfil his promise
to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is not only
with you, but with all those who are here and all those who are not here that God makes this Covenant and
“Do you remember how we were slaves in Egypt and saw the Egyptians worshipping their
idols? If any of you now turns your heart away from our God to serve these foreign gods, there will be among
your people a root that will someday ripen into a deadly poison. God will not forgive those who know of this
Covenant but nevertheless follow their own selfish hearts. God’s anger will rise against those people and He
will blot out their names and set them apart as evil.
“Then, if that should happen, future generations will see the devastation in the land
and all the nations will ask, ‘Why has God done this to this land?’ It shall be said that the people
abandoned the Covenant of God that they established when God brought them out of the land of Egypt. They
served other gods. For this reason God removed them from the land in great anger.
“There are secret things that belong only to God. The words of this teaching, however,
are revealed to the people. They cannot be ignorant of them. This teaching is ours and our children’s
“It will come to pass when all these words, including the blessings and the curses
that I have described to you, will come upon you and you will take it to heart. Then, in the midst of all the
nations to which God has exiled you, you and your children will return to your God and listen to God’s voice
with all your heart and with all your soul. Then God will seek out your exiles and have compassion upon you
and will gather you together from among all the peoples to which God has scattered you. Then God will cause
you to live well and multiply you even more than your fathers.
“Then will God circumcise your hearts, and the hearts of your descendants to love God
so that you may live. And instead, God will place all these curses upon your enemies and on those who hate
you. Meanwhile you will return to God’s commandments. Then the work of your hands will be good and your
livestock and the fruits in your field will thrive. For then you will be listening to the voice of God and
following what is written in this teaching.”
“For this commandment that I command you today is not beyond your understanding, nor
is it far away. It is not in heaven, nor in the seas beyond your reach for it is very near to you. Carry it
out with your mouth and with your heart. I have set before you today life and good, and also death and evil,
and so I command you today to love God, to walk in God’s ways and to keep God’s commandments, so that you may
live and multiply. God will bless you in the land to which you are coming to take possession. But if your
heart shall turn in a manner that forsakes God and serves other gods, then I have told you this day that you
will quickly perish, that you will not last long in the soil of this Promised Land.”
“I have called heaven and earth today as witnesses. I have set life and death before
you, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live to love your God. Cling
firmly to God, for that is your life and the length of your days, to dwell upon the soil that God swore to
your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Commentary on the 51st parsha (portion) of the Torah. The Torah consists of the
five books of Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are.
He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: So Methuselah, God seems a bit more conciliatory in this parsha, a little
less vindictive. It seems to me that his explanation of what he expects and what he will do is less
MS: Well, thank you for noticing. You have so little respect, I’m surprised that
you even gave this parsha more than your passing attention.
SAS: Look here, I am trying to make sense of all this. In this parsha, God
explains the covenant a bit more carefully. He acknowledges that the covenant was entered into willingly,
originally, and that each new generation enters into it again. That seems more reasonable, assuming we believe that
covenants can be entered into with non-human entities and still have the power of law.
MS: Oh, give up your cheap insults! We’re either going to discuss this or not.
You can’t just dismiss everything by questioning the existence of God.
SAS: Well, I can actually, but I am going to go along with his putative
existence for the sake of argument. I don’t see what’s in it for God,
though. I really don’t. So he has a chosen people and they swear loyalty and devotion to him and he swears to love
and protect them as long as they keep his conditions, which were never negotiated, by the way. What does he get out
of the deal, Methuselah? Explain it to me.
MS: I don’t think you are asking the right questions. The Israelites are chosen
for a very particular purpose, because they have shown in the past that they are capable of love, respect and
worship. They have been prepared to make sacrifices, such huge sacrifices, that God knows how much they value their
relationship with him. The Brit Milah, that every son born to the people undergoes, is an ongoing symbol of this
relationship. That is how seriously they take it. But if they cease to take it seriously then they have put
themselves outside of God’s protection. They have an offer, and they have decided to refuse it.
SAS: I think it’s crazy that a
bunch of people believe that if they sacrifice the foreskins of their male children they are renewing their
covenant with a God who has outbursts of rage and destructiveness when he feels they are not sufficiently
MS: Well, I want to point you to the idea that God offers the people an
opportunity to renew the covenant. He reminds the people of where they have come from, and where they are going to,
and he offers them his protection if they renew their covenant. He tells them what dangers lie ahead of them if
they don’t enter into the covenant, but he leaves it open to them. He also makes sure that individuals among them
who choose their own way that is not God’s way are a poison within the community. You surely can understand
SAS: I have to say that it sounds like a single-minded cultish ideology to me.
Dissenters and free thinkers are not tolerated. Unity is strength. God’s word is the only law. And who shall bring
God’s word to the people, and why should the people trust that it is really God’s law that he is
MS: Sigmund, we have lasted a long time as a people. Why do you think that
SAS: Because we have taken the Torah seriously and believed we are in a
relationship, sealed by a covenant, with a divine being? Well, I think there is more to it than that. But I will
concede that there is something rather grand and majestic in this passage, especially that last bit: “I have called
heaven and earth today as witnesses. I have set life and death before you, blessings and curses. Choose life, so
that you and your descendants may live to love your God. Cling firmly to God, for that is your life and the length
of your days, to dwell upon the soil that God swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” It’s epic stuff,
indeed, and it creates an extraordinary sense of history, of belonging and of destiny.
MS: What’s this? Something in the text actually spoke to you?
SAS: Come on, Methuselah! It’s my heritage too. I like the ring of the words. I
like the sense of scale. It’s as grand and stirring a fantasy as I’ve ever heard. It’s a cunning passage too,
because it foresees historical disasters and talks of “devastation in the land”. You blokes knew there’d be times
of military defeat, exile and imprisonment, and you cleverly protected God from blame by saying this would all be
on account of faithlessness. And when things get better, hey presto, it’s because the people turned back to
MS: That is how covenant relationships work, my friend.
SAS: Real life works in quite another. When a superior enemy masses on the
hillside, it matters nothing whether you are worshipping God or a cow’s head stuck on a pole. You and your friends
write up the relationship to fit the history but – in truth – there never is any correspondence between how the
people pray and sacrifice, and how the battles run.
MS: Your ignorance extends to history now too, I see. I’ve put up with enough of this nonsense for one day.
SAS: Keep clinging firmly to your God, Methuselah. You may not have insight, but
at least you have your superstition.
MS: And you your arrogance and your woeful apostasy.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
The Gaza War (2008-2009), Part 2
Israel’s ascendency in the war was underlined by her forward momentum in Gaza City. On
16 January, the Givati Brigade was able to take over two 15-storey buildings in the Tel el-Hawa district but
had to be careful about pursuing Palestinian militiamen into civilian houses. A further 40 Palestinian
fighters were killed and Israel shored up its position with 50 airstrikes on selected
On 17 January, Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
stated that Israel’s military objectives had been met. When Hamas launched further rockets, Israel launched a
retaliatory air strike.
On 18 January, Hamas and Islamic Jihad said they would not launch further rockets for
a period of a week and the war effectively came to a close. Israel continued its withdrawal from the Gaza
Strip and by 21 January this had been completed.
There were only 13 Israeli combat deaths in the war, with four civilians killed by
rockets in Israel; Palestinian losses are more difficult to establish. The Ministry of Health in Gaza said
that 1314 Palestinians had been killed in the conflict and 5300 had been injured. The number of children
killed was said to be 412. Israel said that this latter figure was significantly inflated.
Israel estimated that 700 fighters loyal to Hamas or its affiliates had been killed.
This figure differently sharply from figures initially supplied by the other side – Hamas said it had lost
only 48 men, the Popular Resistance Committee put its losses at 34 and Islamic Jihad reported 38 men dead.
That meant a total of only 120 combatants killed.
This latter figure was shown to be wrong, however, when in November 2010 Hamas
Interior Minister, Fathi Hammad, admitted that a figure of around 700 Hamas militiamen and affiliates had
That being the case, the number of civilian deaths would have been in the region of
600, which ties in with an Italian newspaper report that quoted a doctor at Gaza’s Shifa hospital saying that
the civilian death toll was somewhere between 500 and 600.
Disputes about numbers notwithstanding, Israel faced an onslaught of international
criticism regarding civilian deaths in the conflict. Palestinians spoke of the Massacre of Black Saturday, a
reference to the first day of Israeli air strikes when some 230 Palestinians were killed and 700 injured. It
was the biggest death toll in 60 years of conflict, and human rights groups were quick to point out that the
attacks started at around the time that local children were leaving school for home.
Israel countered by arguing that the Palestinians used civilians as human shields and
that Israel had gone out of its way to avoid civilian deaths. The IAF claimed 80% of bombs used were
precision weapons and 99% of air strikes hit their targets.
Israel admitted targeting Hamas leaders’ homes. Such homes were held to be strategic
centers as well as repositories for weapons.
In their defense, Israel pointed out that it had forewarned neighborhoods of impending
attacks by dropping leaflets and by phoning imminent targets. Even family members of Hamas fighters would
have had a chance to flee in many instances.
Such arguments did little to assuage criticism from several quarters, and Israel – as
well as its enemies – received a legal lashing when Justice Richard Goldstone published his report on the war
for the UN.
The Goldstone Report accused
both the IDF and Hamas militants of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. The UN Human Rights Council
endorsed the report but both Israel and Hamas rejected its findings.
In December, 2010, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Meron Reuben, complained to the
Security Council that Qassam rocket attacks had recommenced. Israel blamed Hamas and restated its right to
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by Dad, Chaya and
CHAYA: Periodic rocket
attacks seem likely to continue, don’t they? One can’t help feeling that more Gaza Wars are on the horizon.
Or that it’s perhaps the same war that keeps resurfacing over and over again.
DAD: Quite possibly, and
right now it is likely that Israel can deal with such a contained conflict. If long-range missiles start
flying in from other countries, like Iran, then things will get a lot more serious.
BEN: The Middle East is a
tinder-box waiting to ignite, if not a ticking bomb.
DAD: Well, let’s hope that
nobody is foolish enough to push things to a point where World War III erupts. Not before I’ve had my
dessert, at any rate.
CHAYA: What fascinates me is
the huge discrepancy in casualty figures. It certainly appears as if Hamas and its allies greatly played down
DAD: It’s hardly surprising,
is it? This is an age-old practice that countless regimes have resorted to as a way of hiding their poor
military performance. The statistics appear to indicate that Hamas lost fighters at a ratio of about 55:1 –
BEN: Looking at the figures,
you’d have to think that Hamas wasn’t ready for this conflict and acted foolishly in provoking it through
those rocket attacks. On the other hand, if it’s public sympathy from foreign countries they were after,
you’d think they’d want the figures of their slaughter by the enemy to be as high as
DAD: Perhaps, although the
success or failure of conflicts is by no means only to be measured by the death toll, whether correct or
over- or under-played. The question to ask is whether Hamas achieved any political or strategic benefits from
the conflict. In the narrow sense, it did not, but the war cemented its status as a sworn foe of Israel.
Teheran was a more direct beneficiary in that the war provided a rallying call for Iranian president
Ahmadinejad as he sought re-election in June, and it provided a distraction from local economic problems. It
also gave the Arab world a source of solidarity as this bloc quickly united to condemn Israel’s actions.
Reported anti-Semitic actions worldwide trebled during the conflict. In these respects, Israel was a
BEN: It sounds like Hamas was
operating as a pawn of Iran. Its leaders and its people suffered and died in order to provide Iran, and the
worldwide anti-Israeli lobby, with more fuel for its hatred and its mobilization
CHAYA: It’s interesting you
say that. I have read that Israel viewed the Gaza War as a proxy war against Iran, which it believed supplied
much of Hamas’ weaponry and was egging it on from a safe distance. I suppose the question is what Hamas
thought it was doing and for whom.
DAD: It was popular in the
Arab world to accuse Israel of attacking the Palestinian people, per
se, and little notice would have been taken of details of how Israel used weapons that minimized the risk
of hurting civilian targets.
BEN: That’s not an argument
that Israel’s ever going to win. Precision weapons might curtail civilian deaths, but as long as there are
civilian deaths then Israel will be accused of orchestrating massacres and practicing genocide. And it is
true, there have been and will be civilian deaths.
CHAYA: Agreed. It’ll be a
rough ride for Israel until a two-state solution, or some modus
operandi, is one day hammered out.
BEN: Or until Armageddon is
let loose, in which case anything is possible in the aftermath.
DAD: Before we move on to the
aftermath of our dinner, which is a particularly nice-looking dessert, I’d like to ask you if you’ve heard
much about the Goldstone Report.
CHAYA: From what I know,
Goldstone was lambasted from all quarters. Hamas was incensed that it had been accused of war crimes and the
worldwide Jewish backlash was severe too.
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humor, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· Sons and daughters are the ornaments of one’s table.
· The most important thing to do is really listen. (Itzhak Perlman)
· A single ounce of luck is worth more than a whole pile of money.
· He who hesitates will never reach Jerusalem.
· I find the family the most mysterious and fascinating institution in the world. (Amos
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Ilya Prigogine (1917 –
Prigogine’s family left Russia for Germany after the
Revolution and then moved on to Belgium. He studied Chemistry and received his doctorate in 1941. His work
centered in the effects of time on the biological process. He authored 20 books and funded five scientific
research centers. He lectured at the University of Texas and in 1967 co-founded the Center for Complex
Quantum Systems in Austin. In 1977, Prigogine was awarded the Noble Prize in Chemistry for his work on
non-equilibrium thermodynamics. In 1989 the Belgian king conferred the title of Viscount upon him. Until his
death, he was president of the International Academy of Science.
We will now sing a traditional
song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a copy of the
The song is sung
Farewell and an Invitation
Thank you for coming together to share our Shabbat. May you go out into the new week
with renewed strength, confidence and happiness.
We now cordially invite you to join us for some coffee and cake.