Parashat Emor is one of my favourite Parshiot. My favourite part of the Parasha is the Primer on the Holidays. While the holidays are discussed in other Parshiot, the discussion in Parashat Emor is the most “user friendly”. It’s laid out as a sort of “Dummy’s Guide to Jewish Holidays”[1]. This week we’re going to zoom-in to the Holiday of Sukkot.

While Sukkot is named after the Sukkah, the hut in which we live in for the duration of the holiday, the symbol of Sukkot is without a doubt not the Sukkah, but, rather, the “Arba Minim” (four species) – the lulav (date palm), etrog (citron), hadassim (myrtle) , and aravot (willow). For thousands of years, paintings, mosaics, and sculptures of the Arba Minim have been adorning synagogues around the world. What is the secret of their charm?

The Midrash notes that after fighting a battle the winning side typically raise their swords over their heads in victory. The losing side lower their swords and eventually hand them over to the victor[2]. During the High Holidays Am Yisrael go into the ultimate battle – the battle for our lives. We engage in hand-to-hand combat with our deeds of the past year. Only if we are victorious will we be granted another year of life. While the results of the battle are not explicitly publicized, we are certain of our “victory” on Yom Kippur. We brandish our “sword” – our lulav – on Sukkot and we joyously wave it about. This military motif is one likely reason for the popularity of the Arba Minim over the years.

We fast-forward to the twenty-first century. The Arba Minim no longer serve as the symbol of Jewish military prowess. That title now belongs to the Magen David, the “Shield of David”, represented by the “Star of David”, a six-pointed star. The flag of the State of Israel contains a wire-frame Star of David, while aircraft of the Israeli Air Force are painted with a roundel in the form of a sky-blue Star of David. It is unclear how the “Shield of David” morphed into a “Star of David”. Some suggest, albeit without any proof, that King David painted this emblem on his shield. Whatever the case may be, the Star of David, unlike the Arba Minim, is not a purely Jewish emblem. I myself have seen it on Humayun’s Tomb, built nearly five hundred years ago in New Delhi.

Let’s, for the moment, set the “Star of David” aside, and let’s take a closer look at the “Shield of David”. The source for the term “Shield of David” is found in the Talmud in Tractate Pesachim [117b]. The Talmud is lauding King David for his righteousness and for having authored the Book of Psalms (Tehillim). The Talmud notes that the blessing “[Blessed is Hashem] the Shield of David” is made after reading the Haftorah on Shabbat, and it is a great honour to David that Hashem is designated “the Shield of David” at the conclusion of a blessing. The Talmud then quotes the verse in Samuel II [7:9] in which Hashem tells David, “I have made for you a great name like the name of the great ones that are in the earth” Who are these “great ones”?

The Talmud answers this question by dissecting a verse in which Hashem blesses Avraham Avinu [Bereishit 12:2]: “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing”. The Talmud maps this verse to the first blessing in the Amida prayer: “I will make you into a great nation” corresponds to the words “the G-d of Avraham”. “I will bless you” corresponds to “the G-d of Yitzchak”. “I will aggrandize your name” corresponds to “the G-d of Yaakov”. Lest one think that the blessing concludes with a reference to all three of the forefathers, Hashem tells Avraham “You [and not Yitzchak or Yaakov] shall be a blessing”. Consequently, the blessing concludes with the words “[Blessed is Hashem] the Shield of Avraham”. And so it is clear that the “great ones” are the three forefathers. Hashem lauds King David by putting him on equal footing with Avraham Avinu, apparently, at least according to this section of Talmud, the greatest of the forefathers.

What did Avraham do to merit having the blessing conclude with his name? Why doesn’t the blessing end with the words “[Blessed is Hashem] the Shield of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov”? Was Avraham really geater than his descendants? Rav Binyamin HaLevi Epstein, writing in the “Torah Temima”, answers tersely: Hashem explicitly tells Avraham [Bereishit 15:1] “Fear not, [Avraham]; I am your Shield; your reward is exceedingly great”. Because Avraham was the only one of the forefathers with which Hashem calls Himself “His Shield”, the blessing concludes with the words “The Shield of [only] Avraham”.

But we’re just pushing off the question. What did Avraham do to merit Hashem’s Divine Shield? Avraham has just returned from a convincing military victory. Against overwhelming odds he has defeated four of the world’s most powerful Kings. Rashi suggests that Avraham was not pleased with his victory, but, rather, he was concerned. He felt this way for one of two reasons: either because he felt that he had “used up” his merits by winning the war or because he had slain innocent people[3]. And so Hashem reassures Avraham by telling him “I am [still] your Shield”. I’d like to offer an alternate explanation. The Hebrew “Ani Magen lach” – translated above as “I am your Shield”, can also be translated as “You have [always] considered me your Shield”. This is not a promise; it is a fact. Hashem is lauding Avraham for attributing his victory to Hashem. When Malki-Tzeddek, the King of Shalem, wants to reward Avraham for saving him from the Four Kings by giving him all of the spoils he has taken, Avraham refuses, telling him [Bereishit 14:22-23] “I raise my hand to Hashem, the Most High G-d, Who possesses heaven and earth. Neither from a thread to a shoe strap, nor will I take from anything that is yours, so that you should not say, ‘I have made [Avraham] wealthy.’” By taking the spoils I am propagating a lie. I did not win that war – Hashem did. The spoils, along with everything else in the world – belong to Him. Hashem is lauding Avraham for arriving at the conclusion that he was victorious not because of his Iron Shield[4] but because of his Divine Shield.

This explanation can give us a keen insight to the Talmud in Tractate Pesachim. All of the forefathers accepted Hashem as their G-d. They all understood that He alone created and ruled the world. He was equally the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchak, and the G-d of Yaakov. But Avraham was the only one of the forefathers that went into battle. He was the only one that required a shield. While there are no Atheists in trenches, the Torah is highly sensitive to man’s instinct to attribute military victory to his own prowess. The Torah warns us [Devarim 8:11-17] “Beware that you do not forget Hashem, your G-d… and you will say to yourself, ‘My strength and the might of my hand has made me victorious.’” King David was a warrior. He spent most of his life in battle. That he could tell Hashem [Psalms 27:3] “If a camp encamps against me, my heart shall not fear; if a war should rise up against me, in [Hashem] I trust” is a clear sign that for him Hashem truly was his shield.

This message is acutely relevant today. Whether we go to battle with an Iron Dome, an Iron Shield, or an Iron Date Palm, we must always remember that our true defence lies only with the King of Kings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] No less important, Parashat Emor is the only Parasha that discusses all of the holidays.

[2] In modern warfare, after a tank has been captured in battle it travels with its turret facing backwards as a sign of defeat.

[3] The concept of “Tohar ha’Neshek” – the “Purity of a Weapon” – meaning that a soldier may use his weapon to take a human life only as a last resort – is one of the most sacred rules in the Israeli Defense Forces. It seems to be in our genes.

[4] Obviously had Avraham gone into battle without his Iron Shield he would have been soundly defeated in about five minutes. But Avraham understood that without Hashem’s help his Iron Shield would never have been able to turn back the swords of the soldiers of the Four Kings.