Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“Discrimination” Parashat Ki Tavo 5781

Before the Jewish People enter the Land of Israel, they are given instructions regarding a ceremony that they must perform upon their arrival. The ceremony involves splitting the nation into two halves, placing them on two adjacent mountains, and then reciting a litany of blessings and curses. The Mishnah in Tractate Sotah [7:4] describes the ceremony in intricate detail: “How did the ceremony of the blessings and curses take place? When the Jewish People crossed the Jordan River, they came to Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, which are in Samaria along-side the city of Shechem (Nablus)… Six tribes ascended to the top of Mount Gerizim and six tribes ascended to the top of Mount Ebal, and the priests (Kohanim) and the Levites and the Ark were standing at the bottom in the middle, between the two mountains. The priests were surrounding the Ark and the Levites were surrounding the priests, and all the rest of the Jewish People were standing on the mountains on this side and on that side… The Levites then turned to face Mount Gerizim and opened with the blessing: ‘Blessed be the man who does not make a graven or molten image[1]’ and the two groups standing on either mountain, answered: ‘Amen!’ Then they turned to face Mount Ebal and opened with the curse [Devarim 27:15]: ‘Cursed be the man who makes a graven or molten image’ and everyone answered: ‘Amen!’ They continued in this manner until they completed reciting all [twelve] of the blessings and curses.”

Certain verses in the Torah are often skimmed over, especially verses that contain names and numbers. Does anyone remember the names of the tribes who stood on Mount Gerizim and the ones who stood on Mount Ebal? The Torah tells us [Devarim 27:12-13]: “The following [tribes] shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken: Shimon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan, and Naftali.” While many of us are familiar with these verses, I can guarantee that nearly all of us have missed one of the most blatant examples of discrimination in the entire Torah: No sane person wants to be cursed. Twice a year, we read the Admonition (Tochecha) in the Torah, verses that describe in gory detail the horrific things that will, Heaven Forbid, befall the Jewish People if we stray from G-d and His Torah. It is customary that the Torah Reader (Ba’al Koreh) is called up to the Torah for the Tochecha so as not to call up another person to be cursed, as it were. Now, Jacob had four wives: Rachel, Leah, and their handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah. Notice who stood on Mount Ebal to receive the curse: Every single one of the children of the handmaidens – Gad, Asher, Dan and Naftali. They were joined by Reuben, Jacob’s oldest child, who, while being the son of one of Jacob’s “real” wives, Leah, had his title of “Firstborn” stripped when he committed an incestuous act with his stepmother, Rachel[2], and by Zevulun, Leah’s youngest child, who must have done something particularly heinous in order to be lumped together with the other five. How could the Torah discriminate against four tribes simply because of their lineage? Wouldn’t it have been more politically correct to arbitrarily divide the tribes between the two mountains? Why make it a personal issue? Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, who lived in Frankfurt am Mein in the nineteenth century, brushes aside these accusations. He asserts that placing Leah’s oldest and youngest sons on Mount Ebal together with the sons of the handmaidens is evidence that there is no discrimination in play. Further, teaches Rabbi Hirsch, the six tribes on Mount Ebal were not receiving the curses, they were giving the curses! Nevertheless, with all due respect to Rabbi Hirsch, it sounds like whitewashing to me[3].

There is a precedent in the Torah for discriminating against the sons of the handmaidens. Curiously, the first person to do so was their father, Jacob. As Jacob readies hmself to meet his brother, Esav, he prepares for the worst. After all, it was Esav’s death threat after Jacob stole his blessing that forced Jacob to flee to his father-in-law’s home for twenty-two years. And so when Jacob finally does stand face-to-face with Esav, he arranges his family [Bereishit 33:2]: “[Jacob] put the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last.” Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, explains that Jacob arranged his family in an order in which “The more behind – the more beloved”. One might justly accuse Jacob of arranging his family such that the sons of the handmaidens served as cannon fodder. When Moshe divides the tribes between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, he is simply following in Jacob’s footsteps.

Jacob’s behaviour does not make sense. Why does he meet Esav with his entire family in tow? It seems almost suicidal. When Jacob first hears that Esav is on his way along with four hundred soldiers, he reacts much more logically to the threat [Bereishit 32:8-9]: “He divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, ‘If Esav comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.’” What causes Jacob’s change of heart? Why does he abandon his original strategy? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, points to an attack by an unidentified assailant the night before Jacob’s fateful meeting with Esav. Rabbi Sacks asserts that Jacob suffered from an identity crisis: “Jacob was born holding on to Esav’s heel. He bought Esav’s birthright. He stole Esav’s blessing. When his blind father asked him who he was, he replied [Bereishit 27:19] ‘I am Esav, your firstborn.’ Jacob was the child who wanted to be Esav.” Perhaps, suggests Rabbi Sacks, because Esav was stronger, or perhaps because Esav was favoured by his father, Isaac. When Jacob wrestles with his assailant, he is actually wrestling with himself: “As long as Jacob sought to be Esav there was tension, conflict, rivalry. Esav felt cheated; Jacob felt fear. That night, about to meet Esav again…, Jacob wrestles with himself; finally he throws off the image of Esav, the person he wants to be, which he has carried with him all these years. This is the critical moment in Jacob’s life.” When Jacob meets Esav, he returns the blessing that he had stolen from him so many years ago [Bereishit 33:11]: “Please take my blessing that has been brought to you”. Jacob tells Esav, “Our father blessed me with the words [Bereishit 27:29] ‘Be lord over your brothers’. But make no mistake: This is your blessing – this is my curse.”

Now we can revisit Jacob’s behaviour when he meets Esav. Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen, who lived in Dvinsk in the early twentieth century, writes in his monumental “Meshech Chochma” that Jacob was concerned about a sin he had been committing every day for the past twenty-two years: the sin of being married to two sisters. He placed the handmaidens first in line because he did not sin in marrying them. He placed Leah next because he was permitted to marry her – she only became forbidden to him when he married her sister, Rachel. He placed Rachel at the back of the line because as his sin was a direct result of their marriage, she was in the greatest danger. Jacob’s new sense of self-awareness makes him acutely aware of what he is and what he isn’t. He loves all of his children equally but, like him and Esav, he knows they are individuals, with their own strengths and their own weaknesses.

Discrimination is not necessarily a bad thing. According to the Oxford dictionary, discrimination means “recognizing a distinction”. The sons of the handmaidens were distinct from their brothers, for better and for worse. Moshe did not whitewash this fact – he celebrated it, placing the brothers together to face their own distinct future. In the words of Rabbi Sacks: “We must wrestle with ourselves, as Jacob did on that fateful night, throwing off the person we persistently compare ourselves to. No one is stronger than one who knows who and what they are.”[4]

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] Based on Devarim [27:15]

[2] See Bereishit [35:22]

[3] Two reasons: [1] The tribes on Mount Ebal did not “give curses”. The Levites did all the cursing. [2] The Torah describes the tribes on Mount Ebal with the words [Devarim 27:13] “For the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal”. It sure looks like they were on the receiving end of those curses.

[4] Reuven and Zevulun stood together with the sons of the handmaidens in order to divide the tribes equally between the two mountains. Zevulun’s innocence is a clear indication that Reuven’s location on Mount Ebal had nothing to do with any past misdeeds.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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