Last week’s parsha concludes with the commandment to destroy the nation of Amaleik. This week’s parsha begins by listing the unique mitzvos ha’teluyos ba’aretz, or the mitzvos that are only able to be fulfilled in the land of Israel, starting with bikkurim. Rashi often asks what the connection between two seemingly unrelated parshios is, but he is curiously silent here. However, if we ignore the fact that there is a week’s wait and a page break in between these two parshios, we might recognize that there is, in fact, a very clear connection between the mitzvah of mechias Amaleik and the mitzvos ha’teluyos ba’aretz. Specifically, mechias Amaleik is itself one of the mitzvos ha’teluyos ba’aretz.
When approaching the laws of bikkurim, then, most assume the fact that they are a mitzvah only fulfilled in Israel is a detail of the mitzvah of bikkurim itself. Perhaps, though, the reverse is true. Perhaps Israel is not an element of bikkurim, but bikkurim is an element of Israel. While seemingly trivial, this is, in fact, a radically different way of viewing the law, and the land of Israel as a whole. What emerges from this reading is that a fundamental aspect of the land of Israel is the unique laws that go along with it.
Part of what is so intriguing about this way of reading the text is the contrast between the way the land of Israel is presented in last week’s parsha versus the way that it is presented to us now. There is a correction, as it were, between the two presentations; a contrast, not a comparison. Allow me to elaborate…
Distance Yourself From Evil; Do Good
Judaism, as is well known, is comprised of both “do’s” and “don’ts.” There are those things that we are called upon to do, and those things that we are required to refrain from doing. This is expressed most succinctly in Tehillim (37:27) as “סוּר מֵרָע וַעֲשֵׂה־טוֹב,” to both “distance oneself from evil” as well as actually then “do good.”
We are obligated in the eradication of the nation of Amaleik; this is unavoidable. We are, however, to view this obligation as a means to an end — not an end in itself. We destroy so that we can build. Whereas the previous parsha ends with the destruction of Amaleik, this week’s parsha begins with the building of the Jewish homeland in Israel with the mitzvah of bikkurim as the very epitome of a law in celebration of creating/producing something. The destruction of Amaleik exists only on a continuum culminating in the creation of the Jewish homeland.
To illustrate this point, a political columnist that does nothing but point out the shortcomings and problems in a rival party — never suggesting a way to actually fix any problems — is doing only half the job. Complaining, or pointing out the flaws in other opinions, is but the “distancing from evil.” The trick in life is to be able to propose a solution, something better, to then “do good.” We will never achieve anything, never grow or improve the world, if we only challenge and attack.
If we are only capable of the negative — and are incapable of turning something negative into something positive — then what we are doing is fundamentally flawed. Destruction, when it is sometimes necessary, is a means to an end, never an end itself. The juxtaposition of our two parshios calls out to us with the crucial message that negativity is only allowed so as to breed positivity. We can only destroy so that we may build, so that we can enter the land and build there.
The High Holidays
Indeed, as we approach Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, much of our time is spent identifying all that we have done wrong in the past. Identifying and meditating on that which we have done wrong is, of course, necessary and important. However, if this is all that we do, our experience of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is essentially pointless. We are only meant to point out all that we have done wrong so that we might correct it, learn from it, and build upon our mistakes. Simply stating what we did wrong is not nearly enough; we must make moves to actually change and improve ourselves.
We spend our time in Elul — especially on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur — in close proximity to God, engrossed in holiness. We want to do better, to be better; we tell ourselves we are going to change. The moment Yom Kippur ends, though, does something die, or is something born? Do our feelings of spirituality and growth expire, or is actual improvement and change birthed as Yom Kippur draws to a close? If we cannot say with honesty and integrity that we have created something from the High Holiday experience — that we have actually changed in some way, or at least really, truly tried — then it is all a waste; the negativity became an end in itself, and our experience was fundamentally flawed.
Destruction is but for the sake of building. Introspection, and admission to sin, is ultimately meant to lead to positive change. The Jewish people were commanded to destroy a nation so that they could build a homeland. Inasmuch as we must distance ourselves from evil we must also take charge and do good. Only when we see our improved selves in retrospect will we be able to say with confidence that we were able to take a negative and turn it into a positive.