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Torah Sparks

August 2, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 (Hertz, p. 735; Etz Hayim, p. 980)
Triennial Cycle 2: Deuteronomy 2:2-30 (Hertz, p. 743; Etz Hayim, p. 990)
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27 (Hertz, p. 750; Etz Hayim, p. 999)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Discussion Theme: Strength and Heroism

Then the Lord said to me: You have been skirting this hill country long enough; now turn north. And charge the people as follows: You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to provoke them. For I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Seir as a possession to Esau. What food you eat you shall obtain from them for money; even the water you drink you shall procure from them for money. Indeed, the Lord your God has blessed you in all your undertakings. He has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness; the Lord your God has been with you these past forty years: you have lacked nothing. We then moved on, away from our kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir, away from the road of the Arabah, away from Elath and Ezion-geber; and we marched on in the direction of the wilderness of Moab. And the Lord said to me: Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war. For I will not give you any of their land as a possession; I have assigned Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot. When all the warriors among the people died off, the Lord spoke to me saying: You are now passing through the territory of Moab, through Ar. You will then be close to the Ammonites; do not harass them or start a fight with them. For I will not give any part of the land of the Ammonites to you as a possession; I have assigned it as a possession to the descendants of Lot. (Deut. 2:2-9, 16-19)


  1. "Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful." In what way should they be careful? Do not provoke them. (Rashi on 2:4-5)
  2. The new generation, full of strength and vigor had to learn to practice self-control and curb their own aggressiveness aroused by the very fear displayed by the weaker neighbor. No advantage should be taken, but "What food you eat you shall obtain from them for money; even the water you drink you shall procure from them for money." (Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in D'varim, Parashat D'varim)
  3. Ben Zoma says: Who is mighty? He who conquers one's passions, as it is said in Proverbs 16:32: One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one who rules over one's spirit is better than one who conquers a city. (Pirkei Avot 4:1)
  4. The mighty individual is the one who conquers one's passions; not the one who is blessed with a good physique, rather one who is able to overcome whatever instinctual drives might incline the individual towards undesirable forms of behavior. Whether it be wisdom, might, wealth, or one's honored station in life, all of these are active processes; one must continuously learn, one must continuously fight against one's own inner inclinations, one must continually have the attitude of satisfaction with what one has, and one must continually bestow honor on others. In this process, we gain fulfillment of the values of wisdom, might, wealth, and honor. (Reuven Bulka in Chapters of the Sages: A Psychological Commentary on Pirkey Avoth)
  5. Being courageous in Judaism does not mean acting Rambo-like in destroying enemies from without. Rather, the person who is able to destroy an inner enemy and overcome temptation is the true Jewish hero. This is the meaning of the Mishnah (Avot 4:1) that defines a courageous person as he who can overcome his desires. These were the same words that were used by the rabbis (Tamid 32a) to Alexander the Great, arguably the most courageous man alive at that time (in non-Jewish terms). They told him that true courage is shown by overcoming one's inner desires; by defeating oneself. The Talmud (Megillah 16b) proves this idea from a verse (Isaiah 28:6) demonstrating that true strength actually means self-control. (Nachum Amsel, The Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues)
  6. The greatest struggle in your life is not with society; it is with yourself. This idea is not taught in America today. We are taught that we are victims of a society that is sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Asian, anti-Hispanic, anti-woman, anti-old, anti-young-anti- just about everyone. The temptation is therefore overwhelming to see your problems and challenges in life as being with America and not with yourself. Please understand: In this society, my greatest challenge is Dennis; your greatest challenge is you. And if you can make you better, you will make this society better. Please don't buy the rhetoric that the external is the problem. In a free and affluent country like this, we are the problem. (Dennis Prager, The Prager Perspective, May 1, 1997)
  7. Whereas the classical hero advances in battle to defeat his enemy, the Biblical hero retreats from conflict with his fellow man. Whereas the classical hero battles monsters and dragons, the biblical hero battles his own inner demons. Whereas the classical hero seeks to become "a god," the biblical hero teaches all men to know the one true G-d. The Knights of the Round Table are born for adventure. But the Biblical knight of faith is born for service. And whereas the classical hero is wrapped in splendor draped in glory, the biblical hero is naked and innocent before G-d. Religion replaced honor with humility, hatred with harmony, mortal conquest with moral courage, and a passion for publicity with a desire for the divine countenance. In the process a new definition of heroism was born. Our ancient Rabbis proclaimed, "Who is a hero? He who conquers his own selfish inclination." (Shmuely Boteach, Oxford Preacher of the Year)

Sparks for Reflection/Discussion

God demands restraint of the Israelites three times as they travel towards the Promised Land. They are told to refrain from attacking the descendants of Esau, the Moabites, and the Ammonites. In other words, prior to waging waragainst the seven Canaanite nations, the Israelites were commanded to fight their internal inclination to attack certain other nations. Was this type of heroic restraint a precondition to inheriting the Land? How does Jewish law help cultivate this type of heroism?

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