A couple is in the midst of a tremendous fight, as a gunman breaks into their home. Pointing his rifle at the woman of the home, he asks her for her name. The terrified woman mutters, “Elizabeth.”
“This is your lucky night,” the gunman responds. “I just can’t get myself to kill somebody who carries my mother’s name, may her soul rest in peace. My mother was a special woman. I won’t shoot you.”
He then points the rifle at her husband’s head. “What is your name?” thundered the gunman.
“My name is Harry,” the horrified man replies, “but they call me Elizabeth.”
Today You Become a People
It is a strange verse. The Israelites have been wandering in the desert forty years. An entire generation passed since they were liberated from Egyptian bondage. Moses is speaking to the people weeks before his own passing. He tells them:
תבוא כז, ט: וַיְדַבֵּר משֶׁה וְהַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, הַסְכֵּת וּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִהְיֵיתָ לְעָם לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
Moses and the Levitic priests spoke to all Israel, saying, "Pay attention and listen, O Israel! This day, you have become a people to the Lord, your God.
“Today you have become a people?” This is strange. They have been a free people for four decades. Even before, while in Egypt, they have been a distinct people. How can Moses deny the long and arduous history of his nation?
Imagine if at a State of the Union address the President of the United States declares: “Today you have become a people!” Americans would, naturally, be offended. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams are meaningless? How can Moses bluntly say, “This day you have become a nation”?!
Rashi is perturbed by this question. Rashi answers that Moses was giving a message that “Every single day, it should seem to you as though you are today entering into a covenant with Him.” Judaism ought to be fresh and novel.
Yet the plain meaning seems to suggest that Moses was saying that precisely now, as they stood poised to finish their years in the desert and enter the land, that is when they became a people.
Genesis of Nationhood
I heard a marvelous insight by Israel’s former Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau. When is the first time we, the Jews, are defined as a nation? Who conferred on us first the title of Nation?
Throughout Genesis we are never called a people; we are a family, titled “benei Yisroel, the children of Israel,” children of Jacob who was later named Israel. Who, then, decided to alter us from a family into a people?
The answer is counterintuitive and astounding, but so profoundly telling. It was Pharaoh, the tyrannical Emperor of Egypt, in the opening of Exodus, who called us a people.
שמות א, ח: וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף: וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ: הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ:
A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph. He said to his people, "Behold, the nation of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and [cause us to] depart from the land.”
Pharaoh then develops a systematic program of genocide for the blossoming nation who, he fears, will take over Egypt and expel the natives.
130 years have passed since Pharaoh called us a people. And now, in the wilderness, Moses declares: “Hayom hazeh nehayata Laam, today you have become a nation!” How can this be? Why would Moses say to the people that they have become a nation today, more than a century after Pharaoh defined the Jews as a nation?
What Is a Jew?
The Torah, in a subtle and sophisticated way, is addressing one of the great questions that would define the Jew throughout history. What does it mean to be a Jew? What makes you Jewish? What is the common thread that binds all Jews?
There are two possible answers to that question—one is given by Pharaoh; the other by Moses. Pharaoh defines us as a group that poses a challenge to the Egyptian Empire. What sets us apart as a people is that Pharaoh is threatened by us and determined to rid the world from our influence. What binds us as a people is the fact that Pharaoh hates us.
This is astounding. Our first mention ever as a people, a collective unit within humanity, is in the context of anti-Semitism, when the Egyptian monarch declares, that “Behold this nation, the children of Israel, pose a threat to the rest of us.” What makes us Jewish? What is the definition of our nationhood? We are the group that triggers profound hate. What does it mean to be a Jew? That someone out there despises me.
Moses’ definition of our peoplehood is radically different. “You shall become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” he tells us at Mt. Sinai. Or in his words in Ki Tavo: “Today you have become a nation, and you shall observe all of G-d’s Mitzvos.” We are bound together by a vision to construct a holy world, to grant history the dignity of purpose, to build a world saturated with morality, compassion, and love. What unites us is a covenant of love, a shared commitment to recognize the image of G-d in every human being and the unity of humanity under a singular Creator.
What binds us as a people, says Moses, is not that you Pharaoh hates you, but that G-d loves you and chose you as His ambassadors to sanctify the planet.
Which is why Moses is so adamant, declaring: “TODAY you have become a nation.” Not yesterday, but today. I know that, as history drags on, some of you might be tempted to define your nationhood in terms of anti-Semitism. I know that some of you may allow Pharaoh to define the meaning of being a Jew.
No, says Moses. Don’t allow the Pharaohs of history to define the meaning of being a Jew. “Today you have become a nation.” Today, after forty years of studying Torah in the desert, internalizing its vision at Sinai, you can finally appreciate what binds you together as a people: the courage to live with the consciousness of Oneness; the dedication to the Divine blueprint for life, Torah and Mitzvos; the readiness to become beacons of spiritual light to all of humanity.
What Connects Us?
The famed 9th century Babylonian sage Rabbi Saadya Gaon was confronted with this question: Lacking a sovereign state and a national identity, scattered around the earth, what defines us as a people? What binds the Jew of Morocco with the Jew of Spain? The Jew of Iraq with the Jew of France? What makes them part of a single nation?
In his great philosophical work, he would write:
אומתנו איננה אומה כי אם בתורותיה.
Our nation is not a nation - [it is so] only because of its Torah.
His answer was this: The Jew in Morocco and Spain do not share the same land, culture, national identity, language, government, and social climate. What makes them, then, one people? How can they be seen as part of one nation? Is it that they are both despised in their countries? No! It is that they both cherish, breathe, and live the same Torah. “Today you have become a people.”
We often talk of the fact that all Jews are united by the fact that anti-Semites hate us all. Mengele sent every type of Jew to the gas chambers.
This is true, but it’s missing something. This definition alone is the one that Pharaoh gave us. In his mind we were “Am Bnei Yisroel,” a nation in the sense that our blood is less red, our honor less valued, our freedom can be snatched. Discrimination against us is justified.
80 years ago, we experienced the same fate. Jews from Berlin and Warsaw shared the same fate. Chassidim, Litvaks, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Jews from Bulgaria, Greece, Ukraine, Italy—all shared the same destiny. Left-wing communists and right-wing Zionists, reformers and Orthodox Jews, were all decimated with the same passion.
Comes Moses and tells the Jewish people, “Hayom hazeh nehayata laam, today you have become a nation!” We must discover a deeper, eternal vision that can unite us. You can’t inspire your children to remain proud Jews if their only understanding of Jewish identity is the dangers we endure. Why would you want to be part of such a people? Besides, when you are living in a country that treats all its citizens with equal dignity, what keeps you Jewish then?
This question we must answer today: Who will define us as Jews? Pharaoh or Moses? Titus or Reb Akiva? The Crusaders or Rashi? Richard Wagner or the Vilna Gaon? Julius Streicher or the Lubavitcher Rebbe? Jewish children studying Torah or the mullahs of Iran?
Will we be bound only by a covenant of fate, when we face a common enemy, or will we be bound by shared dreams and ideals? Can we be defined not by what happened to us but by what we commit ourselves toward? Not by a covenant of fate but by a bond of faith?
The anti-Semite can’t create the Jew; the Jew must create the Jew.
Say It Louder!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, today the chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, related this personal experience from his youth in Brooklyn, NY:
“I had never been to this particular shul before, this renovated hospital turned into a synagogue about two miles from where I grew up in Brooklyn. Nor had I ever prayed with Hassidim. But the Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam (1905-1994), was particularly well-known as a saintly Chassidic master who had re-settled those of his Hassidim who had survived the Holocaust in and around the Beth Moses Hospital, in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. And so, one summer morning in 1952 on the Shabbat of Ki Tavo I set out from my home on Hart Street to the world of black gabardines and round fur hats, eager for the opportunity to be in the presence of a truly holy man and to experience a Hassidic prayer service.
“Now the Torah reading of Ki Tavo is punctuated by 53 verses which catalogue the punishments in store for Israel when they forsake G-d’s teaching: “If you don’t obey the Lord your God and all His commandments and statutes, then these curses shall come upon you… God will smite you with consumption and with a fever and with an inflammation and with an extreme burning and with the sword... God will turn your rain into dust, and it will come from the skies to destroy you... And your corpses shall be meat for all the birds of the sky and for beasts of the earth. God will smite you with madness and blindness and a confusion of the heart. God will bring a nation from afar against you, from the end of the earth, swooping down like an eagle, a nation whose language you don’t understand. A haughty arrogant nation which has no respect for the old nor mercy for the young.” (Deuteronomy 28:15- 50).
It’s easy to understand why Jewish custom mandates that these verses be read in a low voice. The Tochacha (“Warning”) is not something we’re very eager to hear, but if we have to hear it as part of the Torah cycle, then the hushed words, without the usual dramatic chant, are shocking enough.
“I arrived at the huge study hall even before the morning service had begun – and although I was the only pre-bar mitzvah boy in the congregation not wearing a black gabardine, I felt swept up by the intensity of the people praying, swaying and shouting as though they suspected that the Almighty might not bend His ear, as it were, to a quieter service of the heart.
“Then came the Torah reading. In accordance with the custom, the Torah reader began to chant the Warnings in a whisper. And unexpectedly, almost inaudibly but unmistakably, the Yiddish word ‘hecher’ (‘louder’) came from the direction of the lectern upon which the Klausenberger Rebbe was leaning at the eastern wall of the synagogue.
“The Torah reader stopped reading for a few moments; the congregants looked up from their Bibles in questioning and even mildly shocked silence. Could they have heard their Rebbe correctly? Was he ordering the Torah reader to go against time-honored custom and chant the tochacha out loud?
“The Torah reader continued to read in a whisper, apparently concluding that he had not heard what he thought he heard. And then the Klausenberger Rebbe banged on his lectern, turned to face the stunned congregation, and cried out in Yiddish, with a pained expression on his face and fire blazing in his eyes: ‘I said louder! Read these verses out loud! We have nothing to fear, we’ve already experienced the curses. Let the Master of the Universe hear them. Let Him know that the curses have already befallen us, and let Him know that it’s time for Him to send the blessings!’
“The Klausenberger Rebbe turned back to the wall, and the Torah reader continued slowly chanting the cantillation out loud. I was trembling, with tears cruising down my cheeks, my body bathed in sweat. I had heard that the rebbe lost his wife and 11 children in the Holocaust… His words seared into my heart.
“I could hardly concentrate on the conclusion of the Torah reading. “It’s time for Him to send the blessings!”
“After the Service ended, the Rebbe rose to speak. His words were again short and to the point, but this time his eyes were warm with love, leaving an indelible expression on my mind and soul.
“’My beloved brothers and sisters,’ he said, ‘Pack up your belongings. We must make one more move – hopefully the last one. G-d promises that the blessings which must follow the curses will now come.”
He then spoke of the blessing of Eretz Yisroel, the eternal homeland of the Jewish people.
Some years later, he established Kiryat Sanz – Klausenberg in Netanya where the Klausenberg Rebbe built a large community, and the acclaimed Laniado Medical Center.
We cannot be a nation that dwells on the “curses” that have befallen us. Of course, we must remember our past, and fight with unwavering clarity and passion against every enemy that wishes to bring curses to our people, Heaven forbid. We must never ever forget that Iran and all fundamentalist Jihadists do not distinguish between the most right-wing hassidic Jew and the most left-wing liberal Jew. They want them both cursed and hunted down. We must thus unite as true brothers and stand up for our people, for Israel, for our homeland, for justice and peace.
But our curses must never define us. Our blessings must inspire us and catapult us into action.
Indeed, “it is time He sends the blessings!” It is time He sends the greatest and most vital blessings, the blessing of Moshiach and our true and complete redemption, now!
 Indeed, in this week’s portion, Ki Savo, in Deuteronomy 26: 4, the Torah states: “Our ancestors went down to Egypt and there they became a nation…” In Egypt we are defined as a nation, and the title is bequeathed to us by the Egyptian king.