Archive | July, 2013

Commentary for Eikev

26 Jul

One of the major struggles that modern Judaism faces is that many of the stories in the Torah often do not feel relatable to modern people. It is hard to believe or be inspired by stories of divine reward and punishment in a time where people have to look very carefully to try to see the hand of God in action. The book of Deuteronomy faces this problem more than most. It has very little narrative and can best be summed up as “when you enter the Promised Land, do this, this, and this, but don’t do that or that, because if you do, God will punish you and kick you out of the Promised Land.” That is much of the content of this week’s parshah as well.
Moses, to his credit, does do his best to change it up a little, always trying to find new angles from which to impart upon the people why it is so imperative that they obey God’s mitzvot. This week, Moses’ message speaks of the importance of memory and firsthand experiences. A story that you read in a history book is just a story, perhaps with some names and numbers attached, but a story you hear from a living, breathing person, describing events and experiences of their lives in detail takes on a life of its own within all who hear it. It becomes more than just words and names. It becomes faces and sounds and smells and emotions. Stories that we read in history books tend to fade quickly from our memories, but stories we hear from our elders tend to stay with us, and with our descendants was we pass them on, forever.
For this reason, Moses tells the people “Take thought this day that it was not your children… but that it was you who saw with your own eyes all the marvelous deeds that the Lord performed (Deut 11:2-7).” If future generations of the Jewish People are to remember that they live on the great and bountiful Land of Israel because of their covenant with God, then they must be taught to remember all of the great things God has done for them, then this generation which has witnessed these great and miraculous deeds firsthand must impress upon the memory of the next generation, along with the importance of passing them down to all generations to come.
We today find ourselves in a very similar situation to that first generation to enter the Promised Land which Moses addresses here. We are the last generations to have either lived through or heard firsthand from those that did, of the amazing stories of the birth of the State of Israel. The stories of the brave pioneers who left their lives in Europe, North America, or the Ottoman Empire to start new, better, or more spiritually fulfilling lives. We carry with us the stories of the hardships they endured for almost seventy years before 1948, working the land, building modern cities, and defending themselves from unhappy neighbors, and the story of how one tiny nation defeated the combined forces of six of her neighbors, each of which on their own had her hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. The story of how Jews of all different stripes worked together to ensure that there would be a safe haven for Jews being persecuted anywhere around the world.
It is no wonder that the Rabbis chose Moses’ warning to the Israelites about how they must conduct themselves in the Land of Israel as the Torah Reading for Yom Ha’atzmaut. Like the Israelites in the parshah, it is up to us to impart the stories of our coming to the Promised Land to our descendants so that they can carry on the stories and the spirit of which our State of Israel was born, because if we do not, our descendants may find themselves just like our ancestors once did: with the state, and even the spirit, lost.

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Commentary for Ve’etchanan

22 Jul

One of the most important principles of Judaism is the covenant between God and the Jewish People, established with Abraham in Genesis 15 and further expanded upon with the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses emphasizes to us that this covenant is a two-way street. God will bless us with plenty and sustain us, both physically and spiritually, and give us the Land of Israel as our eternal homeland, but only if we fulfill our end of the bargain. We must observe God’s commandments, both the Thou Shalls” and the Thou Shall Nots,” and we must ensure the continuation of the covenant by teaching them to the next generation.
While the former of those is a major theme throughout the entire Torah, the latter shines through especially strongly in this week’s parshah. In the beginning of the parshah, as Moses completes his recitation of the history of the Israelites wanderings in the desert, he tells the people “but take the utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live; and make them known to your children and to your children’s children (Deut 4:9).” Later on in the parshah, during the Shema, we are instructed to “take to heart these instructions with which I charge you today. Impress them upon your children (Deut 6:6-7).” These things, both the spiritual practices and communal history of the Jewish People is what has kept us alive for thousands of years, despite the best efforts of the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Inquisition, and the Nazis.
The “Wicked Son” in the Haggadah is criticized for excluding himself from the group when the group is retelling one of the most important stories in our culture. It is because of this desire to not be a part of our people that the Rabbis tell us that had the “Wicked Son” been in Egypt during the time of the exodus, he would not have been allowed to leave. He doesn’t have to be a part of the covenant if he doesn’t want to, but he will forfeit the special relationship with God that comes with being part of the covenant, not just for himself, but for his descendants, too, because he will not teach them of their heritage.
In Deut 5:3 Moses tells the people that “It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, everyone one of us who is here today.” The continuation of the covenant is in our hands and it is our duty to observe the terms of the covenant and to teach our people’s history to the next generation so that one day it will be in their hands as well.

Commentary for Devarim

12 Jul

The book of Deuteronomy, which we start this week, marks a change in perspective in the Torah. We switch from the standard third person narrator to long speeches given to the people by Moses. As in any change of perspective, this brings a slightly different interpretation of some of the events. The first of these comes in Deut. 1:12, during a retelling of the events of Exodus 18. During his conversation with Jethro there, the reason Moses gives for his apparent burnout as the mediator of the Israelite’s legal disputes seems to be nothing more than just the sheer workload, but Deut 1:12 attributes it to a frustration with the constant in-fighting and “bickering” between the Israelites.

This week’s parshah is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, and this verse, which starts with the word “Eichah” (which is also the Hebrew name for the book of Lamentations), along with most of this week’s haftarah, is not read with the regular Torah or haftarah cantillation, but rather with the cantillation used for Lamentations, which we read on Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is a day of both physical and spiritual tragedies for the Jewish People; the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem, the plowing over of Jerusalem so that it could be rebuilt as a Roman city with a temple to Jupiter where the Holy Temples once stood, the fall of Betar and the end of the Bar Kochva Revolt, the expulsion from Spain, the outbreak of World War I, and the beginning of the mass deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka all occurred on this day. While Tisha B’Av is about mourning these tragedies, when looking at a list of tragedies this long, one of the first spiritual questions that comes to mind is “what did we do wrong to deserve this?”

While it is a time of mourning, Tisha B’Av also serves as a wakeup call. The next nine weeks on the Jewish calendar are a time of repentance, and the tragedies of Tisha B’Av make us ask ourselves what we have done wrong in the past year and help us start down the path of repentance that culminates nine weeks from now on Yom Kippur. Tisha B’Av, the book of Deuteronomy, and Deut 1:12 in this week’s parshah are a message to us that we need to start doing as Moses does here; Take off our rose colored glasses and admit to ourselves that everything is not as perfect as we like to pretend that it is.

Commentary on Mattot-Ma’asei

5 Jul

Numbers 35:5, from this week’s reading, has one of the highest (if not the highest) number of unique cantillation groups in the entire Torah. While the number is already high on its own, it is bolstered up a bit the presence of two cantillation marks that do not appear anywhere else in the Torah. One would think that a verse this exciting would be about some major religious concept, but this verse is about as far from exciting as one can get. Somehow, these two cantillation marks which are unique in the entire Torah wound up in a verse that deals with ancient zoning laws for the towns of the Levites, and on words (the first “two thousand cubits”) which are nothing more than a number in a measurement, which is then repeated three other times with much more common trope. To explain how something so exciting could wind up in so dull a spot, we must look at the verse as a whole.
The first appearance of the words “two thousand cubits” is marked with the two rare cantillation marks, Yerach ben Yomo and Karnei Parah. The second is marked with Kadma V’Azla, a set of cantillation marks that start in the middle and go high. The third is marked with Munach and Revi’ah, which start in the middle and go low. The final repetition of the words “two thousand cubits” use the notes Mercha and Tipcha, which are so short that they barely even sound musical, and not even the end of their cantillation group.

Through this pattern, our tradition is giving us a warning. Any new mitzvah, even something as dull as zoning in the land of Israel, is exciting the first time you do it. With repetition, though, we can start to lose our excitement for the mitzvah, with our enthusiasm for it going from high to low to practically non-existent, to the point where we might be focusing on something else entirely while we do it.

Obviously we should always be paying full attention to the mitzvah at hand, but that is doubly true in the case of a mitzvah like this one, which requires measuring, lest we make a mistake. The Levites are often mentioned in the Torah along with the other classes of poor people who the community is required to support, such as widows and orphans, because while they were given communal cities in the Promised Land, they were not individually allowed to own land, and were required to share that land with anyone seeking who came along seeking asylum. Any mistake in measuring the exclusive economic zones of the Levite cities (or the tithes which were the Levites’ primary means of support), would, in essence, be stealing from the poor. If we do not heed the warning in this verse, it could lead to miscarriages of justice that will hurt the most vulnerable in our society. We must challenge ourselves to find ways to make even the most humdrum of mitzvahs exciting new experiences, because if we become bored in our observance we not only miss out on great experiences ourselves, but we might come to accidentally bring harm to others as well.