Archive | August, 2013

Commentary for Nitzavim-Vayelech

30 Aug

The first chapter of this week’s parshah, chapter 29, contains the standard warning to the Israelites that we have seen throughout Deuteronomy: The Israelites need to follow God’s commandments when they reach the Promised Land or else God will punish them harshly and expel them from the Promised Land. This week’s unique spin on that theme is that if the Israelites do not obey God’s commandments, the wrath He pours out upon them will be so harsh that its devastating results will be clearly visible generations and generations later, to the point where the new inhabitants of the land will be compelled to wonder what could have happened here that God decided to strike the land of harshly.

The chapter then ends with the most well-known verse in this week’s Torah reading (Deut 29:28) “The those that are hidden are for the Lord our God, and those that are revealed are for us and our children forever to apply all of the instructions of this Torah.” The reason this verse receives so much attention is twofold. The first reason, and most obvious from the physical text, is the presence of a series of dots above many of the letters in the letters in the words “for us and our children forever.” These dots, which appear nine other places in the Torah imply some hidden knowledge in the verses, words, and letters over which they appear (though many Rabbis believe that there presence here in this verse about secrets that belong only to God and revelations that are for us implies that this knowledge will remain hidden to us until the coming of the Mashiach, or any other such time as God chooses to reveal it).

The other reason this verse has received so much attention is the vagueness of the text as to the subject of this verse. What is either “hidden” or “revealed?” Some believe it refers to Divine secrets, while others believe it is indicative of a difference in the way God meted out punishment to the Israelites during the time they were in the desert and after they crossed into the Promised Land, but the most widely-accepted answer is that this verse is talking about our deeds, both good and bad, and our responsibility to monitor them, both as a community and as individuals. It is not our place as individuals or as a community to judge who we think is stingy in their donations to charity or who doesn’t say the Shema every morning and night or who might secretly be worshiping idols. Those are issues between an individual and God and they are no one else’s business. It is our place both as individuals and as a community to see that justice is done, that everyone is treated fairly, that the needy are cared for, and that our sacred traditions are cared for and respected. These things falls to us so that our society will set a good example for our children, so that one day they may become the keepers of a just society to pass down to their children, and they to their children for all time.

Commentary for Ki Tavo

23 Aug

This week’s parshah includes what is far and away the longest aliyah of the entire Torah. At a whopping length of two and a half columns, the sixth aliyah of the annual cycle (fifth on the triennial), known as the Tochacha (admonition), is longer than its closest competitor by about half a column. The reason this aliyah is so long is because we are not permitted to end an aliyah on a sad note, and the Tochacha, a final stern warning from Moses to the Jewish people, is, with the exception of the final verse, one giant list of all of the terrible things that will happen to the Israelites if they do not heed God’s commandments.

The custom has developed to read the Tochacha (aside from the last verse) quickly and quietly in a subdued voice, as if saying them in a regular manner will somehow cause them to come to pass. A similar thought process is seen in some Talmudic discussions where if, for example, the Rabbis are discussing what would happen if there were a flood, they will say ,for example, “if there were not a flood, the crops would be ruined” as if talking about a flood could cause a flood to come. This sort of thinking seems extremely out of line with the Jewish view on superstition; that it is silly, and that putting too much stock in it might actually be a form of idolatry. If we look closer, though, Judaism does have a few practices that seem to be very superstitious.

The most notable of these is the eating of the apple and honey (and various other symbolic foods) on Rosh Hashanah. The source for this custom appears to be two mentions of it in the Gemarah. One of them says that the food must be eaten (K’ritot 6a) while the other says that they only need to be looked upon (Horayot 12a). We make sure to say a short benediction asking God to fulfill a request symbolically related to the food in question (though this appears to have been a later addition), but in either case the Gemarah makes clear that having the food there is absolutely necessary for God to consider our request. The idea that the human action of eating or looking at a certain item of food could somehow force The Almighty to consider a request He otherwise wouldn’t goes against the core belief of Judaism that God is omnipotent.

The 13th century Rabbi Menachem Meiri says that the presence of the fruit is necessary to help us to remember to improve ourselves by associating an action with our request to God. Every time we eat an apple, we are reminded to be less bitter, and if we put forth an effort to be less bitter, God will lend us His strength and help us achieve our goal.

If we apply Meiri’s explanation to the custom to read the Tochacha quickly and quietly, we seem to run into a problem. If the goal of the Tochacha, which is always read just a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, is to warn people to start changing their behaviors lest they be punished, then wouldn’t it be more effective to read the Tochacha very slowly and loudly, instead of quickly and quietly?

The Klausenberger Rebbe said that the Tochacha should be “read quietly when you are afraid that it might happen and you don’t know what is going to happen to you once it happens.” In the heart of the Yom Kippur service, right before the confessional, we say “we are neither so insolent or so obstinate to as claim that we are righteous and without sin, for we have surely sinned.” In this time of repentance we read the Tochacha quickly and quietly, with fear and reverence, to remind ourselves of the fact that we have not been perfect, and that we all need to work on improving ourselves.

Commentary for Ki Teitzei

16 Aug

This week’s parshah is comprised of an eclectic collection of laws. It frequently bounces around like a discussion in the Gemarah, bouncing from one mostly unrelated topic to the next because of one common element, no matter how relevant it is to the original discussion. Then, at the end of the parshah, we get a pair of commandments that are seemingly unconnected to the previous section in any way at all. After a section in which we are forbidden from using false weights and measures in our business dealings, we are the commanded to remember the attack by Amalek and to blot out the memory of Amalek from history.

The story of Amalek is found in Exodus 17:8-16. The short version of the story is that the nation of Amalek assaulted the Israelites without provocation, striking from the rear of the Israelite column where the vast majority was frail, old, or very young. They intended to cause as many casualties as possible by killing those who were unable to defend themselves. The Israelite army fought back and God helped the Israelites win the battle and drive Amalek off. After the battle, God vows to blot out the name of Amalek from history.

The difference between the section at the end of this week’s parshah (Deut 25:17-19) and the story in Exodus is that in Exodus is that in Exodus, God said that He Himself would be the one to blot out Amalek’s memory, but in this section we are commanded to blot out Amalek’s memory. One of the most important notions in Judaism is the belief that God will keep His promises, such as his covenants with Abraham and the covenant formed at Sinai, so the idea that God would not fulfill this promise and instead leave it up to the Israelites is not a workable theological answer. How, then, can these two statements exist together, both made by God?
Amalek exists in Jewish thought as both the historical nation in the biblical stories and as an idea of evil run rampant. People who will kill and plunder for no other reason than because they can. Biblical commentators report this as the sort of behavior that caused God to bring Divine punishment down upon both the generation of Noah and the people Sodom and Gomorrah. One Rabbinic explanation for the difference between Exodus 17:14 and Deut 25:19 is that when Amalek, be it the actual historical nation or a group inspired by a similar all-consuming greed, becomes a major physical force in the world, God fulfills his promise to take action against them, as he did in Exodus 17, and later in I Samuel when God delivers them in to the hands of King Saul’s army, and in the story of Purim, when God gave Mordechai and Esther the courage and wisdom necessary to eliminate influence of Haman, a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag, as well as his kin and supporters, from Persia. It is God’s job to mete out Divine punishment at the place and time of God’s choosing, not ours.

Our job is to create a society that does not tolerate the behaviors that lead people down the path to same thought process as the Amalekites. The commandment for us to blot out the memory of Amalek is found directly after a passage forbidding cheating in business deals by using false weights and measures. If we turn a blind eye to theft in small amounts, it encourages thieves to steal in increasingly larger amounts and to move on to more violent crimes in the course of their thievery. Our role in blotting out the memory of Amalek is to prevent Amalek from ever rising again by ensuring that there is no slippery slope for people to slip down.

Commentary for Shoftim

9 Aug

This Wednesday marked first day of the month of Elul, the final month of the Jewish calendar. Due to its placement right before the High Holy Days, Elul has taken on a spiritual tone of repentance. We supplement our prayers with the Psalm for the Season of Repentance and the blowing of the shofar, Sephardic Jews start to say Slichot on the second day of the month, and we all begin a time of deep self-reflection.

The Jewish calendar and the cycle of Torah readings are often connected in subtle ways. This week’s parshah, which always falls on the first Shabbat after the beginning of Elul, is no exception. One of the main themes in this week’s parshah is having a just society. The parshah gives us many laws for the establishment of courts and detailing how public officials should act towards the masses, but many of these laws can be used as a guide for our own self-reflection as well.

The second verse of the parshah teaches “You shall not judge unfairly, nor shall you show partiality (16:19).” If we do not judge ourselves fairly then the entire exercise of self-reflection is rendered pointless. The next verse, which contains the well-known phrase “tzedek tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice shall you pursue),” also emphasizes that no evaluation of one’s deeds, be it legal or spiritual, has any meaning if we are not certain that we are coming to a just and fair outcome.

Deut 17:16-20 teaches that, should the Israelites desire to appoint a king, the king will have to follow certain rules. Chief among these is that he shall not attempt to amass an overly excessive amount of wealth. In an attempt to ensure that this does not happen, the Torah commands that each king shall write a Torah scroll (many commentators say two) which he will have with him in his entourage whenever he travels. Should the king become overconfident in his ability to restrain his desire for wealth and power, having a Torah which he put in the massive amount of time and effort required to write traveling with him everywhere he goes will serve as a reminder to him to keep his desires in check. Just as the king will see the Torah and ask himself “have I overestimated my ability to restrain my desires?” we too must ask ourselves during this time of repentance if we have been overconfident in our abilities to do the things we have promised to do.

As part of a biblically ordained pre-war ritual, a priest must address the Israelites before they go into battle. During this speech, he must ask if there are any among them who believe themselves to be too faint-hearted to go to war (Deut 20:8). All who wish to leave the army at this time are allowed to return home because it would be unjust to expect them to do something which they are not cut out to do. During this season of repentance, we must ask ourselves if we have made unfair demands of others and been harsh with them for not meeting expectations that they did not have the capacity to meet. As the High Holy Days approach, we must fairly and honestly evaluate our behavior so that we can work to do teshuvah and improve ourselves in the coming year.

Commentary for Re’eh

2 Aug

For the past forty years, the Israelites have had it easy, all things considered. Yes, they have been wandering around in a desert for forty years, and they have certainly fought in their share of battles and suffered their share of plagues, but they never wanted for their most basic necessities. None of them ever had to worry about where their next meal would come from. Once they got to the Promised Land, though, things would change.
The Israelites, who had spent the past forty years living off of handouts from God, would now need to take responsibility for their own sustenance. The nomadic society they had known in the desert would need to transform into an agrarian one because God would no longer be providing them with the mana. This is not to say that God would no longer be providing for them. Moses describes the Land of Israel as a land that “soaks up its water from the rains of heaven (Deut: 11:11).” God will still be providing for the Israelites, but they, too, must now put some work in. This will help the people gain a greater appreciation for the bountiful land that God promised to their forefathers and will help remind the Israelites that the Covenant is not a one-way street. As Moses warns them throughout the book of Deuteronomy, they must observe the mitzvot or else God will not protect them from plague or famine or invasion.
The fact that everyone’s food will not be provided directly from God every day will also cause another major change in Israelite society. There will now be people who will have to worry where their next meal is coming from. Orphans and widows. The childless elderly who have become too weak to work or someone who has been injured and cannot work. Even just someone whose field is not having a productive year. For the first time in Israelite history all the way back to Abraham, there will be people who will not know where there next meal is coming from… or how long it will be until it comes. Moses tells the people in no uncertain terms that these people must be fed and cared for. Even if the shmitah year during which all fields must lie fallow is approaching, and people are trying to ration one year’s harvest into two years’ worth of food, we are obligated to take care of the poor in our society. The reason for their poverty is not important. We are obligated to take care of them nonetheless. Even if you think that the reason for their poverty might be divine punishment for a sin they might have committed (Deut 29:28), you are still obligated to take care of them.
The first half of the book of Deuteronomy has largely been warnings to the Israelites about how they must behave upon entering the Promised Land, but now that the moment is growing closer, Moses also starts to give them new mitzvot about how to act as a society that God has designated to be a “holy nation (Ex 19:6)” and a “light unto the nations (Is. 42:6).” Chief among those is the responsibility to take care of the poor. Its presence in the middle of this week’s parshah, which mostly deals with laws about where you can and can’t perform sacrifices, teaches us that taking are of the poor is just as important as ritual rites.