Archive | August, 2014

Commentary for Re’eh

25 Aug

This week’s parshah contains the well-known commandment “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk (Deut. 14:21).” This is the third instance of this commandment in the Torah. It is stated first in Ex. 23:19 and again in Ex. 34:26, and in all three locations, it is the finial clause of the verse. In both appearances in Exodus, it is proceeded by the commandment “the choicest first-fruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God;” a mitzvah known as bikkurim, meaning first-fruits. In our parshah, though, “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” is proceeded by a different commandment: the mitzvah of a neveilah (the carcass of a kosher animal that died a natural death). “Do not eat a neveilah; give it to the stranger that is within your community to eat, or sell it to a foreign gentile, for you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God.”

 

These two mitzvahs are startlingly different. Bikkurim is a positive commandment (“you shall bring”) while neveilah is a negative one “you shall not eat a neveilah”). Bikkurim are only given from produce grown in Israel while the laws of a neveilah apply everywhere. Bikkurim are given only from the seven species, while a neveilah refers to any kosher animal that died a natural death. Giving bikkurim is mandatory, but picking up a neveilah is optional. Bikkurim may be touched only by someone in a state of ritual purity or else they will become impure and need to be replaced, while the simple act of picking up a neveilah makes one ritually impure. Bikkurim may only be eaten by a priest in a state of ritual purity, while a neveilah may not be eaten by any Jew. The act of giving bikkurim is accompanied by ritual actions (elaborated on in Deut. 26: 1-11) and much festive pomp and circumstance (as described in the Mishnah of Bikkurim) was later added in, there is no ritual action present at all in either picking up a neveilah or giving or selling it to a non-Jew. In general, bikkurim are viewed as something we are happy to have and happier to consecrate for holy purposes, while a neveilah is something undesirable which one would only ever pick up for the purposes of getting rid of it. They are two very different mitzvoth, but they both precede the same commandment to not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

 

These two attitudes, one of extreme positivity and one of extreme negativity, are two ends of a spectrum on which we approach our religious practice. In Pirkei Avot 4:2, Ben Azzai teaches that “one mitzvah will bring another mitzvah and one transgression will bring another transgression.” If we find ourselves in an atmosphere where Jewish values and observances are encouraged, whether it is by our community around us or from our own personal outlook, sticking to Jewish values and observances is easier for us and almost any mitzvah is within our grasp. When we are in an atmosphere where Jewish values and observances are discouraged, either by those around us or by our own outlook, then performing the same mitzvah, no matter how simple, becomes much more difficult. For this reason, between the commandment of “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” and the negative mitzvah of a neveilah, the Torah contains the phrase “for you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God.” When we are in the midst of a cloud of negativity, we often need that extra positive oomph to break through it, and the Torah provides it by reminding us of our special relationship with God.

Commentary for Eikev

15 Aug

This week’s parshah, like many in the book of Deuteronomy, is a long speech by Moses to the Israelites. Chapters seven, eight, and the beginning of chapter nine talk about all of the great things God has done for the Israelites and all of the great things God will continue to do for them. Chapter nine then transitions into a warning to not let success go to their heads, telling them to always remember that God is the one behind their success, and that they should not turn away from God. In the final two thirds of chapter nine Moses reminds them of all of the times they angered God in the desert, and of how often God was tempted to destroy them. Chapter ten then discusses the ways the Israelites have served God in the desert, and the ways they should continue to do so in the Promised Land. Chapter eleven then combines all of these ideas, with Moses making it clear to the Israelites that all of their success, be they military, agricultural, or financial, will be dependent on their faithfulness to God. In essence, the Israelites are being asked to choose what they want their relationship with God to be like. Will they love God and embrace God’s ways, or will they be ungrateful and disobedient, and thus bring the wrath of the Lord down upon themselves? Will they make God an adversary or a friend?

Moses’ reproach of the people in the second part of chapter nine begins with recounting the events at Mt. Sinai. He sets the stage by describing his own activities while on Mt. Sinai: “ I had ascended the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the Tablets of the Covenant that the Lord had made with you, and I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, eating no bread and drinking no water. And the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God, with the exact words that the Lord had addressed to you on the mountain of out of the fire on the day of the Assembly (Deut 9:9-10).” The phrase “the finger of God,” used here to describe the carving of the Tablets of the Covenant, is used in only one other place in the entire Torah. Upon beholding the power of the third plague, which their tricks could not replicate, Pharaoh’s magicians describe the plague as “the finger of God (Ex. 8:15).”

It is interesting that this phrase, used only twice in the Torah is once used to describe the creation of a physical symbol of the Covenant between God and the Jewish People, and once used to describe God’s persecution of a sinful people. One time it is describing a positive aspect of the relationship between man and God, and the other time it is used to describe a negative aspect of that relationship.

Just like the Israelites in this week’s parshah, we have a choice of how we want our relationship with God to be. We can look at it as a positive, as Moses does, and embrace the partnership symbolized by the Tablets of the Covenant that were inscribed by the finger of God at Mt. Sinai, or we can view it negatively, as just a set a of restrictions on our time and activities, to the point where it feels like punishment the Egyptians experienced from the finger of God in Egypt. If we choose the former, we are not just embracing a partnership with God, but also with the community of our fellow Jews. If we choose the latter, we are cutting ourselves off from our community, and the wonderful relationships and opportunities a community creates.

Commentary for Ve’etchanan

11 Aug

This week’s parshah contains the second reading of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are probably the most universally well-known set of mitzvot in all of Judaism. Every Jew, no matter how religious or irreligious, can name them from memory (or at least nine out of ten). They are so well known to us, that we often take many aspects of them for granted.

The Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael asks a very simple but profound question: Why were the Ten Commandments written on two tablets? Why not one tablet? Why not three? Why not one tablet for each?

The arrangement of the Ten Commandments on the two tablets allows us to read them in two different orders. We can read them the standard way, starting with the First Commandment, then continuing down the first tablet through the Fifth Commandment, then starting to read again at the top of the second tablet with the Sixth Commandment, and reading down the second until the end. Or we could read them horizontally, starting at the top of the first tablet with the First Commandment, then continue across to the top of the second tablet with the Sixth Commandment. From there we would go back to the first tablet and read the Second Commandment, then come across to the second tablet and read the Seventh Commandment, and so on. The Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael explains that the Ten Commandments are arranged this way so that they can also be read horizontally as well as in the standard fashion.

Each of the horizontal pairs of the Ten Commandments are connected by reinforcing each other. Everyone is made in the image of God; therefore one who commits a murder defames the image of the Lord our God who brought us out of Egypt.

The relationship between God and the Jewish People is often described in the Bible as a metaphorical marriage; therefore one who worships a false god is breaking the bond of his or her relationship with God, while an adulterer is sinning not just against a spouse, but against God as well, by violating a sacred relationship consecrated by God (Mech. d’R. Ishmael Ch. VIII).

When people enter into an agreement, whether it is a business deal with specific terms, or a social contract to not take things that belong to others, they are each counting on the divine part of the other’s nature, which comes from our relationship with God, to ensure that the terms of the agreement will be adhered to honestly (Rabbi Akiva); therefore to steal or cheat would be like falsely invoking the name of God.

By observing Shabbat, we are affirming our belief that God created the world in six days and rested on Shabbat. We stand when we sanctify Shabbat by making Kiddush on Friday Night because by reading Gen. 1:31-2:3, we are “testifying” to those events, and one should stand while testifying in a Jewish court. Therefore, one who does not observe Shabbat is falsely testifying that God did not create the world in six days and rest on Shabbat (Mech. d’R. Ishmael Ch. VIII). Similarly, God created the world and everything in it, so to bear false witness- to lie about events in God’s world, is to attempt to create one’s own world and reject the one God has created for us. With the rejection of God’s world also comes the rejection of our partnership with God in the world, and the Shabbat which symbolizes it.

People who covet another’s spouse might come to create a child who, not knowing who his biological father is, will fail to honor his father (Mech. d’R. Ishmael Ch. VIII). If the child learns his true parentage, it might cause him to lose the desire to honor his mother.   In addition to this, one who covets his neighbor’s possessions fails to honor his father and mother by not following the values that they have taught him. If someone is tempted to break one of the Ten Commandments, he or she need only think of its horizontal pair to remember how much more he or she would be sinning by doing so.

This parshah is always read on the first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, called Shabbat Nachamu, after the first word of the haftarah, which means “be comforted.” After the past three weeks, culminating in Tisha B’Av, in which we focused on the tragedies that befell our ancestors, we now begin the to focus on ourselves in preparation for the High Holidays. We have sinned in the past year, but we can take comfort in the fact that God is (and always has been) on our side, working with us throughout the year to help us minimize our sins by steeling our resolve and giving us teachings such as the horizontal reading of the Ten Commandments to help us resist the temptation to sin by showing us its true cost. “I have created the evil inclination, and I have created Torah as its antidote. If you involve yourselves with Torah, you will not be delivered into its hands (Kiddushin 30b).”

Commentary for Devarim

1 Aug

This week’s parshah begins the book of Deuteronomy. Unlike the other books, which are mostly narrative and laws written in the third person, Deuteronomy contains many speeches given by Moses to the Israelites, all recorded in the first person. A change of perspective can often give us new insights into events that we did not have before, and the book of Deuteronomy is no exception.

 

This week’s entire parshah is Moses giving a brief overview of the narrative from the time the Israelites left Egypt until the present moment, when he is addressing them as they prepare to cross into the Promised Land, from his point of view. When recalling the rebellion after the return of the spies in Num. 14, Moses says that G-d “became wroth” with the Israelites (Deut. 1:34). The Hebrew word used here, “yaviktzof,” is used to convey a sense of extreme fury; one so harsh it is only used four times in the entire Torah. Strangely, none of the other three uses of this word occur in the story of the spies. In fact, the phrase “and God became angry with the community” or something similar never appears in that story. We can certainly assume that God does become angry because God punishes the Israelites for that incident, but the true extent and severity of God’s anger is not revealed to them until Moses’ speech here.

 

We often see the world only from our own point of view. As a result, when we have hurt others, it is impossible for to truly know the extent of the hurt we have caused. We might not even realize that we have caused any hurt at all. For that reason, we cannot afford to only see the world from our own point of view. As the season of repentance approaches, we must take strides to find out what harm we have caused and how to rectify it. Whether we do that by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, or by simply listening to what those around us are telling us, as the Israelites learn to do in this week’s parshah, we need to do whatever we can to fully heal the harm we have caused.