Archive | September, 2014

Commentary for Ha’azinu

29 Sep

The majority of this week’s parshah is a long poem by Moses, detailing the future of the Jewish People. He tells the Israelites that if they forsake God, God will punish them with famines, plagues, and oppressors, but if they return to God, God will end the punishment. As most of Prophets demonstrates, Moses’ prophecy was spot on.

Not only is this poem a prophecy, but it is also traditionally considered to be one of just ten true Songs in the history of the world. A Song such as this only occurs spontaneously, at a moment when someone has such a connection to God that things click into place and they seem to understand the workings of God’s universe. They understand why things happen the way that they do, and thus are able to praise God in such a sincere, poetic, and beautiful way. These Songs have been written by prophets and prophetesses, by the great psalmist King David and the wise King Solomon. One was even written by Adam as he lived in the paradise of the Garden of Eden. But only Moses had such a connection with God that he was able to not only praise God, as all the other Songs do, but to weave prophecy throughout a Song as well.

After forty-three verses of Song, Moses follows up with a quick warning to the people to stay true to God, reinforcing the theme of the Song. Then the parshah ends in a very strange way: Right after Moses, the greatest prophet to ever rise in Israel, the only person to ever know God face to “face,” has finished praising God and warning the people that they had better stay true to God, “The Lord spoke to Moses on that very day saying: ‘Ascend to this mount of Avarim, Mount Nevo, which is in the land of Moab, which is before Jericho, and see the land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel as an inheritance, and die on the mountain where you will ascend, and be gathered to your people, because you trespassed against Me among the Children of Israel at the wastes of Merivat-kadesh, in the Wilderness of Zin; because you did not sanctify Me among the Children of Israel. For from a distance shall you see the land, but you shall not enter there, into the land that I give to the Children of Israel (Deut. 32:48-52).’” Why, after Moses has achieved such a great connection with God, does God immediately remind Moses of his punishment? Additionally, punishing Moses for his sin is one thing, but to order him to go and die on a mountain from where he must see the land that he is barred from entering seems cruel.

By standing on Mount Nevo as the Israelites cross into the Promised Land, Moses is performing one final service to God before his death. While Moses must watch the Israelites cross into the Promised Lands, the Israelites will also be able to see Moses on the other side of the Jordan. And he himself will serve as a warning to the Israelites that what he has told them in his Song, and what he has been trying to tell them throughout Deuteronomy, is true: If they do not stay true to God, God will take their land away from them, just as God has done to Moses. For who among them could say “I am too pious for God to punish me for a few small misdeeds if I do not repent,” when God has done exactly that to Moses, God’s most loyal servant? This is an important lesson for the High Holiday season, for who among us can say this as well?

Commentary for Rosh Hashanah

24 Sep

The Musaf Amidah on Rosh Hashanah is the longest of the year.  Instead of the one additional blessing that most holidays have, Rosh Hashanah has four additional blessings.  In addition to the Sanctification of the Day, additional verses from the Bible and blessings are added for Malchuyot (Kingship), Zichronot (Remembrances), and Shofrot (Shofar blasts).  These three sections each follow the same format:  Verses from the Torah, then verses from the Writings, then verses from the Prophets, and a concluding verse from the Torah.  This order is unusual because in most places, the order would be Torah, then Prophets, then Writings, because the beginning of the Prophets starts immediately after the Torah ends, and because the words of the Prophets are considered to be holier than the Writings because while the Writings were written by people with inspiration from God, the words of the Prophets are the words of God themselves, relayed to the people through the Prophets.  The reason that we say the verses in this non-standard order is because it is chronological.  The verses from Prophets in the Amidah are all from the later prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, while the verses from the Writings are all from Psalms, which was written by King David, who lived before them.
This shift from the usual order of importance to a chronological order is an important one to take note of during this season of repentance.  When we reflect on our behaviors in the past year, it is important to examine them as thoroughly as possible so that we can not only determine what we have done wrong, but also what steps we need to take to correct our behavior in the future.  If we look at the events that led us to act badly in a certain situation in the order of which factors we perceive to be the most important, we are merely confessing our misdeeds and pledging to do better.  If we look at the events that led us to act badly in a certain situation in a chronological order, we are much more easily able to trace the path of factors and choices that led to our misdeed, and will be able to identify strategies to prevent ourselves from making the same mistakes again.

Commentary for Nitzavim-Vayeilech

19 Sep

In our modern society, religion often provokes questions. “What does this ritual mean?” “Why do we doing things the way that we do?” “Why do we believe the things we believe?”  For Judaism, this is nothing new. The Torah predicts these types of questions in reference to the paschal sacrifice in Ex. 12:26 (“And when your children shall ask you, ‘what do you mean by this rite?’”), and the Hagadah actively encourages them, using them as an important part of the process of passing on the tradition.

 

When we come across a verse of scripture or a midrash or a ritual that inspires a question, we are taught by both our religion and our modern society to try our best to find an answer. With a religion as old and complex as Judaism, finding an answer can be extremely difficult.

 

Ever since the time of Abraham, Jewish law has been expanding and evolving. God gave Abraham a few commandments to pass on to his descendants. Then, at Mount Sinai, the Israelites received the rest of the 613 mitzvot. Along with these Moses received many explanations of the law, and the whole package was passed down to Joshua, to the tribal elders, to the Prophets, and to the Great Assembly, before finally being written down by the Rabbis. The Rabbis asked further questions and wrote further commentary and explanations, and over the next few hundred years, the Talmud was developed. This was further explained and commented on by the Ge’onim, whose work was built upon by the Rishonim, whose own work was built upon by the Acharonim, and the modern Rabbis of today. New generations encounter new problems, and thus new questions are asked and new responsa are needed. New commentaries are published, all written on the shoulders of giants, but each influenced by their own contemporary societies. There is the Shulchan Aruch, the Sefat Emet, the Levush Malchut, the Mishnah Berurah, the Mishneh Torah; Rashi, Solomon Schechter, Nachmanides, the Taz, the Vilna Gaon, Hirsch, Heschel, the Maharam, the Maharal, the Maharsha, the Maharshal… so many books and so many Rabbis that it is easy to be overwhelmed searching for a satisfying answer. It quickly becomes much less of a hassle to just give up the search.

 

In this week’s parshah, Moses tells us “For the commandment (interpreted by the Rabbis as the whole of the Torah, both written and oral) which I command you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Rather, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, for you do observe it (Deut 30:11-14).” We should never view the Torah and Jewish learning as something that is above our heads. God created it, and God created all of us with the capacity to learn it and contribute to its legacy. We must also be careful not to simply dismiss any practices and philosophies that we do not understand as the products of another culture or another era. The answers are near to us, if we are willing to make the effort to reach out and find them.

Commentary for Ki Tavo

12 Sep

During the month of Elul, the final month of the Jewish calendar, there is a widespread custom to blow one shofar blast at the end of each weekday morning service. The purpose of these shofar blasts is to serve as a wake-up call to the community to remind them that the High Holidays are coming, and that the season of repentance has started. Similarly, the Torah portions read during Elul all feature a very strong emphasis on ethical behavior and devotion to God, with Moses telling the Israelites how they should act when they cross into the Promised Land, and what they had better not do if they don’t want to get kicked out.

This focus is most evident in this week’s parshah, as Deut. 27:15-26 is a long series of curses in the form of “accursed is the man who does sin X,” while the next section, 28:1-14, is a list of all of the different ways that the Israelites will be blessed if they follow God’s commandments. The next section of verses is the Tochacha, a harsh, explicit, two and a half column-long warning of all of the terrible things that will befall the Israelites should they turn away from God. Because of its extraordinary length (it is the longest aliyah in the Torah by half a column), and the custom to read it quickly and with a subdued voice, the Tochacha is often talked about as the main highlight of this week’s parshah.

The dark, frightening nature of the Tochacha is starkly contrasted by this week’s Haftarah, chapter sixty of Isaiah. The Haftarah speaks of the redemption of the Jewish People (after they have recognized their sins at the end of the previous chapter) and the blessings of peace and prosperity that God will bestow upon them. The Haftarah closes with the promise “I, the Lord, in its time will hasten it in its appointed time (60:22),” which, according to Rabbi Alexandri in tractate Sandhedrin, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi noted to be an apparent contradiction: If something has an appointed time, then if it is hastened, that means that it is not being done in its proper time. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi resolves this contradiction as follows: If the Israelites merit redemption before its appointed time, then God will not hold it back, but if they do not, then God will hold back redemption until its appointed time (Sanhendrin 98a).

In essence, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is telling us that we have two choices: we can either follow God’s ways and try to contribute to bringing the Messiah early, or we can choose the path of the wicked, and risk facing God’s wrath until such a time does come. In the examples of the Haftarah and the Tochacha, we see this same choice laid out before us. The High Holidays are coming. We can either repent, try to correct our behavior, and devote ourselves to better following God’s ways, or we can spend another year ignoring our responsibilities to God and to the creation and maintenance of the just society God demands, until it comes back to bite us.

Commentary for Ki Teitsei

12 Sep

This week’s parshah contains that well known mitzvah that if you want to take eggs from a nest, you must shoo the mother bird away before taking the eggs, so as not to cause the mother bird the emotional pain of watching her offspring be taken from her. This mitzvah and the mitzvah of honoring your parents are the only two mitzvot for which we are promised a reward that the if one performs this mitzvah, his or her days will be prolonged and “it will be good for you (Deut 5:16, 22:7).” These seem to be a pretty straightforward, if X; then Y. If you do either of these mitzvot, you will be blessed with a good, prolonged life.

In the very last section of tractate Chulin, the Gemarah throws a giant monkey wrench into this. Rabbi Ya’akov relates a story in which a father asked his son to climb onto a terrace and get some eggs for him. The son got a ladder and climbed up onto the terrace. Upon reaching the nest he shooed the mother bird away before taking the eggs. As he climbed back down the ladder, he fell to his death. How is it that God could permit this man to die while he was simultaneously performing both mitzvot that are rewarded with a prolonged, good life?

The Gemarah runs through several possible reasons for why this could have happened, dismissing each one with a religious principle or Biblical quote, before concluding that the reward of a good, long life will be applied in The World To Come. After reaching this conclusion, the Gemarah strangely goes back to listing possible reasons for why the son might have fallen and died, before once again dismissing them with the principle that those engaged in a mitzvah are protected from harm. The Gemarah then comes to a second, seemingly unnecessary conclusion: the son died because he was using a broken ladder, and those engaged in the performance of a mitzvah are not protected from harm in a situation where injury is likely (citing I Samuel 16:2 as proof).

Shooing away the mother bird and honoring one’s parents are both mitzvahs of kindness, which is a virtue that can only be taught by example. Through acts of kindness, we not only earn our place in The World To Come, but we also teach and inspire others to perform acts of kindness, making this world a better place for ourselves and others. The son in Rabbi Ya’akov’s story was not just performing acts of kindness, but was putting himself in danger to do so. If he was willing to sacrifice so much for acts of kindness, then what excuse have we to not at least sacrifice a little of ourselves?

Commentary for Shoftim

3 Sep

This week’s parshah contains three mitzvot that are commanded specifically to any king the Israelites might decide to appoint over themselves. One of these commandments is for the king to write a Torah Scroll of his own (Deut. 17:18). Writing a Torah is a long and exacting process. Each of the 304,805 letters needs to be copied perfectly, with different sections sometimes having different formats, and even certain letters being larger in one instance than they are in another. If a mistake is made, the old letter must be fully scratched out then started from scratch. If a mistake is made while writing God’s name, the entire sheet of parchment (three columns) must be taken out and buried, and a new sheet sewed in its place, which must then be started from scratch. The whole thing must be written using a feathered quill dipped in special ink, written on specially treated parchment or kosher animal skin. This process usually takes a full-time scribe well over a year to complete. Why, then, does God require a king, who also has many important affairs of state to deal with, to go through this demanding process himself?

 

The next two verses answer, “Let it remain with him and let him read it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Torah and all of these laws so that he will do them. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Commandment to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel (Deut. 17:19-20).” While this answer certainly makes sense, it begs the question: why couldn’t the king do this with a Torah Scroll that someone else wrote? Why does the king need to be the one to do the writing?

 

The more closely we are involved with something, the stronger the connection we feel to it becomes. It is possible to be a fan of a sports team by simply checking the score in the paper every morning and being happy if they win or sad if they lose, but the connection between fan and team will not be as strong as it is for a fan who watches the games on TV or goes to the stadium for games. The same is true for Jewish ritual. Reading about the mitzvah of waving the lulav and etrog is nice, but it does not create the same connection- the sound of the rustling of the leaves and branches, the smell of the etrog and the myrtle- as actually doing it. By requiring a king to go through the long and demanding process of writing a Torah Scroll himself, the Torah creates an extremely strong connection between the king and all of the laws of the Torah, so that the king will best be able to fulfill the important responsibilities of being a leader that this section requires of him.