Archive | August, 2015

Commentary for Ki Teitzei

31 Aug

We often think of the Torah as a very grandiose book. It is filled with epic, fantastical stories with great personal drama or divine intervention in human affairs on a massive scale. It is full of important but complex rituals and sacrifices, with every detail spelled out so as to ensure that the rite is performed exactly as God desires. It is full of grand statements both moral and theological; loud declarations such as “I am the Lord thy God” or “thou shalt not murder.” And the Torah does have all of those things. But it is more than that as well.


In this week’s parshah, the Torah reminds us that there is another component to morality. One that is quieter than broad, all-encompassing statements like “thou shalt not steal,” but no less important. “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you give it back to him. You shall do the same with his donkey, you shall do the same with his garment, and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you mind. You must not remain indifferent. If you see your fellow’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it (Deut 22:1-4).” Simple little human things. The Torah teaches us that it is not enough to refrain from doing evil. We must proactively help each other in our everyday lives if we wish to create a better, more caring world.


Commentary for Shoftim

25 Aug

This week’s parshah contains the famous phrase “tzedek tzedek tirdof”- “justice justice shall you pursue (Deut. 16:20).” Repetition is often used in biblical Hebrew to show emphasis, such as in Ex. 19:12’s “Kol hanoge’a bahar mot yumot”– “all who touch the mountain die they shall die,” with the repeated phrase usually being translated as “shall surely” for modern readers instead of clunkier phrases like “die they shall die.” What makes our verse different is that it is not the verb being repeated, but the noun.


It’s no secret that the Torah is very big on justice. We are told numerous times not to cheat others in business, to treat workers fairly, and not to make biased judgments in favor of the rich or of the poor. Even non-Jews are required to set up a justice system to prevent crimes like theft and murder (Sanhedrin 56b), one of the few mitzvot that non-Jews are required to follow.


The Torah also knows us. It knows we are flawed, and one of our flaws is a tendency towards zealotry. This often comes out when we are demanding justice, and our desire to see justice done can turn into a demand to see punishment done, without taking the time to thoroughly ensure that what we are demanding is really justice. For these times, the Torah reminds us that the emphasis should not be on the pursuit of justice, but on making sure that the justice we pursue truly is justice.

Commentary for Re’eh

14 Aug

In this week’s parshah Deut. 15:19-23 teaches us the laws of sacrificing the first-born animals of the flock. Every year, the firstlings of the flock must be consecrated for sacrifice to God. One should not work the animal because this might cause it to develop a blemish and thus be unfit for sacrifice to God. If, even without being worked, it happens that a disqualifying blemish is found on the animal, it should not be sacrificed. Instead we are instructed to eat it, just like any other animal. Everything may be consumed but the blood, which is always forbidden from being eaten in Lev. 17:10-14.


Then, in the final verse of the chapter, we get a strange addendum: “you shall spill it [the blood] on the ground like water (Deut 15:23).” In the arid Middle-Eastern climate- and especially in ancient times- water is not something that is just casually spilled on the ground. It is a precious resource that is conserved as much as possible. So how can we possibly fulfill God’s commandment to spill the animal’s blood on the ground like water if we rarely ever spill water on the ground?


By comparing the blood of the sacrifice to water- a precious resource that should not be casually wasted- the Torah is teaching us that we must look at the sacrificial animal in a similar manner. We must always remember that the animal is being sacrificed to serve God and to sustain us. Even if the animal is disqualified as a sacrifice, we must still make use of it to ensure that it’s sacrifice was not pointless.

The animals we use for sustenance- both spiritual and physical- give their lives for us, and we must not treat this sacrifice casually.

Commentary for Eikev

10 Aug

This week’s parshah gives us the list of the seven species of the Land of Israel, a list of seven agricultural products with which the land is specifically associated with by God. Deut. 8:8 describes Israel as “A land of wheat, barley, grape-vines, fig, and pomegranates; a land of oil-olives and date-honey.” While the foods on the list seem rather normal, this leads to the question of “why even have a list in the first place?” These are not crops exclusive to the Land of Israel, and they are certainly not the only crops that are grown there, either, so why group these seven products together and specifically identify the land with them?


All seven of these crops require relatively little water, and thus would grow even in years of drought.   Due to having staggered harvesting and ripening seasons, at any point during the year, at least one of these products would be available for harvest, ensuring sustenance year round. This made them important parts of the ancient Israelite diet.


In addition to their nutritional qualities, all of these products have symbolic religious and spiritual significance as well. The vestments of the High Priest included little bells called pomegranates. The pomegranate is also often a used as a symbol for the Torah because the pomegranate is said to have 613 seeds, the same number of mitzvot in the Torah. The date-honey is a sign of the abundance of the Land of Israel, as shown in the famous quote “A land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:8).”  In the Talmud, the fig is compared to the study of Torah, saying that just as there will always be figs on a fig tree no matter when you pass by (due to its multiple growing seasons), so to is there always something new to learn when you study Torah (Eiruvin 54a). Wheat, barley, grape wine, and olive oil all played important parts in many sacrifices and rituals.


These crops are all symbolic of the Land of Israel because they fulfill both a practical purpose and a spiritual one for the Jewish People. The Land of Israel is a physical place to live and make a home in, but it is also a sacred and profoundly spiritual place, full of our culture and history, where many Jews go on journeys of self-discovery. The growing of these particular crops in this particular land is a fantastic illustration of our relationship with God. It can be purely material: God makes food that sustains us- but it can be so much more if we choose to seek out the spiritual part so of it as well.

Commentary for Va’etchanan

3 Aug

This week’s parshah picks up where last week’s left off, in the middle of Moses recounting the history of the Israelites’ forty-year trek through the desert. Specifically, it starts when God has punished Moses, decreeing that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.   Interestingly, Moses now lets the Israelites (and us) in on a conversation he had with God that they weren’t privy to before. Moses pleads with God to have his punishment revoked and to be allowed to enter the Promised Land and see all of the great wonders God has created there, but God does not relent, forbidding Moses from ever even bringing the matter up again (Deut 3:23-26).


In recounting this conversation, Moses describes God’s anger with him to the Israelites as being “on your account.” While this seems like Moses is blaming the Israelites for his actions- something which he does in a similar passage in Deut. 1:37- Hirsch notes that the word used here, “le’ma’anchem” has a much more positive connotation, and is usually translated as “for your sake.” Moses realizes that God is making an example out of him, and he wants to make sure that the Israelites realize this as well. If even Moses can be disinherited of his place in the Promised Land for not following God’s instructions, then it can certainly happen to any of them.   As the High Holidays start to creep closer, this is a message we should all be taking to heart. If Moses wasn’t perfect, then there is no reason for any of us to think that we don’t have areas we need to improve in.