Archive | September, 2015

Commentary for Ha’azinu

25 Sep

This week’s parshah, like many in Deuteronomy, is a warning to the Israelites from Moses. The first six aliyot comprise a song that tells about how great things are when God is happy with us, and how bad they will be if make God angry by turning away and worshiping false gods. The seventh aliyah starts out with a warning to the Israelites that this is not something to be taken lightly.

The maftir portion of the seventh aliyah takes a very different tone. It is a personal message from G-d to Moses, commanding him to climb Mount Navo today, where he will die, not being allowed to enter the Promised Land because he did not give God the proper credit when he struck the rock at Kadeish in the Wilderness of Zin (Num. 20: 1-13).

The Torah begins this last section with the puzzling phrase “And The Lord spoke to Moses on that very day, saying: (Deut 32:48).” On which very day? Surely if the date was important, the Torah would have just given the date as it often does. If this was to teach us that God was ordering Moses to ascend Mount Navo on the very same day that God gave Moses these instructions, when surely God’s instructions to Moses would have included the fact that he go up today. Instead, the phrase is only found in the verse used by the text to introduce the instructions.

The phrase “on that very day (b’etzem ha-yom ha-zeh)” appears very rarely in the Torah. It is used in Gen. 7:13 to describe Noah and his family boarding the ark after the rain starts to fall, in Gen. 17:23 and 26 to describe Abraham circumcising himself and all of his household, and in Ex. 12:17 to describe the impending exodus of the Israelites fro Egypt. It is also used in Lev. 23:21 to describe Shavuot and in 23:28,29, and 30 to describe Yom Kippur.

What all of these moments have in common is that they are moments from which there is no turning back. When Noah’s family stepped onto the ark, they decided to put their trust in God that this was not just a normal rainstorm, and that God would protect them throughout it. When Abraham circumcised himself and his household, he was declaring that this monotheism thing was not just a phase. It was a permanent relationship with God for which he and his adherents were willing to make lasting, irreparable marks on their bodies. When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt it changed them from a people to a nation and demonstrated God’s power to the world in an undeniable way not seen since the flood. The revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah on Shavuot cement the signing of a covenant between God and every Jew who will ever exist, obligating us to God to fulfill the commandments given in the Torah.

In this week’s parshah, the words “on that very day” mark the moment that Moses’ fate was sealed. From that time on, Moses would have to accept his punishment that he would never see the Promised Land. At the end of each Yom Kippur, we face a similar moment. Our fate for the year is sealed, and we begin to work on ourselves. We take what we have discovered about ourselves during the High Holiday season to heart and we begin trying to correct out behaviors. The same warning that Moses gave to the Israelites in this week’s parshah still applies to us today: we can do what is good in the eyes of God and God will be happy with us, or we can spurn God and face the consequences. Yom Kippur is over, and we must now start working to make our next year better than this one.

Commentary for Yom Kippur

22 Sep

Yom Kippur is often said to be the holiest day of the year.  In Judaism, one of the most important ways that we make something “holy” is by making it different.  You can make Kiddush out of any old cup you have lying around, but to have a special cup that you only use for Kiddush makes that cup holy.
Our holidays work in a similar fashion.  They each have special mitzvot attached to them- both things we are required to do and things that we prohibited from doing- that let us know that this day is different from any other random day of the year.  This is a holy day.  Even within the context of holy activities such as prayer, we still do things to set holidays apart.  They have their own Torah and haftarah readings, special prayers, and even special tunes for the prayers that we would usually do on non-holidays.  The High Holidays even have their own special High Holiday-only cantillation for the Torah reading as well.
One of the better-known changes to the service for Yom Kippur is that the second line of the Shema (“Blessed is the name of His glorious Kingdom for all eternity”), which is normally said in an undertone, is said out loud together by the entire congregation.  The midrash in Devarim Rabah (2:36) gives the reason for this as follows: Moses overheard this prayer from the angels and taught it to the Israelites.  We do not usually say it aloud because we are sinful and not as pious as the angels, so to say it aloud would be presumptuous of us.  But on Yom Kippur, when we shut out physical concerns- living, for just a day, like the angels do- and strive to be more holy than we usually are, we elevate ourselves to the level of the angels and are worthy of reciting it aloud.
So on Yom Kippur, we all become angels.  What a nice thought.
The point of Yom Kippur, however, is not for us to be perfect little angels one day a year.  The point of Yom Kippur is to have a day on which we must reflect on our actions over the previous year and develop strategies to help ourselves refrain from making the same mistakes again in the coming year.  Yes, it is the day on which God (hopefully) exonerates us from our sins (or at least reduces our punishment), but that will only happen if we make a sincere attempt at repentance.  Yom Kippur takes place on the tenth of Tishrei, but unlike other holidays, it is not about only the tenth of Tishrei.  It is about every other day of every other month as well.
Interestingly, the only regularly scheduled Torah reading for the High Holidays that does not use the special High Holiday cantillation is the Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon.  This reading (Leviticus 18) is a warning from God to the Israelites of many things that they shouldn’t do when they start their new lives in the Promised Land or else they will be punished.  The High Holidays may be about to end, but the year has just begun, and this final Torah reading of the High Holidays is read with the same cantillation that we use the rest of the year in order to teach us that we need to take Yom Kippur- the lessons we have learned about ourselves and the promises we made to ourselves and to God- with us throughout the rest of the year.

Commentary for Vayeilech

21 Sep

This week’s parshah, like many in Deuteronomy, is about G-d warning the Israelites what will happen if they should stray and worship false gods. Most of these parshahs counterbalance this warning of punishment for not obeying God with a section talking about the rewards the Israelites will reap for obeying God, or at least some verses at the end telling the Israelites that everything will get better if they turn back to God, but this week’s parshah, strangely, does not.

The section about the punishment reads as follows:

“And this nation will rise up and stray after the foreign gods of the land they will enter and forsake Me and annul My covenant that I have made with it.   And My anger will flare up against it on that day and I will forsake them and I will hide My countenance from them, and they will become prey and will encounter many evils and troubles; and they shall say on that day, ‘Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these troubles have found us.’   And I will keep My countenance hidden on that day because of all of the evil that they have done for they have strayed after other gods (Deut. 31:16-18).”

One of the major themes of the High Holidays is that forgiveness can be achieved through teshuvah: examining our deeds, determining what we have done wrong, and developing strategies to ensure that we don’t make those same mistakes in the future. The future Israelites in this section simply blame all of their woes on God, simply saying that ‘God doesn’t like us’ when they should be examining their own deeds to find the root cause of God’s anger with them. This parshah does not talk about forgiveness because the people who take the attitude of those quoted in 31:17 don’t deserve it.   They make no attempt to do teshuvah. If we do not want God’s countenance to be hidden from us, then it is up to us to go look for it. “The Lord is near to all who call to Him, to all who call to Him with sincerity (Psalms 145:18).” “You will search for Me and find Me, if only you seek Me wholeheartedly (Jer. 29:13).”

Commentary for Rosh HaShanah

13 Sep

We do a lot of praying on Rosh Hashanah.  Rosh Hashanah morning services are the longest of the year.  We all come together and sit in shul and turn the pages in the machzor from prayer to prayer.  There are many traditions that explain how the wordless primal sounds of the shofar are used to convey pleas from us to God, the different sounds representing raw emotions from within the deepest parts of ourselves.  Just about the only time that we aren’t praying in some form or another is during the Torah and haftarah reading, and there we are reading about other people praying; Sarah in the Torah reading and Hannah in the haftarah (and both prayers are answered with a child born not-so-coincidentally on Rosh Hashanah).
Hannah, in fact, prays twice in our haftarah, and both of her prayers are used by the rabbis as a model for how we should pray today.  Her first prayer is a model for how we conduct ourselves physically when we say the Amidah, our most important prayer: standing up, and “speaking to her heart, her lips moved, but her voice was not heard (I Samuel 1:13)” by Eli, the High Priest, who was sitting in the room with her.
Despite this, it is Hannah’s second prayer (I Samuel 2:1-10), the passage often simply referred to as “Hannah‘s Song,” that the rabbis laud with the highest possible praise.  Although Hannah’s action at the beginning of the passage are described in the I Samuel 2:1 as praying (“And Hannah prayed”), the name “Hannah’s Song” comes from it’s designation by the rabbis as just one of nine true “Songs” that have been recited in all of human history (with another to come after the coming of the Messiah).
A “Song” such as this only occurs at a moment when someone opens him/herself up and creates such a connection to God that things click into place and he/she seems to understand the workings of God’s universe.  Understand why things have happened the way they have, and thus are able to see things the way they could be, and see the path to get there.
The High Holiday season is one of reflection and self-examination.  We forgive others for petty wrongs they have done us and renew our focus on the things that are truly important.  We examine the things we have done, and ask forgiveness from others if we have hurt them.  We try to determine where we need to improve ourselves.  How we can do better and be better.
Before we can work on fixing our flaws, we first need to be able to see them, and in order to do that, we need to be able to examine ourselves honestly, and as much as we hate to admit it, that is something a lot of us have trouble doing.
Prayer is our direct line to God, and is our tool to help ourselves do that.  There is no point in lying to God.  God is omniscient.  God knows what the score is.  And as we pray to God for forgiveness and mercy and help, that forced honesty helps us to be honest with ourselves.
If we pray sincerely, are open and honest with ourselves and with God, we can see ourselves as we truly are, and also as we could be.  We can see our flaws and see the path to fixing them.  We can start to improve both ourselves and our world.   When we pray, we can each find our “Song.”

Commentary for Nitzavim

11 Sep

This week’s parshah contains one last warning from Moses to the Israelites. He tells them that they are being given a choice: they can follow in God’s ways and live happy, fulfilled lives in tranquility in the Promised Land; or they can disobey God and face the consequences.

After Moses’ introduction, the first part of the speech is a dire warning about what will happen to those who choose to spurn God. No matter if it is one whole tribe, one family, or just one single person, these will be their punishments. Moses describes the desolation that will befall these sinners and their land as “just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gemorah, Admah and Zivoyim (Deut. 29:22),” four cities destroyed by God for the wicked conduct of their inhabitants. From there on, Moses speaks of returning to God and great blessings the Israelites will receive for serving God, including the privilege of living in the Promised Land.

The section ends with the famous phrase referring to sin: “The hidden ones are for the Lord our God, while the revealed ones are for us and our children forever to apply all of the instructions of this Torah (Deut. 29:28).”   Just because we know God will always punish the sinner eventually does not mean that we are not obligated to do so as well.   In fact, we are required not merely to punish criminals, but to actively deter crime in our society. The Talmud tells us that if we see or know of someone who is about to commit a crime, we need to warn that person that they are about to do something wrong.

In a previous description of the punishments that will befall the Israelites if they spurn God, we are told that “a man will stumble over his fellow as if in flight from the sword, but there is no pursuer (Lev. 26:37).” The Gemarah, after a lengthy discussion about how our sins result in tarnishing those around us, interprets this as meaning “man will stumble because of his fellow’s iniquity,” and then concludes with the famous teaching “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh– all of Israel is responsible for one another (Shevuot 39a).”

Interestingly, the four cities listed above were destroyed by God for not abiding this very concept. Ezekiel 16:49 describes them as not looking out for the poor in their communities. Jeremiah 23:14 explains that they made no attempt to deter others from wrongdoing, therefore creating a society where doing evil was encouraged. Pirkei Avot 5:12 warns us that “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours… and there are some who say that this is a characteristic of Sodom.”

Standing as a counterpoint to this is attitude is our forefather Abraham. Abraham was renown for his generosity and hospitality. When his nephew, Lot, was taken captive as a result of a war started by the kings of those four cities, Abraham led his forces into battle to rescue Lot, refusing to receive any spoils of victory for his help other than his nephew’s freedom.

As Moses reminds the Israelites in this week’s parshah, it is on Abraham’s merit that they are to inherit the Promised Land, and thus it is Abraham’s ways we must seek to emulate. “One mitzvah brings another mitzvah and one transgression brings another transgression, for the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the reward of a transgression is a transgression (Pirkei Avot 4:2).” Our deeds affect those around us and our attitudes affect our society. If we act morally and serve God, then we, too, will enjoy all of the blessings that Moses describes to the Israelites in this week’s parshah.

Commentary for Ki Tavo

4 Sep

A few weeks ago the parshah started off with the following declaration: “See, I set before you this day blessing and curse. The blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day. And the curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God and turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day (Deut. 11:26-28).” In this week’s parshah, those blessings and curses are laid out for us- especially the curses- in all of their gruesome details.


Starting with Deut. 26:16, we get a section that tells us that if we obey all of God’s commandments, God will “set you in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that God has made, and that you shall be as God promised, a holy people to the Lord your God (Deut. 26:19).” We then get a list of actions which will result in the perpetrator being cursed, spanning from 27:15-26. Chapter 28 starts with a short list of the ways we will be blessed if we follow God’s word, but then continues with the longest aliyah in the Torah, which is a detailed list over fifty verses long of all of the terrible things that will happen to us if we turn away from God.


The sections containing the curses are read quickly and in a hushed tone of voice, to get them over with as soon as possible, and the section of curses from 27:15-26 are each separated into their own verses with special formatting in the Torah with long cantillation at the beginning of each. These changes from the norm cause these verses to grab our attention, whether we are reading or listening, and cause us to focus on their content.


One would think that if the curses are read quickly and quietly (because they are things we don’t want to happen to us), then the blessings would be read extra slowly and extra loudly, but they are not. In fact, there is nothing done in the formatting of the text, the speed of the reading, or the cantillation that accompanies it to give us any indication that the great rewards God will heap upon us if we act how God wants us to are anything special. This is precisely because we should not be thinking of it that way. Mitzvot should not be looked at as thing that we can go out of our way to do in order to earn brownie points with God. Instead we should be looking at them as a base state: We should be following in God’s ways and acting morally because that is the right thing to do.   The blessings are not highlighted in any way because we shouldn’t see acting morally as something out of the ordinary.


The choice that was given to our ancestors in the Torah is still before us today: Do we want to turn away from God? Or do we want to work with God to build the better world that God reveals to Isaiah in this week’s haftarah?