Archive | August, 2016

Commentary for Va’etchanan

19 Aug

This week’s parshah contains the Shma (Deut. 6:4), which is the only verse in the entire Torah with two enlarged letters.  While there is a well-known midrash that the letter ayin at the end of the word shma and the letter dalet at the end of the word echad are enlarged because together they spell the word “eid,” meaning “witness,” to show that we are all witnesses to God’s uniqueness as the only true God in the universe, there is also a much more practical reason attached to enlarging one of the letters.  The letter dalet (ﬢ) at the end of the word echad is enlarged so as to prevent someone from mistaking it for the letter reish (ﬧ), which would change the word “echad” (singular) to “acheir” (another), and thus cause the famous verse to be blasphemously misread as “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is another.”

Preventing the Jewish People from somehow mistaking God with someone or something else is a major theme of this week’s parshah.  The second of the Ten Commandments, which prohibits the creation of idols, is read this week (along with the other nine, starting at Deut. 5:6).  Deut. 4:15-19 is an expansion of this prohibition, specifically prohibiting images of humans or animals, as well as a warning not to worship the sun, moon, or other celestial bodies.

This last bit, when combined with Deut. 4:1-14’s preface of the section, gives us an interesting perspective on where the Israelites were standing in the grand scheme of world history up until that time.  4:1, spoken by Moses, reads “Now, O Israel, listen to the decrees and to the ordinances that I teach you to perform, so that you may live, and you will come to possess the land that the Lord, the God of your forefathers, gives to you.”  The rest of the section is filled with the standard stuff you would expect about obedience to God and acting righteously and remembering all of the things God has done and so on and so forth.  Included in this is a warning in 4:9 to “beware for yourself and greatly beware for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld and lest you remove them from your heart all the days of your life,” which is then used to transition into a brief recap of the giving of the Ten Commandments, before Moses brings it back around full-circle in 4:14, saying “the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you decrees and ordinances, that you shall perform them in the land to which you cross to possess it.”

The warning which Moses gives the Israelites in 4:19 about not being “drawn astray into bowing [the celestial bodies] or worshipping them” specifically cautions the Israelites to avoid the very same trap that midrash teaches us that the descendants of Noah fell into which allowed God to be forgotten by humanity until Abraham rediscovered monotheism many generations later.  When the Israelites enter the Promised Land, they will be in the same situation as Noah’s children were.  They will have seen the great wonders God performed for them in the desert, but the children they raise will not have seen those wonders.  It will be up to them to instill a love of and fealty to God in children who have never seen the clear and obvious work of God firsthand.  And then those children must instill that love and fealty in their own children, and they in theirs, becoming more and more removed from the irrefutable evidence of God’s existence that the Israelites witnessed in the desert.  It took less than ten generations for Noah’s descendants to lose all connection to God who spared their ancestors from the great flood.  Now the Israelites were being given this same task, but with many more foreign influences to be led astray by.

This Shabbat we read the first haftarah of consolation, marking the beginning of the build-up to the High Holidays.  Just as our ancestors found themselves facing a challenge that had been failed the last time it was attempted, so do we find ourselves facing a challenge we have failed at before.  Despite our pledges at the beginning of the year, we have not been perfect.  Not only have we sinned, but we have likely committed even the sins we had said we would try our best to refrain from committing in the future.  The High Holidays are coming around again, which means that we have another chance.  Like the Israelites, we must heed Moses’ warning, and prevent ourselves from repeating this year’s failures next year as well.


Commentary for Devarim

12 Aug

In this week’s parshah Moses recounts to the Israelites the events of their journey through the desert, which is about to come to an end.  One of the events that Moses recounts is the Israelite’s reluctance to enter the Promised Land after the spies return from their mission with reports of giants living in heavily fortified cities.  While the traditional view of the Israelites words as presented in the Torah, both when they were first spoken as well as here in Moses’ recap has been that the Israelites were doubting God’s ability to defeat the Canaanites on their behalf, the Lubavitcher Rebbe takes a different approach.

Moses’ paraphrasing of the Israelites’ reaction to the spies’ report is found in Deut 1:28, which reads “To where shall we ascend?  Our brothers have melted our hearts, saying, ‘A people greater and taller than we, cities great and fortified to the heavens, and even children of giants have we seen there.”  The Lubavitcher Rebbe attaches a special significance to the final phrase, referring back to a midrash found in Yalkut Shimoni.  The “children of giants” in this verse are identified by Rashi as descendents of Shamchazai and Azael.  According to Yalkut Shimoni, Shamchazai and Azael were two angels who, upon seeing the wickedness of humanity in the time before Noah’s flood, asked God to let them dwell among humanity so that they can help bring humanity back its holy purpose of sanctifying God.  God assented to their efforts, but as soon as they came into contact with the material world, these two angels were corrupted by humanity’s wickedness.

While they were in the desert, the Israelites’ needs were all taken care of by God.  They had manna and meats to eat, water to drink, and protection from their enemies and from the elements.  They had no pressing needs to worry about, and were thus able to devote their entire lives to studying the laws Moses taught them and strengthening their relationship with God.  They feared that when they entered the Land of Israel and had to start farming their own fields and finding their own water and protecting themselves- both militarily and morally- against the other nations that lived there, they would not be able to maintain their devotion to God.  After all, if two angels who came to earth specifically to help humanity live in God’s ways were able to be led astray by other desires, then surely they as mere humans would be even more susceptible to such a downfall.

Though well-intentioned, the Israelites defeatist attitude turned the blessing of getting to enter the Promised Land into a curse which ultimately led them to rebel against G-d, resulting in the entire generation aside from Joshua and Caleb, who did not share this attitude, dying out in the desert.

Interestingly, earlier in his speech, Moses indicates that he himself seems to have faced a similar dilemma.  In 1:9 he tells the Israelites “Thereupon I said to you, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself.”  In 1:10 he goes on to talk about the great abundance of descendants that God has blessed the Israelites with, and in 1:11 he goes on to wish that this blessing will continue.  In 1:12, though, he laments “How can I bear by myself your contentiousness and your burdening and your bickering?”  As the number of Israelites has increased, so has Moses’ workload in his roles as chief Rabbi and arbiter of legal disputes, and thus the blessing has become a curse.

Rather than attempt to run away from the challenge as the Israelites had done, Moses instead worked to implement a solution.  Moses told the Israelites to “provide for yourselves distinguished men who are wise, understanding and experienced for your tribes, and I shall appoint them as your heads (Deut. 1:13).” The next few verses then explain the hierarchical court system that Moses set up for the Israelites, and which they continued to use through the time of Moses’ speech and long afterward.

If what seemed like a blessing has become a curse, we should not just mope around, resigned to suffer through the curse.  We must be like Moses and work to find a solution to the problem so that we can restore it to being a blessing.

Commentary for Matot-Ma’sei

5 Aug

This week’s parshah contains the only time in the entire Torah that a specific date is given for someone’s death. Numbers 33:38 lists the death of Aaron, the first High Priest, as having taken place “in the fifth month, on the first of the month.” Not Moses, our greatest prophet who led us through the desert for forty years. Not Joseph, who had the amazing ability to interpret dreams. Not any of the matriarchs or patriarchs. Only Aaron. While Aaron was certainly a very important man, why is his specific date of death the only one recorded?

The key to answering this question lies in understanding both the importance of the specific date and the important role that Aaron played within Israelite society. The date of Aaron’s death coincides with the beginning of the month of Av (and this week’s parshah is always read on the Shabbat either preceding, following, or coinciding with that date). The ninth day of Av is the fast of Tisha B’Av, one of the saddest days on the Jewish calendar. On Tisha B’Av, we commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish People throughout history on this sorrowful day, including the destruction of both the First Temple and the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where Aaron’s descendents served the Jewish People as priests.

As a prelude to the sadness of this day, many Jews take restrictions upon themselves starting with the first of the month- the same day as Aaron’s yahrzeit. These restrictions vary from custom to custom, but often include not shaving or getting haircuts, not wearing new clothes, and not bathing in hot water, all of which are also part of the observance of shivah. In this way, not only are we mourning the tragedies of Tisha B’Av, but we also seem to be sitting something of a limited shivah for Aaron.

Aaron’s loss was deeply mourned by the Israelites, perhaps more than any other leader. A well-known commentary compares the description of the mourning for Aaron- “all the house of Israel bewailed Aaron”(Num. 20:29)- to that of Moses- which merely says that “the Israelites bewailed Moses (Deut. 34:8)”- excluding the word “all,” teaches that while Moses was respected, his work as a judge meant that there would sometimes be resentment towards him form those he ruled against, whereas Aaron was beloved by all for his reputation as a peacemaker in all manner of quarrels, be they domestic, municipal, or professional.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Torsa teaches that the First Temple was destroyed because of sins like murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality, “but the Second Temple- [where we know that] people occupied themselves with Torah, mitzvot, and acts of kindness- why was it destroyed? Because of the gratuitous hatred that existed there [in Israelite society] (Yoma 9b).” When the going gets tough we band together, but when things are good- when we have no major worries on our collective conscious- is when we start to let the little things bother us, and it is these little things that balloon up into the “gratuitous hatred” mentioned in the Gemara.

Chassidic tradition teaches that on someone’s yahrzeit, his or her positive qualities shine down onto the world. Just as the first of Av is the beginning of the countdown to Tisha B’Av, that same day- the day of Aaron’s death, can also be the beginning of the countdown to the final Tisha B’Av. Tradition teaches us that the messiah will be born on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, but the messiah will only be born when we have merited redemption. In order to be redeemed, we must all work to eliminate gratuitous hatred from our society, and the best way to do that is to nip it in the bud, ending quarrels before they become full-blown feuds. If we are to merit redemption, we must follow Aaron’s example and strive to make and keep peace between us and our fellows, “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all that were created, and bringing them closer to Torah (Pirkei Avot: 1:12).”