Archive | September, 2016

Commentary for Ki Tavo

26 Sep

This week’s parshah almost exclusively deals with the concept of reward and punishment, and does so in very stark terms.  If you do what God wants, many good things will happen to you.  If you don’t, many bad things will happen to you.  If you do this you will be blessed, but if you do that you will be cursed.  Before we get to that, though, there is a section dealing with the ritual for the contribution of tithes, which has a very strange component:

“When you have set aside in full every tithe of your produce in the third year- the year of the tithe- and you have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements.  Then you shall say before the Lord your God: “I have cleared out the consecrated portions from my household and I have given it to the Levite and the stranger, the orphan and the widow, just as You have commanded me; I have not transgressed any of Your commandments and have not forgotten.  I have not eaten of it while in intense mourning, I have not removed it while impure, and I did not give it for the needs of the dead; I have hearkened to the voice of the Lord my God; I have acted according to everything you have commanded me.  Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil you have given us as You swore to our forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey (Deut. 26:12-15).”

The connection to reward and punishment becomes obvious at the end, but this differs from the rest of the parshah with this required verbal declaration, which seems entirely pointless.  God is God, so of course God knows that we have tithed correctly, and we know that we have finished tithing correctly or else we wouldn’t be making this declaration, so for whose benefit is this being done.

The listing of the specific mitzvot of tithing is similarly unnecessary.  God knows the mitzvot of proper tithing, and so do we.  If we have, by some chance, forgotten one of the mitzvot of tithing, listing those mitzvot here does not serve as an effective last-second reminder because the middle of the ceremony of declaring that we did tithe correctly is a little too late to remind us that we have forgotten something.

The Etz Chayim chumash’s commentary to Deut. 26:13 points out that this ceremonial declaration would have been performed either in their homes before bringing the tithe to its depository, in shul, or in the public depository itself.  In the latter two cases, this loud public declaration would let others know of the mitzvah the donor had just performed, allowing for him or her to be publicly commended for this deed.  We often say that humility is a virtue, but in a society where we are trying to teach good behavior, it is important that those who do good be acknowledged by the community, to show that the example they have set is a worthy one to follow.

The donor’s declaration ends with a prayer of blessing and sustenance not merely for the donor and his or her family, but for the entire nation.  If the entire nation was as persistent in their observance of these mitzvot as the one making the declaration, that prayer will be answered, as God promises in Deut. 15: 4-11, promising that those who open their hands to the needy will never find themselves wanting.

Commentary for Ki Teitzei

26 Sep

There are six events that every Jew is required to remember every day: In chronological order of their appearance in the text, they are, Shabbat, the exodus from Egypt, the Amalekites’’ unprovoked assault on the Israelites, receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the sin of the golden calf, and Miriam’s punishment for gossiping about her brother Moses and his wife.  The obvious question is “what makes these six events so important?”


There are many interesting ways to break down these six events for analysis.  Three are positive, and three are negative.  Some are purely human actions, some purely Divine actions, and some are both.  Some are individual actions while others are national actions.


One interesting way to look at these events is to first divide them into the positive and negative categories, and then break them down chronologically not by when the events occurred in the Torah, but by when the commandment to remember them occurs.  On the positive side, the first would be the commandment to observe Shabbat (Ex. 20:8), followed by the receiving of the Torah (Deut. 4:9-10), the exodus from Egypt (Deut. 16:3).  On the negative side we would start out with, the sin of the golden calf (Deut. 9:7), followed by Miriam’s gossip (Deut. 24:9) and the commandment to remember the assault of the Amalekites (Deut. 25:17-19), the latter two of which are in this week’s parshah.


Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks points out an interesting correlation between the events within the negative group.  It starts out with the sin of the golden calf, which was a sin against God, then Miriam’s gossip, a sin against her fellow humans, and concludes with the unprovoked Amalekite assault, which specifically targeted the rear of the Israelite column, where most of the people were either young, elderly, or infirm.  As the Torah describes it “That he happened upon you on the way and he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God (Deut. 25:18).”  The Amalekite attack combines the two, showing that a lack of fear of God can lead one to not valuing the lives of others.


An equally important lesson can be learned from an examination of the three positive events we are commanded to remember.  The first is the Shabbat, and specifically that God created the world in six days but rested on the seventh.  Both Shabbat and the creation whose completion the cessation of work commemorates, are Godly creations.


The next event is receiving the Torah.  The verses in which the commandment to remember receiving the Torah appear (Deut. 4:9-10) put a special emphasis on our role in the relationship, which is the observance of the Torah and its propagation to our children.  This task is ours.  God could ensure our obedience and the education of our children, but then our observance would be empty.  We would be no different from the angels, who serve God with no free will of their own, and thus we would be redundant.  God would not have created us with free will if God did not want us to have it.  It is always greater to choose to do the right thing than to be forced to do the right thing without being given a choice.


Finally, comes the commandment to remember the exodus from Egypt.  While God’s role in the events is clear and obvious, had the Israelites not wanted to leave, there would have been no exodus.  This great work required a partnership between God and the Israelites or it would not have come to fruition.  Both us and God can undertake great works on our own, but the world is at its best when we are working together.


These positive events teach us the benefits of working with God, while the negative ones warn us of the dire consequences of working against God, both for ourselves and for others.  These two simple lessons can be used as guiding principles in any situation, and are worthy of making sure we remember them every day of our lives.

Commentary for Shoftim

14 Sep

This week’s parshah begins with a commandment to appoint “judges and officers in all of your cities (Deut. 16:8).”  These officials are then commanded to judge the people righteously, not take bribes or show favoritism, and pursue justice.  In other words, it’s the kind of stuff you would expect to hear in the mitzvah to set up a just legal system.

What is interesting, though, is that the word used for “officers”- shotrim– is also used to refer to the Israelite foremen who were in charge of the individual crews of Israelite slaves in Egypt.  In Exodus the word is usually paired with nogshim- “taskmasters,” as opposed to here where it is paired with shoftim– “judges.”  The Hebrew word “eved (pl. avadim),” coming from the root meaning “to work,” also has a similar set of multiple meanings that must be distinguished through context.  It can mean both “slave” and “servant,” with the servant in question either being a paid servant or one who is subordinate to a higher power, such as one who is described as a “servant of God.”  In Egypt, the Israelite avadim were slaves of Pharaoh, while now they are servants of God.

Comparing the hierarchies of authority under these two masters reveals an important contrast.  In Egypt, Pharaoh gave work orders to the taskmasters, who were responsible for ensuring that the work got done.  The orders were then passed on to the Israelite shotrim (in this case, foremen), who were responsible for the actual organization and logistics of the Israelite slaves completing the work.  The taskmasters did not care how the work was completed.  It didn’t matter to them if everyone put in their fair share of work, or if one Israelite did all of the work while the rest of them slept all day.  They didn’t care who did the work, how they did it, or even if anyone was hurt or killed while doing it.  All they cared was that the work was completed on schedule.

Under God, the “work”- living a moral life and fulfilling responsibilities to the community- is given to everyone.  No one can get away with claiming that they did not know that it was wrong to commit murder or that they were supposed to pay their part of tithe.  Each and every individual is responsible for his or her portion of the “work.”  The shotrim, now paired with the judges instead of the taskmasters, are responsible for ensuring that everyone does his or her share.  They care greatly about how the work is done, and are tasked with determining when someone has not done the work correctly- i.e. the commission of a crime or skirting on their taxes- and are commanded to do so without prejudice of any kind, judging righteously and ensuring that true justice is done.  In the world of Pharaoh, the end goal is merely that his work gets done on time.  It doesn’t matter who does it, who gets hurt doing it, or how many moral corners get cut to get it done on time, and agents are employed to make sure it gets done on time.  In God’s world, it is both the work and the people that matter, and agents are employed to ensure that neither are violated.


Commentary for Re’eh

9 Sep

This week’s parshah continues the theme of reward and punishment that is prevalent throughout Deuteronomy, but with an interesting and very important twist.  The parshah begins with the following passage: “See that I present before you today a blessing and a curse.  The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God, that I command you today.  And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today, to follow gods of others, that you did not know (Deut. 11:26-28).”  This all sounds like stuff we’ve heard before.  Just last week we read that if we obey God’s commandments we will have rain in the proper seasons and God will protect us from our enemies, but if we don’t, there will be famine and our enemies will conquer us, and that wasn’t even the first big treatise of this nature that we have heard in the Torah.


One of the first, longest, and more famous speeches of this nature in the Torah is found back in Leviticus 26.  There, the section dealing with the rewards starts “If you follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them (26:3)” and the section dealing with the punishments starts with the similar “And if you do not listen to Me, and you do not perform all of these commandments (26:11).”  This formula matches up rather well with the mention of the curses in beginning of this week’s parshah (“And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today”), but the mention the blessings is different.


The mention of the blessings in this week’s parshah strays from the “if” of the “if; then” formula that these passages usually take in order to teach us a very important lesson.  The word “if” is not only omitted, but it is replaced with the word “that.”  This radically changes the meaning of the phrase.  The use of “if” in Lev. 26 and in the introduction to the curses in this week’s parshah sets up a causal relationship between what we do and what will happen.  If we don’t follow God’s commandments, we will be punished.  If we do, we will reap the benefits. Here, though, when the Torah is talking about the “the blessing” placed before the Jewish People, instead of using “if” it uses “that.”  The blessing is not divine protection and sustenance that God will provide us with in exchange observing mitzvot.  “The blessing” is “that you hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God.”  In other words, observing God’s mitzvot isn’t the means by which we receive the blessing, but rather a blessing in and of itself.  Assurances of Divine protection and sustenance are nothing to scoff at, but the Torah teaches us that the true blessing comes from the way performing mitzvot enriches our lives, encouraging us to think and explore ourselves spiritually and intellectually, and creating communities and support networks to help both ourselves and others with basic needs both social and physical.  Performing mitzvot should never be viewed as a ritual to go through for the purposes of currying Divine favor.  It is not a means to an end, but rather an end in and of itself.

Commentary for Eikev

9 Sep

The major theme of this week’s parshah is reward and punishment, especially as pertains to the inheritance of the Promised Land.  Moses reminds the Israelites that they are inheriting this land not on their own merits, but on the merits of their forefathers to whom God promised it, and that the nations they will be dispossessing are not being dispossessed for the Israelites’ sake, but rather because of their own wicked deeds.  The general warning that Moses gives the Israelites is to never forget that God is the true source of any success they have, be it in battle or in business or in reaping a bountiful harvest, because if they ever forget this, God will punish them by rescinding these blessings.  To help us to never forget this, we say a berachah before we eat, praising God as the ultimate source of the food we are about to eat.

This week’s parshah also contains the commandment to say Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals), although such a practice seems to be redundant if we are already saying berachot before we eat.  The commandment to say Birkat Hamazon differs from the idea of saying berachot before eating in one rather strange way.  We are commanded that “you shall eat and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless the Lord your God (Deut. 8:10).”  If the purpose of reciting Birkat Hamazon is to thank God for our food, why should it matter if we are satisfied with how much we have eaten or not?

According to Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin, the phrase “you shall be satisfied” is meant to teach the following lesson: “when one eats in a spirit of gratitude, whether there is much food on the table or little, the meal is satisfying (Etz Hayim p. 1041).”  In other words, if we go into each meal with the mindset that having food should not be an expectation, we will realize how lucky we are to have any at all.  This advice will certainly help one remain in the mindset of appreciation of God that Moses warns the Israelites that they must remain in if they hope to prosper in the Promised Land.

The penultimate line of Birkat Hamazon is Psalms 37:25, which reads “I have been young and I have grown old, and never have I seen a righteous man forsaken, or his children begging for bread.”   The final line then reads “God will give strength to His nation, God will bless His nation with peace.”  These two statements of faith, when meshed together, do a fine job of encapsulating the message of our parshah, as summarized in its final aliyah (Deut. 11:22-25), which promises that “For if you will observe this entire commandment that I command you, to perform it, to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to cleave to Him;” then God will protect us from all manner of threats and we shall live peacefully in the land that God has given us.

Sifrei takes issue with the phrase “to walk in His ways” on the grounds that it is redundant.  Surely following God’s commandments would cover metaphorically walking in God’s ways, wouldn’t it?  Sifrei interprets this phrase as a specific commandment to emulate God’s ways via acts of loving kindness, even if they aren’t specific commandments in the Torah (such as visiting the sick or comforting mourners).

Along these lines, in his commentary in the (Ashkenazi) Koren Sacks siddur, Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks passes down the following brilliant insight from an unknown author regarding the penultimate verse of Birkat Hamazon.  It suggests that the word ra’iti (“I have seen”) instead be understood in the same sense that Ester uses it in Ester 8:6: “For how can I watch the evil that shall come unto my people and how can I watch the destruction of my kindred.”  In this verse, the word ra’iti is used to mean “stand as a passive witness to,” and thus the verse in Psalms would better be translated as “I have been young and I have grown old, and yet never have I watched a righteous man forsaken, or his children begging for bread.”

It is important to note that at that point in the Ester story, Ester and Mordechai are already safe.  Achashverosh has made it clear that he has no problem with Ester’s Judaism, and Haman has been put to death, with Mordechai appointed chief minister in his place.  The only ones in danger at this point are other the Jews living under Achashverosh’s rule, who have not yet been protected from the decree that they are to be obliterated come the thirteenth of Adar.  Ester’s questions in 8:6 are not an internal wallowing of “woe is me!  But alas, I can’t do anything and will have to sit here and watch,” but rather rhetorical punctuation on her request to Achashverosh in the previous verse to issue a decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves.  Ester, having experienced and been spared from the same danger her people are facing, now does what she can to help save them as well.

Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin’s lesson is intended to help put us in the same frame of mind as Ester.  Those who sit down to their meal realizing that they should not always expect to have food will be more mindful of the plight of those who are not fortunate enough to have any.  When they come across a beggar in the street, they do as Sifrei says and walk in God’s ways by providing food for the needy, just as God has provided food for them, which Rabbi Sacks notes creates a symmetry between the beginning of Birkat Hamazon, where we thank God for providing us with food, and the end, where we commit ourselves to emulating God by feeding others.  That same symmetry can be found between Birkat Hamazon and this week’s parshah, which starts with a promise of the food that God will provide for us (if we observe God’s commandments) and closes with charging us to emulate God by providing care for others, promising us that if we do, God will do as we hope for God to do at the end of Birkat Hamazon: “God will give strength to His nation, God will bless His nation with peace.”