Tag Archives: Mitzvot

Commentary for Behar-Bechukotai

24 May

This week we read the laws of the Sabbatical Year. God instructs us to leave our fields fallow every seventh year, and modern science has proven that this is very beneficial for the land, allowing it to replenish its nutrients, which is in turn beneficial to us as those nutrients are passed to the crops we grow and then to us. This has made this mitzvah a favorite of Jews who try to spread the good word to their non-observant fellows, and when combined with studies about the mental health benefits of Shabbat observance and other such things is used to weave a message that can essentially be boiled down to the following statement: “our omniscient God knows what is best, therefore it is best for you to do what God says.” And there is nothing false about that statement. The problem is that this approach tends to result in people viewing their observance of mitzvot through two possible lenses. The first is “I am doing this because I believe it is best for me” while the second is “I am doing this because God says that this is best.”
Both of these views share the same flaw, which is that they ignore the importance of the two-way relationship between God and us. Your doctor might tell you that you need to eat healthier and instruct you to eat less ice cream and more Brussels sprouts, or perhaps you yourself found an article online that said that people who replace ice cream in their diet with Brussels sprouts will lose weight. You might eat the Brussels sprouts instead of the ice cream, but most people aren’t going to be happy about it.


While one who fulfills a mitzvah simply because he or she thinks it will be better for him or her in the long run to have done so than to have not done so has still Halachically fulfilled the mitzvah, and one who fulfills a mitzvah because it is God’s will that the mitzvah be fulfilled is certainly doing something theologically laudable, something is missing when mitzvot are performed in such a cold, computational, almost emotionless way. In a week and a half we will celebrate Shavuot, a holiday where we show our joy in having received the Torah and all of the mitzvot therein. That sense of joy comes not because we like being told what to do and not out of some sense of selfish joy at having been given the secrets to wind up better off in the long term, but out of a celebration of having been given these mitzvot to help us explore our relationship with the One who gave them to us.


Commentary for Mishpatim

28 Feb

In last week’s parshah we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. There was smoke and thunder and the Israelites were “seeing the sounds (Ex. 20:15).” According to various midrashim the desert spontaneously bloomed and Mount Sinai hovered in the air, and while the Ten Commandments were being read the rest of the world was completely silent. Moses read the Ten Commandments to us in a voice amplified by God, telling us that there was only one true God, and that this God had some rules for us that we had better follow, with the context of what was going on making it pretty clear that God was going to get very angry if we didn’t follow them. What happened there was clearly a brush with the Divine; an inspiring experience that could leave no doubt that the rules Moses read to us came straight from God and so we had better follow them or else.

Conversely, this week’s parshah is almost entirely about civil regulations and fines and punishments for theft or negligence or personal injury. While Moses’ reading of the Ten Commandments comes with the a picture being painted of spectacular sights and sounds that add a gravitas to the scene, the mitzvot that Moses reads to us this week are devoid of any such description, and their dry nature leads one to conjure up an image of Moses standing there, pointing out the nuances of the differences of the fines for stealing a sheep as opposed to stealing an ox while the Israelites are slumped backwards in their chairs doing their best not to fall asleep.   These rules just don’t seem like the type of rules that a God would make. We can understand that God wants us to celebrate certain holy days or not believe in false gods or not to hurt other people, but deciding how much someone has to pay if they dig a pit and someone else’s donkey falls into it almost seems like it should be beneath God. That is the sort of thing that bureaucrats quibble over, not the Sovereign of the Universe. And yet this week’s parshah ends with the same type of wondrous visuals and public affirmations of God’s sovereignty and fealty to these new laws that were found in last week’s parshah.

In our modern world with our separation of Church and State the idea of Divinely mandated tort laws can seem like a completely foreign concept. This is only because our society has come so far from the anarchy that once was that we have forgotten what the purpose of these laws are. Fortunately, we have this week’s special maftir to remind us.

This week is Shabbat Shekalim, in which we read about the annual half-shekel tax on everyone aged twenty and above, which went to the upkeep of the tabernacle. This maftir is always read on the Shabbat before or coinciding with the beginning of the month of Adar, and it was instituted by the Rabbis for the simple reason that it was a reminder to people that this tax was coming due soon and they needed to make sure they paid their share. Everyone made use of the tabernacle at some point during the year, so everyone was obligated to help pay for its upkeep. If they didn’t pay their tax then the tabernacle would run out of money for its upkeep and eventually fall into a state of disrepair and no one would be able to use it.

The civil and criminal laws discussed in this week’s parshah serve a similar purpose to the half-shekel tax. If everyone doesn‘t “pay their share” by submitting to the system every time it has judged them to be in the wrong, then people will lose faith in the courts and start to take matters of justice into their own hands, and society, like the tabernacle in disrepair, will fall apart. These laws help us to fulfill the commandment God gave to Noah when Noah and his family were tasked with repopulating the world and starting a new society to establish a system of courts. Although they might not seem like it to our modern eyes, the laws given in this week’s parshah are no less Divine and no less worthy of celebration and study than the Ten Commandments that we received last week, for these are the laws that help us hold our society together.

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 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?