August 21, 2013 10:29 pm CDT

Ki Tavo–How to Do Things with Words

Then the Levites shall declare in a loud voice to all the  Israelites . . . “Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor’s boundary marker.”  All the people shall say, “Amen!”   (Deut 27:14, 17)

Before a person testifies in court, they “solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” (I have never attended an actual trial, but I know this because I’ve seen dozens of courtroom movies.) Something like this solemn swearing happens in our parsha, where the people answer “amen” to 12 curses pronounced by the Levites.  “Amen” is derived from a root meaning “firm”; the ancient Greek translation renders “amen” as “let it be so.”   By responding “amen” one endorses the wish that the punishment befall whoever commits the sin, even oneself.

Even if you don’t believe that God is going to strike down those who swear falsely, these oaths are effective on two levels. There is the ceremonial level, where community values are upheld and seep into the individual’s consciousness. And then there is the psychological level. The person who says “amen” or “I do” involves herself in the statement. She doesn’t just stand there, a spectator to the Levitical pronouncement; she does something, comes down off the bleachers and joins the team. Of course, she could still commit the proscribed act, but for most people such rituals creates a greater psychological resistance to doing so.  A person who, say, removed his neighbors landmark, would fall under his own imprecation, and add the sin of hypocrisy to the sin of theft.

August 21, 2013 10:22 pm CDT

Ki Tavo–It Would Never Occur to a Dog

“Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person on the road.”   (Deut.  27:18)

Both here and in Proverbs, this admonition against misdirecting a blind person goes hand-in-hand with the admonition against removing a neighbor’s boundary marker. Like the other actions that are anathemized in this passage, these are deeds that are committed in secret or are hard to detect.

Egyptian wisdom literature, which influenced the Bible far more than we usually admit, gives another variant of this directive: “Do not laugh at the blind man or tease a dwarf, nor injure the affairs of lame.”

What’s sad is that it’s necessary to say this. Yet we all understand this cruel facet of human nature, this taking pleasure in someone’s disability, vulnerability or gullibility.

I’m sitting here looking at my dog. She’s never told a good story, written a good song, cooked a good meal, or been transported by a piece of music.  But she would never even think of misleading the blind on the road.


I’ll be taking a break from Thursday’s Torah for the upcoming holidays.  See you after Simchas Torah.


August 14, 2013 11:04 pm CDT

Ki Teitzei–The Shirt off his Back

“You shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge.   You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the LORD your God.   (Deut. 24:12-13)

Apparently it was customary in Near Eastern societies for the more powerful to distrain garments as a pledge or payment for a debt.  We’ve even found a 7th cent. BC inscription just south of Tel Aviv where a reaper complains of this very act.   The Torah (both here and in Ex. 22) frowns on this practice; while it does not prohibit it outright, it limits it and all but shames it out of existence.

Fast forward to the 21st century CE, to my wardrobe, which contains, at a guess, 40 shirts of various kinds, a half dozen jackets or coats, several sweaters and blankets, pairs of pants of varying girths, numerous changes of underwear . . . you get the idea.  Suffice it to say that if a creditor were to take one of these from me, it would not substantially increase his leverage.   One of the benefits of reading the literature of antiquity is the sobering perspective it gives you on how much more stuff we have.

Yet for all our crammed closets, we still use the phrase, “He’d give you the shirt off his back” to describe a paragon of generosity.  We do so because of the intimacy of clothing, and our vulnerability without it.    How much more vulnerable is the debtor of the Torah, for whom the distrained garment is “his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin; in what else shall he sleep?” (Ex.22:26)

Sensitivity also extends to the collection of a pledge of any kind: “When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall  not go into the house to take the pledge.  You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you.”  (Deut. 24:10-11)    The creditor should not humiliate the debtor, but respect his personal space.


August 14, 2013 10:59 pm CDT

Ki Teitzei–Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.   (Deut. 24:19)

In the Bible, the “stranger, the orphan, and the widow” are a classic triad of needy social groups.   The forgotten sheaf, as well the leftover olives and grapes(Deut. 24:20-22), are to be left in the field for their benefit.  But in studying these laws, the Rabbis pointed to an inner trait beyond whatever amelioration of poverty this practice served.  The true intent of this law, they asserted, was the molding of character:  people should not snatch at every last piece of produce and profit.   I think of a zone of calm and ease (ideally) surrounding us; our clutches should not extend all the way to the edge of our personal space.

Graspingness is also a misguided way to approach the past.  Heshbon Ha-nefesh addresses this from the standpoint of one who, having experienced misfortune, is “beset with vain regret [and] . . . meaningless remorse, making statements like, ‘Had I only not entered that business, this would have never occurred. Had I only stayed in that place for another hour, I would not have ended up here.'”  While intelligence and forethought are given to us “as our protection . . . God did not create us all as prophets [and] . . . did not permit us to be overly smart, as the verse states: ‘You shall be straightforward with God, your Lord.’ (Deut. 18:13).”  Or, in the language of this verse, we don’t go back to retrieve the forgotten sheaves of past choices, but move on, taking our setbacks in stride.

August 8, 2013 1:04 am CDT

Shoftim—Partial War: The Newlywed Exception

We all regard death as particularly tragic when it takes someone before they have had a chance to have a “normal” life.  Our sense of what is “normal” is, of course, subjective and variable, but every culture has certain basic expectations.   The prophet Jeremiah gave voice to these expectations for his own time and culture when he advised the exiles in Babylon to settle down and lead “normal” lives:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters . . . .  (29:5-6)

Our parsha imagines officers addressing their troops before a battle and sending home young men who have commenced these activities but not completed them: “”Has anyone built a new house but not dedicated it? . . . Has anyone planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit? . . . etc.,” and finally, “Has anyone become engaged to a woman but not yet married her? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another marry her.”  (Deut. 20:5-7).

The admonition to leave the army to marry one’s betrothed is echoed in a later law; there, however, the deferral is given not for the sake of the soldier, but for the sake of the bride: “When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be charged with any related duty. He shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married.”  (Deut 24:5)

August 8, 2013 1:01 am CDT

Shoftim—Partial War: The Arboreal Exception

If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees.  (Deut 20:19)

It was common practice in ancient warfare to destroy the enemy’s fruit trees and fields. This weakened its economic potential and hampered its ability to fight again in the near future. It may also have been intended to pressure besieged cities into surrendering before they suffered such long-term damage. Deuteronomy forbids destroying trees for such purposes.

Deuteronomy reinforces this prohibition with a rhetorical question. In the JPS translation, the question is rendered, “Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” This translation suggests since trees don’t have the option of relocating within the city walls, it would be unfair to take advantage of their defenselessness.  I prefer an alternative translation: “Are trees in the field human beings that they should be included in your siege?”  Nature is no party to human conflict, and therefore should not suffer because of it.  War occurs in the human sphere; the damage it does there is regrettable enough.

July 31, 2013 12:46 pm CDT

Re’eh–Wheel of Fortune

“Open your hand to your poor and needy kinsman in the land.”  Deut 15:11

Rabbi Hiyya advised his wife, “When a poor man comes to the door, be quick to give him food so that the same may be done to our children.”  She exclaimed “You are cursing our children [by suggesting that they may become beggars].”  He replied, “There is a wheel which revolves in this world.”  (Shabbat 151b)

July 31, 2013 12:45 pm CDT

Re’eh–The Right Gift

“[On Sukkot] you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your son and your daughter . . . “ Deut 16:11

Our sages taught: you should make your children and the members of your household rejoice on the holiday, for it says “You shall rejoice on your festival along with your son and daughter.” How do you make them rejoice? Men with wine, and women with new clothes.  (Pesachim 109a)

July 24, 2013 11:39 pm CDT

Ekev–Sacred Responsibility

” . . . to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good . . .”  (Deut. 10:13)

The usual translation of the word mitzvah is “commandment.” This is an accurate translation, but it is problematic.  Behind it lies a primary image of God as monarch.  It’s an image I’m willing to invoke occasionally, but for me it is not a sustaining one.

As I’ve come to understand it, a mitzvah is a sacred responsibility.   Matters such as sabbath keeping, eating, reciting the Shema, fulfilling oral commitments, and many more, all fall under the scope of mitzvahs in Judaism.  Am I willing to do these as a sacred responsibility to others, to myself, to God, to the world?  If so, I am doing the act as a mitzvah: the voice of the tradition meets with an inner assent, and one accepts the Torah at Sinai anew.  In this way, to borrow Reb Zalman’s formulation, one can feel commanded without feeling coerced.

July 24, 2013 11:36 pm CDT

Ekev–Mitzvahs of the Heart

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul,  and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good?”  (Deut. 10:12-13)

Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’s Mesillat Yesharim (=Path of the Upright; Amsterdam, 1740) is an 18th century  classic of Jewish ethics and piety.    In an earlier draft of the book, found in manuscript but only recently published, Luzzatto creates a dialogue between a Hasid (a pietist) and a Hakham (a sage).*  The Hakham represents a community of Jewish learning precoccupied with Talmudic argument, homiletic Torah interpretation, and legal rulings.  Luzzatto’s Hasid uses Deut. 10:12-13 to argue for “equal time” for studies emphasizing the inner life:

“You see that the observance of all the commandments as a whole, which is the aggregate of the laws and halakhic rulings you have studied, is just one of the matters mentioned in this verse. But four more elements are mentioned there; namely, fear of God, walking in his ways, love of God, and service of the heart.

When we examine the matter closely, however, we find that the totality of the mitzvot involving actions comprise one category while the totality of the mitzvot of the heart and mind comprise another category.  Scripture, therefore, distinguishes between them. And it puts the mitzvot of the heart before the mitzvot of the limbs, as befits their relative importance.

The essence of serving God is perfecting the thoughts that accompany is one’s actions.  Scripture, however, specifies fear and love, though they belong to the general category of duties of the heart, because they are the two great pillars upon which the service of God rests. And everything else that relates to character traits and the heart scripture included by saying, “to walk in all his ways, to which our rabbis attacked the explanation: “just as He is gracious and merciful, so you too must be gracious and merciful, etc.

Then it mentions all the mitzvot involving actions as a single category. That is, “to keep the commandments of the Lord, etc.”

It thus follows that besides knowledge of how to perform the mitzvot, four additional elements must accompany the performance to complete the deed so that it is pleasing to him, blessed be He. You, however by your own admission, have occupied yourself with one while ignoring four.”

*In the final published version, Luzzatto gives similar arguments in less confrontational form.

**Loving God, fearing God, and walking in God’s ways (with the same rabbinic explanation) are all counted as mitzvahs of the Torah by Maimonides in his classic Book of the Commandments.