Archive for September, 2012

September 20, 2012 1:41 am CDT

Vayelekh–Write this song

[Moses said]  Write down this song for yourselves.  (Deut 31:19)

The reference here is to a specific poem that Moses teaches Israel at the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Oddly enough, perhaps in part because the command is in the plural, the sages of old understood this as a general, ongoing commandment: that every Israelite should write a Torah scroll.   Maimonides says that since it is not permissible to write scroll of the law containing only certain sections of it, the words “this song” must mean the whole of the Torah that includes the song (Book of the Commandments).

The most important aspect of this commandment is to have a copy of the Torah in one’s possession, but the sages consider it particularly praiseworthy if you write it yourself: “If he writes it with his own hand, Scripture considers it as if he had received it from Mount Sinai.”   I can only imagine how writing down the entire text, like an scribe, would intensify one’s involvement in it.  Even for those who can only dabble in calligraphy, or take a look from time to time at an actual scroll, the physical aspect of writing adds its own level of meaning, and is an integral part of what we mean by “Torah.”

September 20, 2012 1:34 am CDT

Vayelekh–Coming and Going

Moses said to them: I am now 120 years old, I can no longer come and go.  (Deut 31:2)

To what does the phrase “come and go” refer? Perhaps it means “exercise military leadership ” (Tigay); this makes sense in context, but the form of the verb is wrong.  The reference may be to travel (cf. JPS, “be active”).  The best known use of this phrase is from Psalm 121: “the Lord shall guard you going out and your coming in from this time forth and forever.”

Thursday’s Torah will take a brief hiatus while we contemplate our own comings and goings from one year to the next during the next couple of weeks.   We will meet again on October 11, two days after Simchas Torah, for the first parsha in Genesis, Bereshit.  In the meantime, may you be aware of God’s presence in your own comings and goings as we mark this seam in time.  L’shanah tovah.

September 12, 2012 11:09 pm CDT

Nitzavim–“Not in Heaven”

Surely, this sacred responsibility [mitzvah] is not baffling or unattainable.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may do it?”  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and impart it to us, that we may do it?”  No, the word [dabar] is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.  (Deut. 30:11-14)

What struck me this time about this justly famous passage is the last sentence.  It claims that the “word” (or “matter, thing”) is not just accessible and clear, but also that it is already known, and known internally, not by rote.  It does not simply impose itself from the outside.  In an important sense, it is not fundamentally new.

Moses’ words here are echoed by the prophet Micah when he says that it has been shown us what is good: to do justice, to love kindness and to be ready to walk with God (6:8).  The subject matter of “revelation” is right under our noses, and its content is an echo of what we already know in the depth of our soul.

September 12, 2012 11:02 pm CDT

Nitzavim–Connecting the Dots

The secret things [nistarot, hidden] belong to the LORD our God, but the revealed things [niglot, uncovered] belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this Torah.  (Deut 29:28)

Some interpreters believe that nistarot refers to undetectable wrongdoings that can only be punished, if at all, by God.   So JPS translates “Concealed acts concern the LORD our God, but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching.”  On this reading, the verse carries forward a theme of last week’s entry (Ki Tavo—Secret Sins).

But it seems more natural to read this verse as anticipating the theme we just read about on the left: that the Torah is not esoteric, but open, public, available to all.  This verse adds that there is still something hidden.  But that’s the sign that we’re dealing with something real.  Even when the hidden is revealed, there’s still something hidden behind it, another layer of an infinite onion.

If you look at a Hebrew Bible with traditional cantillation marks, you’ll find a riot of dots over the words, “to us and to our children forever.”  Tigay says that such dots usually indicate a problem, although he admits that there is nothing “obviously questionable” about the words.  My untutored reaction when I first saw the dots was to see in them amazement at the gift they had been given: emphasis to the point of ecstasy.

September 5, 2012 11:35 pm CDT

Ki Tavo—Secret Sins

Cursed be anyone who strikes down his neighbor in secret. And all the people shall respond–Amen. (Deut. 27:24)

In Deuteronomy 27, the whole nation of Israel stands on two mountains in a covenant ceremony of blessings and curses. Medieval Jewish commentators noted that the sins that Israel curses are secret sins, or at least sins that are hard to detect: defrauding the poor, misleading the blind, bribery, etc.

When Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (c. 30-90 CE)  was on his deathbed, his disciples asked for his blessing. He said to them, “May it be His will that your fear of Heaven be as great as your fear of flesh and blood.” “Only so much?”  his students exclaimed.  “Would that it were so much!” he replied.   “For you know that when someone is about to sin, he first thinks, ‘I hope no man sees me.'”


September 5, 2012 11:25 pm CDT

Ki Tavo—The Sacred Portion

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year . . . then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows,  just as you commanded  me.”  (Deut 26:12-13)

Deuteronomy’s primary concern with the tithe is to make it the occasion for festival celebrations that, among other things, bind the people throughout Judea to the city of Jerusalem (14:22-26). But every third and sixth year, the tithe is distributed to the poor (in the seventh year, the land lies fallow; then the cycle starts again).

This is one of the few places in Torah where words are prescribed for the common person to recite. It is a lot easier for me to identify with this than the elaborate ceremony that takes place on Mts. Ebal and Gerizim.  Yet in some ways, we can see this as a miniature, domestic version of that ritual. It reinforces the need for the individual to be careful and scrupulous in a matter of individual conscience (no-one else can know what the tithe comes to, nor enforce it).  It also reinforces the intention of helping the poor as the tithe is set aside.