Archive for July, 2013

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.

July 18, 2013 12:24 am CDT

Va’etchanan–Rest as Freedom

Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work–you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.  (Deut. 5:13-15)

“It is known how great a rest [the Sabbath] procures.  Because of it the seventh part of the life of every individual consists in pleasure and repose from the fatigue and weariness for which there is no escape, either for the young or old.”  (Maimonides,* Guide of the Perplexed)

Our parsha this week includes Moses’ retelling of the 10 commandments.  A few things are stated differently this time, notably the explanation of the sabbath (the differences are in bold above).  We are more used to the version in Exodus, which grounds the Sabbath in creation. Deuteronomy grounds the Sabbath in redemption, in the liberation and deliverance from Egypt.  Here, Israel observes the Sabbath as a sign of their freedom.

At the Passover Seder, there is a quaint custom that the participants “recline” at table as a sign of one’s freedom.    This custom alludes to Roman feasts, where the wealthy spread themselves out before low tables (if you’re sitting in a chair with arms, you can insert a pillow next to you and slump to one side).  But the Sabbath is a far more substantial assertion of freedom.    It is, in its ideal form, a day when no one has a “master,” when no one can tell us what to do.

*And if you’ve ever seen Maimonides’ account of his daunting daily schedule as court physician, you’ll appreciate how much the observance of Shabbat must have contributed to his sanity and longevity, to say nothing of his piety.

July 18, 2013 12:20 am CDT


“ . . . which I command you this day to do them” (Deut. 7:11)

From the Talmud: R. Joshua b. Levi said, “What is the meaning of the verse of Scripture, ‘Which I command you this day to do them’?  ‘Today you have the opportunity to do them, but you may not put them off until tomorrow; today you are to do them, and tomorrow is set aside for you to receive a reward for doing them.’”  (Eruvim 22a)

In this rabbinic interpretation, “today” signifies “this world” and “tomorrow” signifies “the world to come.”  Only in this world do we have the opportunity for action and change.  With death, our lives achieve a final form.

And what of the world to come and its reward?  Well, the best interpretation of  “the world to come” that I’ve read can be found in the writings of Rabbi Ira Stone.  Only, I don’t understand it.


July 11, 2013 2:00 am CDT

Devarim–Give Peace a Chance

“And I [Moses] sent messengers . . . to King Sihon of Heshbon with words of peace.”  (Deut. 2:26)

The final book of the Torah is a recapitulation of the law in the form of a speech by Moses, given just before Israel enters the land of Canaan.  This book, known as Deuteronomy in English, is called Devarim (“Words”) in Hebrew.  Moses begins Devarim by tracing Israel’s journey up to this point, including some of the military conflicts along the way.

God had instructed Moses, “I have handed over to you King Sihon the Amorite of Heshbon, and his land. Begin to take possession by engaging him in battle” (2:24).  But instead of attacking, Moses sends “messengers . . . with words of peace,” asking King Sihon if Israel can travel through his land in as peaceful, ”low-impact” and self-sufficient a manner as possible:  ”If you let me pass through your land, I will travel only along the road; I will turn aside neither to the right nor to the left. You shall sell me food for money, so that I may eat, and supply me water for money, so that I may drink.”  (2:27-28).

Sihon refuses, and the battle is joined, but we have to assume that had he accepted the terms, Moses would have honored them, even though this goes against the express command of 2:24.  In examining Moses’ actions, the ancient interpreters turn to Psalm 34:15, which not only says “seek peace” but adds “and pursue it.” This imparts a special urgency to acts done for the sake of peace, which not only justifies Moses’ action, but makes it exemplary.

July 11, 2013 1:56 am CDT

Devarim–The Promised Lands

“Do not harass Moab or contend with them in battle, . . . because I have given Ar to the sons of Lot for a possession.” (Deut. 2:9)

On its way to Canaan, Israel is admonished to avoid warfare as it passes through the regions of Edom, Moab and Ammon.  These nations are descendants of Esau and Lot, close relatives of the biblical patriarchs.  Here in Deuteronomy, we are told that their descendants were also given their land by God in the same manner as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: through a divinely ordained conquest that displaced former inhabitants.

This model of sanctioned conquest and settlement reflects a common belief in the biblical period about the divine apportioning of land to various ethnic groups.  Similarly, the prophet Amos reminds Israel that each nation also had its own “exodus”: “Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans  from Kir?” (9:7)

July 4, 2013 4:51 pm CDT

Matot-Masei: Cities of Refuge

“Select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the community.”   Num 35:11-12

In Numbers 35, the Torah establishes six cities of refuge, places of asylum where a murderer may flee.   One can view this as an extension of the notion of protective sanctuary offered by an altar in a temple.  Once the cult was centralized in Jerusalem, these towns assumed the function of asylum previously associated with local sanctuaries.

The murderer is fleeing from the “avenger of blood”(go’el ha-dam).   Blood vengeance was a form of vendetta justice executed by the family of the victim.  This word go’el in other contexts is translated “redeemer.”  Milgrom explains the common thread thus: the redeemer is a family memeber who restores the status quo, whether by serving as a substitute for a deceased husband, restoring the freedom of one who has fallen into slavery, or restoring land to its hereditary ownership by the family.  In the case of murder, the redeemer restores a kind of ecological balance: bloodshed pollutes the land (v 33) and makes it barren, but with the blood of the slayer, the go’el neutralizes the deleterious effect.

The laws here try to blend this older system of justice implemented by the family with a system in which justice is administered by courts. Thus, the “community” is given the responsibility for adjudication between the accused person and the blood avenger by determining whether the accused has committed premeditated murder. Milgrom believes that the text thereby assumes a national tribunal which will adjudicate such capital cases.  Even if the homicide is found to be unintentional, the killer is not at liberty, but has to stay in the city of refuge until the natural death of the high priest, which atones for the blood that has been shed.

July 4, 2013 4:47 pm CDT

Matot-Masei: A Poisonous Miasma

“Blood pollutes the land.”  (Num 35:33).

While the cities of refuge are interesting from a historical perspective, there is, for me, no quick moral lesson here, no low-hanging fruit.  It is true that the Torah places a high value on human life, so that not even the city of refuge protects the intentional murderer.  Yet it does so by invoking capital punishment, which for me creates serious moral problems of its own.

The phrase that resonated most with me was the phrase “blood pollutes the land.”  It’s not that I see a vital connection between unpunished murder and blasted crops.   It’s that violence begets violence and casts a numbing shadow of sadness and fear.  I remember feeling after the Sandy Hook tragedy that there was something sinister in the air, a poisonous miasma, something that would not be remedied by bringing the killer to justice or even by the enactment of common sense, overdue gun laws.  Something like blood polluting the land.