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.

June 26, 2013 1:42 am CDT

Pinchas–When 7 = 1

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.”  (Num. 29:1)

Jewish tradition adopted the new moon of the seventh month as the start of the new year, Rosh Hashanah. The oddity of having the New Year begin in the seventh month comes from the fact that two calendrical systems are reflected in the Bible: one in which the new year begins in the fall, and one beginning in the spring, as the Babylonian year did.

The calendar in this section of Numbers  is an interesting hybrid: the year begins in the fall, but the month is reckoned according to the spring beginning.  (Note that the months here are numbered, not named. This is typical of the Babylonian reckoning.)  One reason for highlighting the seventh month rather than the first might be an analogy with the Sabbath. Just as the Sabbath offering amounts to twice the daily offering, so the offering for the “seventh” new Moon is twice the usual offering for the new moon.

In any case, despite the Babylonian reckoning beginning the year in the spring, an autumnal inception for the year is very old. It is reflected in Exodus 23:16, an early text, and in an even earlier inscription known as the Gezer calendar (10th century BC, found at Tel Jazari 18 miles NW of Jerusalem).

June 26, 2013 1:33 am CDT

Pinchas–Shemini Atzeret

“On the eighth [hashemeni] day [of Sukkot] you shall have a solemn gathering [atzeret]: you shall not work at your occupations.”  (Num. 29:35)

We are given no further information about the nature of this holiday beyond this verse.  This indistinctness led to much discussion in rabbinic literature about whether the eighth day, known as Shemini Atzeret, is the end of Sukkoth or a completely independent festival.   The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean that God asks all those who made the pilgrimage for Sukkoth to tarry (atzeret, from the root “to hold back”) with Him one additional day, and concluded that Shemini Atzeret is an independent festival.  In Jewish tradition, the only characteristic ritual for Shemini Atzeret is a special prayer for rain.

As with many holidays, the rabbis ordained a second day for the celebration of Shemini Atzeret outside the land of Israel. Beginning around the 10th century CE, this second day of Shemini Atzeret began to take on the character of a festival of Torah, because on the Sabbath following Shemini Atzeret the annual cycle of reading the Torah was begun again by going back to the beginning of the book of Genesis.  The festival became known as Simchat Torah, “rejoicing in the Torah.” Today, the joyous character of Simchat Torah has overwhelmed the virtually ritualless Shemini Atzeret.

June 20, 2013 6:19 pm CDT

Balak–Mah Tovu

“How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
     Your encampments, O Israel!”  (Num. 24:5)

The Jewish prayer service does not begin with a call to prayer, nor words of praise, entreaty or benediction (though of course the service contains many examples of all of these).  We begin, instead, with the above-quoted words from the prophet Balaam.   In reciting them we step outside ourselves and behold ourselves, as from a mountaintop, encamped on the plain.  We are beautiful in our array, in our collective effect.

By opening the service in this way we  invoke “synagogue space” which is, as Rabbi Jim Goodman writes, “a large space, much larger than it looks because when you walk through these doors, you walk into Casablanca, into Jerusalem, into Minsk, into Baghdad, into Strasbourg—into this space where Jews have sung the same song to God for generations.  When you enter here, you have entered a larger space than you see.  Does it belong to you or do you belong to it?

“We belong to something bigger than ourselves. We belong to God, we belong to the Jewish people, we belong to history, we belong to our glories and our defeats, we belong to each other, and we belong to ourselves.”    We locate ourselves within these concentric circles, and let the community’s energy and intention bear us up as on eagle’s wings.

This link will take you to a lovely, classical/concert setting of these words by composer Ernst Bloch.  If you can carve out a tiny oasis of quiet right now, listen to at least the first three minutes, the very beginning of the service.  [The Hebrew translates thus:  How fair are your tents, O Jacob, / Your encampments, O Israel!”  (Num. 24:5)  As for me, through the abundance of your steadfast love, I will come into your house; I will bow down toward your holy temple  in awe of you.” (Psalm 5:7)]

June 20, 2013 6:07 pm CDT

Balak–Why the NSA should read Talmud

“Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe.”  (Numbers 24:2)

The Talmud has a different take on “how fair are your tents.”  From tractate Bava Batra:

“‘Balaam . . . saw Israel.’  What did he see? He saw that their tent openings were not facing each other, so that they could not peek into each other’s tents. Admiring their modesty and decency, Balaam declared, ‘People such as these deserve to have the Shechinah* rest upon them.’ ” (60a).

*the divine presence