Sh’mini Atzeret/Simhat Torah/V’zot Ha-b’rakhah (5780 – 2019)
The beginning of the new year is marked with so many holy days. Now we are reaching their end, the end of the beginning. The annual cycle of Torah portions, begun last year also comes to an end, not at the end of the last year, but at the beginning of this new year. And then we begin once more. We are meant to pay attention to endings and beginnings and to consider how each may also be its opposite. Continue reading
Parashat Haazinu/Sukkot (5780 – 2019)
Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52
This reading often directly precedes the festival of Sukkot, the Harvest Festival. References to nature abound in this reading. They range from the unspoiled, God-given phenomena of rain and dew and go on to include the produce of human cultivation of the soil. Late in the song of Ha’azinu we find the paradoxical image of “the vine of Sodom, the vineyard of Gomorrah,” where these cities of iniquity are seen as sources of rotten fruit. We have moved from nature to civilization, but civilization as a source of corruption and wrong-doing.
Thus, without stating it explicitly, our Torah portion tells of the vulnerability of nature, available to people to use as they see fit, subject to manipulation and transformation at the hands of humans. Will this usage be for good or for ill? Will nature be enhanced or destroyed? Only we have the answers.
Parashat Vayelekh (5780 – 2019)
Deuteronomy 31:1 – 31:30
The last two mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah (- according to the traditional count of a total of 613) are found in this week’s Torah portion, the shortest of all weekly Torah portions. (Most of the time it is joined with last week’s portion as one reading.) Both concern the Torah herself. The next-to-last mitzvah is to congregate together (haq’hel) once every seven years and listen to the Torah being read to us. The last commandment is for each of us to write, or support the writing of, a Torah scroll.
Parashat Nitzavim/Rosh Ha-Shanah
Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20
We are all standing (nitzavim) here together today, as we stood yesterday and the day before that. To hear the Old Man. My brother and I stand here wondering. We feel the burden of years and woes and memories. I was a wood chopper in my youth, in Egypt, and he was a water carrier. We were young and strong. Who knows, though, how long we would have lasted before they would have broken us. But he got us out in time. And we have followed the Old Man ever since. We have buried our parents and we are the elders now. We have raised our children, who know only sand and stories and Clouds of Glory. We are almost sixty years old, with aching backs and sore arms. The Old Man is twice our age but he seems to have more energy than any of us, more energy now than he has had in forty years!
Parashat Ki Tavo (5779 – 2019)
Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8
Every morning, in our tradition prayers, we remind ourselves: “A person should always be reverent of Heaven, in secret and out in the open.” In our Torah portion, too, Moses, the public figure whose private life remained secret and off limits to the people, tries to balance public ceremonies with private, secret behaviors and thoughts.
The people, when they enter the land, are instructed by Moses to engage in a dramatic public ritual. Loud recitations of blessings and curses are to be hurled at the people, who are demanded to answer “Amen” in acceptance of these benedictions and imprecations. The litany ends like this: “Cursed be one who strikes their friend in secret; and the whole nation shall say: ‘Amen!’ Cursed be the one who takes bribery to strike innocent blood; and the whole nation shall say: ‘Amen!’ Cursed be anyone who does not keep the words of this Torah, to do them; and the whole nation shall say: ‘Amen!’” (Deut. 27:24-26)
Parashat Ki Tetze (5779 – 2019)
Torah: Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54 – 55:5
As it happens, this year, because we read a special haftarah (-prophetic reading) for Shabbat Rosh Hodesh (New Month) a couple of weeks ago, we did not read one of the Seven Haftarot of Consolation on that Sabbath. When this situation sometimes occurs our tradition mandates that we read a combination of this week’s haftarah of consolation (- the 5th) followed by the one we missed (- the 3rd). Surprisingly, it turns out that these two haftarot, when read in this order, comprise one continuous section in the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 54 through Ch. 55:5.
Parashat Shoftim (5779 – 2019)
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Moses exhorts us to establish a complex organization for dispensing justice. He envisions many local courts, with their own presiding judges, set up “in all your dwelling places.” (Deut. 16:18) And he also foresees the need for a Supreme Court or Court of Appeals, based “in the place that the Eternal, your Almighty God chooses.” (Deut. 17:8) Such a layered structure of judges echoes the advice first offered by Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, some 40 years before.
Moses explains that sometimes a conflict will arise surrounding a question that will be too difficult for the local courts to resolve. Then “you shall come to the Levitical priests and the judge who shall be in those days, and you shall seek [it] out, and they will tell you the word of fair judgment.” (v. 9) After their verdict is delivered, one is commanded to follow it, “not to deviate from what they tell you to the right or the left.” (v. 11)
Parashat R’eh/Rosh Hodesh (5779 – 2019)
Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17
This Shabbat is the start of the month of Elul, the month leading to the New Year – Rosh Ha-Shanah. Tradition points out that the letters spelling “Elul” can be seen as standing for the phrase “ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3), each letter starting one of those words. Thus the month of Elul is a time of renewal, a time to strengthen the bonds of love between God and Israel.
Our Torah portion speaks to this issue in ways positive and negative. In one positive statement we are commanded to “seek God’s indwelling.” (Deut. 12:5) But, right before that, we encounter one of the numerous instances where Moses commands us to utterly destroy the sacred altars and shrines of the local idolatrous peoples when we conquer the Promised Land. I have discussed this troubling injunction before. (See, e.g., Sparks for R’eh, 2017) I argued that, like memorials to the Confederacy today, the tokens of evil must not be allowed to stand and continue to be honored by the adherents of evil.
Parashat Eqev (5779 – 2019)
Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
Our Torah portion contains, among so many others, these amazing verses:
“For the Eternal your Almighty God is the All Powerful of all powerful forces and the Master of all masters – the God Who is great, mighty and awesome, Who will never show favoritism nor take a bribe. Who makes sure of the fair judgment of the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, to give him bread and clothing. So shall you love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Have reverence for the Eternal you Almighty God, to serve Him, cleave to Him and swear in His Name.” (Deut. 10:17 – 20)
The first two verses describe God is a striking combination of seeming disparate terms. On the one hand, God is super mighty. This is a God, we are told, Who cannot be bought. But then God is described as very partial to the weak and marginal people of society. God cares so much about them that God will look out for them to make sure that justice is done on their behalf.
Parashat Va’et’hanan/Shabbat Nahamu (5779 – 2019)
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
When Moses retells the story of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai he introduces the second version of the Ten Commandments with a few dramatic verses: “Face to face did the Eternal speak with you on the mountain, from out of the fire. I was standing between the Eternal and you at that moment to tell you the Word of the Eternal, for you were afraid in the face of the fire and did not ascend up the mountain, saying: ‘I am the Eternal… etc.” (Deut. 5:4-6)