Parashat Ha’azinu/V’zot Ha-brakhah/Sukkot
During these days of Teshuvah – returning, I wish to return to one startling statement found in Moses’s final song, Ha’azinu. Moses speaks God’s words: “I have wounded, and I will heal, for none can save from My Hand.” (Deut. 32:39) I continue to be struck by the paradoxical implication of the verse – “I will heal – and no one can stop Me!” – as if anyone would want to stop God from healing!
Parashat Vayelekh/Shabbat Shuvah/Yom Kippur
This shortest of all Torah readings contains the final two commandments (mitzvot) of the traditional count of 613 commandments in the entire Torah. Both mitzvot are concerned with the growth of the Torah as a force in Jewish life. One mitzvah is called haq’hel – to congregate and hear the words of the Torah read in public. The other is to write a Torah scroll for one’s self.
Parashat Nitzavim/Rosh Ha-shanah
This Torah reading is always read right before the New Year. It is the first of the last four Torah portions left in our Torah. After the lengthy and impressive unfolding of the entire Torah, each of these last Torah portions is very short. In comparison to the previous portions, these are like small tidbits of text. It is as if, after a full year of feasting on the amazingly rich nourishment of the Torah’s banquet, we still sit at the table, satiated and yet unable to resist nibbling just a few more delicious bites from the leftovers on the table. Just four more small bites before the meal is really over!
Parashat Ki Tavo
One theme that recurs in our Torah portion is that of being happy. We learn that God desperately wants us to be happy and dreads our failure to be happy. Why is happiness so important? And what is this happiness that God desires for us?
Being happy is mentioned three times in our reading. The first mention is in the opening section of our portion. After the farmer brings their offering of First Fruits to thank God for their harvest, the Torah releases the farmer to go out of the Temple and to celebrate – to “be happy” with family, friends and strangers, for God has given so much good to enjoy. (Deut. 26:11)
Parashat Ki Tetze
Among the many laws contained in this Torah portion are quite a few that challenge our sense of morality and justice. Over the years I have discussed some of these. This time I want to consider the law that prohibits women from wearing men’s clothes and men from wearing women’s clothes. (Deut. 22:5). The law is stated without offering a rationale, but it has been understood so as to render it a source of gender separation and gender discrimination for many generations and in many communities, even to this day. Some have deduced from this verse that women cannot wear pants. Even more sadly, some use this verse as the basis for forbidding women to wear a tallit or put on tefillin. (Overwhelmingly, the prohibition is applied against women’s freedom of choice.) In all these instances the changing social and cultural realities of what may constitute “women’s” clothes or “men’s” clothes are ignored.
Our Torah portion opens with the demand to establish a justice judicial system. The judges must be scrupulously honest. Repeating the prohibition found in the book of Exodus (23:8), Moses prohibits taking a bribe – shohad. (Deut. 16:19) Unlike many other laws in the Torah which must be obeyed simply because they are Divine commandments, this prohibition is a law that carries with it a rationale, an explanation. It is not enough for us to recognize that bribery is dishonest and can pervert justice. The Torah adds that bribery corrupts even the righteous. Rashi quotes the Rabbinic observation that taking a bribe is prohibited “even to administer true justice.”
Our Torah portion begins with a dramatic declaration: “Look (r’eh)! I put (noten) before you today blessing and curse.” (Deut. 11:26) It seems that Moses gives (noten) the Children of Israel a stark choice: will they choose blessing or curse? But that question is actually a step after the declaration itself. The declaration is not a question, but a statement of fact. Blessing and curse are given over to the Israelites in order that … well, simply in order that they look at them and see them. First they must perceive the blessing and the curse. First they must see that blessing and curse lie before them. And then they will have to decide what to do about them.
In repeating stories of what happened to Israel before, Moses sometimes changes, or adds, or subtracts elements from the version we originally learned in earlier books. One such change – an addition to the original version told in the Book of Exodus – is that Moses made a wooden ark to serve as a container to hold the two Tablets given by God at Mount Sinai. Readers have always wondered what this ark was. Was it simply the ark that was part of the Tabernacle? But the rest of the Tabernacle is not mentioned here. So a strong argument can be made that this is a different ark. (For further discussion about this see Sparks 2013)
Parashat Va’et’hanan/Shabbat Nahamu
Of the many texts and verses in our portion that have taken special places in our tradition and liturgy (such as the Sh’ma and the Ten Commandments) one verse is recited at the end of every traditional prayer service, morning, noon and night. The last words of the first paragraph of `Alenu, the concluding prayer of each service, are this verse from our Torah portion: “And you shall know today, and you shall return it (va-hashevota) to your heart – that the Eternal is the Almighty God in the Heavens above and on the Earth below, none other (ayn `od).” (Deut. 4:39) Continue reading
Parashat D’varim/Shabbat Hazon
Moses begins his personal and especially powerful review of Israel’s history and destiny, along with a review of the Divine directives to help Israel on their path. Each review is connected to the other. Our history and our Torah of laws and values are interdependent and mutually influential.
As Moses sets the stage for his extended set of orations, he begins by acknowledging the point at which these words are spoken – at the threshold of entering into the Promised Land. And he reminds the people that they are here, in this place, at this moment, because of a failure of nerve that condemned them to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Their present moment and location are not what they might have been. The people could have entered the land at a different moment, from a different place. Instead, the change in place and time has been determined by their own actions a generation ago. But pointing out this sad fact is not necessary to Moses only to set the stage for his main point.