Parashat Nitzavim/ Vayelekh/ Rosh Ha-Shanah
“For this commandment that I charge you with today is not too mysterious for you or alien (- literally: far away). She is not in the heavens, for you to say, ‘Who shall ascend for us to the heavens and take it for us and teach it to us so that we can fulfill her (la`asotah – literally: to do it, to make it)?’ And she is not across the sea, for you to say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us and take it for us and teach it to us so that we will fulfill her (la`asotah)?’ But the matter is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to fulfill it (la`asoto).” (Deut. 30:11-14) Continue reading
Parashat Ki Tavo
Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8
Our Torah portion tells us that following the Torah is the path of blessing, while abandoning Her is the path of curses. After enumerating many blessings that promise us material wellbeing, we find: “Blessed are you in your entering and blessed are you in your leaving.” (Deut. 28:6) What do these generalized phrases refer to?
Interpreters tend to see this “coming and going” as a reference to our daily business (Ibn Ezra) or as a reference to going out to war and returning safely from it (Hizquni). But the problem with these interpretations is that the order of the phrases would then be expected to be reversed: First we go out (- to war, to work) and then we come back in (to our homes). We begin from our homes and go out of them and return to them.
Parashat Ki Tetze
Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
According to traditional enumerations of the mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, our portion includes 74 ordinances, more than any other portion. These mitzvot encompass the full range of the Torah’s concerns for how we are to meet the challenge of our paradoxical beings, made up, as we are, of both physical and spiritual natures.
A particularly telling instance of this concern is found in the Torah’s warning regarding the proper treatment of executed criminals:
“Should there be a person guilty of a capital crime, and he is executed, you shall hang him from a tree. But do not let his corpse hang on the tree overnight. Rather, make sure to bury him that very day, for it is a Divine curse to be hung. Thus, you will not defile your land that God Your Almighty gives you as an estate.” (Deut. 21:22-23)
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
During this time of controversy and contestation regarding the proper place of a police force within society, I offer these thoughts that I first shared in Torah Sparks of 2015:
Our Torah portion begins with the command: “You shall appoint judges (shoftim) and officials (shotrim) for your tribes … and they shall judge (v-shaftu) the people with fair justice.” (Deut. 16:18) The command is understood to require the establishment of a just judicial system for society.
Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17
“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” This is an old saying that describes how people avoid making changes for fear of failure and fear of the unknown. We tend to feel that it is better to hold on to the problems we know – and endure – than to possibly create new problems with which we will not know how to cope. The wisdom of such a view is certainly debatable and deeply questionable.
But what about “the God you know” rather than “the devil you know”? In our Torah portion Moses repeatedly warns Israel not to stray “to go after other gods that you do not know.” (Deut. 11:28 – and see also Ch. 13, vv. 3, 7 and 14) The implication is clear. We should remain faithful to “the God we do know.”
Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
Bread is one recurrent motif in our Torah portion. The manna – the “bread” that fell from heaven sustained the Israelites for 40 years. Moses explains that the message of this heavenly bread was “for it is not by bread alone that a person will live; rather, it is from all that issues from God’s mouth (motza pi YHVH) that a person shall live.” (Deut. 8:3)
Parashat Va’et’hanan/Shabbat Nahamu
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
You took my hand in yours and you said to me:
“Come, let’s go down to the garden.”
You took my hand in yours and you said to me:
“What you see from there – you don’t see from here.”
(Words: Y. Rotblit; Music: Mati Caspi)
Moses begs God to reconsider God’s judgement against Moses and allow him to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. “Please, let me cross over and I will see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon.” (Deut. 3:25)
Parashat D’varim/Shabbat Hazon
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Moses creates a new book of the Torah, this fifth volume, D’varim, Deuteronomy, which we now begin. This book is the radical result of a unique partnership between God and a human being that has played itself out in our story for over 40 years, a partnership sanctified by the Jewish people for thousands of years.
This stark fact colors every word of this book. It challenges us to make sense of the words spoken and the story told by this man, embraced and empowered by God. As Moses repeats the Torah’s previous teachings, all the while rephrasing, adding to and changing the text, we wonder just how far his agency extends. Here is but one example –
Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
They call it – “`ir miqlat – a city of shelter.” (Num. 35:11) And yes, it is safe here. The avenger seeking my death cannot touch me here. The avenger will not listen to my story, will not listen to reason. I did not mean to kill their loved one. Of course, I wish it never happened! It was a tragic accident! Yet I feel a heavy burden of guilt. And the avenger will have it no other way. If not for my fleeing here faster than they could catch me, I would be just as dead as their beloved. So, this city keeps me safe. Here is security and forgiveness, as it keeps my unforgiving enemy at bay.
Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
A new census is taken of the able-bodied men of Israel after a plague has engulfed the people and thousands have died. Indeed, death is a recurring concern in this Torah portion. Numerous deaths are recorded and remembered. And, in fact, the death of a whole generation affects the preparations of this new generation to enter the Promised Land. Therefore, for instance, the laws of inheritance need to be laid out (- to be modified in response to the objections of the daughters of Tz’lof’had). In addition, Moses’ own imminent death is put before him by God. More accurately, the theme of these sections of the Torah portion is not death itself, but how to move past death Continue reading