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.
Parashat Mattot/Mas`ei/Rosh Hodesh
Is it Pharaoh’s revenge? Joseph’s comeuppance?
Now, forty years after the exodus from Egypt, on the brink of entering the Promised Land, two tribes and a part of a third refuse to cross the Jordan and take a portion of the land. The tribes of Reuven and Gad (and then part of Menasheh) argue with Moses that, since they have much livestock, and the land to the east of the Jordan is perfect for grazing cattle, “thus our portion has come to us from the other side of the Jordan, eastward.” (Num. 32:19)
Eventually a deal is struck, and these Israelites remain to the East and do not partake in the division of the tribal portions in the land of Canaan. We should notice that the allotment of portions on the western side of the Jordan is done at God’s bidding, with the participation of all the tribal leaders. The Eastern tribes take their portions for granted – “our portion has come to us.” They basically engage in a landgrab.
We read again the extraordinary story of the Daughters of Tz’lof’had, who courageously stand up for their rights before Moses, the community and before God, Who had excluded them in the Torah’s system of inheritance laws. As the sole survivors of their deceased father, they demand that they be given their father’s portion in the Promised Land. God ratifies their demand, saying , “The daughters of Tz’lof’had speak correctly/honestly.” (Num. 27:7) To our surprise, we are witnesses as the Torah’ laws are changed by God’s decree. I have discussed this amazing story before (- see, for instance, Sparks for 2012, 2016 and 2017). Continue reading
Balaq, King of Moav, commissions a prophet from far off Mesopotamia, Bil`am, to place curses upon the people of Israel. In his fear of this new people, Balaq believes that it is only with Bil`am’s special powers that he will be able to vanquish Israel. Bil`am’s reputation has spread far and wide. What is Bil`am known for? As Balaq says to the prophet, “For I know that that which you bless is blessed and whatever you curse shall be cursed.” (Num. 22:6) Continue reading
And the Children of Israel, the entire community, came to the Wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people stayed in Qadesh; And there Miriam died and there she was buried. And there was no water for the community, and they assembled against Moses and against Aaron
I have often struggled with the way the Torah tells of the death of Miriam, the Prophetess. Her death merits just half a verse. And there is no report of how the people mourned the passing of this leader. We just move on to the next episode. The missing pieces seem so unfairly lacking. As readers of our Torah I believe it is important for us to notice such gaps and respond to them. Speculations I have entertained in the past (See, especially, Torah Sparks 2016) take on new colorations this year.
How does one feel when one receives a present? Often, one feels very happy and fortunate. But sometimes one feels humbled by the gift and by what the gift may signify. Is the gift a sign of merit? Is it something earned and deserved? Or is the gift a token of love, unexpected but affirmed anyway? Is the gift something to be used up or is it something to be cherished forever? Is it a source of pleasure, or a challenge?
Three times in our Torah reading the Jewish people are challenged to take ownership of some entity that is before them. The first time is the challenge of taking ownership of the land that God had promised to give them. However, the report of the scouts, meant to be a preparatory step toward taking ownership of the land, became, instead, the trigger for the people to refuse that challenge, to repudiate it and run from it.
“It’s been really lovely. But the time has come, and we must be going.”
The Children of Israel must be going, leaving the only real home they have known since freedom, Mount Sinai. Moving on is a challenge for everyone, always. Certainly it was a wrenching experience for the Israelites. Could Sinai really be left behind? Was all that had happened there, especially their experience of closeness to God, to become a mere memory? What would be lost and what could be taken along? (And, as we try to move out of this past year’s reality, this is still a challenge for us, today.)
Sometimes a person goes through and even seems to inhabit a period of feelings or experiences in which they hardly recognize themselves. Maybe they are able to leave that time behind. Sometimes they may sense relief as a result. But sometimes that strange time and the strange person who they were during that time remain ensconced in that other dimension, their strangeness undiminished. It is as if part of themselves has been placed in a special time capsule, preserved but isolated from the continued flow of life.
Such a personal experience might have been depicted by our Torah portion in its treatment of the nazirite. (Num. 6:1-21) A man or a woman may be moved to adopt a way of living that sets them apart (nazir) from others – from their friends and family and community. For some reason they seek a state of holiness with a fierceness that leaves them unsatisfied with the pious ways of everyday religion. For a while they resolve to endure separation from the familiar, to become ascetics and recluses.