Category Archives: Deuteronomy

Parshat V’Zot haBerachah (5775)

The Security of Dwelling on Your Own, Under Your Own Vine And Tree

We have now entered into a new Jewish year, and we today find ourselves in the middle of the holiday of Sukkot. The year is over but we still have some more Torah to read.

The Hollenbeck home, La Villa de Paredon Blanco, from Thompson and West's history of Los Angeles County (1880). This one one of the first residences  east of the river here in the paredon, the bluffs.

The Hollenbeck home, La Villa de Paredon Blanco, from ‘Thompson and West’s history of Los Angeles County (1880).’ This is one of the first residences east of the river here in the paredon, the bluffs.

However, normally this parsha does not get the same attention that we give the other parashiot. This Torah portion is regularly reserved as a final reading, meant to be paired with the start of the Torah cycle as we start over again at the beginning with Genesis. We don’t want this Torah learning to end, so we save this last reading for when we start over again with the celebration of Simchat Torah.

But consider for a moment how this reading is not honored or regarded among the weekly readings. It is often overlooked as utilitarian, something that just gets us from one point to another. To critical scholars, this final Torah portion is just a chance for the scriptures to wrap-up loose ends. It’s not treated as all that special. It’s the one most often overlooked, and purposely so. So every year I make sure to give special attention to this parsha, and dedicate it to those who feel ignored or left out. This one is for you. This is also further dedicated to my community, which often feels so ignored.

Today we will focus on the 6th reading, which is the second to the last reading. This reading is so short, it only contains three verse. We will focus on the middle verse, which is the second to the last spoken line attributed to Moses in the Torah. This is among the last words Moses gives us before he dies and the people move forward towards their destiny without him:

“And Israel dwelt in safely,

the fountain of Jacob alone,

in a land of grain and wine;

also, his heavens will drip dew.”

| Vayishkon Yisrael betach

| bedad ein Yaakov

| el-eretz dagan vetirosh

| af-shamav ya’arfu-tal

Deuteronomy 33:28

This statement is one of the closing lines after Moses gathers the people together and blesses them just before he dies. Just as Jacob – also named Israel – blessed his children on his deathbed, so too Moses blesses these children of Israel before he passes away. This connection is hinted at in his words, as well as through our rabbinic commentators who also relate this back to the similar blessings of Jacob.

However, here we have a break neck statement presented in this single line of the Torah. The first parts seems to be talking about something extending to them from the past, that Jacob dwelt safely and alone. Hinting that so too will they also be so blessed.

But then there is a statement about being blessed with life-sustaining dew from the heavens, that clearly appears to be talking about the future. That G-d will continue to bless them with the moisture of the dew they so badly need in their dry environment, to help sustain their crops.

I don’t want to get too much into this topic of tal just yet – of dew; but we are just coming out of the summer season where we pray for tal (dew). Now starting after the harvest days of Sukkot, we instead being praying in expectation of the coming of earth renewing ruach (wind) and geshem (rain).

We all know what the scriptures tell us regarding these things. We read it along with the Shema at morning and night, and with our prayers everyday. We are told that if we do what the Torah asks of us we will have all these things in their proper seasons, and be blessed with the resulting sustenance by our G-d. (see the Second Paragraph of the Shema; Deut. 11:13-21) I’ll touch on that again in closing, so keep this close in mind.

But for a moment I would like us to back up here and look at this first part of the verse: “Vayishkon Yisrael betach badad / And Israel shall dwell in safety and alone.” We really need to ask ourselves some questions. What type of blessing is this? And what are the implications?

There is one word that stands out to me, one that catches my attention because this whole verse can mean something different based on how we perceive this word badad – which simply means “alone.”

But this word not only means alone, the same root word in everyday speech means to be “insulated.” Do we seem to be talking here about being insulated and separate from others? We can see an example of the word used this way elsewhere in the Torah, when the wicked Balam says of Israel collectively:

“For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: look here, it is a people that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.”

כִּימֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ, וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ: הֶןעָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן, וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב.

Numbers 23:9

These are the words of Balam, the wicked prophet of sorts. Who didn’t have anything against Israel, but didn’t necessarily have anything for them either. Nonetheless in his many statements he shows how astonished and impressed he is with these people. Several times he mentions how lovely they dwell. (Numbers 24:5) Here in this statement he notices that this people dwell well on their own and alone among the nations, as they are destined to so dwell alone.

He makes the observation many people have made about the children of Israel, that they are not like everyone else and they are people prone to keeping to themselves. They live off on their own. People make this observation both positively, and sometimes negatively as well. But I would dare say, that while the Jewish faith empowers people to build a distinct sense of community, it does not encourage people to be isolated and devoid of pluralism. It demands we welcome and even love the stranger. (Leviticus 19:34)

So why does the Torah use this word here? Isn’t it a negative thing for a people to be “alone”? Is it really healthy for a nation of people to be alone and insulated from other peoples? Is that what the Torah is asking of us here? Is that what we are to be in pursuit of? Is happiness found only when people are just left alone?

In our verse we read that according to this promise of Moses we are to dwell, “betach, badad / in safety, and alone.” Betach means securely, peacefully and tranquilly. That we should dwell securely and alone. But there is one question that I can’t help but ask myself continuously as I consider this text, is peace and security only found when a people dwell alone? Is that what these scriptures are trying to tell us?

There are some who might actually read it this way. Certainly there are some people who do think this way, and who in light of their feelings cannot seem to help but read a verse this way. Projecting their isolationist sentiments in to their understanding of this text. That in order for their own people to have safety, be it physical safety or the security of resources, this people must dwell separate and alone. That the best way to be at peace and in tranquility is to be alone, without the bothers of clashing interaction and the threats of competition. Being at peace, by virtue of the absence of all others.

Now most of us notice that a lot has changed since the time of Yaakov, there are a lot more people in the world today. And the regions in which we live are now heavily populated. Most of us dwell in urban centers, filled with a diversity of people. We cannot be like Yaakov, all off to ourselves. We have to dwell with others. But in the desire of some people to have this sense of security of being “alone,” some people unfortunately do negatively voice how they prefer their vicinity to be made of people all like themselves; thus they are alone, and left alone by others.

Living Examples from the Community of Boyle Heights

Let me us give some real-life examples of this tendency in action, and at the same time address the needs of my community for a moment if you will. Because this topic hits home for me.

This is a theme which comes up often as I do community work in the local barrio of Boyle Heights, my most beloved neighborhood. People often talk with me about how our insulated, predominately Latino community, does today and has historically at times had, ethnic and economic related tensions. But going back further into our history, in the earlier half of the 20th century this was a place of tolerance and diversity for our residents, a blending of cultures found almost nowhere else. A tight historical bond of cooperation and camaraderie between diverse ethnic groups was modeled here in the classic era of this community.

So why now all the focusing on negativity of the past by the disgruntled locals? It’s just that today, more than ever, people feel threatened; both in the housing and job market as other races and classes slowly consider migrating towards our Latino working-class area we live in, with the fear of them displacing our own people. Economics is fueling a sense of isolationism. A bitter fight against gentrification, and also against any sort of progress or upgrades which would possibly make the neighborhood “too fancy” for us Latinos to sustain a future in. People threatened by new potential home owners and skilled labor, which many of our immigrant people are not. As our people badly need the home they rent and the livelihood of their unskilled mom-and-pop storefront job they have, plain and simple.

But being alone has its consequences, being isolated – today 98% Latino in demographics – has its downsides as well and comes with many negative elements. And with this in mind, a local man was pining upon the past of Boyle Heights as a mixed community. He outright asked in a public forum, when are we as a community going to be ready to return to that type of diversity and brotherhood? To make this place somewhere we can challenge the barriers once again.

I kid you not, it was a local preacher’s wife who was the first to chime in, “¡Chale! There’s too many of us here already.” That people need to leave our community alone. Followed with an us vs. them, nationalist argument. And a dismissal to the tune of, “I have nothing against them, it’s just economics.”

So as you see, even when people claim they have faith in G-d they can still have a lot of problems having faith in humanity. There are many people, who no matter what their persuasion, can still cling on to hardened ideas of tribalism. And we still have a lot of cultural religionists around here, who just don’t have faith in those of other cultures. I find that unacceptable, and totally against the scriptures.

So how do we help address these problems for people who feel like they lack a sense of security? For people who out of fear want us to be alone, and desire to build a bulwark around our community? I believe that the scriptures do give us some examples if we are willing to listen and learn.

The Security of Being at Home, Under Your Own Tree

Now as we turn back over to our scripture which we are studying today, I asked us to once again draw our attention to these words: “betach badad / in safety, and alone.” Remember how betach is also understood to mean securely, peacefully and in tranquility.

And again I ask the question, is peace and security only found when we dwell alone? Now I ask us an ever more direct question in this vein. Is security only found when we are amongst our own? Is our safety only secured by sheer numbers? When we are surrounded among our own kind in order to avoid the risk of all others? Our rabbis would say, no. That that is a sign of insecurity! That is a very sure sign of a community in danger.

If we look at our ever-present commentary by Rashi, he defines being secure and alone a much different way:

Safely and alone: Every single individual [will dwell safely] – each man under his own vine and his own fig tree. [And their security will be so sound, that] they will have no need to live together in one group, because of the enemy.”

בטח בדד: כל יחיד ויחיד איש תחת גפנו ותחת תאנתו מפוזרין ואין צריכים להתאסף ולישב יחד מפני האויב:

Rashi, Deuteronomy 33:28

Rashi describes security as a person being at home under his own vine and fig tree!

Then he also draws us a picture of what insecurity looks like, it’s when a people are forced to live together huddled in a group. “Yachad miphnei ha-oyeiv / together as one because of an enemy.” When people must be amassed and concentrated together for security, because of the risk of rivals or opponents.

Bario White Fence History as told by the gang themselves: White Fence is consider the mother of all Chicano gangs. The one most often modelled and portrayed in movies, videos and books. Indeed most of all popular cholo values and style originates from this very local gang. Notice how in their version of history, gangs were formed to protect themselves from the other minorities and whites who abused them. Still in the absence of these competing groups today, the violent impetus to keep others out still remains.

Bario White Fence History as told by the gang members themselves: White Fence is consider the mother of all Chicano gangs. The one most often modelled and portrayed in movies, videos and books. Indeed almost all of popular cholo values and style originates from this very local gang. The author contends,”I am not attempting to glamorize the hood or gangbanging but present an accurate picture of real and true barrio history.” Notice how in thier version of history, gangs were formed to protect themselves from the risk of other larger ethnic groups and the whites who abused them. To protect their small and isolated barrio (neighborhood). Yet still, these many years later even in the absence of any of these competing groups today, the violent impetus to keep others out still remains.

I can tell you for a fact that our rabbi here is correct, as I witness this type of reality in my own community. Indeed that is one of my biggest challenges, trying to stir our local people out of a collective nightmare in which our barrios were huddle masses of scared minorities and whose only reprieve from outside harassment was through the prevalence of racial gang violence which threatened outsiders away. It’s disheartening that even today, some people still tactically accept this as the cost worth paying to avoid cultural and demographic dilution. But the persistence of this for the past century has offered no security, quite the contrary.

Again, Rashi describes security as a person being at home under his own vine and fig tree! When a person is not stuck with the wagons circled. It’s under the shade and sustenance of a fruitful vine and fig tree. But if you consider it, there is one precondition to us having the benefit of such things. You need to have land! You need to have a place to plant your vine and fig tree, in order to persist and see them grow to fruition. One needs their own homestead, to put down roots. Where each man dwells in the safety and shade of his own home and livelihood, though a direct connection with his own land. Reaping the direct benefits of land ownership, which grants one self-dependence and the means for self-determination. With the security of living on one’s own, that’s how we should read this passage here.

All people need this sense of security. Especially here in this community where it is lacking, we need to turn our struggling renters into home owners. Helping find adequate housing for people in this crowded neighborhood, where often times even more than one family may struggle to live in a single unit already.

We need to help the anxious make a home for themselves, so as not to be blown around the neighborhood by the winds of the markets or tossed around at the whims of absentee landlords. Educating people on their rights and options.

We need to educate and empower people to put their money to use in gaining them equity as home owners, which also grants them security and resources in time of need. Helping people buy homes in this neighborhood of theirs. Instead painfully watching money slip through their fingers season after season, and year after year in the cost of rent. And of course more importantly, so a person can feel that they have their own place in the world and all the sweetness that comes with.

We also need to do more to help create new housing opportunities for low-income and struggling families. With new development which offers more safe housing options for all the various working-class people of this diverse city. Building new opportunities together, and restoring old alliances. Working together to fight displacement, homelessness and overcrowding!

What we really need around here is dedicated people who are less interested in descending into revolution, and more dedicated to bringing this community to fruition. People who are willing to bring this community together in peace, to reap the benefits of investing in our own community. Investing with both our resources and our efforts.

Closing the season of dew, entering the seasons of rains

I asked you to keep a thought in mind a while back there. So I want us to just touch on this in closing, this topic of tal. The future promise that is given to Israel by Moses, that we will have heaven-sent tal – G-d will send us His life-giving dew.

As I said we are just coming out of the summer season were we are asking for tal (dew) in our prayers, when it is much-needed to help sustain our produce with essential water and moisture through the summer heat. And now we will transition for the season and begin to ask for ruach and geshem, wind and rain; for the wind that will scatter seeds and pollen, and the rain that will water it. And likewise we are expected to sow, in line with the times and seasons. So that months from now in the spring we will see the results of this natural cycle of renewal of the land, when the spring harvest comes.

Blessing comes in the right season. But it comes through a mixture of action on our part, and living with a sense of promise and hope that we are aided by the blessings of our G-d. A mixture of effort, and faith.

We need to encourage people with the promise that our G-d will also help sustain us in our undertakings. As with the life-giving dew through which we and nature find ourselves sustained by our G-d. He will preserve us with His blessings, with His “tal” sustaining us in mercy. He will help us make this investment blossom and bear fruit when the season is right. But its time for us to get ready to sow!

I choose to encourage people with a message of hope, instead of resorting to fear and hysteria. I choose to embolden people to make this land their own and make it blossom for their families. I choose to stand apart from the people sounding like prophets of doom around the barrio. Hysterics talking of the coming changes with anxiety and disseminating a sense doom for our district.

I instead choose to raise the prophetic voice of the Jewish tradition, as found in the bible. I draw upon the words of the prophet Zechariah, one of the most dramatic of all the prophets. Yes, he was among them that foretold of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and exile of his people during the First Temple Period. But he also spoke in surety of the promise of their salvation, and with certainty of the restoration of his people. Zachariah gave hope, because that is what a prophetic voice is for! As the scriptures read:

“For the sowing is for peace. The vine shall give forth its fruit, and the earth shall give forth its produce, and the heavens shall give forth their dew – and I will cause the remnant of this people to inherit all these things.”

כִּי זֶרַע הַשָּׁלוֹם הַגֶּפֶן תִּתֵּן פִּרְיָהּ וְהָאָרֶץ תִּתֵּן אֶת יְבוּלָהּ וְהַשָּׁמַיִם יִתְּנוּ טַלָּם וְהִנְחַלְתִּי אֶת שְׁאֵרִית הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶת כָּל אֵלֶּה:

Zechariah 8:12

I ask people to sow into this community, both the Latino and Jewish people who love this neighborhood. Help us sow in peace, so we can cause the remnant of this people to inherit and fruitfully develop this land.

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Parshat V’Zot haBerachah (2013)

Deuteronomy 33 -34

Let’s Choose To Put Our Heads Together This Year

During this time of holiday rest and reflection, let us also try  to put our heads together in unity

During this time of holiday rest and reflection, let us also try to put our heads together in unity

We are just coming through a week of much celebration, having many days of festivity back to back. First we started with the observance of Rosh haShanah – the head of the year, the New Year – and then it extended on with a conjoined Shabbat. But alas here we are at the rosh, (ראש) the head of the year. We have now begun to ready ourselves to head off on another fortuitous journey around the sun. Hopefully all these holidays are helping us recharge for the journey ahead of us.

Here in this final reading of our annual Torah cycle, in this narrative we are coming in right after the start of Moses’ ultimate blessing, just before he dies and the people ride off into the sunset towards the promised land without him.

There are two odd verses that are presented in our text. The first is actually a rather famous verse for religious Jews, but it’s just that it’s oddly dropped into place right here during this speech of Moses. “Torah tzivah lanu Mosheh / The Torah that Moses commanded us…” (Deut. 33:4) We aren’t exactly sure why it changes tone and perspective for just a verse. Why would Moses speak about himself in the third person? It’s hard to know, considering it comes in right after a highly stylized song like we saw in Parshat Haazinu last week (see Parshat Haazinu 2012). Poetic form might have a play in this matter.

The other verse is certainly hard to understand because of its poetic structure. And that is the verse the we are going to take a look at today. Let us continue on with the fifth verse:

He was king in Yeshurun,

when the heads of the people congregated

the tribes of Israel were together.”

| Vayehi viYeshurun melech

| behit’asef rashei am

| yachad shivtei Yisra’el

Deuteronomy 33:5

This verse falls into our text before the blessings of each tribe begins, as part of a poetic introduction of sorts. In the second verse of our parsha we have a speech begun that is traditionally understood to be fully in the voice of Moses. There are two preceding verses where G-d is understood as the “He” in this situation, in which He leads the people of Israel from Sinai and through the desert with a fiery law in hand. (see verses 2-3) From this point of view Moses is relating that G-d is really the one that has led them all along. That it is His words that they are going to eternally utter and at His feet they will now sit. This verse five steps back into the same orientation as verses 2-3. G-d is the “He” here in verse 5 too. He is the King spoken of.

Second problem that arises is this, a lot of people don’t understand the use of the name Yeshurun. This is a unique name that is only used three times in the Torah, with the other two occurrences also found here in Deuteronomy as well. (see Deut. 32:15; 33:26); and once in the book of Isaiah (see Isaiah 44:2). In Isaiah it is Israel (Jacob) that is identified as Yeshurun (or Jeshurun in English). This is a nickname for the people of Israel, which in my observations seems to apply when they are corporately together in one place or in one mindset.

There are a few things that further complicate the understanding of the verse, aside from the odd structure and unique nicknames. There seems to also be an odd use of a recognizable word as well. The word is rashei (ראשי). Rosh (the root of the word) means “head,” in this case of “rashei haAm” they are they “heads of the people,” or more precisely “the leaders of the people.”

Rashi suggests that the oddity of this verse is caused by it uses an idiom, a cultural expression.

We have talked about idiomatic phrases before, interestingly it has actually been about this type of phrase. (see Parshat Bemidbar 2012; Parshat KiTissa 2013) Simply put, we have seen how the Hebrew language of the chumash didn’t have a correct word for “census” for example. The closest they could do was describe the “taking a head count.” (se’u et rosh, see Numbers 1:2) This is done “ki tissa et rosh,” when you lift the heads of each person and count them individually among their ranks. (see Exodus 30:12)

Rashi further suggests that this far in the advancement of the language we are able to use the word “rashei” as a simple term for taking account of the people. The word “rashei” thus means “the sum of.” It applies to a whole congregated body of people. Therefore Rashi tells us to understand this verse to mean that when all the people are gathered together to be accounted for then G-d sits as King among Israel, and thus they are worthy of blessing (ראויין אלו שאברכם).

In these intermediate days between Rosh haShanah and Yom haKippurim we have been gathering for so many religious services dedicated to our annual accounting for our deeds and souls. This started with our selichot (penitential prayers) and will continue on until Yom haKippur. (this year Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat) At this time we corporately atone and seek to have our deed to a good year sealed for us.

I must say that I’ve really been enjoying the holidays, worshiping with the people for whom I feel deeply for. As in most suburban cities, the congregations by me have a very diverse attendance. It’s wonderful to see so many people together for the solemn task of teshuvah (repentance). It is even more awesome when one sees all the people of different backgrounds and affiliations celebrating in peace and joy. People of all walks of Jewish life doing some soul-searching. This is very praise worthy! Truly we are worthy of the holiday birkat kohanim (the priestly blessing) when we determine to come together (b’yachad) as a people.

Rashi also offers us another insight. One that I think is very timely for this season. He suggests that in order to understand this verse it might be helpful if we change the key focus to the word “yachad” (together) and rebuild the verse from that position. His commentary thus reads:

Another explanation: When Israel is gathered together in a unified group, and there is peace among them, G-d is their King-but not when there is strife among them.”

דבר אחר, בהתאסף, בהתאספם יחד באגודה אחת ושלום ביניהם הוא מלכם, ולא כשיש מחלוקת ביניהם:

Deuteronomy 33:5

Rashi speaks a lesson to us that I hope all of us are considering as we approach these holidays. It is not enough that we just get together, though that is certainly praiseworthy in and of itself. (see Parshat Haazinu 2013) But in order for us to truly be worthy of a blessing, and in order for G-d to truly take His role as King over us, we need to be an “agudah echat / a unified society.” Rashi defines this as being a people who are at peace with each other. Only when there is peace among G-d’s people can He truly rule over us as King. This cannot be so when we are divided by “macholket / arguments.” If we want G-d to rule as King over us, and we want to be sealed for blessing, we need to start first with becoming a united people.

This year we have many more opportunities to congregate. Over the next couple weeks we also have Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, etc. As we come together for our celebrations we should not just be content to be a nice sized group of people congregated together. It’s not about just getting together as a group, to stick our heads into shul and be counted. It’s also important that as we gather together in unity. With a determination to be a unified people, not divided by strife and bickering. That we put our heads together and be counted as one people.

This year I would like us to try to follow the advice of Rashi. We need to not just strive to be more active in communal life, but to also determine to help the Jewish community be an agudah echat, a single union.

Parshat Haazinu (2013)

Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52

Rosh haShanah as a Day of Remembrance

Jewish Learning with two boysI write this lesson after a full week of celebration, only now getting around to write out the lesson for this past week’s parsha. But its message has been working in my heart. This is one of our last Torah portions for the year, as we are getting close to completing Sefer Devarim – the Book of Deuteronomy. We will soon end our Torah cycle again, and renew our studies after the High Holy days with Sefer Bereishit – the Book of Genesis, the start of our scriptures. Our week was cut short by the coming of Rosh haShanah, with our weekly readings seeming to be taking second fiddle to holiday readings for now. But even this gives us a great chance to reflect more upon our lessons.

I would like us to begin, starting with our second aliyah – the second section of our Torah reading:

“Remember the days

of the age long gone by,

ponder the years of each generation;

ask your father,

and he will declare unto you,

your elders and they will tell you.”

| Zechor yemot

| olam

| binu shnot dor-vador

| she’al avicha

| veyagedcha

| zekeneicha veyomru lach

Deuteronomy 32:7

As we begin to go about our activities of the holiday season, with all its festivities and visiting with our loved ones, it can be a bit overwhelming. Of course I love the season. But some people get a bit tuckered out by all the services and family events. Sometimes its a bit overwhelming for some people. For some it is because it is the only time of year they are religious, it comes quickly and hits them like a tidal-wave. I don’t judge anyone, I just know how awkward it can be when you are out of practice. I’ve been there.

This year I’ve been so happy to see how many of my friends have been going out of their way to observe the holidays. Many returning to shul after some time of being away. But for as many people as I’ve complimented for coming out of their comfort zone and engaging the holiday, I have also heard people modestly downplay their observance as them merely using the occasion to visit their family. I have to tell you, even this alone is praiseworthy according to our Torah.

The Torah tells us that we are to zechor – to remember – the distant and far off past, the days of ages gone by. This stands out to me as a poignant call during this season of Rosh haShanah – the head of the year, the Jewish civil New Year.

This holidays we call by the classical name Yom haZikaron haZeh – or This Day of Remembrance, or “this memorial day.” Though we do have a modern Israeli holiday called Yom haZikaron (Memorial Day), in our classical prayers and siddurim this only refers to Rosh haShanah. This is because the bible first identifies it this way, a day of rest called a “zikeron teruah / a memorial of the sound of the shofar.” (Leviticus 23:24) This is because the ram’s horn is continuously blown to call us to attention and teshuvah (repentance) during this season, that part we understand. But why do we call it a “zikaron,” a memorial day? How does one make it a mikra kodesh – a holy convocation?

I believe one of the best ways of doing that is by visiting our family and loved ones, because it fulfills a very special mitzvah that we can see revealed here in this Torah portion.

I have always loved spending time with my grandparents. As a matter of fact, in my childhood I always had a tendency to prefer the company of my older relatives and their senior citizen friends. Hanging around their events they would teach me their hobbies, dances and sayings. I even learned to Jitterbug and play cards this way. But what I always loved most was hearing their stories. Their upbringing and youth, the war that shattered it all apart, then the rebuilding and the prosperity that came to follow. They taught me how to remember, they brought the past to life for me in the most vivid ways they could. Just spending time with them I would step back into their experience, playing their records, seeing their pictures, sharing their memories, and relating to their hopes.

When we talk about remembering most often we think of G-d remembering things during this season. We consider how G-d calls to remembrance our deeds and words, which He weighs on this Day of Judgment that we annually observe on Rosh haShanah. Likewise we also appeal to G-d that He remember our ancestors and extend mercy and blessing to us in their merit, we do this during the saying of the Zichronot (remembrances) of the Rosh haShanah Mussaf Amidah. In this piece of liturgy we remind G-d that our ancestors were remarkable people whom He showed mercy for, so may He do so towards us.

We rarely give much credit to the level of remembrance that us people can and should also be engaging ourselves in during this season. In this verse above that we are looking at from our parsha, we see another special way that zichronot can be observed. By reflecting on the years and seasons past, and by engaging our ancestors and elders in this reflecting.

That’s not to say that all our interactions with our kinsfolk are always the neatest and most uplifting experience. Sometimes visits come with pain as we see how our loved ones age and struggle with new challenges in their lives. Sometimes the difficulty comes from us running into those naturally crotchety family members that always have tragic history and scars to exhibit. That is just the realities and composition of any family. But in all these things, be they joyful or misty-eyed chronicles, we have something to glean from their stories and experiences

Actually according to Rashi this is precisely why we should take the time talk to our elders, because they can enlighten the path of life for us with their observations and accounts. And yes, sometimes it will be negative and hard to handle the truth of the past. Rashi points out in his commentary that he believes that zechor means to remember what G-d did to past generations to those who provoked Him. Rashi calls to remembrance the generations of Enosh and Noah that were destroyed by the waters as an act of divine judgment. About the times when people did wrong and they caused destruction for themselves and others. The words of wisdom of our elders helps us prevent tragedies to come and also readies us to face those for which we cannot avoid.

We take their stories in stride as we hear about the past and their reflections of life’s journey, because we recognize that those who have gone before are truly extraordinary people. That their lessons of their experiences ought to be recognized. Often our challenges pale in comparison to anything they experienced, and yet they survived with a fortitude and wisdom that we should also hope to be able to display under pressure.

I find the alternative explanation by Rashi to also be fascinating. He also offers us a suggestion for what we should do if we are not able to, for what ever reason, reflect on these ancestral lessons of the terrible past. His continuing commentary reads:

“Another explanation is: [If] you have not set your hearts to the past, then ‘reflect upon the years of generations,’ i.e., to recognize the future, that He has a better future for you; and to give you as an inheritance the days of Mashiach (the Messiah) and the world-to-come.” [Sifrei 32:6]

דבר אחר לא נתתם לבבכם על שעבר. בינו שנות דור ודור להכיר להבא שיש בידו להיטיב לכם ולהנחיל לכם ימות המשיח והעולם הבא:

Rashi on Deuteronomy 32:7

Rashi seems to be aware that there are many people, who for reason of sensitivity or trauma, find it hard to reflect on the past. It stirs up all kinds of issues for some of us. However, Rashi says that if this is not possible for us to take the past to heart, we should instead set our hearts upon future hopes. Listen to our fathers and elders for their words of promise. Engross ourselves in their stories of great feats and pioneering that will feed our vision for the future and offer us guidance for embarking on new frontiers. Rashi says but if our hearts can’t handle the past, then we should set our sights on the messianic-age; on the goal of a rectified planet and society, and the hopes a world-to-come. There is a better future for us!

I understand that for many people, there are other emotional hardships that might come to mind during this holiday season. Some of us may have moved far from our families, or our parents might have passed away, or for what ever reason we don’t have the benefit of familial ties to rely upon. There aren’t always those guiding and inspiring voices present in our lives. And sometimes this reality and the pain of it comes to mind during the holiday seasons more noticeably.

Rashi contends that we do not have to feel alone. We are not fatherless, we are not without the benefit of strong paternal guidance for those who need it. Rashi says that just as the young Elisha followed the words of the prophet Elijah and therefore called him “avi, avi / my father, my father,” (2 Kings 2:12) the prophets are paternal voices for us. And in the absence of our clan elders, who else can we turn to? Rashi declares that even yet the chachamim – our sages, scholars and rabbis – they are our elders and mentors. We can find comfort in the written heritage of our people, and we can find guidance through the teachings of those masters of Torah that help give these lessons a life application for our own lives. No matter how deprived we might feel at times when left on our own, we need to take heart the reality that we are still inheritors of a great tradition that does not abandon us. It’s always as close as a memory and as accessible as a folk saying.

During these weeks I would like you to consider the lessons that your grandmother would touch your heart with, and the words of courage that your grandfather would embolden you with. Draw close to your relatives, and your spiritual family as well. Don’t downplay, and thus dismiss and neglect, the merit in connecting to other people who understand you and whose lessons will ring true in your own heart. Let us spend these days of awe and celebration engaging in remembering the stores of years gone by, and telling hopeful tales of better days to come. Regarding the extraordinary people from which we come and the potential we have inherited.

Our getting together with people we love and respect is not just quaint congregating. It is a mikra kodesh, a holy convocation. In this way we fulfill a mitzvah and also bring fullness to Yom haZikaron haZeh – This Day of Remembrance.

Shavah tova!

Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech (2013)

Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

True Repentance Is Not About Being Sorry

This week’s double parsha is the last reading we have before we observe Rosh haShanah – the Jewish New Year. We consider it a day of justice and reckoning.

doggie shame

During this time of year a lot of people add New Year resolutions to their annual teshuvah (repentance) checklist. Many people choose to battle their addictions. But have you ever noticed how shamming and humiliating recovery programs can be sometimes? What does the Torah say about repentance and recovery?

As we come upon this season we begin to reflect and consider all the areas in our lives in which we need to make teshuvah – repentance, were we need to make the turn-around and take right fork in the road. This is a theme that has run through-out the entire month of Elul and the Days of Awe.

Normally people don’t really like to consider the topic of teshuvah. It can be intimidating to some, and even shamming to others who are not so religiously inclined. That is why I would like us to explore just how empowering this spirit of repentance can truly be.

First off, it would help if we demystify what teshuvah – what “repentance” – really is.

It is true that repentance does come with a sense of regret and remorse for what one has done. It can certainly mean to rethink the actions that we have done in the past. We have a specific word for that in the scriptures – nacheim (נחם), to change one’s wrong and calamitous mindset, to repent; interestingly it is generally a term that is only used to appeal to G-d’s higher nature in the chumash (the five books of Moses) itself. (see Exodus 32:12, where G-d is said to repent.)

Instead for people, throughout the Torah, the word used for repentance is much more plain; it is simply teshuvah – to return. This is something that is continuously mentioned through out this parsha. That is what we will explore today. What does “repentance” essentially mean when stripped down from all the religiously charged jargon and lingo?

I would like us to pick up at the top of the third reading, beginning with our second verse:

“And you will return

and listen to the voice of Hashem,

and fulfill all His commandments,

which I command you today.”

| Ve’atah tashuv

| veshamata bekol Hashem

| ve’asita et-kol-mitzvotav

| asher anochi metzavecha hayom

Deuteronomy 30:8

One of the things that I find so interesting about the Torah is its optimism. Our previous readings for this parsha talk in detail about how people do go astray and end up regretting their wrongs from a place of distress. This is a reality of human nature. But the Torah isn’t just cynical, it responds to this with great optimism. It tell us “you will return.”

Our parsha begins with a promise that G-d will eventually deal with all our enemies and foes, and all who pursue us. (Deut. 30:7) It promises that after we return and we begin to fulfill the commandments of G-d, (v. 8) then G-d will bless us with all forms of abundance and fertility. G-d will rejoice over the good fortunes in our lives, just as G-d rejoiced over the successes of our forefathers. (v. 9) This will happen when we observe His mitzvot and statutes written in this Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll), and return with all our heart and soul. (v. 10) Our Torah calls us to return to G-d not just with an emotional response, but also to respond with “kol nafshecha” – with all our living soul, our being, to deeply identify with this call to just and righteous living. Not just to feel repentant, but to live it out.

The truth is that teshuvah is done more with the hands and feet than it is with the eyes. It’s not simple reflection and shedding of tears, it’s about starting over and reconstructing the situation. Repentance is not about continuously being sorry.

The topic of teshuvah is one that I think is best understood by people who have dealt with addictions. Often times the world’s message about repentance and redemption is about groveling over what we have done, admitting we are powerless, and that something needs to save us. I believe a lot of the pain and stagnancy in the lives of people is caused by this message. It is reinforced by a culture in recovery groups to praise the “rock bottom.” The message is one of constantly being a helpless wretch in need of saving. Someone who just can’t do it in life, so they got to “let go and let G-d.”

Much of this attitude is reflective of the Protestant Christian mentality, which is pervasive in many recovery groups and the similar. Many are fully built on the idea of total depravity, of irredeemability (you are always an alcoholic), and the need of a higher power to help you along. This is a very humbling Christian concept that keeps those so inclined in-line, but it is not helpful for the Jewish soul.

The message of Christianity regarding this is clearly contrary to the message of the Torah. Christianity tells people that they need a vicarious atonement because they are incorrigible lawbreakers according to the Bible. That they are helpless and unable to redeem themselves, that’s why somebody else needs to do it for them. In fact they would claim that the mitzvot of the Torah are only given so that people would know what charges G-d has against them. That the laws and statutes of Torah are just intended to show people that they could never actually keep them.

The foolishness of such false humility is revealed to us by the simplicity of the Torah. It tells us why it charges us to start over again, to return to the mitzvot another time:

“For this commandment

which I command you today

is not concealed from you

nor is it far off.

It is not in the heavens

so that you say:

‘Who can go up to heaven

and bring it to us,

so that we can hear it and do it?’

It is not across the sea

so [that you should] say:

‘Who will cross over the sea

and bring it us,

so that we can hear and do it?’”

| Ki hamitzvah hazot

| asher anochi metzavecha hayom

| lo-niflet hi mimecha

| velo-rechokah hi

| Lo vashamayim

| hi lemor

| mi ya’aleh-lanu hashamaymah

| veyikacheha lanu

| veyashmi’enu otah vena’asenah

| Velo-me’ever layam

| hi lemor

| mi ya’avor-lanu el-ever hayam

| veyikacheha lanu

| veyashmi’enu otah vena’asenah

Deueronomy 30:11

Our Torah does offer some profound answers for life, even if they are not as mystical as people would like them to be. The Torah does not call for any real epiphany, or the grasping of any particular mystery. The Torah is not a hidden truth, nor it is too hard to comprehend on ones own.

The Torah contends that we do not need any messengers to go up to heaven and bring down the truth for us. We don’t require someone to ascend to the heavens in order for us understand what G-d wants from us, and what we should do in this life! It’s not that hard to comprehend, as it speaks from the inside of us.

The Torah challenges us to recognize that we do not need exotic gurus and teachers, people in far-off and foreign places to deliver the answers of life to us. These truths are not so hidden and distant that someone needs to bring them back to us from afar. This truth is very close and easy to grasp.

The problem for many people who deal with the struggles of addiction, sin and their base desires is that they often want someone else to do it all for them. They rather be told what to do, rather than think for themselves. They rather consider sin and addiction a mere disease, that they just need G-d to cure or aid them through. They rather have someone else to rely upon – and blame – for the outcomes in their lives.

Our Torah teaches us something very different, by forcing us to take full responsibility. It contrasts the call of our G-d against the world view of those who prefer to build their spirituality completely around sages, shamans, all forms of novel religion, and even other people’s experiences. It stands against our complacency and self-pity. It empowers us with these words:

“Rather, this is something

that is very close to you;

[it is] in your mouth and in your heart

so that you can do it.”

| Ki karov eleycha

| hadavar me’od

| beficha uvilvavcha

| la’asoto

Deuteronomy 30:14

We need to protect our mindset from people who exaggerate a sense of helplessness, and that foster a mentality of inability that leads to dependence. People who encourage dependence on their program or religion, instead of re-empowering you for your own path. Our Torah stands against asking people to grovel in helplessness and shame. Instead of telling us what we are unworthy and incapable of on our own, the message of the Torah as revealed to Israel is, “You can do it!”

Rather than telling us what we can’t do and offering a list of commandments to convict us with guilt, the Torah lays out the mitzvot as a road map for how we can live a life of prosperity and success. It’s not hard to understand. It tells us that if we want this type of success all we really need to do is shuvreturn and try again – because we can do it!

Rehab and recovery programs that I can recommend:

  • Beit T’Shuvah – (Venice Beach/Santa Monica) Southern California’s inspiring Jewish rehab and congregation. Serving the Jewish and non-Jewish community alike to help people rebuild a life after addiction.

  • Chabad Residential Treatment Center – (Los Angeles) Since 1972 thousands of men from every imaginable background have successfully received treatment at Chabad Rehabilitation Center, based on criteria established by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Washington DC.

  • The A.L.I.Y.A. Institute  – A Brooklyn Heights program that is specially geared for young adults from chassidish families but that that are out of yeshiva, that are dealing with homelessness and addiction issues. This program pairs a working beit midrash for individualized Torah learning half the day, with the structure the classroom for English and Math studies in preparation for the GED.

Parshat Ki Tavo (2013)

Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Tithing and Tzedakah: Charity during the Holiday Season

handstzedakahcharityThere is never a polite enough way of saying to people, “You need to do more to help the down-and-out!” However, it’s something we face this week as the Torah makes us admit that “I forgot” really isn’t an excuse.

As we enter our study this week the holiday appeals for charity are already ringing out from our congregations and favorite Jewish programs. We consider Rosh haShanah the start of our civil year, and with its arrival we begin to regard our civic concerns. We consider our finances, and most often begin to set aside money for membership dues, children’s education and tzedakah; figuratively meaning “charity,” but literally meaning to do justice (tzedek) for the poor and the needy.

As if the coming season doesn’t remind us of this already, the Torah portion for the week also brings attention to our giving. I normally don’t like to harp on the message of monetary contributions of charity, feeling the spirit of giving has been grossly distorted by some greedy religious leaders. But we cannot be dissuaded from discussing what is right simply because others might do wrong with its message. For Jewish people, the giving of charity is something we all tend to hold with high regard and have positive feelings about. Understanding the meaning of the word tzedakah we see that charity is synonymous with social justice.

Among all the things that Jews become introspective about during this season of repentance, Jews also pay special attention to our charitable contributions. One expects to be judged for their ways on Rosh haShanah, one doesn’t want to be found neglecting their ethical responsibility as we go into this season. Have we given this year? Have we set aside a tithe for charity?

But from where does this custom of giving derive? Is it a biblical commandment? That is what we are going to look at today as we study our parsha. We will pick up with the text at the top of the second aliya:

“When you have finished tithing

all of the tithes

of your produce in the third year,

the year of the tithes,

you shall give them to the Levite,

the foreigner,

the orphan,

and the widow

so they can eat until they are full

within your gates.”

| Ki techaleh laser

| et-kol-masar

| tevu’atcha bashanah hashlishit

| shnat hama’aser

| venatatah la-Levi

| lager

| layatom

| vela’almanah

| ve’achlu vish’areicha

| vesave’u.

Deuteronomy 26:12

Last time we looked at this parsha we talked about the celebrations and ritual requirements for the settlers of Israel as they go into the land. (see Parshat Ki Tavo 2011) After their first harvest the Israelites are to bring bikkurim – the first of all the produce – which are to be presented to the priests in the Temple. This is the first of such offerings that is set down by Torah, which takes up the whole of the first aliyah to discuss.

Now in our second aliyah we are getting beyond the general terumah (priestly offerings) and begin to discuss ma’aser – the ten percent portion (from eser, Hebrew for “ten”) – which we call the tithe.

From a straight forward approach it seems clear. In the third year of the seven-year shmitah cycle (the agricultural year and fallow cycle), after all the different tithes are separated one is to take out the tithes and give them to the Levites and the needy of the community.

The rabbis, as you would see from Rashi’s commentary, seems to complicate the matter a bit by further breaking this down into first and second tithes. However, these are merely practical considerations for how one would actually apply these principles in an agrarian society that centers around a Temple.

However I would bring out attention back, and let us take notice that we are talking about separating a portion of our produce (tevuah) that is grown in the occupied land of Israel. In a literal sense, the tithe is only offered of crops and grains from the holy land.

For this reason there is a machlochet as to whether or not we are biblically required to give tithes in diaspora. We have no Temple and active Levitic priesthood to bring our offerings to. Furthermore, most of us are not farmers. We no longer live in a primarily agrarian society, the system of giving no longer matches our economy.

Though the most accepted religious view is that we are not halachically required to give a tithe in galut, it has still become the custom of Jews to give ten percent of their net income (the amount left after all deductions) towards tzedakah – for charity. There is a reason we don’t harshly apply the full weight of rabbinic laws regarding tithing, because with a first and second tithe given consideration one can be required to give as much as 20% of one’s earnings. However today we go with the simple view, and in keeping with the spirit of the Torah we give a straight tithe of 10% of our earnings after deductions.

The reason I have to stress all of this is because the biblical way of applying tithing is not at all like the practice we actually have today. Jews in the biblical age had to give a lot of offerings. Think about it. The first of all our harvests, a portion of each successive harvest of crops, and then a second tithe given for the poor. Not money, but crops. That’s a lot of giving! This is what we mean by “kol maaser / all the tithes.”

I also stress this because in the English language the term tithe also comes with some negative Anglo connotations. When people hear “tithe” we generally understand that as meaning a church tax. That is the mental picture of the English speaker, of preachers calling out to the masses to give them their 10% to help keep their “ministry” going. But this is not the correct understanding of tithing either. A tithe is not a payment for being a member of a congregation.

Sure there is a portion that is set aside for the Levitic priests and their descendants. However, the Torah here in our parsha also lumps giving to them up in a tithe which is also set aside for the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows.

At first it might not seem apparent why these people are all lumped together here. What do they have in common that we are to separate a tithe for them?

Simply put, they are all people who have no true income because they have no land to farm. Levites, as priests and civil servants, are given no permanent settlement of land. The priests are instead sustained off the tithes of the people. The foreigner, orphan and widows are also people with no land or way to provide for themselves. They too must be sustained from tithes.

Our Torah calls us to give as part of a religious obligation. However it does not call us to give for merely religious purposes. It puts our giving for spiritual endeavors on the same level as giving for the destitute.

This truth cannot be avoided, when it is summed up that the reason that we are to give is so that the needy within the gates of our cities will be able to eat until they are satisfied.

Here in this parsha our Torah calls out to people to give. It doesn’t just theoretically call for us to be generous and charitable people. It identifies people who are needy, and then tells us we need to give so that they will not go hungry. Not just so they will not starve, but we should give generously so that they can eat well and be satiated.

Our Torah plays hardball with us by giving names to the needy, and then demanding that we provide for them.

The Torah stresses this point again by naming these people a second time, as part of a confession that is to be made by a person presenting their tithe. Our text continues:

“And you shall say before

Hashem, your G-d,

‘I have removed the sacred portion

from the house

and I have also given it to the Levite,

and the immigrant,

and the orphan,

and the widow,

according to all the commandments

you have commanded me;

I have not violated your commandments,

nor have I forgotten [them].”

| Ve’amarta lifnei

| Hashem Eloheicha

| bi’arti hakodesh

| min-habayit

| vegam netativ la-Levi

| velager

| layatom

| vela’almanah

| kechol-mitzvatcha

| asher tzivitani

| lo-avarti mimitzvoteicha

| velo shachachti.

Deuteronomy 26:13

As one gives their tithes they are made to confess this. They vow that they have separated all the tithes. And then like we are following a check list, the Torah once again reminds of all the people who need our assistance. It calls them out by name to us.

We are told to confess in more than one way that we have properly tithed: we confess that we have followed the laws, that we have not tried to avoid these commandments, and that nor have we forgotten them.

Our Torah tells here in this parsha that we are commanded to give to people in need, we are not to avoid giving to them, nor are we to forget to give to them. Not only does our Torah point out the needy in our communities, but it gives a name to them and tells us that using an excuse that you forgot about them is not an excuse at all.

Giving Tithes for the Financially Challenged

I am a person that is physically disabled. I live off of social security, and assistance from generous friends and family. The amount of money that a disabled or retired person collects is often very little. How can a person with limited resources do their part for charity?

Our Torah is quite practical. It does not demand that we endanger ourselves by extravagant giving. There is no form of piousness in giving more money for charity than one can afford. In fact, our Torah even puts a cap on how much we are able to give.

As previously discussed above, biblically we can interpret the tithe system to go as high as 20%. There are indeed some great poskim that believed that one should regularly give 20% of their net income to charity and did so (the GR”A, the Vilna Gaon; and the Chasam Sofer being among them). This is as far as we can extend the laws of tithing rabbinically, and this is the cap to which we are allowed to give.

The Talmudic text for this also reveals the reason why we are to be levelheaded about our tithing:

“Rabbi Elai stated: It was ordained at Usha that if a man wants to scatter money lavishly, he should not squander more than a fifth (chamesh), or else he will also become one in need.”

אילעא באושא התקינו המבזבז אל יבזבז יותר מחומש תניא נמי הכי המבזבז אל יבזבז יותר מחומש שמא יצטרך לבריות ומעשה באחד שבקש

Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 50a

The reason, per the gemara, that one cannot separate more than a chamesh – a fifth, or 20% of one’s money for tithes – is because if one gave more than this they may be putting themselves at risk. If we instead give sensibly we will be able to keep ourselves and our future resources to give sustainable.

One thing a person on a fixed income needs to consider first is what their net earnings are. That is important and is not as obvious as it seems. Most consider their earning what they make after taxes. This would make sense, because if you are paying say 20% in taxes on a $1,000 dollars, you only bring home $800. All your check is really only worth $800. Thus we use the net earnings.

Furthermore, for most of us our real “earnings” can be even smaller than that. Often times there are reoccurring monthly expenses like paying for your Medicare insurance plan, transportation costs and all kinds of expenses that eat up your paycheck even before you get home. Those expenditure need to be taken into consideration, as those also cut back our true take-home pay.

The halacha is also very receptive to special needs. For example, in the case of people with small children the halacha allows us to take special deductions if we need to in order to help us meet their needs. Some things like babysitting expenses cut into our income. Sometimes children’s tuition is just too hard to manage. We are also allowed to deduct those expenses from our tithable income figure up to a certain age (6 yeas old per halacha, but extended up to 16 years old per the law of the State of Israel). Simply put, charity starts at home.

For any person on a fixed income we need to ask ourselves how much is left in our pocket as spending money? From that we can consider giving a 10% portion, that is reasonable if we can afford it. That amount is a sacrifice that is proportional to our own financial state, and still allows us the pride of also doing a mitzvah.

Programs I can recommend:

  • Beit T’Shuvah – Southern California’s inspiring Jewish rehab and congregation. Serving the Jewish and non-Jewish community alike to help people build a life after addiction.

  • Chabad of California – Among all the many programs that Chabad offers, the least well-known are their many rehabilitation and social service programs that are non-sectarian and open to all.

  • Mazon – a Jewish response to hunger.
  • Open Siddur Project– One of the finest projects on the Internet, helping transcribe and develop Jewish liturgy as a free and Open Source library.

  • World ORT – Empowering Jewish communities in Latin America and the former Soviet Union, and 60 other countries around the world. Using state of the art technology to provide education and vocational training, enabling people to make their own way in the world.

Parshat Ki Teitzei (2013)

Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

The rebellious son that gets stoned

What do we mean by saying someone is a rebellious child? What are we admitting about them and ourselves?

Stoning handFor being one of the most notorious sections of the Torah, this is really one of the least honestly discussed topics. I say honestly discussed because biblical critics harp on this verse as the hot button point of religious cruelty, it makes a nice strawman. While among most the faithful it’s only talked about ominously, a boogeyman’s topic with which we scare our children.

It is most certainly discussed among religious Jews, however in a purely philosophical way. Nonetheless, it’s so hard a topic to stomach that it’s almost never mentioned in our weekly divrei Torah as shul.

For most of us Jews, whether we are religious or not, its something we can’t take too seriously because we can’t imagine the stereotypical, overbearing Jewish mother letting her kid be killed for being a brat. It’s just unimaginable. It could never happen.

And this is pretty much the position that our rabbis take. Actually this is one of the mains laws set into place for constricting the application of execution for a rebel son; both the mother and the father have to agree, something that is quite unlikely. (see Talmud Bavli, Sanheidrin 71a) But it’s not just in the fine print that rabbis show reluctance to the use of capital punishment for a wayward child. They also explain for us why we even discuss this uncomfortable topic at all. On the same folio our text provides us some amazing statements:

“There never has been a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’, and never will be. Why then was the law written? That you may study it and receive reward. — This agrees with Rabbi Yehudah.

“Alternatively, you may say it will agree with Rabbi Shimon. For it has been taught: Rabbi Shimon said: Because one eats a tartemar of meat and drinks half a log of Italian wine, shall his father and mother have him stoned? But it never happened and never will happen. Why then was this law written? — That you may study it and receive reward.

“Rabbi Yonatan said: ‘I saw him and sat on his grave’.”

אינו נעשה בן סורר ומורה לא היה ולא עתיד להיות ולמה נכתב דרוש וקבל שכר כמאן כרבי יהודה איבעית

אימא רשמעון היא דתניא אמר רבי שמעון וכי מפני שאכל זה תרטימר בשר ושתה חצי לוג יין האיטלקי אביו ואמו מוציאין אותו לסקלו אלא לא היה ולא עתיד להיות ולמה נכתב דרוש וקבל שכר

אמר ריונתן אני ראיתיו וישבתי על קברו:

Talmud Bavli, Sanheidrin 71a

This gemara brings to attention the finer points surrounding the command for the “ben sorer u’moreh / the stubborn and rebellious son” which is presented here in this weeks parsha,

For the sake of time I will merely condense the details of the text for us. If a man has a son that is stubborn and rebellious, and he doesn’t listen to his father and mother, despite them both imposing harsh punishment of him (Deut. 21:18), then the parents are to take hold of him and drag him before the elders of his city (v.19). They are to say to the leaders: “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, and doesn’t listen to our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” (v.20) Then the men of the city stone the boy to death. (v.21)

Now I want to remind us, this law in the gemara is talked about in the context of the mother also agreeing to execute the son. The mother and the father both had to have warned and disciplined him, and now they both have to be in agreement as witnesses (the only two possible witnesses) of their son’s irredeemable nature. The mother has to be of equal status as the father in intellect, charm and authority in order for this to be carried out; or else a call for such a punishment is considered invalid. It is a biblical command that they take hold of their son (notice the use of the word our). Rabbi Yehudah almost seems to mock the idea that any mother could go along with this, even if the father was so inclined. This is too high of a bar to reach. It has and never will be possible to meet this standard, contends Rabbi Yehudah.

Our gemara points out another fact about our text, the son must actually be guilty of specific charges. He must have stolen from his parents (as revealed in the previous folio by the rabbis), and he must have consumed enough meat to feed a whole family and enough imported wine for an entire household in one sitting. Thus he is “zolel v’sovei / a glutton and a drunkard,” as our parsha reads. (Deut. 21:20) Rabbi Shimon contends that it is unimaginable that any two parents would agree to execute their son for eating and drinking too much. Rabbi Shimon also states that it has and never will happen.

That isn’t the only point that Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon agree on. Though they take the argument from different angles, they hit on the same point of truth. They both agree that this commandment is merely given for philosophical purposes, that we would receive the benefit of the study even if it can never be practiced. In fact, this is really the only logical approach for most of the rabbis of the Talmud. The ability for the Sanheidrin to prescribe execution was already long since taken from them under the occupation of Rome. Such a topic could only be theoretical in their world.

This is the apparent position of all the authoritative rabbis on the subject, except for Rabbi Yonatan. He is an older guy who has been around longer, so he pipes in with a statement that he not only saw a man executed when he was a boy, but he also sat on the man’s grave. He chimes in like a typical old guy with tall tales, and it doesn’t seem like anyone really took him too seriously. Clearly our rabbinic tradition does not favor capital punishment in this case, as seen by the rabbis popularly leaning toward restraint.

Though we are quite sure that of cases of Jewish capital punishment did take place, it was out of the ordinary and explained away as the product of extreme circumstances in that age. But even in review of those cases, our rabbis tend to hold a distaste for capital punishment. So notorious is this that even secular Jews often know this section of Talmud:

“Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: A Sanhedrin [court] that effects a capital punishment once in 70 years is branded a destructive tribunal.

“Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: Were we members of the Sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.

“[Thereupon] Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel remarked: If so, they [these rabbis] would multiply shedders of blood in Israel.”

סנהדרין ההורגת אחד בשבוע נקראת חובלנית רבי אלעזר בן עזריה אומר אחד לשבעים שנה

רבי טרפון ורבי עקיבא אומרים אילו היינו בסנהדרין לא נהרג אדם מעולם

רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר אף הן מרבין שופכי דמים בישראל:

Mishnah, Makkot 1:10

Here we have the rabbis saying that even if they had lived in an age in which the Sanheidrin had authority over life and death they would consider an execution, even if only once every century, to be too harsh. In fact we have two highly respected rabbis of our tradition saying that had they been members of the court in that age they would have not allowed it, they would have found a way to save the life of the person.

Of course we have the dissenting view also presented here by Rabbi Gamliel, that if society withholds execution then murder will increase among Israel. And this is really the only argument that one can logically have for the purpose of execution. However his view is greatly overshadowed by the rest of the rabbis who demand that the Sanheidrin – as the supreme court – in all their wisdom, the rabbis should find another way.

When we look at the Rashi for this text we find the mentality driving this discussion laid out for us in his commentary for the next verse:

“The juxtaposition of these passages [i.e., this one and that of the wayward and rebellious son] teaches [us] that if his father and mother spare him, he will eventually lead an evil lifestyle and commit [grave] sins for which he will be sentenced to death by the court. [Tanchuma 1]”

וכי יהיה באיש חטא משפט מות: סמיכות הפרשיות מגיד, שאם חסים עליו אביו ואמו, סוף שיצא לתרבות רעה ויעבור עבירות ויתחייב מיתה בבית דין:

Rashi on Deuteronomy 21:22

The reason given for executing one’s rebel son is because if he is allowed to continue to live and mature then he will eventually inherit everything. He will then exhaust the family inheritance to live an evil lifestyle, and grow to become so evil the courts will eventually execute him anyhow (the details of execution are discussed immediately after this text). So in theory, by killing your child you are preemptively saving the world from a terrible danger embodied in your child. You are preemptively executing your child for their crimes.

For as cruel as we feel this text is, having been to college I know very well that we are not the only people who lead these discussions. Even the secular do. It’s hard to get through the first few weeks of philosophy, logic or argumentation without being asked to consider something along these lines. It happens when a professor asks the question of the century, “Would you kill a baby Hitler if you knew what he was going to grow up to be?” It’s an uncomfortable question that irks people in a classroom, just as much as our approach does when we discuss it in the beit midrash (the house of learning).

The consideration of this question is appalling to many people, and that is really the point. To shock people to the point of asking where have we and our society gone wrong that we could produce such a type of person.

This discussion, when taken on by the rabbis, is much different from the flippant way we are taught about it by our parents and elders. Whether they are great scholars or not. We almost always hear this text misinterpreted by an angry parent saying that if we had lived in the days of Moses and misbehaved we would be stoned in front of the whole town. What a parent is not so subtly saying is that the Torah prescribes public punishment for embarrassing them with their bad behavior.

One who does this throw up their hands and makes their case to the public that they did everything they could. There are no saving virtues in their child, they are utterly incorrigible.

I would like all of us to ask ourselves an honest question. Would you kill your own child because you are scared of the lifestyle choices them make? Are you willing to expose your child to the harshness of the mobs because you don’t like their less than ideal life choices and tendencies? Our tradition forces us to ask this question when we consider this text.

This text challenges us regarding disavowing and causing the downfall of our children. It tell us that if we are going to write-off our children, we might as well hand them over to be stoned. At least be honest about what you are doing. Be honest about what you are implying about the moral character of your child.

Our rabbis stand firm, with the majority of them being of the opinion that even if a person could be found guilty of being “sorer u’moreh / stubborn and rebellious” it should be the responsibility of the rabbis to find every reason in order to suspend such a sentence. We need to find another way.

Disavowing and cutting off a child from the community often leaves them disoriented and vulnerable. Ejecting them for a community of love and support, throwing them to the wind, is a death sentence both physically and spiritually for our youth. Our tradition here challenges us to be patient with our mistaken youth, as most often their short comings are not really as bad as we make them out to be. Our tradition also challenges the leaders of Israel to find another way to show leniency and find redemptive qualities in each and every person.

Our rabbis actually show a great deal of understanding, something that is often missed by people are not familiar with their discourses. Most people not familiar with our sages would expect them to be harsh and unbending, strict and unwavering in a most firm application of the law. The sages instead turn the discussion around on us.

In conclusion I would like us to consider the view of the rabbis for a moment, how they viewed these rebel sons and their situation. We don’t need to dig too far into Talmudic text for this point. In fact it’s a very obvious statement made in a standard chumash, in a comment by Rashi that is made earlier on in this parsha.

Rashi make the point in his commentary for Deuteronomy 21:11 that it is not an accident that the command regarding the wayward son is juxtaposed with the text about the war wife (see Parshat Ki Teitzei 2011), the unloved wife and her disinherited son, etc. He suggest that a case of a son becoming “sorer u’moreh / stubborn and rebellious” is not just a spontaneous misfortune. Rashi is among our sages that looks at this chapter of the bible and sees the issues spoken of in the beginning of our parsha as being progressive wrong choices and attitudes of the parents, that have consequentially disenfranchised and caused the stubbornness of a son. The sages force us to look at the environment of the child and their experience, to take responsibility for what we have contributed to their apparent rebellious nature. Have we loved them enough? Have we done wrong by them? Did we make wrong choices that resulted in bitter consequences for them?

In this our sages take away the opportunity of zealots to look at this commandment and try pass off the (G-d forbid) abandonment of our children and youth as something praiseworthy. We aren’t washing our hands and relieving ourselves of responsibility by throwing our children to angry masses, clearing our names and honor. When we eject a child we are not merely saying they are utterly flawed, we instead are really revealing just how flawed we are in our own parenting and mentoring.

Interestingly, for as much as the rabbis object to the liberal use of execution and claim that they would have not allowed it, they never ultimately answer the question how they would prevent this. What would we have to do as parents and leaders in order to keep our children from going utterly wayward and to their destruction? I believe the question is left unanswered by the gemara because in each and every generation, and for every unique person, we need to find another way to reach the stubborn and the rebel soul. We need to find another way to retain them and keep them in love with Torah.

Parshat Shoftim (2013)

Parshat Shoftim
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

How does the Torah define perversion? When the law becomes deviant.

_img-sefer-gavelHow often do you hear politicians and lobbyist groups talking about uprooting perversion in our country? It is a chorus that is ringing all over the world as people begin to feel social and economic turmoil. People are once again being singled out by the state, being blamed for destroying the moral and cultural fabric of a nation. For many of us Jews, to see state-sponsored persecution abound is something traumatic after the experiences of the Shoah – the holocaust of World War II. How can we respond to this?

It is true that the Torah does charge us with a call for holiness and purity, and also to do away with foreign ways and false religion. But it also charges us with justice and righteousness. So important is this charge that the discussion of holiness and Temple worship is temporarily suspended in this book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) to talk about setting up the courts of justice in a simple three verse clause (see Deut. 16:18-20).

At all the gates court is to be held by shoftim – judges, magistrates – who are to hand down mishpat tzedek – just rulings, or righteous judgment as some people poetically say.

As previously discussed (see Parshat Shoftim 2011), we are told to not twist (or bend) judgment (lo-tateh mishpat), nor show favoritism; nor are we to take a bribe, as that blinds the eyes of the wise. Then it continues with the words, “v’sulaf divrei tzedek / and you shall not pervert words of justice.” (see Deut. 16:19)

From this perspective we need to think differently about who we call perverts, and whom we call bent or twisted.

I call this to our attention because we all know the next words of the Torah, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof / Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (see Deut. 16:20) One might ask themselves why we are told to radaf – to pursue, to run after justice and righteousness. The reason is obviously because justice if often hard to grasp, and can often elude us. Yes, we are to chase down justice. However it means something more still. To radaf means to seek something with persistence; hauntingly, annoyingly, to trouble someone until justice is met. Most of us are annoying people already, if only we would use it for a righteous purpose!

How can we do that? By opposing policies and regimes which pervert words of justice (v’sulaf divrei tzedek). By actively opposing those who warp the legal system which meant to set policy for the betterment of all people, and instead turn the law into an element of oppression. Those which exchange words of righteousness for words of persecution.

Now I want to remind us that this is all talked about in the context of not showing favoritism nor taking bribes. We are instead instructed to continue to pursue justice in the face of this. Why must we pursue it? For what reason do we have to chase after it?

It’s because sometimes justice is not something easily attained. Sometimes there is all kinds of bribery, or as in our society this most often displayed as a flagrant use of corporate influence. We are not to give in to this ourselves, but keep bringing up “divrei” – not just mere words; this also quite literally means “cases” or “matters” or “legal opinions.” We continue to annoyingly raise these issues in the public square and in the courts until justice is met.

I want to point out that this text does not just speak to the judges, it speaks to us all by stating “you shall not bend judgment.” Or as most often stated, “you shall not pervert judgment.” It calls us all to look at ourselves and ask ourselves; have we become distorted, deviated and twisted in our own sense of justice? Are we negatively using our influence to harm others, or are we actively pursuing true justice?

Parshat Eikev (2013)

Parshat Eikev
Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25

Does sin have a payoff? Is it possible to bribe G-d?

This weeks parsha is mostly a recount of what happened during the exodus journey, mostly focusing on how the people rebelled and did not ascend to the promised land when they were first commanded to. G-d renews His call at that time for them to take the land and posses it, being followed in the next parsha by harsh commands on how to settle it. But before we get there Moses explains who G-d is that we should obey Him:

“For Hashem your G-d

He is the G-d of gods

the Lord of lords

the great G-d,

the mighty

[and] awesome [One];

who does not show favoritism

nor does He take a bribe.”

| Ki Hashem Eloheichem

| hu Elohei haElohim

| v’Adonai ha-adonim

| haEl hagadol

| hagibor

| hanorah

| asher lo yisa panim

| v’lo yikach shochad

Deuteronomy 10:17

We see our G-d revealed as the most amazing and sublime G-d, above all forces and authorities in the universe. This first description shows His authority, strength and transcendence.

But then it is followed up by a more approachable description of G-d, one that is very noble and considerate. The parsha continues:

“He executes justice

for the orphan and the widow;

and loves the stranger

in giving him food and clothing.”

| Oseh mishpat

| yatom v’almanah;

| v’ohev ger

| lateit lo lechem v’simlach

Deuteronomy 10:18

G-d is presented as active in the world, involved. Not just approachable, but close to the most lowly of people. He is the ultimate power, who chooses to use that authority in order to enact righteous judgment for people in need. We also recognize that His commands (mitzvot) are for us to do likewise; to provide for and do justice for the needy.

If you were to ask yourself why G-d would be so concerned with the needs of the poor and destitute, Moses’ reason is provided as “because He doesn’t show favoritism.” All people, including the stranger – the ger, the immigrant or the convert – His concern is for them as much as any other person. He cares for all people, even those most often ignored; the orphan and the widow.

I find the description of G-d in this parsha to be both beautiful and inspiring. The transcendence of the G-d of all creation is tempered by a description of a tenderly eminent G-d. Our G-d is the G-d of justice and all glory.

Though if we look at the first part of the description we will see there is one point about this high character of our G-d that looks at bit odd at first, if we consider it. If G-d is so superior, surpassing human limitations and weaknesses; how does it says of Him, “v’lo yikach shochad / and He doesn’t accept bribes,”?

The perplexity is that if we consider G-d, He isn’t just morally above accepting a monetary bribe, but He is also incorporeal and therefore unable to engage in accepting bribery. Besides, He is the maker of all the universe. There is nothing in the entire world that does not belong to Him, so what can we bribe Him with?

coins on a weighing scaleIs it possible for us to try to bribe G-d and if so, what would that look like?

The Sifrei (a rabbinic commentary on Numbers and Deuteronomy)  gives us one of the most interesting statements to consider: “The merits a person earns are never exchanged for transgressions, and transgressions are never exchanged for merits.” (Sifrei of Deuteronomy 33:6)

Our Sages come to the conclusion that bribery is merely an exchange in justice for something else of value. And the only thing that G-d really values is how we act in merit of His Torah and His charge for justice.

Our great rabbis are not saying much about the nature of G-d here, but a lot about us as people. Sometimes in life we desire something from G-d that we don’ necessarily deserve, so we begin to make wild vows and oaths to do great mitzvot if G-d will just change the situation regarding something. That too is bribery.

But the Sifrei instead focuses on an even more vile type of bribery yet that some people might have in mind. Of course we can’t bribe G-d with money, that does not carry on into the next world. The only thing that does is our good deeds, the merit we accumulate in doing mitzvot. Some people believe because they have done a lot of good deeds in their life so they have enough stored up to exchange for an aveirah – a sin, a moral failure, a crime or offense. As far as they see it, when they put their deeds of mixed merit, both good and bad, on the line to be weighed they believe the scales will tilt in their favor. As far as they figure, they can “afford” to slip up morally this time.

This is a wrong way of looking at life and the nature of morality. So now here Moses is making a statement against such a mentality, our good deeds cannot be used to pay off G-d in order to turn a blind eye towards an aveirah. Each deed we do in life stands on its own. Doing mitvot merits us rewards and benefit, and doing an aveirah brings judgment upon us. For each and every deed we will get our reward or punishment for it, but one deed does not cancel out another.

Another way of looking at this lesson is, we cannot look at our good deeds as patches on the moral fabric of our lives. Each deed we do is another stitch and weave in to the fabric our existence. Doing an aveirah doesn’t just leave us tattered, it warps the shape of our existence and is not so easily removed. This is why our sages warn us:

“Ben Azzai said: Run to perform even a ‘minor’ mitzvah, and flee from sin; for one mitzvah results in another mitzvah, and an aveirah results in another aveirah.

הוי רץ למצווה קלה כבחמורה ובורח מן העבירה, שמצווה גוררת מצווה ועבירה גוררת עבירה ששכר מצווה מצווה ושכר עבירה עבירה.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 4:2

Related articles:

Parshat Va’etchanan (2013)

Parshat Va’etchanan
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

The Hagabah (The Torah Lifting) as an Example of Diverse Customs

Ashkenazi HagbahI love to study the various traditions of our Jewish culture. I have various cultural influences in my life, and a multitude of religious influences in my education. I have the benefit of being connected through history and regional custom to the Sephardic tradition (Spanish and Mediterranean Jewry). However, I have spent most of my life in the context of the Ashkenazic tradition (Central and Eastern European Jewry) when attending services. The latter is the most represented in America. Even then I have had the luxury of a middle ground, connecting myself to the path of Chassidut which infuses Sephardic liturgical influence into the Ashkenazic minhag (custom). My experiences have given me the best of both worlds.

This has had some benefit when I work with liturgy, which is my main occupation. I know just enough about the traditions to be able to look for the variances in a text to identify its custom and influences right away. Many times I have friends come to me and ask me to identify a prayerbook for them, in order to help them decided if one works best for their custom and philosophy. The variances in tradition are not all aesthetic.

I am reminded of the diversity in our tradition by this weeks parsha, as it reveals a phrase that all Jews of every tradition will recognize:

“This is the Torah

which Moses placed

before the children of Israel.”

| Z’ot haTorah

| asher sam Moshe

| lifnei b’nei Yisra’el.

Deuteronomy 4:44

No matter what custom you are from, this is how we respond to the Torah being raised, during the hagbah (הגבה: meaning “to be lifted up.”). This is the universal custom for responding to the people witnessing the words of the Torah displayed.

I bring our attention to this element of our tradition because it is universally recognized, and because of it best demonstrates the diversity there is in the Jewish tradition. We all know this part of the service because the Torah reading is the central focus of our festival and sabbath days. The whole ceremony and adornment surrounding the Torah is so awe-inspiring that it catches everyone’s attention.

If I asked a group of Jews from all over the world how to respond to the hagbah, everyone would be in agreement. This is how we respond, by quoting this verse from our parsha; “Zot haTorah / This is the Torah…” Everyone can shake their hand in agreement. But if I were to ask specific questions about the process we begin to see divergences that are not known to others.

The first and obvious divergence I see when I consider a text is in the placement of this verse during the Seder Kriyat haTorah – the Order of the Torah Reading. If I asked each person in a diverse assembly of Jews to look up and show me in their siddur where this recitation of this verse is placed, we would see that not everyone’s text is the same. Some will find it placed before the reading, other will find this statement after the reading of the Sefer Torah – the Torah Scroll.

Most of us know the latter method, that after the Torah is read it is raised and as all the people witness the text held high and we say “Zot haTorah…” This method most normative to us North Americans and to Europeans, as this is the tradition of Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe who predominately inhabit these lands. However, in the Sephardic tradition of Spain and the Levant it is said before. Furthermore in each tradition it may be followed by different verses, as statements about each community’s hopes they hold in this Torah.

I downplay the aesthetic differences, but those should not be discounted. There are also unique ways that accustom the raising as well. This is made most obvious when we see the Torah scrolls revealed.

In the Ashkenazic tradition the scrolls are brought out finely dressed and adorned, rolled around wooden poles (customarily refereed to as eitzei chaim – trees of life); in this custom the Torah is laid down and referenced by turning these rolling handles, and likewise lifted by grasping hold from there.

In the Sephardic-Mizrahi tradition common to the middle-east the Torah scrolls are instead kept in a self-contained mini-ark called a tik (תיק; Hebrew meaning something like “a portfolio” or a “file folder”), which is more like a small travel bureau. When the Torah is lifted, this whole adorned chest is raised high. Then the reading is done while the text is read standing upright, turned by its self-contained rollers.

The Sephardic/Mizrahi Torah in a Tik, preparing for lifting.

A Sephardic/Mizrahi Torah in a Tik, preparing for lifting at the Kotel

Most of you who visit Israel are probably used to seeing a bit more diversity in custom, and are more accustomed to seeing people of many backgrounds using a Torah Tik. Some might think it a bit exotic, but it is not looked at oddly because we respect that it is an authentic regional custom to the Middle-East thus we embrace it. In fact deferring to the Sephardic custom is not just for regional considerations, but also because the Sephardi custom can often best represents the historic practice.

This might be hard for some people to accept, but here as with many cases the Sephardic tradition predates the Ashkenazic tradition that we are all so familiar with. Our certainty in part is because of the details related to the codification of Jewish law in the Sephardic tradition which predates that of the Ashkenazim (examples: the Rambam with the Mishneh Torah, The Maran with the Shulchan Aruch). Secondly, uncontested voices in the Ashkenazi tradition tell us this is so. None other than the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer of Lithuania, 18th century), the eminent voice of Litvak tradition, points out to us that aspects of the Sephardi tradition predate the others. The GR”A points to an example of this being the lifting of the Torah; it originally came first, he contends. (see Biur Hagra; citing Shulchan Aruch; 134:2)

For a brief moment I would like us to look at the actual text of the Shulchan Aruch, presented in the voice of the Maran Yosef Karo who is the primary author. It sheds light on the original maneuvers in this tradition, and reveals the reasoning behind it:

“[At the] appearance of the face

of the writing of the Sefer Torah

to the people,

to the left and right,

and back around he turns;

This is followed by a command

that each man and women

are to see the writing and bow

and says ‘This is the Torah…’ (Deut. 4:44)

[and] ‘The Torah of Hashem is pure…’ (Ps. 19:7)”

מראה פני |

כתיבת ספר תורה |

לעם |

העומדים לימינו |

ולשמאלו ומחזירו לפניו |

ולאחריו שמצוה |

על כל אנשים ונשים |

לראות הכתב ולכרוע |

ולומר וזאת התורה וגו‘ |

תורת התמימה וגו‘. |

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 134:2

The Maran; Rabbi Yosef Karo, Tzfat, Israel in 1563

This is most definitely understood to happen before the reading, further attested to by the fact that the Rem”a – Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Kraków, Poland; who provided the Ashkenazi glosses to the text in the year 1578 – he explicitly goes out of his way to contrast that they hagbah after and not before. And thus Torah is lifted high, so that all the people can see the writing.

If we consider the origins of the tradition, it might seem self-explanatory why we would raise this holy text before it is read. It would be logical to conclude  that since we revere the text and it’s message we want to see it for ourselves, to attest that what is being said is true.

Though this might seem like a reasonable answer, this is not the only purpose of the hagbah. Another purpose is to fulfill the honor of reading the text. Though there is great honor given to a baal koreh – a designated Torah reader for the service – there is also much honor given to each person who actually reads along with the leining (the chanting) of the Torah. In order to extend this honor to all the congregation, to be partners in this reading of the Torah, we reveal the text to be seen by each congregant.

Furthermore, our tradition also can be said to hold great value in seeing the text, independent from the command to read it. In yet another gloss to the Shulchan Aruch, the Magen Avraham tell us: “When one sees the letters, the holiness of the words radiate and impart holiness to the individual.” (Magen Avraham, Rabbi Avraham Abele Gombiner, 17th century, Poland; 134:3)

The Magen Avraham seems to suggest that by just seeing the words of the holy Torah, in all their splendor as they stream over the parchment, this experience alone is enough to mystically impart holiness and light to the individual. This is true for all persons, men or women, old or young, and presumably literate or illiterate. Though surely the words reverberate more with an individual if they are able to intone them, nonetheless one that merely peers upon the words also gleans spiritual strength and inspiration.

Modern Liturgical Considerations

If we look at the halacha (the law) regarding the hagbah (the lifting) as presented in the Shulchan Aruch (also known as The Code of Jewish Law) we see that all major traditions have drifted in some respects. This is most obvious when we see that there is a second verse presumably offered for recitation after the lifting and reciting “Zot haTorah.” I know of no tradition that still maintains the formula of following this up with the words, “The Torah of Hashem is perfect…” (Psalms 19:7)

Today when Zot haTorah is followed up with another pairing verse we generally see two major variations, ones that also divide alone the lines of Sephardic and Ashkenazi tradition.

The Ashkenazi tradition continues with the biblical words, “Al pi Hashem b’yad Moshe / At the command of Hashem, by the hand of Moses.” (Numbers 9:23)

The Sephardi tradition most often continues with the biblical words, “Torah tziva lanu Moshe morasha hekilat Yaakov / The Torah, which Moses commanded us, [it is] a heritage for the congregation of Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 33:4)

I must point out that not one tradition is necessarily more authentic than the other in this case. If we look at the siddurim (prayerbooks) from the period shortly after the codification of the Shulchan Aruch we will see that these two traditions are well documented by each community therein.

One of the interesting questions is why each community chose these specific verses. Is there a philosophical meaning behind this?

I think there most certainly is a regional religious influence that had some swaying on why each tradition chose these verses. It all appears, in my understanding, to be focused around a cultural trend in Europe at the time to defend Biblical Inerrancy. The European Age of the Enlightenment introduced the first revolutionary stokes of biblical criticism for the greater continent. As this period was in full swing in Europe, it seems quite reasonable that the rabbis objected to biblical criticism with a conservative response. They felt it incumbent upon them to emphasize that this is the actual Torah written by the hand of Moses.

Though Jews of the region already held the stigma of being blasphemers, they certainly didn’t need the problems of being accused of the additional crimes of heresy and doubt by the Christians. Nor did Jewish leaders there want this “Enlightenment” to seemingly creep in and blind the eyes of their students to the Torah message.

However, in Spain in the deep south, the wheels of biblical criticism were already set into motion by such greats as Ibn Ezra in the 12th century. I don’t wish to exaggerate their critique, as Ibn Ezra did not call the Torah a mere work of man but he did suggest that parts of it were indeed written in by Yehoshuah (Joshua, the Judge) upon the demise of Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) as his successor. This was not considered heretical. It is well accepted that Mosaic tradition passes from person to person, master to student. It never was part of the mentality of the time to suggest that every word and letter was preserved without error, from the hand of Moses alone. Instead it was stated that these words (both oral and written) are a heritage stemming back to the teachings of Moses. Sure there are differences and oddities, but instead of ignoring them we look at them nice and hard to understand why they are so and what lesson they have. This is how we deal with the reality of textual variance in our Mesoretic tradition. And upon this Sephardim choose to emphasize this sense of heritage.

I am not suggesting that there has been a tendency towards biblical criticism more prevalent within the Sephardic culture (this would not be true, Sephardic culture is often theologically more traditional), but what I am suggesting is that there was no great need to influence the liturgy in  direct opposition to the threat of an emerging Enlightenment school of thought.

Though I believe that the Torah is inspired by G-d, I must deal with the reality of textual criticism. I do not think that it is possible for me to be effective in talking Torah with a diverse group of people without exposing myself to textual criticism. It’s not something I can or want to avoid.

In fact I feel a great need to reach out further to my friends that feel iffy about the Torah, and help them explore how they relate to it. Do they really consider it to be of divine origin, or is it just a good idea passed down the ages? For those people who are not so brave enough to yet say, “This is the Torah by the hand of Moses…” I contend that there is another awesome and respectful response one can make when witnessing our Torah, “The Torah which Moses commanded us is a heritage…” One can still respond with awe to the Torah and proclaim with honesty that they respect this Torah, not because they are a fundamentalist, but because it is their heritage. We don’t need to recreate a new text that is more honest for progressive sensibilities, it already exists enshrined in a variant tradition waiting to be revived.

Parshat Devarim (2013)

Parshat Devarim (2013)
Deuteronomy 1 – 3:22

The Seventy Faces and the Seventy Tongues of the Torah

Torah LearningThis week I would like us to ask ourselves a question: Does it matter what language we use when communicating? And even more precisely: Does it matter the type of language we use to communicate a message? This week’s parsha is titled “Devarim / words.” Devarim can also be understood to mean “sayings” or even as “one’s opinions.” It is so titled because Moses is giving us a long speech in order to recount the message of the Torah. We are going to look at how Moses retold this Torah message for the masses of Israelites, all of whom came to hear his final words of advice for them as offered in this book of Deuteronomy.

We look to his words because despite Moses’ objections that he was a man without a voice, he is one of the greatest examples of communicating we have to draw from in our tradition. All Torah observant people seek to follow the example of Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher), as generally his actions are something worth emulating.

We will pick up with this weeks parsha in verse five:

“On that side of the Jordan,

in the land of Moab,

Moses began to

explain the Torah,


| Be’ever haYarden

| be’eretz Mo’av

| ho’il Moshe

| be’er et-hatorah hazot

| lemor…

Deuteronomy 1:5

Moses in this parsha begins to repeat all the teachings and history previously given. However this time he is going to “be’er” the Torah, he is going to explain it to us; he is going to enlighten us regarding the meaning of his teachings. He is going to clarify the meaning of the Torah. How does he go about this?

Rashi, in his commentary for this text, makes an interesting notation regarding this:

Explain the Torah:

in seventy languages (Heb.lishon)

he explained it to them.

באר את התורה: |

בשבעים לשון |

פירשה להם: |

Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:5

This small little reference can bring up so many questions for us. Did Moses really speak in seventy languages to the people of Israel, interpreting the Torah for them in these many tongues? If so, why would he need to speak to them in so many languages anyway? And why does it count seventy?

Some of these questions can be easily swept aside when we consider the significance of the number seventy. We all recognize that the number seven is a significant number. It is a number that represents completion and wholeness. There are seven days in a week, seven hints at totality and entirety. Seventy is also a number that hints at these same concepts, just on a much higher level. Seventy is an almost exaggerative number that seems to suggest the same form of comprehensiveness and broadness as seven, just much more universal and all-inclusive.

I believe it is obvious to us all that the use of the number seventy is to suggest a mystical level of comprehensiveness when we consider where else we have seen the number seventy mentioned elsewhere in our tradition.

The first time we are asked to consider the number seventy is early on in Genesis. In the tenth chapter of Genesis the world is going to broken down into three supposed ethnicities; that of Shem, Yafet and Cham; each group named after a son of Noah who they are believed to be derived from. Of these three groups we read of seventy sons being born from these children of Noah. Bnei Noach (“Sons of Noah”) and seventy are thus synonymous in our tradition with the concept of all mankind, the entirety of humanity. Not everyone is Semite (a descent of Shem), and most certainly not everyone is a descendant of Avraham Avinu (“Abraham our Father”); however, we are all children of Noah.

Later on in this book of Deuteronomy we will also see the number seventy raised again by our tradition. In Deuteronomy chapter 27 we will see that G-d commands the people to take plastered stones and as we are told, “On the stones you shall write the words of the Torah well clarified.” There Rashi also makes the note for explaining the words “well clarified” with interjecting the point, “In seventy languages.” (see Rashi for Deut. 27:8) Now in this instance we understand why this is done, these stones are to be set up as a monument with the words of the Torah explained in all the presumed languages of the world, standing as testimony to all the nations of the redemption of Israel. Though the gentile nations did not accept this Torah, these monuments still also stood for them to have the ability to glean spiritual truth from, if they were willing to approach them. (see Talmud Bavli, Sotah 32a; Midrash Rabba)

But Rashi and our sages are not just of the opinion that this is a statement to the world of G-d’s will for His nation of Israel. They suggest that explaining the Torah in seventy tongues was also intended to help clarify the meaning for the Israelites themselves. To understand why this is also a primary objective of this interpretation, we need to look back to the Rashi for our primary verse. Let’s get back to the starts with Deuteronomy 1:5. Notice that when Rashi explains this interpretation he does not call it a “translation.” No, Rashi instead tells us that Moses uses 70 tongues to “persha lahem,” in order to “explain it to them.” He was interpreting, not necessarily translating for them. It wasn’t merely exported into another language in order to hold it over the heads of the various nations. Instead it was most primarily translated into 70 different forms of speech in order to help interpret it for the Israelites’ benefit.

It is true that the Israelites have always tended to speak more than one language, often a Hebraicized variant of the local language. But even if we were to suggest that what is meant by “interpretation” actually means “translation” instead, it seems unlikely that there were more than 70 different dialects of Hebrew language. Surely there weren’t so many dialects that it necessitated Moses translating it into all these tongues for the people to comprehend the message.

This is supported by our rabbis. I will quickly call our attention to “HaKetav VeHaKabbala” (written by Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, in 1865):

“LISHON. Rashi says, our Rabbis say, ‘He explained it to them in seventy languages,’ though this does not indicate in the languages of other nations. For what use would this be for an Israelite? Rather, it is the way of the Sages to refer to the intent of a statement by the term lishon… and so here, with the ‘seventy languages,’ it means ‘seventy intended meanings,’ similar to the statement of the Rabbis elsewhere, ‘shivim panim laTorah / there are seventy facets (Lit. faces) to the Torah’ – which refers to the inner intended meanings of the Torah, asides from the initial, simple meaning.”

So what is the meaning of these seventy tongues? Our sages teach us that a lishon is not just a type of language, it is actually a form of speech. A lishon is not just a class of speech, but it is also a mode of speech (example: lishon hara; an evil tongue, understood as symbolic of evil speech). The term lishon can apply to the way we say something, not just the dialect we use.

All of us know of the infamous “seventy meanings of interpretation,” as revealed to us in the Midrash. (see Midrash Rabba 13:15) Our religion, at its very core, teaches that we need to be open to more than one interpretation of the text. There are many facets to the Torah, there are many ways that we can look upon the light of this revelation. And from each of our points of view the text can reveal something different, and this is completely acceptable in our tradition. We are asked to look at the text more broadly, and with the input of many suggested views in order to have a more expansive view of the scriptures. We are encouraged to scratch beyond the surface to find new truths each time we learn Torah, a challenge most of us take very seriously. This tradition of interpretation is said to begin with Moses himself, and it continues on with us to this very day.

But here in this text the Torah challenges us even further yet. The Torah does not just ask us to find 70 meanings to pass on. No, instead our rabbinic commentaries reveal that we should also seek out 70 ways of communicating the message of Torah. Just as every individual has unique input to communicate as a contribution to our understanding of Torah, likewise each person requires the message of Torah communicated to them in a way that they can best understand.

As we embark on our journey through this book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) this year, I hope that we will look at these words with fresh eyes again. Not just to find new and hidden truths, but to also find new ways to communicate the old truths more meaningfully for people. This is the way we follow the example of Moses in helping the Torah speak to people, in a language they understand.

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