Nearing The End

Wow! We are about to complete the yearly cycle of reading the entire Five Books of Moses, The Torah, with only 2 more parshiot (portions) until we get to the very end of the scroll. But between now and the very last verses of the Torah, there are a bunch of holidays — Rosh HaShanah (the New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of At-One-Ment or Atonement), and the festival of Sukkot (the Harvest Days celebrated in temporary huts called “sukkot“). So how does the Torah reading this Shabbat illuminate the days of awe, shortly upon us?

As if to signal we are close to the end of the reading cycle, this week we read two parshiot called “Nitzavim” (Standing) and “Vayelekh” (And He Went Out). Let’s begin with Nitzavim by looking at the G-dcast video:

The storyteller focuses on the speech Moshe/Moses gives to the Children of Israel on the last day of his life, and on the deals they are offered — what will happen to them (the curses that we read about last week, and this week in abbreviated form) if they don’t obey the mitzvot (commandments), and what they will get (the blessings) if they do manage to stay true to the commandments. It’s a very short parasha (portion), which is probably why it is so easily paired with the following one (Vayelekh).

However, even though it is short, it has several of my favorite passages in all of Torah. One comes at the opening of the parasha, and here is the most powerful excerpt:

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God….I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day (Deuteronomy 29, verses 9-14).

Here is why these verses resonate so strongly:

  1. They are written in the present tense. Nitzavim — “you are standing.” It makes me feel as though I’m meant to be included in those standing there, listening to the tail end of Moshe’s long speech that has been going on for what seems like weeks.
  2. The statement includes the high officials and the common day laborers — and the women, and the children, and even the strangers. Again, this makes me feel included. As a woman, there are plenty of times that the words of Torah make me feel excluded; here, women, as a class of people, are explicitly included.
  3. These verses reference people who are “not here with us this day.” I love the fact that the Torah realizes that there are those who are not yet co-signers to the covenant, those who haven’t joined the Jewish people….but there is room for them to be part of the covenant, if they choose, and they too are standing with us, listening to the words called out by our leader and greatest prophet.

Another passage that has entered my heart and consciousness is from chapter 30 verses 11-14:

Surely, this instruction [commandment] which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea…No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to observe it.

How completely affirming this statement is — that nothing that God commands is too hard for you; it isn’t impossible — you can do it.

And finally, a few verses later, verse 19:

Choose life — if you and your offspring would live — by loving the Lord your God, heeding the commandments…

What speaks to me so powerfully here?

  1. I am being told in no uncertain terms that I can do what is being asked of me. It isn’t too onerous, it is possible to lead a life of mitzvot (commandments), observing a code of proper conduct in all things.
  2. These injunctions are in my own mouth and heart, so to speak. They are not inscrutable, and in fact the opposite is true — they are intuitive, I can “own” them, and, in some sense, they already reside in me.
  3. Choose life: one of the best pieces of advice that anyone could give. And here, the Holy One of Creation is telling us, through Moshe: choose to do what is life-affirming, choose the path of blessings, choose the way that will make your life meaningful and will make your days count. In two words, we get a wisdom-infused motto that works on so many levels. Choose life! L’chayim!!

The second parasha we read is Vayelekh (“And He Went”); it begins in , Deuteronomy 31:2, by letting us hear Moshe speaking very personally: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer be active…”

Mayim Bialik focuses on what is commonly known as the 613th commandment, which is an interpretation of verse 19 of chapter 31, that each Israelite is to put the “poem” which is Torah into his or her own mouth. She asks what it means for each of us to write a Torah, or even more significantly, what it means to “be a Torah.” While this absolutely deserves considerable attention, I would like to take a quick look instead at the verses about how Moshe is asked to prepare for his death. In verse 14 he is told by God: “…the time is drawing near for you to die.” You can read more about how Moshes gets ready to die.

Moshe’s demise is both heartbreaking and instructive. This is the very time of year, when summer days wane and bleed into fall, as the liturgy of the High Holy Days reminds us, that our lives are finite, our days are numbered. Facing our own mortality naturally brings fear and trepidation, kind of like what the Israelites might have felt about crossing over the Jordan without their leader. We can read these lines metaphorically: one day we will “cross over” a river (the river of life) into a land unknown. And what does God tell us? “…God will be with you, God will not fail you nor forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed” (chapter 31 verse 8). Does this remind you of a song by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav?

The entire world is just a narrow bridge, and the essence is not to be afraid at all.
Kol Ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od v’ha-ikar lo l’fahchayd klal.

Coming In… and the Planet?

Last week, we were “going out” (“Ki Tetzei“) and this week, we are “coming in.” In the first words of this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo (“When You come In [to the land of Israel]“), we find Moses/Moshe continuing his long valedictory address to the people. He wants to cover all bases, since he isn’t coming into the land with them. This is also the parasha that, according to Professor Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, “contains some of the highest highs and lowest lows in the entire Torah — or in any other work of literature, for that matter”.

And to what is Prof. Eisen specifically referring? To the litany of blessings and curses found in Ki Tavo. Here Moshe spells out exactly how the Israelites will be blessed if they follow the commandments, as well as the many horrific curses falling on them if they fail to obey God’s laws.

Our G-dcast storytellers this week understand these blessings and curses as basic building blocks of a committed, long term, mutual relationship. They liken the relationship between God and the People of Israel to a marriage between a husband and a wife, who promise many things to each other as they enter their covenantal relationship. In fact, they point out, the relationship between God and Israel is called a brit — a covenant, a mutually binding agreement.

Understanding the blessings and the curses in this way is certainly one way to look at our parasha.

The parasha begins with a very special ceremony in which each male Israelite is commanded to bring some of every first fruit of his harvest to the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem, in the springtime of the year, and give it to the priest while reciting a formulaic acknowledgment concerning his ability to harvest abundantly in the land promised to him by God. In Deuteronomy chapter 26, beginning with verse 5 and continuing for several verses, the Israelite is told to narrate his history, starting with the words, “My father was a wandering Aramean.”

Does this phrase sound familiar to you? It certainly might, because the rabbis of the Talmudic times chose these very same verses to include in our Passover Haggadah. It is a central part of the Magid (Telling) section of the Haggadah, the story narrative; in just a few verses, we sum up our relationship to God, the Land, and the bounty of the fruits and richness of the soil with which we have been blessed. We say these words every year around the Passover seder table, as we remember our deliverance from bondage to freedom, from being slaves to being free people. Strange, isn’t it, that we are actually reciting the same script that Moshe tells the Israelites to say when they make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem over 2000 years ago?

By the end of chapter 27, we are in the dark land of the curses, which really fill us with dread; they are so shockingly terrible that sometimes the person reading from that section of the Torah chants them in a whisper rather than aloud.

Here I would like to return to Prof. Eisen’s commentary on Ki Tavo. If you have been reading my Torah blogs, you may remember that several weeks ago I mentioned the frightening phenomena of the honeybee colony collapse. I found a persuasive connection between what the Torah has to say about how we conduct our agricultural responsibilities, and the blessings of the land in bearing fruit and giving us everything we need. When we abuse the land, we are told that it will not bring forth food or sustenance.

In this week’s parasha we are confronted and even shocked with horrific curses. Prof. Eisen uses this as an opportunity to alert us to the result of failing in our roles as stewards of our planet. It is as if the devastating curses are already almost upon us. This year, he reads:

the verses of curse differently, knowing that our generation faces the clear and present danger that we will exhaust the bounty of Planet Earth (ha’aretz, in the other meaning of the word). I used to be among those who believed that doomsayers like Al Gore were indulging in hyperbole. No more. I now walk around shaken by the conviction that the curses that threaten us as a consequence of global warming will surely come to pass, unless humanity acts quickly and decisively to prevent them. Those curses will, without doubt, be more far-reaching than the worst that Deuteronomy imagined, and — unlike the latter — will likely prove irreparable.

We are entering the last few weeks leading up to Rosh HaShanah, the new year of 5774. I’m thinking that while it may not be up to each of us as individuals to know the answers to this greatest challenge to humankind, it is up to each of us to answer these questions as they pertain to us personally:

  • What will I do to change my own behavior vis-a-vis climate change?
  • Will I consume less?
  • Will I drive less and use my bike more?
  • Will I stop using the air conditioner when it is hot?
  • Will I stop eating animals?
  • Will I hang my clothes to dry in the sun instead of using the dryer?
  • Will I stop buying plastic bottles of water which fill up landfills and drink from the tap instead?
  • What will I do to bring blessings and not curses into the lives of all those living now, and those coming in the next generations?

We all like to think about changes as one year ends and a new one begins. For me, there is nothing more important than thinking, talking with friends and family, and deciding on one behavior change to help avert the curses and allow us to lead lives of blessing.

Something Doesn’t Make Sense…

As the storyteller (and others) point out, this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei (“When You Go Out”), has more commandments (mitzvot) than any other parasha in the entire Five Books of Moses. We are smack dab in the middle of the book of D’varim (Deuteronomy), the last discourse of Moshe/Moses as he prepares the Children of Israel to cross over into the Promised Land, without him. As we have mentioned in other posts, Deuteronomy is substantively different from the other four books of the Torah, using different language, and serving as a review of the history that began way back at the beginning of the book of Sh’mot (Exodus). So, what are these 70 mitzvot, and what is a mitzvah anyway?

The mitzvot here are all over the map. However, we might notice that these laws seem to have to do with personal behavior and personal agency rather than being mitzvot directed towards public officials (judges, priests, prophets, and kings). They are also not commandments directed towards the nation as a whole, but towards each individual.

In common American Jewish parlance, sometimes mitzvah is translated as “good deed.” The actual derivation of the word comes from the root “command” and implies that in order for something to be a mitzvah, it needs to come from an authority doing the commanding. It is almost like saying that without a commander, a mitzvah doesn’t exist.

There are many mitzvot presented this week, many of which bear looking at in some depth, such as Deuteronomy 21:10-14. How is taking captive a beautiful woman relevant to us today in 21st century America? Why would we take this mitzvah seriously? Maybe a hint about these laws comes from chapter 21, verses 15 and 16. Nowadays, a man may not have two wives simultaneously, but he might very well have two wives serially (because of death or divorce) and may have children from his marriage with each wife. How is his property to be passed on? The Torah insists that he be scrupulous about not playing favorites and giving the majority of his wealth to the son of the beloved wife, and must follow the laws of primogeniture — the first born son, even of the “hated” wife, must inherit the double portion.

Within just a few verses, we get laws relating to family life and choices: whom to marry, which son gets to inherit, etc. Maybe these mitzvot are linked by addressing the small, everyday issues that arise, the kinds of challenges each of us face if we live with others, which means most of us. How to be fair to enemies, how to react when you find something valuable that doesn’t belong to you, how to treat your animals with compassion, what building codes are needed in order to avoid accidental deaths, etc.

But, interspersed with these ethical mitzvot are also a bunch of mitzvot that make no sense. Traditional Torah commentators like to derive lessons from the way verses are juxtaposed; they figure that the editors are trying to teach us something from the proximity of the various mitzvot, the ones that make sense and the inscrutable ones.

For example, let’s take a closer look at chapter 22, verses 9-12:

  • In verse 9 there is a mitzvah about not planting a vineyard with a second kind of seed — now why would this be the case? Can you think of any reason? Perhaps one seed will make the other less viable? In any case, it is forbidden.
  • On to verse 10: this is the one about not plowing with an ox and a donkey yoked together; and our storyteller highlights this in his discussion of the treatment of animals, showing that it is of utmost importance that we treat our animals in a humane and compassionate way. A donkey would be placed under an unfair burden if harnessed next to a much bigger and more powerful ox, and so this mitzvah makes ethical sense.
  • And then, verse 11: here we are commanded not to mix wool and linen in a woven fabric (called “shatnez“) and again we are puzzled, scratching our heads and wondering “why is this a commandment of God?”
  • And finally, verse 12: putting tassels on the corners of our garments. Again, why? (The first time we read this mitzvah, back in Numbers 15:37-41, we are given a reason: the tassels will serve as reminders to walk in the ways of God and not to stray.) Here it is just an injunction, not a fashion statement, like tassels on loafers.
    • Four verses and only one makes obvious sense — the others seem capricious. So we need to ask ourselves: can we learn something about the opaque verses from the verse that instructs us to have compassion on the smaller and weaker of the two animals harnessed to the plow?

      The G-dcast storyteller spends considerable time on the mitzvah described in chapter 22 verses 6-7: how one must handle a mother bird and her eggs in a nest. We are enjoined to send the mother bird away, and only then to take the eggs, allowing the mother to continue to produce eggs in the future. And if you observe this commandment, “you will fare well and have a long life.” The link between sending away the mother bird and having a long life is nicely unpacked in the G-dcast video. This is precisely the way we are supposed to read these laws. How does the link between two disparate parts work? Sending away mother bird and meriting long life‚Ķwhat is the connection?

      At the very end of the parasha we are reminded of our mortal enemy, the nation of Amalek, said to be somehow connected to every evil despot who tried to kill the Jewish people throughout history (from Haman to Hitler). Look at the very last words of the parasha, “blot out the memory of Amalek‚Ķdo not forget” (Chapter 25, verses 17-19). OK, I think I understand what it means to “blot out the memory.” Doesn’t it mean to forget? To delete, obliterate, erase, remove? If so, then what do you make of the last phrase, “do not forget!”

      Lots to puzzle over in this week’s parasha with 70 different mitzvot. Here’s something to try: make a list of all of the mitzvot that make sense to you, and a second list of all of the ones that don’t, and then see if you can find any links between the two sets.

See the Blessings (and Curse)

To think about as you read:

  • When do you clearly see and acknowledge the blessings in your life?
  • What do you think it means to be cursed?
  • What tempts you away from doing the right thing?

Re’eh” — “See”! The Torah portion this week opens with this command by the God of Israel to “see” — see the blessing and the curse that are set before them (Deuteronomy 11:26-27). Last week, the text commanded the Israelites to “Hear” — “Sh’ma“! This week continues last week’s long valedictory discourse, the going-away speech, the very last words of advice that Moshe/Moses wants to transmit as his flock is poised at the River Jordan, about to cross over into the Promised Land, knowing that he will neither guide nor accompany them any longer.

And what does he say in this one pithy little statement? “See what is before you” — both the category he calls blessing and the category he calls curse. Even if we ignored the rest of the verses in this parasha filled with laws that some Jews follow to this day, we could have a pretty significant conversation about what it means to see blessings and curses in one’s life.

First, an overview:

The storyteller sings a ditty that reviews the parts of this parasha highlighting blessings and curses, and telling us that there will be a helping hand to guide the Israelites in their sojourn in Canaan, despite temptations in their paths. What is not covered in the song are some of the laws that were picked up by the rabbis of the Talmud, and turned over and over to give us systems observed by some Jews several thousand years later — for example, some of the dietary laws of kashrut, telling us what is OK and what is forbidden to eat (Deuteronomy 14:3-21).

You may remember hearing this once before: in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 11 is the first time we encounter these strictures; and then here in Deuteronomy, we are getting all of the laws again, for the second time, sometimes changed a bit, through Moshe’s discourse. If you want to refresh your memory and enjoy another great little song, visit the blog post from that week back in April.

Also in our parasha this week are the laws of tithing (chapter 14:22-27) and laws concerning loaning money (chapter 15:1-11), among others, that all gave the Talmudic rabbis plenty of grist for their mills and provide the basis for Jewish observance today. We also read some laws describing sacrifices, slavery, and punishment by stoning, that were jettisoned after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.

Which makes this verse so interesting:

Everything which I charge you, that shall you keep to do. You shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it (chapter 13: 1).

Wow!! Really? We are told right here in the Torah, explicitly by Moshe, not to change the laws at all by adding to, or subtracting from, them. But how can that be? We don’t observe the laws as stated — so in essence, it looks like we are subtracting; while in some cases (praying in a synagogue instead of slaughtering sacrifices on an altar), it looks like we have added to the laws.

A traditional interpretation of this one powerful verse holds that the entire Torah is called the “Written Torah” (the “Torah Sh’bihktav“), which must have been accompanied by another set of laws and interpretations thereof called the “Oral Torah” (the “Torah Sh’ba’al Peh“), the oral tradition that came to Moshe directly from God at Sinai, which provides the details needed in order to observe the laws even after the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from their beloved land. The famous statement in the Mishna (the foundational layer of the Talmud) in Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) on the formation of the Oral Torah illustrates this point:

Moses received Torah from Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets. And the prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly…

Now, let’s wind our way back to the idea of blessings and curses that Moshe says will accompany the Children of Israel as they enter and dwell in their own land. He makes sure to tell them that they will be blessed as long as they obey God’s commandments, and cursed if they do not obey.

Last week I suggested looking at the word “land” metaphorically, to substitute the word “earth” for “land.” This week, I want to repeat the idea of reading metaphorically: I suggest that we read the phrase “obey the commandments of the Lord your God” as “perceive clearly and do the right things.” Then, the opening verses of the parasha might read as follows:

See your ability to choose clearly! This day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you perceive clearly and do the right things for yourself and others; and curse, if you do not do what is right, and turn away from the path that is available to each of us as human beings who are created in the image of the Holy One.