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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:
Here is why these verses resonate so strongly:
Another passage that has entered my heart and consciousness is from chapter 30 verses 11-14:
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:
What speaks to me so powerfully here?
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?
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:
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:
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.
To think about as you read:
“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:
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:
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:
We have gotten to the end of the book of Genesis, the book of Bereishit (Beginnings) — the beginnings of the world and of our people. This last parasha in Genesis is called Va-Yehi (And He Lived), commenting on the life of Ya’akov (Jacob) that we have been following for weeks. But just as the parasha Chayei Sarah (Sarah’s Lives) begins with the death of Sarah, so too here, Va-Yehi paints a picture of Ya’akov on his death-bed (even though we might have thought, from the title of And He Lived, that the parasha would be about his life, not his death).
There is also a curious puzzle in Va-Yehi that is captured by the very form in which the Hebrew letters are written in the scroll. The puzzle is why Ya’akov loses the prophecy he wanted to convey to his sons before he took his leave of this world. What happened to him that the prophecy just escaped from him so completely?
What exactly, is that form that echoes the mystery of the missing prophecy? Well, Ya’akov is “blocked,” somehow prevented from delivering a message of final redemption to his sons. And our parasha is also “blocked” or “closed off.” Very rarely in the Torah scroll we see something called a “closed parasha,” referring to the actual physical layout of the letters on the parchment scroll. They appear on the same line as the last words of the parasha of the preceding week, instead of the typical separation of at least 9 blank spaces, which would separate last week‘s reading from this week’s. The form echoes the content. Ya’akov is blocked and our parasha is written in a “blocked” format, as if to emphasize our patriarch’s lost prophetic vision at the end of his life.
In fact, in Genesis chapter 48, when we get to verse 8, Ya’akov seems befuddled and lost. OK, he’s about to die, but he had just given a whole speech reminiscing about his life, and mentioning his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh. And now, a moment later, he is asking, “who are these boys?” What’s going on here? Is he losing it or not? And then he does something very curious: he wants to bless the boys that he has just formally adopted (chapter 48 verse 5) but he switches his hands so that the younger son, Ephraim, gets Ya’akov’s right hand, and the older son, Manasseh, receives his blessing from Ya’akov’s left hand. Do you think this is a subtle reminder of how he “stole” the blessing from his own twin brother Esav (Esau) so many years before?
In the present, Yosef (Joseph) tries to correct his dying father’s apparent mistake, but old Ya’akov is still sharp (so he isn’t losing it) and tells the assembled family that he wants to bestow the blessing just the way he indicated. Read what Ya’akov says in verses 19 and 20.
To this day, parents give this exact blessing to their sons on Friday night, as part of the ritual welcoming Shabbat. Why do you suppose we ask God to make our sons like Ephraim and Manasseh instead of any of the other brothers or even the patriarchs? (By the way, girls are blessed to be like the matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.) One possible hint may have to do with the lack of sibling rivalry associated with these two sons of Yosef; whereas, at least in the generation of Ya’akov and Yitzhak, there were terrible and sometimes violent sibling struggles.
In Chapter 49, Ya’akov says his last words, called blessings, to each of his sons, spoken in poetic form. Each little poem recalls things that happened earlier in their lives. We call these snippets of poetry “blessings,” but they often don’t sound like what we think of as blessings; they are more like “this is what you did so now you will get what you deserve.” In verse 29, Yakov gives his final instructions; and in verse 33, the long life of Ya’akov ends. As you can read in Chapter 50, he is given quite a funeral, paralleling how we bury great leaders in our day and age. Senior members of the Pharaoh’s court joined the family to mourn Ya’akov, and the mourning period lasted 7 days, just like “shiva” today.
Not only does Ya’akov die in this “closed” parasha called “And He Lived/Va-Yehi,” but Yosef also dies, at the age of 110. It is as if the author of this story wanted us to know that we are leaving the patriarchal and matriarchal tales and moving onwards. And where are we moving to? Look at the very last word in the book of Genesis to find out.
So we conclude Genesis at the same time as we conclude the year 2012. I have learned to read each parasha with an eye towards what is actually happening right now in our world, not limiting myself to thinking that the parasha is about some history that happened thousands of years ago. At the end of each book of the Torah we say, “Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazek” (be strong, be strong, let us be strong). As we say those words this Shabbat, I think we are encouraging each other to be strong in the face of the many challenges we face as we repair our communities from both deadly storms and massacres and have the strength to find ways to sustain and celebrate life.