Thursday, August 16, 2018

Torah Readings for Saturday, August 18, 2018 Shoftim Judges

Torah Readings for Saturday, August 18, 2018

Shoftim (Judges)
16:18-21-9 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

Shoftim is the fifth sedrah in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy).  It takes its name from the first word in the first sentence of the sedrah.  “Judges (Shoftim) and officers shall you appoint in all your cities…”  The cascade of commandments that began last week continues as we find an additional forty-one in this week’s sedrah (see Themes below).  For some modern readers, there is a real challenge in terms of harmonizing much of the law presented here with some uniquely American concepts of governance and jurisprudence.  What we think of as religious and civil laws are part of the same fabric since the goal is to create and reinforce the practices of a Just Society, which is, by definition, a society that follows “the Lord our God” and obeys His laws.  Once again, different commentators provide different groupings for the commandments presented.  While this sedrah is thick with laws, some of which may seem archaic or quaint, the important thing is to step back and see the whole picture.  We live in a society where people tell lawyer jokes, where justices leave defendants on death row even though their lawyers literally slept through the trial and where at the same time large corporations and their leaders escape punishment and career criminals kill witnesses with impunity.  This sedrah provides modern man with a “Mosaic mosaic” of steps to ensure a just society.  More importantly, it reminds that justice and righteousness are synonymous.  This sedrah is living proof that the Torah has survived, in part, because it speaks to the “human condition.”

The Just Society (16:18-17:1)
The sedrah opens with a call to appoint men of high character as “judges and officers” so that the people will be governed in a just manner.  “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land that the Lord your God is giving you (16:20).  The Hebrew word is “Tzedek” and it is translated by some as “righteousness.”  In other words a just society is a righteous society.  And as we read the next couple of versus we are reminded that a just society would not allow for idolatry (16:21-21) or for sacrifices that would show disrespect to the Lord (17:1).

The Leadership System
The sedrah defines four different groups of leaders, each with a different set of rights and responsibilities.  From our point of view, it looks like a system of separation of powers governed by a basic organic law.  In this sense, it does have some elements in common with American political theory and practices.  The list would include:

·        Judicial officers and local agents (16:16-16:20);
·        Kings (17:14-17:20);
·        Priests and Levites (18:1-9);
·        Prophets (18:9-22).

Each leader is chosen in a different manner.  Each plays a different role.  Each is vital to the well-being of the nation.  In looking at the role of the Prophet and False Prophet, you might want to compare what is in Shoftim with what we read in Re’ay last week.  The ultimate role of the prophet, the man who spoke out against iniquity and injustice evolved over time.  However, as early as the days of King David, we see the prophet Nathan holding the monarch to account for violating the law.  The role of the king will become an issue in the last days of the Samuel.  The proper behavior of kings will become even more of an issue under the reign of Solomon, the last ruler over the United Kingdom.  (See Themes below for more.)

Judicial System
As indicated in 16:16-20, those who are to be appointed judicial officers must be wise, intelligent and God-fearing.  They may not take bribes or accept favors.  They must pursue justice.  “They may not judge any case in which they have prior knowledge or in which they have a connection to anyone involved.”  (Table Talk by Moshe Pinchas Weisblum).  The judicial system exists to guarantee a righteous society, the only kind of society that will ensure the Israelites an on-going existence in the Promised Land.  The sedrah also creates an appellate court (17:8-13) that will have the final word in settling disputes.  In a series of verses dealing with idol worshippers (17:2-7) we find rules that apply to witnesses, the conducting of investigations and capital punishment.  Further on (19:15-21) we find more rules dealing with the role and treatment of witnesses.  The Cities of Refuge (19:1-13), a topic covered earlier in the Torah, are mentioned once more.  These passages provide further insight into the different gradations for taking a human life and how to deal with them.  Finally, the rules for dealing with the Unsolved Murder (21:1-9) complete the grouping on the Judicial System.  No case should be allowed to molder in the Unsolved File, as happens in our system.  Matters must be brought to closure.  The ceremony described might have been seen as a public affirmation that the search for the guilty has been thorough, even if it has proven fruitless.  Does this mean that the guilty can escape?  Not under the concept of Jewish justice since God is the ultimate Judge and we all must face the ultimate judgment.  Note how neatly this fits with the motif of the Days of Awe, the event on the calendar towards which we are now moving.

Rules of Warfare (20:1-20:20)
Why place rules about war in a sedrah that deals with the structure of government and justice and that places a special emphasis on limiting the use of the death penalty?  Making war was (and is) a major governmental function.  Until the Moshiach comes, it is a necessary, if ugly, fact of life.  However, even though warfare means death and destruction, a society based on justice will attempt to limit the impact of combat and avoid sinking into barbarism.  That is why, for example, you offer to make peace (20:10-11) and you do not destroy the fruit trees (20:19-20).  The selection process for the army (20:1-20) stands in sharp contrast to the forced levees used by other societies.  It also stands in contrast to the implication of the military head counts taken in early sections of the Torah.  The reason for military victory (20:4) is echoed in the theme of the Chanukah story.  The actual methods for engaging in war and combat (20:14-19) provide an interesting template with which to compare the actual behavior of Jewish armies as our history unfolds.

491. The commandment to appoint judges and officers in every Israelite community (16:18).
492. The prohibition against planting trees in the sanctuary (16:21).
493. The prohibition against erecting an idolatrous pillar in the sanctuary (16:21).
494. The prohibition against offering as a sacrifice an animal with a blemish (17:1).
495. The obligation to listen to the religious leadership and high court on one’s time (17:8-11).
496. The prohibition against disobeying their rulings (17:8-11).
497. The permission, though not obligation, to anoint a king (17:14-15).
498. A King should be a born Israelite (17:15-20).
499. A king should not acquire an unduly large number of horses (17:15-20).
500. A king should not settle Israelites in the land of Egypt (17:15-20).
501. A king should not take a large number of wives (17:15-20).
502. A king should not amass for himself great wealth (17:15-20).
503. A king should write himself a Torah scroll upon his elevation to the kingship (17:15-20).
504. The prohibition against the tribe of Levi having tribal territory within Israel (18:1-2).
505. The prohibition against the tribe of Levi being given any share of the booty when the land is conquered by the Israelites (18:1-2).
506. The obligation to give to the priests the shoulder, the cheeks and the stomach of an offering (18:3-4).
507. The obligation to give to the priests an offering called Terumah from one’s produce (18:3-4).
508. The obligation to give to the priests the first shearing of one’s sheep (18:3-4).
509. The commandment that the priests and Levites should serve together at the sanctuary in watches (18:6-8).
510. The prohibition against practicing divination (18:9-11).
511. The prohibition against practicing sorcery (18:9-11).
512. The prohibition against casting spells (18:9-11).
513. The prohibition against consulting a medium (18:9-11).
514. The prohibition against consulting a wizard (18:9-11).
515. The prohibition against making inquiries of the dead (18:9-11).
516. The commandment to heed a truthful prophet of God (18:15).
517. The prohibition against prophesying falsely in God’s name (18:20).
518. The prohibition against prophesying in the names of idols (18:20).
519. The prohibition against fearing a false prophet (18:22).
520. The commandment to specify cities of refuge for inadvertent manslayers (19:2-3, 9).
521. The prohibition against having pity for pitiless murderers (19:11-13).
522. The prohibition against altering a boundary between one’s property and that of one’s neighbor’s (19:14).
523. The prohibition against convicting a criminal on the basis of a single witness’ testimony; a minimum of two witnesses is required (19:15).
524. The commandment to inflict on perjuring witnesses the punishment that the victim of the perjury would have suffered (19:18-19).
525. The prohibition against the Israelites’ quailing in fear before their enemies and fleeing, for they should know that God is in their midst (20:1).
526. The commandment to anoint a priest to speak to, and otherwise spiritually guide, the troops during wartime (20:2).
527. The specification of permitted exemptions from army service (20:5-9).
528. The commandment to offer peace to a town before attacking it (20:10).
529. The prohibition of destroying fruit-bearing trees when besieging a city (20:19).
530. The commandment delineating the responsibility of a city’s leaders for a murder committed in its vicinity (21:1-8).
531. The prohibition against plowing or sowing in the wadi where the heifer was slaughtered (21:4).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (with additional editing by this author.)

Judges and Officers
There is more than one Hebrew word for judge.  There is Shofet, the plural of which is Shoftim, the name for this week’s sedrah.  In Israel today, judges or anybody else who has to render a decision, including soccer referees, are called Shoftim.  Another term for a judge is Dayan.  But this term refers to a judge in a religious court called a Bet Din and the judge would be a Rabbi.  The Torah differentiates between Judges and Officers because Judges render decisions while Officers carry them out.  Both must be of the highest moral character, never acting unfairly, never showing partiality and never taking a bribe.

Tzedek, Tzedek, Tear-doaf
Tzedek is variously translated as justice or as righteousness.  So the verse either reads, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” or “Righteousness, righteousness, shall your pursue.”  The problem here is with the English translation, not the Hebrew.  In Hebrew there is only one word, which means that justice and righteousness are one and the same thing.  After all Tzedek is Justice and a Tzadik is a Righteous Person - in Hebrew, the same letters but different vowels.  Regardless of translation, why repeat the term?  According to some, the repetition is a reminder that in seeking justice we must use just means.  In other words, the ends do not justify the means.  In Judaism, breaking the law to obey the law is a contradiction in terms and self-defeating.  Often, we overlook the third word in this famous maxim - “Tear-doff” or “You shall pursue.”  The Jewish concept of justice is not passive.  Bare minimums will not due.  In some legal systems, you can walk by a person in a dangerous situation and be held harmless if you do not act to help.  In Judaism, you are supposed to help those in harm’s way.  In some legal systems, you only have to answer the questions asked.  You do not have to volunteer information.  In Judaism, you are expected to voluntarily provide all information that you have about an incident.  In Judaism, a trial is a search for the whole truth, not a game intended to hide, color or shade the truth.  In the end, God is the ultimate Judge.  So anybody who “beats” the temporal legal system will still have to face Justice in the Heavenly Courts.

Boundary Markers
The prohibition against moving boundary stones (19:14) has always been one of my favorites.  I figured that no matter what else, this was one commandment against which I had not transgressed.  But this is one of those cases where I have found how the Oral Law has broadened the concept stated in the Written Law.  “Hasagat G’vul” (the moving of landmarks) has been expanded to include any business practice designed to put a competitor out of business (See Table Talk).  In modern terms, predatory pricing practices are a violation of Jewish law.  This concept could be interpreted to deal with what we call theft of intellectual property as well.  For those who think the Torah is some musty document, consider that it had an answer about downloading music from the Internet long before there was electricity let alone computers and modems.  The placement of this law seems a little puzzling.  It follows a group of commandments concerning how to deal with one who has taken a life.  What is the relationship between killing and moving boundary markers?  Rabbi Blesofsky in Iowa City provides one interesting answer.  While it may be permissible to take a life under certain circumstances, it is never permissible to take away that person’s inheritance.  From this we could expand on the importance of remembering the departed and ensuring that nobody’s name is ever “blotted out.”  It is a stretch, but then that is what makes some of this interesting.

What Goes Around, Comes Around
A poor widow earned her livelihood from the lease which she held on an inn until a newcomer to the village offered the local squire a higher fee and displaced her.  The woman went to the court presided over by Reb Shalom of Belz and charged the new leaseholder with “Hasagat G’vul,” following a business practice designed to take away her means of earning a living.  Reb Shalom refused to hear the case and sent the widow away without explanation.  When a local Chassid heard of this, he could not imagine why a man of Reb Shalom’s reputation would have behaved in such manner.  Surely, he could not have been impressed by the wealth of the defendant in the case.  As it says in Shoftim, “You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality…”  The Chassid confronted Reb Shalom who responded as follows.  Many years ago, the grandfather of the new leaseholder of the inn held the lease on this very same inn until the father of this widow’s late husband offered the local squire a higher fee and displaced him.  Once the old man lost the inn he was left penniless and forced to leave the area.  Years passed and nobody remembered the old man, his family or their connection with the inn.  But as it says in Psalms, “the steps of man are ordered by God.”  In what may be seen as some act of divine providence, the grandson of the original innkeeper prospered, made his way back to the original village and made an offer to lease the very same inn that had belonged to his grandfather.  How would it be proper to invoke the concept of “Hasagat G’vul,” to take from him that which had been taken from his forbearers by one who had followed the very same practice?  (Based on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin.  The tale begs the question of why the widow, who had done nothing wrong should suffer.  And we are reminded over and over again that God judges us by how we treat the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst.  So now you have something to chew on during Shabbat Kiddush besides Challah and Cholent.)

“Upon the testimony of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death…” (17:6).  Do you need two witnesses or do you need three witnesses?  You have to have at least two witnesses.  This command has given rise to the requirement that all contracts including the Ketubah, must be signed in the presence of two witnesses.  But if there are three witnesses, and by inference, more than three witnesses, the court must hear from all of them before passing judgment.  In Makkot, a tractate of the Mishnah we are told the witnesses, regardless of their number, are to be treated as a unit.  If even one of them is found to have given false testimony, then all of the testimony is disqualified.  On the other hand, if you had a group of witnesses and one of them proved to have provided false testimony, you could not punish all of the witnesses in the manner proscribed by the Torah unless they all knew that the testimony was false.  Strictures like these meant that the Jewish courts understood the severity of the death penalty and were loath to use it as a form of punishment.

The Elul Connection
Shoftim is usually the first sedrah read during the month of Elul.  The sedrah contains the laws about the Cities of Refuge.  These were more than just places where someone who had taken a life could seek protection and/or serve out his sentence.  They were places where a person could admit wrongdoing and begin life with a fresh start.  Elul is our city of refuge because it is the month when we begin admitting our own wrong doings so that we can begin a fresh start on Rosh Hashanah.  For more on this topic you might want to read Torah Studies by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.

Written Law and Oral Law
Shoftim provides many excellent examples of the interplay between these two concepts.  For example, the Torah, the Written Law, states “…life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (19:21).  It is the Oral Law that turns this into a concept of monetary compensation.  To paraphrase Tevye, if this law were enforced as written there would soon be a world of one-eyed guys on crutches gumming their food.  The Oral Law is not just some arid collection of meaningless debates.

Accepting a Decision
“You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you…” (17:1).  It is not uncommon for Jews to have questions about proper moral or ritual behavior.  For example, what time should Kol Nidre Services begin?  Is cheese without a “hekhsher” kosher?  Should you make a blessing over food that is not kosher?  Can a non-Jewish doctor perform a brit?  Is acceptable to have non-Jews at a Seder?  If my child has married somebody whose parents are not Jewish, how do I deal with my in-laws’ holiday rituals?  Many Jews will consult a Rabbi on these and many other such issues.  Be careful whom you select.  Because in Judaism, you are not allowed to shop around until you find a decision you like.  You must accept the ruling of the first Rabbi with whom you consult.  And there are some issues that are a lot more important than what kind of cheese you eat so you might want to take this message to heart as you try to make the Torah come alive in your daily life.

This sedrah seems at odds with at least two episodes in the second section of the TaNaCh called Neviim.  First, in Chapter Eight of First Samuel, the people demand a king and Samuel opposes their wish.  Samuel’s opposition would seem to be in contradiction to the Torah.  In fact the Torah describes the very conditions under which a future generation would want a king, “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations that are around me.”  Second is the reign of Solomon.  If Solomon was the wise king we are told he was, he must have known the Torah.  If he knew the Torah, then he had to know that all of those wives, all of those horses and all of that material wealth would lead to ruin.  So if he was so wise and he knew all of that, why did he do it anyway?  Is Solomon proof that no matter how wise we may think we are, we are all capable of folly and capable of sin?  One thing we do know, Solomon violated the Laws of Kingship in the Torah and the years of his sons “were (not) prolonged over his kingdom.”

Teachers, Students and Eternity
“He shall flee to one of these cities and live” (19:5) is a verse from this week’s sedrah dealing with the Cities of Refuge.  The Talmud interprets this to mean “If a disciple is exiled, his teacher is sent into exile with him, for it written ‘and live.’”  The only way for a person to truly “live” is to study Torah - hence the sage accompanies the student.  According to one Chassidic tale, teachers would even accompany their students if at the time of their death, they were sent to a place that was less then Paradise.  Life-long learners need life-long teachers.

Hidden Agendas
“If a matter be too hard for thee to decide… (any) matter of controversy within thy gates…thou shalt repair to the place the Lord…has chosen…and appear before the magistrate and present your case.” (17:8) is the verse from this week’s sedrah that set up an appeal process for deciding cases that were beyond the competence of the local officials.  In a town beyond the Carpathian Mountains, a Rabbi decided a question about Kashrut with what some people thought was too much leniency.  In accord with the rule, these dissenters went to the Chief Rabbi of the district, explained their case and asked that the local Rabbi be removed since they really did not have confidence in his decision making.  The Chief Rabbi agreed that maybe too much leniency had been used, but he refused to remove the local Rabbi.  Spinning the text from Devarim that had been cited, the Chief Rabbi said that maybe “the matter was too hard for thee to decide because there are matters of controversy with thy gates.”  In other words, if you worked harder at getting along with one another there would fewer controversies and those that would exist could be easily decided.

Another Cow
If you were troubled about the ritual of breaking a heifer’s neck to bring closure to an unsolved murder, relax.  You are not alone.  According to some commentators this heifer ritual is classified with the Red Heifer as a ritual that will only be explained with the coming of the Moshiach.  However, Blu Greenberg, a name familiar to some because of her writings about how to establish a Jewish home, has developed a fascinating commentary on these words.  Not only is it rational, well written and fascinating, it also provides a fitting conclusion for a sedrah that begins by talking about and describing the responsibilities of community leaders by connecting this ritual to the role of moral leadership in our communities.

A corpse is found in an open field, the victim of violence.  No family claims the body.  The killer cannot be found.  What must be done?  Says Deuteronomy 21:  Distances to the surrounding cities must be measured.  Elders and judges of the nearest city are obliged to bring a calf that has never borne a yoke to an uncultivated wadi and there kill it by breaking its neck.  The young calf, the pristine setting, and the manner of death are stark symbols of life brutally cut off.  The elders then wash their hands and swear their innocence:  "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see."  Implicating these respected leaders seems outrageous.  The Talmud (Tractate Sotah) asks:  "Would it cross our minds that the elders are murderers?"  Yet the charge is not murder but idly standing by.  The elders must swear, says the Talmud, that "he did not come to us and get sent away without food and hospitality; we did not see him (go somewhere dangerous) and let him go unescorted."  The first lesson of this law is that leaders are entrusted with setting the moral tone of a society.  Thus, they can be held responsible for a social climate in which a person can go unnoticed, in which no one cries out "Halt!" to the murderer or "Lookout!" to the victim.  Respected elders might not sully their hands with murder.  But in any culture, they may be guilty of caring more for property or power than people.  They are guilty unless they can swear that they tried their best to create a humane society, one that protects the weak, the outsider.  We Jews know this well from the Holocaust.  When Pastor Trocme of LeChambon set the tone, by sermon and example, for his small French community, five thousand Huguenots managed to save five thousand Jews, despite a continuous Nazi presence in their town.  When the Polish church excluded Jews from its concern, all but a few extraordinary Christians turned on them.  This notion applies to every structure with a hierarchy.  In some institutions, everyone seems caring; in others, the entire bureaucracy seems designed to frustrate.  The difference lies not in the human material, but in the ethical stance that is taken at the top and seeps down.  Israel's army is a case in point.  Despite the excesses of a few, its moral fiber is unmatched.  How do so many nineteen-year-olds act with maturity and restraint while facing barrages of stones and curses?  Why are its victories unmarred by rape?  They are unmarred because such standards matter greatly to the leadership and are communicated to the rank and file.  On the other hand, why is it that in the traditional community so many Jewish women suffer the status of agunot, wives whose husbands refuse to divorce them, when a reinterpretation of Jewish law could set them free?  Here, too, the tone is set at the top, by rabbinic authorities and religious court judges who don't care enough about women's lives to right the wrongs.  The law of the calf has a second lesson:  A leader may not be a bystander.  And there is no dispensation for "disaster fatigue," or allowance for valuing one human life less than another.  Says the Torah:  This victim, a stranger without family or friends - even from him you may not distance yourself.  You cannot say "I'm not responsible" or "I've seen too much of this," or "I don't even know him." "Don't get involved" - that is the usual way out, for individuals and governments.  But it is unacceptable.  Surely history will convict the leaders of Europe and the United States who continue making bland statements over the cries of the victims in Sudan.  Where are the government leaders?  Have too many scenes of violence jaded the world?  Leaders, like ordinary people, must order their priorities.  Surely, they cannot do everything, all at once.  But the Torah tells a leader always to bear in mind:  You are responsible for the character of the society you lead; and the moment you have the power to help "the other," you are directly responsible.”

“You shall thus rid yourselves of evil.” (17:7).  We are used to hearing about the “Yetzer ra,” the evil inclination.  We pray to be moved toward the inclination to do good and to avoid the inclination to do evil.  In other words, evil is not seen as an absolute force.  But in this reading we are confronted with the concept of “evil” as a reality that needs to be eradicated.  In a post-Holocaust world, there are those who have to believe that evil is a tangible real thing that has to be eradicated in the truest sense of that term.

51:12-52:12 Isaiah

The Man and The Book:  Once again the Haftarah comes from the Book of Isaiah.  But the words are those of “The Second Isaiah,” the Isaiah of the Exile.  He is the unknown figure of the sixth century B.C.E. who offered hope and comfort to the Babylonian Exiles at the time of the coming of Cyrus the Great.  His teachings comprise the last twenty-six chapters of the Book of Isaiah.

The Message:  Hearkening back to the haftarah from Shabbat Nachamu, the prophet once again speaks literally of “comfort.”  He opens with God announcing that He is “menachem-chem,” the one who “comforts you.”   Since the Comforter of Israel is the Creator of the Universe, Israel need not fear those who attack her.  The prophet then reminds the people that they were exiled because God punished them for their sins.  But now they have drained dry the dregs from the cup of Divine wrath.  Those who tormented Israel will suffer while the Israelites will be redeemed.  In a shift of tone, the prophet provides a vision of Jerusalem and Zion and the return of the Exiles.  The heathens who have occupied the city have no legitimate claim to it and will surrender it as an expression of Divine might.  The Israelites will return to a land which will literally break forth in joy and song because the Lord has “comforted His people and redeemed Jerusalem.”  When the day of redemption comes, Isaiah tells the people that they must “depart” from Babylonia.  They will not leave in haste as their forefathers did from Egypt.  There will be time to collect and purify the Temple vessels that were captured by the Babylonians.  Unlike their ancestors who needed a Pillar of Flame and a Cloud, those returning from this exile will have faith that God is both leading them and protecting them from those who might chase after them.

Theme-Link:  The link is not with the sedrah, but with the calendar.  This is the fourth of the Seven Haftarot of Consolation.  The themes of accountability and redemption are of increasing significance as we are reading this during Elul, the month in which we prepare ourselves for the judgmental days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Additionally this haftarah has influenced at least three aspects of Jewish life.  First, as Plaut points out in his commentary, the Hebrew term “menacheme-chem” used in the opening sentence of the haftarah is the origin of the popular Hebrew name Menachem and its Yiddish variant, Mendel.  So a person named Menachem Mendel would be one who brings a double portion of comfort to his people.  Secondly, the words from the first two verses of chapter 52 are found in Lechah Dodi (Come My Beloved), the sixteenth century hymn sung on Friday nights to welcome the Sabbath Queen.  The Fourth verse begins “Shake the dust off yourself, arise (52:2) dress up in your garments of glory (52:1).”  Thirdly there is the reference to the Holy City and the simultaneous mention of Zion and Jerusalem (52:1).  Zion was one of the biblical names for what is also called Jerusalem.  It actually was a mountain in what became part of the City of David.  For some, Zion became a reference to the spiritual aspect of the Holy City, while Jerusalem referred to its political and royal aspect.  This duality is found over and over again in Jewish liturgy and writings.  In modern times the author of Hatikvah captured it with the words “…to be a people free in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem."

Personal Note:  Each year when we read Shoftim, I remember Shelly Luber, of blessed memory.  He died in a tragic automobile accident three years after his Bar Mitzvah.  I not only remember Shelly, who was a challenging student, I also remember his father Harvey, of blessed memory, my friend who tried to teach me to take life as it comes and enjoy what it had to offer.  As important as the lessons of the reading are, the memories of their lives stands as an even bigger lesson.

Copyright, August, 2018, Mitchell A. Levin

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Torah Readings for Saturday-Sunday, August 11-12, 2018 Rosh Chodesh Elul Re’ay See

Torah Readings for Saturday, August 11, 2018

Please note:  Rosh Chodesh Elul is a two-day Rosh Chodesh.  The first day of observance actually falls on the 30th of Av.  The second day falls on the first day of Elul.

This Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh Elul.  Two scrolls are taken from the ark.  The first scoll is for the regular weekly reading.  The second scroll is for the special reading for Rosh Chodesh.  See below for further explanation.

Re’ay (See)
11:26-16:17 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

Re’ay is the fourth sedrah in the book of Devarim(Deuteronomy).  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence.  “See (Re’ay) I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.”  If Devarim is a book thick with laws, then Re’ay is a very thick sedrah since it contains fifty-five commandments (see Themes below for a complete list) not to mention other injunctions which have the tone of commandments.  According to some commentators Re’ay marks the end of the Second Discourse (11:26-32) and the beginning of Moshe’s Third Discourse (12:1 ff.).  Others contend that the Third Discourse begins with the opening of this sedrah.  Regardless, Moshe opens with a preamble reminding the people that they are about to cross the Jordan River and begin a new phase in their national existence.  He is going to present them with a whole series of rules that they must follow as they come to inhabit the land.  But in the end, they will choose to follow the laws and enjoy the blessings or suffer the curses for rejecting them (11:26-30).  Different commentators offer different groupings for the welter of commandments found in the sedrah.  Each has its merit and yet each may be said to be a bit contrived.  For the sake of providing us with a common point of departure, you might want to consider the following.

Accepted Mode of Worship in the Promised Land (12:1-31)
Moshe begins with a series of commands telling the Israelites to destroy the existing places of worship used by the Canaanites.  He then follows with a series of rules ordaining the need to offer sacrifices at a central location.  He continues with commandments concerning acceptable ritual behavior connected with this central sanctuary.  He ends with a series of injunctions not to study the religious practices of the Canaanites lest the Israelites then be tempted to follow them.

Listening to the Voice of God (13:1-19)
Once the Israelites have crossed the river, they will no longer have Moshe as their guide.  So how will they know the will of God?  Moshe begins with a reminder that the Israelites are to observe the “entire word,” neither adding to it nor subtracting from it.  He then provides them the criteria for knowing how to identify a false prophet, how to deal with those who lead them to worship idols and how to deal with an Israelite city that turns to idolatry.

The Special Relationship With God (14:1-28)
Moshe begins with the reminder that “You are children to the Lord, your God.…”  In other words, the Israelites have a special relationship with God and the commandments that follow are specifically to remind us of that in two very basic areas of life.  The first have to with mourning the dead.  Here we are told not to follow the practices of the pagans.  The second have to do with rules about acceptable and forbidden foods.

Treatment of the Needy (15:1-23)
Moshe tells the people that they will prosper in the land.  But this prosperity is contingent upon all of the people obeying all of the commandments all of the time.  Since that will not happen, there will always be people in need.  So Moshe provides a series of rules designed to ensure that the needy will receive the help they require.  These rules even extend to the newly freed Hebrew man or woman.  They are not to be sent away empty handed.  Instead, they are to be given ample bounty so that they can prosper in their newfound freedom.

Observance of the Pilgrimage Festivals (16:1-17)
Moshe finishes with a series of commands concerning Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkoth - the Three Pilgrimage Festivals.  These agricultural holidays of thanksgiving require observance at the central sanctuary, which will be part of life once the Israelites have crossed the Jordan.  This serves to reinforce the concept of the central sanctuary with which Moshe began the sedrah.

436. The obligation to demolish idolatrous temples in the land of Israel (12:2).
437. The prohibition against destroying objects deemed Jewishly sacred (12:4).
438. The commandment to fulfill one’s vow to bring an offering at the first opportunity one has to do so (12:5-6).
439. The prohibition against offering a sacrifice outside the sanctuary chosen by God in the Land of Israel (12:13).
440. The obligation to offer a sacrifice only at the sanctuary chosen by God in the land of Israel (12:13).
441. The commandment granting permission to eat meat wherever one was as long as it has been properly slaughtered (12:15).
442. A prohibition against eating the second tithe of grain outside of Jerusalem (12:17-18).
443. A prohibition against eating the second tithe of wine outside of Jerusalem (12:17-18).
444. A prohibition against eating the second tithe of oil outside of Jerusalem (12:17-18).
445. A prohibition against a priest eating an unblemished firstborn animal outside Jerusalem (12:17-18).
446. A prohibition against eating the sin-offering or guilt offering outside of the sanctuary (12:17-18).
447. A prohibition against eating any meat of the burnt offering (12:17-18).
448. A prohibition against eating sacrifices of lesser holiness before their blood is sprinkled on the altar (12:17-18).
449. A prohibition against priests eating the first fruits before they are set down on the sanctuary grounds (12:17-18).
450. The prohibition against neglecting the Levites by withholding from them what they are owed (12:19).
451. The obligation to slaughter ritually an animal whose meat is to be eaten (12:21).
452. The prohibition against eating a limb or any other part taken from a living animal (12:23).
453. The obligation to bring permitted animals from outside Israel to the Sanctuary (12:26).
454. The prohibition against adding to the Torah’s laws (13:1).
455. The prohibition against subtracting from the Torah’s laws (13:1).
456. The commandment to ignore false prophets (13:2-4).
457. The prohibition against listening to one who entices people to follow a false idol (13:19).
458. The prohibition against being seduced by one who entices people to follow a false idol (13:19).
459. The prohibition against having affection for one who entices people to follow a false idol (13:19).
460. The prohibition against showing pity to one who entices people to follow a false idol (13:19).
461. The prohibition against shielding one who entices people to follow a false idol (13:19).
462. The commandment to help bring about the execution of one who entices people to follow a false idol (13:19).
463. The obligation of the judges to examine witnesses carefully to ensure that their testimony is true (13:15).
464. The commandment to destroy a city that has become filled with idolatry (13:16-17).
465. The commandment never to rebuild a city that has become filled with idolatry (13:16-17).
466. The prohibition against deriving any benefit from a city destroyed because it had become idolatrous (13:18).
467. The prohibition against gashing oneself in the manner done by idolatrous mourners (14:1).
468. The prohibition against tearing one’s hair in the manner done by idolatrous mourners (14:1).
469. The prohibition against eating animals that Torah law forbids (14:3).
470. The obligation to examine fowl to determine if it is kosher (14:11).
471. The prohibition against eating nonkosher winged insects (14:19).
472. The prohibition against eating the meat of a permitted animal that died of natural causes (14:21).
473. The law of the Second Tithe (14:22-26).
474. The commandment regarding the Tithe of the Poor (14:28-29).
475. The commandment to practice remission of debts to fellow Israelites during the seventh year (15:2).
476. The prohibition against demanding repayment of such a debt from an Israelite (15:2).
477. The permission to insist on payment from a non-Israelite (15:2).
478. The prohibition against hardening one’s heart against the poor (15:7-8).
479. The commandment to lend the indigent person what he or she needs (15:7-8).
480. The prohibition against withholding a loan to a poor person out of fear that the debt will become uncollectible in the seventh year (15:9).
481. The prohibition against sending off a Hebrew slave empty handed (15:12-15).
482. The obligation to give a Hebrew slave some goods when his period of service is complete (15:12-15).
483. The prohibition against working the firstling of an animal since it is consecrated to God (15:19-20).
484. The prohibition against shearing a firstling sheep since it is consecrated to God (15:19-20).
485. The prohibition against eating any leavened food past noon on the day before Pesach (16:3).
486. The commandment to eat the Pesach sacrifice in its entirety during the night it is offered (16:4).
487. The prohibitions against offering the Pesach sacrifice anywhere except the place specified by God (16:5-6).
488. The commandment to rejoice on the festival of Sukkoth (16:14).
489. The obligation of males to appear at the sanctuary on the pilgrimage holidays of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkoth (16:16-17).
490. The obligation for males to bring with them an offering at each of these three times (16:16-17).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (with a few edits by this author).

Re’ay is the singular form of the verb meaning “see” or “behold.”  However Moshe then switches over to the plural as he addresses the Israelites.  One explanation for this switch is that each individual must be aware of the commandments, but we must all obey them.  This theme of individual versus group responsibility is carried over in the commandments concerning the Idolatrous City (13:13-15).

Three Recurring Motifs
The sedrah opens with a reminder of three basic concepts.  The first is free will.  The second is the need to obey all the commandments.  The third is to avoid the practices of those who worship idols.

Free Will
This is not the first time nor will it be the last time that we will be confronted with the question of Free Will versus Predestination.  The upcoming readings of Nitzavim and Vayeilech will give us a better opportunity to pursue this matter that has troubled sages and philosophers down through the ages.  The Talmud attempted to harmonize the two by saying “Everything is foreseen yet permission (freedom) is given.”  Maimonides contended that God’s knowledge existed outside of the dimension of Time and therefore was totally different than man’s knowledge.  As I said, this is a complex issue that we can wrestle with as we move through Devarim.

The Six Remembrances
According to some sages’ interpretation of the Torah, there are six occurrences that we are to remember at all times.  In an effort to comply with this injunction, following the Morning Service many Jews recite the Six Remembrances.  Five of them come from Devarim and one from Shemot.  The first of the Six Remembrances is found in this week’s sedrah.  It reads as follows, “In order that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life” (16:3).  The Exodus was and is a seminal event in Jewish history.  From it flows everything - the giving of the law at Sinai, the Promised Land and so much more.  In Etched In Our Memories, Rabbi Ephraim Friedman provides an additional reason based on the teachings of Maimonides.  The Egyptians were idolaters par excellence.  Some idolaters and other heathens may deny that God created the world.  Others believe that He created the world but does not know what is going on it that world.  Still others believe that He created the world, but He cannot control what goes on the world.  In other words, God, if He does exist, either does not care or cannot control what happens in the world.  The world is run by humans who can do as they wish.  In the story of the Exodus, God asserts that He is the Supreme Power.  He does care what is going on.  And His world is a world based on the concept of reward and punishment tied to His teachings.  There are almost as many reasons to ”Remember the Exodus” as there are days to recite the remembrance itself.

Yizkor is the Memorial Service developed by the Ashkenazim.  Originally, it was only part of the Yom Kippur services.  The observance was expanded to include Pesach, Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret (effectively the “last” day of Sukkoth).  According to some, adding Yizkor to these festivals is tied to the commandment in Re’ay that requires men to come to “the place He will choose” with offerings on the Three Pilgrimage Festivals.  Since part of the Yizkor formulary is a promise to give charity on behalf of the deceased, the service in their memory and the holiday festivals became intertwined.

Centralized Worship
In at least four places in the sedrah (12:1, 12:14, 15:20 and 16:16) there are commandments to appear and/or perform sacrifices at a central place.  But this place is never named.  It has come to be interpreted as Jerusalem, but Jerusalem is never actually mentioned.  In fact, Jerusalem is never mentioned in the Torah and does not appear until the second section of the TaNaCh.  Why?  What might this omission say about the Torah and who actually wrote it?  Some commentators contend that Deuteronomy was written in the seventh century BCE and was part of an attempt to finally centralize worship in the Temple at Jerusalem.  If this were the case, logically, the text would have said the Israelites were supposed to appear in Jerusalem instead of saying they “shall appear before the Lord your god in the place that He will choose.”  If the origins of Deuteronomy are closer to the time of the Exodus or the campaigns of Joshua, this language would make a lot more sense since the city we call Jerusalem had not been so named at that time.

The word Kosher comes from the Hebrew “Kasher” meaning “fit.”  Kosher refers to “those foods which are judged ‘fit’ or ‘proper’ for consumption in accordance with the biblical and rabbinic dietary laws.”  The term Kosher not found in the Torah.  In the Torah, animals are called “clean” or “unclean.”  The term Kosher is found in the Talmud.  What is important is that the laws of Kashrut are rooted in the Torah.  Directly or indirectly, this sedrah provides much of the basis for these Dietary Laws.  For example, there is the listing of clean and unclean animals.  The body of laws concerning the proper way to slaughter animals has its root in the statement, " may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that the Lord gives you, as I have instructed you” (12:21).  There are the recurring injunctions about not consuming blood, especially “do not partake of the blood” (12:23-24).  This gave rise to the rules about draining the blood from meat before cooking or eating it.  The Israelites are not supposed to consume blood because blood is symbolic of the force of life.  It is symbolic of the power of God.  We are only allowed to eat meat because God gave us permission to do so.  The Israelites may eat meat, but they are not the masters of life of and death.  That is the role of God.

This compendium also includes the injunction against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (14:21) which along with entries in Shemot 23:19 and 34:26 has given rise to the whole system of separating meat and dairy foods.  Why does the Torah enjoin the people from boiling, cooking or roasting (the Hebrew word Bah-shal can mean any of these three) a kid in its mother’s milk?  According to some, ancient pagans prepared charms by boiling kids in milk.  If you read the Torah as a battle plan against idolatry this interpretation makes sense.  The ban also is seen as a reminder to be merciful.  What could be more inhumane than to eat a child in the juices that came from its mother’s body?  Also, it might be seen as an extension of the reason for not consuming blood.  Just as the Israelites do not consume blood because it is the life force, so they should not consume the life force of the mother (milk) when eating the flesh of her body.  Many of the rules about eating are part of the Oral Law.  Specifically, they come from the Hullin which is the Third Tractate of the Order Kodashim in the Mishnah.  The laws in Hullin deal with two major topics.  The first, Shehitah, has to do with slaughtering animals to be used for non-sacrificial purposes.  The second are the Dietary Laws including prohibitions about consuming blood, forbidden and acceptable meats and prohibitions against mixing any dairy product with meat.  Why observe Kashrut?  According to the sedrah the answer lies in the statement “for you are a holy people to the Lord” (14:21).  When you tie these rules to those that we studied about reciting blessings after eating, it becomes obvious that the Jewish concept of eating is more than just calorie consumption.  In the United States, Reform Judaism formally rejected Kashrut at the Pittsburgh Conference of 1885 saying that “their observance in our days is apt to obstruct rather than to further modern spiritual elevation.”  While a large number of American Jews today (regardless of synagogue affiliation) do not observe the dietary laws, observance of Kashrut, at least at some level, seems to be making a comeback.  Nabisco would not have gone to the trouble of getting a “heksher” for Oreo Cookies unless it meant an increase in “market share.”  Many Jews today observe these laws today in whole, or in part, as sign of ethnic solidarity and/or as part of an attempt to increase the level of spirituality in their lives.

Harmonizing Seeming Contradictions
In his commentary on this portion, Yashayahu Leibowitz calls attention to the seemingly contradictory statements, “There will be no poor among you, for God will greatly bless you” (15:7) and “The poor will never vanish from the land” (15:11).  How can Moses tell us that there will be no poor among us and then four sentences later say that the poor will always be with us?  Actually the Torah has several such apparently contradictory statements.  Usually this is a case of a description of what the world should be and what the world is really like.  God’s promises are not oracles; rather they should be seen as demands.  “’The prophet predicts only that which should be’ with no certainty that this is what will be.  This rule applies even to the vision of the messianic redemption:  It is what should be, but whether it will be depends, at least to some extent on us.”  In other words, the contradiction is real but not necessarily permanent.  If man does what he is supposed to, then the gap will be closed and the world of the “ought to be” will be the world of reality.  When the Pope was at Auschwitz, he called out wanting to know how God could have let this happen - the old “Where was God at Auschwitz” to which this sedrah would reply, “Where was man?”

Reform and the Oral Law
There are those of who think that Reform Judaism has nothing to say on the subject of the Oral Law or rejects it out of hand.  Before making this erroneous conclusion, people should look at the works of Rabbi Solomon Freehof.  He is best known for his authorship of the Union Prayer Book.  But he also published two volumes of “Respona” that dealt with questions of Jewish law in which he combined an extensive knowledge of the Oral Law with the Reform perspective of Judaism.

Forty Acres and a Mule
At the end of the Civil War, when the slaves were freed, there was an attempt to pass a law giving each freedman forty acres and a mule.  The Abolitionists realized that without economic freedom, political freedom was dicey thing, at best.  Also, they felt it was just recompense for the centuries of servitude.  The Torah had already addressed this issued.  “When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed” (15:13).  The Torah commanded this in part because “you were slaves in Egypt.”  Remember, when the Israelites left Egypt, the Egyptians gave the departing former slaves flocks and treasures.  The editors of Etz Hayim provide a modern twist on this injunction.  They see it as a reason for employers to pay severance to those whom they are laying off - talk about a contemporary message derived from our ancient text.

The Month of Elul
Re’ay is always the last sedrah read before the start of the month of Elul.  There has to be a reason for this.  Elul is the sixth month of the religious calendar and the last month on the Jewish Civil Calendar.  Elul is last month in the year before the observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  It is the month when we begin to prepare ourselves for these Days of Awe.  For example, Psalm 27 is added to the daily service.  The Shofar is sounded on weekday mornings until the last day of the month.  In this sedrah Moshe presents the Israelites with the same choice - the Blessing or the Curse - that confronts us during the High Holidays.  The bold statement that opens this sedrah is certainly an effective way to get us to start thinking about the penitential themes, which will become the dominant motif when we gather in the synagogue in just another month.

Helping Those in Need
In Chapter 15 we find a re-statement of the commands concerning the Sabbatical or Seventh Year.  Unlike the statements in Vayikra, the version in Devarim does not mention the commands about letting the land lie fallow.  The statement in 15:11 is very realistic in its view of economic reality.  However, in the Jewish world we are to give and give ungrudgingly, but only within certain limits.  As a general rule, we are not supposed to give so much that we cannot fulfill our familial responsibilities.  This is one of the sources of the Jewish concept of tzedakah.  Tzedakah is one of those themes connected with Elul and may account for why we see a blizzard of requests for contributions at this time of the year.  Nobody is exempt from giving.  The amount you give is based on your ability to give; but the act of giving is dictated for all to follow (16:17).  Maimonides contends that there are eight levels of tzedakah.  The highest level is to help one in need to gain self-sufficiency i.e., provide funds for them to start a business, help them get a job; provide the tools so that one may get work.  The next highest level is when the donor and the recipient are ignorant of each other’s identity.  Next comes the situation where the donor knows the recipient but the recipient does not know the donor.  This is followed by the situation where the donor does not know recipient, but the recipient knows the donor.  The levels continue to work their way down to the donor who gives without being asked, the donor who gives after being asked, the donor who gives with a smile ending with the donor who gives begrudgingly.  Tzedakah is part of a broader concept called Gemilut Chasadim, Acts of Loving-Kindness.  Tzedakah is an act performed by giving money.  Gemilut Chasadim can include the giving of money.  But it can also include doing something to help another.  Tzedakah is usually associated with helping the less fortunate while Gemilut Chasadim can be performed for the rich as well as for the poor.  According to the sages, one of the three things on which the world rests is Gemilut Chasadim, Acts of Loving-Kindness.  The daily readings from the Tanya at this time deal with the subject of Tzedakah and Gemilut Chasadim.  They include the citation from the Zohar, “Who makes the Holy Name every day?  He who gives Tzedakah unto the poor.…”  Also, there is the reminder that Chesed or Kindness is the attribute associated with the first Patriarch - Abraham.

Men and Women
Women are not prohibited from following many of religious strictures.  However, there is a bias based on reality towards not enjoining them to follow time driven commandments.  This view is reiterated in the commands concerning the Festival Pilgrimages (16:16).

Bible Quiz
1.  After the place for the Lord’s dwelling was established, what were the people supposed to bring there?
Burnt offerings, Tithes, Firstborn of their herds and flocks & Tithes (12:5&6).
2.  What did Moses tell the Israelites they should do if the people in a town in the Promised Land turned to a false god?
First, they must they investigate to see if the charge is true.  If the charge is true they should put all of the people to the sword and then burn the town in its entirety. (13:12-16).
3.  What was a person to do if he lived to far from the Tabernacle to carry his tithe?
He was to convert the tithe to money, go to the Tabernacle, buy a new tithe and then fulfill the command (14:23-26).
(Based on Nelson’s Amazing Bible Trivia Book One)

Economics in the 21st Century
Those of you who are always looking for modern lessons hidden the text of the Torah might consider the following.  “You will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you.”  The author(s) of the Torah seemed to understand the relationship between economic and political power.  They also understood the dangers of becoming a debtor nation.  Of course this is not the first time that the Torah has offered practical economic teachings.  Remember Pharaoh’s dream about the fat and lean cows which Joseph interpreted as a warning that prosperity does not last forever and that during times of prosperity you should set aside enough to deal with economic downturns.

In the commandments about providing for the material needs when freeing the bondsman at the end of the six years, the Torah says, “When you set him free do not feel aggrieved; for in the six years he has given you double the service of the hired man.”  Compare this attitude with Corporate America where companies have done away with pensions and other forms of meaningful benefits so that the bonuses of senior managers can be protected.  The Torah makes no brief for poverty but it does caution against greed.  The Torah cautions the Israelites against following the practices of those who live around them.  In ancient times, much of this revolved around idol worship.  To the extent that caring for one’s fellow man is a Jewish value, then turning your back on your fellow would seem to be a modern variant of following the customs of those in the land that are abhorrent to the Lord.

The Chacham and the Cholent
“…and you say, ‘I would eat meat’ for you have a desire to eat meat.”(Devarim 12:20).  One Shabbat a certain chacham (learned person) was engrossed in his studies.  All of a sudden, the smell of a wonderful warm cholent (beef stew eaten on Shabbat after morning services) filled his nostrils with desire.  But he spurned the aroma and the picture of the epicurean delight that filled his mind and turned to his studies with renewed vigor.  He was so proud of himself for vanquishing the Evil Inclination by nourishing his soul with Torah instead of fulfilling his desire to eat meat.  But wait, this decision not to fulfill his desire to eat meat could not have come from The Inclination to do Good because it was giving him a feeling - conceit - and a sense of conceit could only come the Inclination to do Evil.  So the chacham turned from his studies to eat the Shabbat cholent; thus vanquishing the Inclination to do Evil, following the Inclination to do Good, and accepting the wisdom of Devarim that indeed there are times when a person should fulfill the desire to eat meat.

Serving God
For the Jew, there is no greater accomplishment than serving God.  According to Professor James Kugel, for the Israelites serving God “meant not only offering sacrifices in the temple, but carrying out His many statutes.”  This portion ends with the command to appear at the Temple three times a year.  But the portion is awash with statutes that the Jew can perform.  The laws of the Torah take on a special meaning for the Jew.  Formal worship, which stands in place of Temple sacrifices, offers a limited number of opportunities to “serve God.  ”But the almost innumerable compilation of laws and ordinances provides the Jew with an almost limitless opportunity to “serve God.”

Two Down; One to Go
“You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor and to your destitute” (Devarim 15:11).  The year was 1953 and conditions in the newly born state of Israel were desperate.  The young man and his son trudged from house to house, from apartment to apartment trying to raise funds for the United Jewish Appeal.  Each time they stopped, the story was the same.  Oh yes, I am Jewish.  Yes, I know that the Jews of Israel are in great need.  But I cannot help.  And then would come the rejoinder - I do so much already for the Jewish community or I give so much already, etc, etc, etc.  The young man would shuffle his UJA cards, mumble a word of thanks, take his son’s by his sweaty little hand and move on.  Finally, with only a couple of checks (one of which he had written on his account) and stack of unsigned pledge cards, the two failed seekers of Tzedakah came to the home of fundraising chairman who was also the Rabbi.  “So, nu?” he asked.  “What did you think of your father collecting all this money for Eretz Israel?”  The youngster stammered, looked forlornly at his father and said, “Well the people were really nice, but nobody gave us a check except of course my father.  See, it’s there with the cards.”  “Yossel,” the man boomed out in a Yiddish accent. Vos is doss (What is this?)  You go back and tell them for me the following.  There are three ways to repent - fasting, prayer and Tzedakah (the giving of funds to those in need).  We are told in the Book of Jonah that the people of Nineveh fasted.  So that has been done.  We are told in the Book of Esther that Mordechai and Esther prayed.  So that has been done.  So now there is only one thing left for them to do and that is to perform the act of Tzedakah.”

Feed the Body Feed the Soul (“for you will desire to eat” - 12:20)
Rebbitzin Rivkah, the wife of Reb Shmuel of Lubavitch, developed such a serious lung condition that her doctors declare her case to be beyond hope.  Her father-in-law, Reb Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, heard this and said: “On the verse ‘and he shall surely heal,’ the Sages of the Talmud comment that ‘from this we learn that Torah permits a doctor to heal.’  This is what the Torah permits - but when it comes to pronouncing the opposite verdict, God forbid, that is no affair of his at all.”  He then instructed her to make a breakfast of bread and butter every morning immediately after washing her hands when she woke up - without observing the usual order of first say her morning prayers - and gave her his blessing for long life.  After some time she decided to allow this instruction to lapse, and told her father-in-law that she now hurried through the morning prayers, and immediately after that sat down to breakfast.  “It is better to eat in order to be able to pray,” he said, “than to pray in order to be able to eat.” (As written by Rabbi Sholomo Yosef Zevin, of Blessed Memory)

When an Am Haaretz started to daven Shacharit with a Tzaddik on Shabbat, the Tzaddik asked him if he wanted “a tea.”  At first the newcomer turned down the offer.  He did not want to impose.  Like all Americans, he was constantly watching his weight.  And he had come to pray, not to eat.  But the Tzaddik persisted and took him into the kitchen where cups for tea and cookies sat on the small table.  The Tzaddik related this story and told him that because of the Rebbitzin the custom was to have “a tea” before davening.  If nothing else, the light repast would keep him focused on the matter at hand - davening - and ensure that he would not be distracted by the aroma of the cholent that was waiting for them after services.

Second Scroll:  Special Reading for Rosh Chodesh Elul
28:9-15 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Rosh Chodesh is the name of the minor holiday that marks the start of each month.  The term Rosh Chodesh is translated as New Moon.  The first day of the month is referred to as Rosh Chodesh because the months are lunar and the first day of each month comes with the start of the new moon.  In the days of the Temple special sacrifices were brought in honor of the new moon.  With the destruction of the Temple, the sacrificial system ended.  In place of the sacrifices, Jews read a description of the sacrificial offerings, which is described in the first fifteen verses of chapter 28 in the book of Numbers.  The Torah reading takes place during the daily morning service.  There are many Jews who have no desire to return to the sacrificial system.  They use these readings as a way of providing a connection with the past which is one of the keys to our future preservation.  Because of its connection with the moon, Rosh Chodesh is thought to have special meaning for women.  There are some sages who suggest that wives and mothers should be presented with gifts on this, their holiday.  In lieu of gifts, others suggest giving Tzdekah in their honor.  The month of Elul is a Two Day Rosh Chodesh.  The first day actually falls on the last day of the month of Av.  When Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat, as it does this year, the special Torah reading only covers verses 9 through 15 of the 20th chapter of Numbers.

Haftarah - Special for Rosh Chodesh
66:1-24; 66: 23 Isaiah

The Man:  The reading is the entire last chapter of the Book of Isaiah.  This is one of the chapters attributed to the Second Isaiah or the Isaiah of the Exile.  We know nothing about the biography of this anonymous author.  He (or she for the matter) lived during the last days of the Babylonian Exile.  There are only two things we know with any surety.  First, this person was a skillful author who could really turn a phrase.  Second, this person was humble, allowing his writings to be attached to those of the historic prophet Isaiah.  This kind of humility is a highly valued trait in Judaism.  For example, at the Seder, the Haggadah includes the words of Joshua reminding us that originally our ancestors were pagans.  In Rabbinic writings, such as Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), sages will attribute their words to those of their teachers, giving them credit for any learning they might have acquired.  “Imagine a world where people were more concerned doing the work than getting credit for doing the work.”  (Author unknown)

The Message:  Isaiah offers words of comfort as he describes the ultimate destruction of the nations who have made war against Israel.  Yes, God will gather in the exiles and the Temple will be rebuilt.  But in the opening verses, Isaiah reminds the people that holding Jerusalem is not enough.  God demands that we follow His laws.  “But it is to this that I look:  to the poor and broken-spirited person who is zealous regarding My word.”

Theme-Link:  Usually the prophetic portion has a connection with the Torah portion.  This is one of the exceptions when the prophetic portion is tied to an event on the calendar - in this case Rosh Chodesh.  Verse 23 which is read and then re-read connects the observance of Rosh Chodesh to the final redemption.

Torah Readings for Sunday, August 12, 2018

Please note:  Rosh Chodesh Elul is a two-day Rosh Chodesh.  The first day of observance actually fell on the 30th of Av.  The second day falls on the first day of Cheshvan.

Rosh Chodesh Elul
Readings for Sunday, August 12, 2018
Begin blowing Shofar at Shachrit except on Shabbat

28:1-15 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Elul is the sixth month counting from Pesach.  It is the 12th and last month of the year counting from Rosh Hashanah (Tishrei).  There are no holidays or other such religious observance during the month of Elul.  This provides the Jewish people a chance to prepare themselves for the coming Days of Awe - Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Sephardim recite Selichot (special penitential prayers) during the first fifteen days the month.  Ashkenazim recite Selichot for the entire month.  Shabbat Selichot refers to the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah when Jews gather in their houses of worship to recite Selichot customarily at or around midnight.

Elul is one of those months that have two days of Rosh Chodesh.  The first day of the month of Elul actually falls on the second day of Rosh Chodesh.  This is of unique importance in the case of Elul because there are certain ritual changes that begin with the first day of Elul.  Starting with the first day of Elul, the Shofar is sounded at the end of Shacharit (Morning Service) except on Shabbat until the morning before Rosh Hashanah.  The daily sound of the Shofar is intended to awake us from our moral slumber as we prepare to ask God to inscribe and seal us in the Book of Life.  At the same time, it gives those frustrated Shofar blowers who never get a chance on the High Holidays to try their lips and lungs.  Also, starting with the first day of Elul, Jews begin reciting Psalm 27 on a daily basis.  The daily recitation lasts until Shemini Atzeres (the end of Sukkoth).  “The psalm voices our prayer that God will be our light on Rosh Hashanah enabling us to repel the darkness of sin though true repentance and the He will be our salvation on Yom Kippur though His compassionate acceptance of our atonement for our sins.”  The Psalm says “Lord, hear my voice when I call.”  The Hebrew word for “my voice” refers to the “voice” of the Shofar heard on Rosh Hashanah.  “’When I call’ refers to Yom Kippur, about which Isaiah said, ‘call to Him when He is near.”

Shammai’s Shabbat

Since Rosh Chodesh Elul falls on Shabbat and Saturday this year, it gives a chance to take a look at the differences between Shammai and Hillel when it comes to preparing and observing Shabbat.

The Talmud relates that it was said of Shammai the Elder that all his days he would eat for Shabbat.  How so? When he came across a prime quality animal, he would buy it and say: “This is for Shabbat.” When he found a better one, he would buy the second one for Shabbat and eat the first.  But Hillel the Elder had a different approach.  He did everything for the sake of Heaven.  (He would say:)  “Blessed be G-d, who every day provides us with the day’s needs.”  To Shammai, everything was for Shabbat.  Everything was oriented toward the goal, to the extent that the process of getting there was wholly absorbed within the goal.  Going to the marketplace on Sunday, he thought only of what might be acquired for Shabbat.  Eating on Sunday was “for Shabbat” - not to satisfy today’s needs, but in order that the better portion be reserved for Shabbat.  Hillel, on the other hand, purchased food on Sunday for Sunday’s consumption, on Monday for Monday’s consumption, and so on.  For Hillel, too, the purpose of it all was for Shabbat, but in order to get to Shabbat, one must first feed one’s Sundays and nourish one’s Mondays.  We each have a Shammai and a Hillel within us.  For man is an amalgamation of matter and spirit, a body coupled with a soul.  Of the body it is said, “Dust you are,” of the soul, “Literally a part of God above.”  Hence the inherent duality in our self-perception and our approach to the endeavors of life.  The body’s finite nature necessitates the “Sunday approach:”  begin at the beginning and work your way up the steps and stages of natural progression.  The soul’s innate perfection is the source of the “Shabbat approach,” in which we directly relate to the infinite source and end-point of all.  (As provided by the Meaningful Life Center.)

Copyright; August, 2018; Mitchell A. Levin