Monday, July 28, 2014

Torah Readings for Saturday, August 2, 2014 Shabbat Chazon Devarim Raoul Wallenberg Shabbat

Torah Readings for Saturday, August 2, 2014
Shabbat Chazon

Devarim (Words)
1:1-3:22 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

Devarim (Deuteronomy) is the name of the fifth book of the Torah.  It is also the name of the first sedrah or weekly reading.  The Hebrew word Devarim means “words.”  Devarim takes its name from the first significant word in the reading, “These are the words (Devarim) that Moshe spoke to all Israel.”  Deuteronomy, the English name for this book, is a term meaning “the second telling or repetition of the law.”  This English name is actually consistent with an older Hebrew name for this book - Mishneh Torah or a “Recapitulation of the Torah.”  Traditionally, Devarim is viewed as Moshe’s last will and testament to the Jewish People.  Picture the aged leader, with only five weeks to live, standing on the plains of Moab reviewing the past forty years in the Wilderness.  He has so much to tell these people.  He has new laws for them to follow once they cross the Jordan River.  Plus which, he is afraid they are going to louse things up.  After all, he knows how badly they behaved when he was alive.  What are they going to do once they get to Canaan, with all of its additional temptations and he is not around to lead them?  As has been said before, he probably had the same panic that parents do when their children leave home for the first time.  So you sit them down the night before they leave for college, or whatever, and you just tell them everything that they need to know that you are sure that you have not told them and that they will not figure out on their own.  If you have ever been through that, you can probably appreciate what Moshe was going through at a human level.

From a presentation point of view, Devarim can be divided into five parts - Three Discourses by Moshe, followed by a Song, and then the Final Blessings of the Israelites.  The book actually ends with the death of Moshe.  According to Telushkin’s listing, two hundred of the six hundred thirteen commandments are found in this book.  Other commentators point out that these commandments are not all repetitions of previous themes since there are at least seventy that are “completely new.”  There is an undercurrent of rebuke in much that Moshe has to say.  The Israelites need to be reminded of their transgressions, not so that they can be ashamed, but so that they will understand how they got to where they are and so that they will not commit these transgressions again.  Devarim is unique among the books of the Torah because Moshe is speaking directly to the people.  It does not say, God spoke these words to Moshe saying speak to the Israelites.  Rather the text says, “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel.”  This is a unique shift worthy of discussion at a Shabbat Kiddush.

The Book of Devarim plays a unique role in the history of the Jewish people.  Chapters 22 and 23 of the Second Book of Kings (one of the books in the second section of the TaNaCh) describe a religious reformation that took place under King Josiah.  Josiah was King of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, from 640 B.C.E. until his death in 608 B.C.E.  Workmen repairing the Temple found a book referred to as the Sefer Ha-Torah or The Book of the Teaching.  When Josiah read this book, he undertook sweeping religious reforms that brought the errant nation back to the path of God.  For a variety of reasons, including the nature of the some of the reforms he instituted, the Sefer Ha-Torah is assumed to be an early version of Devarim.  This story leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions, not the least of which was how the book came to be lost in the first place.  As you will see, the teachings in the Book of Devarim are the source for many customs and beliefs practiced, in whole or in part, by most Jews today.  According to the editors of Etz Hayim, these include the Shema which is the statement of the core belief in the Oneness of God; the weekly reading of the Torah; the recitation of the Grace After Meals; the chanting of Kiddush on Shabbat; the placement of the mezuzah on the doorpost; wearing tzitzit (and by extension the talit); laying tefillin and giving charity to the poor.  Additionally, Devarim provides us with five of the “Six Remembrances.”  We will discuss these in more detail as we encounter them in upcoming weekly readings.

Devarim is the sedrah that is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av.  The sedrah is basically a recapitulation of the events that occurred from the time the Israelites were at Mt. Sinai until they arrived at the Plains of Moab where Moshe agreed to let the two and one half tribes settle on the east bank of the Jordan.  Having just finished reading Bamidbar, you might find it interesting to compare that version of the story with Moshe’s summary.  There will be no attempt here to summarize a text that is already a summary.  However, there are a few salient points that are worth noting.

Criticism:  Commentators view the opening verses (1:1-5) as Moshe chastising the Israelites.  The references are oblique.  This is in keeping with the practice of not shaming people when mentioning what they have done wrong.

Divine Purpose:  Moshe clearly states the reason why they have made the journey.  God told the Israelites it was time to leave Mt. Sinai and take possession of the land He had promised to the Patriarchs (1:6-8).  In other words, they are not just a bunch of wandering nomads; they have a divine mission to perform.  At the same time, they cannot perform it by hanging around Mt. Sinai.  They must leave that holy place and take the Torah into the world.

Denial:  Moshe is told in Bamidbar that he will not be entering the Promised Land.  At that time, he accepted God’s judgment without comment.  But in a recurring theme of the book of Devarim, Moshe expresses his displeasure with this divine decision.  “With me, as well, the Lord became angry because of you, saying:  ‘You, too, shall not come there.’”  In other words, Moshe is blaming the Israelites for fact that he is not going to cross the Jordan.  Those who view Moshe as this mythic figure may find these words troubling.  But if you remember that Moshe is a human being, capable of expressing anger and disappointment, then you may find poignancy and a richer meaning to these angry words.

Leadership:  Moshe is vitally concerned about the orderly transfer of power.  He is constantly promoting Joshua as his successor.  But he also takes care to remind Joshua that his success will be tied to the Lord.  Moshe reminds Joshua that he does not have to base this trust on blind faith, but rather on the deeds he has already seen performed (3:21-22).

414.         The injunction to appoint competent judges (1:17).
415.         The judge’s obligation to act fairly and without fear of the litigants (1:17).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Words and Things
“Devarim” is usually translated to mean “words.”  “Devarim” may also be translated as “things,” “incidents,” or “occurrences.”  The opening line of the sedrah could then be translated as “These are the things (incidents or occurrences) that Moshe spoke about.”  The listing of the places in the next verse is a form of shorthand referring to episodes where the Israelites showed a lack of faith in God or otherwise did not measure up to the task at hand.  In other words, as Weisblum puts it, the opening verse should read, “These are things that you have done wrong.”

The Mouth of Moshe
When God called to Moshe at the Burning Bush, Moshe told God that he could not accept the job because he was not a man of words, “Ish Devarim.”  After all, he had a speech impediment.  Yet here we are, forty years later and Moshe’s book is called Devarim, words.  In fact, he has enough words in him that he will talk to the people for the last five weeks of his life.  What happened to our tongue-tied shepherd?  Could it be that the zeal for the Lord and knowledge of Torah overcame his speech impediment?  That is one question that I will leave to each of you to answer.

The Sedrah and the Calendar
This sedrah is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av.  Interestingly enough, the Hebrew word “Aycha” is used for the first time in the TaNaCh in this sedrah (1:12).  “Aycha” is translated variously as “Alas” or “How.”  “Aycha” appears for the third time as the first word in the Book of Lamentations, which is read on Tisha B’Av.  The Hebrew name for the Book of Lamentations is Aycha.  You will have to read the rest of this Guide to find when the word “Aycha” appears for the second time in the TaNaCh.

Judges and Justices
Judaism is a religion thick with laws.  The concepts of justice and a just society are themes that recur throughout Jewish writings.  Devarim places a special emphasis on this concept.  We see it for the first time in 1:13-15 when Moshe provides us with the characteristics of a good judge and the manner in which a case should be adjudicated.

Delegation of Authority
Moshe reminds the people of how he chose judges to hear their cases while they were still camped at Mt. Sinai.  Commentators usually hail this delegation of authority as a stroke of administrative genius.  Here in Devarim, Moshe may be seen to be rebuking the people for accepting the decision so willingly.  When he told them of the decision, “You answered me and said, ‘What you propose to do is good.’” (1:14)  Maybe he was hoping that the people would have expressed displeasure at losing their contact with Moshe, of not getting their Torah straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak.  In what might be seen as a chapter from a book on modern management techniques, Moshe saw the positives and pitfalls of delegation.

There are numerous explanations as to why ten is the minimum number of Jews for quorum for public, communal worship.  This sedrah provides another.  In Devarim 1:15, ten is the smallest number over which a chieftain presided.  If Moshe stopped with ten, then it is assumed ten is the smallest number for communal prayer.  Moshe also references the ten spies who did not want to go into the land.  They were an “edah” or a congregation.  If ten could work for an evil purpose - thwarting God’s plan to go into the Promised Land - then in typical Jewish fashion, ten could also be an “edah” for good - communal prayer including the reading of the Torah.

Love and the Law
As Blu Greenberg points out in “Challenge to Convention,” her commentary on this week’s portion, Devarim is thick with laws.  According to her, the book contains 200 of the 613 mitzvoth.  At one point, the Talmud divides these laws into two categories:  laws that govern relations between humans and God and laws that govern relations between one person and another.  For those in need of a visual, think of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.  On one side are the laws that begin “I am the Lord thy God” and on the other side are the laws that start, “Thou shalt not murder.”  But then the Rabbis double back on themselves by saying that violating laws that govern relationships between people really violate the covenant with God.  For example, we are told not keep a false set of weights.  This sounds like one of those human to human laws.  But the text tells us not to do this because it offends God.  In other words, the line of demarcation is not clear.  Since each person is God’s creation, hurting that person is really a manifestation of “hurting” God.  How do we show our love for God?  By treating each person with love.  How do we know what it means to love God?  He has given us the law so that, among other things, we can manifest that love.  Love does not replace the law.  Love is a feeling, an emotion.  The challenge is to find a venue for demonstrating that love.  In Judaism, “observance of the law is linked to love.  ‘And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?  Only this, to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul.’” (10:12).

The Antiquity of Devarim
A whole body of literature has developed over the last two centuries attacking the antiquity of the Book of Devarim.  I have neither the time, nor the space nor the expertise to do justice to this topic.  Some critics claim that the priests wrote Devarim during the reign of King Josiah, just before the workmen repairing the Temple miraculously found the supposedly ancient scroll.  According to this line of reasoning, Devarim was a power grab.  It was written to provide a theological and historic basis for centralizing the cult of the sacrifice in Jerusalem.  In other words, Devarim is not revelation.  It is a pious fraud.  It is the word of men, not God.  This line of reasoning would have been popular with those who were looking at the Bible as literature, not revealed teaching.  By accepting the view of Higher Biblical Criticism, they could then just discard any parts of the Torah that they found inoperative.  While nobody can provide a date certain for the writing of Devarim, there is a great deal of evidence for rejecting the revisionist view.  For example, why would a book that was written to ensure the centralization of sacrifice in Jerusalem, not mention that city once by name?  Why would a book written after the split into two kingdoms contain references only to one Jewish nation?  Why would the Prophets who lived before the priests supposedly wrote the Book of Devarim make reference to laws and customs that are part of Devarim?  The Hertz Chumash has a brief, but very informative article on this topic starting on Page 937.  This is a topic which should hold your attention as we read this book over the next couple of months.

Echoes of Egypt
The description of the encounter with King Sihon of Heshbon (2:26- 2:35) raises the question of free will versus predestination that we dealt with in the story of the Exodus.  When Moses dealt with Pharaoh, God would “harden his heart.”  When Moses asked King Sihon for the right to pass through his land, the king “refused to let us pass through, because the Lord had stiffened his will and hardened his heart in order to deliver him in your power…”  Reading the text as written, God deliberately intervened to affect the course of history.  So, why does God intervene here and remain the absent bystander in other episodes?  If God could intervene with the King of Heshbon, why didn’t he intervene (I will leave it to supply the event which will finish the question)?  And now you have another item to discuss when you sit down to Shabbat Kiddush for I do not have an answer.

Devarim Quiz Time
1. What analogy did Moshe use to describe the current population of Israel? (1:2)
2. How did Moshe describe God’s advice about passing through the hill country of Esau? (1:14)
3. According to Moshe, who died in the 38 years from the time the Israelites left Kadesh Barnea until they crossed the Zared Valley? (2:1)
4. What possession that belonged to Og, King of Bashan, did Moshe find worthy of mention? (2:18)
5. According to Moshe, what was he not going to be allowed to do because God was angry with him? (3:4)
(Source:  Nelson’s Amazing Bible Trivia)

1:1-27 Isaiah

The Man and The Book:  This is not the first time we have read about Isaiah, nor will it be the last.  Fifteen of the fifty-four haftarot read on Saturday mornings come from the Book of Isaiah.  In fact we will be reading about Isaiah for eight straight weeks, since the seven haftarot all come from the Book of Isaiah.  After a while, the challenge will be to tell you something you do not already know.  Therefore, I am going to deviate from the normal practice, and just provide you with direct material from various cites over the next several weeks.  By drawing directly on authors, you will not feel like you are getting nothing more than a re-hash of material you have already received.

Isaiah was a paramount shaper of the prophetic vision.  He was active over an extraordinarily lengthy period of time:  "The prophecies of Isaiah son of Amoz, who prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah" (Isaiah 1:1).  Isaiah was the most "political" of the prophets.  In the face of Assyrian expansionism he counseled a passive political and military approach.  He put his faith in divine salvation, which would certainly follow from a necessary change in the moral leadership and in the people's spiritual tenacity.  Every "earthly" attempt to alter the course of events was foredoomed, since the mighty Assyria was no more than a "rod" in God's hands with which to punish the sins of Jerusalem:  "Again the Lord spoke to me, thus:  'Because that people has spurned the gently flowing waters of Siloam assuredly, my Lord will bring up against them the mighty, massive waters of the Euphrates, the king of Assyria and all his multitude’" (8:6-7).  When the comprehensive religious reforms introduced by King Hezekiah seemed, at first, to justify the hopes held out for him by Isaiah, the prophet supported him in the difficult moments of the Assyrian siege:  "Assuredly, thus said the Lord concerning the king of Assyria:  He shall not enter this city; he shall not shoot an arrow at it, or advance upon it with a shield, or pile up a siege mound against us.  He shall go back by the way he came, he shall not enter this city declares the Lord" (37:33-34).  However, Isaiah took an unwaveringly dim view of Hezekiah’s attempts to forge alliances with Egypt and with the envoys of the Babylonian king Merodach-baladan, as a wedge against Assyrian expansionism.  Such efforts, he said, attested to insufficient faith in the Lord.  Isaiah is also considered the most universal of the prophets:  "In the days to come, the Mount of the Lord's House shall stand firm above the mountains....  And the many peoples shall go and shall say:  Come; let us go up to the Mount of the Lord..."(2:2-3).

From the “New Jerusalem Mosaic” Website sponsored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The Message:  The haftarah comes from the first 27 verses of the Book of Isaiah.  The prophet opens by declaring that this is his “Chazon” or in English, his “Vision.”  In other words, what we are about to “hear” is prophecy in the truest sense of the word.  Please note, I said “hear.”  The language is majestic and must be read aloud if it is to be fully appreciated.

There is a three-part indictment.  The people have broken the covenant by turning their back on God.  “Children I have reared and brought up, And they have rebelled against me” (1:2).  The people have turned the religious practices into meaningless sham.  “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me?” (1:11).  “Bring no more vain oblations” (1:13).  Finally, they have perverted the very system of justice ordained by God.  “Everyone loves bribes, and follows after reward; They judge not the fatherless, Neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them” (1:23).  For this land will be laid waste and the transgressing Israelites will be punished.  “And the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard” (1:8).  “Therefore saith the Lord…I will ease Me of Mine adversaries, And avenge Me of Mine enemies” (1:24).  But as is always the case, the haftarah ends on a positive note.  Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return with righteousness” (1:27).

Theme-Link:  According to tradition, the link here is not with the content of the sedrah but with the calendar.  This is the third of three Haftarot of Rebuke read after the Seventeenth of Tammuz and before Tisha B’Av.  The Shabbat prior to Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Chazon.  It takes its name from the first word of the haftarah.  Chazon literally means vision as in, “The vision (Chazon) of Isaiah son of Amoz which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (1:1).  The Vision is the vision of the destruction of the land and exile.  This is certainly an appropriate theme for the last Shabbat before commemorating the destruction of the Temple and the exile from the Promised Land.  Modern translations such as Etz Hayim and Plaut translate Chazon to mean “prophecies.”  They may have the better of the linguistic case although the word “Chazon” does mean “vision.”   More to the point, their translation betrays the majesty of the sentence and the sense of the special Shabbat, which is the Sabbath of the Vision.  A second reason for reading this haftarah is that it uses the Hebrew word “Aycha” (1:21).  This word is translated as “how” or “alas.”  As we already know, the word “Aycha” appears only four times in the TaNaCh and it is the Hebrew name for the Book of Lamentations which is read on Tisha B’Av.  It may not be intentional, but there does appear to be a thematic link between the sedrah and the haftarah.  In the sedrah, Moshe sets out the requirements for justice including impartiality, hearing all cases, and avoiding bribes.  In the haftarah, Isaiah tells the people that violating these very admonitions about judicial fairness will lead to exile and destruction.

Lyndon Johnson and Isaiah:  As Senator or President, when Lyndon Johnson sought to reach a compromise on some thorny issue, he would open with “Come now, let us reason together” (1:18).  Johnson knew the words came from Isaiah; he often gave the prophet credit for the line.  But I wonder if Johnson knew the context in which they were uttered.  They certainly were not intended to be the opening gambit in political wheeling and dealing, no matter how noble the cause.  Instead, as Dr. I.W. Slotki points out in verses 18 - 20 (which are quoted in their entirety), God is reasoning with His people, offering pardon and prosperity to the pertinent and death and destruction to the rebellious:  “18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. 19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land; 20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken.”  Actually, this is a pretty unique concept of the God-Man relationship.  God is not commanding, He is not threatening with divine thunderbolts.  God is “reasoning” with Man to get him to follow in His path.

Raoul Wallenberg Shabbat - Remembering The Righteous Among The Nations
The USCJ calendar designates August 4, the birthdate of Raoul Wallenberg, as Raoul Wallenberg Day.  It is customary among Jews to mark the anniversary of the death of a person as a time of memorial.  But in Wallenberg’s case, nobody is sure how or when he died; only that he died in the hands of the Soviets.  There is a tragic similarity between the fate of Wallenberg and the fate of the people he sought to save.  Nobody ever stepped in to try and save Wallenberg when he was captured.  And nobody did anything to try to and find him once the Soviets had dumped him into their prison system.  He was a victim of silence and “the big picture” every bit as much as the Jews were.  It is our custom to designate the first Shabbat as Raoul Wallenberg Shabbat in honor of his efforts and so his name would never be forgotten.  Thanks to the efforts of Temple Judah, Governor Chet Culver “proclaimed August 4, 2007, the 95th anniversary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg as Raoul Wallenberg Day, in honor of his courageous humanitarian efforts in war torn Hungary during World War II.”  This was the first such recognition by the state of Iowa.  Over time, we have expanded our effort to include all of those whom are considered “The Righteous Among The Nations” such as Aristides de Sousa Mendes who defied his government and issued transit papers to Jews so they could escape across the Pyrenees or Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who defied his government by issuing transit papers to Lithuanian Jews so they could escape the Holocaust.  Both of them lost their jobs, their careers and died in an impoverished state.  We have done a great job of remembering the killers.  We owed it to these people to tell and remember their tales.  For it behooves us to speak up for the “widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst” not just because God tells us to but because there were people who made the effort when everybody else closed their doors to us and closed their ears to our screams.

Raoul Wallenberg, Righteous Gentiles and Devarim
This Torah portion places special emphasis on the qualities of leadership.  Regardless of their titles, each of those who acted to save a life showed real leadership.  Unfortunately, the Shoah reminds us that too often those who held the mantle of leadership were unworthy of it and their behavior led the people to destruction.

Copyright, August, 2014, Mitchell A. Levin

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Torah Readings for Saturday, July 26, 2014 Masay

Torah Readings for Saturday, July 26, 2014

(33:1-36:13) Bamidbar (Numbers)

Masay is the tenth and final sedrah in Bamidbar.  The sedrah takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first verse of the portion, “These are the journeys (Masay) of the Children of Israel.”  Masay may be divided into three sections - The Travelogue, Political and Social Institutions in the Promised Land, and The Conclusion.  Masay marks the end of Bamidbar.  It marks the end of the Israelites’ time in Bamidbar, in the Wilderness.  It also marks the end of the narrative of the Torah.  As you know from having read Devarim, the death of Moshe is the only additional piece of the story of the Israelites’ stay in the Wilderness that is not covered in Bamidbar.  Masay should be studied with this sense of journeys in mind if we are to grasp its full meaning.

The Travelogue (33:1-49) God commands Moshe to make a written record of the journeys through the Wilderness starting with the departure from Egypt and finishing with the encampment on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from the Promised Land.  The text lists forty-two way stations or names forty-two journeys depending up which commentator you read.  Editors of various Chumashim all cite Rashi who contends that when you subtract the movement during the first and last years, there were only twenty different encampments during the remaining thirty-eight years.  This would indicate that there was really only a limited amount of travel by the ancient Israelites and that they spent a fairly long period of time in one spot.  This more sedentary view of things would certainly answer some of the earlier questions about how the Levites and Kohanim were able to pack and move the Tabernacle without any difficulty.  The text itself is quite spare, giving only the names of the stopping places.  It doesn’t mention the events that occurred at any of them such as the giving of the Ten Commandments, the appearance of Manna or the episode of the spies.  This would indicate that the names were well known to the reader and that the reader connected these places with certain historic events.  It would be like mentioning Pearl Harbor or Normandy.  Everybody knows without further explanation that one marked the start of World War II for the United States and the other is D-Day, the invasion of Europe.  Only when it comes to the mention of the stop at Mount Hor does the text describe the events connected with a particular place.  In this case it is the death of Aaron and the meeting with the king of Arad.  So far, I have not found an explanation for this apparent anomaly.  Yes, Aaron was a great man and his death is worth mentioning.  But why mention the king of Arad and not manna or the Ten Commandments?

Political and Social Institutions in the Promised Land (33:50-35:34) Having dispensed with the history lesson the sedrah now turns to political and social institutions to be adopted once the Israelites cross into the Promised Land.  First, Moshe describes the manner in which the land is to be conquered and divided (33:50-56).  The Israelites are to drive out the indigenous population and destroy their places of worship.  In a world of idol worshippers, the land of Israel will be the one place where there is no idolatry.  Here, only God will be worshipped in the manner He has commanded.  If the Israelites fail to do this, the inhabitants will harass the Israelites and God will add His own punishment for good measure.  There are those who think this portion was inserted at later time to explain the misery that befell the Israelites during the time of the Judges and/or to justify the wars waged by Saul and David.  Moshe announces that placement of the tribal lands will be by lot but the size of the allotment will be based on the population of the tribe.  The Torah then provides us with the boundaries of the land.  It is important to mark these boundaries now because there are many laws that only apply to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel (34:1-15).  Also, the tribal apportionments, with the exception of those in Trans Jordan, will occur within this landmass.  The different Chumashim provide maps based on the description provided.  Unfortunately, there is some confusion about some of the boundaries since we are not sure where all of these places are.  This is especially true when it comes to fixing the northern border because there seems to be some controversy as to where Mount Hor is located.  We do know one thing for sure.  The Mount Hor mentioned here is not the same as the Mount Hor mentioned in connection with the death of Aaron.  Since the Torah specifically mentions Canaan, the author may have been trying to describe the land of Canaan when it was an eastern province or satrap of the Egyptians in the twelfth or thirteenth century.  We do recognize the broad outlines including the Mediterranean on the west, the Negev to the south and the Jordan River and Dead Sea to the east.  Having taken care of the land for the other tribes, Moshe now turns to the landless tribe of Levi (35:1-15).  The Levites may not own land.  One commentator says the decision to keep the Levites landless was based on the experience in Egypt.  There, the Priestly Class was a major landowner and sided with the wealthy over the common people.  By keeping them landless, the Levites should be a force for morality favoring neither the rich over the poor or vice versa.  But the Levites had to live some place so they are assigned forty-eight cities in which to live.  The Torah goes into some detail describing their land allotment.  The Stone Chumash provides three detailed sketches of the holdings based on the interpretations of Rashi, Ramban (Nachmanides) and Rambam (Maimonides).  Six of these cities were of a special character.  They were Cities of Refuge.  Three were to be on the east bank of the Jordan, where the two and one half tribes had settled.  The other three were to be on the western bank of the Jordan in the Promised Land.  The cities served two purposes.  They provided a place of sanctuary for somebody who had taken a life but whose guilt or innocence had not been determined by a court of law.  They also provided a place of sanctuary for one whom the courts had decided was guilty of taking a life but not in a manner that warranted the death penalty.  This second category of miscreants was to remain confined until the death of the Kohein Gadol.  The Cities of Refuge were established to put an end to blood feuds.  Having recognized that there are different circumstances under which one might take a life, the Torah goes into great detail to describe each of them and the penalty attached thereto (35:16-34).  While the Torah allows for the death penalty, it is very scrupulous in how it should be applied.  At the same time, the Torah recognizes that human life is a gift from God and one may not buy his or her way out the punishment for killing.  Unlike the concept of monetary compensation that was attached to the “Eye for an eye” commands, the Israelites are precluded from accepting “ransom” from convicted murders.  Additionally, the Israelites could not accept “ransom” from one who had been confined to a City of Refuge.  Why so much law?  Why so many rules?  The spilling of blood “pollutes the land.”  The Land of Israel is God’s special place and He would not tolerate such pollution.

Conclusion (36:1-13) We are at the end of Masay.  We are at the end of Bamidbar.  We are at the end of a journey that started with the Exodus and finds the Israelites poised to conquer the Promised Land.  So what is the momentous conclusion to these events?  There is no Hollywood ending.  Instead we are faced with what appears to be a Biblical afterthought; a piece of unfinished business from a previous sedrah.  We read about a continuation of the story of the five daughters of Tzlaphchad.  Remember; they were the women who went to Moshe and complained that the laws of inheritance were unfair because they disinherited men who had no sons.  So Moshe consulted with God and re-shaped the laws of inheritance to take into consideration a variety of contingencies, including the one they had brought to his attention.  The five daughters went away happy because now they would have a portion in the Promised Land.  At the end of this sedrah, the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh approach Moshe to point out a problem with these modifications in the inheritance laws.  (Manasseh is the tribe of Tzlaphchad.)  If the daughters marry men outside of the tribe, the tribes of their husbands will inherit the land and the tribal portion of Manasseh will lose its territorial integrity.  It is interesting to note that this concern is being expressed by one of the tribes that is settling east of the Jordan; one of the tribes Moshe had previously accused of turning its back on its fellow Israelites and the Promised Land.  This is another one of those bothersome points for which I cannot find any commentary.  Moshe sees their point and adds yet another addendum to the inheritance laws.  Women who inherit from their fathers must marry somebody from with their own tribe.  This will ensure territorial integrity.  But such women are to “be wives to whomever is good in their eyes.” (36:6)  In other words, they get to choose whom they are going to marry and they may not have a mate thrust upon them.  The question still hangs in the air.  How can we end such momentous events with such a minor issue?  For a possible explanation, see Themes below.  Matot ends with a final statement that what we have read are all of the laws given by God through Moshe to the Israelites since they encamped at the plains of Moab.  These would be all of the laws starting with the sedrah of Balak.

408.         The commandment to assign cities to Levites in which to live (35:2).
409.         The commandment that murderers not be executed before they stand trial and are convicted (35:12).
410.         The obligation to confine inadvertent manslayers to a city of refuge until the death of the Kohein Gadol (35:25).
411.         The requirement that it takes the testimony of two witnesses to convict and execute an alleged murder (35:30).
412.         The prohibition against accepting money from a murderer to save him or her from a death sentence (35:31).
413.         The prohibition against accepting money from an inadvertent manslayer to free him or her from banishment to a city of refuge (35:32).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

The List of Resting Places
The sedrah provides a detailed list of places where the Israelites stopped during their wanderings in the desert.  Some critics claim that since these places cannot be found, the list is proof that the Torah is something less than what traditionalists claim it to be.  Oddly enough, the Rambam claimed that God wanted all of the places written down along with the miracles that occurred at those places so that future generations would not doubt the authenticity of the events described.  Who has the better of the argument, Rambam or some modern critics?  This sounds like another question to consider as we continue our annual wanderings through the Torah.

Wars of Extermination
The war against the Midianites and the commands about conquering the land of Canaan sound harsh in our modern ears.  One of the reasons they do is because the TaNaCh is filled with laws about social justice, mercy and the like.  In the case of Canaan, we know that the Israelites did not totally dispose of the inhabitants because they had to keep on fighting with them long after the time of Joshua.  And we know that some of our ancestors went astray, following the idolatrous path of the natives just as had been predicted.  I am not making a case for genocide.  But it is worth noting that there are great challenges in leading a Jewish life while living among the temptations of the non-Jewish world.  It was true three thousand years ago and it is true today. Just as then so it is today.  God knows we are not going to always hit the mark, but He waits for us to at least keep trying. Once again, the message of the Torah is timeless.

The Land of Israel
The Torah contains different geographic descriptions of the Land of Israel.  But at one level, the geography is unimportant.  The message of the Torah is that the land of Israel is more than a piece of dirt.  The land of Israel is only the Promised Land if it is a land of Torah.  Without the Torah we may inhabitant the land but we will be like those with “stings in our eyes,” “thorns in our sides,” “harassed in the land in which we live” and punished by God in a manner He had reserved for our enemies.

Non-imperial Israel
Alexander’s Empire stretched from Macedonia to India and included parts of Africa.  The Roman Empire stretched from the British Isles east to Mesopotamia from North Africa to the Banks of the Rhine River.  The British Empire girdled the globe to the extent that it was said “the sun never sets on the British Empire.”  In each case, the size of the empire was determined by the might of armies and navies; by the will of politicians and the economic drive of merchants and manufacturers.

Now consider the fate of the Israelites.  As “God’s chosen people,” some might think that their domain would include the entire planet or at least some large, bountiful portion, thereof.  You would think that the Israelites would do at least as well as those relying on the military.  Instead, the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Lord of the Universe gave His people a small, very well defined slice of the earth.  What is the meaning of this apparently disproportionate distribution of land?  First, God is the God for all people which means everybody is entitled to a portion of land in this world.  Second, the Israelites were chosen to receive and practice the law of God.  They needed enough space to do this, but they did not need some immense imperial domain.  Third, the land holdings that were the basis for these empires have all disappeared.  Yet the basis of the Jewish greatness, the teachings of the Lord are timeless and with us today as they were with our forefathers on the plains of Moab.

The Daughters of Tzlaphchad
One of the messages of Bamidbar has to do with change.  The Israelites literally changed from a nation of ex-slaves to a nation of free people ready to play their role in the next act of history.  The Israelites took the lofty words of Sinai and began to make them a part of daily life.  The various rebellions against Moshe were about change - the wrong kind of change.  For example Korach did not come to Moshe to discuss the matter of leadership.  Instead, he set himself up to replace Moshe and, in effect, to supplant the will of God.  The Daughters of Tzlaphchad showed the right way to seek change.  (Once again, leave it to the women to show the way.)  They did not like the law.  But they did not condemn it or ignore it.  Instead they approached Moshe and made their case.  Moshe then found a way to modify the law to meet their needs without violating the original intent of the law.  The request for further refinement by the leaders of Manasseh is a fitting way to end the journey of change.  They did not like the law.  But like the daughters, they did not condemn it or ignore it.  They came to Moshe, made their case and he refined the law even further.  Change is a necessary part of Judaism.  It is our ability to change in an effective manner that has kept us around for four thousand years.  Effective changes, as we can see from the Daughters of Tzlaphchad, includes being aware of the evolving world in which we live, knowing what the existing rules and traditions are and having leaders who are wise enough to know how to harmonize the two.  Maybe this is why Jews study this on an annual basis.  Maybe this is why we have made the journey through the Torah each year just as our ancestors journeyed through the Wilderness.

Roots:  Linguistics Leads to Learning
The book we have finished reading is called Bamidbar in Hebrew.  Hebrew is a language of roots, prefixes and suffixes.  In this case “Ba” is a prefix meaning “in the.”  In this case, the Hebrew word “midbar’ is translated as “wilderness” or “desert.”  Citing Maimonides, Susan Afterman reminds us that in Hebrew “midbar” is spelled mem, dalet, beth, resh.  The Hebrew word for speech, utterance, or talk is also spelled mem, dalet, beth, resh.  This linguistic anomaly offers a variety of philosophic possibilities.  It was in the Wilderness that the Israelites first heard the speech of God.  Elijah went to the Wilderness where he ultimately heard the speech of God - in the still small voice.  People go into the Wilderness or Desert to seek quiet and solitude.  In the peace and quiet of the Wilderness they are able to talk with themselves and hear their own speech.  At the same time they hope that God will talk to them and that they will be able to hear His Divine utterances.

Ending on the Mundane or the Manageable?
After all of the amazing events that we have read about from the time the Jewish people left Egypt until their arrival on the banks of the Jordan, the reading seems to end on what some would say is a mundane matter - the distribution of land.  Possibly it is a reminder that only God can create the majesty of Sinai, manna or talking Donkey.  But He has left it up to us to manage our daily affairs, the minutia of life.  How we choose to earn and share our livelihood (remember, in those days land was the source of one’s livelihood) is a matter that each of us can control.  So in the end, these books remind us that God has left us quite a bit to manage and how we manage will be the measure of the final judgment.

“Chazak!  Chazak! Venischazeik!  Be strong!  Be strong!  And may we be strengthened!”

Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4 (Ashkenazim)
Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4; 4:1-2 (Sephardim and Chabad)

The Man:  “Jeremiah began to prophesy in Jerusalem about seventy years after the death of Isaiah.  More is known about his life and teachings than about any other prophet, since the book of Jeremiah contains a mass of historical and biographical material.  He was gentle and sensitive.  He yearned for the comforts of a normal life; yet he felt impelled to speak the truth and be ‘a man of strife and content,’ delivering messages of doom and foretelling the fall of Jerusalem.  He was often imprisoned and in danger of his life, yet he did not flinch.  He was cruelly insulted and accused of treason by the people he loved tenderly - those whom he sought to save.  After the fall of Jerusalem in 586 before the Common Era, those who fled the wrath of the Babylonian conqueror forcibly took him into Egypt.  Tradition has it that Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had instructed his general to treat Jeremiah with consideration and kindness.  But the prophet insisted on sharing the hardships and tortures that were inflicted on his people.  Afterwards Jeremiah was killed in Egypt, where he had continued his fiery speeches for some time.  Jeremiah also foretold the restoration of Israel, and those who survived the agonies of captivity were promised a safe journey home to Judea.  He looked forward to a reunion of departed Israel with the people of Judah, to an in ingathering of all the exiles.  The book of Jeremiah is the longest of the prophetic books, even though it has fourteen chapters less than Isaiah.  Jeremiah’s dictations to his faithful secretary Baruch were written down upon a scroll of leather which the king of Judah slashed with a knife and burned.  But the prophet was not easily discouraged.  He ordered his scribe to take another scroll and write therein all the words of the book which he had burned.”  (From A Treasury of Judaism by Philip Birnbaum)  I am sorry if you feel as if I have taken the coward’s way out by giving you this long quote from Birnbaum.  I have written several summaries about Jeremiah and was afraid that I would start repeating myself.  On the other hand, Jeremiah is entitled to proper treatment and you are entitled to a full measure each week.

The Message:  This haftarah is example of why Jeremiah was so unpopular with his contemporaries and held in such high regard by succeeding generations.  The same magnificent language which makes us pause and consider our own shortcomings angered the original audience.  After all, his words are a stinging rebuke of the people’s behavior and promise of national destruction.  A seemingly confused God asks how the Israelites can turn their back on Him after all the divine beneficence they have experienced.  Once again, these words should be read aloud.  For in majestic flowing tones, Jeremiah calls the people to account for their betrayal of God.  His contemporaries are like a nation of “Esaus” trading their birthright, God and His Torah, for a bowl of soup i.e., idolatry and iniquity.  Jeremiah has special words of disdain for the leaders of the land; the “kings…princes… (idolatrous) priests…and (false) prophets” who have allowed the Israelites to behave like “a wild donkey well acquainted with the wilderness who inhales the wind” giving in to her lusts.  After castigating the people for calling a piece of wood, “my father” and venerating a piece of stone as the one “who gave birth to us” Jeremiah asks to whom they will cry out for help in times of peril.  Once again, hear the majesty of the language.  “So where are your gods that made you for yourself?  Let them arise, if they can save you in the time of your distress; far as the number of your cities was the number of your gods, O Judah.” (2:27-28)  But even this haftarah cannot end on such a note of negativity.  So the Ashkenazim (3:4) and the Sephardim and Chabad Chassidim (4:1-2) add additional words of consolation.  The prophet reminds the people that all they have to do is return to the ways of the Lord and not go astray again to ensure their own redemption and to lead the other nations to the blessings of God.

Theme-Link:  This haftarah is the second of the Three Haftarot of Rebuke.  The first of the rebukes ends with chapter 2, verse 3 and this haftarah starts with chapter 2, verse 4.  Thus the second haftarah literally as well as thematically picks up where the first haftarah left off.  The people have not only forsaken God.  They have forsaken His teachings, the Torah, as well.  As the walls of Jerusalem were being breached by the Babylonians, Jeremiah was telling the people that the national calamity was their fault.  In a post-Auschwitz world, we must look for other causes of the calamities that have befallen our people in modern times.  This might prove a fitting topic for a discussion when people gather to observe Tisha B’Av.

Copyright; July, 2014; Mitchell A. Levin

Monday, July 14, 2014

Torah Readings for Tuesday, July 15, 2014 Shiva Asar Be-Tammuz (Seventeenth of Tammuz) and Torah Readings for Saturday, July 19, 2014 Matot

Torah Readings for Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Shiva Asar Be-Tammuz (Seventeenth of Tammuz)
This minor fast day commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians and again in 70 C.E. by the Romans.  It marks the start of a three week period of national tragedy that culminates with the destruction of the First and Second Temples on Tisha B'Av.  Since this is a minor fast, it is observed only during the daylight hours.  This little known and little observed fast day carries a message for us when there are those whose self-proclaimed religious purity and zeal would pit Jew against Jew.  In the summer of 70 an earlier generation of Zealots was willing to kill their fellow Jews in Jerusalem as they bid to maintain control even as the Romans stood ready to storm the ancient capital.  According to some sages, the Second Temple fell because of the lack of love and community spirit among the Jewish people.  Even if we do not observe the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, we would do well to heed the lessons of this memorial to a national tragedy that happened two thousand years ago.

Secular Seventeenth of Tammuz
In 1776, July 4, Independence Day, fell on the 17th of Tammuz, 5536.  For American Jews, this certainly is a day of celebration.  The challenge is how to combine the combine the sorrow of 70 with the joy of 1776.  Is this a modern version of combining the bitterness of Maror with the sweetness of Charoset?

Seventeenth of Tammuz - 2014
This year there is a new enemy who seeks to breach the walls of the State of Israel.  This time, we pray they will fail and the children of Israel will be able to sit under their fig tree and none shall make them afraid.

32:11-14; 34:1-10 Shemot (Exodus)

As part of the observance, the Torah is read at both the Morning and the Afternoon Service.  The Torah portion is the same for both services.  It is a short reading with only three aliyot i.e., only three people are called to the Torah.  In the Afternoon Service, the Torah reading is followed by a Haftarah chosen especially for this day.  The first part of the reading (chapter 32) portrays God’s anger at the Israelites for the Golden Calf.  The second and third parts of the reading (chapter 34) describe Moshe’s return to the mountaintop to receive the Ten Commandments for the second time.  As Rabbi Kolatch points out, this is a fitting reading for a minor fast day since it contains the reminder that “sin leads to tragedy and expressions of remorse lead to forgiveness.”

55:6-56-8 Isaiah

This is the same haftarah read with Vayeilech, the ninth sedrah in Devarim.  In the haftarah, Isaiah calls upon the people to “Maintain justice and do what is right.”  The term for “right” in Hebrew is Tzedakah.  On fast days, it is even more important than on other days to provide contributions for the poor (Tzedakah).  Two reasons are given for reading the haftarah in the afternoon instead of the morning.  One is that by reading it in the afternoon, people will have had all morning to perform acts of Tzedakah.  A second reason is that on three of the more minor fast days, people are allowed to go to work.  Reading the haftarah in the morning would extend the service to the point where it could become burdensome.  Since Mincha is relatively short, it would be less burdensome on the community to read the haftarah at the Afternoon Service.

Torah Readings for Saturday, July 19, 2014

(30:2-32:42) Bamidbar (Numbers)

Matot is the ninth sedrah in Bamidbar (Numbers).  The sedrah takes its name from the first significant word in the first sentence of the portion, “And Moshe spoke to the heads (Matot) of the tribes of the children of Israel saying.”  The text actually uses the word “hamatot.”  In Hebrew the letter “hay” placed in front of a noun may be translated as “the” so the text is saying “the tribes.”  The sedrah divides into three parts - Vows and Oaths, The War with the Midianites and The Land of Rueben, Gad and Manasseh.

Vows and Oaths (30:2-30:17).  The first section of the sedrah deals specifically with two kinds of obligations, the vow or “neder” and the oath or “shevuah.”  (See Themes for a discussion of the difference between the two.)  As we shall see, the text provides a springboard for commentary on the importance of the spoken word in Judaism.  In a break from his usual practice, Moshe gives the rules about vows and oaths to the heads of the tribes and not to the Children of Israel as a whole.  The leaders are expected to communicate these rules to the people at a later time.   Commentators give three reasons for this difference.  In seeking favor with their followers, leaders may be tempted to use words people want to hear.  The words of leaders may lead the people astray or to greatness.  According to Halachah, under certain circumstances a leader or special court of three may be able to annul an ill-considered vow or oath.  The spoken word has great power in Judaism.  Creation was the result of words.  For example in creating man the word preceded the deed.  “And God said, ‘Let us make Man in Our image…So God created Man in His image.’”  And when one utters a promise invoking the divine name, one is expected to honor that obligation.  “According to whatever comes from his mouth he shall do.” (30:2)  However, all vows and oaths are not equal.  The sedrah presents a rather detailed formulary by which fathers and husbands may annul the vows and oaths of their daughters and/or wives.  This portion of Matot certainly is not consistent with our modern views of equality regardless of sex.  But we have seen the Torah is not necessarily consistent when it comes to matters of equality between the sexes.  For example, commandments like honoring parents or observing Shabbat apply to everybody regardless of sex.  Yet when it comes to inheritance laws or offering sacrifices the Torah presents what we would call a sexist bias.  Regardless of one’s view on this question, we must ask ourselves why the section on Vows and Oaths appears at this point in Bamidbar.  Perhaps further reading of the sedrah will provide a clue.

War with the Midianites (31:1-54).  Matot now picks up where the previous narrative left off.  It returns to the story of the Midianites versus the Israelites started in Balak and continued in Pinchas.  Having defeated the Midianites’ attempts to overcome the Israelites, the Lord tells Moshe, “Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites” (31:2).  To fulfill God’s command, Moshe creates a special army made up of an “eleph” from each tribe.  Accompanied by Pinchas this special fighting force is to destroy the Midianites.  The victorious Israelites kill, among others, the five kings of Midian and Balaam of talking donkey fame.  However, when the troops return, Moshe is furious because they have let the women live.  Moshe orders them to kill all the male children and all of the women except for the virgins.  While this command may sound discordant in our ears, from Moshe’s point of view it was quite sensible since it was these women who had attempted to seduce the Israelites and turn them to idolatry.  The chapter continues with the ritual purification of the soldiers who had come in contact with the dead, the purification of the booty and the division of the spoils.  Unlike those who run our corporate world today, the Torah provides a very detailed accounting of all items taken and the distributions made to the soldiers, the general population and the Kohanim.  The commanders and the officers are surprised to find that they have suffered no casualties and are moved to give an additional offering to the Lord in thanksgiving for a bloodless (from their point of view) victory.  This fight with the Midianites is unique in that it was not about territory or any temporal issue.  Rather it was a holy war designed to bring the Lord’s vengeance on transgressors.  Also, the Torah’s account may lack for some purely historical accuracy.  There are later mentions of the Midianites and fights against them.  There may have been more than one group with that name in the ancient world.  The Israelites may have only destroyed one group.  From Moshe’s point of view, there are two unique elements to this fight.  First, he does not lead it.  While no specific military commander is named, Pinchas is the one who is commanded to go with the troops.  Secondly, and more importantly, God has told Moshe that once the war is won, “you shall be gathered to your kin.” (31:2).  Could this knowledge that he was about to die have accounted for some of Moshe’s rough attitude in talking to the troops and dealing with the Midianites?  You be the judge.

The Land of Rueben, Gad and Manasseh (32:1-42).  The leaders of these two and one half tribes come to Moshe and tell him that that they want to settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan.  Before they can finish their sales pitch, Moshe begins to rebuke them for not being willing to join their brethren in the fight for the Promised Land.  He compares them to the Generation of the Spies, the generation that would not fight for the land.  In fact he is concerned that just as the spies turned the Israelites away from entering the Promised Land, so will the timidity of the two and a half undermine the courage of this generation of Israelites.  They assure Moshe that he has misunderstood them.  As soon as they have built “sheepfolds for our flocks and homes for our children,” they will be the shock-troops for the invasion Canaan.  What is more, they will not return to their homes until the conquest is complete.  Moshe accepts their promise.  (Now do you see why the sedrah started with a section on the importance of fulfilling vows and oaths?)  Since Moshe will be dead by the time they will have kept or broken their promise he tells Elazar and Joshua about the bargain.  He also tells them that if the two and a half tribes fail to keep their word, they will have to settle in Canaan and give up their holdings in Trans-Jordan.  Traditionally, Rueben, Gad and Manasseh have been criticized for their decision.  By saying that they wanted to settle outside of the Promised Land because it would be good for their cattle and that they wanted to build shelter for their sheep and for their children (instead of the other way around) they are seen as shallow and materialistic.  And that may be a fair assessment.  On the other hand, they may just have been a little ahead of their times.  As you know, the Torah gives more than one description of the boundaries of the Promised Land.  Sometimes, the eastern boundary is the Jordan River.  But at other times it is the Euphrates River.  According to at least one source, this Euphrates River boundary was for the time of the Moshiach.  So who knows, maybe the leaders of these two and a half tribes were just a little ahead of their time, trying to hasten the coming of the Moshiach.  This is not the usual interpretation, but then this is not your usual Torah study either.  The sedrah ends with the two and half tribes securing their hold on the land that will ultimately be their portion in the future Kingdom of Israel.

406.      The specification and procedure for fulfilling ones vow (30:3).
407.         The specification and procedure for nullifying a vow when necessary (30:8).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Vows and Oaths
The first section of Matot deals with two distinct types of commitment.  The first is a vow or in Hebrew a “neder.”  The second is an oath or in Hebrew a “shevuah.”  As the notes in the Stone Chumash point out, the term “neder” really means something more than just a vow.  It is more than a simple promise to do something.  Rather, a “neder” gives a person the right to do something that heretofore could be done only by God:  to create a new halachich status.  For example, one can make a vow to deny himself something, for a limited period of time, which the Torah permits.  The invoking of the “neder” changes the nature of the thing itself.  On the other hand, “by means of an oath or ‘shevuah’ one may either prohibit oneself or require oneself to perform an act.”  To use Stone’s example, “if I have made an apple forbidden to myself (this is an example of ‘neder’) the apple has the status of a forbidden food to me and therefore I may not enjoy the apple.”  The status of the apple has changed.  But if I have taken an oath (“shevuah”) to eat an apple, I have accepted an obligation but from the point of view of halachah, the status of the apple has not changed.  This may seem a little esoteric, but it is a concept with which we should have some nodding acquaintance as we go forward.  (And that is all I have, a nodding acquaintance.)   As Rabbi Telushkin points out, vows are so important that “many observant Jews, when announcing something that they plan to do, append the Hebrew words “bli neder (without a vow), to protect themselves in case they cannot fulfill their word.

This sedrah provides the basis for the method of purifying various items acquired from non-Jews. (31:21-24).  More specifically it provides the method of purification for utensils and kitchen items so that may be used in accord with Jewish Dietary Laws.  In telling the soldiers how to purify some of their booty the Torah states the following.  “Any article that can withstand fire-these shall you pass through fire and they shall be pure, except that they must be purified with water of lustration; and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through water ” (31:23).  This last statement about purifying by water has led to a practice called toiveling coming from the Hebrew word “toivel” meaning to immerse.  For more information at the easy reading level, I suggest you look at Spice and Spirit.

The Complexities of Moshe
Moshe continues to show himself to be both a great leader and a very complex person.  When God told Moshe to wipe out the Midianites, Moshe did not tarry.  He moved quickly to obey God even though God told him in the same sentence (31:2) that once this was done, Moses was going to die.  A lesser man might have stalled around; but not Moshe.  Just as Abraham got up early in the morning to take Isaac up to Mount Moriah, so did Moshe move with alacrity.  This is a reminder that as the sages say, a righteous man is quick to do the work of the Lord.

A Few Last Words about Words
The readings from the Tanya that are read at this time deal with the concept of creation coming from the word of God.  Perhaps this is coincidence.  Or perhaps it is a way of reinforcing or expanding on this important concept found in Matot.

“According to the Hebrew Bible, God made the world with words.  God just spoke and the world became reality.  The Aramaic for ‘I create as I speak’ is avara k’davara, or in, magicians language, abracadabra.”  The Book of Words by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Matot and the Modern World
The sedrah reminds of the importance of words, especially of the impact of words spoken by leaders.  In the 21st century the misuse of words has had a corrosive impact on our political and social discourse both in the United States and in Israel.  Too often our leaders, regardless of party or belief, use language that is intended to inflame and not inform.  There are two things we can do about this.  We can avoid this kind of language in our own discourse and we can let our leaders know that we do not want to hear this kind of language.  It also reminds us of the importance of vows - promises.  It would behoove our leaders to only promise that which they can reasonably deliver.  And it would behoove us not to force them to make promises that they cannot keep.

East Bank Settlement
The request to settle on the east bank is a strange interlude.  In the beginning, it is the leaders of Gad and Ruben who make the request.  When Moses acquiesces he includes a portion of Manasseh even though they had not made the request.  This episode may be an example of having a biblical tale to explain a current reality; a form of interpretation that James Kugel mentions in his writings.  It could have been that a portion of the Israelites came to live on the east bank of the Jordan River.  When people asked why this was, this story was “created” to show that their settlement really was done with divine approval.  Another point to consider is the involvement of the tribe of Ruben.  Ruben had been the oldest son, but, according to Bereshit, he had been supplanted in the days of Jacob.  Could the desire of his descendants to live away from the main body of the House of Israel be a way of Ruben’s progeny expressing their displeasure at being denied their rightful place in the grand scheme of things?  Mannaseh presented a special problem.  Depending on when the counting is done, Manasseh is really half of the Joseph Tribe with Ephriam being the other half.  Could settling this half tribe on the east bank be Moses’s way of dealing with a thorny question of land allotment?  The fact is that whatever propelled the creation of this Jewish community across from the “Promised Land” there was something wrong with what when on there.  After all, when God allots the six cities of refuge, he puts three on the west bank of the Jordan and three on the east bank of the Jordan.  When you consider how much larger the land mass and population base were on the west bank, this seems allotment seems disproportionate.  Unless, that is, the land east of the Jordan river was like the land west of the Pecos River in American folklore, a lawless place inhabited by desperados.  I have not been able to find an answer to all of this, but that is not a reason to avoid the question or to stop looking for one.

Lessons in Leadership
“48 And the officers that were over the thousands of the host, the captains of thousands, and the captains of hundreds, came near unto Moses; 49 and they said unto Moses:  `Thy servants have taken the sum of the men of war that are under our charge, and there lacketh not one man of us.  50 And we have brought the LORD's offering, what every man hath gotten, of jewels of gold, armlets, and bracelets, signet-rings, ear-rings, and girdles, to make atonement for our souls before the LORD.'” (31:48-50)  The leaders of the military expedition were thankful that there were no casualties and they wanted to express their gratitude for this miracle.  So they gave up their portion of the booty but the common foot soldiers got to keep theirs.  Compare this with the world in which we work where the “captains of industry” do anything to protect their bonuses and perks even when it comes at the diminishment of the well-being of the workers - today’s version of the common foot soldiers.  These officers who were only separated by one generation from the whip of the Egyptian taskmasters showed a great sensitivity and true leadership than the products of some our fanciest universities and their schools of business.

1:1-2:23 Jeremiah

The Man:  Since the Book of Jeremiah has provided us with six haftarot already this year, you probably feel like you know all there is to know about Jeremiah.  Therefore, this introduction will be comparatively short.  Jeremiah is considered one of the Three Major Prophets.  He lived during the last part of the seventh century and the first part of the sixth century B.C.E.  He preached for about forty years from 626 B.C.E. until 580 B.C.E.  This means he saw the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, the rise of the Babylonian Empire, the destruction of the Temple (586 B.C.E.) and the dispersal of the Jews to Babylonia and Egypt.  As we have said before, Jeremiah must have been the loneliest and unhappiest of men.  Nobody would heed his warnings.  He was an outcast, a pariah.  Worse yet, all the misery he predicted came to pass yet he took no pleasure in being right.  In the end he was carried off to the one place he did not want to go, Egypt.  The land that had enslaved his ancestors and that had betrayed his contemporaries became his graveyard.

The Message:  The haftarah comes from the opening verses of the Book of Jeremiah.  It starts with biographical data about the prophet.  Then there is a shift to God summoning Jeremiah to take up his prophetic mission.  In the tradition of Moshe, Jeremiah does not want to accept the charge.  But God is insistent.  He reassures Jeremiah that He, God, will be with Jeremiah no matter how the people respond.  The language here, like much that we find in Jeremiah, is too powerful to paraphrase.  To get its full effect, read it aloud.  God tells Jeremiah that He will destroy the people for their evil behavior and their idolatry.  And it is Jeremiah’s job to let them know what is about to happen.  In keeping with the tradition that a haftarah should not end on a negative note, the reading continues with three sentences from chapter two.  The prophet reminds the people that God will always love them and will destroy those who do evil to the House of Israel.

Theme-Link:  There is no link between the sedrah and the haftarah.  The connection is between the haftarah and the calendar.  Between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av we read “Telata D’puranuta” an Aramaic term referring to The Three (Haftarot) of Rebuke or Admonition, of which this is the first.  The texts of these three Haftarot all contain strong condemnations of the people’s behavior and warn of national destruction.  Appropriately enough, two of the three come from the Prophet Jeremiah who is traditionally credited with authoring the Book of Lamentations, which is read when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple.  The third comes from Isaiah.

Jeremiah Quotes:  As the partridge sitteth on eggs, and hatcheth them not; so he that getteth riches, and not by right, shall leave them in the midst of his days.  Jeremiah: 17. 11
The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?  Jeremiah: 5. 31
Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein.  Jeremiah: 6. 16

Copyright; July, 2014; Mitchell A. Levin