Sunday, September 14, 2014

Torah Readings for Saturday, September 20, 2014 Nitzavim and Vayeilech

Torah Readings for Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nitzavim and Vayeilech - A Double Portion:  Because 5774 is not a leap year, we have to double up on some Torah portions.  This Shabbat is one of those times.  We read the portions of Nitzavim and Vayeilech, each of which is discussed below.  Taken individually these are two of the shortest weekly readings of the year so combining them does not place an undue burden on the congregation.  As you will see in the reading below, Vayeilech contains the 612th and 613th commandments meaning that the list of laws ends this week.  That is appropriate for the Shabbat just prior to the Days of Awe.  The next two Torah portions are more of a spiritual, poetic and mystical nature which is in keeping with the motif of the High Holidays.

Nitzavim (Are Standing)
29:9 - 30:20 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

Nitzavim is the eighth sedrah in the Book of Deuteronomy or Devarim.  It is one of the shortest of the weekly readings with only forty verses.  The sedrah takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first sentence.  “You are standing (Nitzavim) today, all of you before the Lord, your God.…”  This sedrah does not contain any of the 613 commandments.  According to some commentators this is the end of Three Discourses that have comprised the book of Devarim up to this point.  Other commentators contend that Moshe is speaking on the last day of his life.  If you read these words as the declaration of an old man who is weary from responsibility but determined to instill hope in the people who are leaving him and whom his leaving, they take on a special majesty and poignancy.  The language is so majestic that commentary, at one level, almost seems self-defeating.  I would suggest that you read the text aloud, at least once.  Ignore the footnotes and listen for the sound.  There are no new themes this week.  The whole portion is “Recurring Themes.”

Moshe opens with a reminder that we are a covenanted people.  The detailed mentioning of so many different groups in the audience indicates that the covenant and the Torah are for all Jews.  The reference to those “not here” means that this covenant is for all times and for all Jews.  We may turn away from our birthright, but it is always there waiting for us.

Moshe follows with yet another admonition about our old nemesis, worshipping idols.  Moshe shows insight into human nature as he warns against those who are arrogant enough to think they can break the laws.  This is another one of those themes that resonates throughout Jewish teachings.  In Pirke Avot, Yochanan, son of Berokah, says, “Whosoever profanes the name of Heaven in secret will suffer the penalty in public….”  (4:4)

Justice System/Communal Responsibility
The reference is to 29:28.  “The secret (things) belong to the Lord our God; but things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, to do all the word of this law.”  Some commentators might contend that this reinforces a basic concept of the Jewish judicial system.  God is the ultimate judge.  You might beat the jury, but you cannot hide from the ultimate judgment.  At the same time, the second half of the verse would indicate that we are responsible not only for our own conduct but for helping others with theirs.

Elul and The Days of Awe
How appropriate to read the first ten verses of Chapter 30 just before or just after Selichot Services.  After we have endured the blessings and the curses, when we are ready to “return,” God will find us no matter where exile has taken us and He will restore us.  Of course the concept of exile is spiritual as well as physical.  So as we utter the penitential prayers, the sedrah assures us that they are being heard.

Torah is for Everybody
The words of 30:11-14 say it all so beautifully:.  “…it is not hidden from you and it is not distant.”  Unlike other religions, Torah is open to all Jews.  There are leaders and teachers, but they do not own the text.  According to some, Torah study has a similarity to prayer.  It is another avenue for reaching out to God.

The Choice
“11. For this commandment which I command you this day, is not hidden from you, nor is it far off.
12. It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it?
13. Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it?
14. But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.
15. See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil;
16. In that I command you this day to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the Lord your God shall bless you in the land which you are entering to possess.
17. But if your heart turns away, so that you will not hear, but shall be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them;
18. I announce to you this day, that you shall surely perish, and that you shall not prolong your days upon the land, to which you are going over the Jordan, to enter and possess.
19. I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live;
20. That you may love the Lord your God, and that you may obey his voice, and that you may cleave to him; for he is your life, and the length of your days; that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”  (31:11-20).

In brilliantly clear language, Moshe lays out the choice:  Good and Evil, Life or Death.  But it is exactly that, our choice.  “’Therefore choose life.’  Jewish ethics is rooted in the doctrine of human responsibility, that is, freedom of the will.  ‘All is in the hands of God, except the fear of God,’ is an undisputed maxim of the Rabbis.  And ‘to subject our will to the will of our father in Heaven’ is the great purpose of man’s life one earth.  According to the historian Josephus, the doctrine of Free-will was maintained by the Pharisees both against the Sadducees, who attributed everything to chance, and the Essenes, who ascribed all the actions of man to predestination and Divine Providence.  ‘Free-will is granted to every man.  If he desires to incline towards the good way, and be righteous he has the power to do so; and if he desires to incline towards the unrighteous way, and be a wicked man, he has also the power to do so.  Since this power of doing good or evil is in our own hands, and since all the wicked deeds which we have committed have been committed with our full consciousness, it befits us to turn in penitence and forsake our evil deeds; the power of doing so being still in our hands.  Now this matter is a very important principle; nay it is the pillar of the Law and of the commandments.’”  (Maimonides as rendered in the Hertz Pentateuch).

There is much that man does not have control over in his physical universe.  But “though man cannot always even half control his destiny, God has given the reins of man’s conduct altogether into his hands.”  (Hertz Pentateuch)  A great deal has been written on the subject of Free-Will versus Predestination versus Life as a Random Crap-shoot.  One book that is worth the read (or re-read) on this subject is Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search For Meaning.  It is only 154 pages long, but it is a million miles wide and two million miles deep.  From the bowels of Auschwitz he wrote, “…it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.  We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly.  Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct.  Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly set for each individual…Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action.  At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way.  Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross.”  But even in those times a man has the “unique opportunity” to decide “the way in which he bears his burden.”

All Jews Are Gems
The sedrah opens with a recitation describing all who are present at the acceptance of God’s law including those with the lowest of professions, “From the hewers of your wood to the drawers of your water” (29:10).  This verse has spawned many commentaries and rabbinic tales including this one.

“A Chassid, who was a wealthy dealer in gems, was once sitting the presence of Reb Shalom Ber of Lubavitch.  In the course of their conversation the Rebbe spoke highly of certain unlettered folk.
‘Rebbe,’ asked the Chassid, ‘why do you make such a fuss of them?’
‘Why, they have many noble qualities,’ said the Rebbe.
‘Well, I can’t see them,’ said the Chassid.
The Rebbe was silent.  Later on, he asked the Chassid whether he had brought his package of diamonds with him.  The dealer said that he had, but he would prefer to show them to the Rebbe a little later, not in the sunlight, so that they could be seen to their best advantage.  Later, the diamond dealing Chassid opened the package in a nearby room, arranged the gems carefully on a table, and pointed out a particular stone to the Rebbe, saying: ‘this one is something really special!’
‘I can’t see anything in it,’ said the Rebbe.
‘Ah, but you have to be a connoisseur to know how to look at diamonds!’ said the Chassid.
‘Every Jew too is something really special,’ said the Rebbe, ‘but you have to be a connoisseur to know how to look at him.’”

The Nameless Shabbat
As Barry Holtz and Behtamie Horowitz point out in their commentary on Nitzavim entitled “It Depends on each of Us”, there are several Sabbaths with special names.  The Sabbath before Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol.  The Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of the Return.  But there is no special name for the Sabbath before that most holy of days, Rosh Hashanah.  Since the Torah portion Nitzavim is always read on the Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah the sedrah itself must contain a message that makes it a harbinger for the upcoming event.  The sedrah begins, “You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God.…”  (29:9)  Just as the Israelites were standing before God to hear Moshe’s final words, so are all of us today standing before Him who is the Judge of us all.  Furthermore, we are all seeking to be inscribed in the Book of Life and Moshe urges us to follow the laws of God and Life, “…therefore (you) choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.”  (30:19)  When the Sedrah opens it uses the plural form of the word “You.”  Later when the Sedrah urges us to choose life, it uses the singular form of the word “you.”  Why the change?  Possibly to remind us that renewal for another year depends on the behavior of the whole house of Israel as well as the behavior of each individual.  Or as Benjamin Franklin said when urging the colonists to unite in the war against British tyranny, “Either we hang together, or we shall surely hang separately.”

Hewers of Woods, Drawers of Water - Unsung Heroes
“You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God:  your heads…your elders…your officers…the hewer of thy wood and the drawer of thy water.”  As the story below reminds us, the covenant belongs to all of the Jewish people.  This means that in Judaism, there are no mundane people and that the most mundane act can be a mitzvah in the truest sense of the term.

When Rebbitzin Mirl, the saintly wife of the sage Reb Avraham Yehoshou Heschel of Apta heard that Reb Yaakov the wagon-driver had died she cried out in grief.  The sage’s students were surprised to hear her express such anguish over this simple man.  When she had calmed down she explained.  “It once happened that on a freezing winter’s day I was left without a single splinter of firewood in the house.  I went to Reb Yaakov who immediately harnessed his horse and drove off to the forest.  He came back with a wagon stacked high with firewood.  He stoked up the stove in the study hall and dozens of you young scholars were then able to sit there and study Torah in warmth and comfort.  On another occasion I ran out of water - not a single drop left.  Again I went off to Reb Yaakov.  He brought me a huge barrel full of water, so that I was able to cook in honor of Shabbat.”  “Master of the Universe!” she pleaded in conclusion.  “May it be Your will that from every piece of wood that he brought, an angel be born - to speak up now on his behalf.  And may all those drops of water be transformed into so many merits - to turn out and greet him as arrives in the World Above.”   Apparently the Heavenly court heard and heeded her prayers for this simple man was immediately admitted into the Heavenly Host.  (Based on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, of blessed memory.)

Vayeilech (And he went)
31:1-30 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

Vayeilech is the ninth sedrah in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy).  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the portion.  Due to a quirk of linguistics, the first Hebrew word is the second English word and vice versa.  “Moshe went (Vayeilech) and spoke these words to all of Israel.”  Vayeilech contains only thirty verses and is the shortest of them all.  When it is read alone, Vayeilech is the sedrah for Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return also called Shabbat T’Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance.  This is the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Moshe has finished the third and final discourse.  According to some commentators, this is the last day of Moshe’s life.  To better appreciate the sedrah, close your eyes.  Envision Moshe walking through the camp, stopping and visiting with each tribal group much as somebody would do if he or she were leaving a large gathering to go on a long trip.  While we have not finished with the Torah, we have finished with the commandments.  Vayeilech contains the last two commandments bringing us to a full complement of 613 Mitzvoth.

612.       The obligation of the entire Israelite community to assemble every seven years to hear the Torah read publicly (31:10-13).
613.       The commandment that each Jew should write a Torah scroll during his lifetime (31:19).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin as edited by this author.

In verses 1-6 and verse 14, Moshe’s departure is stated in obvious language.  He is still upset about not going into the Promised Land, but this time there is no arguing or blaming as we saw earlier.  This is consistent with the behavior of a dying man who has made peace with himself.  Moshe set standards on how to live and how to die as well.  He is Moshe Rahbeynu, Moses the Teacher, in the truest sense of that term.  Beginning with verse 7, we see Moshe advancing Joshua as his successor.  This transition is consistent with what seems to be a Jewish passion for bringing order to what seems like a chaotic universe.  The concept of lineage is extremely important in establishing intellectual and religious credibility as can be seen, for example, in the opening verses of the Pirke Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers.

The sedrah contains only two commandments and they both concern the Torah.  Moreover, these are the last two commandments in the Torah.  Placement would seem to be an indication of importance.  The first commandment has to do with the public reading of the Torah, the second with the need to write one.  Interestingly, we appear to have expanded the public reading aspect.  This probably began with Ezra the Scribe after the return from the Babylonian Exile.  According to some, it was really Ezra who began the real work of democratizing the Torah and making it available to all of the Israelites.  At any rate, we have gone from reading the Torah once every seven years to reading it three times a week as well as on festivals and holidays.  At the same time we appear to have lessened the writing requirement.  The requirement for fulfilling the command about writing a Torah has gone from writing a whole scroll, to writing one letter, to purchasing books of Jewish learning.  Of course, many congregations have taken advantage of this and have used the purchase of a letter, or a line or a sedrah as fundraising activity for the repair or purchase of a Torah.  We should also note that women as well as men were to hear the reading of the Torah.  Obviously from Moshe’s point of view, our modern practice of educating women is the right thing to do.  One can see from the text that the Torah is at the core of Judaism since it was to be placed just outside of the Holy Ark.  There are some interesting commentaries on the significance of placing the scroll of the law just outside of the Ark, which contained the Tablets.  If you accept the view that the words on the Tablets are the unique utterances of God, then the physical positioning of the Torah outside of the Ark may carry the image of the Torah as the bridge or pathway for man to reach up to the Divine and the Divine to reach down to man.

Starting with verse 16, God tells Moshe that the Israelites are going to sin and suffer accordingly.  In verses 27 and 29, Moshe repeats this.  How do we square this with the message of choice or free will that we read in the previous sedrah?  Moshe is basing his prophecy on past performance.  But we do not have to be prisoners of our past.  There is great deal written about this apparent contradiction in concepts.  Rabbi Akiva says, “Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given; and the world is judged by grace, yet all is according to the amount of work.”  (Pirke Avot, III: 19)  Rabbi Hertz says that this verse “is among the most important in the Avot and lays down a fundamental doctrine of practical religion…God’s foreknowledge and the freedom of man’s will are reconcilable; so are God’s mercy and justice in His dealings with man.”

Where is God?
Verses 17 and 18 have been challenging for commentators over the centuries.  The concept of God hiding his face has taken on an even more troubling manifestation since the Holocaust.  If you want to pursue this topic, I suggest you might try The Trial of God by Elie Wiesel.  Since this is set in the seventeenth century Ukraine, it is obvious that this issue transcends the Holocaust.  I heard the following story.  Supposedly it actually happened.  God was put on trial in one of the camps during the Shoah.  This was done by the observant, not the scoffers.  They had difficulty finding a defense attorney for God.  The trial lasted three nights.  At the end of the trial, the court found God guilty.  After announcing the verdict, the chief rabbi stood and announced, “Gentlemen, it is time to say the evening prayer.”  In other words, you may be angry with God.  But you cannot stop believing in Him.  Issues like this and Predestination versus Free Will may be a form of Intellectual Chukat.  In other words, they are issues that will not really be resolved until the coming of the Moshiach.

Torah as the Foundation for a Modern Jewish State
Micah Odenheimer finds the command that the Jewish people gather every seven years to hear the reading of the Torah should serve as the blueprint for a modern Jewish state.  In a Jewish state i.e., Israel, the ethical teachings of the Torah should infuse all aspects of statecraft.  In a modern Jewish state, religious leaders would work to ensure the existence of institutions designed to guard against income disparity that would guarantee the well-being of the weak as well as the strong and would have leaders who behave in the best possible manner.  Odenheimer decries the fact that the so-called Religious leaders of Israel have traded this role of meaningful ethical arbiter for a few political crumbs such as a Religious Ministry that gives them control, in the narrowest sense of the term, of things like marriage ceremonies, rules for divorce, and who can pray where at the Western Wall.

No sooner do we finish with Shabbat than we gather for the recitation for Selichot.  For those of us who are confused by the apparent “floating” of these nighttime penitential utterances, the following might be of some use.
The following is a “neutral” description of this custom

61:10-63:9 Isaiah

The Man/The Book:  This haftarah is a product of the writing of the Second Isaiah, who is also called the Isaiah of the Exile.  This unknown author produced the last 26 chapters of the Book of Isaiah.  His was a message of hope and imminent redemption offered to the Jewish community of Babylonia.  This was the community who had been variously exiled by the Assyrians and the Babylonians and was the remnant of the Jewish people.

The Message:  The theme is that of a triumphant restoration.  The prophet opens with imagery of Israel, the Bride reclaimed by her Divine Groom.  The motif then shifts to that of the Divine Warrior who, in words reminiscent of the Haggadah’s description of the Divine Avenger moving against the Egyptians on the night of the Tenth Plague, will take personal charge in the defeat of Israel’s enemies.

The Theme-Link:  The link here is with the calendar, not with the Torah portion.  This is the last of the Seven Haftarot of Consolation, which were intended to comfort the Israelites after the destruction of the Temple.  Also, the tone of these prophetic portions helps to prepare us for the upcoming High Holiday Season with its theme of restoration, repentance and return.  The compilers of the haftarot seemed to have an unwritten rule of trying to end on an upbeat note.  In a message that is appropriate for the Exiles of Babylonia as well as modern man who suffers his own forms of exile, the prophet offers one final word of hope and reconciliation, “Afflicted in their affliction, the Divine Presence saved them.  In love and pity God redeemed them and carried them and raised them high in all times past.”  After the affliction, after the suffering and atonement, there is Divine forgiveness.

Copyright, September, 2014, Mitchell A. Levin

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Torah Readings for Saturday, September 13, 2014 Ki Tavo

Torah Readings for Saturday, September 13, 2014

Ki Tavo (When you enter)
26:1-29:6 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

Ki Tavo is the seventh sedrah in the book of Devarim or Deuteronomy.  The sedrah takes its name from the second and third Hebrew words in the first sentence of the reading.  “And it will be when you enter (Ki Tavo) the Land that the Lord, your God, gives you as an inheritance.…”  Ki Tavo stands in stark contrast with the previous three sidrot.  The torrent of laws slows to a trickle, with a mere half dozen.  At one level the sedrah reads as a re-affirmation of the covenant made at Sinai.  Now Moshe shifts to the consequences of obeying and disobeying the commandments.  The sedrah divides into the following four parts:

Rituals To Be Performed in the Promised Land (26:1-15).  Moshe provides the formulary to be followed at harvest time and when tithing.

Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal (27:1-26).  Moshe describes the ritual that will be performed once the people have crossed the Jordan.  It will provide a concrete reminder of the consequences of choosing to obey or disobey the commandments.  The tribes will stand on the slopes of these two mountains and hear the blessings and the curses.

The Blessings and The Curses (28:1-68).  The first fourteen verses include a compilation of the Blessings that will come to the people for obeying the law.  The balance of the chapter includes the Curses, or in Hebrew, the Tokhehah (Rebukes), which will befall the people for disobeying the commandments.

Reaffirmation of the Covenant (28:69-29:8).  The tradition is to avoid ending on a negative note.  So the sedrah continues with a reaffirmation of the covenant that was originally made at Sinai.

606.       The obligation to recite a specific prayer upon bringing one’s first fruits to the sanctuary (26:1-10).
607.       The obligation to make a certain declaration when the portions and tithes are paid (26:12-15).
608.       The prohibition against eating the Second Tithe while in mourning (26:12-15).
609.       The prohibition against eating the Second Tithe while ritually unclean (26:12-15).
610.       The prohibition against spending any money exchanged for the Second Tithe on anything other than food and drink (26:12-15).
611.       The commandment to emulate God’s behavior by walking in His ways (28:9).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin with edits by this author.

Devarim continues to reinforce and set the stage for the penitential period that reaches its crescendo with the Days of Awe.  As your read the portion on the Blessings and the Curses listen and you may hear echoes of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer “who shall live and who shall die…who shall perish by fire and who by water…who shall rest and who shall wander….”

The Importance of the Promised Land and the Pain of Exile
We are commanded to bring the offerings to a central place once we have entered the Promised Land.  But the Torah does not mention Jerusalem by name.  Why does Moshe keep missing his chance to use the name of Jerusalem?  Is this an omission, and if so what could explain it?

The commands concerning the offerings of the first fruits represent one of the few times that the Torah actually contains the specific wording for a prayer.  Many of you will recognize part of the formulation from the narrative in the Haggadah.  Why do we make the recitation of Jacob’s experience with Laban and Jacob’s childrens’ experience with the Egyptians a part of the blessing we utter when we bring our first fruits to the Temple?  According to Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, both of these episodes represented attempts to wipe the Israelites from the face of the earth.  Both of these episodes took place outside of the Promised Land in areas where we settled with a certain degree of comfort.  But these other places were neither our land nor our proper place of abode.  The offering of the first fruit could only be brought once we were settled in our own land.  In other words, we are thanking God not just for the fruits but for having brought us to the place where we could flourish both materially and spiritually.

The first fourteen verses of Chapter 28 are the Blessings.  If you view Moshe’s speech as prophecy, then the rest of the chapter is best described as the Admonitions and not just the Curses.  These are the rewards and the punishments for following and not following the commandments.  The Blessings are tied to being in the Land.  The Curses are tied to being in exile.  In other words, Jews are best able to find physical safety and spiritual fulfillment when we are settled in our own land following the commandments.  If you follow this logic, it is not enough for each person to observe the commandments.  Everybody, the entire community, has to observe them.  That is why there are so many admonitions about helping others to observe the commandments and about avoiding inappropriate secret behavior.  In other words, what modern man calls Salvation is both a personal and a national experience.  This is not intended as an argument for Zionism or making Aliyah.  Devarim predated them both.  While many of the early Zionists saw themselves as secularists, their beliefs were deeply rooted in our religious heritage.  There are those who contend that Chapter 28 was written after the exile.  This means the chapter is an attempt to explain the fate of the Israelites.  Such an interpretation does not render this chapter valueless.  Rather, it shows that the Jews had developed a unique view of history.  The well-being of the people did not depend on caprice or whim.  God was not, as Napoleon said, on the side of those with the biggest canons.  Rather, national well-being was based on following a set of laws rooted in basic morality and social justice.

The Reason for Observing the Commandments
Why should we observe the commandments?  This is one of those big philosophical questions that nag us all at some time or another.  For once, the Torah provides us with a simple answer.  We “observe and perform” because God tells us to do so (26:16).  Of course, in the simplicity of the answer lies the complexity of the issue.

Observance of All the Commandments
If repetition signifies importance, then this must be a major concept.  In 27:1 we find “Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day.”  Again in 28:1 we read, “…to observe, to perform all of His commandments.…”  The theme is repeated again in 28:9 and 28:45.  According to some commentators, these and similar admonitions are not about breaking the commandments, but about rejecting one or more of them.  There is a big difference between violation and nullification.  The admonition to observe the entire commandment has produced many of the major commentaries created throughout Jewish history.  In some cases, the text of the Torah is so spare that it is left to the sages to create the manner of observance.  The best known examples are the commandments found in the three paragraphs of the Shema which gave rise to the mezuzah, the talit, teffillin and the system of Jewish education.  Then there is the challenge of finding ways to observe commandments that seem inoperative.  One example of this is the commandments tied to the Temple offerings since there is no Temple.  Using the words of Hosea, “so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips” (14:3), prayer was deemed to replace sacrifices and reading about the sacrifices from the Torah stood as a replacement for the sacrifices themselves.  As Reb Shlomo of Radmosk says, “He who studies the passage in the Torah concerning the burnt offerings is considered to have actually sacrificed a burnt offering.”  Another example is related to the opening verses of this week’s sedrah concerning the bringing of the first fruits.  The Talmud states that when one brings a gift to a sage, it is as if one has brought an offering of the First Fruits to the Temple.

The Covenant
Moshe continues to remind us that the Israelites have entered into a covenant (26:16-19).  There is a reciprocal relationship between God and the Israelites.  Neither side is allowed to give up on the relationship, which is what makes it different from all other relationships.

Once again we see high places playing an important cultic role.  In this case they are Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal.  How was it decided which tribes stood on the sides of which mountain?  The six tribes on Gerizim were sons of Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob (Joseph stands for the half tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim because Levi is being counted this time).  Four of the tribes on Ebal were the children of Bilha and Zilpah, the concubines of Jacob.  Supposedly the tribe of Rueben is on this mountain because Rueben lost his birthright.  Zebulen’s presence presents more of a mystery.  Supposedly it is because he was the youngest of Leah’s sons and somebody had to be number six to make it come out even.  You could also have said that since Asher was also standing on Ebal, this mountain contained everything from A to Z.

The Altar
The first altar built in the Promised Land is to be built with “unhewn stones” (27:6).  The admonition not to use an “iron tool” (27:5) will be repeated when Solomon builds the Temple.  Iron is an implement of war and death, neither of which are compatible with God’s abode, which is to be a house of peace.

Before talking to the people about the blessings and the curses, Moshe cries out “Hasket u-Shema, Yisrael” or “Silence!  Hear, O Israel!” (26:9).  We are used to hearing Shema Yisrael.  It is the use of Hasket or Silence that throws us off.  As Dr. Abraham Gottlieb points out, this is the only time that the word Hasket appears in the entire TaNaCh.  Before we can learn, before we can listen, we must be completely silent.  Silence means more than just an absence of noise.  It means a removal of all of those obstructions that keep us from hearing the “still small voice.”  On a practical level, this statement may have been the source for a variety of Rabbinic admonitions about frivolity in a house of prayer and periods during the worship service when one is not to be interrupted.

Customs and Ceremonies
Dr. Jeffrey Wolf, speaking in the name of Rabbi Solovetchik, offers the following.  At the end of the Torah reading, when the scroll is raised and held wide-open for the congregation to see, we are re-enacting the ceremony that took place between the mountains.  This serves as a reminder that the Torah is a living document, not some set of ancient utterances of only quaint historic value.

In Hebrew, the word Amen is spelled with three letters: “aleph, mem, nun.”  According to some the Hebrew word Amen is an acronym taken from the Hebrew expression “El Melech Ne’Eman” which literally means “God, King, Who is Trustworthy” or figuratively, “God is a faithful King.”  This three-word formulary is recited before saying the Shema when one is praying without a minyan.  The word Amen can be a noun (faithfulness), an adjective (true or faithful) or an adverb (certainly or truly).  As a general rule, Amen is recited after all blessings, but a person does not say Amen when he or she is reciting the blessing.  Amen is also said after each verse of the Kaddish, but the reader does not say Amen.  This is one of the reasons that Kaddish is said with a minyan i.e., to ensure that there are responders to say Amen.  This week’s sedrah contains one of the fourteen examples of the Amen formulary found in the TaNaCh.  Upon hearing the words of the Levites (27:16-26), the Israelites are commanded to respond by saying “Amen.”  According to Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, when people say Amen, they are endorsing the words they have just heard.  They are affirming their belief in the truth of what has just been said.  “Where ‘Amen’ follows a petitionary blessing or a prayer of supplication, it also carries the meaning of ‘so may it be’….  Anyone who hears another recite a blessing is required to respond with ‘Amen’ upon its conclusion….”  This admonition about responding “Amen” has become important because anybody who does not know a prayer, but hears it and responds with “Amen” is said to have fulfilled the obligation of saying the prayer.

Joy out of Sadness
Even in sorrow we can learn how to enjoy.  In the words of the Admonitions we read, “Because you have not served the Lord your God in joy and gladness.…” (28:47)  Rabbi Moshe Pinchas Weisblum points out that the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, used these words to encourage a joyful approach to life and the performance of the mitzvoth.  He further points out that in the sixth chapter of the Tanya, Rabbi Zalman, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, states, “that not only are joyous feelings necessary for service but bad feelings and sadness will prevent us from appropriate service to God.  Feelings of sadness lead to depression and reluctance to perform good deeds.”  These sentiments are common throughout Jewish thought as can be seen in the teachings of the Chyda, Rabbi Cahim Dovid Azulie, who was a great leader among Sephardic Jewry.  As we approach the Days of Awe, it is quite easy to become intimidated by our own shortcomings.  The message here is that we have no right to our feelings of doom and gloom.  In fact, these feelings are actually self-defeating and will keep us from reaching the level we wish to attain.

Healing the Universe
One way of doing this is to elevate the mundane - to take the ordinary activities of life and infuse them with a sense of the spiritual.  You can do this with the recitation of berachot (berachah - sing.) or in English, benediction.  In this sedrah, the Israelites are not just commanded to make an offering of the first fruits of their harvest; they are commanded to make a specific blessing.  There is nothing more mundane than digging in the dirt which is the basis for all agricultural endeavors.  Yet by reciting a blessing, by praising God for His beneficence, we have taken the hot, sweaty, dirty business of producing a crop and made it into a holy activity.  There are innumerable berachot tied to a multiplicity of daily activities.  Depending upon the situation, the wording will be different, but the intent will be the same.

Ki Tavo and Selichot
Why is the sedrah of Ki Tavo read on the Saturday morning prior to the recitation of Selichot?  One explanation is offered by Reb Shlomo of Radmosk in his book Tiferes Shlomo and it centers on the Tochachah or Rebukes.  According to this tzaddik, even if the Jewish people were guilty of the transgressions described in those passages, by reading the Rebukes, the Divine Judge would consider that the Children of Israel had already suffered them and that any punishment which had not been meted out would be struck from the Divine Ledger.  In part, he bases this conclusion on the earlier cited passage that if one has read about the sacrifice, it is as if one has performed the sacrifice.

No Prayer for a Loan
A Jew came to a tzaddik and asked him to offer up a prayer that would help him gain a loan from a local non-Jewish noble.  The tzaddik refused because he did not want to be party to having his co-religionist suffer a measure of the Rebukes found in Devarim 28:43, 44.  “The stranger in your midst shall rise above you…he shall be your creditor, but you shall not be his.…”

Communal Responsibilities - Care for the Weak
Once again we are reminded that in God’s eyes our own well-being is tied to how well we to take care of our communal obligations and the powerless.  We are reminded to give “to the Levite” (community responsibility) “the stranger, the fatherless and that the widow.”  Judaism does not believe there is a moral good in poverty and does not have a problem with the accumulation of wealth.  The challenge is to use that wealth in a manner that meets the high standards of the Torah.  This is especially significant at this time of the year when we all, regardless of our wealth and status, appear before the Heavenly Host begging for forgiveness and a sweet year.

So will the Lord cause to rejoice:  (i.e., “so will He make) your enemies (rejoice) over you, to annihilate you.”  (But the Holy One, Blessed is He, Himself, does not rejoice. From here, we learn that the Holy One, Blessed is He, does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked, for in our verse it does not say יָשׂוּשׂ (in the simple conjugation), “rejoice,” but rather יָשִׂישׂ in the causative conjugation, “cause to rejoice.”  I.e., God will make others rejoice over your downfall, because you acted wickedly, while He Himself will not personally rejoice over your downfall.  Nevertheless, when it comes to bestowing good upon the righteous, God Himself rejoices, as it is said:  “just as the Lord rejoiced (שָׂשׂ) over you (to do good for you,” where the verb שָׂשׂ is in the simple conjugation, for God Himself rejoices here)). - (Meg. 10b)  So will the Lord cause to rejoice:  (i.e., “so will He make) your enemies (rejoice) over you, to annihilate you.”  (But the Holy One, Blessed is He, Himself, does not rejoice.  From here, we learn that the Holy One, Blessed is He, does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked, for in our verse it does not say יָשׂוּשׂ (in the simple conjugation), “rejoice,” but rather יָשִׂישׂ in the causative conjugation, “cause to rejoice.”  I.e., God will make others rejoice over your downfall, because you acted wickedly, while He Himself will not personally rejoice over your downfall.  Nevertheless, when it comes to bestowing good upon the righteous, God Himself rejoices, as it is said:  “just as the Lord rejoiced (שָׂשׂ) over you (to do good for you,” where the verb שָׂשׂ is in the simple conjugation, for God Himself rejoices here)). - (Meg. 10b)  So will the Lord cause to rejoice: (i.e., “so will He make) your enemies (rejoice) over you, to annihilate you.”  (But the Holy One, Blessed is He, Himself, does not rejoice.  From here, we learn that the Holy One, Blessed is He, does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked, for in our verse it does not say יָשׂוּשׂ (in the simple conjugation), “rejoice,” but rather יָשִׂישׂ in the causative conjugation, “cause to rejoice.”  I.e., God will make others rejoice over your downfall, because you acted wickedly, while He Himself will not personally rejoice over your downfall.  Nevertheless, when it comes to bestowing good upon the righteous, God Himself rejoices, as it is said:  “just as the Lord rejoiced (שָׂשׂ) over you [to do good for you,” where the verb שָׂשׂ is in the simple conjugation, for God Himself rejoices here)). - (Meg. 10b)  So will the Lord cause to rejoice:  (i.e., “so will He make) your enemies (rejoice) over you, to annihilate you.”  (But the Holy One, Blessed is He, Himself, does not rejoice. From here, we learn that the Holy One, Blessed is He, does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked, for in our verse it does not say יָשׂוּשׂ (in the simple conjugation), “rejoice,” but rather יָשִׂישׂ in the causative conjugation, “cause to rejoice.”  I.e., God will make others rejoice over your downfall, because you acted wickedly, while He Himself will not personally rejoice over your downfall.  Nevertheless, when it comes to bestowing good upon the righteous, God Himself rejoices, as it is said: “just as the Lord rejoiced (שָׂשׂ) over you (to do good for you,” where the verb שָׂשׂ is in the simple conjugation, for God Himself rejoices here)). - (Meg. 10bA Problem of Translation
The modern English translation of Chapter 28, verse 63 as found in Etz Chayim and other text reads, “And as the Lord once delighted in making you prosperous and many, so will the Lord now delight in causing you to perish and in wiping you out.”  What kind of Lord would take delight in causing the Jews to perish?  What kind of Lord would take delight in wiping out the Jewish people, his Chosen People?”  Thanks to the Artscroll Interlinear Translation and Rashi, we find that the problem is with the translators and not with the Torah or the Lord.  “And it will that just as Hashem rejoiced over you to benefit you and to multiply you so Hashem will (make your enemies) rejoice over you to banish you and to destroy you.”  (Artscroll Interlinear)  In other words, God will not rejoice or take delight in our banishment or destruction.  But as part of the humiliation that we will suffer, He will make it possible for our enemies to rejoice and delight in our banishment or destruction.  As Rashi points out the Hebrew is in the “causative conjugation” meaning “cause to rejoice.”  God “does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked” but He does rejoice in those who follow His commandments and therefore received His rewards.   will the Lord cause to rejoice: (i.e., “so will He make) your enemies([rejoice) over you, to annihilate you.”  (But the Holy One, Blessed is He, Himself, does not rejoice.  From here, we learn that the Holy One, Blessed is He, does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked, for in our verse it does not say יָשׂוּשׂ (in the simple conjugation), “rejoice,” but rather יָשִׂישׂ in the causative conjugation, “cause to rejoice.”  I.e., God will make others rejoice over your downfall, because you acted wickedly, while He Himself will not personally rejoice over your downfall.  Nevertheless, when it comes to bestowing good upon the righteous, God Himself rejoices, as it is said:  “just as the Lord rejoiced (שָׂשׂ) over you (to do good for you,” where the verb שָׂשׂ is in the simple conjugation, for God Himself rejoices here)). - (Meg. 10b)  So will the Lord cause to rejoice: (i.e., “so will He make) your enemies (rejoice) over you, to annihilate you.”  (But the Holy One, Blessed is He, Himself, does not rejoice. From here, we learn that the Holy One, Blessed is He, does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked, for in our verse it does not say יָשׂוּשׂ (in the simple conjugation), “rejoice,” but rather יָשִׂישׂ in the causative conjugation, “cause to rejoice.”  I.e., God will make others rejoice over your downfall, because you acted wickedly, while He Himself will not personally rejoice over your downfall.  Nevertheless, when it comes to bestowing good upon the righteous, God Himself rejoices, as it is said: “just as the Lord rejoiced (שָׂשׂ) over you (to do good for you,” where the verb שָׂשׂ is in the simple conjugation, for God Himself rejoices here)). - (Meg. 10b)

60-1:22 Isaiah

The Man/The Book:  Chapter 60, in its entirety provides the text for the haftarah.  The words are those of the unknown Second Isaiah who provided comfort and hope to the remnant of the Jewish people living in Babylonia during the exiles that followed the destruction of the First Temple.

The Message:  The prophetic vision is grandiose, to say the least.  Much of the reading deals with a triumphal return to Jerusalem, which will enjoy a re-birth of commercial and political might that will make it even more magnificent than the Jerusalem of old.  The reading is filled with images of divine light.  “Arise!  Shine!  For your light has arrived…” (60:1).  “You shall no longer have need of the sun for the light of day” because “the Lord shall be unto you an eternal light…” (60:19).  “Never again shall your sun set…for the Lord shall be unto you an eternal light…”(60:20).  But when would the exile end?  The last verse answers the question, but the reader is not sure what it means.  Some say it means that when the time comes for deliverance, whenever that might be, God will make it happen quickly.  Others say that the time of deliverance is at hand and God is going to make it happen quickly.  How much man can do to encourage the final Redemption and how much is strictly a matter of Divine decision is a debate that has divided commentators as great as Rashi and Radak, so do not look for an answer from this Am Ha-aretz.

The Theme-Link:  This is the sixth of the Seven Haftarot of Consolation.  According to the traditionalists, the connection is with the calendar and not the sedrah.  It is one more of the prophetic portions designed to provide comfort to the Jewish people following the tragedy of Tisha B’Av.  At the same time the triumphal vision of Isaiah provides an antidote of joy to the depressing list of Rebukes featured in the sedrah.  It continues with the theme that eventually the Israelites will find favor in God’s eye and return from Exile.  Once again, the words of Isaiah make their way into Lechah Dodi.  The haftarah begins with the famous Hebrew words, “Koome, Ohre” (Arise and Shine), and continues, “for your light has come.”  These same words are found in reverse order in the second line of the sixth verse of the hymn sung to welcome the Sabbath Queen.  Over the last several weeks, we have seen that the author of Lecha Dodi drew on the teachings of Isaiah.  What is the connection between welcoming Shabbat and Isaiah?  Second Isaiah is the prophet of the Redemption.  According to some, Shabbat is supposed to be a foretaste of the Final Redemption.  As the Jews welcome Shabbat into their lives each week, they hope that it will be the last Shabbat because the world will finally be redeemed.

A Tale of Two “Keys”:  Last week we read the haftarah for Ki Taytzay which is ten verses long, making it the shortest haftarah of the year.  This week we read the haftarah for Ki Tavo which is twenty-two verses long, making it one of the longer prophetic readings of the year.  With all that is expected of Bar and Bat Mitzvah students, the key to easing their “burden” is to make sure that they chose the right “Ki.”

Copyright, September, 2014, Mitchell A. Levin

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Torah Readings for Saturday, September 6, 2014 Ki Taytzay

Torah Readings for Saturday, September 6, 2014

Ki Taytzay (When you will go out)
21:10-25:19 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

Ki Taytzay is the sixth sedrah in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy).  It takes its name from the first two Hebrew words in the first sentence of the sedrah.  “When you will go out (Ki Taytzay) to war against your enemies.…” (21:10)  The sedrah begins and ends on a note of warfare.  The first lines of the sedrah are rules for dealing with a beautiful woman who is taken prisoner during war.  The last lines of the sedrah deal with the Amalekites, the ancient enemy who made war against the Israelites as they moved towards the Promised Land.  In a book thick with laws, Ki Taytzay is the sedrah thickest with laws.  According to Maimonides, Ki Taytzay contains 72 of the 613 commandments.  Furthermore, other of its pronouncements, which are not included among the 613 commandments, follows the same command-like formula.  As is our custom, the commandments found in Ki Taytzay are listed sequentially below (see Themes).  Different commentators have attempted to group the commandments in this sedrah by topic.  The following grouping is just one of many possibilities.  The categories are broader than those you might find elsewhere, but the purpose was to find as much commonality as possible.  The numbering on the left refers to the commandment as identified in the master list below.  This sedrah is challenging because it contains no narrative and because it contains such a long list of laws, some of which seem disconnected.  Once again, think of Moshe speaking to the Israelites for the last time.  It is as if he is trying to remind them of all the rules that they must follow since he will not be there to fill in the gaps in just a few short weeks when he dies and they cross the Jordan without him.  One of the real challenges for the modern reader is to take these laws and see how we can make them a meaningful part of daily existence.

532-535              A captive woman;
556-567             Latrines;
581-582               Military exemptions for grooms;
603-605             Remember Amalek.

552                     Marriage before cohabitation;
553-554                False accusation of adultery;
557-558               Rapist and marriage;
559                         Prohibited marriage;
560                         Mamzer;
561-564                 Prohibition against Moabites, et al;
565                         Emission;
579                         Divorce;
580                         Remarriage;
589                         Punish children for parents;
597-599                 Childless widows;
600-601                 Female interference in disputes.

Justice System:
535-536               Capital punishment and corpses;
                            Dispose of a corpse;
555                      Death for a false witness;
556                      Absolution for violations under duress;
584                         Kidnapping;
594-595                 Lashing a criminal.

538-539                 Returning lost objects;
546-547                 Building a guardrail;
572-573                 Ban on interest;
602                       Honest weights and measures.

Social Justice:
540-541                  Raising fallen animals;
544-545                  The bird’s nest;
568-569                Runaway slaves;
574-575                  Promptly carrying out vows;
576-578                  Workers eating in the vineyards where they labor;
583                        Ban on necessary utensils as collateral;
585-587                   Rules about taking a pledge;
588                           Prompt payment of workers;
590-593                   Protecting the weak;
595-596                  Prohibitions against muzzling animals.

542-543                    Prohibition on wearing clothing of the opposite sex;
570                            Prohibition against Jews as prostitutes;
571                            Banned donations.

548-549                    Sowing seeds;
550                         Yoking animals;
551                            Wool and linen.

Different sages and writers have chosen to emphasize different aspects of the commandments in the sedrah.  Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson focuses on the commandments concerning divorce.  He “analyses the concept of divorce” and then cleverly shifts it to discuss the concept of unity with God, which is the essence of the universe.  Rabbi Weisblum centers his comments around the commandment regarding chasing the mother bird away from her nest.  He sees the law as teaching the concepts of acceptance, compassion and “measure for measure.”  Rabbi Telushkin puts special emphasis on the commandments dealing with First Born Sons (21:15, 17), Humane Treatment of Animals (22:6-7, 10; 25:5), Building a Safe Roof (22:8), Shatnez (22:11), Mamzer (23:3), Rape (22:25), Charging Interest (23:20-21) and Divorce (24:1).  There is too much material to cover in one guide such as this.  Not only is there a torrent of law, but each law begets interpretation, which leads to many ways of fulfilling the intent of the law.

532.  Procedures regarding a beautiful woman taken captive during a war including the delineation of her rights during the first month of captivity (21:10-14).
533.  The prohibition against selling such a woman as a slave (21:10-14).
534.  The prohibition against turning such a woman into a slave after having been sexually intimate with her (21:10-14).
535.  The commandment to execute one guilty of a capital offense (21:22-23).
536.  The commandment against letting the corpse of a hanged criminal remain on the gallows overnight since you must bury him the same day (21:22-23).
537.  The obligation to promptly bury a criminal after his execution (21:23).
538.  The obligation to return a lost object to its owner (22:1).
539.  The obligation not to pretend that one has not seen the lost object (22:1).
540.  The prohibition against ignoring a fallen animal’s suffering (22:4).
541.  The obligation to help the owner raise a fallen animal (22:4).
542.  The prohibition against women wearing male apparel (22:5).
543.  The prohibition again men donning women’s clothing (22:5).
544.  The prohibition against taking a mother bird with its young in a nest (22:6).
545.  The obligation to send the mother bird away when one wishes to seize her young (22:6).
546.  The obligation to build a guardrail on one’s own roof (22:8).
547.  The obligation to avoid leaving anything about that could cause serious injury (22:8).
548.  The prohibition against sowing together mixed seeds (22:9).
549.  The prohibition against eating produce resulting from the planting of mixed seeds (22:9).
550.  The prohibition against yoking together two different kinds of animals (22:10).
551.  The prohibition against wearing clothes that contains both wool and linen (22:11).
552.  The obligation to marry a woman before living with her (22:13).
553.  The commandment establishing that a woman whose husband falsely accuses her of adultery can insist that he never divorce her (22:13-19).
554.  The commandment that a husband who lodges such a false accusation is never permitted to divorce his wife (22:13-19).
555.  The commandment that those who commit a capital crime are to be executed (22:14).
556.  The prohibition against punishing a person who is forced to commit a sin against his or her will (22:25-26).
557.  The commandment that a rapist is obligated marry his victim if she so desires (22:28-29).
558.  The prohibition against the rapist ever divorcing the victim of the rape (22:28-29).
559.  The commandment excluding from the Jewish community for the purpose of marriage a man who is sexually mutilated (23:2).
560.   The commandment classifying a Jewish child resulting from an adulterous or incestuous union as mamzer and as forbidden to marry any other Jew except another mamzer (23:3).
561.  The prohibition against Ammonites and Moabites ever becoming Hebrews (23:4-10).
562.  The prohibition against concerning oneself with the well-being of Ammonites and Moabites (23:4-10).
563.  The prohibition against hating Edomites and Egyptians (23:4-10).
564.  The positive stipulation that Edomites and Egyptians can be admitted into the Israelite community in the third generation (23:4-10).
565.  The prohibition against a man who is ritually unclean remaining in the Israelite camp (23:11).
566.  The commandment to maintain sanitary conditions within the Israelite army by using a latrine outside the camp (23:13-14).
567.  The commandment requiring soldiers to carry an implement with which to dig and cover a latrine (23:14).
568.  The prohibition against returning a runaway slave to his master when he comes to live among the Israelites (23:16-17).
569.  The prohibition against oppressing an ex-slave when he comes to live among the Israelites (23:16-17).
570.  The prohibition against an Israelite man or woman becoming a prostitute (23:18).
571.  The specification forbidding offerings to the sanctuary donations that are unacceptable (23:19).
572.  The prohibition against taking interest on a loan to an Israelite (23:20-21).
573.  The permission to take interest from a loan to a non-Israelite (23:20-21).
574.  The obligation to promptly carry out a vow (23:22).
575.  The commandment to fulfill what one has said one will do (23:24).
576.  The permission to a worker to eat what he can take with his hands while working in a vineyard or field (23:25-26).
577.  The prohibition against loading food in a vessel and taking it away while working in a vineyard or a field (23:25-26).
578.  The prohibition against stopping work in order to eat from the crops of one’s employer (23:25-26).
579.  The obligation of a man divorcing his wife to issue her a legally binding bill of divorce (24:1).
580.  The prohibition against remarrying one’s former wife, if she has married another since the divorce (24:2-4).
581.  The right of a groom not to be drafted into the army for a year after his marriage (24:5).
582.  The responsibility of a groom to make his bride happy in this first year (24:5).
583.  The prohibition against taking as collateral for a loan a utensil needed by the borrower to prepare food (24:6).
584.  The community’s obligation to execute a kidnapper who enslaved or sold into slavery a fellow Israelite (24:7).
585.  The prohibition against entering the borrower’s house to take the pledge (24:10-13).
586.  The prohibition against sleeping in a pledged garment (24:10-13).
587.  The obligation to return the pledge, if it is a garment, to the borrower when he needs it (24:10-13).
588.  The obligation to pay a hired day worker promptly (24:14-15).
589.  A prohibition against punishing children for their parents’ sins or parents for those of their children (24:16).
590-591. The obligation to treat justly society’s weakest members (24:17).
592-593. The specifications of responsibility toward society’s weakest members (24:19).
594. The commandment to lash those convicted of doing evil (25:2-3).
595. The prohibition against degrading a criminal by administering too many lashes (25:2-3).
596. The prohibition against muzzling an animal working in a field (25:4).
597. The commandment to a deceased husband’s brother to marry a “yevamah” in what is known as a levirate marriage (25:5-10).
598.  The commandment to treat the firstborn son of a levirate marriage as the son of the dead man (25:5-10).
599.  The specification of the procedure to be enacted if the brother-in-law refuses to marry the widow (25:5-10).
600.  The commandment to punish a woman who uses impermissible and obscene means to help her husband (25:11).
601.  The commandment to show no mercy to a woman who uses impermissible and obscene means to help her husband (25:11).
602.  The prohibition against ever possessing, let alone using, dishonest weights and measures (25:13-16).
603.  The commandment to remember the evil Amalek did to Israel in the desert (25:17-19).
604.  The commandment to wipe out Amalek (25:17-19).
605.  The commandment not to forget the evil Amalek did to Israel (25:17-19).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (as edited by this author)

The Oral Law
The sedrah provides several instances of the Oral Law softening or making the Written Law more accessible and/or more reasonable.  For example, the injunction concerning the man with crushed testes was interpreted to mean only those who had intentionally mutilated themselves.  Such behavior was often associated with pagan rituals.  The death penalty connected with the rebellious son was probably never carried out, in part, because the Rabbis made imposition of the sentence so difficult.  The commandment certainly gives support to the concept of the traditional family unit i.e., a mother and a father.  Both parents had to come together and both parents had to condemn the child.  This is in keeping with the verses in Shoftim about needing two witnesses in a capital case.  It is also in keeping with the concept that both parents, together, are responsible for raising a child.  This may fly in the face of modern American values, but this may be one of those examples of “being a separate or holy people.”  The commandment about building a guardrail around the roof has been interpreted as an injunction to maintain your property and possessions in a way that is calculated to protect others from injury.

Now let’s see what it would be like to create a little modern Halakah of our own.  Of course only sages can create real Halakah.  The attempt here is to see how these ancient laws might be applied to modern situations.  After all, that is how much of the Oral Law seems to have developed.  The two situations are my own invention and are in no way related to any actual situation of which I am aware here in Cedar Rapids.  Let’s take a situation and see what guidance the laws in the sedrah might provide.  A synagogue is having a fundraiser.  A known drug dealer wants to make a contribution.  Should you accept?  Probably not since Devarim 23:19 has been interpreted to mean that money derived from illegal activities should not be accepted as charitable contributions.  Now let’s make it a little tougher.  A stockbroker convinces his clients to buy stocks that he appears to know were of dubious value.  He makes big profits on the commissions.  The stocks prove to be a worthless investment and his customers are wiped out.  Based on what we have read in the Torah why should or shouldn’t the synagogue accept a contribution from the stockbroker?  (Ed. Note: This last example came after Michael Milken, but before Bernie Madoff.)

A Jewish man marries, has a son and then gets a divorce.  The man marries for a second time and has a son by the second wife.  Should he be able to reduce his child support payments to help support the child from the second marriage?  When the child from the first marriage graduates high school, child support stops.  The child goes to his father and tells him he wants to go to college and needs financial help.  Should the father be able to reject the request because he needs the money to support the son from the second marriage?  We no longer have polygamy.  Could a liberal interpretation of the laws concerning the first-born son of the unloved wife provide us with guidance?  Or should we say that since the since the sedrah talks about laws pertaining to divorce (21:15-17) and does not mention this issue, the laws concerning the first born son are not applicable?

When we read in an earlier sedrah about the laws pertaining to the Red Heifer, we were introduced to the concept of Chukim - those ordinances that we obey even though we really do not understand the reason for their existence.  The prohibition against mixing wool and linen is another example of this.

Remembrance of Amalek
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were leaving from Egypt.  How he happened upon you on the way and he killed all the weaklings among you at your rear, while you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God.  It shall be that when the Lord your God let you rest from all your enemies all around in the land that the Lord your God gives to you as an inheritance to take possession of it; you are to erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens.  Do not forget.” (25:17-19).  This is the Third of the Six Remembrances.  It refers to the attack by the Amalekites described in the Chapter 17 of Shemot (Exodus).  This is the longest of the Six Remembrances and the text gives very specific reasons for remembering the event.  The commandments about remembering the Amalekites have given rise to at least two rituals.  One is this daily recitation describing the event.  The second is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim.  The reading from the second Torah scroll on that day is Devarim 25:17-19.  According to tradition, Haman was descended from the Amalekites.  Part of what made the attack so evil was that the Amalekites took advantage of the Israelites’ weakened condition and attacked those who were most vulnerable - the stragglers at the rear of the line of march.  The hidden “remembrance” is that the Jewish people should never be weak in their faith because that weakness makes us vulnerable to external evildoers and internal inclinations to do evil.  Furthermore the Jewish people can show the strength of their faith by aiding the weak and helpless which means following the laws of social justice described in this sedrah.  There is an apparent contradiction in the language of this Remembrance.  The Israelites are told to “remember” but part of the remembering includes “blotting out the memory of Amalek.”  The “blotting out” is to occur once the Israelites have entered the Promised Land.  This act of “blotting out” may refer to the physical destruction of the Amalekites and all of their material wealth.  This interpretation provides an even stronger explanation for Samuel’s anger with Saul when he not only did not kill the King of the Amalekites but also claimed that he spared their flocks to use them as an offering to the Lord.

Remembrance of Miriam
“Remember that which the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way when you were leaving from Egypt.”  (24:9) is the fifth of the Six Remembrances.  It refers to an event described at the beginning of Chapter 12 in Bamidbar (Numbers) when Miriam and Aaron spoke out against their brother Moshe.  Miriam was guilty of “lashon hora” or evil speech and she was punished with a skin affliction.  Obviously we are supposed to remember that if as a great a person as Miriam can speak “lashon hora” than we all must be careful about what we say.  So why doesn’t the text command us to remember what Miriam did so that we will not do it?  Why does it command us to remember God’s response to what Miriam did?  The punishment for her deed was leprosy.  This meant that Miriam had to be put out of the camp for seven days.  In other words, the real punishment was public humiliation.  Also, the people had to stop for seven days until Miriam was cleansed.  In other words, she slowed the move to the Promised Land; something she had not intended when she spoke out against Moshe.  We are to remember what “God did” - the Punishment - so we will remember that evil speech which is often meant to humiliate others actually leads to our own humiliation.  Furthermore, evil speech - of which gossip and slander are only two examples - can have consequences far beyond the speakers’ wildest imagination.  As they used to say out on the prairie, keep your words sweet.  You may have to eat them some day.

Devarim, Ruth and Henry VIII
This week’s sedrah contains the rules about the Levirate Marriage.  This is the marriage between the widow and the brother of her deceased husband who is called the “levir” which is the root of the word Levirate.  This type of marriage was designed to ensure that the deceased name would not be “blotted out” which meant, among other things, that his property would not go somebody not directly related to him.  As demonstrated in the story of Judah and Tamar, the custom of the Levirate Marriage must have been an ancient one.  Once again, there is a difference between the world before the giving of the Torah and after the giving of the Torah.  For it is only after Sinai that a method of release came into existence.   This sedrah provides for this ceremony of release, which is called halitsah.  With so many other laws, why waste time on this one, which is not even operative among Reform and Conservative Jews?  The simple answer is that this law figured in at least two events of far-reaching consequence.  First, in the Book of Ruth, Ploni Almoni, had to renounce his claim to Elimelech’s property before Boaz and Ruth could marry.  Their marriage ultimately resulted in the birth of King David.  Secondly, Henry VIII, the marrying king of England, married his brother’s widow.  When he later decided to get rid of her so he could marry Ann Boleyn, Henry contended that the law of the Levirate Marriage under which he had married his first wife was a violation of Canon Law.  The Catholic Church did not agree with Henry’s views on the Levirate Marriage, creating the break between Canterbury and Rome that shaped so much of history down to modern times.

The Beautiful Woman
Why does the text talk about the “beautiful woman?”  Why not just talk about “a woman?”  Was a woman who was not beautiful to be treated differently?  According to Rashi, the enemies of the Israelites would take special pain to make their women as physically appealing as possible so that they might tempt the Israelite warriors and lead them away from God.  (Remember what happened at Baal-Peor.)  Hence, any woman who would be seized would be viewed as a “beautiful woman.”  It seems to be more a term of art than an actual physical description of the woman.

J-Date and Ki Taytzay
There are numerous laws in this sedrah concerning the treatment of women.  In the culture of the Bible, dating was an unknown concept.  Certainly on-line and speed dating would be totally foreign concepts to our ancient forefathers and mothers.  However, the Torah does offer guidelines for those who look beyond the plain meaning.  Women, even foreign women taken as spoils of war, were to be treated with respect.  This means that women regardless of how you make their acquaintance are to be treated with respect and sensitivity.  They are not disposable items or toys.  Regardless of how a woman may see herself or view her relationships, the Torah sets a standard of behavior for men that would make them all gentlemen.

Civil Disobedience
The Torah has survived because it is a living document, not just the dead hand from the past.  Look at the injunctions concerning runaway slaves and then decide how a Jew should have reacted just before the Civil War when the Federal Fugitive Slave Act was the law of the land.  The Federal Fugitive Slave Act required people to return “runaway slaves” to their owners.

Mourning Customs
The female captive is to spend the first thirty days mourning her father and mother.  The first thirty days after the death of a loved one are special period called the Shloshim.  The corpse of a criminal is to be buried on the day of his death.  Jewish custom is to bury as soon after death as is practicable; on the same day if possible.  The period of mourning cannot begin until after the burial has taken place.

Social Justice
When you read the Prophets, you will find them drawing on many of the concepts presented in this sedrah as they pertain to treating the needy.  The prophets specifically seem to quote these verses as they take future generations of Israelites to task for seizing the pledge and for “sleeping in the pledge.”  The similarities in message and language would seem to provide further support for the antiquity of the Torah.

Getting Involved
We are reminded over and over again that part of being Jewish to be responsible for what goes on the world.  We first see that in Bereshit with the classic question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  We see it again in this sedrah at the end of 22:3 where the last phrase is translated as “you may not hide yourself” or more colloquially as “you may not remain indifferent.”

Business Ethics
Based on the readings in Devarim, the ideal economic society was one of subsistence farmers, herdsmen, artisans and the attendant commercial activities necessary to support them.  The accumulation of great wealth was not a virtue and poverty was to be a temporary thing.  Workers were to be paid promptly (24: 14-15).  Since you were not supposed to even own dishonest weights, let alone use them, business dealings were not only to be proper, they were to be beyond reproach.  Obviously, the modern business community would do well to follow the examples set out in the Torah since it really covers everything from paying your workers what they have earned (including not cheating them out of their pensions and benefits) to not “cooking the books” when providing information to investors and regulators.  The issue of loans and interests has led to some confusion.  Loans to a fellow Israelite were not seen as a commercial matter.  Loans were made to those in need.  Therefore you never took basic utensils or garments from the needy.  (This might be seen as the forerunner of the modern Homestead or Credit Rights’ Laws.)  You never entered a person’s home to claim the pledged item.  (This might be seen as the forerunner of those laws prohibiting harassing phone calls and visits from bill collectors.)  Loans, whether of money or things, were to be repaid, but no interest was to be charged.  After all, it would be wrong to benefit from the misfortune of others.  At the same time, it was acceptable to charge interest to non-Israelites because the assumption was that they had entered the land for business purposes and if they needed a loan it was for a commercial venture designed to make money.  This is not a double standard.  The innumerable laws commanding the Israelites to treat strangers with kindness and decency provide ample evidence of the decent way in which Jews were to treat non-Jews.  In fact, it is considered worse to cheat a non-Jew than it is to cheat a fellow Jew.  If a Jew cheats a non-Jew, the non-Jew assumes that all Jews are unethical and that their God is a God who supports evil.  As the Jewish commercial class grew during the days of the Second Temple, it became necessary for Jews to lend money to one another for strictly business purposes.  The Rabbis could not abrogate the Torah laws about interest.  So they created a legal fiction that in essence made the lender a “silent partner” in the business that was guaranteed a return on his investment.  The image of the Jewish moneylender is a canard perpetrated by the ignorant and the anti-Semitic.  Last but not least, according to some commentators, the first question asked of a person at the time of Ultimate Judgment is, “How did you conduct your business?”  Being pious in the synagogue is one thing; the challenge is to carry that piety into the world in which we work.  This Torah portion provides us with a guide how to accomplish that difficult goal.

Labor Law
There has been a great deal “noise” about the meatpacking operation in Postville.  Regardless of the loopholes slick lawyers might try to find under the U.S. legal system, the Torah is pretty straight forward in how employers are to treat their workers.  “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land.  You must pay him his wages on the same day before the sun sets, for he is in need and urgently depends on it…” (Devarim 22:14 & 15).

Free Will
Chapter 22:25-26 in Devarim talks about rape.  But the underlying meaning of the verses is that you cannot punish anybody for committing sins against his or her will.  On the other hand, this would also infer that when duress is absent people are capable of, and responsible for, making their own choices.  The sedrah also contains laws concerning the right of inheritance of the first-born (21:15-17).  While this may be the law, we know that in the cases of Isaac, Jacob, Moshe, King David and King Solomon, to name but a few examples, somebody other than the first born got the prize.  Furthermore, the make-up of the Rabbinic Academies and the line of scholars and sages are proof that merit, not birth order, is what counts the most.  The message would seem to be that the law may guarantee certain benefits to the first-born, but what people do with their lives is something over which they must exercise control.

The Ox and the Donkey
The prohibition against yoking an ox and donkey together when plowing has given rise to several interesting amplifications and/or explanations of the rule.  Some see it as part of a whole series of laws prohibiting “unnatural combinations.”  Rashi interprets it to mean that animals of different species should never be joined together “for any kind of work.”  Rabbi Telushkin sees it as part of a whole series of Biblical injunctions relating to kindness toward animals.  People are allowed to use animals, but they are not allowed to abuse them.  While animals are not at the same level as people, abusing them makes it easier for some to abuse their fellow human beings.  Rabbi Artson sees it as a lesson about personal development.  The ox and the donkey are not to be yoked together because they move at different speeds and have different levels of endurance.  By the same token, each individual develops at a different speed and has different strengths and weaknesses.  Just as we would not expect an ox and donkey to move in the same manner, so should we expect children to not develop in exactly the same manner?  The trick to parenting (or adult group dynamics for that matter) is acknowledging the uniqueness of the individual, allowing him or her to develop at his or her own pace, while still conforming to group norms.  One simple sentence and so many lessons - and people wonder why the Torah is read over and over and over again.

Contrary to popular misconception, the term “mamzer” (23:3) does not refer to a child “born out of wedlock.”  Rather it refers to a child born out a forbidden union i.e., incest or adultery.  This stringent pronunciation would seem to run counter to the statement we find later in the sedrah that children are not to be punished for the sins of their parents (24:16).  There are those who contend that the intention of the law is not to punish the child, but to provide an extremely strong incentive for people not to engage in illicit sexual relationships.  Regardless whom you believe authored the Torah, He or they knew that the “flesh is weak especially where matters of the flesh are concerned.”  The family unit was of such great importance that it apparently was felt that this strong admonition would keep people from engaging in a momentarily pleasurable act that could have far-reaching destructive consequences.  Various sages have been struck by the stringency of the command and the seemingly unfair burden it places on the “innocent” child.  Over the centuries, Rabbis have developed a variety of “legal fictions” designed to mitigate the impact on the child.  The Conservative Movement has gone so far as to adopt “evidentiary procedures to render this rule inoperative, because it penalizes children for the sins of their parents” which is contrary to 24:16.

Ki Taytzay and Assimilation
Ki Taytzay is filled with laws designed to protect workers, those without fathers and the strangers in your midst as well as injunctions to keep honest business records.  These laws in Ki Taytzay deal with issues that were once summarized under the title of Social Justice.  In fact there was a time that many American Jews thought that Social Justice was a substitute for Judaism or all that there was to Judaism.  Moshe Ktsav, the President of Israel, writes in I Am Jewish, “Social Justice and concern for the weak are cornerstones of Judaism and of Torah of Israel…for the Jewish People to live successfully in its historical homeland, it must take care of the weak, the orphan.”  He continues that “charity is equal to all the commandments of the Torah, which is why the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic country, is also an advanced welfare state, confronting social needs.”  Of course it is “convenient” to espouse the doctrines of Social Justice when you are weak, powerless or marginalized and need this protection yourself.  This sedrah raises the question as to how American Jews are doing now that they are the judges, the business moguls and media magnates.  Leo Botstein writes in I Am Jewish that “American Jews have become complacent, lazy, and unengaged with learning and public service….  Jews have become too allied with a narrow conservative view of social justice and have broken with a traditional historical alliance with the poor and the oppressed against the entrenched vested interests in government and the marketplace.”  If Ktsav is right, the laws of Ki Taytzay are critical to the survival of the State of Israel and the Jewish People.  But if Botstein is even only partially right, then American Jewry has turned its back on Ki Taytzay and faces the worst kind of assimilation; not the assimilation of intermarriage or those other bogeyman Jewish leaders like to talk about but the assimilation of being like everybody else in the dimensions of social morality and ethics.

Best offer
“You shall not have…alternate weights, larger and smaller.  You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures.”  These words from chapter 25 of Devarim have been interpreted in many ways including the need to deal fairly, to give value for value, and measure for measure.  In a town beyond the Carpathian Mountains, a man went to buy a horse.  His son came along so he could learn the ways of business and bargaining.  When the two of them got to the stable, the father asked to see the owner.  The father asked to see his finest horse.  The stable owner brought a fine looking stallion.  The father inspected the beast, slowly checking it legs, its teeth, etc.  Satisfied that this was indeed a fine specimen, the father turned to the stable owner and said, “I am interested in buying the horse.  I know how much money I have in my purse and am prepared to pay any amount you name as long as it does not exceed that amount.  So, tell me, what is your best price for this steed?”  The stable owner thought for a moment and then quoted a certain number of rubles.  The father stood there silent, fingering the coins and bills in his purse.  Silence filled the air.  Sensing that he was about to lose the sale, the stableman called another number; a number smaller than the first number.  As soon as he heard the figure, the father grabbed his son’s hand, turned and walked away.  The son was stunned.  How, he asked his father, could he turn down such a bargain?  In fact, if he had remained silent the son was sure he could have gotten an even better price.  The father nodded in agreement.  But he reminded his son that he had asked for the best price in the first place.  His silence was not a bargaining ploy.  He was just trying to think of how he would explain to his wife how he had bought such an expensive horse.  If the man offers “an alternative” (i.e., alternate weights and measures) who knew what the real condition of the horse might be?  Of course the advice was not free.  Instead of riding home in style, the son paid the price of having to walk all the way home.  Possibly on the walk home the son might have asked his father to explain the meaning of the aphorism, “sometimes free is too expensive.”

Honest Weights, Honest Measures and Israel’s Final Redemption
How important is it that we use only honest and weights measures?  The Author or authors of the Bible must have considered it extremely important.  When the prophet Ezekiel described the conditions for Israel’s final redemption and the vision of the re-built Temple, he said explicitly “You shall have just balances, and a just ephah and a just bath.” (45:10)  He then went on to describe exactly what those measures should be.  In other words, honesty in business and commercial dealings are a critical part of the final redemption and the arrival of the messianic era.

Elul - The Days of Awe - 72
Pity the poor Jew.  He is but a few days into Elul.  He hears the sound of the Shofar each morning reminding him of the coming of the “Days of Awe.”  He yearns for Teshuvah.  He seeks to assure his Master that this time he will turn and return for real - no half way measures this time.  And then boom - the second sedrah of Elul confronts him with seventy two laws.  Maimonides himself counted them up.  Seventy two laws!  You’ve got to be kidding.  There is no way.  The Jew is lost; the return is impossible.  But wait the seventy-two commands are not a barrier; they are a beacon of hope.  For what is seventy two except Chai times four?  Who knows four?  Four are the number of the matriarchs, the first women of the Jewish people.  What do we seek at this time of the year?  We seek God’s mercy.  And is not God’s mercy connected with the Shechinah; what the mystics consider the “feminine side of God.”  Instead of despair the Jew is filled with hope.  If he breaks down seventy two they are not a barrier to keep him from returning, they are sign of hope that with God’s mercy he shall be able to return.  The secret came in being able to break the number seventy two down into its components.  That is also the path to Teshuvah.  Do not despair and say that since I cannot do all seventy two I will do none.  Take it step at a time; one commandment at a time and like stones they will become a pathway to that which you seek.

54:1-10 Isaiah

The Man/The Book:  The prophetic portion is attributed to the Isaiah of the Exile, a personage who lived in the sixth century B.C.E.  His was a vision of hope and redemption.  Unfortunately, we know nothing of the personal life of this person other than that he was alive at the time of Cyrus the Great.

The Message:  This is reputed to be the shortest haftarah of the year.  Not only is it a mere ten sentences, but the sentences are short ones as well.  During the year, these first ten verses are the introductory part of the Haftarah for the sedrah of Noah.  The prophet uses a marriage motif to describe the relationship between God and the Israelites.  In images reminiscent of Hosea and Gomer, Israel is the wayward wife and God is the long-suffering, forgiving spouse.  God was angry because Israel had forsaken Him for others.  But now He would bring her “home” in love, filling her tent with children.  This is a haftarah of reassurance.  God reassures the Israelites by promising everlasting kindness.  He promises to never rebuke the Israelites again just as He promised Noah that He would never flood the earth again.  While mountains may move and hills may be shaken, God will never take his loyalty from the Children of Israel.  If this is a statement of unconditional divine love, then the challenge is to explain these statements in light of the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile that followed.

Theme-Link:  According to traditionalists, the link is not between the sedrah and haftarah.  The link is with the calendar.  This is the fifth of the Seven Haftarot of Consolation which we began reading on the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av and will finish on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.  However, one cannot help but notice that the haftarah uses the Husband and Wife Motif while the sedrah includes marriage and divorce.  Is this a coincidence or a secondary message from the sages who compiled the readings?  The connection between Isaiah and Lechah Dodi that we saw in last week’s haftarah continues in this week’s reading.  The seventh verse of the hymn welcoming the Sabbath Queen begins with words from Isaiah 54:4 “Do not be ashamed, do not feel humiliated.”  The ninth verse begins with words from Isaiah 54:3, “Rightward and leftward, you shall spread out mightily.”  While this hymn is commonly viewed as a welcoming ode to the Sabbath Queen, it contains a strong message concerning the redemption of the Jewish people.  According to Etz Yosef as cited in the Artscroll Siddur, these words from Isaiah in verse nine are meant to convey that at the end of the exile, the rightful heirs to Jerusalem, the Jewish people, will overcome their enemies regardless of where they come from  (rightward or leftward).

Copyright; September, 2014; Mitchell A. Levin