Thursday, August 25, 2016

Torah Readings for Saturday, August 27, 2016 Ekev (“because,” “reward,” or “heel”)

Torah Readings for Saturday, August 27, 2016

Ekev (“because,” “reward,” or “heel”)
7:12-11:25 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

Ekev is the third sedrah in Devarim or the Book of Deuteronomy.  It takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first sentence of the weekly portion.  The Hebrew word “Ekev” has more than one meaning.  It can be translated as “because” as in “It shall come to pass because you will hearken (to) these ordinances…” (7:12).  “Ekev” can also mean, “reward.”  At this point, Moshe is telling the people that, “because” they will listen to the ordinances and obey them, God will reward them by keeping the covenant.  “Ekev” can also mean “heel.”  The Hebrew name for the patriarch Jacob is YaAkov, a name that contains the word Ekev in its root.  As you may remember, Jacob was born hanging on to Esau’s heel.  Does the word Ekev provide a connection between the concept of “reward” and the fact that Moshe is addressing the descendants of Jacob?  Are the Jewish people a reward as well as the recipients of a reward?  According to some commentators, Ekev marks the final part of the Second Discourse.

Repeatedly, Moshe calls upon the people to follow the law, describes the goodness of the land which they are to inherit, and describes the consequences of their failure to obey the commandments.  Moshe continues to weave the history of the Israelites into his admonitions about proper conduct to ensure that they will prosper in the land which they are about to inherit.  Some readers will see an element of prophecy here, of Moshe telling the Israelites what will befall them in the Promised Land if they keep, or fail to keep, the commandments.  Others, for example those who think that Devarim was written at the time of King Josiah, will see these writings as an explanation and justification for the hardships that befell the Israelites once they entered the Promised Land.  One of the challenges is for us is to realize that the “Reward” for obeying the commandments will not only come in the form of a piece of land, but will take other forms as well.  The important thing is that Ekev continues to reinforce Moshe’s basic message repeated over and over again in Devarim.  Follow God’s laws.  They are the source of our blessing.  You know what the law is, but you have to choose to follow it.  You will muck up.  You will be punished.  You will be forgiven.  Follow God’s laws.

Repeated Admonitions to Obey All of the Commandments (7:12, 8:1, 7:11, 11:1, 11:8, 11:13, and 11:22)
At least seven different times in Ekev Moshe calls upon the Israelites to follow the rules.  Various reasons are given, most of which are tied to a specific reward such as material prosperity or help in driving the enemy out of the land.  This quid pro quo language has troubled many commentators.  Over the centuries Jewish commentators have stressed the importance of observing the mitzvoth because of their intrinsic value.  In other words, the reward for observing a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.  Moshe’s specificity during the Discourses may have been a case of knowing the audience and tailoring the presentation accordingly.

Learn From the Past
Throughout this sedrah, Moshe calls upon the Israelites to learn from their experiences in Egypt and the Wilderness.  Whether it is lessons on how to treat strangers (10:19), or proof of God’s goodness (8:3-4, 11:1-7), or the virtues of the Promised Land (11:10-12), the Israelites can learn from what has happened.  In fact Moshe provides a rather detailed summary of the events surrounding the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf and his role in saving the Israelites from destruction (9:7-10:10).  This part of the narrative is not in keeping with Moshe’s usual modesty.  This might have been part of one last bid on Moshe’s part to get the Israelites to intercede on his behalf with God.  The chapter begins with a reminder that the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan; the Israelites but not Moshe.  In reminding the Israelites of how he intervened with God to save them, Moshe might have been hoping they would return the favor.  Such was not to be the case.

Conquest of the Land
Once again we are faced with a command to totally annihilate the inhabitants (7:16) which certainly offends our modern sense of morality.  Relax, it has offended many Rabbis as well and they have sought to soften the message.  The command was part of whole series of admonitions designed to ensure that the Israelites would not adopt the pagan customs of the inhabitants of Canaan.  This explains the injunctions about not using their gold and silver or marrying their daughters.  The Israelites are not to be dismayed by the power of the inhabitants.  The source of their strength is their belief in God.  By the same token, once the Israelites have taken hold of the land, they are not to forget that it was because God loved the Israelites that they had been victorious.  We always want to know where God is when the dung hits the fan.  But when was the last time we thought about God when we saw the sun rise or heard a baby’s first cry?

Conquest of the Land II
Each time we read about commandments to destroy the inhabitants of the land we recoil with high-flown moral indignation.  For the ancients, this was the only way of making sure that the Israelites would not turn to idolatry and forsake the teachings of God.  The challenge for modern day Jews is to prove that we can maintain our identity and fully practice the faith of our fathers (both in terms of ethics and ritual since the two are mutually dependent on one another) despite the overwhelming temptations of a majority culture which does not make this easy.

Temporary Inhabitants
Jews like to refer to Israel as the Promised Land.  This week we are reminded that, in one sense the promise is a conditional one (9:4-9:5).  The Israelites do not get the land because of their virtues.  They get it because the previous tenants have behaved abominably and therefore have lost their right to say in Canaan.  And they get the land because of the promise made to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.  In other words the present generation gets a reward based on the merits of those who have come before.  When future generations of Israelites behaved in an abominable fashion they too were thrown out of the land.  The difference between the Israelites and the Canaanites is the promised made to our Forefathers.  In other words, our future redemption is based on the merits of our ancestors.  (This should also remind us that there is no such thing as a “self-made” man or woman.)

Social Justice
In words that will become part of the prophetic message of Social Justice, Moshe asks what God wants of us.  He wants us obey the letter and spirit of His teachings (10:12-13).  Specifically, we must protect the orphan and the widow (10:17) and befriend (literally “love”) the stranger.  In other words, the ancient Israelites and the modern Jew are to protect the weak, the disadvantaged and the underdog.  Think about this admonition the next time you say “one nation, under God.”  Gives it a whole new twist, doesn’t it?

Stiff-necked People
Moshe reminds us that we are a stiff-necked people (9:6).  We remind ourselves that we are a stiff-necked people during the Yom Kippur service each year.  We can be stubborn.  According to some it is that same stubbornness that has helped us cling to our faith when a rational person would have thrown in the towel.

Passing the Buck
As some of you know, I think the Torah is a classic manual on the subject of what we now call “middle management.”  Usually, God gets all of the credit for taking the Israelites out of Egypt.  But when the Israelites go astray for the first time with the Golden Calf, note how God tells Moshe about it.  “Hurry, go down from here at once, for the people whom you brought out of Egypt have acted wickedly…” (9:12) (emphasis added).  I know the commentary about the mixed multitude, but it does not change the image.  All of a sudden, the Boss is passing the buck to Moshe the Manager.  It is Moshe’s fault, not the fault of the all-powerful one who smote the first born and split the sea.  Nope, this is not conventional commentary, but then who wants convention all of the time?

425. The command to destroy the seven nations of Canaan (7:12).
426. The command to show no mercy to these idol worshipers (7:12).
427. The prohibition against intermarrying with the seven nations then resident in Canaan (7:13).
428. The prohibition against attempting to profit materially from an idol (7:25).
429. The prohibition against bringing into one’s home something disgusting (7:26).
430. The obligation to bless God after eating (8:10).
431. The commandment to love strangers who live amid the Israelite community (10:19).
432. The obligation to be in awe, a kind of reverent fear of God (10:20).
433. The commandment to pray to God and God alone (10:20).
434. The commandment to treat nothing with the same reverence with which you treat God (10:20).
435. The commandment to swear only by God’s name (and not the name of any other god) (10:20).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

The Shema
Ekev contains the second paragraph of the Shema (11:13-21) or more properly what is called the Kriat Shema, or Reading of the Shema, which we discussed last week.  It is part of the Shacharit and Ma’ariv services for Orthodox and Conservative Jews.  It is not part of the standard Shema in the prayer books used by the Reform Movement.  There is a raft of commentary on this paragraph, but here are a couple of notes to get you started.  The first and second paragraphs do seem to cover some of the same material.  The first paragraph is written in the singular and the second paragraph is written in the plural.  The second paragraph is much more specific in equating performance of mitzvoth with the receipt of material blessings.  Judaism does accept the concept of reward and punishment contained in this paragraph.  However, commentators are still puzzled by the obvious disconnect between people of virtue who suffer and the sleazy who seem to prosper.  If this bothered such sages as Maimonides, do not expect a facile explanation from me.  Etz Hayim cites the teachings of Yeshayahu Leibowitz.  According to him, the second paragraph of the Shema is couched in terms for the less theologically developed who will only obey a commandment out of a promise of reward or fear of punishment instead of for the sake of the mitzvah itself.

Jewish Concept of Prayer
When Jews ask God for something we ask on behalf of others, not on behalf of ourselves.  Consider Moshe.  Last week we saw how God rejected Moshe’s plea that he be allowed to enter the Promised Land.  This week we are reminded how God answered the prayer of that same Moshe when he begged God not to destroy the Israelites for the Sin of the Golden Calf (9:25-10:2).

The Self-Made Man
“And thou say in thy heart:  'My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth.'” (8:17).  Starting with chapter 8, verse 7, Moses describes in detail the benefits the Israelites will enjoy in the Promised Land including flocks so big and harvests so plentiful that they will be able to eat their fill in “goodly houses.”  But he warns them against taking all of the credit for their bounty saying in their hearts, “My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth.” (8:17).  In the end it is God who bestows this bounty upon us.  Yes, we must work for it, but the Torah tells us not to take all of the credit.  This is an apt lesson for our times.  We have developed a tendency to declare that we are responsible for our own success.  And by inference, if you are not successful, then it is your own fault.  This Torah portion should remind us to look at our success and see how many people directly or indirectly helped us get to where we are.  If we did so, it might help us to obey another injunction in the Ekev - caring for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst.

Blessings and Eating
Ekev provides another example of the interaction between the Torah and the Oral Law.  The Torah says “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.”  From that we find a whole series of blessings in the Oral Law that one is supposed to recite upon finishing eating.  The most famous and the longest is the Birchat HaMazon or Grace After Meals.  It consists of four basic paragraphs and is properly said only after eating a meal where bread has been eaten.  Moshe, Joshua, David and Solomon and the Rabbis at Yavneh each wrote one of the paragraphs.  You may not recognize the Birchat by name, but most of you will recognize its sprightly opening tunes when you hear them.  In addition to the four basic paragraphs, there are “optional” opening psalms and a variety of closing benedictions.  In modern times, the Conservative Movement has added special benedictions for the State of Israel and those being persecuted in foreign countries.  There are many rituals that people do not perform because they are not part of their lives, or so they claim.  However, everybody eats, so the ritual of Grace After Meals is one in which everybody could participate.  The shortest version is “B’-rich Ra-cha-ma-na Eh-lah-ha-na Mal-ka D’al-ma Ma-ra D’-hai Pee-ta - Blessed is the Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Master of this bread.”  According to some, the Grace After Meals can be said in any language so recite it in English if you so desire.  For those of you who want to learn some or all of it in Hebrew, there are at least two websites that have audio versions of Birchat HaMazon.  In speaking of the land of Israel, Moshe describes it as a land of wheat, barley and vines (8:8).  This gave rise to special blessings to be recited before consuming a limited number of items tied to Eretz Yisrael as well as after eating them.  Then, of course, there are simpler, shorter blessings to be said before and after eating other foods.  It is all a lot simpler than it sounds.  On the other hand, for me, the easiest way to lose weight would be to follow the rules about blessing before and after eating.  Who can remember that much Hebrew when raiding the refrigerator at midnight?  Seriously, most people understand the concept of at least saying words of thanks before eating.  Judaism puts a premium on remembering to say thanks to the “host” after the meal as well.  Reciting blessings is one way to make the mundane holy, which is the responsibility of the Jew and one of the reasons for studying.

Loving the Stranger
“And you shall love the stranger…” (10:19).  The Hebrew word used for stranger is “ger.”  Only in this case the term “ger” is meant to refer to the proselyte or convert.  No less an authority than Maimonides recognizes the special virtual of the convert because this individual has chosen to accept the yoke of the Torah.  This Ger has actually done what our ancestors did at Sinai.  Some traditional Jews have broadened this concept of “loving the stranger” to included welcoming all newcomers regardless of the situation.  As Jews, we certainly know how awkward it can be to feel different.  So it is incumbent on us to “smooth” the way for others.  This hearkens back to the way Abraham provided hospitality to his visitors.  Also, when Moshe uses the term ger, we cannot help but remember the fact that he named his son Gershom because at one time our great leader was a ger; a stranger living in strange land.  For more on “Loving the Stranger,” you might want to read the Plaut Chumash, pages 1409-1411.  This concept is important enough to be mentioned specifically thirty-six different times in the Torah.

The Wanderings
“And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God hath led thee these forty years in the wilderness, that He might afflict thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thy heart, whether thou wouldest keep His commandments, or no.” (8:1).

According to Exodus, the Israelites wandered in the Wilderness for forty years because they had rebelled against God, doubting his strength during the episode of the spies.  Here, the Wandering in the Wilderness is described as a test for the next generation; a way of seeing if they have learned from the mistakes of those who came before them and establishing their worthiness to enter the Promised Land.  In other words, one event can serve multiple purposes.  At the same time, just because we know history does not mean we have learned from it.  Apparently, in the case of our ancestors they did.  Otherwise, who knows how many generations it would have taken before God would have been able to fulfill his promise of taking us into Eretz Israel.

Spiritual and Ritual
For some there seems to be a tension, almost a contradiction between Spirituality and Ritual - as if the two are mutually exclusive.  In reality the two should be inclusive with the Spiritual providing the reason for Ritual and Ritual providing tangible support and evidence for the Spiritual.  In chapter eleven, verses 18 through 20, we read words that have led us to wear tefillin, create schools and put up a mezuzah on our doorways.  But verse 18 begins with the admonition to “put these words upon your heart and upon your soul.”  How does one do that?  There are those who would say that this is a call for one to believe, to believe in God.  In other words, rituals only have their fullest meaning when we internalize the words of God.  Ritual without belief can turn to superstition.  Belief without ritual can be lost because people often need physical manifestation as a reminder of what they carry in their minds and heart.

Ill-gotten Gains
The Torah commands us to “not bring an abomination into thy house” (7:26).  This originally referred to idols or anything related to idolatry.  So this must be an easy command to obey since we no longer live in a time of idol worship.  Not necessarily, according to the sages.  The Torah is a living teacher and the concept of an “abomination” was extended to include anything that was purchased with funds earned in a manner contrary to the teachings of the Torah.  According to this interpretation, “the same lust that propels people to worship idols propels them to seek monetary gain in other forbidden areas.”  The ramifications of this interpretation could have a profound effect upon Jewish fundraising if taken to its logical conclusion.

The Six Remembrances
According to some sages’ interpretation of the Torah, there are six occurrences that we are to remember at all times.  In an effort to comply with this injunction, following the Morning Service, many Jews recite the Six Remembrances.  Five of them come from Devarim and one from Shemot.  The fourth of the Six Remembrances is found in this week’s sedrah.  “Remember, do not forget that you anger the Lord your God in the Wilderness” (9:7).  This is the Remembrance of the Golden Calf.  This tragic episode came about because of the Israelites’ loss of faith.  When Moshe did not return when they thought he was supposed to, they lost faith and created the Calf.  As the notes in the Artscroll Siddur point out, the reading is a daily reminder “that we must have faith in God’s promise and never deviate from His Torah, even if we think that we have found a better way to serve Him.”

Ekev and a Play on Words
The fact that the Hebrew word Ekev has various meanings including “because,” “reward” and “heel” has given rise to numerous commentaries and rabbinic tales.  In one Chasidic story a man of little learning but great piety is disparaged as being an Ekev, a heel.  The local Rebbe turns this term of derision into a term of praise by reminding everybody of the Talmudic sage named Akavya ben Mahalalel.  The name Akavaya is a variant of the word Ekev so the sage’s name translates as “the Ekev of him who is mehalel El” or “the heel of him who praises God.”  (El is a Hebrew term for the name of God.)  Now if this great scholar can be a “heel” how could anybody use the term Ekev to disparage one of his fellow Jews?  Here is a not so Chasidic twist on this same name.  Akavaya is the one who provided these lines for Pirke Avot, “Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin.  Know from where you came, and to where you are going and before whom you are destined to give an accounting.”  All three of these require an Ekev, heel, to ensure the final Ekev, reward.  Remembering that when people walk they go heel - toe - heel, one needs a strong heel (Ekev) to come from some place, one needs a strong heel (Ekev) to go someplace and one needs a strong heel (Ekev) when giving the final accounting because (Ekev) one must stand when one hears the word of his final reward (Ekev).

Rashi on Ekev
The opening verse of this week’s portion reads, And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.” (7:12).  Rashi takes the word “heed” which in Hebrew is Ekev and applies another meaning of the word - “Heel.”  He then says that If you will heed the minor commandments which one (usually) tramples with his heels (i.e., which a person treats as being of minor importance) then “the Lord, your God, will keep” His promise to you.

Ekev - A Personal Note
Ekev can mean “heed” as well as “blessing.”  Ekev is also the root of the name Jacob.  If one takes heed of Jacob it will be a blessing.  In my case I had an uncle (of blessed memory) named Jacob, of whom I took “heed” which certainly was a blessing in my life.  And as if to double down on this, my grandson is also Jacob and he certainly is a blessing to us all.

“And to serve Him with all your heart” (11:13)
This verse found in Ekev has given rise to several Chasidic commentaries and stories.  Here are a few examples and variations.  (For those of you, who are acquainted with such stories, please excuse the literary license.)

How can one who feels himself heavy with sin pray?  A portly man who had been a reliable attendee at the local minyan stopped coming to the synagogue for an extended period of time.  And then as suddenly as he had stopped coming he returned to the daily prayers with a fervor beyond that which he had shown before.  Nobody understood the reason for the disappearance or the reason for the reappearance.  Finally one of the congregants sought him and asked for an explanation.  The man explained that one day while praying a thought crossed his mind:  “How dare you pray to the Almighty when you are so full of sin?”  I had no answer so I ceased praying.  But then I noticed that when I would eat I never heard the question:  “How dare you eat when you are so full of sin?”  If a sinner could eat and his nourish his body, surely he could pray to nourish his soul, especially since his sinful soul needed nourishing more than his body.  Thus I left and thus I returned.

At what speed should one pray?  “Reb Yisrael used to take a long time over his prayers.  Reb Shalom would recite his prayers hastily.”  Both prayed at the proper speed.  Reb Yisrael loved his prayers “so much that he could not bring himself to part with them.”  Reb Shalom loved his prayers so much that “he could not restrain his eagerness to make them his.”  One should pray at the speed that enables him or her to ensure that they are serving Him with all of their heart.

When praying, must one feel a sense of ecstasy?  It is the custom among some Jews to study before reciting their prayers.  A man was bothered by the fact that he felt totally immersed in the Divine Spirit when he would study.  But when turned to recite his prayers, the feeling was lost.  He was troubled by this seeming dichotomy until his Rebbe asked him, “So what does it matter to you if you pray before you say your prayers?”  In other words, there is more than one way or time to feel the Divine Spirit.  Revel in the moments when you do and work to extend into the rest of your life.

Giving the 10 Commandments - The Rest of the Story
Last week’s reading contained a short-form version of the giving of the Ten Commandments.  This week Moses fills in the gap.  In other week, it takes two weeks’ worth of readings for him to provide the whole story as told in Exodus.  No explanation is offered for this form of the recreation of the events.  But there is no doubt that Moses wants the people to remember that he went to bat for them; that he interceded with God on their behalf?  Could this be his way of asking for somebody to intercede with God on his behalf so that he could enter the Promised Land?  We can only speculate, but we will never know.

Bible Quiz
Why will God “cast out” the inhabitants of Canaan “little by little” instead of all at one time?  If God were to cast them out “quickly” the beast of the fields would multiply against the Israelites. (7:22).

In Ekev, what two miracles does Moses say took placed during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness?  The clothes did not wear out and the feet did not swell. (8:4).

Why did Moses say that the Levites were to have no inheritance or portion of the land?  The Lord is the inheritance of the Levites. (10:9).

What is the difference between Egypt and Canaan as regards water?  The land of Egypt was watered by the hand of man.  The land of Canaan was watered by the rain from heaven.
(Source:  Nelson’s Amazing Bible Trivia Book One)

49:14-51:3 Yeshayahu (Isaiah)

The Man and the Book:  Chapters forty through sixty-six of the Book of Isaiah are probably the work of an unknown Jewish author who lived in the sixth century B.C.E. during the Babylonian exile.  We know nothing about his personal life, not even his name.  In fact, we do not even know that the author was a “he.”  The Haftarah Commentary by Plaut points out that the author was “highly innovative in his literary work.  For example he employed female imagery for the Almighty.…”  Could the use of female imagery at this time be an indication that this was the work of a woman?  Nobody knows, but it does give one pause to think.  It would appear that the message of this Second Isaiah helped the Jews avoid assimilation during the exile.  He reminded them that they had “a special relationship to God, but because of their sins” they had been exiled.  However a merciful and forgiving God would pardon them if they would repent in a sincere manner.  Just as God had forgiven the Israelites for the Episode of the Spies and let them enter the Promised Land after forty years of wandering, so He would let the Jews finally return to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Captivity.

The Message:  The reading opens with the Israelites sounding like “a deserted and forgotten wife bemoaning her fate.”  Of course, it is the Israelites who had deserted God, but God does not remind them of that.  Instead, he responds reassuringly.  There are several moving images of connectivity followed by the famous question, “Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, Where with I have put her away?  Or which of My creditors is it to whom I have sold you?” (50:1).  The Israelites transgressed and were punished for their transgressions.  But God has not severed His relationship with them.  They will return to their former glory once they have shown themselves to be true followers of Adonai.  And how does one “seek the Eternal?”  One seeks the eternal by pursuing Justice.

The Message/The Power of One:  “Why when I came, was no one there, why when I called would no one respond?” (50:2).

“Listen to Me you who pursue justice, you who seek the Lord…Look back Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth.  For he (Abraham) was only one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.” (51:1-2).

The haftarah carries a secondary message on the importance that God places on the actions of each individual.  In a sense of bewilderment, God asks why not even one person responded to Him.  Would the outcome have been different if one person had?  We do not know.  All we know is that since not even one person responded, the whole House of Israel suffered its fate.  At the same time the Lord reminds us that we cannot put off our obligation to create a just society until we have sufficient numbers to support the cause.  After all, the House of Israel began with only one person who heard the still small voice and acted accordingly.  Since each person can make a difference, each person must make a difference.

Theme-Link:  The connection is not with the text of the sedrah.  The connection is with the calendar.  This is the second of the seven special prophetic readings known as the Haftarot of Consolation read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah.  They are meant to comfort the Jewish people after the loss of the Temple.  They also provide a reminder of God’s forgiving nature as Jews prepare for the upcoming Penitential Season.

Copyright, Mitchell A. Levin, August, 2016

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Torah Readings for Saturday, August 20, 2016 Shabbat Nachamu Va-etchanan And I pleaded

Torah Readings for Saturday, August 20, 2016

Shabbat Nachamu
Va-etchanan (And I pleaded)
3:23-7:11 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

Va-etchanan is the second sedrah in the book of Devarim or Deuteronomy.  It takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the weekly reading.  “And I pleaded (Va-etchanan) with the Lord at that time, saying,” (3:23).  According to some commentators, this is one of the richest weekly readings in the entire Torah.  There is enough here to study for an entire year and still not have dealt with it all.  The sedrah opens with the last part of the First Discourse (3:23-4:43) and continues with the opening section of the Second Discourse (4:44-7:11).  Broadly speaking, the First Discourse is historical in nature.  In reminding the Israelites of events of the past forty years, Moshe is providing a historical backdrop for the introduction of the material to follow.  The Second Discourse begins with that material and includes the Ten Commandments (5:6-18), the Shema (6:4-9) and instructions on how to behave when confronting the current inhabitants of the land west of the Jordan.  But the sedrah includes so much more that it is almost impossible to cover it all.  So what follows are just some of the highlights.  The overriding messages of the sedrah are the concept of the oneness of God, the need to accept God and reject all other gods and that all blessings flow from following the laws and ordinances of God.

Moshe Entering the Promised Land (3:23-3:26; 4:21)
The sedrah starts with what might be the most poignant, the most soul-searing of expressions, “Va-etchanan,” “And I pleaded.”  Here we find Moshe recounting how he begged God to let him enter the Promised Land and how God turned him down.  He did not just say no.  He dismissed him with a stinging rebuke, “Enough!  Never speak to Me of this matter again.”  What is worse, the fact that Moshe must show his shame by telling of this rejection or the fact that nobody was there to plead on Moshe’s behalf?  From Shemot through Bamidbar we read of the times when Moshe interceded on behalf of the Israelites, pleading with God to spare them.  But who can plead with God on Moshe’s behalf?  This is a play on that old question of “Who hears the confession of the Pope’s confessor?”  What would have happened if, when the Israelites heard that Moshe was not to enter the Promised Land, they had pleaded his case with God?  Would it have changed the Divine Decree?  We will never know.  The idea of the Israelites challenging a Divine decree is not beyond the realm of possibility.  The tales of the Second Pesach and the Five Daughters show that the Israelites were willing to question what God had commanded.  More importantly, God was willing to listen and modify His words.  But one lesson of this Sedrah might be that everybody, high and low alike, needs somebody to intercede on his or her behalf at some time.  From the point of view of modern day management, the sedrah reminds us that everybody has a boss.  And sometimes your job is to keep your boss' boss off of your boss’ back.  At any rate, Moshe will not enter the Promised Land.  And while God may have told Moshe not to mention it to Him again, Moshe is not finished with the subject.  Later he reminds the Israelites again (4:21-22) that he is to die on the plains of Moab because “the Lord was angry with me on your account.”

Peroration (4:1-40)
This section of the First Discourse might be viewed as a summary of basic Jewish concepts and history that are intended to provide the philosophic background for the revelation of the most important elements of the sedrah that will be introduced in chapters five and six.  What follows are just a few of the highlights.

Obey Chukim and Mishpatim (4:1, 5, 8, 21; 5:2, 20, 28; 6:1; 7:11)
The sedrah uses the phrase Chukim and Mishpatim or Laws and Rules at least nine times.  Chukim are commandments for which there is not an obvious reason.  These include the Dietary Laws and the Law of the Red Heifer.  Mishpatim are commandments with what we would call a rational explanation.  These might include the prohibition against murder or stealing or the injunctions to keep an honest set of weights and measures.  Together they form what Moshe calls the “Instruction.”  It is what was given to us at Sinai (5:28).  Obeying it is the key to our success and survival (7:11).  We should try and understand the law.  But our inability to comprehend it is not a reason for disobedience.

Observe the Law (4:2)
“You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it.…”  Judaism has survived because its leaders have known how to interpret the law without doing away with it.  At the same time, Moshe is reminding us that it is difficult to obey the law as is and there is no reason to create additional burdens and demands.  Some commentators feel that this is a quantitative injunction.  For example, we are told about the four species at Sukkoth.  That means four species.  We are not allowed to drop it down to three or increase it to make five.  Such a view brings consistency to a later injunction in the sedrah concerning observance, “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord…” (6:18).

Worship God, Not Nature or Idols (4:15-19)
Moshe reminds the Israelites that since they saw no shape at the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Israelites should never create and/or worship the likeness of a man or woman.  At the same time, the Israelites are never to confuse God with His natural manifestations such as the Sun or the Moon.

Prophecy - Exile and Redemption (4:25-31)
This section is especially appropriate for reading at the time of Tisha B’Av.  Moshe predicts that once the Israelites enjoy material prosperity, they will forget about God.  The penalty will be exile.  But God will not forget the Israelites and eventually we will be redeemed and brought back to the Promised Land.

The Existence and Greatness of God (4:32-39)
Moshe does not offer one of those philosophic proofs of the existence God, the kind that are so popular in Freshman Philosophy courses.  Instead, he tells the Israelites to examine their own history.  For in the events that they and their parents have experienced, the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai, the Jew has empirical evidence of the existence of God and His greatness.

The Start of the Second Discourse (5:1-7:11)
Different commentators provide different divisions for Devarim.  According to some, this marks the start of a second discourse, which includes a compendium of laws concerning human behavior and the on-going reminder to obey them because they are the word of God.

The Giving of the Ten Commandments (5:1-29)
Moshe recreates the scene at the mountain, which he calls Horab this time instead of Sinai.  Before reciting the Decalogue, he tells the Israelites to study them.  And why do we study them?  We study so that we may observe them (5:1).  Study is not a form of mental gymnastics.  It is a way to draw God into the universe; a way to elevate the mundane.

The Recitation of the Decalogue (5:6-18)
The commandments in Shemot and Devarim are very similar.  The biggest difference comes with the Fourth Commandment, which covers Shabbat.  In Devarim the commandment begins “Observe” (Shamor) while in Shemot it begins “Remember” (Zachor).  In Devarim, we observe Shabbat to remember the Exodus, while in Shemot we remember Shabbat because of creation.  In the typically Jewish attempt to harmonize what appears to be conflicting views, we include both of these concepts in the Kiddush on Shabbat.  In the spirit of putting first things first, the Decalogue begins with a statement of the primacy of God and the ban on other forms of worship.  Some say the first five commandments buttress the relationship between the individual and God, while the second five commandments concern themselves with the relationship between individuals.  Others say that the first five are applicable to the unique relationship between the Israelites and God, while the second are applicable to the general society as well as the Israelites.  Obviously this guide is too brief a document to delve into all of the nuances of each of the commandments.

Establishing the Authorship of the Law (5:24, 28)
We have heard several conflicting views about the authorship of the Torah.  As can be seen from these two verses, the Torah states that God is the author of the Law.  This concept of divine authorship is critical to the concept of obeying the Instruction, be it Chukim or Mishpatim.

Presenting the Shema (6:4)
“Hear O Israel!  The Lord Our God, The Lord is One!”  In one simple sentence, which then becomes a prayer, Moshe calls the Israelites to bear witness to the basic belief of their faith.  The Shema, this one sentence, is so basic that it is usually the first line of Hebrew a child learns and the final utterance of the dying, including those who have perished as martyrs.  It is found in the Morning Supplications, in the Shacharit and Ma’ariv (with additional paragraphs), in the Torah Service, in the Musaf and at the very close of the Yom Kippur liturgy.  There is even a Bedtime Shema.  This simple statement has too many meanings and implications to cover in what is supposed to a summary document.  This declaration of “Oneness” is the core of monotheism.  It is a statement that denies the validity of idolatry, pantheism and the Trinitarians.  It is a statement that dictates a common origin for the universe and all mankind.  It is a statement that means that all people are equal before the law and that all people must follow a certain basic moral code.  This one simple statement means ever so much more than this.  You should seek out any one of a myriad of resources including the Siddur and Chumash of Rabbi Hertz, Etz Hayim, The Stone Chumash, and The Plaut Chumash.  Other sources to consult include To Pray As A Jew, The Synagogue Survival Kit, Jewish Prayer, My Prayer, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practices, the writings of Rabbi Telushkin and the commentaries in the Artscroll prayer book.  And that is just the tip of the intellectual iceberg.  There are more, many, many more.

Presenting the V’ahavta (6:5-9)
The Shema is actually made up of three paragraphs known as the “Kriat Shema” or The Reading of the Shema.  The V’ahavta is the first of those three paragraphs.  Specifically, it commands us to love God totally and completely.  And in interpreting the text we find the commandments about the tefillin and the mezuzah.  We also find the injunction for teaching our children, which means establishing schools.  And last but not least, we find the command to continue our education as adults.  How do we express this total love of God?  As Moshe points out, we express it by following His commandments.  Once again, there is too much commentary to summarize.  This is the sort of thing that keeps people studying year in and year out.

Behavior upon Entering the Promised Land (7:1-11)
The source of what will seem to be military success is really God (7:1-2).  In a command that rings harsh in our modern ears, the Israelites are to destroy the inhabitants giving no terms and no quarter.  As we know from Neviim, the Israelites did not carry out this command since the natives continued to live among us, serving as enemies and tempters.  The reason for this harsh decree can be seen in the following instruction to destroy all manifestation of the pagan religion and the injunction against inter-marriage lest it weaken the bond with God.  In a world of idolatry, Israel was to be the one haven for the monotheism and the worship of God.  Moshe ends this part of the oration by reminding the Israelites that God is taking them into the land as a sign of His greatness, not theirs.  And all that He asks in return for his manifold blessings is that the Israelites “…observe faithfully the Instruction…” i.e. all of the Chukim and Mishpatim.

416.      The prohibition against desiring what belongs to one’s neighbor (5:18).
417.      The obligation to acknowledge that God is One (6:4).
418.      The commandment to Love God (6:5).
419.      The obligation to teach Torah to one’s children (6:7).
420.      The obligation to study Torah both day and night (6:7).
421.      The commandment to put tefillin on one’s arm (6:8).
422.      The commandment to put tefillin on one’s head (6:8).
423.      The obligation to place a mezuzah on one’s doorpost (6:9).
424.      The prohibition against testing God (6:16).

Shabbat Nachamu
The Shabbat following Tisha B’Av is known as Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort.  The Temple has been destroyed just as the prophets had predicted.  But instead of “hitting the children of Israel when they are down” and beating their collective prophetic breasts in triumph (see you should have listened to us), the prophetic message is one of comfort.  (For more details, see the Haftarah below).  The Israelites have suffered enough with the destruction.  They are going to suffer even more while in exile.  So God offers a message of comfort and consolation to the people.  There is a message in this from which we all could benefit in terms of how to deal with suffering, even when the suffering is of the victim’s own making.

This Shabbat always makes me smile and not because of the comfort offered at Tisha B’Av.  Decades ago, this was the portion of my brother David.  He was a joy to behold that day and he still is a “sweet singer of song” in the House of Israel.

Sinai - The Edited Version
In Exodus, the story of the Ten Commandments is a long, rambling one that wanders over several weeks’ worth of reading.  The actual recitation of the Decalogue begins with “all these words” not the term “Ten Commandments.”  By comparison the version in Deuteronomy is neat and tidy including the use of the term Ten Commandments to describe the Decalogue.  The version in Deuteronomy lacks the pageantry and does not have the sense of a theophany that is found in Exodus.  But it really is the one that most people know.  Why the difference?  One might be the fact that Moses was pressed for time and he did not want to dabble in the details.  Or maybe he wanted his audience focused on the laws themselves and not all of the extraneous issues that consume the version in Exodus.  It would be consistent with the concept of Deuteronomy being a summary.

The Chosen People
Moses tells the people that God chose the Israelites because of the promises He made to their forefathers and because He loves the Israelites.  For some this begs the question because it does not tell us why God decided to love the Israelites or why he chose to make the promises to our forefathers.  Is this one of those questions, like the Red Heifer, that will only be answered when the Moshiach arrives?

Jewish Education
There are many who feel that the command to “teach them to your children” is fulfilled by supporting Jewish education.  This is only partially true.  While making financial contributions to Jewish schools and sending children to these schools is important, it is only half the job.  Real Jewish education requires an active Jewish home life.  In America, we have seen the consequences when there is a lack of connection between what are youngsters are taught and what they experience.  We cannot expect our Jewish educators, no matter how dedicated and competent, to be a substitute for Jewish practices in the home - both in terms of ethics and customs and ceremonies.  For those who do not feel competent to teach their children, it is up to them to educate themselves.  One of the on-going themes of Devarim is that Judaism is not a spectator sport.

The Haggadah
This sedrah provides some of the language used in the Haggadah.  Look at 4:32 and 5:20 and subsequent verses for specific examples.

The Difference Between the Written Law and the Oral Law
“The Written Torah does not elaborate on the detailed laws concerning the performance of the commandments.  On the mitzvah of tefillin, for example, the Written Torah merely states ‘You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand; they shall serve as frontlets between your eyes.’  It is not at all clear exactly what shall be bound, how it shall serve as a sign, and precisely where it shall be placed ‘between your eyes.’  All these particulars are elaborated in the Oral Law.”  (From Lessons in Tanya, Vol. IV, by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)  This sedrah provides an excellent example of how and why the Oral Law developed.  How do you write the commandments on the doorposts of your house?  How do you wear commandments on your arm or on your head?  How do you observe what are really brief injunctions?  In the Kitzur Shulchan Orach (an abbreviated code of Jewish Law), the laws pertaining to Tefillin take up eleven pages.  The laws pertaining to the Mezuzah cover seven pages.  The laws pertaining to the recitation of the Shema cover four pages.  And the laws pertaining to various aspects covering Shabbat cover 25 chapters of varying lengths.  The scary part of this for some people is that these examples are from a code of law that is called “abbreviated.”  How much more is there in the longer versions of the Oral Law that is not included?  The good news is that a lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to flesh out the spare text of the Torah.  It speaks to the vitality of the Jewish people that we constantly examine and re-examine our laws and traditions to ensure that they are helping us to fulfill some of our ultimate responsibilities including making us a nation of priests, elevating the mundane and repairing the universe.  The Oral Law is not a case of making law just for the sake of making law.  In fact the creation of the Oral Law and the on-going commentary of the sages is a way of obeying the injunction, “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” found in this sedrah.  According to the commentators, this was an admission that the Torah could not deal specifically with every issue that might arise.  Therefore it was incumbent to keep the law fresh to meet the needs of the time and yet consistent with the teachings of the Torah.

An Etiological View
Those who see the Torah as a collection of stories might have a different view for explaining current customs by creating ancient origins for them.  For example, our ancestors may have been placing some sort of amulet containing “holy words” on the doorposts to ward off evil spirits.  When somebody asked why this was done, the writers of Deuteronomy included the words about "And you shall inscribe these words upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates."  In other words, we really don’t know where the custom came from, but now that we do it, we have words from God to provide an origin for the custom.  Remember, nobody knows who hung the first mezuzah any more than they know who put on the first pair of tefillin.  I am not saying I like this approach to Torah study, but it is one that some commentators use.

The “Prayer” of the Lord
After the revelation at Sinai, the Israelites asked Moshe to serve as an intermediary between them and God i.e., he should hear the teachings and convey them to the people (5:24).  According to the commentary, the Israelites were so in awe of God’s teachings and so afraid of violating the law that they sought guidance from Moses to insure full compliance.  In what some commentators describe as a bit of anthropomorphism, God responds with the prayerful utterance, “Oh, that they had such a heart as this always, to fear Me, and keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and their children forever!” (5:26).  According to the classical commentator Nachmanides, this is a reminder that “everything is in the power of God except the ability of inspiring man with the fear of Him.”  Fear of the Lord, making the choice between Good and Evil, falls into the realm of free will.

The Extra Word
The sedrah begins, “And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying….” (3:23).  Most commentators focus on the word “Va-etchanan.”  Rabbi Artson calls our attention to the last word of the phrase “laymor” (saying).  Since no word in the Torah is superfluous, why tack on “saying” to this phrase?  Rabbi Artson cites the Midrash on Devarim that this term “saying” was Moshe’s way of asking God to list any other reasons for his not going into the Promised Land other than that he had struck the rock and not spoken to it.  Since Moshe knew this was the only reason, he was taking responsibility for what he had done wrong.  At the same time, he was protecting the sanctity of his teachings against any future charges that he had somehow fudged the word of God and that somehow the Torah was Moshe’s and not God’s.  This certainly runs contrary to all of those commentators who keep looking for some other, unmentionable transgression which kept Moshe from crossing over the Jordan.

The Six Remembrances
According to some sages’ interpretation of the Torah, there are six occurrences that we are to remember at all times.  In an effort to comply with this injunction, following the Morning Service, many Jews recite the Six Remembrances.  Five of them come from Devarim and one from Shemot.  The Second of the Six Remembrances is found in this week’s sedrah (4:9-10).  It has to do with remembering the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  Interestingly, it is the only one of the six that does not use a variant of the Hebrew word Zachor (Remember).  Instead of saying we should remember “the things that your eyes have seen” the text says, “Beware…lest you forget that your eyes have seen.”  Apparently in the eyes of the Torah there is no difference between a positive injunction to remember and a negative injunction not to forget.

“And you shall love the Lord” (6:5)
“I hear that you have a Segula for a great variety of needs, and these spiritual remedies and talismans that you dispense actual bring results,” said a certain non-Chassidic rav to Reb Avraham of Stretyn.  “In fact I would like you to give me a Segulah for being God-fearing.”  Rev Avraham replied, “I am afraid that for the fear of heaven I do not have a Segulah but for the love of heaven I do.”  “That’s fine with me, said the visitor, “for is not the love of heaven a loftier thing than the fear of heaven?  Let me have such a Segulah, please.”  “A great Segulah for the love of heaven,” said Reb Avraham, “is the love of one’s fellow Jew.  Whoever has attained this can readily arrive at the love of heaven.”  (A Treasury of Chassidic Tales)

In the world of the Kabbalah, a Segula was mystic sign or amulet imbued with spiritual powers.  But a Segulah can also refer to an “action that is reputed to lead to a change in one’s fortunes.”  “The word segulah might be translated as a spiritual remedy or an auspicious tradition.”  In this week’s Torah portion we find the term “Am Segula” meaning “a treasured nation.” (7:6) which refers to the special relationship God has with the Jewish people.  Perhaps then, a segulah might be understood to be an action that demonstrates a treasured relationship with God by doing something extra which brings people joy and draws them closer to God.  (Based on readings from “Jewish Treats:  Juicy Bits of Judaism.”)

40:1-26 Isaiah

The Man and the Book:  The book of Isaiah consists of 66 chapters.  There seems to be a consensus among many scholars and commentators that that the first 39 chapters were written by the historic figure described in the opening of the book.  According to this, he would have lived in Judah (the Southern Kingdom) at the end of the eighth century B.C.E., more than one hundred years before the destruction of the First Temple.  Based on internal literary evidence, Chapters forty through sixty-six (the last part of the Book of Isaiah) were written by an unknown author who lived at the end of the sixth Century B.C.E.  Besides a difference in style and tone there are two specific mention of Cyrus, the Persian King who defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem.  We have no idea who this anonymous preacher was or why he attached his writings to those of Isaiah.  We do not even know if “he” was a “he.”  There are those who contend that that these chapters were added to the original works of Isaiah to make the book as long as those of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  Of course, there are those who still contend that the whole book is the work of one author; that the references to Cyrus are merely evidence of great prophetic insight.

The Message:  The reading opens with the classic words, “Nachamu, nachamu, ami, or Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people.”  In words that would have been consistent with victories of Cyrus, the prophet announces that the Exile is over and the time for Return and Redemption is at hand.  The prophet reminds the people of the greatness of God.  In what might be a reference to the transgression that brought on the exile, Idolatry, the prophet reminds the people that God is greater than any idol or make of idols (40:18-20).  Men are like “grass which withers and flowers that fade.”  The “rulers of the earth” are like “straw” that can be blown away by the storm.  All strength lies with the Lord, who is the protector and shepherd of the Israelites.

Theme-link:  The link is with the calendar, not the sedrah.  The Shabbat following Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu.  It takes its name from the first words of the haftarah, “Nachamu, nachamu ami…”  “Comfort, comfort My people says your God.”  This is the first of the seven Haftarot of Consolation.  They all come from the book of Isaiah and are intended to offer hope to the Israelites facing the destruction of the Temple and exile.  Yes, the prophets warned the people that this would be their punishment if they did not obey the law.  But in a lesson that we should all learn, the prophets do not rub it in.  Rather, they reach down to help their brethren who have stumbled regain their footing; in this case by providing a message of ultimate redemption and return.

Personal Note:  This was my brother’s Bar Mitzvah portion.  It was the first time the adults of our congregation were treated to the lilting sound of his voice.  All these years later, he is still going strong as he leads the davening with joy and knowledge at his “neighborhood” synagogue.

Copyright; August, 2016; Mitchell A. Levin

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Torah Readings for Saturday & Sunday, August 13, 14, 2016 Shabbat Chazon Tisha B’Av Aycha

Torah Readings for Saturday, August 13, 2016

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.

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.

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.

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 a 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 sites 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 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.

Editor’s Note:  Because the 9th of Av falls on Shabbat, the fast and observance take place on the 10th of Av because no fast, with the exception of Yom Kippur can be observed on Shabbat.

Tisha B’Av Fast begins at Sundown, Saturday, August 13, 2016

Recite Aycha (Lamentations)

Torah Readings for Sunday, August 14, 2016

Tisha B’Av (The Ninth Day of Av)

Tisha B’Av is a fast day that falls on the ninth day of Av.  In other words the observance takes its name literally from the day of the month on which it occurs.  When the ninth day of Av falls on Shabbat, as it does this year, the observance is delayed until Saturday evening and Sunday.  Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as other calamities that befell our people.  Bethar fell to the Romans on Tisha B’Av in 135 A.D.  Bethar was the stronghold of Bar Kochba.  The fall of Bethar marked the end of the third of the major rebellion against the Romans.  The edict banishing the Jews from England was signed on Tisha B’Av 1290.  The final expulsion of the Jews from Spain took place on Tisha B’Av 1492.  Several commentators also cite the fact the Talmud ties the Episode of the Spies to Tisha B’Av.  According to this, God delivered the statement of punishment (Bamidbar 14:29) on the ninth day of the fifth month.  There seems to be some question about The First Temple actually having been destroyed on the ninth day of Av.  According to Second Kings (25:18-19) the burning occurred “on the seventh day of the fifth month.”  Jeremiah reports it has having taken place “on the tenth day of the fifth month” (52:12-13).  According to Josephus, the historian who was alive at the time (and other contemporaries), the Second Temple was destroyed on the tenth of Av.  Apparently the Talmud resolves the conflict as follows.

The Babylonians entered the Temple grounds on the seventh, attacked the Temple on the eighth, started the fire on the ninth and watched it finally burn to the ground on the tenth.  Since the fire was started on the ninth, that became the day of fasting and mourning.  There are those who feel that Tisha B’Av should no longer be observed, especially with the founding of the modern state of Israel and the re-unification of Jerusalem.  In an earlier period the Reform Movement wanted to drop the observance since it was “an anachronism.”  Interestingly enough, Rabbi David Einhorn, a Reform Rabbi living in Baltimore in the 19th century, sought to maintain the observance of Tisha B’Av but with a different twist.  He saw the exile as a positive thing because it provided the impetus for the Jews to share the teachings of God with people throughout the world.  Regardless, Tisha B’Av has survived on our calendar.  In Israel, restaurants and places of public amusement are closed and Tisha B’Av is observed as a national day of mourning.  Years ago, a youngster attended Jacobs Camp, a camp run by the Reform Movement in Utica, Mississippi.  When he came home, he told how wonderful it had been - the Bible stories, Shabbat, singing Hebrew songs and of course all of the physical fun of summer camp.  He only had a problem with one day at camp.  Remember, this is an eight year old telling the story.  In the midst of all of this fun, one day they were told they had to be sad.  They had to think about the all the things that made them said.  He wasn’t sure why they had to do this.  And it was the hardest thing to do all summer because it is hard to be sad when you are having a good time.  Most of us do not see any reason to observe Tisha B’Av.  But maybe an eight-year-old has given us a reason.  Compared to others, Jews in America do live the good life.  It is hard to remember this.  Maybe a little such contemplation on Tisha B’Av would help us avoid “the spiritual sloth” described in the sedrah and the special Torah reading for Tisha B’Av; which leads to both physical and spiritual exile.

Customs and Ceremonies
On Tisha B’Av, traditional Jews follow the same rules of abstinence that are connected with Yom Kippur.  For twenty-four hours, they do not eat, drink, bath or engage in sexual relations.  The mourning motif begins with the Evening Service.  The Ark is draped with a black cloth.  The cover is removed from the bimah.  The lights are turned low and those attending the service refrain from greeting each other in the normal manner.  Many people refrain from wearing leather shoes and, like mourners, they sit on low stools or the floor.  Following the evening service, congregants chant the entire Book of Lamentations (Aycha) and poems of lament called Kinnot.  The tallit and tefillin are not worn in the morning service, but are worn in the afternoon service instead.  There are special Torah and Haftarah readings for the morning and afternoon services.

Memory versus History I
There are several different “versions” of the Destruction of the First Temple.  Beside the versions and references in Jeremiah and Lamentations, you might want to look at Chapter 36 in Chronicles II and for more information.

Memory versus History II
For centuries we have “remembered” the destruction of the Second Temple.  But memory is not the same as history.  Memory can be mushy, hazy; history, good history is more rigorous, hard edged and balanced.  It provides us with the information that will help us to understand our past and how to apply our past to the present and future.  We would all do well to go back and study the history of the period that marked the final decades of the Second Commonwealth that climaxed with the Great Revolt against Rome.  The Jewish War by Josephus is the most famous history covering these events.  Josephus was a Jewish general who participated in the revolt.  The work has two drawbacks.  First, it is long and difficult to read.  Secondly, it is tainted by the fact that he defected to the Romans which means the book is self-serving to say the least.  In some respects, his work is as reliable as a history of the American Revolution written by Benedict Arnold would be.  You can find brief articles about the event at;;

Rome and Jerusalem by Martin Goodman and The Ruing Class of Judaea by Martin Goodman provide interesting and unusual views of these events.  For those of you who read history for the lessons it can teach us, you might want to consider the impact on a Jewish commonwealth when political leaders fail to understand the behavior of the leading super-power of the day, when religious leaders become corrupt, when groups vie for power for the sake of power and forget the reasons for the existence of the Jewish people as exemplified by Micah, “It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the LORD doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”  After you read Lamentations and remember the event, why not begin this year to read history, and understand what really happened.  Trust me, it is a real eye-opener.  Speaking for myself, the more I read about it, the less I really know and the more I realize that I need to know.

Memory versus History III
Betar fell almost two thousand years ago.  Thanks to recent archaeological discoveries we now know a lot more about this final of the three major rebellions against Roman rule.  You can find brief articles about this event at and  Or, you might want to read Bar Kochba: The rediscovery of the legendary hero of the second Jewish Revolt against Rome by Yigael Yadin.  When reading about the revolt and looking for lessons for modern times, you might consider the role of Rabbi Akiva and how he was able to see Bar Kochba as the Messiah.

Shacharit (Morning Service) Tisha B’Av Readings


4:25-40 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

This section is actually read twice in one week since it is part the sedrah of Va-etchanan.  The reading contains Moshe’s prophecy of the future exile and redemption of the Jewish people.  The specific cause of the exile will be idol worship.  Eventually, God will redeem the Israelites because of the Covenant and the people will follow the commandments that they had been given at Sinai.

8:13-9-23 Jeremiah

Jeremiah was the prophet who lived through the destruction of the Temple.  According to some, these verses are a prophecy written after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem but before the actual destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C.E.  Jeremiah alludes to a variety of social evils prevalent at the time.  “Their tongues are deadly arrows, speaking deceitfully through their mouths; they speak cordially to their friends, while inwardly setting traps for them” (9:7).  But the ultimate reason for the exile is consistent with the words from Devarim.  “For what reason did the land perish…?  Because they forsook my Torah…They followed…after the Baal-idols as their fathers taught them” (9:11-13).  In other words, the sin of idol worship caused the exile.  Of course idol worship leads to turning ones back on all of the Torah.  According to some commentators God expressed a wish that the Israelites had turned their backs on Him but not on His Torah because the observing the teachings Torah would have brought them back to Him.

Mincha (Afternoon Service) Tisha B’Av Readings


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

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 all four minor fast days including Tisha B’Av since it contains the reminder that “sin leads to tragedy and expressions of remorse lead to forgiveness.”

Haftarah (Ashkenazim)
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).  In the waning hours of this Fast Day, when much of the readings have been about despair and punishment, the haftarah begins a shift towards the message of hope and redemption that will dominant the prophetic readings over the next seven weeks.  Not only will God redeem the Israelites, but He will redeem the “alien” who “observes My Sabbaths” and grasps “My covenant tightly.”

Haftarah (Sephardim)
Hosea 14:2-10 Micah 7:18-20

After almost twenty-fours of affliction come words of hope.  First comes the acknowledgement of the Israelites guilt followed by the way of redemption.  “Return O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin….Say to Him:  ‘Forgive all guilt…Instead of bulls we will pay the offering of our lips’ (this is one of the origins of substituting prayer for the sacrifices)…never ‘again will we call our handiwork our god…’” (Hosea 2-4).  “He will take us back in Love; He will cover up our iniquities…” (Micah 7:19) because of the covenant He made with our forefathers.  The prophet is invoking the Sinaitic experience mentioned in the Torah reading.

Aycha (Lamentations)

Aycha or The Book of Lamentations, which is one of the Five Scrolls found in the third section of the TaNaCh called Kethuvim, is read on this fast.  In Hebrew, this book is called Aycha, which means “how” and is the first word of the scroll.  Aycha is a series of five dirges or laments supposedly authored by Jeremiah, the last prophet to preach in Jerusalem before the destruction of the First Temple and the prophet who actually witnessed the destruction of the Temple.  Aycha is first read at the end of the Ma’ariv (Evening Service) and then again during Shacharit.  The melody is mournful in keeping with the image of the weeping prophet.  Amidst all of the imagery of destruction and devastation, some sages find a message of hope.  God is punishing the Children of Israel for their evil behavior.  In other words, how the Israelites act matters to God.  History is not a random crapshoot.  If He is mindful of our sins, He will be mindful of good deeds.  This means there is hope for tomorrow and an ultimate redemption.  To underscore this, the reading ends not with verse 22 of Chapter Five, but with a repetition of verse 21.

Copyright; August, 2016: Mitchell A. Levin