Torah Commentary Based on the First Verse of the Parsha
Parashat Devarim / פרשת דברים
Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22
אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן בַּמִּדְבָּ֡ר בָּֽעֲרָבָה֩ מ֨וֹל ס֜וּף בֵּֽין־פָּארָ֧ן וּבֵֽין־תֹּ֛פֶל וְלָבָ֥ן וַחֲצֵרֹ֖ת וְדִ֥י זָהָֽב׃
These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab,
Named places in Torah add a level of historicity to the text, especially when they correspond with archeological or other evidence. The places mentioned in this verse all correspond, one way or another, with events during the period of wandering that people would probably not want to remember. More importantly, each place is linked to some sort of lapse in moral character such as excessive complaining, loss of faith/courage or slander on the part of the Israelites or their leadership.
Why dwell on the negative? When we want to instruct someone how to do something (or how to behave) by starting with what **not** to do we reinforce the negative. In In other words, if you say “don’t behave like this,” rather then encouraging positive behavior you are actually reinforcing the opposite.
In short, it is all about framing. According to George Lakoff, an American cognitive linguist and philosopher, "[f]rames are the unconscious neural circuits that define how we think and talk. They are conceptual structures made up of metaphors, narratives and emotions, and they are physically part of the brain. We cannot avoid framing."
I hate to say it but I think the Torah got it wrong by framing the Israelites experiences in such negative terms.
Parashat Vaetchanan / פרשת וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן
Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְהוָ֑ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃
I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying...
It is important to mention (or remind you) that Deuteronomy is essentially Moses' farewell speech to the Israelites. They are on the cusp of entering the promised land, a place Moses is not destined to set foot. Understanding this is helpful for explaining why vaetchanan/וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן, the opening word, is translated as pleaded. In a few short verses later Moses will ask God to change the decree refusing him entry into the promised land. So it makes sense to think that Moses is "pleading" to be allowed to continue on with his people.
The Hebrew word used for pleading is vaetchanan / וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן. The root meaning of this word is grace which means given without concern for merit or circumstances. Pleading implies a special request based on some reason or another.
If anyone in the Torah was deserving of special consideration it had to be Moses. Yet as we know, that was not to be. But because of the word vaetchanan / וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן we understand that Moses isn't asking for a special treatment. Rather he is simply praying for an undeserved gift of grace/ chen.
This is a sobering reminder that we are neither "entitled" to the gifts that come our way nor are wefully responsible for any suffering or pain we experience. They are given, so to speak, by the "grace of God".
Parashat Eikev / פרשת עקב
Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25
וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְשָׁמַר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶֽת־הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת־הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃
Now it shall be: because of your hearkening to these regulations, keeping and doing them, then YHWH will keep for you the covenant of loyalty sworn to your ancestors...
This verse brings up two questions for me. First, why is the literally more accurate 'keeping' (וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם) and 'doing' (וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם) more often rendered as "observe carefully" in English versions of the Torah? Second, given that the Torah uses two distinct words, what is the difference between them?
First, I understand "observe carefully" as a prescriptive, editorial translation. It is how the learned rabbis who translated the text want us to be with respect to the Torah's teaching.
Second, 'keeping and doing' suggest different ways of engagement with the mitzvot. I think keeping means to sustain the memory, knowledge and structures of the mitzvot. Doing means living/engaging with mitzvot. Ideally the goal is for us to do both. However, the reality is that this might not be possible for everyone all the time. Sometimes we are more 'doers' than 'keepers' and vice versa.
Parashat Re'eh / פרשת ראה
Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse:
The third word in the Hebrew of this verse is נֹתֵ֥ן/notain. It is a verb meaning 'give'. Although translating it as 'set before' is also accurate it glosses over an important, albeit implicit, aspect of the act of giving.
To me 'set before' implies an imbalance of action. The giver acts and the receiver passively receives. However, in reality there is no act of giving without the act of receiving. In fact, it the acts of giving and receiving exist only in relationship with each other. There is no giving without receiving and no receiving without giving.
This co-dependent relationship is graphically implicit in the work נתן/notain. In Hebrew נתן/notain is palindrome. It begins and ends with nuns ( נ ) with a single tav ( ת ) in the middle. The word reads the same either way. Thus, in this pictorial way the text is suggesting that giving and receiving are necessarily reciprocal actions. The deep truth of this wisdom is further reinforced by the fact that the middle letter tav tav ( ת ) represents Truth, according to the Talmud.
It is no less unsatisfying when what give goes unreceived as it is to not receive what you want or need.
Parashat Shoftim / פרשת שופטים
Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.
The Hebrew word for justice is tzedek/צֶֽדֶק. This is the root of tzedakah, a very familiar word, mistakenly translated as charity. The word charity comes from the Latin caritas, which means Christian love and is synonymous with the Greek agape. Charity is a lovely word but it doesn't mean the same thing as tzedakah.
Tzedakah means to act so as to achieve justice. This movement/action is implicit in the 'ah' ending added to the root tzedek to give us tzedakah. In Hebrew when ah suffix is added to the word it often means it is directional. Tzedekah doesn't mean charity. It means to act to move toward achieving justice.
I think it is profoundly wise that the authors of the Torah thought it was important to teach us to govern justly than to focus on love, charity or kindness. These days I wonder if both our judicial system and society have become too politicized to still be just.
Ki Teitzei / פרשת כי־תצא
Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19
כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֶ֑יךָ וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ׃
When you take the field against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive...
A deep dive into the origin or root meaning of a word is often telling. Consider, for example the word מִּלְחָמָ֖ה /milchamah in this week's portion. The peshat or basic meaning of מִּלְחָמָ֖ה /milchamah is war. More telling is that the root of the word is לחמ/lechem, which means food in the Torah. Today its meaning is generally more limited to mean bread. This hints to one of the main reasons countries go to war, namely for food and other resources.
Similarly the origin of the word war hints at another truth. The oldest variations of the word come from Old Saxon werran meaning “to confuse, perplex”; Dutch war meaning “confusion, disarray”: Old English wyrsa or wiersa meaning “worse”. Indeed war is the epitome of confusion and disarray, not to mention a "worse" experience.
Ki Tavo / פרשת כי־תבוא
Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8
וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָב֣וֹא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָ֑ה וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֥בְתָּ בָּֽהּ׃
When you enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it..
This passage is one of many from the Bible in which God promises the Israelites a specific region of the middle east to call their own. We know this area today as the State of Israel.
Despite God's repeated promise to give this land to the ancestors of Abraham, i.e. Jews, not everyone believes this is constitutes a sufficient legal claim. Muslims, for example, understand Islam to be the religion of Abraham. Thus, they are the ones who the land is giving to as an heritage.
If one does not believe in God or does not believe that God is an entity that makes promises then what of the Jewish claim to the land of Israel? Similarly, if one believes the Torah was written by people or should not be taken literally then what of the biblical claim to the Land of Israel?
As progressive Jews who most likely do not believe in the sort of God concept that makes promises or are maybe atheist leaning, how do reconcile the Jewish claim to the land of Israel?
Nitzavim / פרשת נצבים
Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20
אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם רָאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל טַפְּכֶ֣ם נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם וְגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ׃
You stand this day, all of you, before the LORD your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—
I violated one of my rules for writing these commentaries. Until now I only commented on what was in the first verse of each weekly portion. I didn't permit myself to point to what was yet to come in the text. This week, however, I included the second verse because the first verse ends in such a way as to appear to exclude women and non leaders. In fact, everyone is expected or assumed to be listening to Moses when he says, "You stand this day, all of you..."
Granted, the narrator in the Torah has Moses addressing the men but it is clear, at least to me, that he is really speaking to everyone.
My 21st century progressive Jewish mindset draws two lessons from these verses. First, it is a bold reminder that we need to vigilantly make sure our communities are accessible in every sense of the word, i.e. physically, financially, emotionally, educationally etc. so that ALL are included. Second, the explicit biblical imperative to include the "strangers among us" is an important corrective to the xenophobia and demonizing of the "strangers among us" in the name of the Bible promoted by some with mendacious intentions.
Torah Commentary Based on the Triennial Reading
Vaetchanan: 3:23 - 7:11
Vaetchanan imparts two teachings central to Judaism. The first, which is repeated, numerous times is the commandment to not create and worship idols made by our hands. These include, but are not limited to, images carved from wood or stone; people or ideas. This also includes natural elements such as the moon, stars or trees. In other words, this Torah portion, more than any other, explicates the concept of radical monotheism. What is interesting and not unimportant is that Torah does not command us to believe in God, only to not worship "hand made images or nature.
The second central teaching of Judaism also repeated often in this Torah portion is the directive to "make them (the teachings of the Torah) known to your children and your children's children". In a word: education. Arguably one of the most important tasks of every generation is do all within our power to provide for the Jewish education -teaching Torah in its broadest sense -for our children and children's children.
Vaetchanan: 3:23 - 7:11
“All who prolong the word echad will have their days and years prolonged. Rabbi Acha bar Ya’akov taught: one should prolong [the last letter in the word,] the Dalet. Rabbi Assi added: provided that he does not slur over [the middle letter,] the Chet.” (Berachot 13b)
Why should the word echad be stretched out? And what is the significance of the letters Dalet and Chet?
Raabbinic/Talmudic explanation for stretching out the word echad is to envision God’s reign over all that is above, all that is below, and the ‘four sides of the heavens: six dimensions/spatial terms. In contemporary terms we describe this as emphasizing the interconnectedness of all in the universe.
Alternatively, we may divide up the universe into three functional categories:
* The initial causes that place into motion all of the myriad actions and events in the world.
* The final effects and goals that are the fulfillment of the original causes.
* The various intermediate means that lead from the initial causes to the ultimate effects.
God’s “rule” over the heavens = the initial causes (primal cause): Where from?
God’s “rule” over earth = the completion and fulfillment of each goal (teleology): Where to?
God’s “rule” over four sides of the heavens = the diverse intermediate means and events: How? (domain of connecting the heavens (where from) with the earth (where to) (deontology*).
God’s rule = universal binding/connecting force (rule can be read as providence or a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere
Why is oneness so significant? What is the principle message to be derived from the Shema?
Principle of unity means we affirm/draw meaning/to from everything that happens to us - even though they appear to be dispersed and disconnected, like the four sides of the heavens - are in fact directed towards one unified purpose, towards the goal of that which is good and elevated.
Dalet = four. It represents the four diverse directions; myriad intermediate means/possibilities in the universe. Dalet = door, door ways/possibilities; Lamed = learning; Tav = judgement (letter is shaped from dalet and nun = din.
Chet = 8. Chet, tet, aleph = sin. Missing the mark understood in a positive sense means striving, seeking to improving and being alive. Chet (9) + tet (8) + aleph (1) = 18 (life)
Eight signifies the realm beyond time: the seven days of the week (what is), eighth day represents beyond confines of time, (what may be). Hence brit milah on 8th da
*an approach to Ethics that focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions themselves, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions (Consequentialism) or to the character and habits of the actor (Virtue Ethics).
ד + נ
Dalet ד = four. It represents the four diverse directions; myriad intermediate means/possibilities in the universe. Dalet = door, door ways/possibilities; Lamed ל= learning; Tav ת = judgement (letter is shaped from dalet and nun = din.
Chet ח= 8. Chet, tet, aleph = sin. Missing the mark understood in a positive sense means striving, seeking to improving and being alive. Chet (9) + tet (8) + aleph (1) = 18 (life)
Eikev: 7:12 - 11:25
If you missed out on reading the events described in the book of Exodus this week's Torah portion is good one to read. We might even call it cliff notes for the first half of Exodus. Although there are numerous passages worthy of consideration in this portion one in particular stands out for me this year. Chapter 10 verse 12 begins "and now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the LORD your God, to walk only in God's paths, to love God, and to serve the LORD with all your heart and soul, keeping the LORD's commandments and laws..." A few verses on Moses continues by saying, "Cut away the thickness about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more".
Here is where it gets interesting. Moses goes on to talk about how awesome God is because God "upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him food and clothing -- You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt". Of all the commandments we're enjoined to observe and remember the Torah specifically mentions these most basic humanitarian ones. From this I suggest it is safe to infer that "to walk only in God's paths" does not mean be obsessive about keeping kosher or observing the minutiae of rabbinic law. Rather, to walk in God's path means to open your heart and reach out to those in need of comfort, solace, shelter, sustenance and security, especially the strangers in your midst.
Re'ah: 11:26 - 16:17
We are all aware of how some people cherry pick certain Torah verses and insist they be understood literally. Levititucus 18:22 is an example of this.
As a matter of principle I do not advocate reading the Torah literally. However, this week's Torah portion contains an exception to this rule, chapter 15:7-8: If, however, there is a needy person among you... do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.
If only we could take this verse literally and use it to create a major political force for change in our society.
Ki Tavo: 26:1- 29:8
Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the issue of your womb, the produce of your soil, and the offspring of your cattle, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.
Ki Tavo: 26:1- 29:8
Avot de-Rabbi Natan 30b: dots were written to call attention to words,
Ezra the Scribe is quoted as saying that if Eliyahu asks, “why have you written these words?”, indicating that they are incorrect, Ezra will reply, shrugging, “well, at least I've placed dots over them”, but if Eliyahu says, “you have written them correctly” then Ezra will remove the dots!
Midrash Numbers Rabbah 3, 13 states that these letters are dotted instead of the actual ones which should be dotted. The letters that should be dotted are לַיהוָה, אֱלֹהֵינוּ. But because the dots are meant to efface, cancel, or annul, you can not cross out the Name of G@D...
So ChaZaL teach this pasuk, verse, is telling us of our accepting responsibility for each others' public sins, and to agree to be punished for not preventing them or not supporting each other sufficiently to avoid committing those sins.
Rashi explains that the way these letters are dotted means this deal we made with The Holy One only came into effect after Am Yisra'el crossed over the nehar ha-yarden, the River Jordan, and made the vow at the mountains of Har Gerizim and Har Eival.
Two layers: historical before entering land of Israel and after. Before entering land words under dots not in affect. After entering land then they are included. Implied according to Rashi:
“The dots above the words ‘unto us and to our children’ are present to indicate that God did not punish the entire nation even for sins committed in public until the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan, and only after they took upon themselves the oath uttered on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal and became responsible for one another’s actions.”
Alternatively: Metaphorically the wandering in the desert might represent a stage of immaturity when we lack the wherewithal to truly care for one another except in self-serving way, i.e. I can’t survive out here alone. Crossing into the Land represents civilization and a more mature stage of existing when our responsibilities are more expanded.