Deuteronomy 29:9 –31:30
“You stand here today, all of you, before the Lord your God …” [Deut. 29:9]
We read these words at the beginning of this week’s parasha, and then again on Yom Kippur – our holiest of holy days. While we believe that God is always present, at this time of year, we try to become more aware, and we attempt to take stock of how we are living our lives. Are we proud of who we have been? Are there things we would like to change? Asking ourselves these questions while standing in the presence of the Divine helps us to be more honest with ourselves – for nothing is hidden from God.
… but we can always use a little extra help.
A friend and colleague of mine introduced me to a wonderful tool that I have used now for several years. Do You 10Q is a free website that is designed to help us make the most of this opportunity to consciously stand before God. It is run by Reboot – a cutting edge example of Jewish spiritual entrepreneurialism.
Here is how it works:
First you will need to register. Then, starting on September 20th, a 10Q question will land in your inbox with a link. When you click on the link you will be taken to a secure site where you can record and store your answer. Nobody but you will have access to your answers. Each day, for ten days, you will receive another question with another link. You will then have a day or two after Yom Kippur to reflect on your answers and decide whether you want to keep them private, or share them either anonymously or attributed with the 10Q staff and with other 10Qers.
Once you are ready, you can then hit the “magic button” – which will lock your vault until next year, when your answers from the previous year will “magically” reappear in your inbox.
Each year, when I receive my answers from the previous year, I gain a fascinating perspective on how far I have come, where I have stumbled, and what I want to focus on for this upcoming year.
I strongly recommend Do You 10Q for your consideration, and in advance wish you a Shana Tovah u’Metukah, a sweet, healthy and happy New Year.
Deuteronomy 26:1 –29:8
Fifty-three verses. That is how long the interminable list of curses take in this week’s parasha as punishment for not following God. The number of blessings for doing right just pale in comparison.
It would be easy, understandable even, to focus on the negative and gloss over the good. Yet, doing so would cause us to miss one of the single most important teachings of Torah. The curses come: “because you [meaning us] would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.” [Deut. 28:47]
One little verse, buried in the midst of a long litany of curses, says more than all fifty-three verses together: cultivate a life of gratitude, recognize the role of God in “the abundance of everything,” and even if the world around us seems filled with curses, we will somehow be able to find and live with joy.
All the rest is commentary.
Deuteronomy 21:10 –25:19
In Ki Teitze we find one of the most enigmatic of all commandments:
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out of Egypt, how he fell upon you on the way and cut down all the stragglers, with you famished and exhausted, and he did not fear God. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! [Deut. 25:17-19]
At first reading, this commandment seems to defy logic. How could we possibly remember not to forget to completely forget?
Amalek, for us, represents far more than one attack against the Israelite slaves escaping from Egypt – but to understand why we need to remember what actually happened. When we first left Egypt, we were a mob of refugees. We had no organization and no defenses. The people who were physically strongest walked quickly and were well towards the front. The most vulnerable followed as best they could – sometimes far behind. In attacking the stragglers, Amalek demonstrated the worst kind of depravity. It was not enough for them to prey on refugees, they attacked the most helpless from among our people: the very old, the very young and the infirm.
What could possibly motivate such an action? There are many possible answers: callousness, cowardice, opportunism. Our tradition judges Amalek more harshly: only pure evil, only unadulterated hatred could lead to such action. So, we are taught that in every generation Amalek rises again to destroy the Jewish people, and in every generation we must remember to blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. For us, Amalek and each new iteration of anti-Semitism are one and the same.
In Torah and in our generation, ‘never forget,’ is the first step in the fight against anti-Semitism and all racism. However, it is only the beginning of the process. The end goal is to eventually wipe out not only the reality of racism, but even its memory. To do so requires a strong and sustained act of will – over generations.
Amalek is still with us, and in many ways, we are still in the Wilderness. For now, we must never forget, we must remain vigilant, we must stand up through word and deed to repudiate those who spew hate. Yet, we must also remember: that while Amalek is still here, so are we – a small but strong people, bearing witness through our survival and our covenantal relationship with God, that the world can be a better place.
Deuteronomy 16:18 –21:9
Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the new month in the Jewish calendar. Elul is the month immediately before the High Holy Days, our time to prepare ourselves through Chesbon HaNefesh, by reviewing the choices we have made over the past year to reinforce the good we have done and determine where we have faltered and need to improve.
Our parasha opens with: “Judges and magistrates shall you place at your gates.” (Deut. 16:18) Rabbi Steven Wernick, leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, looks to a beautiful Hasidic commentary which asks, ‘what are the gates?’ The answer could not be more perfectly written for these times: Our eyes, ears and mouth. “In other words,” Wernick writes, “how we understand and react to each other is how we establish a just society.”
Our nation is more divided, more polarized than ever – making it ever easier for words of hate and anger to dominate, to become a new ‘normal.’ How we respond, however, is up to us. Now is the time to look back on the year that has past, and forward to what we pray and hope will be a better year to come. Let us examine honestly how we have used our eyes, ears and mouths and weigh the choices we have made, and may we be inspired to use them in the future in the service of compassion, truth and justice – just as our Torah teaches.
Deuteronomy 7:12 –11:25
In Eikev, Moses continues the covenantal theme of the previous two portions: he reminds us of all the good that will come when we follow God’s laws, and of the trouble we caused when we did not. However, this week Moses drills into the psychology of what motivates our behavior.
With just a handful of verses Moses highlights the fragility of human nature that leads us to arrogance; and he warns us about the necessity of humility when we enter the Land, “lest you eat and be sated and build goodly houses and dwell in them. And your cattle and sheep multiply, and silver and gold multiply for you, and all that you have multiply. And your heart become haughty and you forget the Lord your God …” [Deut. 8:12-14]
The danger of arrogance is that when we become full of ourselves there is no room for anyone else. Arrogance may be self-satisfying in the short term, but in the long run it weakens and destroys our relationships with each other, and with God. Just as in last week’s parasha we explored how love is the antidote to hate, this week Moses teaches us to adopt humility as a counter to arrogance.
Yet what does it mean to be truly humble? Many of us assume that humility is the opposite of arrogance. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The opposite of arrogance is the denial of one’s self-worth. Self-debasement is not humility. The Mussar tradition teaches that arrogance and self-debasement define the edges of a range of human behavior, with humility operating as the healthy balance point in the middle. Here is one way of describing some different points along the scale:
To be humble does not mean to have no sense of self-worth, but rather to have a healthy sense of one’s place and value in the world. To be humble means to recognize that our gifts are just that – gifts. Rabbi Leib Chasman (1867-1931) taught: “One who denies one’s strengths is not humble, but a fool. Rather, a humble person is one who understands that all of his strengths and accomplishments are a gift from heaven. The more a person recognizes this, the more humble he is.”
Recognizing our gifts can inspire us to make the most of them, while staying grounded and avoiding the trap of arrogance. This is a difficult lesson to learn, and we have failed many times throughout our history. In Eikev, Moses makes sure that we understand what is at stake. When we become filled with arrogance we put ourselves in God’s place, often by creating and serving our own gods – the work of our hands. In the end, this path always leads to disaster. Humility, it turns out, is the secret ingredient to long term success for us as individuals and as a community, and ultimately, to the full realization of our sacred covenant with God.
In every generation, this is a lesson we should take to heart.
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Last week, on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, we learned about the toxicity of hatred, and how the hatred in our hearts led us to the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. This week, we begin the Sabbaths of comfort with Shabbat Nachamu, which as it turns out means, “the Sabbath of comfort.”
What do we need following the destructive force of hatred?
We need to receive love, but we also need to find and express our own love. Perhaps that is why VaEtchanan contains the Shema and V’ahavta. This parasha commands us to love. Love is the antidote to hate. Love and hate cannot exist simultaneously in the human heart. Yet, how can we be commanded to feel?
The short answer may be that we are to “fake it until we make it.” If we cannot feel the love, then we must go through the motions until we do. The V’ahavta paragraph of the Shema starts with the commandment for us to love God will everything that we have: our hearts, our strength, our very souls.
Yet, what does that mean? How can we love God with everything all of the time? How could we possibly maintain that kind of intensity? When could we find space in our lives to love anyone else?
I would like to suggest that if we love God with everything that we have, then we must also love each other with everything we have. If we are to devote ourselves to God and to Torah, then we must also devote ourselves to each other and to Creation.
The challenge of Shabbat Nechamu is not to respond to violence and loss with hatred, but rather with love. Love is meant to be shared, and the more love we bring into the world, the less room there will be for hate.
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
This week we not only begin a new book of Torah, but we observe Shabbat Hazon, which is the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av.
There is a powerful connection between this parasha, the concept of Shabbat Hazon, which literally means “sabbath of vision,” and the observance of Tisha B’Av. In Devarim, Moses begins his first major speech before his death, and starts off by reminding Israel of the MANY terrible mistakes it made during the forty years of wandering. While this might seem harsh, it is more like tough love – and in an odd way I am reminded of hockey all star Wayne Gretzky. He once quipped that 100% of the shots he doesn’t take, don’t go in. Moses forces us to confront our past deeds, because 100% of time, we cannot learn from the mistakes which we do not acknowledge.
On Tisha B’Av we remember and mourn the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, as well as many other tragedies which befell our people on this date in years past. Yet Tisha B’Av leaves us with a theological dilemma: how could God have allowed the destruction of either Temple, let alone both? In the Talmud we learn that the problem was not God, but us:
Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because three things happened in it: idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed … But the Second Temple, in which there was so much Torah study, observance of commandments, and acts of good deeds – why was it destroyed? Because there was senseless hatred inside of it. This teaches you that senseless hatred is equal to the three worst sins in Judaism: idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed. [Talmud Bavli, Yoma 9b]
History offers a stern warning to those who learn hatred.
We, a people steeped in history and memory, are ignoring this warning.
Today, the Jewish people is a people divided, and senseless hatred festers in our midst. There is a growing tension between the Diaspora and Israel; there is infighting within the State of Israel about the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jews and Judaism, and by corollary, the definition of who is a Jew; an increasing number of American Jews have stopped speaking with fellow Jews who do not share their positions on Israel or politics.
On this Sabbath of Vision, let us look to Moses. Let us acknowledge our mistakes that we can learn to be better. Let us seek ways to speak with each other rather than scream at, ignore or avoid those with whom we disagree. Let us acknowledge our differences, and yet seek ways to be one people, here and in our ancient homeland.
For how could we possibly bear to add another calamity to the list, for Tisha B’Av.
Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
On Shabbat we will conclude the book of Numbers, which is a bigger deal than you might think: forty years have now passed since the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites are encamped on the edge of the Promised Land, and Joshua has already been selected to succeed Moses to lead us across the Jordan River. The narrative of our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land is just about complete, and some would say, ends here.
The book of Deuteronomy stands apart from the other four books of Torah, because it primarily contains the words of Moses, rather than God. Almost the entire book consists of a series of speeches Moses delivered to Israel in the weeks before his death. They recount the past forty years, contain all 613 commandments in the Torah, and offer tough-love wisdom for how to prosper in the Promised Land. Indeed, the word Deuteronomy literally means “second-law” – meaning a recapitulation of what has already been given. This has led some scholars to theorize that perhaps there are only four books of Torah proper, and that the book of Deuteronomy should be grouped with the book of Joshua in the prophetic cannon.
Regardless of whether we accept this premise, how would Torah conclude if there were only four books instead of five? With a story of inheritance.
Zelophehad was an Israelite from the tribe of Manasseh, who had five daughters and no sons. In last week’s parasha, he died, and although the law was that only sons could inherit land, his five daughters petitioned Moses for the right to inherit from their father. Moses, amazingly, does not deny the request but instead asks God, who grants permission. This week, their story – which seems almost a footnote in the larger narrative – evolves into the conclusion of Numbers.
Chapter 36, the final chapter, is all about a legal challenge to the decision. The tribal leaders of Manasseh complain to Moses, observing that the division of land between the tribes is carefully balanced between the tribes by clan and family. They argue that if the daughters of Zelophehad marry outside of the tribe and take their father’s property with them that the balance of power would be changed – at the expense of Manasseh.
What a conundrum! The elders are correct about the balance of power changing if the daughters marry outside of the tribe. Yet God has clearly given the five daughters of Zelophehad the right to inherit from their father, a right which cannot be revoked.
Moses’ response is extraordinary: the daughters are free to marry whomever “is good in their eyes,” but only within the tribe of Manasseh. This tribal limit did not exist for women who did not inherit land, but was deemed necessary here to preserve the larger integrity of tribal balance of power. Presumably, if they wished, any of the daughters of Zelophehad could choose to marry outside of the tribe and give up her portion.
They all chose husbands from within their own tribe.
Today, we can criticize this resolution in several ways. The very idea of a patriarchal system grates against our understanding of feminism, and the details of this compromise do not seem even close to sufficient as a real solution. I strongly agree with these critiques. Yet, this legal compromise is not about feminism, nor the rights of individuals at all, even if it seems so on the surface.
Earlier in the parasha we read about another petition to Moses, this time from the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and then later from half of the tribe of Manasseh. They all prefer the land on the east side of the Jordan river to the actual Promised Land, and ask to settle there instead of crossing over into Canaan. Moses is concerned that the rest of the Israelites would be demoralized if they stay behind, and allows them to settle on the east bank only if they will fully commit to the conquest with the rest of Israel. They can leave their children and cattle behind, but the men will only be able to return once all the Promised Land is under Israelite control.
What is the connection between this story and the daughters of Zelophehad? In both cases, there is a tension between the desires of the individual (or tribe) and the needs of the larger community. In both cases, the wishes of the individual are supported, but only if they do not harm the needs of the community. When the desires of the individual conflict with the health of the community, the health of the community takes preference. The sons of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh must fight the war, even though their own land is already secured – and some of them will sacrifice their lives. The daughters of Zelophehad must marry within their tribe, trading a narrower choice of future husbands for the right to inherit land. In both examples, harmony is preserved between the tribes of a fledgling nation.
Personal sacrifice for the greater good, then, is the theme which leads us to the final verse of the book: “These are the commands and the regulations that the Lord charged the Israelites by the hand of Moses in the steppes of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.” (Num. 36:13)
For us, sacrifice is not something that was performed by priests alone, it is something we still do today – for each other and for God.
Numbers 25:10 – 26:4
There is nothing easy about the story of Pinchas. At the end of last week’s parasha, God is angry because the people are worshipping idols. Moses, on behalf of God, commands the judges of Israel to kill any of their men who worship the Canaanite god Baal Peor. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, saw an Israelite chieftain in bed with a Midianite princess whose people worshipped Baal Peor; he grabbed his spear and skewered the two together, killing them with one thrust.
That is the end of the portion.
So, what happens next? Parashat Pinchas. This week’s parasha opens as God speaks to Moses and announces that Pinchas has saved the rest of Israel through his quick action. Even more, God not only rewards Pinchas with a special Covenant of Peace, but also grants an additional Covenant of Perpetual Priesthood for him and all of his descendants. No other person in all of Hebrew Bible is granted either of these covenants.
How do we make sense of this passage? Does Torah really teach us to be zealots, to become religious extremists? Is this what God truly wants of us?
On the surface, the answer seems to be yes. However, the rabbinic tradition is a little more ambivalent. On the one hand, who are we to question God? On the other hand, where does this kind of behavior lead us?
The sages hesitated to criticize God. If God commanded the deaths of idol worshippers, then Pinchas was correct in his action and deserving of his reward. Yet, the rabbis also taught that God no longer commands us to kill in the name of God, and warned us about the dangers of crossing the line from righteousness to self-righteousness. They ask us to walk a delicate line between a literal reading of the text, and how what we learn from the text should influence our own actions.
Perhaps the best response came from Rabbi Yehuda Leib Eiger (1817-88), whose words ring true now more than ever:
The two parashiyot preceding Pinchas, namely Hukkat and Balak, are in most cases read together on one Sabbath, and the same is true for the two following it, Mattot and Masa’ei. On the other hand, Parashat Pinchas is always read by itself. The reason is because Pinchas was a zealot, and every zealot is on his own. Woe to the generation whose zealots unite. (Itturei Torah, Parashat Pinchas)
Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
What does it mean to bring water from the rock?
Miriam has just died. Moses and Aaron are mourning. The Israelites are clamoring, yet again, against Moses. This time, they are demanding water because Miriam had been the water diviner for the community, and now she was gone. Not knowing what to do, Moses turns to God, who commands him to tap the rock with his staff so that water will come forth.
The imagery captures our imaginations. In the dry and desolate Wilderness, life is precarious and water a precious commodity. Yet the Wilderness, when all seems hopeless, is exactly where our ancestors encounter God over and again. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, Thou art with me …” [Psalm 23:4]
It is almost as if, in order to truly find God, we must first come face to face with our own vulnerability.
In our parasha, Moses makes a terrible mistake. When God commands him to tap the rock, Moses turns to the Israelites and says: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” [Num. 20:10] Then he smacks the rock not once, but twice with his staff.
God’s response was both swift and personally devastating for Moses. God said: “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land I have given them.” [Num. 20:12]
What precisely did Moses do wrong? He used the word, “we.” He said, “… shall we get water for you out of this rock.”
On the one hand, I think that Moses deserves a little slack here. The poor man has just lost his sister, and he has had a difficult and thankless time of it trying to lead our people out of Egypt. It could have merely been his frustration speaking, just this once. On the other hand, the people will follow his example, even as they complain every step of the way. His responsibility as a role model does not allow, not even once, for him to even suggest that he has power like God.
From a cosmic standpoint, to the extent that we could even understand such a position, this may well be an irrecoverable mistake. Yet, there may also be a more human lesson here. When we put ourselves in emotional armor, so much so that we replace the “Thou” of God with “we,” when we think of ourselves as powerful and in command of our domains, that could be when what we need most is time in the Wilderness. The Promised Land, and I am not referring merely to geography, may only reachable after we have learned to take off our armor, after we have been forced to drink water from the rock.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras