Nitzavim / פרשת נצבים

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.

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Parashat Shoftim / פרשת שופטים

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.

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Parashat Re’eh / פרשת ראה

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.

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Parashat Eikev / פרשת עקב 

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.

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Parashat Vaetchanan / פרשת וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

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 we fully responsible for any suffering or pain we experience. They are given, so to speak, by the “grace of God”.

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Parashat Devarim / פרשת דברים

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.
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Parshat Masei / פרשת מסעי

Parshat Masei / פרשת מסעי: Numbers 33:1 – 36:13
אֵ֜לֶּה מַסְעֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָצְא֛וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְצִבְאֹתָ֑ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃
These were the journeys of the Israelites who went out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.

This is the start of the last section of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah.  We know from previous passages that the Israelites stayed at numerous places for extended periods of time  during their 40 years in the desert.

It is not hard to see a parallel between the experience of the ancient Israelites and the millions of refugees today.  By force or by choice, then as now, people have risked everything to seek a better, safer life. 

Then as now, people who thought their lives were secure, were and are, deeply fearful of these wandering people. On the one hand, I think their fear comes from realizing “that but for the grace of God”, they could be among these wandering people seeking a safe home.  On the other hand, I also think their fear comes from concern that if they welcome these wanderers it will disrupt their false sense of security.

The Torah offers us figurative looks at what it is like to be a “refugee”, as well as a person fearful of these wandering strangers (xenophobe). 

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