This Week's Torah Portion--D'varim

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This Week's Torah Portion--D'varim

Post #1

Post by Jrosemary »

I was glancing through Bradley Shavit Artson's The Bedside Torah today. He brings up an interesting point about this week's parsha; that is, the Torah portion assigned to this week in the Jewish liturgical year. We're moving into Deuteronomy, which begins with the sentence, "These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel." As Artson points out:
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson wrote:The Torah had a choice here: it could use the word amar for "spoke" or it could use the word daber. The rabbis of the ancient Midrash Sifre Devarim note that every place the Tanakh [the Hebrew Bible] uses the verb daber indicates harshness or rebuke, whereas the Hebrew word amar conveys a sense of praise. In the opening lines of Devarim, the Torah uses the word daber. Why? Why did Moses speak harshly to the Hebrews as they gathered on the border of the Promised Land?

Because his final speech, the culmination of his long life of service to them and to God, consisted of chastisement, reminding them that they fell far short of the sacred standards embodied in the Torah and Jewish tradition.
Ok, I get it. Yeah, the Torah gives us a long history of mistakes. At one point, we were even wishing that we'd never gotten involved in the exodus from Egypt. We were looking back with longing to Egypt and perfectly willing to be slaves there again. That's why HaShem* decreed that a whole generation of us would die in the wilderness. It would be the new generation--born to the harshness of the wilderness and hungry for freedom--that would march across the Jordan River.

But with all due respect to Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher)--well, was this the best time for chastisement? Is this the best way to send people off to conquer the land across the Jordan? Some words of encouragement and praise may well have been appreciated.

Ok, ok. I'm not positing that Deuteronomy is giving us historical footage. It's a work that seems quite determined to make certain theological points. And it was no doubt written long after Moses's day (assuming Moses existed). Moses giving these final words is likely just a literary conceit.

But while I enjoy learning about biblical scholarship, there's something to be said for reading the Torah holistically--for taking it as a whole in its final form. Yes, we can and should remain conscious of the fact that different authors, with different points of view, contributed to it at different times. But we can nonetheless focus on the final product.

And that final product shows us Moses chastising the whole people Israel as they prepare to cross the Jordan.

In a way, I get it. Moses has fought the good fight. He's been leading (and putting up with) this people for more than 40 years. He stood up to Pharaoh. He stood up to HaShem Himself. Now he's buried a whole generation, including his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam. He's old, he's tired and if he wants to chew us out and remind us how much growing up we have to do--well, who's more entitled?

We know already that Moses himself won't enter Zion. There was an infamous incident, back in Parsha Chukat (Numbers 19:1--22:1) where Moses lost his temper. HaShem had commanded Moses to speak to a rock to bring forth water--Moses ending striking the rock instead. It doesn't read like that big a deal . . . especially considering that Miriam had just died and, well, who knows where Moses' head was? Surely the man was entitled to some anger while he was grieving? (Or entitled to misspeak, if that was part of the problem?)

And yet the fact that Moses struck that rock is the reason that HaShem bars him from entering Zion. Moses knows from that moment on that he'll never enter the Promised Land.

In the Torah study at my synagogue, our rabbi drew a link between Moses's anger in striking the rock and Moses's harsh words to the people as they prepared to cross the Jordan. The moment of striking the rock may have been one incident in a larger pattern--maybe Moses, however high in esteem we hold him (and we hold no human higher), had grown too impatient to lead the people into Zion. Maybe that's one of the reasons that Moses had to die on the east side of the Jordan, and Joshua had to lead the people forward.

At the end of Deuteronomy--lots of parshas from now--when the harsh words are through, HaShem brings Moses up to mount Nebo and shows him the whole land before he dies. In fact, according to a midrash,** HaShem showed Moses not only the land, but how the entire history of the land and the people Israel would unfold. Moses died knowing what he had helped accomplish, even though he never set foot in the land himself.

So there's a special poignancy, I think, to the Torah's choice of the word daber--the fact that Moses rebuked us rather than encouraged us may be linked to the anger and frustration that drove him to strike that rock. And that, in turn, may be part of the reason he had to pass the torch to Joshua. But while we're working our way through this lengthy and sometimes scathing rebuke in the weeks to come, I like to remember that Moses had a glimpse of our future as a people--and I like to think that he knew, before he died, that however costly his anger and his rebuke was, his words would not be wasted.

I like to think that, in the end, he knew that we'd still be reading them--and learning from them and grappling with them--today.

* HaShem is a way of referring to God in the Jewish tradition--it literally means 'the Name.'

**Midrash (the proper plural is midrashim) are teachings and stories that fill in some of the blanks in the Torah or expand on the Torah. I like to call midrash the rabbinical fan fiction of the Torah. 8-)
Last edited by Jrosemary on Fri Jul 16, 2010 2:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post #2

Post by Jrosemary »

Thanks to Cnorman for pointing this out: the Jewish Theological Seminary's commentary on parsha Devarim. Just a couple of notes so that this makes sense:

1. Devarim is both the name of the parsha or Torah portion for last week in the Jewish liturgical year, and the Hebrew name of the entire book of Deuteronomy.

2. This is probably obvious, but Moshe is Hebrew for Moses.

3. You can find this on line here.
The folks at JTS said wrote:Parashat Devarim
Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22
July 25, 2009 / 4 Av 5769
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi David Hoffman, scholar-in-residence, Development Department, JTS.
The Book of Devarim and the Birth of Talmud Torah

Perhaps the greatest difference between the book of Devarim, which we begin this Shabbat, and the other four books of the Torah is the switch in modality. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers describe a story as it unfolds. The characters of these books experience these events as they occur in the moment.

Not so the book of Devarim.

This book begins in a completely different way. Moshe recounts events for which his present audience has no personal memory. Except for Joshua and Caleb, this is an entirely new generation of Israelites. Not one person from the group that stands before Moshe had stood at Sinai, seen the mountain ablaze, and heard God speak out of the fire. The Covenant at Sinai was made with their ancestors, men and women who had just emerged from the experience of slavery and redemption and who faced a completely different set of challenges than the present generation. This audience is a new generation, tasked with the challenges of transitioning from a nomadic people to a nation that builds cities and cultivates a system of agriculture on the land that God had promised their ancestors.

Moshe—the man who described himself as "slow of speech and slow of tongue" having "never been a man of words (devarim)" (Exod. 4:10) begins the book with words (devarim). Indeed, the entire book constitutes one powerful and sustained verbal presentation.

Moshe's goals in this book remain our religious challenges: How do you render a story that happened to other people and make it your story, as meaningful to you as the day it occurred? How do you tell the story of our people's relationship with God and move a new generation to willfully and passionately enter into this sacred Covenant? How do you make the argument to a generation of Jews that the Jewish community and Torah provide a rich and compelling framework to pursue ultimate questions of meaning?

I suggest that the book of Devarim adopts a unique path for the renewal of the Covenant, which after all is the primary purpose of the book (chapters 5–29). No form of the Hebrew root l-m-d (to learn, study, or teach) appears in any book of the Torah other than Devarim, where it appears seventeen times in thirty-four chapters. The experience of learning and teaching is central to the project of Devarim. This verb is used in connection to God teaching the Israelites, Moses teaching the nation and, perhaps most critically, the Israelites themselves teaching Torah—"Impress My words upon your heart . . . and teach them to your children—reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up (Deut. 11:18–19)."

Limud (learning) constitutes the process through which we Jews connect with our history and make these historical stories our personal narratives. Understood in these terms, learning is not simply a means to acquire information. Rather, for the Jew, learning is an active process that is primarily about making meaning. The book of Devarim makes very clear that if we-in our generation-are to develop a personal, rich, and nurturing relationship with God, we must learn and study God's Torah that reveals God's aspirations for the world. Study is the means by which we make meaning in our own lives and it is activity whereby the Jew responds thoughtfully to the challenges of our particular age.

At the end of the book of Devarim, Moshe—the man who claimed he was a man of no words—concludes his life singing words of poetry:

"Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew . . .
Give glory to our God!"
(Deut. 32:1–3)

I submit that Moshe's strength and newfound confidence emerged from his deep belief that he had finally found the path for real religious awakening. The thunder and direct experience of God at Sinai did not work even for the generation of the desert.

The book of Devarim creates the possibility that if God's Presence is to be made manifest in our world, it will be in the words (devarim) of those who pursue with love the Will of the living God.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.

Interesting piece. I especially like the way this commentary reminds us that Moshe once complained that he wasn't a great speaker. He sure finds his voice in Deuteronomy!

It's interesting, too, to remember that Moshe is addressing the new generation of Israelites. This is not the generation that came out of Egypt. It's not the generation that stood at Sinai. (Well, ok, according to legend every Jew who ever was or ever will be stood at Sinai--but you know what I mean.) This is not the generation of that unfortunate 'golden calf' incident. This is not the generation that thought it would be better to go back to Egypt and be slaves again when the going got tough.

All stuff to keep in mind as Moshe teaches and rebukes us throughout Deuteronomy . . .
If you can`t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It`s not safe out here. It`s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires, both subtle and gross. But it`s not for the timid.


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Post #3

Post by Jrosemary »

Ok, here's still more commentary on this parsha (Torah Portion) from the
United Synagogue of Conservative Judasim. There's a lot of food for thought here:
the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism wrote:

Sefer Devarim is Moses’ farewell speech to the people he has led for forty years. It contains an overview of the history of the wilderness years, a review and elaboration of the statutes and ordinances of the Torah, Moses’ final blessing, and his death.

The core of the first parasha in Deuteronomy is history. Moses begins by describing how he appointed judges and officers to help him lead the people. He reminds the Israelites about what happened the first time they were about to enter the land, when, after the spies’ report caused the people to panic and refuse to proceed, God became angry and decreed that the generation of the Exodus would die in the wilderness. God also decreed that Moses would not enter the land.

Moses reviews recent events – the conquest of Sihon, king of Heshbon, and Og, king of Bashan. He describes how their territory was given to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh.

1. This Too Is Torah

Sihon with all his men took the field against us at Jahaz, and the Lord our God delivered him to us and we defeated him and his sons and all his men. At that time we captured all his towns and we doomed every town – men, women, and children – leaving no survivor. (Deuteronomy 2:32-34)

1.In the towns of the latter [Canaanite] peoples, however, which the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, you shall not let a soul remain alive. No, you must proscribe them – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – as the Lord your God has commanded you, lest they lead you into doing all the abhorrent things that they have done for their gods and you stand guilty before the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:16-28)

2.Ramban (Maimonides) remarks that the inhabitants were Amorites and, as such, came under the Divine ordinance, “in the towns of the latter peoples... you shall not let a soul remain alive.� (Deuteronomy 20:16) But that fate was only conditional on their refusal to come to terms of peace by giving up polytheism and undertaking to dutifully keep the general laws of humanity, the seven Noahide laws. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)

3.When adulterers increased in number, the application of the waters of jealousy ceased; and Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai abolished them, as it is said, “I will not punish their daughters for fornicating nor their daughters-in-law for committing adultery; for they themselves turn aside with whores and sacrifice with prostitutes...� (Hosea 4:14) (Mishnah Sotah 9:9)

4.To place the Bible’s aggressive and cruel mode of warfare into context, one must remember that three thousand years ago, this is how wars were fought. “Ancient documents from Mesopotamia to Egypt,� a recent book notes, “abound in joyous references to annihilating neighbors...� (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “Jewish Literacy,� p. 69)

5.When the Holy Blessed One said to Saul, “Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him,� he said: If on account of one person [found dead] the Torah said perform the ceremony of the heifer whose neck is to be broken, [see Deuteronomy 21:1-9] how much more [ought consideration to be given] to all these people! And if human beings sinned, what have the cattle committed; and if the adults have sinned, what have the little ones done? A divine voice came forth and said, “Do not be overly righteous.� (Kohelet 7:15) (Talmud Yoma 22b)

Sparks for Discussion

The Torah appears to endorse the wholesale slaughter of enemy populations. This is only one of several Torah texts many modern readers find difficult, among them sections permitting slavery, prescribing the death penalty for adultery and homosexuality, and allowing a jealous husband to subject his wife to a trial by ordeal. How do we deal with such texts? Our commentators offer different approaches – by justifying the Torah’s position, by rabbinic legislation that makes troubling laws effectively inoperative, and by understanding that each text reflects a particular historical reality that no longer exists.

Are there Biblical texts you find troubling? How do you come to terms with them? What do you make of the passage from Yoma in which God tells Saul, “Do not be overly righteous?�

2. We Are One... Or Are We?

At that time I charged you, saying, “The Lord your God has given you this country to possess. You must go as shock-troops, warriors all, at the head of your Israelite kinsmen. Only your wives, children, and livestock – I know that you have much livestock – shall be left in the towns I have assigned to you, until the Lord has granted your kinsmen a haven such as you have, and they too have taken possession of the land the Lord your God is assigning them, beyond the Jordan. Then you may return each to the homestead that I have assigned to him.�

(Deuteronomy 3:18-20)

1.All Israel are responsible for one another. With what may this responsibility be compared? With a ship in which one compartment has split apart. Of something like this, it is not said, “A compartment in the ship has split apart.� What people say is, “The entire ship – the whole thing – split apart.� (Tanna de-Bei Eliyahu)

2.We may assume that Moses was not so much concerned that the war would not be won if the tribesmen of Reuben and Gad did not take part in it; he believed that the Land would be conquered in accordance with God’s promise, no matter how many tribes participated in it. Moses’ concern was with the ethical implications of the two tribes abstaining from a war that should be fought by all Israel. The conquest of Eretz Yisrael was not incumbent only on those people who planned to live in the Land. It was, in the eyes of Moses, the culmination of the drama of redemption that should be acted out in full by all the tribes that came out of Egypt. (Rabbi Pinchas Peli, “Torah Today,� p. 191)

3.Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster — indeed, have actively opposed — a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead. (Peter Beinart, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,� The New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010)

Sparks for Discussion

Although the tribes of Reuben and Gad asked for and received permission to settle east of the Jordan, they still were required to join the other Israelites in the fight to conquer Canaan. Rabbi Pinchas Peli explains that this was a matter of Jewish unity, that the conquest of the Promised Land was the job of all Israelites. Recently there has been much discussion about Peter Beinart’s article, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,� in which he argues that young American Jews are turning away from Zionism because their understanding of Israel’s politics and policies conflicts with their liberal values. Do you agree? What do Jews in the Diaspora owe to Israel? Must we always support Israel, right or wrong? Is it appropriate to criticize Israel publicly, or should our criticism be voiced only within the Jewish community? What does it mean to be a Zionist today?

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