Archive for September, 2000

Nitzavim/Vayelech 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim/Vayelech

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 3:23-31:30)


At the beginning of parashat Nitzavim, Moshe gathers the entire Israelite people and gives them a stern warning to uphold God’s covenant. Terrible things await the person who does not observe the commandments, but God will take back in great mercy anyone who sincerely repents. The parasha ends with words of encouragement: Moshe tells the people that following the Torah is not too difficult or too strange, but entirely within their capabilities.

Parashat Vayelech tells us of Moshe’s final hours: he passes the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua [Joshua], and gives the book of the Torah to the Levites to safeguard. He then instructs the people to gather on a seven-year cycle to hear the Law read aloud. The Presence of God appears to Moshe, predicting Israel’s faithlessness but promising to bring them to the Land.


Now you know that we dwelled in the land of Egypt and that we passed through other nations as we went on. You have seen detestable things and the idols of wood and stone, silver and gold which they had. Perhaps there is among you a man or a woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart is turning today away from Adonai our God, in order to serve the deities of those nations- maybe there is among you a poisonous root or wormwood. When such a one hears all these words, he may bless himself in his heart, saying: “I will have peace, and go after the direction of my heart-” thus sweeping away the moist with the dry. God will not come to pardon such a one. . .

(Deuteronomy 29:15-19, translation mine, based on notes in the JPS commentary.)


Even after the Israelites have seen all the different kinds of idolatry practiced by Egypt and all the other nations, and even after God has warned them time and time again not to worship other deities, it’s still possible that there might be someone who doesn’t take these warnings seriously. Moshe thus warns the people yet again that they must be very careful not to allow in their midst any worship except that of the God of Israel.


Our passage this week contains some unusual and difficult language, giving our usual cast of commentators some work to do, especially in understanding the blessing that the disobedient one gives himself. I have translated this passage:

    “I will have peace, and go after the direction of my heart”- thus sweeping away the moist with the dry.

but really, each clause is debatable. A few different translations show the possibilities:

    When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.” This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. (New American Standard Bible) 

    It shall be when he hears the words of this curse, that he will boast, saying, “I have peace though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart in order to destroy the watered land with the dry.” (Revised Standard Version)

    And it will be that when he hears the words of this imprecation, he will bless himself in his heart, saying: Peace will be with me, though I walk as my heart sees fit- thereby adding the watered upon the thirsty. (Artscroll)

The biggest problem is the last clause of the verse: “thus sweeping away the moist with the dry.” The simplest explanation of this image is that it is “all-inclusive,” like saying “day and night,” or “soup to nuts.” The disobedient one will end up being “swept away” entirely; alternatively, he will bring disaster among the entire nation. (Jewish Publication Society Commentary) Rashi, on the other hand, sees the word sfot, which I am translating as “swept away,” as being related to the word for “added,” which has a similar root. Thus Rashi sees “adding the moist to the dry” as God adding punishments upon punishments for his sins.

Ramban has yet a third interpretation: this person is “giving himself a blessing” when all the other Israelites are hearing the curses related in chapter 28. He thinks that by exempting himself, the consequences won’t apply. Furthermore, according to Ramban, to “add moist to the dry” is a description of the psychological consequences of “following” one’s problematic desires: first somebody does something they ought not do, and then they keep on doing different forbidden things, looking for a greater thrill every time, constantly needing to “up the ante” in order to find temporary satisfaction of their desires.

All of these interpretations offer a more detailed explanation of the basic problem: this person (or group) that Moshe warns about is in utter denial of the consequences of their actions. As Ramban points out, they are deluding themselves if they think that they can exempt themselves from the same conditions that apply to everybody around them. Whether they have mistaken ideas, or they are arrogant, or painfully naive, a person in denial can create big problems for themselves and those around them.

The specific issue that Moshe addresses- worshipping the deities of the ancient nations- may not be much of a problem anymore, but the human capacity for self-deception remains with us always. People are often prone to think that “the rules” apply to everybody but themselves; whether in the realm of health, ethics, or simply the inevitable consequences of our actions, the refusal to confront reality is a pervasive and destructive force in human existence. When you eat too much junk food, it’s not healthy for your body; when you tell little distortions of the truth, it’s not healthy for your relationships; when you consistently put off prayer and good deeds, it’s not good for your soul. These are teachings we all know, but all too often, try to forget.

Thus it’s especially appropriate to read these words the week before Rosh Hashana. On the Days of Awe, we are challenged to fearlessly review our deeds: did we do what we ought? did we do things we shouldn’t have? are our relationships in order- with ourselves, with others, with God? Are we like the “self-blesser” that Ramban imagines, telling ourselves that it’s going to be all right, because the basic laws of nature and morality don’t really apply to me? (I, for one, am still firmly convinced that I can eat chocolate and cookies and not gain weight.)

The good news in all of this is that change is always possible. The following chapter is an extended meditation on the possibility of choice and change, along with the assurance that this is within the reach of every person:

    For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. (Deuteronomy 30: 11)

Preparing ourselves for the Days of Awe can be daunting- sometimes it’s easier to look away at parts of ourselves that need work. Yet Judaism insists that we have the capability to change, grow, and better ourselves- it’s hard work, but it’s that simple.


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Ki Tavo 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1- 29:8)


Parashat Ki Tavo opens with the commandment to bring the first fruits to the priests. This ritual includes a verse many will recognize from the Passover Seder, recalling that “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” This is followed by an elaborate staging in order to illustrate the many blessings that will follow one who follows Torah, and the many curses which will come upon the nation if they don’t. The parasha concludes with a review of the good things that God has done for Israel since the exodus from Egypt.


“Moses summoned all Israel, and said to them: You have seen all that God did in Egypt before your very eyes, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land. Your own eyes saw the great miracles, signs and wonders. But until this day, God did not give you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.” (Deuteronomy 29:1-3)


Having dramatically elaborated upon the perils of disobeying God’s covenant, Moshe urges the people to remember all that God has done for them and thus recommit themselves to the covenant, which will bring many blessings once they settle in the Land. They haven’t always chosen well in the past, but they can in the future.


Moshe appears to be telling the people that even though they have witnessed many miraculous things- such as the plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the manna in the desert, and Miriam’s well, among others- they never quite understood what lessons they were supposed to draw from these experiences. On the one hand, this makes sense; if Israel had truly understood the significance of Sinai, perhaps it would not have made the Golden Calf, for example.

Yet by saying that it was God who did not give Israel the “heart to know,” Moshe poses a theological problem, for if God didn’t give people a “knowing heart,” then how could God hold the people responsible for disobedience? This might remind us of how the Torah tells us God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go from slavery- and again, the classic problem is that people cannot be held responsible for their actions if they don’t have truly free will to choose good or evil.

Different commentators have different solutions to this dilemma. Ibn Ezra agrees that the Israelites repeatedly demonstrated their lack of understanding, but says that God “gave” them a defective heart only in the sense that God is the First Cause of all things. This relieves God of the moral responsibility of the Israelite’s disobedience, but I don’t think it really addresses the plain meaning of our verse.

Rambam thinks the people lacked proper intellectual understanding of the miracles; for him, “heart” means intellect or understanding.* Perhaps Rambam thinks that the Israelites had erroneous ideas about how to interpret God’s actions on their behalf, or perhaps they thought that the miracles were some sort of magic, or they didn’t understand that God was the source of their sustenance. Reading the verse this way, we might conclude that God is enabling the people to “grow up” intellectually, after so many years of struggling to understand.

Rashi, on the other hand understands “God did not give you a heart to know” in emotional or spiritual terms:

“Heart to know”- to recognize the kindnesses of the Holy Blessed One, and [thus] to cleave to God.”

Perhaps Rashi is suggesting that indeed, the people saw the miracles, but they didn’t understand that the miracle was a kindness, per se. This makes sense to me: after the trauma of slavery, perhaps the people simply could not accept or understand love and kindness- it was something they hadn’t experienced from the “god” called Pharaoh. We might compare this to people who have suffered abusive childhoods or relationships, who years later may be unable to receive ordinary kindnesses- they simply can’t trust that someone is doing something nice for them. Thus, our verse may be suggesting that one of God’s gifts is the ability to heal over time, to learn to accept love even after terrible trauma.

Yet a little bit later in his commentary, Rashi quotes another possible understanding of “God did not give you a heart to know:”

    A person cannot totally understand the knowledge of his teacher or the wisdom of his studying until forty years. Thus, God was not strict with them until “this day”, but from now on God will be more demanding, so therefore “observe the words of this covenant.” (v 29:8)

At first glance, this reading is similar to Rambam’s, apparently concerned with the proper intellectual growth of the Israelites. Yet to me, Rashi’s parable of the teacher is not so much about intellectual growth but rather about the ability to responsibly commit one’s life, which comes only with maturity and time. All the intellectual knowledge in the world won’t change one’s life until one is mature enough to apply it- or even mature enough to admit that one needs to change!

Perhaps Rashi is suggesting that time and experience bring not only the capacity to heal, but the capacity for thoughtful reflection. It’s not the fiery commitment of one’s youth that God is looking for, but a more sober introspection and review of one’s life and learning. At first glance, the verse seems to be suggesting that God created people with a fatal defect, an inability to understand crucial lessons. Turned around, and applying Rashi’s commentary, we might see in this verse a hint of one of God’s great gifts: the ability to grow over time, to take responsibility for our own development, to continually revisit and deepen our understanding of our place in the world. Rather than demand perfection all at once, God give us forty years- a whole lifetime’s journey- to grow a “knowing heart.”

(see Guide to the Perplexed, 1:39, and Torat HaRambam on this passage)

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Shoftim 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)


The word shoftim means “judges;” issues of jurisprudence and social ethics predominate in this Torah portion, including guidelines for the behavior of courts of law, elders in the community, the king, prophets, priests and even warfare.


“When, in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed.” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)


This whole section of the parasha deals with rules for warfare, setting limits on what the Israelite army may do even in the heat of battle. In these verses, “scorch and burn” warfare is prohibited; the Israelite army may not destroy the source of sustenance of the enemy city, even if they are seeking to conquer it.


Beginning in the time of the Talmud, these verses were understood to apply to all of life, not just a time of war. The rabbis derived from these verses a principle called bal taschit, or “do not destroy,” which they formulated as a general prohibition against the destruction or wasting of anything potentially useful or necessary to sustain life. For example, the Talmud itself says

    Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal tashchit. (Kiddushin 32a)

Hundreds of years later, Maimonides applied the law to both trees and other objects, though he concedes that trees may be cut down as part of a thoughtful agricultural decision:

    It is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees outside a besieged city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so that they wither. Whoever cuts down a fruit-bearing tree is flogged. This penalty is imposed not only for cutting it down during a siege; whenever a fruit-yielding tree is cut down with destructive intent, flogging is incurred. It may be cut down, however, if it causes damage to other trees or to a field belonging to another man or if its value for other purposes is greater. The law forbids only wanton destruction…. Not only one who cuts down trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food with destructive intent transgresses the command “you must not destroy.” (Mishna Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8,10)

Because the principle of bal taschit demands that we refrain from engaging in destructive or wasteful actions, many contemporary Jews have understood it to be part of an emerging Jewish environmental consciousness. For example, some contemporary writers have suggested that a commitment to bal taschit in its original context might lead Jews to greater activism to prevent the wasteful exploitation or destruction of wilderness areas. On a more everyday level, bal taschit might serve as a religious language for greater conservation and recycling efforts on the part of Jewish homes and institutions.

The Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century explanation and discussion of each of the 613 commandments, finds an even deeper teaching embedded in the principle of bal taschit:

    The purpose of this mitzvah [bal tashchit] is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who are like demons, who rejoice in destruction of the world, and they are destroying themselves. (Sefer HaChinuch, #529)

According to this interpretation, acting to safeguard the beauty and abundance of the world is a measure of our appreciation of it. Inculcating a consciousness of our behavior is at the core of Judaism, as the teachings pertaining to sacred time and moral rigour might suggest. Bal taschit asks us to apply that same conscientiousness to the ecological consequences of our everyday actions; perhaps that kind of consciousness is an essential part of “righteousness” for our times.

PS- For those interested in more information on Jewish environmental activism and a more in-depth look at Judaism’s perspectives on environmental issues, the best place to start is the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

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