Archive for September, 2001

Nitzavim/Vayelech 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

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

OVERVIEW

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 parsha ends with words of encouragement: Moshe tells the people that upholding the Torah is not too difficult or too strange, but entirely within their capabilities.

IN FOCUS

“This commandment that I am prescribing to you today is not too mysterious or remote from you. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who shall go up to heaven and bring it to us so that we can hear it and do it?’ ” (Deuteronomy 30:11-12)

PSHAT

In the final hours of his life, Moshe pleads with the Jewish people to observe God’s commandments after his death and their ascension to the Land of Israel. He tells them that they are quite capable of observing Torah laws, and that God is very merciful to all who return to holy ways. In this famous passage, Moshe tells them that the Torah is meant for daily living by ordinary people- it is within the grasp and means of every Israelite.

DRASH

Lo b’shamayim hi- “it is not in the heavens.” On its simplest level, Moshe is telling the people that Torah and Jewish living are not out of the reach of ordinary people- anybody who wants to can do it. On another level, this verse validates everyday Jewish practice and ethics, without requiring mystical practices or esoteric secrets. Rashi comments:

    “It is not in the heavens” – for if it were in the heavens, you would have to ascend in pursuit to study it.

I think Rashi is saying: one doesn’t need to “ascend to Heaven” to study and practice Torah. One doesn’t need to be especially pious, or “spiritual,” or extraordinary- Torah is for people with “both feet on the ground,” as it were. After all, in the preceding chapters of Deuteronomy, the Torah has discussed laws of eating, clothing, sex, money, war, politics, crime, treatment of animals. . . all part of daily living, not of “going up to Heaven.”

[A related story is told of the Baal Shem Tov who refused to enter a synagogue- saying that it was full of prayers. When his surprised listeners questioned this, he replied that prayers should rise to heaven, but because here they remain cluttering the prayer hall, there was no room for him to enter. Ed.] The Hasidic master R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk (a.k.a. the Kotzker Rebbe) makes the point even more pungently:

    “It is not in the heavens”- The Torah is not found among the “heavenly” Jews, those who seek to climb into the highest of the Heavens.

The Kotzker Rebbe’s statement is probably a barb aimed at those Jews who spent their time seeking mystical experiences rather than helping others in the community, but we can also understand it another way. The true test of Torah is not in our most “spiritual” and detached moments, as vital as those are. The truest manifestations of Torah are in earthly axctions- feeding people, buying things, selling things, taking care of ourselves and others, refraining from gossip, acting compassionately with those right in front of us.

Please note, I don’t think either Rashi or the Kotzker was against spirituality, as such; certainly deep prayer and development of the inner self is important in any form of sincere Judaism. Rather, I think they are saying that spirituality cannot be separated from our goodness and integrity, nor does it depend on esoteric knowledge. “It is not in the heavens”- nor confined to the synagogues, study halls, Kolels, universities, or Judaic web sites. It begins in our hearts and mouths, with an attitude toward daily actions, and a resolve to strive for more holy living in all our affairs.

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Ki Tavo 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

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

OVERVIEW

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 parsha concludes with a review of the good things that God has done for Israel since the exodus from Egypt.

IN FOCUS

“Because you did not serve the Adonai your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity . . . ” (Deuteronomy 28:47)

PSHAT

In the theology of Deuteronomy, blessings of abundance and prosperity follow loyalty to God’s covenant, while curses of the most terrible kind are the consequence of disloyalty. The section of curses in this parsha is called tochecha, or rebuke; it is not a prophecy of what will happen, but a warning of what might happen.

DRASH

To understand suffering as punishment for sin leads to the idea that undeserved suffering must be because of undisclosed sin – and that can add layers of guilt and shame onto sickness, accidents, or other tragedies. Thus, I’d rather not read this section of curses, the tochecha, for its theology of punishment. I can, however, read it as a statement of values- by positing dire consequences for certain actions, the Torah is saying: “pay close attention, this is what I want you to take really seriously.”

With that in mind, we can better understand the insight of the Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa (Poland, 19th century):

    “Because you did not serve Adonai your God joyfully. . ” The Torah does not specify the sins for which the Jewish people will be punished. The only one which it mentions specifically is “because you did not serve the LORD your God joyfully.” (Itturei Torah)

How is it that lack of joy is a sin? I don’t think this means that we can never be sad or angry- life has its ups and downs, and that is normal and expected. Rather, I think R. Simcha Bunim is talking about “serving Adonai your God,” that is, making our religious and spiritual disciplines joyful.

There is a line of classical Jewish theology which stresses feeling commanded by God at all times, which is certainly a very serious thing- but R. Simcha Bunim reminds us that we can experience our spiritual practices as a tremendous gift, a daily opportunity to find blessings in the world. As one recent convert to Judaism put it, “I don’t think of it [pick a commandment] as have to, but get to.”

We get to pray moving, ancient words every day, we get to say little blessings of gratitude before eating, we get to study laws for moral refinement, we get to sing and dance and celebrate Shabbat and the holidays, we get to bring holiness into our lives through beautiful rituals. . . . . the list goes on. Making religion into a dreary drag is probably the best way possible to drive people away from it.

Maybe that’s why not serving God “joyfully” is such a sin- not only do we fail to lift ourselves out of the burdens of daily life, we might even be convincing others that Judaism is a path of “oy” rather than a path of “joy.” * It’s ironic, then, that in the middle of the most sobering passage in the Torah, we find a strong reminder that Judaism is supposed to be more sweetness than fright.

* I believe it was R. Harold Shulweis who coined the phrase “oy Jews” vs. “joy Jews.”

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