August 7, 2004 - 20 Av 5764
Annual: Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25 (Etz Hayim, p. 1037; Hertz p. 780)
Triennial Cycle: Deuteronomy 10:12 - 11:25 (Etz Hayim, p. 1048; Hertz p. 789)
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 - 51:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 1056; Hertz p. 794)
Prepared by Rabbi Naomi Levy
Author of To Begin Again and Talking to God
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director
In our Torah portion this Shabbat we find Moshe again speaking to the Children of Israel about their experience in the wilderness. Moshe reminds them about all the gifts God has given them, how God has sustained them for forty years in the desert and provided manna and water for them. He also reprimands them and recounts their stubbornness and their betrayal of God with the golden calf. Moshe pleads with the people to open their hearts and serve God with awe, to recognize their humility and to realize that all their gifts come from God.
Discussion Theme 1: Respect for Animals
"And I will give plants in your field for your animals; and you will eat and be satisfied." (Deut. 11:15). Notice God's concern here not only for human wellbeing, but for the wellbeing of the animals.
- In the Talmud (Ber. 40) Rav noticed the order of the verse above and derived a lesson from it. Rav taught: we are not allowed to eat before we have fed our animals.
- Review the interchange between Abraham's servant and Rebecca (Genesis 24). How does that narrative pertain to Rav's teaching?
- Read the words of Exodus 23:12: Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest; so that your ox and your ass may rest, and the son of your maidservant, and the stranger, may be refreshed.
Questions for Discussion
- Have you ever had a close relationship with an animal? Martin Buber wrote that his first I-Thou relationship was actually with a horse.
- The Zohar teaches us that animals actually have souls. Is it possible to have a soul connection to an animal? Did it ever happen to you? Describe what it was like.
- How do you think Rav's teaching, that we are not allowed to eat before our animals are fed, might apply to our lives today? Can you generalize this principle beyond human-animal relationships? When you see a lost dog or cat in the street do you usually stop to help it?
Discussion Theme 2: Eating, Satisfaction, Blessing
"You will eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for the good land God gave you." Rabbi Yehuda derives the necessity to say Birkat Hamazon from this verse. (Ber 21a)
- Notice how the Children of Israel disparaged the manna that God fed them from heaven: "But now our soul is dried up; there is nothing at all; we have nothing except this manna to look to." (Num. 11:6)
- Compare the attitude toward the manna to Moshe's instruction in our Parasha: "The human being does not live by bread alone." The ARI taught that we live by the spiritual essence that comes from God. That is the food that nourishes our souls. (Wellsprings, p 387)
- The Hatam Sofer remarked that we should not put ourselves in the position of merely existing - eating in order to work, working in order to eat. We were created to appreciate our gifts, to bless this world, and to bless our God. (See Plout, A Torah Commentary, p 1392)
- Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin explicated the verse in this way: By blessing God, you will become full. (Torah Gems, p 210)
- Ner La-Maor uncovers a different lesson for us: One should bless God not only when one is hungry and in want (that is human nature - to turn to God only when one is in need), but even when one is full and satisfied. (Gems, p 210)
- The Talmud insists that one who partakes of this world without offering a blessing has stolen from God. (Talmud Berakhot 35a)
- There is a lovely narrative in the Talmud where the angels wonder why God cares so much for Israel. God responds: How can I not give consideration to Israel? I commanded them to say a blessing after any meal in which they ate enough to be satisfied, but they say a blessing even after eating as little as the size of an olive or egg." (Berakhot 20a translated in The Call of the Torah, Munk, p 93)
Questions for Discussion
- It's so easy to take our blessings for granted. If the Children of Israel could get bored of the manna that felt/tasted like a miracle from heaven, how can we avoid taking the food that comes from the earth for granted?
- What can we do to prevent ourselves from falling into the trap that the Hatam Sofer describes: eating in order to work, working in order to eat?
- How does blessing God make us full? Do you feel differently when you make a blessing over your food? How does it alter the way you feel about your food? Your life? Your relationship to God?
- Our tradition asks us to bless only after we are satisfied. It's human nature to pray to God when we are in need, how can we train ourselves to turn to God when we feel complete?
- Do you think it's a good thing that the rabbis added on to the Torah (which only requires us to bless when we are full) and required that we bless God even when we eat only an olive-sized piece of bread?
Discussion Theme 3: The Fear of God, Following God
"And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all God's ways and to love God, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul." (Deut. 10:12)
- Rashi, commenting on this verse explains that the rabbis derive from this that everything is in the hands of God except for the fear of God.
- In the Talmud the rabbis explain that one who has knowledge but no fear of God is like a treasurer who has no way of entering a palace. Even though he has the keys to the inner chambers of the palace, the keys to the outer gates are beyond his reach. (Talmud Shabbat 31) In other words, learning on its own is not enough. Knowledge must be accompanied by awe and reverence.
- The Rif (Isaac Alfasi) comments that both love and fear are commanded. To serve God completely one must offer up both emotions. (See Plout, A Torah Commentary, p 1411)
- Earlier in our Parasha (Deut 7:21) Moshe tells the Children of Israel: "Do not be frightened of them (the other nations) for the Lord your God is in your midst." Bahya ben Joseph Ibn Pakuda taught that it is permissible to love another person, and to honor them. That would not infringe on our obligation to love and honor God. But this does not hold true with fear. If we truly fear and place our trust in God we should never have cause to fear any person. (Wellsprings of Torah, p 385)
- The Rabbis in the Talmud asked: How can one follow God? Is one capable of following the Shekhina? It is a consuming fire. What the verse means is that we should strive to emulate God. Just as God is merciful, you too should be merciful. Just as God is forgiving, you too should be forgiving. (Talmud Sotah 14)
- Rabbi Meir deduces from this same verse that a Jew is required to recite one hundred blessings each day.
Questions for Discussion
- What does the fear of God mean to you?
- How does the fear of God heal us from the affliction of fearing mortals?
- Can you brainstorm a list of one hundred blessings to say over the course of a single day?