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Torah Sparks

September 4, 2004 - 18 Elul 5764

Annual: Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 1140; Hertz p. 859)
Triennial Cycle: Deuteronomy 27:11 - 29:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 1146; Hertz p. 864)
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1 - 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 1161; Hertz p. 874)

Prepared by Rabbi Naomi Levy
Author of To Begin Again and Talking to God

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Parasha Summary

Our Torah portion this Shabbat begins with the laws of the bringing of the first fruits and then the declaration of tithing. Then Moshe instructs the people that when they enter the Promised Land they must enact a dramatic process of reciting a series of blessings and curses from two opposing mountains. It is a custom to read the section of curses in an undertone. The parasha ends on a note of hope as Moshe tells the people that God will now give them a renewed ability to know and appreciate God and all of God's blessings.

Discussion Theme 1: Study and Community

Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country…Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings. (Deut. 28:3, 6)

Derash: Study

  1. Blessed in the city: one is blessed in the city when one becomes a member of a community and lives close to a synagogue. (B.M. 107a quoted in Plout, A Torah Commentary p 1530)
  2. There are people whose behavior at home is far from their behavior in the synagogue. In the synagogue they observe all the smallest details of the law, but not so at home. Their homes are far from the synagogue, and the synagogue has no influence on their lives at home. This is the blessing that the spirit of the synagogue will saturate your home as well (Meged Yerahim quoted in Torah Gems p 291)
  3. In your comings and goings: May you leave this world as you entered it - without sin. (Ibid)
  4. In your goings: May your descendants not dishonor you. (Yalkut Yehuda vol. 5, p526 quoted in Plout p 1530)
  5. Give heed and listen, O Israel (Deut 27:9) The Talmud asks what is the intent of the word "hasket" (give heed) The answer: make study groups (kitot) and occupy yourselves with the study of Torah, for Torah is acquired only by study with colleagues. Rabbi Yossi added: a scholar who studies alone brings danger upon himself (Berachot 63b quoted in Torah Temimah p 337)
  6. Another interpretation: Crush yourself on behalf of the Torah. Recognize that learning requires enormous sacrifice and effort. (Ibid)
  7. Another interpretation: Listen and then digest. As Rava says: One should first learn Torah and then analyze it. (Ibid)
  8. This day: Now was it that day that Torah had been given? We are hereby taught that Torah is to be beloved by its disciples each day as the day it was given at Sinai. (Ibid)

Questions for Discussion

  1. Has becoming a member of your synagogue blessed you? What blessings has your community bestowed upon you?
  2. In what ways has synagogue life influenced your home life? Are there aspects of your private life that you'd like to align with your religious life at synagogue? Can you articulate them?
  3. Do you belong to a chevruta, or a study group? Would you like to? Why do the sages insist that Torah can only be acquired by study with colleagues? Why is it so bad to study alone?
  4. Commenting on the verse: And you shall grope in mid-day, as the blind person gropes in pitch darkness. (Deut 28:29) Rabbi Yossi taught: All my days I was troubled by this verse. What difference does it make to the blind man whether he walks in pitch darkness or in the light? Until, one time when I was walking in the midst of the night and darkness, I noticed a blind man walking with a torch in his hand, whereupon I asked him: My son, why do you need this torch? And he answered: So long as this torch is in my hand, people see me, and they rescue me from pits, thorns and thistles. (Megillah 24b quoted in Torah Temimah p345) In other words, when we are alone and in need and we refuse to let others know that we need their help, if we refuse to ask for help, we will fall into further darkness and trouble. As God said in the book of Genesis: It's not good for people to be alone. In what ways are you blind? What is your torch?

Discussion Theme 2: Knowing God

But God did not give you a heart to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear until this day. (Deut 29:3)

Derash: Study

  1. One should not be misled by this verse to assume that God directs our hearts to fear and know God, for this quality is in our hands for as the Talmud (Brachot 33b) says: Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven. However, help from heaven, is surely provided by God when we make the effort to fear God… In our verse Moshe criticizes Israel for not taking advantage of this Heavenly help, which would have benefited them throughout their forty years sojourn in the desert. (Maharsha, Avodah Zarah 5b quoted in Munk, The Call of the Torah)
  2. "Until this day" The Talmud (Avodah Zarah) states that a student does not fully comprehend his teacher's lessons until forty years have passed. So Moshe explainshere that up to this point God has been lenient with the people, but now that forty years have passed, God would be more demanding (Rashi) (Ibid)
  3. During the forty years in the wilderness Israel lived on miracles, as the Torah itself emphasizes in these verses. Such a supernatural way of life makes faith in God relatively easy. The real challenge would come now when there would no longer be a steady diet of miracles. Therefore Moshe says, but God did not give you a heart to know until this day - so strengthen yourselves to master the ability to follow and know God in a world without obvious miracles. This new condition is underscored in the next verse which states "So that you will know that I am the Lord your God." The words "you will know" emphasizes the need for one to excel in searching for the knowledge of God. (Meshech Chochma quoted in Munk, p313)

Questions for Discussion

  1. Do you believe God controls our thoughts and actions? What are the limits of free will? How do we receive help from above when we make an effort to achieve something?
  2. Describe a teaching you learned in your youth that has taken forty years for your mind or your heart or your soul to digest?
  3. Do you think it was easier or more difficult to live with a God who performed supernatural miracles before the eyes of the people on a daily basis? Which kind of relationship with God do you prefer? Would you prefer that God control when you move? When you stop? Where you go? What you eat? Or do you prefer to determine the direction of your own life?
  4. What are the burdens of living in a world where God's hand is hidden? How do we have to incline our hearts, eyes, and ears to find God in the world today? Where do you see God in your life? In our world?

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