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Torah Sparks

August 14, 2004 - 27 Av 5764

Annual: Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1061; Hertz p. 799)
Triennial Cycle: Deuteronomy 15:1 - 16:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1076; Hertz p. 811)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 - 55:5 (Etz Hayim, p. 1085; Hertz p. 818)

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

In our parasha this Shabbat God offers the people of Israel a choice between blessing and curse. Blessings will come if we follow God, curses will surround us if we reject God. Later in the portion Moshe sets forth a series of ritual, moral and social laws for the Children of Israel to observe. At the end of the portion Moshe teaches the people about the festivals.

Discussion Theme 1: Blessings and Curses

"See this day I set before you blessing and curse. Blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I enjoin upon you this day; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God" (Deut 11:26-28)

Derash: Study

  1. "See" is in the singular, but "before you" is in the plural. Why? The commandments are given to all the people but each person must see them and choose whether to follow God's law or not. Also, the Kotzker Rebbe adds each person only beholds in the Torah that which he or she is capable of seeing. (Bachya, see Plout, A Torah Commentary, p1418 and The Kotzker in Torah Gems, p 229)
  2. The choice between blessing and curse leaves no room for compromise. There is no middle ground, no grey area. They are opposites, right and wrong, that one must choose between. (Sforno, quoted in Plout p 1418)
  3. The Gaon of Vilna learns from the wording of this verse "See this day I set before you blessing and curse" that a person should never say "Since I once chose an evil path, there is no hope for me any longer." We always have the opportunity to choose between good and evil -"Until the day of his death you wait for him to repent, and if he repents you immediately accept him." Should a person say," What hope is there for me, for I am a sinner, and what about all my sins until now?" The Torah states "This day"- that each day is a new opportunity for a fresh start. Indeed a person who has repented is like a newborn child. (Torah Gems, p 228)
  4. Wealth and good fortune are not always a blessing, because these are sometimes bad for a person. "A blessing when you obey" when you obey the commandments and do good deeds with your money, that will be a true blessing. However, if your wealth causes you to be conceited and brings about jealousy and competition, the blessing itself will really be a curse… . In general any blessing which is not based on appreciation of God's role is not considered a blessing (Talmud Brachot 40). If a person believes that "My power and the power of my hand has gotten me this wealth" (Deut 8:17) it will eventually be a curse. (Vayedaber Moshe, Torah Gems, p 230)

Questions for Discussion

  1. It has been said that all Jews today are "Jews by Choice" because we can so freely choose to assimilate and ignore our heritage. In your mind, how is freedom a blessing? How is it a curse?
  2. Tevyeh the Milkman was fond of saying, "There is always another hand." But then even Tevyeh was pushed to a point (his daughter's desire to intermarry) where he could no longer reach a compromise: "There is no other hand! Tradition!" When is there room for compromise in our tradition and when does the choice become a battle between blessing and curse? Is there an aspect of our tradition on which you refuse to compromise?
  3. The Vilna Gaon's teaching is quite timely with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur right around the corner. It's time for some serious soul searching. Is there an aspect of your personality, a negative trait on which you have given up? Do you believe that you are beyond repair in some area of your life? A relationship? Your work situation? A self-destructive habit? Meditate on the opening verse of our parasha. Reread the Vilna Gaon's words. Remember that every single day is a new day, a new opportunity to remake your life, to heal your soul, to be reborn.
  4. Yes it is indeed possible to turn a blessing into a curse. Can you think of anyone you know who has achieved this feat? People who use their talents to hurt others. People who squander their gifts. People who have been given so much, but have no ability to appreciate what they have -who are constantly jealous of what others have. I believe the converse is true as well. God has given us the capacity to turn our curses into blessings. Have you ever met anyone who has turned a curse into a blessing; someone who has turned their suffering into strength, their pain into compassion, their disability into a badge of honor. What are the factors that lead us to curse our lives? What steps can we take to turn our lives into a blessing?

Discussion Theme 2: False Prophecy

"If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or a portent, saying 'let us follow and worship another god' whom you have not experienced, even if the sign or portent that he names to you comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or dream diviner. For the Lord your God is testing you to see whether you really love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul" (Deut 13:2-4)

  1. If you then ask: Why does God give such a false prophet the power to perform such a sign or wonder? It is because God is testing you. (Rashi quoted in Torah Gems, p 324)
  2. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 90a) Rabbi Akiva explains that the prophet who performed a true miracle was a true prophet, but at some later time he became a false prophet and once becoming a false prophet he is no longer able to perform miracles.
  3. Rambam argues that a false prophet who performs "miracles" is nothing more than a scam artist or a magician who is only tricking people by making them believe a miracle has occurred when in reality nothing has occurred. (Fundamentals of the Torah 8:3)
  4. Ramban argues that it is possible for a false prophet to perform miracles. He does not deny the fact that some people may have miraculous power. Nevertheless, that person is considered a false prophet if his message is false and unfaithful to the Torah. (Deut 18:9)
  5. The Mishna states that a false prophet is a person who prophesies what he has hasn't heard and what was never spoken to him. (San 11:5)

Questions for Discussion

  1. Do you believe that there are people with supernatural power? Faith healers? Witches? Psychics? Mediums? Or are all those who claim to have these powers simply tricksters?
  2. Have you ever gone to a psychic/faith healer/medium? What did they tell you? How do they do what they do?
  3. Note that the Torah itself does not deny the existence of people with such powers. See the narrative of King Saul and the witch at En-dor (ISam 28) The witch did work wonders, she could communicate with the dead, and yet the practice of witchcraft was forbidden by God. Why do you think God would give a person such powers and then forbid them from exercising them?
  4. "We don't rely on miracles," the rabbis instruct us. By what criteria are we to judge if a religious leader is speaking in the name of God? How can we differentiate between a true person of God and a con artist?
  5. How would you define a true prophet?
  6. Do you believe God tests us by sending people to tempt us away from the right path? Have you ever felt tested by God? What was the test? Did you succeed or fail?

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