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Torah Sparks

August 27, 2005 - 22 Av 5765

Annual: Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25 (Etz Hayim, p. 1037; Hertz p. 780)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 7:12 - 9:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 1037; Hertz p. 780)
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 - 51:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 1056; Hertz p. 794)

Prepared by Rabbi Daniel A. Ornstein
Congregation Ohav Shalom, Albany, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Where We Are in the Torah

This week's portion is Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25, the third in the book. It is the second of seven Shabbatot of Consolation that follow Tisha B'Av and precede Rosh Hashanah.


Moshe continues his second speech to the people, which includes the following themes:

  1. In return for their following the covenant, God will protect the people and defeat all of their enemies when they enter the land of Canaan to conquer it;
  2. The people will be destroyed or exiled if they fail to follow God's covenant and worship other gods;
  3. The Israelites should not arrogantly assume that their future successes are the result of their own initiative or that God favors them;
  4. There were numerous times -especially the golden calf incident- when the people made God furious with them;
  5. A call to the people to circumcise their hearts, renounce their stiff-necked ways, follow God and God's commandments, and possess the good land awaiting them;
  6. The second paragraph of the Sh'ma known as "V-Hayah Im Shamoa " is found in the portion. Its major theme is the traditional concept of reward and punishment.

The First Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

Therefore impress these My (God's) words upon your very heart; bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol between your eyes. (11:18)

  • From The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 30b - Our rabbis have taught that the Hebrew word, (ve)samtem, "therefore impress," can be read as two (similar sounding) Hebrew words: sam tam, "the perfect cure." (This explanation reminds us that) God's words found in the Torah are like a cure that can save life. God told the children of Israel, "My children, I created the evil inclination within you, but I created the Torah as its antidote. If you preoccupy yourselves with Torah, the evil inclination will not conquer you."
  • From Sifre Devarim, (A work of legal Midrash on Deuteronomy attributed to the School of Rabbi Akiva, 2nd Century C.E.) - (The sages note that prior to this verse, Deuteronomy 11:17 warns the people that God will exile them from the Promised Land if they fail to follow God's word. They explain why these two ideas, the threat of exile as punishment and the charge to impress God's words upon our hearts, are juxtaposed).

    (Here) God is saying to the children of Israel, "Even though I am going to exile you from the land of Israel to the Diaspora, mark yourselves prominently with the performance of mitzvot when you are in exile. That way when you return to the Promised Land the mitzvot will not be unfamiliar to you."
  • From Hafetz Hayyim Al Ha-Torah, (Torah commentary of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Ha-Cohen, 1838-1933.) - How awesome is this idea (mentioned in Sifrei Devarim)! For a person's spiritual food -Torah and mitzvot -- can be compared to his physical sustenance. If a person fasts for several days, his desire for food diminishes so that all he feels is faint. It is exactly the same with the soul. If a person doesn't engage in Torah study, but distances himself from fulfilling the mitzvot and the Torah's dictates for a long time, his soul loses its natural desire for spiritual matters. This happens whether a person freely chooses to go far away from spiritual matters or is forced to do so… God wants us to be diligent in getting the soul used to serving God, (hence God tells us in the Torah that even when we are far away from the holy land in exile we are to keep practicing Judaism.)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The Talmud teaches us that Torah and its mitzvot are the "cure" for the ills brought upon us by our evil inclinations, with which God has created all humans. What is the evil inclination? (Hint: it is not the same thing as the Christian notion of original sin. The closest analogy might be Freud's concepts of libido and id, our most primitive impulses that need to be civilized.) Why would God create us with this inclination only to give us its antidote? Why not simply create us without impulses that, left unchecked, could lead us to destructive behavior? What does the Talmud mean when it says that this inclination or impulse is created by God? If it is God's handiwork, can it truly be an evil thing?
  2. The Sifre implies that life outside of the Land of Israel is life in physical and spiritual exile where we need Jewish practice even more than usual. How/did the Torah and mitzvot keep the Jewish people alive as a people during the millennia of Diaspora life before the founding of the State of Israel?
  3. Some Zionist thinkers have argued that Jewish law and practice served us well in exile, but that with the advent of an entirely Jewish society in Israel, Torah, Jewish law and mitzvot are not necessary anymore. What is your opinion?
  4. Rabbi Ha-Cohen "spiritualizes" the text of the Sifre by focusing on exile as a spiritual condition, rather than the physical condition mentioned in the Torah prior to our verse. He argues that in the realm of religious life absence does NOT make the heart grow fonder, but, in fact, less needy of spiritual fulfillment. Do you agree with his statement? What is the purpose of cultivating spiritual longing and service in our souls: to "help" andserve God or to help ourselves through that service?

The Second Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

You shall eat, you shall be sated, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you. (8:10)

  • From Maimonides, (Spain, Egypt, and Morocco 1138-1204), The Book of Commandments, #19 - The Torah records a positive commandment to bless God after eating food. As we learn: YOU SHALL EAT, YOU SHALL BE SATED, AND YOU SHALL BLESS… According to the laws of the Torah you do not have to thank God for your food unless you are sated, (that is, you had a filling meal). However, the rabbinic sages expanded this law to include giving thanks to God even if we have only eaten an amount of food the size of an olive.
  • From the Torah commentary of Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, (Italy 1470-1550) - AND YOU SHALL BLESS THE LORD YOUR GOD: So that you can remember that these blessings (of food and the good land) have been given to you by God.
  • From the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brakhot, 20b - God's ministering angels complained: "Master of the universe, it is written in Your Torah that You do not play favorites. (See Deuteronomy 10;17) But don't You play favorites with the Jewish people? It's written, (Numbers 6:26), "May God lift up God's face to you!" (The phrase "lifting up the face" is used in the Hebrew of both verses, and can mean unfairly favoring someone or simply showing favor to a loved one). God replied, "Shouldn't I show favor to the Jewish people? In the Torah I commanded them, YOU SHALL EAT, YOU SHALL BE SATED, (AND THEN) YOU SHALL BLESS THE LORD YOUR GOD. But they've decided to be so exacting with themselves that they even give thanks for the smallest amounts of food that they eat."

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why would our sages have expanded the law concerning thanking God for food? Why should we thank God even for the smallest amounts that we eat, instead of making our thanks contingent upon a truly filling meal?
  2. A project for you: Ask your rabbi, cantor, or educational director to teach you Birkat Hamazon, Grace After Meals. Make it part of your daily spiritual discipline.
  3. According to Rabbi Sforno, blessing God for our food is a memory device: it helps us to remember or be conscious of the fact that our food did not come out of nowhere. It was given to us by God. Discuss other ways in which Jewish rituals deepen our consciousness of God's presence in our lives.
  4. What is the passage from Tractate Brachot teaching us about the dynamic relationship between God and the Jewish people? (Hint: think about how God praises the Jewish people for actively going beyond the minima of God's law, thus expanding the law.)

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