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Torah Sparks

October 8, 2005 - 5 Tishrei 5766

Annual: Deuteronomy 31:1 - 30 (Etz Hayim, p. 1173; Hertz p. 887)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 31:1 - 31:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 1173; Hertz p. 887)
Haftarah: Hoseah 14:2 - 10; Micah 7:18 - 20; Joel 2:15 - 27 (Etz Hayim, p. 1234; Hertz p. 891)

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, chapter 31, the ninth in the book. It coincides in 5766 with Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Because 5766 is a leap year, and there are more weeks during which Torah portions are read, this portion is read separately from Torah portion Niztvaim, which was read last Shabbat.


Moses declares to the people that he is nearing the end of his life and his career, and that his assistant Joshua will lead them into the land of Canaan to conquer it and its peoples. He commands Joshua and the people to be strong and resolute in taking the land and following God's word. Moses writes down God's teaching, has the priests place it in the Ark of The Covenant, and commands them to read it aloud to the people during Sukkot at the close of each seventh, or sabbatical, year. That way all generations will learn to revere God. God calls Moses and Joshua to the Tent of Meeting, where God warns them that after Moses' death the people will stray from God, for God knows their nature. God gives to Moses a song that he is to teach the people. It will be a witness against the people, a reminder throughout the generations to them of what God expects of them. Moses commands the priests to place the song in the Ark, echoing God's lament that after Moses' death the people will turn away from the path enjoined upon them by God. Moses then sings this song/poem of testimony against the Israelites.

The First Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

Gather the people - men, women, and children, and the strangers in your communities -- that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully the every word of this Teaching. (31:12)

  • From The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chagigah 3a - Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariyah taught the following: Men, women and children were brought together for the public reading of the Torah at the end of the sabbatical year for different reasons. The men came to study Torah; the women came to listen to it, (so that they would understand the mitzvot); and the children came in order to confer the benefit of divine reward upon their parents for bringing them.
  • From Maimonides, (Spain, Egypt, Morocco, 1138-1204.) The Book of The Commandments, Positive Commandment #16 - It is a positive commandment to gather the entire Jewish people, men, women, and children at the close of each sabbatical year when they are on pilgrimage (for the Sukkot festival); to read to them aloud passages of the Torah that would enliven them in their performance of mitzvot and strengthen their faith.
  • From The Torah commentary of Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, (Spain, North Africa, And Europe, 1089-1164) - AND THE STRANGERS IN YOUR COMMUNITIES: (They were also included in the hope) that they would convert. When all those assembled would hear the Torah being read aloud they would ask questions. Thus all those who were without knowledge and all the young children would learn.

Questions for Discussion:

The name for the sabbatical year public Torah reading is HAKHEL, from the command form of the word, "to assemble" which is found in our verse. It is still done every seven years during Sukkot in Israel.

  1. Rabbi Eleazar follows the tradition that women are not allowed to learn Torah, one that has largely been discarded by Jews, including and especially orthodox Jews. Discuss the development of Jewish women's participation in Jewish learning and ritual over the centuries. What caused these changes? Feminism? A desire to give Jewish women tools for remaining Jewishly observant?
  2. If young children don't understand Jewish prayer and Torah study, and in fact, can't sit through it, why make them do so? What is a modern version of this idea that bringing kids to hear words of Torah confers reward for their parents?
  3. Contrast God's reassurances to Moses and the people of their success in Canaan under Joshua's leadership with God's assertion that they will stray religiously after Moses dies. Contrast these dire predictions with Maimonides' optimistic teaching about the purpose of the HAKHEL gathering.
  4. Ibn Ezra explains the word "stranger" as one who is in the community but who is not Jewish. What can his comment teach us about the influence of Jewish education on non-Jewish spouses in intermarried families? Why/is Jewish education the solution to the challenge of intermarriage? (Note that Ibn Ezra seems to assume a rather inclusive biblical community.)

The Second Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they, (the Israelites), have done in turning to other gods. (31:18)

  • From The Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 10:2 - Rabbi Yaacov taught in the name of Rabbi Acha the following: "What is the meaning of this (seemingly contradictory) verse in the Book of Isaiah, 'So I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding His face from the House of Jacob, and I will trust in Him'? (Isaiah 8:17) There was nomore difficult time in the world than the one when God said to Moses, 'I will keep My countenance hidden on that day.' (Isaiah alludes to this in the first part of the verse, but he then concludes), 'I will trust in Him.' This alludes to God's promise that Moses' song would never depart from the mouths of the Israelites throughout the generations even in the midst of suffering." (See our Torah portion, verse 21.)
  • From The Torah Commentary of Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, (Italy, 1470-1550) - This verse contrasts with the verse that came before it: ("… I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them…. And they shall say on that day, 'Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.'") Their punishment will not be what they thought it was when they said that God is not in their midst. For, on the contrary, wherever they will be, Shekhinah, God's immanent presence, will be with them, as we learn in the Talmud, "Wherever the Israelites are exiled to, Shekhinah is with them in their exile." However, God will still hide His countenance from them.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is the hiding of God's countenance? Is it an actual spiritual state of God's alienation from people, the psychological experience of feeling cut off from God, or both?
  2. Discuss a time in your life when you have felt close to God or cut off from God's presence.
  3. How do we/can we continue to hope in God when we feel distant from God or when we are in crisis? How have the Jewish people done this throughout the ages? How can we do this in our personal lives?
  4. Think about Moses' song/poem in terms of all Jewish sacred literature: even and especially in the absence of direct communication with God, we have Torah in all of its forms as a way of reminding ourselves about who we are, what we believe, and our relationship with God.
  5. Apart from trying to resolve a textual problem, what point is Rabbi Seforno making about God's presence in our lives being constant even when God is hiding God's countenance? Have there been times when God was still with the Jewish people even though God did not redeem us? (Think about the Holocaust: was God with us even though we suffered so terribly? Was the founding of the State of Israel an example of God's redemption?)

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