August 12, 2006 – 18 Av 5766
Annual: Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25 (Etz Hayim, p. 1037; Hertz p. 780)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 9:4 – 10:11 (Etz Hayim, p. 1042; Hertz p. 784)
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 1056; Hertz p. 794)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
This, the third portion in Devarim, continues Moses’ summary of the history of the people Israel. If the Israelites obey the commandments God will bless them and multiply them, and their crops and cattle will flourish, and God will destroy their enemies in the land. The beginning of this portion speaks of the blessings of the Holy Land. It includes the seven species the Israelites will eat in the land – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and honey (usually interpreted as dates). This portion also contains the famous verse, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by the decrees of God.”
The portion includes a warning that the Israelites will become rich and comfortable in the land and forget about God. The Israelites will say that it was their own hand and their own might that brought them their wealth. It will be easy to forget God once they are living comfortably on the land.
At the heart of this portion is a retelling of the Golden Calf incident. While Moses remained on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights, neither eating nor drinking, the people sinned by building the calf. Moses threw down the two tablets of the law that the Lord had given him. He then interceded on behalf of the people until God forgave them. The portion repeats other incidents where the people sinned before God. God tells Moses to carve a second set of tablets like the first. Again the Israelites are commanded to follow God’s laws and serve Him with their hearts and souls.
Towards the end of this portion is the section read each morning and evening as the second paragraph of the Sh’ma. It speaks of the reward for obeying God’s commandments and the punishment for forsaking them. Again the Israelites are told to bind the commandments for a sign upon their hands and as frontlets between their eyes, and write them on the doorposts of their houses and on their gates. If the Israelites follow God’s commandments the people of the land will dread them and they will conquer the territory God has promised to them.
Issue #1 - Gratitude
“You shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God on the good land which He has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:10)
- The Torah suggests having food will lead to satisfaction, which will prompt thanks to God for our bounty. How do we satisfy the search for spirituality today? Some have said that spirituality begins with gratitude. One tradition suggests that Abraham began his quest to bring people to believe in one God by telling them to say grace after meals. Jewish tradition teaches that everyone should offer 100 brakhot (blessings) of gratitude each day. We should each look at the universe, reflect on the wonder of our lives, and say “thank you.”
- There is a struggle between two world views, the materialist and the non-materialist. Materialists see the universe as a cold, heartless place, indifferent to human beings and our dreams and desires. We exist by chance, the result of blind material forces. When we die we go into a black void. There is no room for gratitude in such a world view. The materialists would say that because the universe is apathetic to human needs and desires we ought to be indifferent to the universe. Why does Judaism reject the materialist view? In what ways are we given the tools to keep from slipping into that mind-set?
- Those who reject the materialist mind-set see a universe that not only has permitted us to exist but allows us to succeed and flourish. Some scientists speak of the anthropic principle, which states that the universe is fine-tuned in such a way that humans can exist. For example, if gravity were a bit stronger, the stars would burn out without enough time for elements like carbon, the building block of life, to form and develop. If gravity were a bit weaker, the stars would become diffuse hydrogen gas, without the reactor power that energizes life. Scientists have noted that gravity and other cosmological constants are precisely set so that we humans can exist. The wondrous nature of the physical world is reflected in the Amidah, which reminds us to thank God for the everyday miracles that surround us.
- To the religious mind, it is not only the universe that allows humanity as a whole to flourish. There is a force at work that has allowed each of us to be born and to exist. We were each chosen by God and given a mission on earth. Spirituality begins for each of us when we say thank you to the universe. As the Talmud teaches, it begins by each of us saying “The world was created for me” (Sanhedrin 4:5).
Issue #2 – Circumcised Heart
“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart and be no more stiffnecked” (Deuteronomy 10:16)
- The Bible speaks of two types of circumcision. Of course, there is circumcision of the foreskin of a baby boy on the eighth day after birth. This is the symbol of the covenant that God made with the people Israel. Such circumcision is central to the Jewish faith. However, Moses and then the later prophets spoke about a second kind of circumcision, the circumcision of the heart. What does circumcision of the heart mean?
- One suggestion -- as we go through life, we interact with all kinds of people, and many of those people wound us along the way. There is a lifetime of pain and of people who have hurt us -- lovers and sometimes spouses who left us, bosses who fired us, friends who criticized us, people who abandoned us. We all have a lifetime of harsh words spoken and insensitive behavior demonstrated. Most of us build up awall around our hearts to protect ourselves. We create a barrier that keeps us from being hurt. We distance ourselves from people, or we interact with people on the most superficial level, in what Martin Buber called an “I-it” relationship. As the years go by, the wall around our hearts becomes taller and harder. Breaking through is ever more difficult.
- Perhaps that is why Moses teaches that we must circumcise our hearts. We must cut away that protective skin we have built up to protect ourselves. Only then will we be open to other people. Only then will we be open to God. Only then can we relate to our fellow as an “I-Thou” relationship, again to use Martin Buber’s term. Only when we open ourselves up can we touch and be touched by our fellow human beings. And only when we open ourselves up can we touch and be touched by God. How do we tear down the wall we build around our hearts?