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Torah Sparks

September 9, 2006 – 16 Elul 5766

Annual: Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 1140; Hertz p. 859)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 26:12 – 28:6 (Etz Hayim, p. 1142; Hertz p. 860)
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1 – 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 1161; Hertz p. 874)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


With the law of the first fruits, the legal section of the book of Deuteronomy comes to an end. When the time comes for the Israelites to enter the land, they shall take part of the first fruits, put them in a basket, and go up to the place where God will establish His name. They will hand the basket to the priest and recite a passage beginning with the words, “My father was a fugitive Aramean.” The passage tells of the Israelites’ descent to Egypt, the slavery and oppression, the eventual redemption from Egypt, and the settlement in a land flowing with milk and honey. Part of this passage is at the heart of the Passover haggada.

Moses and the elders of Israel charge the people to observe all the instructions God gave them. Moses instructs the people about the first task they are to undertake after they cross the Jordan; they are to cut two large stones, coat them with plaster, and set them up on Mount Ebal. Special offerings will be made there and the words of the teachings will be inscribed on the stones. Moses divides the tribes into two groups, one to pronounce the blessing and one to pronounce the curse. The portion continues with a series of curses directed at anyone who disobeys one of the fundamental laws of the Torah.

Chapter 28 includes a short set of blessings for obedience to the commandments. It is followed by a very long set of curses for disobedience, including virtually every calamity that can happen to a people in their land. This portion is known as the tochacha -- “rebuke” -- and traditionally is read quickly and quietly. The long set of curses end with the words, “These are the terms of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb.”

The portion ends with one last reminder of the miracles God did for the people Israel and a warning to faithfully observe the terms of the covenant.

Issue #1 - Passover Haggada

“You shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name” (Deuteronomy 26:2)


  1. God commands the Israelites to take a basket of first fruits, bring it to the place that God has chosen – Jerusalem -- and hand it to the priest while reciting the following passage out loud. This passage and the phrase-by-phrase midrashic commentary on it, became the heart of the Passover seder.
  2. “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents” (Deuteronomy 26:5-8).
  3. Why was this passage chosen instead of the original story in Exodus? Could it be because this passage tells the story of that community-creating event in simplified language? Is it not the essence of the story – we were slaves and God freed us from Egypt? The passage “from slavery to freedom” became the defining event in the creation of the people Israel.
  4. Why is Moses not mentioned in this passage or anywhere else in the haggada? Could it be that we want to emphasize the divine rather than the human role in our people’s redemption? But if that is true, why is God never mentioned in the book of Esther as it tells of the redemption at Purim? Could it be that we want to emphasize the human rather than the divine role in redemption? What is the balance in Judaism between the human and the divine in the way we picture events in our history?
  5. The passage in this portion continues: “He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 26:9). Why is this passage not included in the haggada? Could it be that the redemption is incomplete? Is that the reason we drink four cups of wine at the seder but leave the fifth cup for Elijah, the harbinger of future redemption?

Issue #2 – Time as a Healer

“These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 28:69)


  1. This rather upbeat phrase follows 54 verses of curses. The curses contain virtually every tragedy that can happen to a people. Unfortunately, over the course of Jewish history they have all come true. However, after reading through the curses, which seem interminable, the Torah reader finally raises his voice and chants about God’s covenant. The curses end, and the portion concludes on an upbeat note: “Observe the words of this covenant and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do” (Deuteronomy 29:8). However difficult the curses are, they end.
  2. Sadly, many of us feel cursed at various times in life. We feel that there is a black cloud hanging over us; we sense that God is picking on us. We are burdened with tragedy and sadness, disappointment and suffering. Others wonder what can be said to offer solace and support to help people who are coping with pain and trouble. While most often it is a supportive presence rather than words that can sustain those who hurt, sometimes simple words can offer succor: “This too shall pass.”
  3. Time can help mend a broken spirit. People who have suffered grievous losses often wonder how they will ever cope, become whole or find healing. A year or two later they have been able to reenter life’s routine, once again able to function. The wound will still be there, but time has helped them find ways to live, even with the hurt.
  4. One of the Bible’s most famous passages, made famous as the words for the song Turn, Turn Turn, teaches:
    To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.
    A time to be born, a time to die.
    A time for planting and a time for uprooting.
    A time for slaying and a time for healing.
    A time for tearing down and a time for building up.
    A time for weeping and a time for laughing.
    A time for wailing and a time for dancing. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4)
    How can this passage give comfort to those who mourn? In what ways can it provide support to those who feel abandoned or downtrodden?

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