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Torah Sparks

August 4, 2007 – 20 Av 5767

Annual: Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25 (Etz Hayim, p. 1037; Hertz p. 780)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 10:12 – 11:25 (Etz Hayim, p. 1048; Hertz p. 789)
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 1056; Hertz p. 794)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

As he nears the end of his stewardship, Moses continues to address the Israelites. He cautions them that if they wish to reap the promised rewards of divine protection and the defeat of their enemies as they take possession of the Promised Land, they must abide by their covenantal commitment to God. If they worship other gods, or commit other lapses as defined by the covenant, it may lead to exile and/or destruction. It also would be a mistake to assume that personal or national success indicates that God always will support the Israelites, no matter how badly the nation behaves. Likewise, it would be arrogant to deduce that Israelite success attests to our own power.

The Israelites’ behavior has made God angry many times, most notably in the incident of the golden calf, which resulted in the destruction of the original tablets of the Ten Commandments. After much supplication, God invited Moses to fashion a second set of tablets. Moses reviews this slice of history and others with an eye toward helping the Israelites to focus on their commitment to obey the divine commandments.

Israel is to maintain a special relationship with God. The gift of the Promised Land is contingent on Israel’s continued faithfulness under the covenant.

Topic #1: Not By Bread Alone

In this week’s Torah-portion we are told:

Man does not live on bread alone;
rather, man may live on anything the Lord decrees. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

It is well known that Judaism expects us to recite blessings before and after we eat. The underlying rationale appears to be that we should cultivate an inner spirit of thankfulness for the divine gifts from which we benefit. Food is deemed to be one of those gifts to us, for our enjoyment and sustenance.

The Torah is specific about the requirement to express thanks to God after we consume the earth’s bounty:

When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you. (Deuteronomy 8:10)

This verse from our parashah is quoted within the birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals), where it serves as a statement of purpose for this prayer. But what blessings do we say before a meal is eaten? In the Talmud (Berakhot 48b) we find this answer:

Our rabbis taught: Where is the saying of grace intimated in the Torah? In the verse, And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless: this signifies the benediction of ‘Who feeds’… ‘The Lord your God’: this signifies the benediction of zimmun. ‘For the land’: this signifies the blessing for the land. ‘The good’: this signifies ‘Who builds Jerusalem’; and similarly it says ‘This good mountain and Lebanon.’ ‘Which he has given you’: this signifies the blessing of ‘Who is good and bestows good’. This accounts for the grace after [meals]; how can we prove that there should be a blessing before [food]? — You have an argument a fortiori; if when one is full he says a grace, how much more so should he do so, when he is hungry!

It is easy simply to begin a meal when you are hungry, easy to run to the water fountain at the end of Tisha B’Av or Yom Kippur and drink before acknowledging God’s goodness for having the drink at hand for us. With that in mind, does the claim of the rabbis, noted above, hold water? Does it not make more sense to observe God’s goodness when we are sated, rather than waiting another moment when we are hungry or thirsty?

A close look at the familiar language of the ha-motzi blessing reminds us that it makes use of a rather sweeping metaphor. We acknowledge God’s role in our sustenance by saying that God “brings forth bread from the earth,” even though we certainly recognize that this blessing is not literally true. This is an abbreviated way of making two points:

  1. God plays a role in growing wheat and other potentially nutritious produce from the earth,
  2. God has given to humans the wisdom and the capability to grind wheat into flour and to execute all the further steps that enable the wheat to be transformed into bread. These gifts, executed by humans, are nonetheless divine gifts.

One reason why Jewish liturgy calls for us to telescope this whole thought process into one short sentence is the awareness that a hungry person must be given the opportunity to eat immediately. (Reflection can come later.) Can you think of any other reasons why this blessing relies so heavily on metaphor?

What other examples of metaphor can you think of within our various prayers?

Why do prayers often make use of figures of speech, rather than simply saying what they mean?

Topic #2: The Nature of the Promised Land

Speaking to the Israelites near the end of their 40-year trek in the desert, Moses paints a verbal picture of the cycle of agriculture that may be anticipated in the Promised Land. He contrasts this cycle with the norms of agriculture in Egypt:

For the land which you are about to possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God keeps his eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end. (Deuteronomy 11:10-12)

By its very nature, this comment is difficult to understand. Those who were in the desert at this time were not those who had lived in Egypt. These people had spent most if not all of their lives being cared for by God in the desert. How could they be expected to know the main source of water for crops in Egypt? But clearly that generation had heard from their families about life in Egypt. In what ways might the Israelites hope that farming would be easier in the Promised Land?

The passage quoted above assumes that divine supervision will keep the agricultural cycle in balance. The next passage in the Torah, Deuteronomy 11:13-21 (familiar to us as the second paragraph of the Sh’ma), contemplates what might happen if God no longer has a reason to look out for the well-being of the Jewish people. What behavior might cause such problems, and what behavior might bring about harmony and longevity for the Jewish people in the Promised Land, according to verses 13-21?

Nowadays, most people understand droughts and other disruptions in the weather cycle differently than the viewpoint of Deuteronomy 11. What value, if any, can we still derive from Deuteronomy 11 despite the conflicting claims of modern meteorology? Can we look beyond the literal language of the section and find in it a way to understand it?

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