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Torah Sparks

September 15, 2007 – 3 Tishrei 5768

Annual: Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 1185; Hertz p. 896)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 1185; Hertz p. 896)
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2 – 10; Joel 2:15 – 27; Micah 7:18 – 20 (Etz Hayim, p. 1235; Hertz p. 891)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Moses is aware that his life is nearing its end. Joshua has already been designated as his successor. The Israelites have been wandering for 40 years, and Moses knows well that the 40-year sentence of wandering has been served.

Having given several prose speeches, Moses couches his final farewell as a poem. As the Israelites’ leader for two generations, he has more to say than “You’re all wonderful; goodbye.” He has some stern warnings to convey about the pitfalls of complacency. He therefore wants to designate enduring witnesses to his words, so that no one can credibly say after his death that Moses had not put the Israelites on notice. This may be what he has in mind when he opens with the words:

Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter! (Deuteronomy 32:1)

It is hard to imagine witnesses that are more enduring than heaven and earth.

Moses’ farewell poem fills most of this week’s parashah. The poem is followed by a brief paragraph that says, in essence, ”Pay attention to the above.” Then, in the concluding paragraph of our parashah, God directs Moses regarding his impending death.

Topic #1: Material Wealth and Religion

So Jeshurun (Israel) grew fat and kicked –
You grew fat and gross and coarse –
He forsook the God who made him
And spurned the Rock of his support. (Deuteronomy 31:15)

Moses fears that material wealth and personal comfort may undermine religious loyalty.

Is there necessarily a negative correlation between a person becoming wealthy and a lack of religious loyalty? Can only poor people be religiously devout? We all have seen people of limited means who pour out their hearts in straightforward sincerity. Such people’s pure and unadorned acts of religious devotion speak for themselves.

There is another, contrary, viewpoint that posits that only people who are affluent have the opportunity to devote time to religion. The theory assumes that poor people, who must spend every waking moment assuring their own survival, could not possibly have time to cultivate the inner life of the spirit, while those who have wealth also have the leisure time for such pursuits. (Some faiths require those who are involved at the most serious level to take vows of poverty, to avoid this very issue.)

What do you think?

We are aware that some aspects of religious participation/education/celebration require that people spend money. Is there a difference between having money to pay for participation and being religious? If, indeed, there are doors closed to people of modest means in our congregations or community organizations, what can we do to make communal Judaism more available to them?

At the same time, we are concerned, as Moses seems to be, that wealth may breed complacency. Is there anything that we can/should do to make Judaism a more compelling force in the lives of those with greater material resources?

Topic #2: As Your Brother Aaron Died

That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Ascend these heights of Avarim to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab facing Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites as an inheritance. You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin. (Deuteronomy 31:48-50)

It is not entirely clear whether these words were intended gently or harshly.

When viewed together with the two verses that follow, this paragraph initially appears to be a merciless punishment. Moses must pay, just as Aaron had paid, for the sin that they had committed jointly.

On the other hand, Moses was well aware of how dignified and gentle Aaron’s death had been, because he witnessed it himself. (See Numbers 20:23-29.) Assuming that no human being can live forever, Aaron’s departure from this world was as benign as possible. This is summarized in rabbinic shorthand by the statement that Aaron died by a divine kiss (Bava Batra 17a).

With that in mind, do you think that the reference in this week’s parashah to Aaron’s death was intended harshly or gently?

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