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Torah Sparks

September 1, 2007 – 18 Elul 5767

Annual: Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 1140; Hertz p. 859)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 27:11 – 29:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 1150; Hertz p. 864)
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1 – 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 1161; Hertz p. 874)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Much of the book of Deuteronomy consists of speeches by Moses. The Israelites’ role, it would seem, is to listen passively. In this week’s Parashah we see a way for the people to actively reaffirm their loyalty to the covenant as a nation, and also in retelling our shared history in the context of a formal family declaration.

Moses instructs the Israelites to bring first fruits (after having entered the Promised Land and cultivated it) and to declare the special connection between God, the people Israel, and the land of Israel. The people are also directed to keep up-to-date in their tithing, and to clear out any backlog of tithes triennially.

A ritual was prescribed for all the tribes to array themselves on two mountains, G’rizim and Eval, upon entering the Promised Land. There was to be a reaffirmation of the covenant and a stern warning to those who would transgress basic commandments.

The balance of the parashah is occupied with a brief outline of the benefits of adhering faithfully to the covenant, followed by a graphic and lengthy narration of the consequences of violating the covenant. This latter section, called the Tokhehah, is customarily chanted in a hushed (and sometimes hurried) tone.

Ending the parashah on a positive note, we read a reminder of the miracles which God had performed for the people Israel, coupled with an exhortation to observe God’s commandments.

Topic #1: Aramee Oved Avee

My ancestor was a wandering 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. He brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26:5-9)

The above passage, which appears near the opening of Parashat Ki-Tavo, was originally to be recited in conjunction with bringing bikurim, first fruits, to the central temple on the Shavuot festival. Oddly enough, many of us associate this passage with Pesah, since it is quoted (with a radically different interpretation) in the Haggadah.

We know that the ancient rabbis occasionally indulged in fanciful interpretations of biblical texts, but this particular interpretation strains credibility:

The Aramean (Laban) wanted to destroy my ancestor; but my ancestor went down to Egypt and he sojourned there; (his household was) meager in numbers, but there he became a great and very populous nation.

Note what liberties have been taken with the biblical text:

An alternative interpretation of this verse construes the adjective oved (wandering) as the verb ibbed (would have destroyed). This reading identifies Laban (Jacob’s uncle) as the Aramean in question, and terms him more injurious than Pharaoh. For while the latter plotted to kill [only] the sons, Laban aimed at the extinction of all the Israelites. (Passover Haggadah: The Feast of Freedom, edited by Rachel Anne Rabinowicz, p.44)

These liberties are best understood within the historical context of the large Jewish community that thrived in Alexandria following the death of Alexander the Great. (This is the same Jewish community which produced the Septuagint, a translation of the Torah’s five books into Greek.)

It seems strange that Laban should be regarded as a greater menace to Israel than Pharaoh. A modern scholar maintains that this interpretation was given in the third century B.C.E., when Syria (Aram), typified by Laban, and Egypt, typified by Pharaoh, were rivals for the control of Palestine, then ruled by the Egyptian Ptolemies. Since the Haggadah is not favorable to Egypt, this Midrash was introduced as a gesture of good will towards the Egyptians, with whom the Jews... desired to live on friendly terms. (Passover Haggadah, compiled and edited by Rabbi Morris Silverman, p. 16)

[Note: The modern scholar referred to was Professor Louis Finkelstein, who later became chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Finkelstein developed this thesis in a series of monographs published in the Harvard Theological Review in the 1930’s.]

The question of “dual loyalty” has a long history. A few decades ago, Jews in the United States were sensitive to the charge that their loyalty to the Jewish people might exceed their loyalty to the United States. What possible responses can be given to such a challenge? Would your response mirror that of the Alexandrian Jews, or would you choose a different direction? Is there a point where Jews living in the Diaspora would have to make a choice between their home country and their religious heritage? What might prompt the need to make such a choice? Are there any clear-cut ways to approach that question?

Topic #2: Miracles of the 40 Years in the Desert

According to the biblical narrative, several unusual things happened to the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert. We know about the manna which they ate and about the cloud (by day) and fire (by night) that showed our ancestors when to travel and when to camp. In the same category, consider the following passage:

I led you through the wilderness forty years; the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet. (Deuteronomy 29:4)

There is more than one way to understand this passage (and a parallel one in Deuteronomy 8:4):

  1. Rashi (1040-1105), quoting a Midrash, suggests that the clothing of the Israelites grew as the wearers grew. (Keep in mind that those who eventually entered the Promised Land at the end of the 40 years had not yet reached adulthood at the beginning of the 40 years.)
  2. Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), consistently a rationalist, suggests that the Israelites must have taken a great deal of clothing with them upon their departure from Egypt. (This hypothesis makes it possible to understand the statement about clothing without assuming that the laws of nature were somehow circumvented.)

Which of these interpretations appeals to you? Why? Or, if neither is appealing, why not?

Is there yet another way to understand this verse which you find to be more compelling?

What is the purpose of the statement? God demonstrating personal greatness? Telling the Israelites they need to be grateful for what they have?

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