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Torah Sparks

August 11, 2007 – 27 Av 5767

Annual: Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1061; Hertz p. 799)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 15:1 – 16:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1076; Hertz p. 811)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5 (Etz Hayim, p. 1085; Hertz p. 818)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses moves from words of encouragement and a historical summary to a review of legal material, including some new commandments.

Our parashah opens with Moses prescribing a ritual ceremony to be enacted as the people enter the Promised Land. They are to stand on one mountain and pronounce the blessing that God set before them; on another mountain, Eval, they will repeat the curse. This procedure seeks to highlight the choices that we are regularly called upon to make in our lives.

Further anticipating entry into the Promised Land, the Israelites are told to destroy all pagan shrines and to centralize worship at a single place, which God will choose for them. Until then the Israelites were able to eat meat only in conjunction with a sacrifice. It was necessary, therefore, for the Torah to designate a mechanism that would allow people living far away from the centralized temple to eat meat. The prohibition against consuming blood is repeated, because it applies both to animals sacrificed in the temple and to animals that are slaughtered outside the sacrificial system to provide the Israelites with kosher meat.

An additional warning against conforming to Canaanite religious practices follows, as do laws concerning a false prophet, a person who entices others to worship false gods, and a city whose residents behave badly.

Next we have a thorough review of the laws of kashrut, including the criteria that make mammals, fish, and fowl kosher. We are prohibited from eating an animal that has died a natural death, as well as one that has been torn apart. Finally, we are forbidden to eat milk and meat together.

The next few sections deal with the intersection between social equity and ritual. This is followed by rules relating to sh’mitah, the sabbatical year. In its discussion of sh’mitah, Leviticus 25 emphasizes the return of land to its original owners, but here the text ordains that loans should be cancelled in the seventh year. This appears to be intended as an opportunity for destitute farmers, who may have been weighed down by the loans they had to take out in order to survive, to begin again with a clean slate. These laws are followed by exhortations to be sensitive to the needs of the poor.

The concluding section of our parashah contains laws about first-born animals, which were to be dedicated to God, as well as guidelines on how to observe the three pilgrimage festivals.

Topic #1: Kashrut and Its Social Dimension

Many of us remember Colonel Ilan Ramon (1954-2003), the Israeli astronaut who died along with six colleagues when the space shuttle Columbia burned up when it re-entered earth’s atmosphere. Before the flight, Ilan Ramon knew quite well that the privilege of his having been selected as an astronaut was a tribute to his roots as an Israeli and as a Jew, over and above his own considerable personal merit.

In his private life, Ilan Ramon was a secular Israeli, but he had the vision to see beyond the boundaries of the religious/secular divide. Commenting on the symbolic value of his mission, he said, “I thought it would be nice to represent all kinds of Jews, including religious ones.” Accordingly he requested that on the shuttle mission his food should be kosher. His rationale, succinctly stated: “I think it is very, very important to preserve our historical and religious traditions.”

More about Ilan Ramon and his life can be read in many places, including here.

Ilan Ramon’s behavior raises several questions:

  1. Are there times when a Jew should try to blend in? Are there times when it is appropriate for a Jew’s actions to highlight the differences between Jews and their neighbors?
  2. Do you think that it was hypocritical for a secular Jew, who did not restrict himself to kosher foods consistently in his personal life, to request kosher food when serving as a representative of all Israelis and all Jews?
  3. Many organizations and companies can make kosher meals available. Should someone who normally does not keep kosher make that request? Is there a benefit to the kosher-observant community in his or her doing so?
  4. We have virtually no information about why NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which oversees the space shuttle) decided to grant Ilan Ramon’s request for kosher food. What do you suppose NASA managers said and thought as they discussed the request?

Topic #2: In Search of a Safety Net

The Torah prescribes measures to prevent the development of a permanent underclass within society. Debts are to be cancelled every seventh year. We do not know, historically speaking, how scrupulously this commandment was observed. However, we do have some narrative evidence of at least one instance of adherence to this principle.

In the years following the return of Judean exiles from Babylonia, Nehemiah addresses the upper class, exhorting them to be mindful of the needs of less fortunate Jews, even at the expense of their own property rights.

Are you pressing claims on loans made to your brothers?

… We have not done our best to buy back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; will you now sell your brothers so that they must be sold [back] to us?

… What you are doing is not right. You ought to act in a God-fearing way so as not to give our enemies, the nations, room to reproach us. I, my brothers, and my servants also have claims of money and grain against them; let us now abandon those claims! Give back at once their fields, their vineyards, their olive trees, and their homes, and [abandon] the claims for the hundred pieces of silver, the grain, the wine, and the oil that you have been pressing against them! (Nehemiah 5:7-12)

In the following verse, the nobles agreed to abide by Nehemiah’s proposal. A few chapters later, we read of Jews rededicating themselves to the observance of sh’mitah (the sabbatical year), as outlined in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15:

We will forego [the produce of] the seventh year, and every outstanding debt. (Nehemiah 10:32)

  1. What practical problem might develop as an unintended consequence of the cancellation of debts every seventh year? (Hint: see Deuteronomy 15:9-10.)
  2. What can we learn about the obligations we have to help the poor today based on this mitzvah? Does the work that Bono has been doing in the international banking world reflect the parashah’s intention?

Note that this problem, which grows out of legislation aimed at protecting the poor, may cause many of the sources of funding for the poor to dry up. At times during the talmudic period people took out loans for ambitious commercial projects. It became necessary to revise the framework through which the loans were given, instituting a bold new procedure that permitted the debt to be carried during the seventh year and beyond while still conforming to the letter of the biblical restrictions. Information is widely available on the web by searching for the word prosbul or prozbul. In modern times, a procedure known as heter iska is widely used in banking institutions in Israel for similar reasons.

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