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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VA’ETHANAN - SHABBAT NAHAMU
July 28, 2007 – 13 Av 5767

Annual: Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11 (Etz Hayim, p. 1005; Hertz p. 755)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 5:1 - 7:11 (Etz Hayim, p. 1015; Hertz p. 765)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1 – 26 (Etz Hayim, p. 1033; Hertz p. 776)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

The parashah continues Moses’ review of the history of the Israelites. Speaking on a personal note, Moses tells the people that his pleas to God that God relent and permit him to enter the Promised Land are to no avail.

Beginning to anticipate his taking his leave of the people, Moses suggests that they remember well their experiences in Egypt and at Horev (Sinai). He urges them to keep in mind that these remarkable occurrences point to a single God, who has a special relationship with Israel. Moses cautions the people to avoid the idol-worship that is so widespread among the peoples who live in the Promised Land. If the Israelites fail to keep their covenant with God that failure will result in exile, although God will not abandon the people of Israel even then.

Moses recapitulates the Ten Commandments, with some minor variations from the version found in Exodus.

The passage that we use as the opening paragraph of the Sh’ma is drawn from this parashah. This paragraph stresses the need to love God and to remember God’s commandments. It describes rituals whose likely purpose is to remind us of our relationship with God and of our broader obligation to observe many commandments. The mandate for living a life imbued with Jewish consciousness, as well as communicating our Jewish heritage to the next generation, is spelled out within this familiar passage.

Not only are the Israelites instructed to remember their shared experiences of God’s protection, they also are expected to communicate to their children, at an appropriate time, the significance of their shared history. (Several verses from this section are quoted in the Passover seder.)

The Israelites are to avoid the religious practices of the local polytheists and to remember that God’s relationship with Israel is not based on their impressive population numbers, but rather on their loyalty to God’s covenant.

Topic #1: Lifelong Education

One passage contained within this week’s Torah portion is very familiar to us because it is used in Jewish liturgy every day of the year. The opening paragraph of the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) concerns itself with keeping our relationship with God current, and with transmitting our religion from one generation to the next.

A medieval analysis of the 613 commandments (Sefer Ha-Hinukh, composed in 13th-century Spain) finds that this brief passage contains seven commandments. You may wish to examine this text of the Sh’ma and to try to identify the seven specific commandments contained within this paragraph from the Torah. For our purposes, however, we shall focus on one particular commandment:

You shall teach them diligently to your children. (6:7)

It is worth noting that although most parents in our age delegate the teaching of Judaism to those who possess technical expertise, this mitzvah gives the responsibility to parents. Here are a few points to consider about how we must teach Judaism diligently to our children:

  1. Based on this phrase from the Sh’ma, who is commanded to study Judaism?
    1. rabbis and rabbinical students?
    2. religious-school teachers?
    3. children under the age of 13?
    4. all Kohanim?
    5. all Jews?
  2. Is it possible for people to pass the mitzvah of teaching on to others? Maimonides suggests that the mitzvah of teaching “your children” falls to professionals as well.
    “It is incumbent on scholars to teach all students, even if not his child… students are called ‘your children.’” (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:2)
    Are we doing the right thing for ourselves or for our children by giving others full responsibility for our children’s Jewish education? Is there a message to children when parents are just lightly involved or uninvolved with religious teaching?
  3. A few centuries ago, a witty man counseled “Do as I say, not as I do.” Is this position compatible with the commandment to teach transcendent ideas diligently to your children?
  4. The Midrash Sifrei (a halakhic Midrash) says “make the mitzvot the central part of your life, not the secondary. Your discussions should focus on them.” In what way is that a method of teaching children?
  5. An elderly professor of Judaica, addressing a group of graduate students, opened his remarks with the words “Fellow students.” The students, who were about five decades younger than the professor, were surprised at his seeming absent-mindedness. The professor then reminded them that everyone in the room was a student of Jewish texts; it just so happened that some students were older and others were younger. How can this perspective be applied to intergenerational study (a) within the family? (b) within the congregation?

Topic #2: Do You Mind If I Smoke?

It often happens in the modern world that changing circumstances lead different streams of Judaism to reach differing conclusions about the boundaries of permissible behavior. However, one area in which a remarkable unanimity has developed among the Jewish streams is the question of smoking tobacco.

In the Conservative movement, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards took the lead in a 1986 responsum by the late Rabbi Seymour Siegel. Against the backdrop of the reports (1964 and subsequent) of the United States surgeon general, Rabbi Siegel drew guidance from a mandate in this week’s parashah. He read the passage “For your own sake, therefore, be most careful” (4:15) to mean “Take good care of your lives.”

Rabbi Siegel articulates the implication of this verse: Life is a gift, a privilege given to us by the Creator.

Broadening the discussion to include other areas of risk to our health, Rabbi Siegel makes the following points:

  1. Life is precious. It is given to us as a trust. Therefore, we may not do anything that possibly could impair our health, shorten our lives, or cause us harm and pain.
  2. As we may not do this to ourselves, so, of course, we may not do harm to others. All human lives are precious in God’s sight.
  3. The responsibility to avoid danger to ourselves or others applies even when it is not certain that harm will ensue. We are forbidden even to take the risk.
  4. The harm is to be avoided even if the bad effects are not immediately evident, but will show up in the long run.

The full text of Rabbi Siegel’s responsum is available here.

A parallel effort was made about five years later by the Masorti movement, our sister stream in Israel. An English summary of Rabbi David Golinkin’s responsum can be found here.

A Reform responsum written around 1993 may be read here.

The most recent treatment of this issue is a 2006 responsum published by the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox body. For the writers of this responsum, the guiding verse was Leviticus 18:5, as classically interpreted by Shmuel in the Talmud (Yoma 85b): “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live” – and not die on account of them.

This responsum devotes significant attention to the question of whether nicotine addiction is a valid excuse for continuing to smoke. (In the writers’ view, it is not.) The full text of this responsum may be found here.

Younger readers of Torah Sparks may be surprised to learn that only a few decades ago, the polite question for a smoker to ask was, “Do you mind if I smoke?” The only polite response (by the standards of that time) was, “Go right ahead.” The health consciousness of our society has progressed, and Jewish law has kept pace.


 
 
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