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Torah Sparks

August 9, 2008 – 9 Av 5768

Annual: Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 981; Hertz p. 736)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 1:1 – 2:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 981; Hertz p. 736)
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1 – 27 (Etz Hayim, p. 1000; Hertz p. 750)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Sefer Devarim takes the form of Moses’ farewell speech to the people he has led for forty years. It contains an overview of the history of the wilderness years, a review and elaboration of the statutes and ordinances of the Torah, Moses’ final blessing, and his death.

This parasha’s subject is history. Moses begins by describing how he appointed judges and officers to help him lead the people, and then he reminds the Israelites about what happened the first time they were about to enter the land. After the spies’ report caused the people to panic and refuse to continue, God grew angry and decreed that the generation of the Exodus would die in the wilderness. God also decreed that Moses would not enter the land.

Moses then reviews recent events – the conquest of Sihon, king of Heshbon, and Og, king of Bashan. He describes how their territory was given to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh.

1. Lost in Translation

On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this teaching... (Devarim 1:5)

  1. In seventy languages he explained it to them. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Why did Moses consider it necessary to explain the Torah in all the seventy languages of the ancient world? In every nation there are forces that oppose the Torah. Knowing that the Children of Israel would have to dwell among the nations, Moses wanted to enable them to defend and to observe the Torah wherever they might be. Wherever they would dwell, the Jews would have to be able to overcome any resistance that their environment might offer to the Torah. It was to equip the Jewish people to assert the views of Judaism wherever they might be scattered that he explained the Torah to them in the languages of the seventy nations of the ancient world. (Hidushei HaRIM [Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter, the Gerer Rabbi, 1799-1866, Poland])
  3. There are those unbelievers who claim that the Torah was meant to be observed only in the wilderness far away from the settlements of other groups and nations or in the Holy Land, where the Jews dwelt among their own, and where no one would interfere with their customs. They insist that when the Jews dwell among other nations, when they live in the midst of another culture and civilization, they must not keep aloof from their neighbors by clinging to the observance of the Torah and its commandments.

    It was to refute this argument that Moses explained the Torah to the Children of Israel in all the seventy languages of the world before they entered the Promised Land. He wanted to impress upon his people that they were duty-bound to observe the Torah regardless of what lands they might dwell in, because the Torah was valid for all time and for all countries and was not subject to change. (K’tav Sofer [Rabbi Abraham Samuel Benjamin Schreiber, 1815-1875, Hungary])

Sparks for Discussion

Rashi makes the remarkable claim that from the very beginning Torah was taught in all of the world’s languages. Why? Was it so that Jews could defend their beliefs and practices to non-Jews? Was it to enable Jews to maintain their traditions and practices in all the lands of the Diaspora? Was it meant to counter the pull of assimilation?

Today, nearly all of the Jewish classics – Bible and Talmud, midrash and mysticism, law codes and liturgy – are readily available in English and other languages. The benefits are obvious, but are there drawbacks as well? What is lost in translation? Do tzedakah and charity mean the same thing?

Tefillah and prayer? Why do we continue to conduct our services primarily in Hebrew?

2. Equal Justice Before the Law

You shall not be partial [elsewhere, respect persons] in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God’s... (Devarim 1:17)

  1. Let a case involving a small coin be as dear to you as a case involving a maneh; that if (the former) came before you first, do not postpone it until the last. Another interpretation: Understand it as the Targum [an Aramaic translation] has it: You shall not say, “This is a poor man and his opponent is rich and is commanded to support him. I will find in favor of the poor man and thus he will be supported in dignity.” Another explanation: You should not say, “How can I tarnish the honor of this rich man because of a dinar; I will favor him now, and when he goes outside (the court) I will tell him: Give it to him (the poor man) because you in fact owe it to him.” (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. A judge may not judge based on the appearance of a person, because that is no proof as to his innocence or guilt. Only the arguments and facts may play a role in a judge’s decisions. (Rabbi Leibush Harif, d. 1833, Poland)
  3. How do we know that if two litigants come to court, one dressed in rags and the second in a garment worth a hundred maneh, the second should be told, “Dress like your opponent, or see to it that he is dressed like you?” Because the Torah says, Keep far from a false charge. (Sh’mot 23:7) (Shevuot 31a)
  4. If you have in a trial before you a wicked man and a pious man, do not say, “Since this man is wicked I will turn the judgment against him.” It is with reference to this that it is said: You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes (Shemot 23:6) – of one who is poor in mitzvot. (Mekhilta Kaspa 3)

Sparks for Discussion

The court must make decisions solely on the facts of each specific case; it may not consider any outside circumstances. The Talmud even insists that the parties be dressed alike so that there is no subliminal influence on the judges. Is this fair and just?

In our society, many people believe that fairness requires considering special circumstances – members of historically disadvantaged groups may benefit from affirmative action in hiring or government contracting, students with certain learning disabilities are given extra time on standardized tests, veterans receive bonus points on civil service exams. Lawyers for criminal defendants may point to a client’s family circumstances, addictions, or mental health problems as mitigating factors. Is this fair and just?

Many jurisdictions have enacted hate crimes laws that mandate harsher sentences for people who commit crimes motivated by racial, religious, or other biases. Suppose a thug assaults another man, beating him and causing serious injuries. In one case, the two men are of different races and the thug shouts racial epithets while he beats his victim. In the second case, both men are of the same race and the thug shouts obscenities. Should both cases be treated exactly alike or should the hate crime be punished more severely? Why? What does it mean to be fair and just?

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