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Torah Sparks

September 20, 2008 – 20 Elul 5768

Annual: Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 1140; Hertz p. 859)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 26:1 – 27:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 1140; Hertz p. 859)
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1 – 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 1161; Hertz p. 874)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Once they are settled in the land, each Israelite farmer is to bring a portion of his first fruits to the central sanctuary. Standing before the priest, he recites the declaration expressing gratitude for all the gifts God has given.

In the third year of the agricultural cycle, farmers are to give the second tithe of their produce to the poor rather than bringing it to Jerusalem. Once this is done, the farmer is to recite a declaration acknowledging that he had done as God commanded.

Moses reminds the Israelites that they have affirmed their covenant with God, that they have promised to obey Him, and that in return God has affirmed that Israel is His treasured people.

Moses tells the people that as soon as they cross the Jordan, they are to set up large stones inscribed with the words of the Torah on Mount Ebal. They are then to enact a covenant ritual on Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim.

Moses then tells the people that if they observe God’s commandments they will experience many blessings. If they do not obey God, however, they will experience many curses, culminating in war, famine, plagues, and exile.

Moses concludes by reminding the Israelites of all that God has done for them in the 40 years since He redeemed them from Egypt.

1. Please Come Join Us

You shall then recite as follows [literally, and you shall respond and say] before the Lord your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean... (Devarim 26:5)

  1. These may be recited in any language – the portion of the Sotah, the declaration of the tithe, the Shema, the Prayer (Amidah), the Grace After Meals... And these must be recited in the Holy Tongue [Hebrew] – the declaration of the first fruits... (Mishnah Sotah 7:1-2)
  2. “Responding” . . . means in the holy tongue. Hence the sages have said: Originally all those who knew how to make the declaration did so, while those who did not know how to do it had it recited to them [so they could repeat it]. When people consequently refrained from bringing [first fruits], it was decided that both those who knew how and those who did not would have the declaration recited to them. For this they relied upon the verse “And you shall respond,” since responding implies prompting to respond by someone else. (Sifre, Piska 301)
  3. A tanna recited before Rabbi Nahman bar Isaac: He who shames his fellow man in public is as though he shed blood. Rabbi Nahman replied: Well put! Because we see ruddiness depart and paleness take its place [in the face of the man who is humiliated]. (Baba Metziah 58b)
  4. Rabbi Elazar Ha-Modai taught: A person who profanes the sacred, despises the festivals, shames a fellow human being publicly... though he be learned in Torah and perform good deeds, shall have no share in the world to come. (Avot 3:15)

Sparks for Discussion

The Sifre makes the extraordinary statement that Jews who were unable to recite the declaration of the first fruits properly in Hebrew chose to abandon this Torah commandment rather than suffer the public humiliation of having to repeat it after the priest. The ritual was changed so that everyone repeated it after the priest and no one was humiliated. Elsewhere, the Talmud tells us that the rabbis decreed that all Jews were to be buried in simple coffins and shrouds to prevent humiliating the poor, who could not afford the elaborate burial clothes and coffins used by the rich.

All of our communities include Jews who feel left out because they are unfamiliar with the various services, they cannot read (let alone understand) Hebrew, they do not know what to do when offered an aliyah, or they do not understand the Hebrew and Yiddish expressions they hear around them. Do you agree that the goal should be to help them learn? What might your community do to help these Jews participate more fully in shul and other rituals? Were you ever embarrassed because you did not know or understand what was going on in services? Can you learn from that experience how you might help someone else feel more comfortable without embarrassing him or her?

2. Half Empty or Half Full?

And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household. [Alternate translation: You shall rejoice in every good thing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you...] (Devarim 26:11)

  1. If you are in the same situation as the Levite and the stranger – and they are generally poorer than the average person – “you shall rejoice in every good thing,” namely in the joy of a person who is satisfied with his lot. Many times, a person is consumed with jealousy at those who have more than he does. However, if he looks at those who have less than he rather than at those who have more, he will be joyful and satisfied with what he has. (Likutei Yehoshua)
  2. This is a mitzvah. We are obligated to feel joy with what we were given by the Almighty. Why do we need a directive to rejoice since we should automatically be happy when we have good things? Man’s nature is to constantly want more than he presently has. “He who has one hundred wants two hundred” (Kohelet Rabbah 1:34) Our moments of joy are mixed with sadness over what we lack. The Torah, therefore, commands us to rejoice with what we have. We should strive to feel a joy that is complete. Lack of joy with what we have is destructive both physically and spiritually. (Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, Pirke Torah, vol 2, p. 107.)
  3. “All these curses shall befall you . . . Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything (Devarim 38:45-47). The Torah does not specify the sins for which the Jewish people will be punished. The only one that it mentions specifically is “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness.” (Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha, 1765-1827, Poland)
  4. Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be. (Abraham Lincoln)

Sparks for Discussion

Does the Torah actually command us to feel happy? Surely there are times when happiness would be irrational. What do you think the Torah means by “You shall rejoice in every good thing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you?” Is this an achievable goal? How would you define joy? What is its opposite? What point was President Lincoln trying to make? Do you agree?

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