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Torah Sparks

August 30, 2008 – 29 Av 5768

Annual: Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1061; Hertz p. 799)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 11:26– 12:28 (Etz Hayim, p. 1061; Hertz p. 799)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5 (Etz Hayim, p. 1085; Hertz p. 818)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Moses tells the people that they are being given a choice – they can have a blessing if they obey God’s commandments and a curse if they do not. When they enter the land they will reaffirm this at a covenant ritual at Mounts Gerizim and Ebal.

Moses now begins to review the commandments that God has given to Israel. He begins by telling the people that they must obliterate all the sites and objects tied to Canaanite idolatry. Even after they have done this, they are not to worship God in these places but must bring their offerings and tithes to the central sanctuary in the place God will designate. Animals intended for food need not be brought to the sanctuary to be slaughtered.

The people are warned about false prophets. Even if such a person is able to produce signs and wonders, if he urges the people to turn away from God he is a false prophet and must be put to death. Similarly, any person, even family and close friends, who urges a Jew to worship “other gods” must be executed. If an entire town has turned away from God, all its inhabitants must be put to death and all the property within it must be destroyed.

The people are warned against extreme mourning rites and against eating non-kosher animals. The remission of debts in the sabbatical year and the obligation to support the poor are taught. The three pilgrimage festivals are reviewed.

1. The Month of Elul

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God... (Devarim 11:26-28)

  1. Rabbi Hanina bar Papa explained: The angel in charge of conception is called “Lailah.” He takes the drop of semen and brings it before God and says: “Master of the universe, what shall be the fate of this drop? Will it develop into a strong person or a weak one? A wise person or a fool? A wealthy person or a poor one? Whether the person will be wicked or righteous, this he does not ask. (Talmud Niddah 16b)
  2. If God decreed that a person should be either righteous or wicked, or if there was some force inherent in his nature which irresistibly drew him to a particular course... how could God have commanded us through the prophets, “Do this and do not do that, improve your ways, and do not follow your wicked impulses,” when, from the beginning of his existence, a person’s destiny had already been decreed?... What room would there be for the whole of the Torah? By what right or justice could God punish the wicked or reward the righteous? (Rambam [Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt], Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 5:4)
  3. The Hebrew word for “see,” re’eh, is in the singular. This is to teach us an important lesson. Should a person say to himself, “As everyone else is wicked, why should I be any better?” he is told, “See!” Do what is proper and ignore what everyone else does. If he then says, “How am I to resist all the temptations placed before me by the Evil Inclination?” know that “I” – God – will help you... Furthermore, a person should not think to himself, “Since I once chose an evil path, there is no hope for me any longer.” The Torah therefore stresses “I set” in the present, to teach us that man always has the choice of doing good or evil... “Before you” – If a person says: “How am I to know which path is good and which is not?” the answer is “before you” – if you study carefully the history of the Jewish people, it will become clear to you. Should a person say: “What hope is there for me, for I am a sinner, and what about all my sins until now?” the Torah states, “This day” – that each day should be to you as a new experience, and each day you have the opportunity of a fresh start. The Gaon of Vilna [Rabbi Elijah ben Rabbi Shlomo Zalman, 1720-1797, Lithuania])

Sparks for Discussion

What does the Talmud mean by, “Whether the person will be wicked or righteous, this he does not ask?” Do you believe that people are truly free to choose to do good or evil? What motivates a person to choose one or the other?

This year, as in most years, we read parashat Re’eh on Shabbat M’varakhim Elul; the Shabbat when we announce the beginning of the new month, Elul. We prepare for the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holy Days, during Elul. For many people, this means reserving synagogue seats, buying new clothes, and doing lots of cooking.

But there’s more to it. The Gaon of Vilna used the opening words of our parasha to create a spiritual handbook for the month of Elul (and the rest of the year). How might you implement his teachings?

2. American Idol?

And curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. (Devarim 11:28)

  1. Here you learn that whosoever worships idols turns aside from the entire way which the Israelites were commanded. Hence our rabbis said: One who acknowledges idolatry is as one who denies the entire Torah. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Our masters taught: Some philosophers asked [the Jewish] elders in Rome, “If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does He not have it cease to exist?” The elders replied, “If what was worshiped were something the world had no need of, He would have made it cease to exist. But people worship the sun and the moon, the stars and the planets. Should He, on account of fools, make the world cease to exist?” (Talmud Avodah Zarah 54b)
  3. Under the category of idolatry we must include a form which is particularly virulent today – the devoting of all energies and thoughts to the accumulation of wealth and achievement of worldly success. These are the mighty gods on which they rely, to which they pay allegiance, and for which they repudiate the Lord on high and forsake His Torah, leaving it deserted and forlorn in a remote corner. This is the very essence of idolatry. (Akedat Yitzhak [Rabbi Isaac Arama, 1420-1494, Spain])
  4. From Judaism’s perspective, idolatry occurs when one holds any value (for instance, nationalism) higher than God. Thus, a person who, on the basis of “my country right or wrong,” performs acts that God designates as wrong is an idolater; his behavior makes it clear that he regards his country’s demand to do evil as more binding than God’s demand to do good. Such a person’s claim to worship God – an assertion that was actually made by some S.S. officers who worked in concentration camps – is plainly false; the person is an idolater, not a follower of God. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “Biblical Literacy,” p. 425)

Sparks for Discussion

A major theme in this week’s parasha is the threat represented by idolatry and the need to obliterate all traces of it from Israel. How serious was this threat to the Jewish people in its earliest years? Is it still a threat today? Our commentators make it clear that idolatry is not limited to worshiping statues and images. Idolatry is choosing any god but God. What forms of idolatry threaten us today?

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