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Torah Sparks

September 5, 2009 – 16 Elul 5769

Annual: Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 1140; Hertz p. 859)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 26:12 – 28:6 (Etz Hayim, p. 1142; Hertz p. 860)
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 have 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 is to recite the declaration expressing gratitude for all the gifts God has given.

In the third year of the agricultural cycle, farmers were to give the second tithe of their produce to the poor rather than bringing it to Jerusalem. Once this was done, the farmer was 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 God in return 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. He tells them that if they observe God’s commandments they will experience many blessings. However, if they do not obey God 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. Jewish Identity – Inside/Outside

Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country. (Deuteronomy 28:3)

  1. Rav said: “Blessed shall you be in the city” – that your home will be close to the synagogue (Yalkut Shimoni 28). There are people whose behavior at home is far from their behavior in the synagogue. In the synagogue they observe all the smallest details of the law, but not so at home. Their homes are far from the synagogue, and the synagogue has no influence on their life at home. This is the blessing that your home should be close to the synagogue – that the spirit of the synagogue will saturate your home as well. (Meged Yerahim, cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)
  2. “In the city”: by the reward for the commandments that you observe (publicly) in the city. (Midrash) Some people observe their Judaism and perform its commandments within the walls of their own homes, but are ashamed of their religion when they go out among people, fearing that they might be called “fanatical,” “old-fashioned,” and such. Therefore Scripture says: “Only if you will not be ashamed to observe the commandments even in the city, when you are among others, will you receive the blessings.” (Divrei Shaarei Hayyim (Rabbi Hayyim Sofer), 1821-1886, Hungary)
  3. [The late 19th-century Russian Jewish thinker Yehuda Leib] Gordon coined what might be called the motto of the Enlightenment: “Be a Jew in your home and a man on the street.” He was saying that for Jews to make our way in the world, we must keep our Jewish identity private, secluded, in the confines of our homes or the privacy of our backyards. For my grandparents and immigrants like them, in order to make it in America they cast off their Jewish observances in exchange for material and social success. Jewish practices that they kept were relegated to the seclusion of private spaces, or the synagogue, JCC, or federation.

    Gordon’s notion of a bifurcated identity is less pertinent today where we are blessed with the privilege of living in a pluralistic and open society. Politicians, artists, business people, and others are more public as Jews in their professional lives and on the street. Ironically, many are less Jewish at home in a world that allows and even celebrates multiple, partial, and constructed identities. On the street, they can label their actions “Jewish” as a positive and public expression of identity, whether or not their private lives are enriched with Jewish learning and practice. (Professor Lisa D. Grant, “The Front Porch,” Sh’ma, A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, June 2009)

Sparks for Discussion

What does it mean to be Jewish “in the city?” One of our commentators says it refers to public observance; another says it refers to private observance. Which makes more sense to you? Have you encountered people who try to impress others with their punctilious public observance? Do you know people who are uncomfortable with public displays of Jewish identity? Do you think this is because they are ashamed? Could it be that they fear discrimination?

Professor Grant says that our modern, multicultural society no longer requires Jews to hide our identity to succeed. Do you agree? Do you think there are some types of Jewish observance that are still problematic “in the city?”

2. The Most Beautiful Blessing

Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings. (Deuteronomy 28:6)

  1. “Blessed shall you be in your comings” – in your first coming into the world; “and blessed shall you be in your goings” – in your departure from this world. Rabbi Berekiah said: It is written, “A time for being born and a time for dying” (Kohelet 3:2). Surely we know that there is a time when a man is born, and a time when a man dies? What it means is, Happy is the man the time of whose death is like the time of his birth – just as at the time of his birth he is free from sin, so too at the time of his death he is free from sin. (D’varim Rabbah 7:5)
  2. Rav said: “Blessed shall you be in your goings” – this means, may those who go out from your loins be like you. (Talmud Bava Metzia 107a)
  3. When Rabbi Nahman and Rabbi Isaac were about to part, Rabbi Nahman asked Rabbi Isaac to bless him. Rabbi Isaac replied: “Let me tell you a parable. To what may this be compared? To a man who was traveling in the desert. He was hungry, tired, and thirsty, when suddenly he came upon a tree whose fruits were sweet, its shade pleasant, and a stream of water was flowing beneath it. The man ate of the tree’s fruits, drank of the water, and sat in the tree’s shade. When he was about to continue his journey, he turned to the tree and said: ‘Tree, O tree, with what shall I bless you? Shall I say to you may your fruits be sweet? They already are sweet. That your shade be pleasant? It already is pleasant.

    That a stream of water flow by you? A stream of water already flows by you. Therefore, this is my blessing, ‘May it be God’s will that all the shoots planted from you be just like you.’”

    “So it is with you” [Rabbi Isaac said to Rabbi Nahman]. “With what shall I bless you? Shall I wish you Torah learning? You already have learning. Wealth? You already have wealth. Children? You already have children. “Therefore, this is my blessing: May it be God’s will that your offspring will be like you.” (Talmud Taanit 5b-6a)

Sparks for Discussion

In what ways do you hope your children and grandchildren will be like you? In what ways do you hope they will be different? What can you control? What can you influence? What are you doing about it?

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