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Torah Sparks

August 15, 2009 – 25 Av 5769

Annual: Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1061; Hertz p. 799)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 12:29 – 14:29 (Etz Hayim, p. 1068; Hertz p. 804)
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 between blessing if they obey God’s commandments and 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 them 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 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 a family member or a close friend, who urges an Israelite to worship “other gods” must be executed. If an entire town has turned away from God, everyone who lives there 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 nonkosher 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. Walking After God

Follow none but the Lord your God, and revere none but Him; observe His commandments alone, and heed only His orders; worship none but Him, and hold fast to Him. (Devarim 13:5)

  1. “Follow none but the Lord your God” … and not in new (incorrect) ways that the prophet or dreamer shows, with the intent of leading you astray from the (proper) way. “And revere none but Him” Even though that prophet was already (accepted) among you as an important and revered person, (yet if) he now exaggerates (his prophetic powers), then nullify your reverence of this prophet before the reverence of God, the Blessed One. “Observe His commandments alone”... but not new commandments devised by a prophet, especially idolatry which is contradictory to all the commandments of God, the Exalted One, because He commanded His covenant forever, He will not exchange it or change it. “And heed only His orders” … that which He commands you through His prophets, in order to preserve His Torah and sanctify His name, as we find with Elijah on Mt. Carmel – but (one is not to hearken) to the voice of he who nullifies all the commandments of God, the Exalted One. “Worship none but Him”... Him alone and none other with Him... “And hold fast to Him” The purpose of all your actions shall be to do His will, and your animosity toward this (false prophet) shall not be motivated by a prior hatred. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  2. “Follow none but the Lord your God” – this refers to (following the pillar of) cloud – “and revere none but Him” – meaning that the awe (of the Lord) shall be upon you – “His commandments” – referring to positive commandments – “observe” – including (the implied) negative commandments – “and heed only His orders” – meaning the voice of His prophets – “worship none but Him” – serve Him according to His Torah and in His Sanctuary – “and hold fast to Him” – separate yourselves from idolatry and cleave unto the Lord. (Sifrei, Piska 85)
  3. Rabbi Hama ben Rabbi Hanina said: “Follow none but the Lord your God” [literally, After the Lord your God shall you walk] But is it possible for a man to walk right behind the Presence? Has it not already been said, “The Lord your God is a consuming fire” (4:24)? Yes, but what the verse means is that you are to follow the ways of the Holy One. He clothed the naked: “The Lord God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them” (B’reishit 3:21). So should you clothe the naked. The Holy One visited the sick: “The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre” (B’reishit 18:1). So should you visit the sick. The Holy One buried the dead: “He buried [Moses] in the valley” (D’varim 34:6). So should you bury the dead. The Holy One comforted mourners: “After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac” (B’reishit 25:11). So should you comfort mourners. (Talmud Sotah 14a)

Sparks for Discussion

Our commentators offer three different ways to interpret this verse. Sforno interprets it in context, elaborating on the laws of the false prophet. The Sifrei understands it as a general reference to the obligation to worship only God and shun idolatry. The gemara in Sotah interprets it as a call to engage in acts of hesed (loving-kindness). If you were giving a d’var Torah, which interpretation would you use? Why? What balance of mitzvot bein adam laMakom (between a person and God) and mitzvot bein adam l’haveiro (between one person and another) do you believe is required for a meaningful Judaism?

2. Wrap Up Your Money in Your Hand

Gather all its spoil into the open square, and burn the town and all its spoil as a holocaust to the Lord your God. And it shall remain an everlasting ruin, never to be rebuilt. (Devarim 13:17)

  1. If an entire city could be led to worship idols, it is obvious that its people cared only for amassing riches and had no interest in the higher things of life. This is why they sank so low that they could be induced to become pagans. Certainly, then, it is only fitting that all the wealth which caused them to descend to this state should be destroyed. Avnei Ezel [Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, 1897-1943, Poland])
  2. The reason the Torah required all the spoils of a depraved city to be destroyed was so that people should not be too anxious to rule cities as worthy of destruction. After all, had the law been that the spoils were to be kept by those engaged in the destruction, people might even concoct a false accusation simply in order to destroy the city and take its spoils, as was the case in the Spanish Inquisition. The Torah therefore required all the spoils to be destroyed, thereby ensuring that no individual would have anything to gain by such a course of action. (Orekh Le-Hayyim [Rabbi Avraham Hayyim of Zlotchov, 1750-1816, Poland])
  3. “Wrap up the money in your hand” (14:25) You must bind up your money and keep it in your hand – under your control – so that you rule it and that it doesn’t rule you. (Rabbi Meir of Premishlan, 1703-1773, Poland)

Sparks for Discussion

Why did the Torah require the destruction of all the property in an idolatrous city? Was it to warn against the single-minded pursuit of wealth? Was it to guard against false accusations based on ulterior motives? Is wealth a bad thing? How would you expand on Rabbi Meir’s teaching to wrap up your money in your hand? How do difficult economic conditions impact on what people are willing to do for money? Would you report a friend or business associate to the IRS for tax evasion to earn the bounty of up to 30 percent of back taxes collected? Would you do it if there were no reward? Is this sort of whistleblowing ethical? Is it ethical to know about the tax evasion and do nothing?

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