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Torah Sparks

July 28, 2012 – 9 Av 5772

Annual: Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22 (Etz Hayim p. 981; Hertz p. 736)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 2:2 – 2:30 (Etz Hayim p. 990; Hertz p. 743)
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1 – 27 (Etz Hayim p. 1000; Hertz p. 750)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Temple Emanuel of North Jersey - Franklin Lakes, NJ

Both its Greek name – Deuteronomy – and its classical Hebrew designation – Mishneh Torah (a repetition of the Torah) – aptly describe both the fifth book of the Torah and this, its opening parashah. In his first oration Moses recaps much of the people’s earlier experiences and the lessons that come from the 40-year journey. This begins with God’s command to the Israelites at Horeb to make their way to Canaan and to take possession of the Land. Moses recalls the burden of leadership and his resulting appointment of judges and chieftains to share in the day-to-day leadership of the nation.

Moses recalls the journey from Horeb through Amorite territory to Kadesh, where spies were dispatched into the Promised Land, returning with a faithless and pessimistic majority report. The two dissenting optimists among the spies, Joshua and Caleb, are duly rewarded. They, alone of their generation, are to be permitted entry to the Land, where Caleb will receive an allotment and Joshua will assume national leadership. Moses, too, is denied entry to Canaan. This divine decree requires the Israelites to follow a tortuous, circuitous route through the wilderness, involving confrontations with Edom, Ammon, and Moab.

Moses recalls the crushing Amorite defeat of the Israelites at Hormah. Other encounters with hostile, foreign powers include those with Sichon and Og. Sichon refuses Israel permission to traverse his territory, despite Israel’s friendly, diplomatic request. Israel had to fight both the Amorite Sichon, and Og of Bashan, conquering each and seizing their lands.

The beginning of the allotment of tribal portions in conjunction with the conquest is recapped: Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh receive conquered territory – as earlier explained – in the Transjordan with the condition that they participate in the national military defense as shock troops, the vanguard of the conquest. Parashat Devarim concludes with Moses retelling his appointment of Joshua as his successor, and his charge to his protégé not to fear the kings, powers, and forces he encounters in bringing about the conquest, “for it is the Lord your God who will battle for you.”

Theme #1: “Turning Over a New Leave”

“On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching. He said: The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying: You have stayed long enough at this mountain.” (Deuteronomy 1:5-6)

Study: Derash

“We are all on a spiritual quest, but too many of us are still searching for the mountain when we should actually be searching for the path leading away from it… The lesson here is one of religious growth for the individual and the community. Our ancestors were nudged in the Wilderness… they moved on, took chances, made mistakes. Deuteronomy will remind us of the nudges and mistakes along the way. You have stayed long enough at this mountain. These words are the boundary between covenant and living covenant. Leaving the mountain means putting things into action. As we are told elsewhere (Leviticus 18:5) regarding the instructions of the Torah: ve-chai ba-hem [live by them].” (Rabbi Michal Shekel)

“Ultimately, studying Torah is a means to a transformed life, lived in community with all kinds of other people. There is a time for receiving Torah at the mountain of God, and then there's a time to go out and make a life of Torah happen in less cozy and predictable surroundings. There is a time to learn, and a time to apply what you've learned; both are necessary stages along a holy journey.” (Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger)

“’You have stayed long enough…’ A stagnant river breeds death, rust, mosquitoes and all kinds of diseases. An unmoving vehicle is destroyed by rust. Oversleeping person develops bedsores. Have you ever thought what an unchanging, unmoving, undervaluing life breeds or develops into? You have stayed long enough in that situation of yours, dream of yours, condition of yours, organization of yours, position of yours. See and take possession of great things ahead.” (Raphiel Menenge, Pentecostal Minister)

“Being stuck is a position few of us like. We want something new but cannot let go of the old - old ideas, beliefs, habits, even thoughts. We are out of contact with our own genius. Sometimes we know we are stuck; sometimes we don't. In both cases we have to DO something.” (Rush Limbaugh)

“Part of me is afraid to let go of this other thing, which was so hugely successful. But on the other hand, I have to move ahead, or else my feet are stuck in the cement. I feel like I’m capable of writing other kinds of music, and I’m at a transitional time in my life.” (Billy Joel)

Questions for Discussion

The Israelites can hardly be blamed for wanting to linger at the site of God’s revelation! What is the central significance of God’s command to move on? The seeds of Zionism in the mandate to occupy the Land of Israel? The need to apply God’s revealed principles to real situations and everyday life? A model for personal growth and a cautionary tale regarding stagnation?

How are we to distinguish between spiritual stagnation… and loyalty to tradition, sacred patterns of behavior, and time-tested values? When is change indicated… and when is it contraindicated? Can the urge for change itself become idolatrous?

What are the “Sinais” in your spiritual and religious journey – the defining moments of revelation and commitment and personal growth? How did you know when it was time to move on and to apply lessons learned to real life? Notwithstanding Rev. Menenge’s interpretation, what “dream of yours” – as yet unrealized – do you continue to pursue with conviction?

Theme #2: “Blessings of Prosperity and Posterity”

“Indeed, the Lord your God has blessed you in all your undertakings. He has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness; the Lord your God has been with you these past forty years; you have lacked nothing.” (Deuteronomy 2:7)

Study: Derash

“Do not be ungrateful for God’s kindness by appearing as though you were poor; rather, show yourselves wealthy.” (Rashi)

“I do not understand what ‘your undertakings’ (literally, “the work of your hands” -- JHP) signifies, for their blessings were blessings from heaven, and they didn’t achieve anything with their own hands that would constitute a blessing.” (Nachmanides)

“He has made you prosperous in every way; compare 30:9: ‘The Lord your God will grant you abounding prosperity in all your undertakings, in the issue of your womb, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil.’ ‘Blessing’ often refers to prosperity, as in Genesis 24:35: ‘The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become rich: He has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and asses.’’ (Rabbi Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Commentary)

“Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has many, and not upon your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” (Charles Dickens)

Questions for Discussion

What virtue is there in Rashi’s counsel to “show yourselves wealthy”? What (besides ingratitude) might motivate someone to feign poverty… or, at least, more modest personal circumstances? How is this dynamic evident in modernpolitics? Is it more or less ungrateful to feign wealth?

Are all our blessings God’s doing? To what extent may we take credit for our own achievements and prosperity? To what extent does Nachmanides’ apparent theology absolve us of personal responsibility for our failures and losses?

What might you (or Charles Dickens!) say to Professor Tigay about the meaning (and limitations) of blessing? What are the most important and defining blessings in your life and experience? Which most clearly point to God’s grace and providence?

Historic Note

In Parashat Devarim, read on July 28, 2012, Moses recalls his failed diplomatic efforts with the Amorite King Sichon. Despite his friendly and deferential overtures, Sichon denies the Israelites permission to cross his territory. The refusal leads to armed conflict. On July 28, 1988, Israeli diplomats arrived in Moscow for the first official visit in 21 years.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Tishah B’Av, like Yom Kippur, is a 24-hour fast. On Yom Kippur, one is exempted from the fast if it poses a threat to health or life. On Tishah B’Av, a sick person may eat even if there is no question of danger to life (Aruch Ha- Shulchan Orach Chaim 554). The additional Tishah B’Av prohibition against studying Torah (in the broadest sense – See Shulchan Aruch 554:1) has been linked to the verse, “The precepts of the Lord gladden the heart” (Psalms 19:9). That is, the joy that is derived from the study of Torah is out of place on Tishah B’Av, a day devoted to sadness and lamentation.

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