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Torah Sparks

September 8, 2012 – 21 Elul 5772

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

The Israelites are commanded to present the first fruits of their produce to the Priest at God’s chosen shrine. The worshipper recited a declaration familiar to modern Jews from the Passover Haggadah: “Arami oved avi… My ancestor was a wandering Aramean…” This recitation of Israelite origins represents the very first scripted liturgy for Jewish worship and reflects our liturgy’s emphasis on historical experience. A prescribed verbal declaration, including a request for God’s blessing (“from your holy abode, from heaven”) similarly accompanies the tithe that Israelites provide for the support of Levites and strangers, widows and orphans. The Israelites are admonished once again to be faithful to God and God’s commandments; God’s reciprocal devotion to His chosen people is assured.

When they will cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, Israel is commanded to erect stone pillars, coated with plaster, on which God’s laws are to be inscribed. These steles are to be dedicated with sacrifices offered on an altar of unhewn stone that the Israelites are instructed to build on Mount Ebal.

Israel prepares for the recitation of blessings and curses. (The ceremonious presentation was prescribed earlier, in parashat Re’eh.) The tribes of Shimon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin are assigned to Mount Gerizim for the blessing; Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan, and Naphtali are to be present on Mount Ebal for the curses. Twelve specific are detailed, identified as worthy of being cursed, and individually acknowledged as such by a collective, national “amen.” Offenses of cultic, sexual, moral, and violent character are included among these execrable sins.

Israel is promised blessings for compliance with God’s commandments: “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country, Blessed shall be the issue of your womb. The Lord will make you the head, not the tail.” Following the blessing is a further statement of parallel curses for Israelite disobedience to God: “Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be the issue of your womb.” This passage, called the tochechah (exhortation), includes particularly vile curses: “Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky. The Lord will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil scars, madness, blindness, and dismay.” Remarkably, the Torah reader customarily substitutes prescribed euphemism for the harshest of the Hebrew terms! So feared was this scriptural passage, nevertheless, that some communities have a history of skipping the section entirely. Others have required the Torah reader or shamas to accept this aliyah as a condition of employment. Still others, instead of assigning so unseemly a text as a Torah “honor,” simply announced “Yaamod mi she-yirtzeh” – “Let whoever wants it come forward!” In any case, it is common to read these verses quickly and quietly, dispensing with so unpleasant a text with all possible dispatch.

The parashah concludes with a firm admonition (for those who missed the message in the previous section!?) faithfully to adhere to God’s covenant, and to recognize in Israel’s historic experience God’s miraculous guidance and beneficent, providential care.

Theme #1: “People, People Who Need People”

“Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Hear O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your God: Heed the Lord your God and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today.” (Deuteronomy 27:9-10)

Study: Derash

“Our nation is a nation only by virtue of its Torah.” (Saadya Gaon)

“Israel became a nation not by virtue of acquiring a land or language of its own, but only by taking upon itself the yoke of the Torah even while it was still in the wilderness, without a land or the other tangible attributes of nationhood. Therein lies the unique character of the Jewish People.” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)

“The message of parashat Ki Tavo applies to us even now, whether we live in Israel or in the Diaspora. To justify Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and homeland, it must forever strive to be a ‘light unto the nations’ and not a state like any other. As a people, wherever we are, we have a remarkable and noble mission – to fulfill God’s precepts, whether they deal with our relationship to the Divine, or – more concretely – with our relationships with our fellow human beings, all of whom have been created in the divine image.” (Alice Shalvi)

“An individual is a person, when and because he knows himself as such; a group is a people, when and because it knows itself as such.” (Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan)

“Jewish unity has been fractured both by the rise of a triumphalist Orthodoxy and by the increased radicalization of the liberal movements. Jewish peoplehood can be rebuilt by strengthening modern Orthodoxy, cooling the inflammatory rhetoric, recognizing that assimilation is the common problem facing all Jews, and coming together to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Israel.” (Steven Bayme, 1997)

Questions for Discussion

Bayme’s call for strengthening modern Orthodoxy recognized both that movement’s unique contributions to Jewish life as well as its potential as a willing partner in dialogue with more progressive Jewish groups. How can individual Conservative Jews and congregations serve the cause of Jewish peoplehood? In the 15 years since Steven Bayme offered his formula for Jewish unity, has the state of Jewish peoplehood improved or deteriorated further?

What is it that makes Jews a people? How do both Rabbis Hirsch and Kaplan speak to the reality of 21st Century Jews? Hirsch (1808-1888) lived his entire life before the founding of the Jewish State. How might he have re-framed his statement after 1948? (Kaplan died in 1983 at the age of 102.)

How does the “remarkable and noble mission” of the Jewish People identified by Alice Shalvi find expression today? What would you include in a brief “mission statement” for the Jewish People? How might Israelis and Jews of the Diaspora approach such a question differently?

When have you most strongly experience a sense of Jewish peoplehood? How might you further cultivate such experiences (in yourself, in your children… in their children)?

Theme #2: “Owed to Joy”

“Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve – in hunger and in thirst, naked and lacking everything – the enemies whom the Lord will let loose against you…” (Deuteronomy 28:47-48)

Study: Derash

“One should not pray when in a state of sadness or laziness or laughing or conversation or frivolity or idle talk, but only out of the sheer joy of doing a mitzvah [simchah shel mitzvah]. (Talmud Berakhot 31A)

“Joy in doing the mitzvot, and the love of God who commanded them, is a great act of worship. Anyone who avoids this is deserving of reproof, as it says, ‘Because you would not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness.’” (Maimonides)

“Even the basest individual would be thrilled to perform good deeds with joy and strength if he understood that through such actions could benefit the entire universe, with all its infinite number of worlds. All laziness and weakness stems purely from lack of belief in the extent of the good which we truly perform for all of creation, through Torah study, mitzvot, service, and refinement of character.” (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook)

“One who learns with joy can learn more in one hour than what he can learn in many hours when he is sad. Also, the Torah is the plaything of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and one must be joyous about such a great thing.” (Rabbi Chaim Volozhin)

“Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” (Rabindranath Tagore)

Questions for Discussion

How might we enhance the emotional element – the “joy and gladness” – of Jewish worship, study, and community life? How is such an affective agenda to be reconciled with an approach to Judaism that stresses intellectual honesty, critical scholarship, and rigorous analytical study?

Respond to Rav Kook… What is the ultimate impact of our observance of Jewish Law… our celebration of Jewish life… our study of sacred texts… our performance of mitzvot?

Both Gandhi and Tagore offer insights which resonate with our biblical verse. Is Jewish living “service”? Is it always true that God is ill-served by joyless compliance? When (if ever) is there real value and virtue in duties performed strictly out of obligation?

What are the limitations of the statement from Tractate Berakhot? Might not prayer be a proper response and remedy to sadness? …and what’s wrong with laughter?! What is the place of humor and light-heartedness in Jewish worship?

What did Chaim of Volozhin mean by calling the Torah “the plaything of the Holy One”?! How might we apply this concept to early childhood education? To adult Jewish learning?

Historic Note

Parashat Ki Tavo, read on September 8, 2012, describes massive dedicatory stone steles, to be inscribed “most distinctly” (27:8) with God’s laws. According to Rashi and others, the inscriptions were in 70 different languages, to assure that all the nations of the world would be able to understand them and Israel’s divine mission. On September 8, 1930, New York City public schools began offering instruction in Hebrew language.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Deuteronomhy 27:16 warns: “Cursed be he who insults his father or mother.” Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, Rosh Yeshivah of Birkat Moshe in Maaleh Adumim, discusses the extent to which this principle applies to discussion – in the context of psycho-therapy – of a parent’s shortcomings, abusive behavior, or maltreatment of a child. Noting that such discussions present a halachic challenge for both patient and therapist, he writes: “If the expression of negative feelings is intended to bring about a therapeutic result, it is certainly justified.” He also observes: “If it is done for a constructive goal and in an effective manner, the prospects are that speaking about the sins of the fathers will help bring them atonement. Nonetheless, even if the father was wicked one must not curse him. This has nothing to do with bringing into the open disgust and revulsion towards his transgressions” (see ASSIA – Jewish Medical Ethics, Vol. VI, No. 2, 2004, pp. 36-38).

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