Weekly Cycle

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Desert in Words: Justice as a Communal Obligation and the Torah Portion of Shoftim

The Torah portion of Shoftim begins with a discussion of the appointment of judges. Below are a few of Rashi's comments on this subject:

18. You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment. 

Judges and law-enforcement officials: Heb. שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים. שֹׁפְטִים are judges who decide the verdict, and שֹׁטְרִים are those who chastise the people in compliance with their order, (who strike and bind [not found in early editions]) with rods and straps, until he [the guilty party] accepts the judge’s verdict.

and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment: Appoint judges who are expert and righteous so that they will judge justly. — [from Sifrei]

19. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words.
You shall not pervert justice: [This is to be understood] according to its apparent meaning.  

you shall not show favoritism: Even during the statement of pleas [by the litigants]. This is an admonition addressed to the judge, that he should not be lenient with one litigant and harsh with the other, [e.g., ordering] one to stand [while allowing] the other to sit, because as soon as one notices that the judge is showing more respect toward his opponent, he cannot plead his case any longer [because he thinks that it will be of no use].

20. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you.

Justice, justice shall you pursue: Seek out a good court. (Sifrei; San. 32b)

that you may live, and you possess [the land]: The appointment of fitting judges is sufficient merit to keep Israel alive and settled in their land. — [from Sifrei]

 It's very interesting to note that Rashi establishes obligations not only on those in the government in charge of appointing judges, not only on the judges themselves, but also on the law-enforcement officers as well as on the guilty parties. Last but not least, is the obligation of every litigant in seeking out a good court.

The pursuit of justice is truly a communal mitzvah, applicable to every single person and to the nation as a whole. It therefore comes as no surprise that the reward for appointing fitting judges is also a national one: "sufficient merit to keep Israel alive and settled in their land."

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Desert in Words: Destroying by Failing to Destroy and the Torah Portion of Re'eh

This week's Torah portion begins by Hashem laying out two paths before us: the path of blessing if we follow Hashem's commandments, and the opposite if we do not. The Torah then begins to enumerate some of those statutes, and contains a very puzzling statement:
1. These are the statutes and ordinances that you shall keep to perform in the land which the Lord God of your fathers gives you to possess all the days that you live on the earth.
2. You shall utterly destroy from all the places where the nations, that you shall possess, worshipped their gods, upon the lofty mountains and upon the hills, and under every lush tree.
3. And you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their asherim with fire, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place.
4. You shall not do so to the Lord, your God.
How could we possibly thinking of doing so to Hashem? Rashi picks up on this, and addresses it in a long comment:
RASHI - "You shall not do so [to the Lord your God]: to burn sacrifices to God in any place you choose, but rather at the place that He will choose. Another explanation is: “And you shall tear down their altars… and destroy their name… [but] do not do so [to the Lord your God]”; this is an admonition [addressed] to one who would erase the Name [of God from any writing] or remove a stone from the altar or from the courtyard (Mak. 22a). Rabbi Ishmael said: Would it enter your mind that the Israelites would tear down the altars [of God]? Rather, [the meaning of “You shall not do so” is that] you should not do like the deeds of the nations so that your sins would cause the sanctuary of [i.e., built by] your fathers to be destroyed. — [Sifrei]"
Obviously, no one of the Jewish people would intentionally try to destroy Hashem's altar or His name. However, what the Torah is trying to tell us is that by allowing the worship of other gods, one would be in fact hurting Hashem's presence in the world. The utter destruction mandated by the Torah here parallels the total destruction of Amalek. Failure to destroy Amalek has a similar impact on Hashem's name: “And he said, For there is a hand on the throne of the Eternal, [that there shall be] a war for the Lord against Amalek from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:16)
RASHI - For there is a hand on the throne of the Eternal: The hand of the Holy One, blessed be He, was raised to swear by His throne, to have a war and [bear] hatred against Amalek for eternity. Now what is the meaning of כֵּס [as opposed to כִּסֵא and also [why is] the Divine Name divided in half? [I.e., why is the Name יָ-הּ used instead of י-ה-ו-ה ?] [The answer is that] the Holy One, blessed be He, swore that His Name will not be complete and His throne will not be complete until the name of Amalek is completely obliterated. And when his name is obliterated, the Divine Name will be complete, and the throne will be complete, as it is said: “The enemy has been destroyed; swords exist forever (לָנֶצַח)” (Ps. 9:7); this [who they are referring to] is Amalek, about whom it is written: “and kept their fury forever (נֶצַח)” (Amos 1:11). "And You have uprooted the cities-their remembrance is lost" (Ps. 9:7) [i.e., Amalek’s obliteration]. What does it say afterwards? “And the Lord (וַיהוה) shall sit forever” (Ps. 9:8); thus [after Amalek is obliterated] the Name is complete. "He has established His throne (כִּסְאוֹ) for judgment" (Ps. 9:8). Thus the throne is complete [i.e., thus the throne, here spelled with an “aleph,” is now complete]. — [from Midrash Tanchuma, end of Ki Theitzei]
Amalek affects not only Hashem's name, but also his throne. Perhaps that is also why this week's Torah portion complements the discussion of the need to destroy altars and images of alien gods with a discussion of the ultimate place of G-d's throne, Jerusalem:
5. But only to the place which the Lord your God shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there.

6. And there you shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and your vows and your donations, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep.

7. And there you shall eat before the Lord, your God, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors you and your households, as the Lord, your God, has blessed you.
We find a similar parallel in Maimonides' ruling regarding who is Mashiach, the messiah (Laws of Kings and Wars 1:4):
If a king will arise from the House of David who diligently contemplates the Torah and observes its mitzvot as prescribed by the Written Law and the Oral Law as David, his ancestor, will compel all of Israel to walk in (the way of the Torah) and rectify the breaches in its observance, and fight the wars of God, we may, with assurance, consider him Mashiach.
If he succeeds in the above, builds the Temple in its place, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is definitely the Mashiach.
It is only after there is proper observance of Torah and the wars of G-d have been successfully fought, only can the Temple be built in its place. Then, as we say in the end of the Aleinu prayer, which concludes each of our daily services, "One that day, He will be One and His Name, One."

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Desert in Words: G-d's Committment to the Land, and the Torah Portion of Eikev

One of the main themes of this week's Torah portion is primarily about reward for following G-d's commandments. Last week's sixth Aliyah (reading) contained the first paragraph of the Shemah, and this week's portion contains the Shemah's second paragraph. It also contains a somewhat puzzling comment by Rashi.

The sixth aliyah has a few additional verses before reaching the part contained in the Shemah:

10. For the land to which you are coming to possess is not like the land of Egypt, out of which you came, where you sowed your seed and which you watered by foot, like a vegetable garden.
11. But the land, to which you pass to possess, is a land of mountains and valleys and absorbs water from the rains of heaven,

12. a land the Lord, your God, looks after; the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

13. And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments that I command you this day to love the Lord, your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul...

Rashi - And it will be, if you hearken: וְהָיָה (Vehayah) is referring to what is said above (verse 11):“and absorbs water from the rains of heaven”

Why does Rashi feel that it is necessary to note that Vehayah is referring back to verse 11 (describing rain) and not a continuation of the previous verse, about how Hashem's eyes are always upon the Land "from the beginning of the year to the end of the year?"

The answer, perhaps, is a simple one. As mentioned previously, much of this Torah portion is about a certain quid pro quo, reward and punishment. Rashi's comment serves to emphasize that G-d's eyes will always upon the Land. Unlike the rain, harvests, etc., this is not subject to change. G-d will always look after the Land in a very special way, no matter what.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Desert in Words: "Giving it All You've Got" and the Parashah of Va'etchanan

This week's Torah portion speaks of how Hashem pleaded with G-d to let him into the Land of Israel, so much so that Hashem had to tell him to stop asking. It also describes the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah, and concludes with the first paragraph of the Shemah:

4. Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one.
5. And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means.
6. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart.
7. And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.
8. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.

9. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.
(Deuteronomy, Chapter 6)

Rashi's comments on these verses are quite incisive. However, there is one in particular comment that stands out: "and with all your means: with all your possessions. There are people whose possessions are more precious to them than their own bodies. Therefore, it says, 'and with all your means.'" 

Rashi's comments are almost always a response to an inherent simple question that would bother a sharp five-year-old. The question here seems to be, "Why mention 'with all your means' at all? Wouldn't  'with all your heart and with all your soul' also imply with 'all your means' as well?" Especially since Rashi had just stated regardgin "with all your soul," that it means, "Even if He takes your soul." Rashi therefore answers that this is not necessarily the case because there are people whose possessions are more precious to them than their own bodies.

Interestingly, Rashi does not say that there are people whose possessions are more precious to them than their souls. That would appear to have been a more direct correlation with the previous verse. Why then does Rashi particularly state, "their bodies?"

Perhaps the answer is that what was bothering Rashi was a different question altogether. The verses of the Shemah appear related to three different dimensions of a person: intellectual/spiritual ("soul," which rests is in the mind"), emotional (heart) and physical ("means," action).

Rashi's inherent question then would have been: "Regarding the physical realm/dimension, why does the Torah state "your means," instead of "your body." Rashi than answers that a person can (and should) reach a level of involvement in the world in which their possessions are literally their  "means" in which to affect the world, and become more precious to them than their own body. 

This second way of understanding Rashi's inherent question would be a more positive way of interpreting Rashi's comment, and would appear to be in line with the Talmud's own statement in Chullin 91a regarding our forefather Jacob's going back across the river Jabok to pick up some small vessels he left behind. The Talmud states there that, "From here [we may infer] that the money of righteous people (Tzadikim) is more precious to them than their bodies." Jacob had crossed the river alone at night, when he encountered Esau's angel, who attacked him.

Encountering Esau's angel appears to have been a good thing to have happened to Jacob, because his victory over him is ultimately what gave him the confidence to face down Esau himself the following day. The Kli Yakar, however, disagrees, and sees Jacob's behavior as overly materialistic and Esau's angel attack as a punishment. The statement of the Talmud would then need to be interpreted as "even the money of Tzadikim can become more precious than their bodies." (http://vbm-torah.org/archive/salt-bereishit/08-15vayishlach.htm)

Regarding Rashi, the question remains. Is his statement regarding certain people viewing money being more precious than their bodies ultimately positive or negative? Is it talking about somebody who is overly materialistic or of someone who is so righteous that they see a higher purpose in their money? The fact that Rashi slightly changed the words of the Talmud and does not use the term "righteous" (Tzadik) but simply "Adam," man/person, suggests that he is in fact referring to both scenarios. This is also hinted at by the second part of this explanation to this verse:

Another explanation of וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ [and with all your means"] is: You shall love God with whatever measure (מִדָּה) He metes out to you, whether it be the measure of good or the measure of retribution. Thus also did David say: “I will lift up the cup of salvations [and I will call upon the name of the Lord]” (Ps. 116:12-13); “I found trouble and grief [and I called out in the name of the Lord]” (Ps. 116:3-4).

In both cases, whether you are a righteous individual and you "lift up the cup"  (elevating your posessions to holiness and bringing the world closer to G-d), or if instead you are still over materialistic and that causes you to be encountered by "trouble and grief"), either way you must love G-d. Love him with everything you've got.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Desert in Words: "All of Israel" and the Torah Portion of Devarim

This past week we began a new Book of the Torah: Devarim ("Words") in Hebrew. In keeping with the month of Av, and Tisha B'Av, which is upon us, the words that open the Book are actually words of rebuke. Rashi points out that the rebuke, however, is said quite indirectly.

א. אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר משֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף בֵּין פָּארָן וּבֵין תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת וְדִי זָהָב:

1. These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the side of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav.

Rashi: These are the words: Since these are words of rebuke and he [Moses] enumerates here all the places where they angered the Omnipresent, therefore it makes no explicit mention of the incidents [in which they transgressed], but rather merely alludes to them, [by mentioning the names of the places] out of respect for Israel (cf. Sifrei)

Rashi also notes that these words were said to every single person of Israel:

Rashi: to all Israel: If he had rebuked only some of them, those who were in the marketplace [i.e., absent] might have said, “You heard from [Moses] the son of Amram, and did not answer a single word regarding this and that; had we been there, we would have answered him!” Therefore, he assembled all of them, and said to them, “See, you are all here; if anyone has an answer, let him answer!” - [from Sifrei]

Rashi then starts listing each of the places mentioned in the above verse and relating it to each of the major sins of the Jews in the desert. There is, however, one apparent gap in Rashi's analysis. Rashi begins by mentioning "in the desert," as the first place, related to the sin of having angered Hashem in the desert. In the above verse, though, "in the desert," is not the first place mentioned. Rather, the first geographic position noted is, "on the side of the Jordan," in Hebrew, "בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן (B'Ever HaYarden)."

Why did Rashi not link this place to one of the sins of the Jewish people. The answer perhaps is that this one is a reference not to any particular, but to the whole. It appears to be connected to the previous part of the verse,  "to all Israel," as B'Ever HaYarden is reminiscent of the first partriarch of the Jewish people, Avraham Ha'Ivri (the Hebrew). Avraham is called Ha'Ivri because he stood on one side (believing in One G-d), while the entire world stood on the other. It may well also be a reference to the other side of the Jordan as well. The Jordan itself also symbolizes the all-encompassing whole. It runs from the Sea of Galilee, in the north of Israel all the way to its south, down to the Dead Sea.

There is however, also a hint to concept of the sins of Israel as a whole. The Hebrew word for Jordan, Yarden, is composed of the word Yarad (descended) and the final Nun, Nun-Sofit. The Nun is often associated with the word Nephilah, fall. However, the Nun is also associated with the redeemer, Moshe, and the final Nun with the final redeemer, Mashiach. (See Book 6, on the current, 14th cycle of 22 days of the year, here)

Every descent is only for the sake of a greater ascent. In order to learn how to walk, sometimes it is necessary to fall first. The main thing is to remain united, connected to the whole. If we do so, we are certain to merit

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