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Torah Sparks

September 24, 2005 - 20 Elul 5765

Annual: Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8 (Etz Hayim, p. 1140; Hertz p. 859)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 26:1 - 27:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 1140; Hertz p. 859)
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1 - 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 1161; Hertz p. 874)

Prepared by Rabbi Daniel A. Ornstein
Congregation Ohav Shalom, Albany, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Where We Are in the Torah

This week's portion is Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8, the seventh in the book. It coincides with the sixth of seven Shabbatot of Consolation that follow Tisha B'Av and precede Rosh Hashanah.


In Ki Tavo, Moshe commands the Israelites to offer their first fruits to God in the presence of the priests, out of gratitude. A special liturgy is noted for the first fruits offering. Moshe also commands them to recite a special declaration following the removal of all tithes from each household at the end of each three year time period within the seven year sabbatical cycle. Most of the portion contains a list of rewards and punishments the Israelites will receive for following or violating the covenant with God. This long passage is one of two versions of the Tochecha, verses of reproof that come at the end of the law codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

The First Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield in the third year, the year of the tithe, and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill within your gates, you shall declare before the Lord your God: "I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments… I have done just as You commanded me. Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, (as You swore to our fathers.)" (26:12-13, 15)

  • From The Mishnah, (Jewish Oral Tradition), Tractate Maaser Sheni, 5:12-5:13 - I HAVE DONE JUST AS YOU HAVE COMMANDED ME: I have rejoiced and have caused others to rejoice therewith. (End of 5:12) LOOK DOWN FROM YOU HOLY ABODE, FROM HEAVEN: We have done what You, God, decreed for us. Now, You also do what you have promised us. LOOK DOWN FROM YOUR HOLY ABODE, FROM HEAVEN, AND BLESS YOUR PEOPLE ISRAEL: With sons and daughters. AND THE SOIL YOU HAVE GIVEN TO US: With dew, with rain, and with the young of cattle.
  • From The Commentary of Rashi, (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, France and Germany 1040-1104), To Deuteronomy, 26:12 - THAT THEY MAY eat their fill WITHIN YOUR GATES: Give them, (the above groups of disadvantaged people), enough to satisfy them. (Rashi then teaches the law about the minimum amount of grain to be left for the poor on the threshing floor.)
  • From Sefer Oheiv Yisrael, (The Hasidic Torah Commentary of Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, Poland, died 1825) - THAT THEY MAY eat their fill WITHIN YOUR GATES: The term WITHIN YOUR GATES seems superfluous. (We already know that these disadvantaged people are eating within the gates of their neighbors.) This additional phrase teaches us the following. The essence of giving to the poor is not to satisfy their hunger completely, because this kind of satisfaction can only be accomplished by God. As with every matter, divine compassion must first be awakened from below (through the conscious human action of giving to the poor). Then God willingly opens the gates of flowing divine blessing and abundance (that fully satisfies the poor). This then is the meaning of the term WITHIN YOUR GATES. If, when you give to the poor, your spiritual intention in doing so is to open the gates of divine blessing on their behalf, then they will eat their fill. They will be completely satisfied.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. For more information about the three year tithing cycle read Deuteronomy 14:22-29. What were the social and moral goals of tithing legislation?
  2. The Mishnah emphasizes the importance of causing others to rejoice when you are doing so. Why help others in need as part of your joy and celebration? Read on line about the philosophy of a group like Mazon which asks everyone having a simcha to make a donation that will help others in need. (such as
  3. One commentator, (The Sefer HaChinuch) taught that the above tithing declaration is founded upon the uniqueness of human speech. Because speech makes us distinct from other animals, God commands us to use it to insure that what we say will facilitate the fulfillment of what God asks us to do. How/does speech influence our actions? When does talk become cheap?
  4. Explain the different approaches of Rashi and Rabbi Heschel to feeding the poor to the point of satisfaction.
  5. Is society required only to provide minimal levels of support for the poor, or is it duty bound to follow Rashi and satisfy each poor person per his or her needs?
  6. Rabbi Heschel's idea about awakening the flow of divine blessing through earthly human action is an ancient notion found in Jewish mysticism: Only God can do certain things, but only the actions of each person can "awaken" that divine power and blessing. Do you believe that individuals have this kind of power and partnership with God? Even if we do not accept this idea literally how can we adapt it seriously as a philosophy of life and human initiative for healing the world?
  7. Note how the Mishnah focuses on the tithe declaration as a "reminder toGod" of the mutuality of our relationship with God: "We did our part -- You do Yours." Is this expectation of divine reward a good or sufficient reason for our doing right?

The Second Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him. And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments. (26:17-18)

  • From The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, 6a - YOU HAVE AFFIRMED THIS DAY THAT THE LORD IS YOUR GOD… AND THE LORD HAS AFFIRMED THIS DAY THAT YOU ARE… HIS TREASURED PEOPLE. The Holy One, Blessed Be He said to the Jewish people, "You did Me a good turn in this world, as it is written, HEAR O ISRAEL, THE LORD OUR GOD, THE LORD IS ONE. (Deuteronomy 6:4) Therefore, I will do you a good turn in this world, as it is written, AND (GOD), WHO IS LIKE YOUR PEOPLE ISRAEL, A NATION SINGLED OUT UPON THE EARTH? (I Chronicles 17:21)
  • From Or Hachayyim (Torah Commentary of Rabbi Chayyim ben Attar, Morocco, 1696-1743) - AND THE LORD HAS AFFIRMED THIS DAY: That we are to be God's chosen people. Even if another nation should come along that does good and strives to cling to God, that nation would never reach the spiritual level of the Jewish people. This is what being chosen is all about, and this is what constitutes the greatness of the Jewish people. This passage also means that even during a time when the Jewish people angers God, God will not exchange them for a relationship with another people.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is the Jewish concept of being chosen?
  2. Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, felt that the concept of being chosen was supremacist and impeded Jews from a more universal, humanistic perspective on the world. How do or can we understand being chosen in a way that affirms Jewish uniqueness without promoting bigotry?
  3. If we are not engaged in a special relationship with the choosing God, does Jewish identity lose its meaning and distinctiveness?
  4. As a 17th century Moroccan Kabbalist, Rabbi ben Attar was probably not inclined towards a more universalist approach to other nations' relationships with God. However, what, if any, more universalistic or humanistic possibilities does his comment open up for modern readers?
  5. Leaders of our Conservative Movement have often taught the idea of multiple covenants: our covenant with God never ends, but this does not preclude God from relating to others at the same time. Discuss this idea.
  6. The Talmudic passage reminds us that our relationship with God was as much about us doing the choosing as about God doing the choosing. What does it mean for us, as individuals and as the Jewish people, to choose God? What, if anything, does Jewish history teach us about the meaning and results of our relationship with God?

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