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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT NITZAVIM-VAYELEKH - SELIHOT
September 8, 2007 – 25 Elul 5767

Annual: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 1165; Hertz p. 878)
Triennial Cycle: Deuteronomy 31:7 – 31:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 1174; Hertz p. 888)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1180; Hertz p. 883)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

This week’s brief double-parashah opens with advice about significant choices. The Israelites, called upon formally to rededicate themselves to the covenant with God, are reminded that God knows each person’s innermost thoughts. Failure to fulfill the covenant inevitably will lead to disaster. The people always will have the opportunity to repent, to return to God, and to be redeemed from punishment and exile. The people are exhorted to choose life over death and good over evil by choosing to love God and to follow the proper path by fulfilling God’s laws and statutes.

Moses, while telling the people that he is nearing the end of his life, announces that Joshua will lead them into the Promised Land to conquer it from the peoples living there. He commands Joshua and the people to be strong and resilient in adhering to God’s word.

Procedures are set in place for writing down the Teaching and for making the people aware of its content at regular intervals.

The reading concludes with reference to a poem outlining the cycle of behavior that will follow the death of Moses, in which the people will turn astray from the covenant. This poem is to serve as a witness against the Israelites, or perhaps as a warning to them against disloyalty.

Topic #1: Universal Access to the Torah

Moses is quite clear in saying that religious study and observance are within the reach of all Jews.

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

Far from being a secretive, arcane, or mysterious document, the Torah is intended to be available to the people as a whole, not just to the select few. In the words of a contemporary Reform rabbi and scholar, W. Gunther Plaut:

The Torah belongs to, and therefore is the responsibility of, all the people. Clearly, the words of Deuteronomy 30:11-14 emphasize this principle and at the same time reject the notion that Torah is secret lore, accessible to a chosen few.

Israel had its priests, but, unlike those of Egypt’s temples or of Greece’s oracle places, their knowledge of God’s law was not exclusive. Because of their training, knowledge, and position, their decisions had superior weight (as did those of the Rabbis in post-biblical history). However, Israel’s priests dealt at all times with a law and a tradition available to all. This is the obvious meaning of verse 12: “(The Torah) is not in the heavens that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’” The text provides its own affirmation: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (verse 14).

In the religious traditions of antiquity such a commitment to universal accessibility was unique, and it had an even more profound effect on the Jewish people as the centuries passed. The study of Torah became the supreme preoccupation of the Jew; none was too humble to be excluded from the mitzvah of learning and none was too prominent to be excused from it. It was a command, averred the Mishnah, that outweighed all others, for everything flowed from it. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 1542)

How was spiritual knowledge imparted within other ancient religions?

It has been said that Rashi’s popular commentary on the Torah, written in the eleventh century, served to democratize the study of the Torah by placing it within the reach of many more Jews. Do you agree? In what ways do we continue the concept of Torah being open to all? Do you have any suggestions for the further democratization of Torah study in the twenty-first century? Does the idea of democratization mean that all comments should be equally accepted or studied? Are there measures that can be applied to keep the standards high?

Topic #2: Hak-Hel: Passing on Torah to the Next Generation

On the verge of the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land, as part of his own leave-taking, Moses directs the people to read the Teaching aloud, publicly, at regular intervals. The Hebrew word for the command to gather the people is “hak-hel,” related to the more familiar nouns “kahal” (congregation) and “kehilah” (community).

And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather (hak-hel) the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land which you are about to cross the Jordan to possess it. (Deuteronomy 31:10-13)

The term “Teaching” in this passage is an English translation of the Hebrew word “torah.” However, because Hebrew does not use capital letters, we cannot know whether this passage is telling us to read the entire Torah (Five Books) aloud, or simply to read a particular Teaching that is a subset of the Torah.

In any case, it is clear that the perpetuation of Judaism depends upon each generation receiving our shared traditions anew. Moreover, we must study as adults as well, lest our Judaism be nothing more than a child-like understanding of how to face life’s complex issues. Ezra, who lived in the fifth century B.C.E., seems to have understood this need on two levels. First, he held a public reading as outlined above. (See Nehemiah, Chapter 8.) Second (as understood in the Talmud, Bava Kamma 82a), he instituted weekly readings from the Torah. To this day, Jews around the world read the Torah every Shabbat, in a cycle that completes the entire Torah on a regular basis (in one or three years). Ezra is also thought to have played an important role in establishing brief Torah readings on Shabbat afternoon, Monday morning, and Thursday morning.

What advantage(s) do you see in reading the Torah to the people in a formal ceremony once every seven years? Do you see any educational disadvantages? What is the best way to keep the messages of the Torah fresh in our minds?

Are there advantages in subdividing the Torah into weekly installments?

Note that we publicly underscore our connection to the Torah in at least two ways:

  1. We read from the Torah every Shabbat morning, in the middle of the service.
  2. We sing and dance in celebration on Simhat Torah, as we prepare to undertake once again our commitment to another cycle of Torah reading.
  3. Many of us dramatize our receptivity to the study of Torah by taking part in special all-night study sessions on Shavuot.

 
 
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