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Torah Sparks

July 25, 2009 – 4 Av 5769

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 Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Sefer Devarim takes the form of Moses’ farewell speech to the people he has led for 40 years. It contains an overview of the history of the wilderness years, a review and elaboration of the statutes and ordinances of the Torah, and Moses’ final blessing and his death.

This initial parasha focuses on history. Moses begins by describing how he appointed judges and officers to help him lead the people. He then reminds the Israelites about what happened the first time they were about to enter the land. After the spies’ report caused the people to panic and refuse to proceed, God became angry and decreed that the generation of the Exodus would die in the wilderness. God also decreed that Moses would not enter the land.

Moses then reviews recent events – the victories over Sihon, king of Heshbon, and Og, king of Bashan. He describes how their territory was given to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh.

1. The Anti-Bully Pulpit

And charge the people as follows: You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendents of Esau, who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to provoke them... (Devarim 2:4-5)

  1. And what is meant by “be very careful”? Do not provoke them. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, “If when they were afraid of us the Holy Blessed One told us to be very careful, now that we are in exile, surrounded by them, all the more so!” (Midrash Lekakh Tov)
  3. They will not attack you, but be very careful not to allow yourselves to take any liberties with them. Or rather, they fear that they may have to suffer a great deal at your hands; they imagine that you must be starved after your long wandering in the desert where you were deprived of everything, and now when for the first time again come into inhabited regions, you will greedily jump on everything. Contain yourselves, and show them just the opposite of what they fear. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  4. The new generation, “unaccustomed to degradation and bondage,” was now to be confronted not with the test of courage involved in the stand of the weak versus the strong that their forebears had failed.… The new generation, full of their own strength and vigor, had to learn to practice self-control and curb their own aggressiveness aroused by the very fear displayed by the weaker neighbor. (Nehama Leibowitz, “Studies in Devarim,” pp 28, 29)
  5. Bullies are typically motivated by a need to address their own insecurities and feelings of weakness or incompetence. They seek out vulnerable “targets” whom they victimize with harassment, physical violence, or humiliation. Intimidating others gives bullies a sense of superiority and power that helps them compensate for their own perceived deficiencies. They thrive on exposing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of others... From this perspective, we can understand what our rabbis meant when they said that a truly wise person is “insulted, but never responds in kind.” The notion of the comeback is foreign to the righteous individual. Because he feels confident and secure in who he is and what he believes, he is not fazed, let alone intimidated, by the fists or words of would-be bullies. And for this very reason, after a while, potential bullies lose all interest in pursuing him. (Rabbi Joshua Maroof, Moment Magazine, March/April 2008)

Sparks for Discussion

Midrash Lekakh Tov understands the warning not to provoke the descendents of Esau as a way for Jews to protect themselves from persecution. Our other commentators see it as a warning to the Israelites to control themselves and not indulge their aggressive desires. Which makes more sense to you? Do you think most people will behave aggressively if they think they can get away with it?

Bullying is not a problem just in the schoolyard. In a recent study, approximately one-third of adults reported being bullied in the workplace at some point in their careers. What type of bullying have you experienced or witnessed? Have you ever been tempted to be a bully? Do you agree with Rabbi Maroof that the best response to a bully is no response? What strategies can you think of to reduce the incidents of bullying, both of children and of adults?

2. The Mitzvah of Shopping

What food you eat you shall obtain from them for money; even the water you drink you shall procure from them for money. 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. (Devarim 2:6-7)

  1. “You have lacked nothing.” Hence, they will realize that you are not buying necessary things, but your purchases are motivated (solely) by brotherly feelings, so that they might have benefit (from you). Another reason is that they will come to your (camp) and observe the deeds of God and His wonders. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  2. “The Lord your God has blessed you.” Therefore do not be ungrateful for His kindness by appearing as though you were poor, but show yourselves wealthy. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  3. “In all your undertakings” Even those things that you did not receive directly from God, like manna and water, such as clothing, etc., He paid attention to your wanderings in the wilderness and directed His protective care thereto. The descendents of Esau shall get an idea of God and His unlimited powers by their contact with this people, who had been provided with everything by God during the whole of their 40 years wandering through the wilderness and their consequent behavior, so contrary to all that had been expected and feared from them. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  4. The Torah teaches good manners. If a man travels in a strange country and has his food and drink with him, he should, nevertheless, not eat and drink what he has brought with him, he should put it aside and buy what he wants from the shopkeepers, in order to improve trade. And so Moses said to the king of Edom, “The well is with us, but we will not drink its waters; and the manna which we have, we will not eat. You shall not say that we are nothing but trouble to you for you will do business for yourself.” (Tanhuma (Buber) Hukkat)

Sparks for Discussion

Our commentators wonder: If God had provided for all the material needs of the Israelites for 40 years, why does He now tell them to buy their provisions from the descendents of Esau? Was it to make the residents of Seir more favorably disposed to this large population because it would be a source of significant profits? Was it to be an outreach effort, showing them how well God treated those who served Him? Or, as Rashi suggests, was the lesson meant for the Israelites – namely, that spending can be an act of gratitude?

These days we hear a lot about buying locally, largely in connection with buying food at farmers’ markets and similar places to reduce the environmental impact of packaging and transportation. What other good reasons might there be for buying from local merchants and producers? Today, it’s easy to use the internet to find not only low prices but also almost endless variety for almost everything we buy. What happens to local merchants – and local government tax revenues – when more and more people do most of their shopping online? What about the ethics of using local stores to investigate products and then, once you know exactly what you want, going online to buy it at the lowest possible price? Is it a mitzvah to do a least some shopping locally?

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