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Torah Sparks

September 26, 2009 – 8 Tishrei 5770

Annual: Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 1185; Hertz p. 896)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 1185; Hertz p. 896)
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2 – 10; Joel 2:15 – 27; Micah 7:18 – 20 (Etz Hayim, p. 1235; 1236; 1239; Hertz p. 891; 893; 892)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Moses recites the poem God had instructed him to write down and teach to the people. It begins with words of moral teaching, contrasting the virtue of God to the wickedness of Israel. It then tells of God’s goodness to Israel, Israel’s prosperity and rebellion, and God’s punishment for Israel’s breaking the covenant. Finally, the poem recounts God’s mercy, promising that God will save His people from their enemies.

Moses reads the poem to the people and warns them to take it to heart. God tells Moses to ascent Mount Nebo. He will be allowed to see the Promised Land from there before he dies.

1. The Real Thirst-Quencher

May my discourse come down as the rain, my speech distill as the dew, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass. (Deuteronomy 32:2)

  1. The hallowed words of the Torah may be likened to rain. While the rain falls we still cannot see the benefit it brings to the trees, the plants, and the soil. It is only later, when the sun shines again, that we see what the rain has wrought. We find the same to be true with regard to the words of the Torah. While they are uttered we still cannot see what they will accomplish on earth, but in the end all will know what they have wrought. (Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha, 1765-1827, Poland)
  2. “Like showers on the young growth.” Just as these showers come down on the young growth and cause them to grow – some of them red, some green, some black, and some white – so it is with the words of Torah. Some men [who study it] are wise, some are wealthy, some are righteous, and some are pious. (Sifrei, Piska 306)
  3. Even as rain gives life to the world, so words of Torah give life to the world. But while some people in the world rejoice in rain, others are grieved by it. Thus he whose pit or vat is full of wine, or his threshing floor full of grain, is distressed by rain. Is the same true of words of Torah? [No, indeed], for Scripture goes on to say, “My speech distill as the dew.” As all people in the world – all – rejoice in dew, so all people in the world, in all of it, rejoice in words of Torah. (Sifrei, Piska 306)
  4. Rain enables plants to grow only if the area has been plowed and sowed first, whereas if the area has not been planted all that the rain produces is mud. The same is true for Torah thoughts. They improve a person whose mind has been properly plowed and sowed, but if a person has not been prepared for them, they cause more damage than good. Thus, if a person is worthy, the Torah is an elixir of life, whereas if he is not worthy it is poisonous. (Ma’ayanah shel Torah, Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friendman, 1897-1943, Poland)

Sparks for Discussion

The rabbis often compare Torah to water – as water descends from heaven, so Torah descends from heaven; as water is free for all, so Torah is free for all; as water is priceless, so Torah is priceless, etc. Can you think of other similarities? Since water is now a branded consumer product rather than a commodity, how might this new way of seeing water influence how we see Torah?

Sometimes rain is not only unwelcome but destructive. Is it possible for Torah to be harmful? How? What do you think Ma’ayanah shel Torah means by “if he is not worthy it is poisonous”?

2. God, Our Mother

You neglected the Rock that begot you, forgot the God who brought you forth [m’hol’lekhah]. (Deuteronomy 32:18)

  1. M’hol’lekhah – that brought you forth from the womb, as in the expression “causes hinds to calve” -- y’holel aiyalot (Psalm 29:9) and “a trembling like a woman in the throes of labor” – hil kayoleidah (Psalm 48:7) (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Many contemporary Jewish feminists have been sharply critical of the dominant masculine, hierarchical images of God in traditional Jewish texts. This attack has taken two complementary tracks: first, an aggressive program for replacing masculine pronouns for God with gender-neutral or even explicitly feminine forms. God is now referred to as “She,” as “She/He,” as “S/he,” by alternating “He” and “She” in different paragraphs, or by simply avoiding the use of any personal pronoun for God. Hebrew second-person pronouns for God, which differ depending on whether the speaker is addressing a male or a female (atah for a man, at for a woman), also are changed.

    The second, more radical strategy is to search for metaphors for God that are perceived to be more explicitly feminine. One of the more popular is Mekor HaChayim, God is “the fountain of life” or “the source of life.” Implicit in this image is the notion of God birthing the world. More radical metaphors reflect the sense of God as Goddess...

    Not surprisingly, more traditionalist readers have labeled all of these proposals simple paganism.

    The core of the feminist critique is the conviction that the issue is not simply one of language. The language we use reflects and in turn shapes the way we construct our experience of the world. [Judith] Plaskow acknowledges that all of these images of God are humanly crafted metaphors, but our metaphors emerge out of specific cultural and political contexts. When these contexts change, the old metaphors must change with them. (Rabbi Neil Gillman, The Way Into Encountering God in Judaism, pp. 83-84)

Sparks for Discussion

Rashi offers a startling image – an unambiguously female God giving birth. While we know that God is neither male nor female, our language doesn’t accommodate such a concept. Some people solve the problem by refusing to use pronouns for God – e.g., when God revealed God’s Torah – but that only works in English. In Hebrew, all nouns and their accompanying verbs and adjectives are either masculine or feminine.

Does male-only God-language bother you? Under what circumstances? When you pray? When you study the Torah and other texts? All the time? How do you feel about using God/She? Our Mother, our Queen? Goddess? What words do you use when you think and talk about God?

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