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Torah Sparks

July 31, 2010 - 20 Av 5770

Annual (Deut. 7:12-11:25): Etz Hayim p. 1037; Hertz p. 780
Triennial (Deut. 10:12-11:25): Etz Hayim p. 1048; Hertz p. 789
Haftarah (Isaiah 49:14-51:3): Etz Hayim p. 1057; Hertz p. 794

Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Moses tells the people that if they obey the commandments, God will reward them. With God's help they are to destroy the Canaanite nations and to take particular care in demolishing all their idols.

Moses calls on the Israelites to remember both the hardships of the wilderness years and how God provided for them there. Be very careful, he tells them, that once you enter the good land you do not forget that God is still the source of all you have. Abandoning God's commandments can lead only to tragedy.

Moses reminds the people that nothing that God has done and will do for them is a reward for their virtue and merits. He speaks about the many times when they defied and angered God, most notably the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses describes how he prayed for mercy for the people, so that God ultimately responded by inscribing a second set of tablets to replace the ones that Moses shattered.

Moses again charges the Israelites to keep God's commandments and teaches them the second paragraph of the Shema.

1. Fear Itself

And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere [elsewhere, fear] the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. (Deuteronomy 10:12)

  1. In the Bible there are many references both to the love of God and the fear of God but nowhere is a clear distinction made between the two. They both seem to express an especially intense relationship with God, especially as realized in terms of high ethical conduct. The fear of God in the Bible frequently refers to an extraordinary degree of piety and moral worth... In medieval thought a distinction is made between two types of fear. The first is yirat ha-onesh, “fear of punishment,” fear of the consequences of wrong-doing. The second and more elevated is yirat ha-romemut, “fear in the presence of the exalted majesty of God,” the dread and awe the creature feels when confronted with the splendor of the Creator. (Rabbi Louis Jacobs, A Jewish Theology, p. 174)
  2. The Hebrew word used for “fear” (from the root yareh) can also be translated as “awe” or “revere”; in other words, the Torah commands us to revere God and experience a feeling of awe at His grandeur. The medieval Jewish philosopher Joseph Albo offers the following example: “The God-fearing man is ashamed to transgress God's commandments just as a person is ashamed to do an unbecoming thing in the presence of... a respected and wise old man who has a reputation for learning, character, and dignity” (Sefer Ha-Ikarim, [The Book of Principles of the Jewish Faith]). That fear of God should be more akin to awe and reverence than to terror is also suggested by the contemporary Jewish theologian Rabbi Louis Jacobs: “The fear of punishment is not really fear of God, but fear of what He might do. It is a kind of self-interest in which wrongdoing is eschewed from the same motives for which insurance premiums are kept up to date. . . in its worst form [it] conceives of God as a tyrant ready to pounce on those guilty of the slightest infringement of His laws.” (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume I, You Shall Be Holy, p. 487)
  3. Do not be like servants who serve their master expecting to receive a reward; be rather like servants who serve their master unconditionally, with no thought of reward. Also, let the fear of God determine your actions. (Pirkei Avot 1:3)
  4. When Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai fell ill, his disciples came in to visit him... and said to him: Our master, bless us. He replied: May it be God's will that the fear of Heaven shall be [as great] upon you as the fear of flesh and blood. His disciples asked: Is that all? He replied: Would that you might attain even this much fear! You can see for yourselves the truth of what I say - when a man is about to commit a transgression, he says, “I hope no man will see me.” (Talmud Berakhot 28b)

Sparks for Discussion

Many people assume that yirat shamayim, fear of Heaven, is a primitive notion having to do with a jealous God who is eager to punish violations of the commandments. How much does fear of punishment contribute to your understanding of yirat shamayim? How much does awe contribute? Have you ever experienced yirat shamayim? How did that experience impact your religious life? How would you explain what it means to fear God? If the term were translated as awe of heaven, would that change your feelings about it?

2. Bribing God

For the Lord your God is God supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe. (Deuteronomy 10:17)

  1. Takes no bribe - to appease Him with money. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. How could one possibly associate God with monetary bribes? The implication of this comment by Rashi is that one cannot buy Divine forgiveness for wicked deeds by giving large donations to charity. (K'tav Sofer (Rabbi Abraham Samuel Benjamin Schreiber), 1815-1875, Hungary)
  3. “What need have I of all your sacrifices?” says the Lord... Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; they are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them. And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime - Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; and the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defense the cause of the widow. (Isaiah 1:11, 14-17)
  4. He will not reduce the punishment for a transgression because of the merit of a mitzvah which the sinner performed... And all this teaches us that if we sin, we cannot rely on any merit to save us from punishment - except perfect repentance. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  5. Our masters taught: “Do not take bribes” (Exodus 23:8). It goes without saying that a bribe of money is prohibited, but even a bribe of beguiling words is prohibited, for Scripture does not say, “Do not take [monetary] gain.” (Talmud Ketubot 105b)

Sparks for Discussion

Who would ever think that God could be bribed with money? Our commentators understand this verse to mean that God cannot be “bribed” with good deeds or sacrifices to ignore a person's sins. How common is the belief that a person can earn a pass for bad behavior through prayer and charity? Some people make promises to God (“I'll go to shul every week”) if only He would grant their requests. Is this a form of (attempted) bribery? Why do you think people make these promises? How often do you think they actually keep them? Why do people continue to try to bribe God?

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