Friday, July 30, 2010

"AN ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE" - comments on Parashat Eikev, 5770

Dear Friends,

I offer here the remarks prepared for this evening's Shabbat service.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

With midterm election predictions already consuming our attention I am reminded of the American congressman who, upon soliciting a constituent’s vote, learns that the man is planning to vote for his opponent. “But how can you do that?” the congressman objects. “Don’t you remember that time ten years ago when your business burned down, and I arranged for you to get a low-interest loan? And what about five years ago, when your daughter got in trouble overseas, and I arranged for her to be released and sent back to the United States? And what about last summer, when your wife was sick, and I helped her get admitted under the care of the world’s leading expert?” The voter answers, “Yes, yes, but what have you done for me lately?”

It is this condition of “what have you done for me lately?” that prompts Moses to address the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev. “The Eternal your God is bringing you into a good land,” Moses begins, “A land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of grapevines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and date honey [the celebrated ‘seven species’]; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal your God for the good land given you” (Deut. 8:7-10). This last line, by the way--v’achalta v’savata u’veirachta et Adonai Elohecha al ha-aretz asher natan lach--is interpreted as instructing us to say Birkat Ha-Mazon, grace after meals.

“When you have eaten your fill,” Moses continues, “and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Eternal your God--who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its venomous serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your ancestors had never known…. Remember that it is the Eternal your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that God made on oath with your ancestors, as is still the case" (Deut. 8:12-18).

Scholars of the Bible have demonstrated that much of Deuteronomy was composed not contemporaneously with the lifetime of Moses but rather centuries after the Israelites had settled in the land of Israel. The difference of perspective is important. For even though the text would have us picture Moses addressing the tired and poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of the wilderness on the teeming shore of the Jordan--that is to say, the original Jewish immigrants--in fact we glean that the intended audience of this literature comprised a prosperous landowning class settled comfortably in fine houses, with manifold flocks and huge herds, coffers filled to overflowing--a Jewish people whose biggest problems do not resemble the problems of an immigrant generation, but rather whose biggest problems look more or less like our own. With this intended audience does the Torah warn against saying, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’”

The month of Elul approaches, and when Elul ends the New Year begins. In preparation for the Days of Awe many of us make a point to spend Elul in contemplation so that we can identify the spiritual work that is needed in order to make whole that which is broken. In the course of a year, our priorities, and the people we care about, and the Divine Presence itself, can become estranged from us. Such recognition may lead us to consider where we’ve gone wrong.

But this Elul I want us to start by counting our blessings. There will be time enough for the counting of sins.

We need to count our blessings. We work hard and we deserve what success we earn. But in congratulating ourselves we often perpetuate the myth of the self-made man, the self-made woman. We come to believe what has been written: “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” We forget the teachers and mentors, the masters of our trade who taught us everything we know, the people with good connections who took an interest in us and cultivated our skills, maybe got us our first jobs. The parents, relatives, friends who made so much possible; the immigrant generation of our families whose foresight (or simple fortune) brought us to these shores that in turn brought unprecedented opportunity and acclaim to the Jewish people; an American government that permitted us to flourish in a land teeming with promise. And we forget the Holy One, in whose image we draw the power to think and build and procreate and tend a good earth; the Holy One in whose image we draw the inspiration to love and share and teach and learn.

I am asking us to cultivate an attitude of gratitude where too often there festers a culture of kvetch.

My faith does not blind me to hardship. In this sweltering summer of our discontent I see that much gives cause for despair. All too soon we move on from the environmental Holocaust in the Gulf while our government lazes about in its complacency on climate change. I am not preaching a blithe thankfulness that ignores reality. I am suggesting that cultivating an attitude of gratitude will not only attune us to what’s good and beautiful and holy in the world, but will also heighten our sensitivity to what’s wrong and broken and in need of repair. A person who wakes up each day offering a prayer of thanks for an air-conditioned bedroom and clean running water is less likely to stand idly while the Gulf bleeds and the atmosphere wheezes.

Cultivating gratitude may not make you feel better about the world, but it will certainly make you feel better about yourself. And “if you cannot be grateful for what you have received,” goes a Yiddish proverb, “be grateful for what you have been spared.” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin suggests that we post this proverb in a prominent place and make a list, accordingly. And he goes on to share a letter he once received from a person who responded to this challenge, and with its words I conclude my own. The gentleman’s list is seven items long and I think that is a perfect target range for your own.

1. I am in good health and the chronic disease I do have is treatable by medication. I know that had I lived a century ago, before this medication was discovered, I would be long dead. That thought alone spares me from na├»vely romanticizing the ‘good old days’; they would not have been good for me.

2. My children have good characters and are intelligent. Some of them have problems in school and problems with self-discipline, but they are kind and lovable people.

3. My wife knows my faults and still loves me, and I know her faults and love and cherish her. We trust that the other truly cares about us, and strives to help when the other is in need.

4. In a world filled with poverty, I am able to support my family. My life would be easier and less tense if I earned more money or my expenses were lower, but our basic needs are met, and there is enough money to make donations to charity….

5. I love my work, and I thank God that I can earn my living doing something that interests and inspires me, and which I think makes the world better.

6. I have close friends whom I love and trust. Since my childhood, I have always had deep friendships, and those friendships have made me feel secure, and have helped make my life interesting.

7. And, perhaps most important, I believe that there is a God Who knows me. Who cares about me, and Who hears my prayers. If I lost my faith, my life would seem meaningless and goodness purposeless. Fortunately my faith in a God Who knows and cares about me has grown deeper over the years, and for this I am grateful (as cited in Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume I: You Shall Be Holy, pp. 110-111).

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

JEWISH MATH! Ruminations on Parashat Va'etchanan

Shalom, faithful readers!

Something a bit different this week: a chance to look at the themes of ADDITION AND SUBTRACTION in the Torah! Our Torah portion, Va'etchanan (Deut. 3:23 - 7:11), includes a curious verse:

"You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you" (Deuteronomy 4:2).
(Translation from the Hebrew: JPS, 1999).

How do we understand this verse?
In what cases has post-Biblical Jewish tradition (Classical Rabbinic tradition, Mystical (Kabbalistic) tradition, and Reform Jewish tradition) deviated from this twofold precept? How has post-Biblical Judaism both ADDED to and SUBTRACTED from the dictates of the Torah? Give examples of Jewish "ADDITION" and "SUBTRACTION," if you can.

Or, can it be said that we have neither substantively ADDED to or SUBTRACTED from the writ of Torah, but rather have CONSERVED / PRESERVED it, on balance?

After you've considered these questions, you'll get EXTRA CREDIT (!) for reading the following texts in your weeklong study of Parashat Va'etchanan. Happy Studying and see you on Shabbat!

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Deuteronomy 13:1
Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.
(Translation from the Hebrew: JPS, 1999).

Proverbs 30:5-6
Every word of God is pure,
A shield to those who take refuge in Him.
Do not add to His words,
Lest He indict you and you be proved a liar.
(Translation from the Hebrew: JPS, 1999).

RaSHI to Genesis 3:3 (Based on Bereshit Rabbah 19:3).
“And you must not touch it.” She added to the command, and therefore was led to taking away from it. For it is said: “Do not add to His words” (Prov. 30:6).
“You will not, in fact, die!” He [the serpent] kept pushing her until she touched it, and then said to her: “Just as there is no death in touching, so too is there no death in eating!”
(Translation from the Hebrew: J. Blake).

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 89a (Mishna)
There is greater stringency with respect to the words of the Scribes than with the words of the Torah. If one were to say: “There’s no [commandment concerning] Tefillin,” in order to transgress the Torah’s words, he is exempt [from liability for punishment]. [But if one were to say that there should be] five compartments, thus adding to the words of the Scribes, he is liable.
(Translation from the Hebrew: J. Blake).

Pirkei Avot 1:1
Moses received Torah at Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment; and raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah.
(Translation from the Hebrew: J. Blake).

Bereshit Rabbah 19:3
It is written: “Do not add to His words, lest He indict you and you be proved a liar” (Prov. 30:6). Rabbi Hiyya taught: this means that you must not make the fence greater than the main thing, lest it topple over and cut down the plants.
(Translation from the Hebrew: J. Blake).

Maggid of Dubno (Chasidic)
Sometimes adding leads to diminishing. If we demand too much, people may be driven to stop observing even what they currently do.
(Cited in H. Kushner, ed., D’rash Commentary, Etz Hayim (2000), to Deut. 4:2).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Comments on Parashat Devarim by Guest Blogger Deborah M.

Our nice little summer custom of inviting members of our congregation to share their study of Torah continues this week with comments by Torah Study "regular" Deborah M. who will lead us this coming Saturday as we begin the new book of Devarim / Deuteronomy.

Thank you, Deborah!


This coming Shabbat we encounter the first parsha of the book Devarim, the beginning of Moses’ final address on the banks of the Jordan. The Hebrew name of the book of course derives from the opening sentence, “these are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel….” The English name, Deuteronomy, has its origin in the Greek translation (Deuteronomium = second law) of the Hebrew phrase that occurs in v. 17:18, “mishnei hatorah”, usually rendered in English as a “copy” or “repetition” of the Torah. The Sages refer to the book as Mishneh Torah. (Mishneh Torah is also the title of a halakhic compendium by Moses Maimonides.) Indeed at first glance a great deal of the content seems to be a rehash of laws already delineated in the preceding books, although there are some new ones, and some of the old ones are cast slightly differently.

When viewed through a modern critical lens, the actual Mosaic authorship of Devarim may be in doubt. But theologically speaking, the weight of classical rabbinic opinion, though by no means unanimous, favors placing this book in a somewhat special category, because Moses functions as the author, not just the stenographer. Devarim is consistently stylistically different from the first four books; notably absent is the previously commonplace phrase, “the Lord spoke to Moses, saying…” In just the first 5 verses of this book are these 3 phrases: “these are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel,” “Moses addressed the Israelites…” and “Moses undertook to expound this teaching.” Moses speaks here in the first person. Midrash points out that the three books after Breishit all begin with the letter vav, (and), indicating that each is a continuation of the book that precedes it. Not so Devarim, which is understood to be the introduction of a new speaker. Contrast the opener, “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel…” with the last sentence of Shemot occurring immediately before: “these are the commandments and regulations that the Lord enjoined upon the Israelites…. “ The idea is that Moses is now speaking his own words, recounting history and lending his interpretation and explanation to his listeners. He is not just repeating Torah, he is teaching it (in 70 languages, no less, according to Rashi.) For the first time Moses is not simply a passive conduit of the word of Hashem; rather he has evolved from the reluctant leader “slow of tongue” to the eloquent rabbeinu. (This interpretation also holds that although Moses initiated the words, it was divinely ordained that they should be inscribed as part of the of written Torah.) In a figurative sense Devarim can be viewed as the bridge to an oral tradition (which ultimately gets written down), a hallmark of classic Judaic study and learning.

As Rabbi Perlin points out in her URJ commentary this week, when we study Devarim, “we get to know [Moses] better through what he picks and chooses of memories and laws to impart to his people, to us.” We may want to consider what differences arise in his recasting of laws and history compared to their earlier representations for what it can tell us about the man, or alternatively about those who felt these words should be attributed to him.

One last thought. In his Commentary on the Torah, Elliott Friedman notes, “when the Torah pictures Moses ending his life in words, he imitates and prefigures the transformation of the human experience of God that will occur in the Bible.” In other words, as Torah reveals our story, miracles and obvious physical manifestations of divine presence occur with decreasing frequency over time. Eventually these events are not apparent to us and we come to experience the word of God through the words of Torah, recited, studied and celebrated publicly and privately.

I look forward to continuing that process with you this coming Shabbat.

...So do we!


Friday, July 9, 2010

Musings on Matot-Mas'ei by Guest Blogger David S.

Dear Friends,
I'm back from Spain and grateful to WRT congregant and Torah Study "regular" David S. who supplies us with this week's exploration!

I apologize that the outline format of the original document did not translate well on the blog, and so the numbering is kooky. You'll figure it out!

Shabbat Shalom!
Jonathan Blake

WRT Torah Study

Matot-Mas‘ey Musings

July 10, 2010

Matot: Num 30:2-32 Mas‘ey: Num 33-36 Middle Third: Num 32-33:49

Prefatory Remarks

I will provide you with three tools which I hope will help you in your study of this double parasha: 1) a brief summary, highlighting the middle third of the parasha which we will concentrate on; 2) seven questions for you to consider while you read Matot- Mas‘ey; and, 3) a map from the excellent Oxford Bible Atlas. The seven questions arise either from the Torah text or from reading respected, scholarly, historical accounts of these events in Ben-Sasson’s History and in Encyclopedia Judaica. I will seek your help in trying to answer these questions—and more—during our study this upcoming Shabbat, or on the weblog. If 7 questions are too many, then focus on the first 4, or even just one of particular interest…….David S

Parasha Summary

Chapter 30

Vows and oaths—obligations for independent men, dependent women & independent women

Chapter 31

God-commanded vengeance on the Midianites; Moses’ anger at the sparing of Midianite women; dividing the booty; levy for Levites and God, through the priests

Chapter 32

Re’uvenites, Gadites, and ½ Menashites (Machir) negotiate a deal with Moses to remain East of the Jordan in Gil‘ad (Trans-Jordan) in return for leading the Israelites in their conquest of the Promised Land

Chapter 33:1-49

Moses’ record of the Israelites’ marches from Egypt to the plains of Mo’av along the Jordan (more detailed than in Khukat)

Chapter 33:50 – 35:8

God’s instructions to Moses for the Israelites to conquer and divide Canaan

Chapter 35:9 – 35:34

God’s instructions regarding the Cities of Refuge

Chapter 36

Marriage implications of God’s ruling on the land holdings of Tzelofekhad’s daughters (which was described earlier in Chapter 27; note: Tzelofekhad was a descendant of Machir)

Seven Questions to Consider While Reading the Parasha

  1. Why did the Re’uvenites, Gadites & ½ Menashites (Machir) want to stay in Gil‘ad?
  • Livestock country? Weren’t Israel’s sons all herdsmen?
  • Afraid? Then why volunteer to lead the conquest in the van as khalutzim?
  • Security reasons? Some historians acknowledge the Israelites were more successful militarily in the hill country; their enemies in the plains had military technology advantages
  • Economic reasons?
  • Post-facto rationalization of their historical presence in Trans-Jordan?

  1. Why does God let the Re’uvenites, Gadites & ½ Menashites (RG½M) settle outside the Promised Land?
  • Is this a reward or punishment?
  • History shows that despite the Torah’s account of Israelite conquests in Trans-Jordan, the conquered Moabites, ’Amorites, and ‘Ammonites survive and continue to make war on the Israelite presence East of the Jordan. Clearly, then, the RG½M were most exposed to foreign attacks from the East
  • Post-facto rationalization of Israelite presence East of the Promised Land?

  1. Was this “deal” the Torah’s way of harmonizing fraternal discord?
  • How has internal, fraternal discord undermined Israel over the millennia?
  • Ancient examples? RG½M vs. Moses & the remaining Israelite tribes; Efrayim vs. RG½M in Gil‘ad; the Jewish Rebellions; etc.
  • Modern examples? Mitnagdim vs. Hasidim; Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim; German Jews vs. Russian Jews; Haredim vs. secular Jews; Zionists vs. post-Zionists; Israeli Jewry vs. Galut Jewry, living in the “extended Trans-Jordan”; etc.

  1. What was the real purpose of this RG½M-Moses deal?
  • What is the reason for the repetition* or legal dance in the structure of this conditional contract?
  • Pretend you are Moses’ General Counsel. Reread 32:29-30. What’s your reaction to these terms? Assuming it is no mistake, what is going on?
  • Why is ½ Menashites (Machir) not introduced until 32:33? Were they an afterthought or a later insertion?
  • Is the deal securing fair compensation for different real estate preferences? Or, is the deal securing Israelite unity amidst fractured tribes and clans?
  1. How and when was Trans-Jordan historically settled by Israelites?
  • Did it occur as described in the Torah?
  • Was Gil‘ad/Trans-Jordan settled as an Eastern expansion from the Promised Land?
  1. Why do we have another (more detailed) chronology of the Israelites’ trek out of Egypt through the Wilderness?
  • Product of multiple authors/redactors?
  • Supports the Exodus story with facts on the ground so to speak, despite the absence of scholarly, extra-Scriptural corroboration of a massive Israelite exodus or a single-campaign conquest

  1. What was the real significance of the sections on the daughters of Tzelofekhad, given that they were descendants of Machir (½ Menashe) and, therefore, potentially with a ceded claim to a share in the Promised Land?
  • Sounds attractive to a 21st Century Jew reading from a gender neutral Torah translation
  • But, is there really something else going on? Is this about women’s rights? Or, is this about tribal integrity?
  • Note: Joshua 17:3-6 implies Menashe’s “daughters”—including those of Tzelofekhad—inherited a portion of the Promised Land, apart from the Trans-Jordanian Machirites. Joshua 22:7 implies ½ Menashe gets Bashan, while the “other half” receives their portion of the territory West of the Jordan.


* Conditional contract structure:

  • Moses gets angry at RG
  • RG proposes deal
  • Moses restates the deal, including a penalty for non-compliance
  • RG repeats the deal
  • Moses commands El‘azar, Yehoshua & tribal heads: if they comply, then they get Gil‘ad; if they don’t comply, then they get their portion of Canaan
  • RG reiterates their commitment to the deal
  • Moses gives RG½M the Kingdoms of Sikhon, Og & Bashan
  • RG (re)build cities in Trans-Jordan; Machir goes to Gil‘ad and conquers the Amorites there

Plaut cites 4 basic principles from Shulchan Aruch: 1) condition must be stated twice—once positively and once negatively; 2) the positive condition must precede the negative; 3) “if” must precede the “what”; and 4) the condition must be fulfillable.

Fox observes Milgrom’s interesting finding of the sevenfold occurrence of “before YHWH” in this contractual construct: 1) 32:20; 2) 32:21; 3-5) 32:22; 6) 32:27; and 7) 32:29.

* * * * * * *

Khazak, khazak, venitkhazek

* * * * * * *

Sources: The Jewish Study Bible, A. Berlin, M. Brettler, M. Fishbane, eds., 2004; The Torah: A Modern Commentary, W.G. Plaut, ed., 1981; The Five Books of Moses, E. Fox, ed., 1997; A History of the Jewish People, H.H. Ben-Sasson, ed., 1976; Encyclopedia Judaica, 2007; Oxford Bible Atlas, 3rd Ed., 1984;

Friday, July 2, 2010

Posting on Pinchas by Ann Lewis

Shabbat Shalom, everyone!

Here are this week's remarks, courtesy of guest blogger and Torah Study "regular," Ann Lewis.

Wishing you a great week from my perch here in Madrid.

Rabbi Jonathan Blake


Ann Lewis

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad has been cited as a rare biblical recognition of the rights of women. But, in the words of the current idiom, not so much. However, the story does have much to say about fairness and justice.

The daughters challenge the allocation of land in Israel to households with adult males capable of military service. Because their father had only daughters and clans are identified through the paternal line, Zelophehad’s name and heritage would be lost unless they are granted his share. Adonai agrees with their argument, grants their request and makes a general ruling dictating the line of inheritance, which is to include females under certain circumstances.

Zelophehad’s male relatives are not fully convinced; in Numbers 36:1-12 they appeal to Moses, pointing out that, should the daughters marry outside of the tribe, the land would be lost and the tribal allotted share permanently decreased. Moses agrees and directs that the daughters may marry anyone they choose, but that they must marry into a clan of their father’s tribe. He also makes more general rule that no land allotment may pass from one tribe to another, but must remain bound to the ancestral portion. In Joshua 17, the award of land to Zelophehad’s daughters is confirmed and the tribal tract of land identified.

Considering the entirety of the three passages which mention Zelophehad’s daughters, it becomes clear that the overriding interest being served is the preservation of the integrity of the tribal land grant rather than provision for the welfare of women who lack men in their households. The daughters’ success is not predicated on an abstract sense of equality and justice, but upon the interests of the tribe and clan.

The push and pull of competing claims and interests complicate the original, simple ruling. The allotment of land to the tribes is to be made according to the numbers derived from a census, larger allotments to the larger tribes and smaller to the smaller ones. Direct proportionality is appealing because it represents simple justice, in which tribes with more people get more land. But the census includes only able-bodied males over the age of twenty. What of the exceptions, in which the number of males does not proportionally represent the household? The complaint of Zelophehad’s daughters is addressed, but their right to marry as they choose is restricted after the tribal leaders protest that the ruling hurts the tribe by creating the possibility of losing its land to another through marriage. Does mean that the amended ruling is unfair to the daughters?

The process of determining what is fair and just is subject to a “Zen garden” effect, in that what one observes depends heavily on the viewpoint of the observer. In such gardens, composed of rocks and sand, you cannot see the whole arrangement from only one viewpoint; larger stones may conceal smaller ones nestled behind them, and patterns in the sand on another side of the garden may create the impression of water. As one walks around the edges of the garden, new perspectives reveal different arrangements of sand and rocks.

In my work as a court attorney referee in Surrogate’s Court, I mediated conflicts among family members as to the distribution of family estate property. Invariably, the warring sides were each confident of the essential rightness of their own positions and the essential wrongfulness of their opponents’ contentions. Each party was typically rock firm in their convictions and failed to concede the validity of the other’s point of view. Of course, if they were not fighting, I would not have been mediating, but their stubborn refusal to accept any other perspective on the dispute created problems for everyone.

To observers in a Zen garden, different perspectives can yield vastly differing perceptions. People standing on different sides of the garden would have difficulty agreeing on the number and arrangement of sand and stones unless they personally observe its changing aspects from several points of view. The same may be said of fairness and justice, which are also dependent on perspective. Apparently, simple justice is not simple.