Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Material rewards for observing Mitzvos…need to eradicate idolatry… be constantly on guard not to be lured by surrounding idolatrous behavior … Man does not live by bread alone … blessing God after eating a meal (Birchat Hamazon)…remembering the desert wanderings including Golden Calf, the second tablets, the rebellions, Moshe’s third 40-day stay on Mt. Sinai…need to recognize that prosperity comes from God… encouraging the Israelites to serve God… what God wants from us… Land of Israel filled with natural goodness, beauty, plentitude and minerals… second paragraph of Shema
Torah life lessons
The Torah is neither a history nor a science nor an archaeology book. Rather, it is a statement of ethical behavior demanded by God of us humans as enunciated by Moshe and other Prophets in the form of Mitzvahs. It is also communicated by an underlying message inherent in the tales of events and people. Insight into human psychology provides the understanding of behavior. It is for us to identify these ethics, to live by them and to absorb them until they become integrated into our persona.
In this week’s Parsha the Torah demonstrates the emotions that drive us as individuals and as a nation and alerts us to the inherent dangers we need to guard against. Material goods are necessary but not sufficient because “Man does not live by bread alone”. We need spiritual nourishment and historic awareness to give us perspective and purpose.
Prosperity and success can give way to hubris, self-righteousness and religious apathy. We must be on guard not to think that “it was my own strength and personal power that brought me all this prosperity.” Receipt of the Land of Israel was not based on our virtue and basic integrity but reflected the Divine promise to our Forefathers. The Israelites were, in fact, “a very stubborn nation” that provoked God many times during the forty year desert trek.
On the positive side, national fear of and cringing before the number and strength of surrounding enemies is countered by the Divine promise “to uproot these nations little by little…to place them in our power…”to throw them into utter panic.”
Idolatry demands that its practitioners engage in cruel and depraved behavior (child sacrifice; sexual orgy) to placate the deity. Because of its rampant existence and allure, we are warned over and over again to “burn their idolatrous statues in fire” … “to shun it totally and consider it absolutely offensive, since it is taboo”… If we follow other deities we “will be totally annihilated… and destroyed just like the nations that God is destroying before you”.
The threat of idolatry is as real today as it was then. Idolatry is an insidious form of religious worship that exists in many forms: Muslim women sacrificing their suicide bomber children in the name of Allah; our worshiping money; the intense drive for power, particularly at the expense of others; and the unending lusting for fame and fortune. The Torah would demand that these modern-day idolatrous behaviors be avoided at all cost.
“V’haya Eikev Tishmoon” (“If only you listen”)…
Why does this opening phrase utilize the unusual word Eikev rather than the more familiar words im or asher? The word Eikev is translatable as: If only you listen (Aryeh Kaplan)…because you listen (Rashi)…as a reward for listening (Radak)…as a result, if you listen (Ibn Ezra). Rashi focuses on the meaning of Eikev as a heel and concludes that the subtle message is that rewards come to those who observe even the seemingly unimportant Mitzvos that one might kick aside with his heel.
Alternate meanings for the root word--trace, in consequence of, footsteps, wake of a ship-- suggest that the Torah views material benefits/prosperity as inevitable consequences of (not rewards for) good behavior just like one who walks inevitably leaves footsteps and sailing ships inevitably create wakes. Stu Dubner thinks that the allusion is to how one goes/gets along in life. Mendy Saidlower’s insight is that in our lifetime each of us leaves a life trail (“footprints on the sand of time” in the words of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow).
Dr. Alvin Schiff shared with me the Chassidic idea that self-improvement is a two-step process. The first step is honest self-examination. This is followed by the many steps necessary to be taken on the road to change.
Manna: kindness or test?
Receiving daily food (bread) and a double portion on Shabbos appears to be a wonderful, miraculous gift from God. Yet here and in Sefer Shmos the Torah describes Manna as a test or trial! Nechama Leibowitz surveys a number of approaches to resolving this conundrum:
According to Rashi the test aspect relates to the instructions accompanying the food, not to the Manna itself.
Ramban (1194-1270) maintains that the unusual, “heavenly daily delivery” of Manna, meant that the Israelites were totally dependent on God. The test consisted of the daily apprehension that the hungry Israelites experienced, not knowing whether or not the heavenly Manna would fall that day. Thus, elaborates Jacob Zvi Mecklenberg (1785-1865) in Ha-ketav V’hakabala, every day the Israelites had to confront the extent of their faith and trust in God.
The Biur (Moses Mendelssohn, 1729-1786) sees this dependence as a positive in that the people became habituated to trust in God until unswerving faith became part of their persona.
My friend Rabbi Aaron Fruchter notes the juxtaposition of two issues that characterized the desert trek: the Manna (for which the Israelites had to wait anxiously every day) and the Divine promise to give the Land of Israel to the Nation of Israel (which Moshe needed to repeat in every parsha in this Sefer). Tisha B’Av reminds us of the failure of the Israelites to believe in the Land of Israel and in their ability to conquer it. Post-Tisha B’Av it is appropriate for us as individuals and as a nation to both believe and to publicly assert our historic rights to the Land of Israel.
On the Blessing of Rain
Societies often develop along rivers because rivers provide water for agriculture and consumption as well as a means of transportation. The two greatest centers of ancient civilization, Egypt and Mesopotamia, sprung up around the Nile and the Euphrates rivers.
The Egyptians had developed an elaborate irrigation system of ditches from the Nile River to the fields. Watering a field was done by kicking away dirt with one’s foot from these interconnecting ditches and cessation was accomplished by kicking dirt into the ditches to stop up the flow. In the Land of Egypt plants in the field were “watered with your foot”. This contrasts with the Land of Israel where water for agriculture comes from rains (matar).
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag raises the question of which is more desirable: Israel that is totally dependent on rainfall and the fields get watered automatically (but whose rainfall could be sporadic) or lands like Egypt (near a river) that have a consistent supply of water but need manual (or foot) labor to irrigate.
The Torah goes out of its way to state that the rain-dependency is better and reminds us that God is in control of the climate. As we realize that our survival in Israel depends on God, we stand in awe of Him. God promises rain when we obey His commandments but threatens to lock up the heavens if we don’t. Rabbi Leibtag concludes that the amount of matar in Israel is a kind of divine communication to us about our level of faithfulness to Him. The Israel model is better for those seeking a closer relationship with God. Countries with more secure availability of river water work best for those who do not.
Furthermore, notes Rabbi Leibtag, the root-word matar means anything that falls from heaven to earth, of which rain is one obvious example. The word is used also when describing bread (Manna) or fire coming down from the skies. Matar is a symbol of the link that exists between heaven and earth i.e., between God and Man.
“You shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord thy God for the good land that He has given you”
Rav B.S. Jacobson offers us information, insights and understanding of this Mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon.
The Men of the Great Synagogue (Anshey Knesses H’agdolah) formulated the text of Grace after meals (as we have it today) as a trilogy. The fourth benediction was added after the defeat of the Barkochba revolt in 135 C.E.
According to the Talmud the first benediction of universal gratitude (“…Who provides for all”) was instituted by Moshe when the Israelites received the Manna. The universal message is that it is God Who provides food for the entire world.
Joshua instituted the second blessing (“for the land and for the food [it produces]”).This benediction is national in nature, reminding us of our indebtedness to God as a nation. Furthermore, our destiny is linked to (and exists in) our God-given land.
The third benediction (“…Who in His mercy rebuilds Jerusalem”) was instituted by both King David (“…have mercy on Israel thy people and on Jerusalem…”) and King Solomon (“…and upon this great and sacred House…”). This benediction seems more like prayer than thanksgiving. We cite and pray for a return to the national ethical ethos, independence and strivings associated with a rebuilt Jerusalem and Holy Temple.
According to Ramban, this Birkat Hamazon commandment was included in the context of the Manna story to remind the Israelites of God’s munificence and their consequential obligation to express gratitude for this kindness. The Talmud reasons that since a benediction is required after a meal, when one is satiated, how much more so must one bless God before he is about to eat when he is hungry and realizes his dependency on God to fulfill his need.
Heretofore, it was God that blessed man. What does our “blessing” God in Birkat Hamazon really mean since He needs nothing more from us? Aaron Halevy (author of Sefer Hachinuch—Book of Instruction) thinks that we are acknowledging that He, the totality of blessings and the source of blessings, is One to Whom thanksgiving is due. Joseph Albo concludes that “Blessing is a term applied to addition and increase in benefit and favor”. When applied to God the Giver the word is an adjective that expresses our awareness that everything that emanates from Him is a blessing (just like using the adjectives merciful and gracious to describe God means that these positives derive from Him).
We “bench” (Yiddish corruption of the English word benediction). We reiterate and verbalize the profound truth that emanations from God increase goodness and its positive influence in the world. By enunciating and thinking about the full meaning of what we are saying we can create an experiential moment with God and sense His presence in our lives.
Yehuda Halevy (in the Kuzari) writes that by saying a blessing over food, “we redouble our enjoyment”. Rabbi B.S. Jacobson sees in blessings the elevation of satisfying our needs from a “physical urge to a spiritual level, from the secular to the sacred”.
What does God demand of us?
“And now, Israel, what does the Lord thy God require of you only that you will remain in awe of God your Lord, to walk in His ways and to love Him and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord and his statutes that I command you this day, for your own good?”( Devarim10:12,13)
“What does the Lord thy God require of you?” sounds like a minimal request but the answer to this rhetorical question is a list of difficult things to do and to feel! How is this to be understood?
Rashi focuses on the need to fear God as the prime message.
The Talmud’s answer is that from his lofty level of closeness to God (and his unawareness of his spiritual superiority) Moshe, the “Anav M’od” (unassuming), considered this a small matter.
Ramban explains that God only requires us to do the things that are for your own good (“L’tov Lach”). We are not being asked to sacrifice or give up anything, only to do what is in our best interest.
Joseph Albo (14-15th century author of Sefer Ha’ikrim) opines that because it is extraordinarily difficult for one to attain a heightened state of fear, love and service of God, He asks us to merely keep his commandments and statutes. Observing the mundane daily laws of the Torah gradually will lead us to the ultimate elevated relationship with Him. Our deeds will lead us higher.
The word raishes is usually translated beginning as in the Psalms’ “Raishes Chachma yiras Hashem” (“being in awe of God is the beginning of wisdom”). Based, in part, on other times the word appears in the Bible, Albo thinks the word is better translated as essence and the meaning of the phrase is “the fear of the Lord is the essence of wisdom”. God’s wanting us be in awe of Him is the essence of Him.
The Talmud concludes that “All is in the hands of Heaven except for feeling the fear (awe) of Heaven.” Each of us is given the opportunity to experience fear (awe) of God and is free to choose good or evil.
Second Paragraph of Shema
The first paragraph of Shema (V’ahavt…) described as the “acceptance of the yolk of heaven” is written in the singular; stresses Love for achieving the goal; and makes no mention of punishment. It talks to each of us individually.
The second paragraph described as “acceptance of the yolk of Mitzvos” is in the plural; stresses our need for obedience to God; and the punishment that will result from our failure to obey Him. It talks to the entire nation and can only be fully experienced in a societal setting (since not every person is able or qualified to do every single Mitzvah).