Rewards for observing Mitzvahs
Not to fear surrounding nations
Urgent need to eradicate idolatry
Remembering the forty year desert trek
“Man does not live by bread alone”
The goodness of the Promised Land:
o flowing streams
o wheat, barley, grapes ,figs, pomegranates, oil-olives, and honey dates
o iron and copper
Not to take credit for prosperity
Blessing God after eating a meal (Birchat Hamazon)
Warnings against Idolatry
Warnings against self-Righteousness
Remembering the Golden Calf incident
The Second Tablets
Rebellion in the Desert
Appointment of the Tribe of Levi
Moshe urges the nation to serve God
Miracles witnessed by the Israelites
Qualities of the Land of Israel
Second paragraph of Shema
Promise of victory if the nation embraces God
Torah life lessons
The Torah is neither a history , a science nor an archaeology book. Rather, it is a statement of ethical behavior demanded of us by God 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.
This week’s Parsha cites the aggressive emotions that can drive us as individuals and as a nation and alerts us to these inherent dangers we need to guard against. Material goods are necessary but not sufficient because “Man does not live by bread alone”. Spiritual nourishment and historic awareness give us perspective and purpose.
Prosperity and success can give way to hubris, self-righteousness and religious apathy. We must be vigilant 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…and “to throw them into utter panic.”
Idolatry demands that its practitioners sometimes 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 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; the worship of money; the intense drive for power, particularly at the expense of others; and the seemingly unending lust for fame and fortune. The Torah ethics demands avoidance of these behaviors.
Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks observes that the Torah has no word that means to “to obey”. Instead, it utilizes the Hebrew word shema, (a fundamental motif in this Sefer) that has a multiplicity of meanings of which “to obey “is only one. Others are…
In Judaism we don’t see God; we hear Him, we listen to Him. Listening becomes a core facet of our religious life. As we develop listening to God we become attuned to listening and hearing our fellow humans—their pains, sufferings, anguish, loneliness and poverty. Perhaps the ultimate gift and respect to an individual is the ability to listening to him express his worries and fears. Freudian psychoanalysis is built on the ability of the therapist to actively listen to the patient as he bares his soul. The listener validates the speakers’ thoughts and emotions. Rabbi Sacks concludes that “Listening is a profound affirmation of the humanity of the other… to hear the emotion behind the words, to sense what is being left unsaid as well as what was said”.
“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).
A heel (Rashi) .The subtle message is that rewards come to those who observe even the seemingly unimportant Mitzvahs that one might disregard as if kicking aside with the heel.
Less-obvious meanings for the root word include:
In consequence of
Wake of a ship
It appears that the Torah views material benefits/prosperity as inevitable consequences of (not rewards for) good behavior just like one who walks is certain to leave footsteps and sailing ships certainly creates wakes. Stu Dubner thinks that the allusion is to how one goes/gets along in life. Mendy Saidlower’s view 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 cited a 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 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 repeats in every parsha in this Sefer). Recently-observed Tisha B’Av reminds us of the failure of the Israelites to listen to and to believe in God’s promise of the Land of Israel and in His word that they would be able to conquer it. Post-Tisha B’Av it is appropriate for us as individuals and as a nation to both believe in and to publicly assert our historic rights to the Land of Israel. This action is particularly timely and urgent in the wake of the War on Gaza/Terrorism and the wave of anti-Semitism it has generated.
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 (eikev?) from these interconnecting ditches and disconnecting was accomplished by kicking dirt (eikev) into the ditches to stop up the flow. In the Land of Egypt plants in the field were “watered with your foot” (eikev). This contrasts with the Land of Israel where water for agriculture comes from rains (matar).
Is it more desirable to be in Israel that is totally dependent on rainfall and the fields get watered automatically (but whose rainfall could be sporadic) or to live in lands like Egypt (near a river) that have a consistent and constant supply of water but need manual (or foot) labor to irrigate?
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag observes that the Torah seems goes out of its way to suggest that the rain-dependency is better in that it serves as a constant reminder of the need to rely on climate, over which one has no control. 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 Bar-Kochba 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 as a nation of our indebtedness to God. 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 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.
God is the One that blesses. 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 our 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) thinks 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).
“You should teach these words to your sons to speak of them…”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe asserts that “…nowadays it is not only permissible to teach women even the deepest parts of the Torah, but it is an absolute necessity to do so”. He explains that in the modern world where women are exposed to a wide range of secular ideas it is critical that they be grounded in Torah knowledge and ideas in order to cope with concepts that may be antithetical to Torah.