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.
The choice of blessings or curses
55 Mitzvahs covering …
o Religious institutions and worship(Central Sanctuary in Jerusalem; eradicating idolatry in Eretz Yisroel)
o Government of the people
o Criminal behavior
o Domestic life
o External influences
o Three annual pilgrimage festivals
Permission to eat non-sacrificial meat
Not to add to or diminish from the commandments
Beware of religious seducers: false prophet; seducers in one’s family; a city of idol worshipers
To remain a holy, separate Nation
Beast, fish and fowl that are permitted to eat and those that are not
Mandated tithes: Maaser Sheni (second tithe); Maaser Oni (for poor);disposal of undistributed tithes
Shemittah (every seventh year) annuls loans
Practice kindness: charity; loans to poor; gifts to slaves upon their release
First born animals are set aside for God
Prohibition of eating blood
Celebrating the three festivals with simcha (happiness) and aliyas regel (pilgrimage to Jerusalem)
“Re’eh anochi nosain lefnaychem hayom bracha uklala…es habracha aher tishmu…v’haklala im lo sishmu” (“Behold I have set before you today a blessing and a curse…the blessing if you listen…and the curse if you do not listen…”)
Re’eh - from the root to see, meaning to have insight and understanding. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the goal is that “the necessity and positive results of observing the mitzvos become as clear and self-evident as seeing a physical object with one’s eyes”.
Anochi- I, God. Use of this pronoun instead of Ani links to the Anochi of the unique Covenant and relationship with God embodied in the Ten Commandments and Mt. Sinai experience
Nosain- in present tense: ongoing promise from God
Lefnaychem- before you. Yehuda Valladares thinks that the use of re’eh in the singular and lefnaychem in the plural underscores the idea that although each person can develop a private, individual relationship with God, He gave the Torah publicly to a huge mass of people. Or perhaps the Torah is communicating that despite the fact that an entire nation experienced the unique Covenant and relationship with God, each of us thinks and understands it in his own unique way. My father, Rabbi Moshe Berenholz, A”H noted that even if the masses act contrary to the Torah ethics, one must stand his ground and act correctly.
Es habracha- on the condition that you listen (Rashi).The es means God gives the Blessings to us now, in advance, confident we will behave as expected, abiding by His laws. Rav Bahya Ben Asher (fourteenth century) notes that es is an expression of certainty (vs. eem that means if).The nineteenth century commentary Malbim perceives that the very performance of a Mitzvah is itself a blessing.
Im lo sishmoo- But if, perchance, we should not live up to this expected behavior, we will be punished.
Nechama Leibowitz concludes that there exists an inherent goodness (ki tov) in the world that God created for us to enjoy-- so long as we adhere to His laws and ethics. The root cause of evil and misfortune in the world is Man’s decision to disobey Him.
On false prophets and miracles
Nechama Leibowitz summarizes:
“The mere display of visible miracles is by itself no confirmation of the truth…
Signs and wonders are no criterion of true prophecy…
Anyone who summons us to violate the Torah adducing signs and wonders in his favour, even if he causes the sun, moon and stars to stand still as in the days of Joshua , we must pay no heed to him…since truth cannot be established by miracles or any visual spectacle.”
On eating meat
“Ki yarchiv Hashem elokecha es gevulcha…Ki s’avey nafsheca le’chol basar”(“When the Lord your God shall enlarge your border... and your soul longs for meat then you may eat meat on the condition that you slaughter of your herd and flock...in the way I (Hashem) have prescribed”.
During the desert wanderings, the only permitted meat was from the offerings to God. But now, as the Israelites are ready to enter the Promised Land, God permits the eating of any meat for enjoyment (basar taava—meat of desire).
The wording suggests that the permission is being granted grudgingly, with strict regulations, and that we are only given a special dispensation to slaughter animals for consumption and not a total dominion over the animal world
This interpretation is consistent with Rav Abraham Isaac Kook’s world view. Rav Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, believed that Creation filled the world with harmony between Man and the animal kingdom, the two highest life forms. Initially Man’s food was to consist of herbs and fruit. But with the moral decay that precipitated the Flood, this harmony was shattered and all Mankind was permitted to be carnivorous.
The killing of animals for food is not an ideal state. Rav S. R. Hirsch notes that in the realm of vegetation there are no plants that are prohibited. Perhaps the Torah seeks to “endorse emphatically the primal state of Man when meat was not allowed as food fit for Man” (Rav Jacobson). But since Man could no longer control himself, says Rav Kook, the Torah channeled these aggressive drives (cannibalism? murder?) to animals, in the hope that Man’s appetite for bloodshed would no longer find expression in killing his fellow Man. In his view, both the rituals relating to slaughtering and the dietary laws were designed to arouse our feelings of injustice committed against the animal kingdom.
It is interesting that the Torah introduces the permissibility of eating meat with the words ki yarchiv, (“when the land will be expanded”) suggesting, perhaps, that the desire for meat is triggered by the expansion of one’s wealth (land). Richie Snitkoff thinks that it is expansion of one’s own internal boundaries (i.e., feeling of superiority, arrogance) that brings on the desire for meat.
The Torah describes the desire for meat as a taava, a lusting after, and sounding like toayva, an abomination-- both pejorative words. Perhaps there is a subtle suggestion that we remain vegetarians in order to recapture the primordial state of harmony with Nature and God that existed immediately after the Creation. Rav Kook was a vegetarian.
Why the Dietary Laws?
Rav Jacobson in his Meditations on the Torah discusses some possible answers…
• To remain holy.
• To achieve physical and mental hygiene (Maimonides) by avoiding unwholesome foods like pork.
• To avoid ingesting, absorbing and being influenced by the cruel, clawing ferocious behavior of prohibited birds and animals (Ramban). Permitted fish have fins and have scales. In Hebrew kaskeses means shield and protection. The fish with fins and scales tend to swim closer to the surface and are non-attacking. This contrasts sharply with the fish without fins/scales that tend to be scavengers and aggressive and swim near the dark and murky bottom. The prohibited birds also are aggressive and clawing.
• To achieve a spiritual sanity, promoting the welfare of our soul (Abrabanel).
• To train us in self-control. Shadal quotes the Stoic philosopher Epictetus who believed that the keys to sin avoidance are sustine et abstine (“bear up under hardship and contain yourself from indulgence”). The Torah laws are designed to help us make a habit of self-control. Aaron Barth, a contemporary Israeli commentator, adds that the purpose is to help us gain mastery over our impulses. By pausing to examine the food we are about to eat we have the opportunity to convert our impulse into our will.
• Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.--50 C.E.) is of the opinion that the restrictions are about internalizing what we ingest. We are what we eat and the Torah does not want us to absorb and internalize negative behavior. Bovine are permitted. They are ruminants, meaning they chew their cud over and over again moving it from stomach to mouth and back. We, too, are encouraged to ruminate—to think things over, to turn over in our minds, “chew on it” until we arrive at the truth and internalize it. The split hoof demonstrates that two seemingly identical items can be completely separate and different.
Dr. Alvin Schiff notes that “chewing the cud” is about eating and the nourishing of our brain so we can think. The split hoof is a reminder for us to watch where we walk in life. Jeff Benkoe thinks the split hoof underscores the choices we face in our lives.
Richie Snitkoff thinks that another facet of the dietary laws is the avoidance of undesirable, aggressive act of hunting to catch these prohibited attacking animals, fish and birds.
Nechama Leibowitz on tithing and charity
Abrabanel (1437-1508) points out that after the Torah discusses how to remain loyal to God through the physical/dietary, it now turns its attention to serving God with money and produce.
The order of themes is based on the intensity of the demand made on human nature:
• Second Tithe
• Poor man’s tithe
• Release of debts (Shemittah)
Isaac Arama(1420-1494) elaborates that because giving away runs counter to a person’s nature, the Torah starts by the least painful-- restricting use of one’s property (second tithe).The beneficiary is the owner himself and his household who are directed to “eating [it] before God in the place He will choose for His name to dwell there[Yerushalayim]”.
The stated purpose of this tithing is so “that you may learn to fear the Lord your God all the days.” The very observance of a Mitzvah has a disciplinary value that instills reverence for God.
The Sages stated that “Second Tithe was only given for the purpose of promoting study and reverence”. The owner and family will travel to Yerushalayim, the seat of religious and intellectual authorities, where they will have the opportunity to study Torah. They will return home with knowledge and uplifting experiences to share with their community (Sefer Ha-chinukh).
The Netziv (1817-1893) thinks that because it is impossible for the owner to consume an entire tenth of his produce in such a short period of time, he will either prolong his stay after the festival or leave the surplus funds to support Torah scholars.
Rashbam focuses on the experiential and emotional impact on the individual from being at and viewing the holy Temple and the sacred service.
Rav Moshe Alshikh(1580-1600) explains that the acts of eating, drinking and abundance of rejoicing can bring one to learn to fear God by the realization that he does not own it and his bounty did not originate with the power of his own effort. [Note: One cannot betroth a woman with his Second Tithe because it does not belong to him but to God who permits him to eat and drink of it.] When eating “before God” one can be filled with awe of Him.