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 (17 positive and 38 prohibitions) 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
Drinking blood is prohibited
Not to add to or diminish from the commandments; not to “improve” the Torah by borrowing gentile practices
Beware of religious seducers: false prophet; seducers in one’s family; a city of idol worshipers
To remain a holy, separate Nation
Not to mutilate oneself as a sign of mourning
Beast, fish and fowl that are permitted to eat and those that are not
Permitted animals need to be slaughtered properly before eating
Not to cook a tender, young animal in its mother’s milk
Mandated tithes: Maaser Rishon [first tithe] ] to support the Levites; Maaser Sheni [second tithe] taken by the farmer to Yerushalayim and eaten there in a state of purity; Maaser Oni [given to the poor] ;disposal of undistributed tithes
Shemittah year [meaning “release” or “remission”] and occurring every seventh year annuls loans
Practice kindness: charity; loans to poor; gifts to Hebrew slaves upon their release after six years
Blemish-free first born animals are set aside to be offered to God
Celebrating the three festivals with simcha (happiness) and aliyas regel (pilgrimage to Yerushalayim)
“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, noted that even if the masses act contrary to the Torah ethics, one must stand his ground and behave properly.
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.
“Be Extremely Careful Not to Eat the Blood…
…since the blood is associated with the spiritual nature [life force] and when you eat flesh you shall not ingest the spiritual nature along with it…you can pour it on the ground like water.”
Rabbenu Bachya explains that there was a temptation to eat blood because it was used in many occult mystical practices.
Nechama Leibowitz cites…
Rambam, who understands that the ancient pagans drank blood in the belief that it was the food of the spirits and by drinking blood the demons would join and share information on future events. Or perhaps it would invest the blood drinker with the power of the living creature whose blood was being ingested. Eradicating these idolatrous misconceptions necessitated the prohibition. Furthermore, the role of blood in Judaism is to be a purifying agent as part of a ritual of atonement.
Ramban, who notes that initially Man was a vegetarian. Since all living beings share the same destiny killing animals for food was prohibited. It was only after the Flood that Man was granted a dispensation to eat meat as a way of rechanneling his murderous drives from humans to animals. But blood is the vehicle for integrating spiritual with physical in all living beings. We are allowed to kill and eat the physical animal but not its life spirit.
Rav Kook who supports the idea that permission to eat meat is a temporary dispensation. We need to be trained to be considerate of all living creatures and to be reviled by their death.
If we “are what we eat” the prohibition of ingesting animal blood may be a method for avoiding animalistic tendencies so that we can concentrate on our uniquely human character.
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 noted 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.
“You Shall Not Boil a Kid in Its Mother’s Milk”
This prohibition, which encompasses cooking, eating and benefiting, is the basis of subsequent rabbinic regulations relating to eating milk and milk products together with meat and meat products. Explanations for this restriction include…
• Avoidance of the magical
• Preservation of the milk-giving ability of the animal
• Preservation of health
• Humanitarian (avoid causing an animal pain)
• Prohibition of mixing of different kinds of seeds and materials
• Avoidance of this act of moral insensitivity(Ramban)
• Avoidance of the negative interaction of opposing spiritual forces. In Kabalah meat (red color) is the physical manifestation of the Divine power of Severity while milk(white color) is the manifestation of Kindness
Rambam suggests that the prohibition is about avoiding idolatry—an opinion supported by recent archeological findings (cited by Rabbi Gunther Plaut) that describe a then-prevailing Canaanite sacrificial ritual.
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 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, starting with the easiest and progressing to the more difficult. Isaac Arama (1420-1494) explains 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]”:
• Second Tithe
• Poor man’s tithe
• Release of debts (Shemittah)
There are three categories of tithes that must be given during the six year cycle. Maaser Rishon [First Tithe] to support the Levites was given every year. In addition, during the third and sixth year Maaser Ani was given to the poor. In the first, second, fourth and fifth years, Maaser Sheni [Second Tithe] was taken by the farmer to Yerushalayim and eaten there in a state of purity.
If the farmer lived far away he could redeem his tithe for silver and then when he reaches Yerushalayim, spend it on “anything you desire whether it be cattle, smaller animals, wine, shaychar [old wine or mead or any other intoxicating beverage], or anything else for which you have an urge. Eat it there before God your Lord, so that you and your family will be able to rejoice.”
In the then-prevailing agricultural society, the Torah’s threefold goal was (according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ analysis) to…
Alleviate poverty by the…
Leaving parts of the harvest for the poor
Tithe for the poor given every third and sixth year in the seven-year Shemittah (Sabbatical Year) cycle
Seventh and fiftieth year release of debt
Return of ancestral property to the original owners in the fiftieth year
Support the priests and Levites [who dedicated their lives to the service of God and to education and administration of justice] through the required gifts of terumah (for the Priests) and Maaser Sheni, the second tithe, (for the Levites).
Drive home the lessons of gratitude and humility through the bringing of the first fruits and the three pilgrimage festivals. From this we are to realize that the land belongs to God and the earth yields its produce only because of His blessing. This consciousness–raising will help prevent our becoming overly materialistic and smug.
The Maaser Sheni [second tithe], however, does not go to the poor or to the priests and Levites but is eaten by its owner in Yerushalayim. But how does this achieve the Torah’s stated goal of “that you may learn to remain in awe of the Lord your God for all time”?
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 through the realization that one does not own the tithe and that one’s bounty does not stem from his efforts alone. [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.
Rambam (cited by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) sees a social purpose in that with holiday spirit in the air, feelings of comradery abound. The harvest would be shared with others. Strangers would meet and talk. “There would be a sense of shared citizenship, common belonging and collective identity.”
On Shemittah (Sabbatical Year)
The rules relating to agriculture [letting the fields “rest” by not working them; any produce that grows is hefker-- ownerless and free for all to enjoy] were presented earlier in the Torah. This week’s parsha focuses on the financial aspects of Shemittah as relates to loans and to lending:
• “At the end of (the) seven year (cycle) you must annul all loans…
• He (lender) may not demand payment from his friend or his brother…
• You should give to him (the person in need of a loan) repeatedly and your heart should not feel bad when you give to him…
• You should repeatedly open your hand to your brother and to your destitute (resident) in your land.”
In a predominately agricultural society, a loan constituted a kindness to a fellow farmer in need of capital to work his land. As such, no interest could be charged. Shemittah enabled Society to come together and erase what may have become oppressive debt. But the unintended consequence was that people avoided making loans as the year of Shemittah neared for fear that they would not be repaid on time. To improve this situation, Hillel the Elder in the first century BCE, introduced a new lending contract [pruzbul] in which the loan is transferred to the court for collection. Pruzbul is a Greek word that means “before the court”. The text reads “I give over to you [the beit din] all debts which I have, so that I may collect them any time I wish”. Because the debt is now owed to the court and not an individual, the debt survives the Sabbatical year.
Shemittah and Worldwide Events
World economic and political upheavals have characterized past Shemittah years. Nearly every major stock market collapse since the early 1900’s and the six biggest economic crashes took place during a Shemittah year. A Wall Street Journal compilation of the twenty largest one-day stock market crashes included ten that were in a Shemittah year. The stock market collapses in 2008 and 2001 both occurred on the last day of the Shemittah year, the day on which all debts were wiped away.
The 2007-2008 Shemittah year ended on September 29, 2008. Two weeks earlier the US federal government had taken over over Franny Mae and Freddie Mac and Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. The stock market began a free fall; on October 15th the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 774 points.
The 2000-2001 Shemittah year ended on September 17, 2001.On March 20th, 2000 the NASDAQ index lost over 10% when the “dot-com” bubble burst. The market continued to collapse eventually declining a total of 55% in October 2002. On September 11th, 2001 our nation suffered a horrific terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
The 1993-1994 Shemittah year ended September 5, 1994.During this period interest rates climbed sharply fueled by concerns about federal spending; the Federal Reserve bank’s decision to boost short-term rates in response to rising commodity prices and a strengthening economy. Bond investors suffered over a trillion dollars of losses during the bond market massacre.
The 1986-1987 Shemittah year ended September 23, 1987. Just a few short weeks later on Black Monday (October 19, 1987) markets around the world crashed.
The 1979-1980 Shemittah year ended September 13, 1980. During this period interest rates were boosted (which helped to precipitate a recession); the price of oil spiked to $33 a barrel (or $200 a barrel adjusted for inflation); and the price of gold shot up. On September 22nd, Iraq invaded Iran, in what was to become an eight year war.
The 1972-1973 Shemittah year ended September 26, 1973.Ten days later the Yom Kippur War began. In October 1973 members of OPEC declared an oil embargo which resulted in a run up in oil prices, which in turn triggered a 1973-74 market crash and a recession that lasted until 1975.
During the closing months of the last year’s Shemittah (that ended at Rosh Hashana) we experienced…
Worldwide market collapses triggered, in part, by currency devaluations
Civil unrest around the world
Iran, the world’s largest exporter of terrorism, on the verge of becoming a nuclear threat
Frightening rise in worldwide anti-Israel and anti-Semitism
Growing power of Islamo-fascist terrorist organizations like ISIS.