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.
Six positive mitzvahs and two prohibitions
Rewards for observing mitzvahs
Not to fear surrounding nations
Urgent need to eradicate idolatry lest the Israelites be tempted
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 producing-olives; and honey dates
o iron and copper
Blessing God after eating a meal (Birchat Hamazon)
Not to take credit for prosperity
Warnings against idolatry
Warnings against self-righteousness; the Israelites are “a stiff-necked people”
Remembering the Golden Calf incident; God heeds Moshe’s plea not to destroy the nation
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, nor a science nor an archaeology book. Rather, it is a statement of the 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 is the idealization and worship of anything believed to be greater than God. We are prohibited from “worshiping”, for example, money or technology in its many forms (bio, medical, computer, Artificial Intelligence) as the ultimate power in the universe.
Idolatry sometimes demands that its practitioners engage in cruel and depraved behavior (child sacrifice; sexual orgy) to placate the deity. Because of idolatry’s rampant existence and allure, we are warned repeatedly 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 demands that we avoid such behavior.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes that the Torah has no word that means “to obey”. Instead, it utilizes the Hebrew word shema, (a fundamental motif in this Sefer, where it is repeated some 92 times) that has a multiplicity of meanings of which “to obey” is only one. Others are…
In Judaism, we cannot see God; we hear Him, we listen to Him, because He cannot be represented visually. Listening becomes a core facet of our religious life. Speaking and listening are forms of engagement that create a relationship. Interestingly, the Babylonian Talmud consistently uses the phraseology of listening, not of seeing in its discussions:
• Come and hear
• Hear from this
• He could not hear it
“If you Shamo’a tishme’u” [“indeed heed my commandments”] are the opening words of the second paragraph of Shema that promises material rewards. A more forceful translation of these words might be “If you listen—and I mean really listen!” [ Rabbi Sacks]. We are called upon to listen and understand – and not to engage in robot-like obedience.
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 listen to him when he expresses 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 Tishm’oon” (“If Only You Listen”) …
Why does this opening phrase of the Parsha 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
The Torah seems to view 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 are certain to create wakes
Stu Dubner thinks that the allusion is to how one goes/gets along in life
Others note 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 A”H 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 that must 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 several 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 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 A”H noted 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 surge of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment and history revisionism (as relates to Jews and Israel) around the world.
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, respectively.
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 and be totally dependent on rainfall (that is unpredictable) 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 seemingly 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.
Elliot Allen observes that the limited potable water supply and the vicissitudes of the climate have unleashed the creative forces of the country’s citizens which has produced:
• More sophisticated drip irrigation
• Desalination technology
• Precision water meters
• Pipes and valves for drip irrigation
These technological advances are not only used in Israel but have been commercialized to meet the needs of nations around the world.
Startup companies are working on concepts like…
• Extracting water from air
• Detecting contaminants in water
• Membrane filtration to remove harmful viruses
• Sprinkler solutions to increase the effectiveness of irrigation
• Designing water and wastewater plants
• Offering turnkey solutions, services and consulting to manage and fix leaky pipes
“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 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 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 our 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 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 the 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 create 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 his book, 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”.
Rabbi Sacks discusses the role that gratitude--hakaras ha’tov--plays in improving health. Studies have documented that thankfulness reduces negative emotions like resentment, frustration and regret …and even diminishes the chances of depression. Grateful people tend to have healthier relationships. War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lesser levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Recognition that we are not the sole source of goodness in our life promotes humility and reduces arrogance.
And appreciation must come directly from us. During the repetition of the Amidah it is sufficient for the congregation to respond “Amen” after every blessing except for “Modim” [“we give thanks”]. Rabbi Elijah Spira (1660-1712) explains that when it comes to expressing thanks we cannot rely on someone else doing it for us. We ourselves must utter the words “we give thanks”.
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 for Moshe, from his lofty level of closeness to God; with his unawareness of his spiritual superiority (“Anav M’od”, unassuming), this was 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 to 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.
“And I Made an Ark of Acacia Wood”
Moshe deposited the broken tablets in the ark that he had made. Rabbi Berel Wein, in response to his questioning why Moshe focuses on the wood and does not refer to the ark’s gold plating both on the inside and the outside, cites…
• Rashi, who believes the holy golden ark was never taken into battle. Only this wooden ark accompanied the Israelites in their battles to conquer the land of Canaan.
• Other commentaries who state that this wooden box refers to the holy ark that consisted of three boxes one inside the other. The middle wood box referred to here was encased in an inner and an outer box, each made of gold.
• Ramban, who maintains that that this wooden ark of Moshe was temporary and was buried and hidden after the golden ark was completed.
In Rabbi Wein’s view the emphasis on wood-- and by extension the tree it comes from-- is a symbol of Torah, “the tree of life for all who embrace it”. And trees are life itself—renewable; productive; sources of shade and fruit that benefit others; and inspiring in their beauty. The tree theme is associated with the Ten Commandments as a reminder that the Torah encourages us humans to mimic some of the tree’s characteristics— productivity; inventiveness; and helping others.
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 Mitzvahs” 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 no single 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 states 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 to cope with concepts that may be antithetical to Torah.