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Here is Chief Rabbi Sack’s final parasha interpretation, and it is well worth reading. His interpretations next year will focus on leadership.

COVENANT & CONVERSATION: Nitzavim-Vayelech – The Torah as God’s Song

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How can we learn to be more cognizant of G-d’s presence? Our parasha suggests that we must develop a sense of gratitude in Divine providence, and provides us with an enlightening script in the First Fruits Ceremony. Not only are the farmers commanded to bring their First Fruits to the Temple, but the Torah provides the script for the farmer to recite before the priest as he holds the fruits of his strenuous labour: “"An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation. And the Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us. And the Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders. And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which you, O Lord, have given to me."

What an impactful script! The farmer certainly felt thrilled when their crops were harvested in a good year. It was easy to engage in self-congratulation. But this declaration compels the farmer to acknowledge the gratitude that they should feel to G- d. There are two types of gratitude here. One is historical—the farmer looks back and realizes that his place on earth is part of a longer history, and that miracles were done for his ancestors in order to bring them to this fertile land. The G-d of history deserves gratitude, but so does the G-d of Nature: as the Torah puts it earlier “And if you say in your heart ‘my strength and endurance has created all this wealth for me,’ then you will have forgotten the L-rd your G-d who took you out of Egypt.” It is all too human to forget or overlook G-d when all is well.

Gratitude is thus mandated in order to be internalized. Abravanel rightly calls “gratitude the essence for acknowledging Divine Sovereignty.” This is why we should make a bracha before we eat any food or drink any fluid. The word “bracha” itself means “acknowledgement,” and, by taking the time to make the correct bracha, we pause for a moment of gratitude and humility. We are feeble creatures despite our trappings of power. Gratitude reinforces the humility needed by the Intelligent Jew. One of the early morning blessings observes “we thank you G-d for creating a system of tubes and holes within is. Should even one that is supposed to be closed were to open, or should even one that should be open becomes closed, it would be impossible to stand in front of you O L-rd and G-d of our Ancestors.” Anyone who has been ill surely realizes the merit of this formulation and its precision.

When we, like the farmer in the Temple, recall our good fortune and thank G-d for it, we have taken a large step towards rejuvenating ourselves for the new year. Making a blessing before eating or drinking is challenging because we are physically and technologically removed from the primary producers of food and drink. This physical distance adds to our spiritual distance. Gratitude is the bridge back to acknowledging our dependence on the Divine and our fragility in the face of Nature. Pausing to give thanks to G-d is also a powerful act for it acknowledges our humanity by repressing our desire to simply eat. The simple act of gratitude is a first and powerful step towards reforging and/or renewing our link with the Divine. So try it…take a moment...pause…reflect…and feel blessed and fortunate, then eat.

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This week’s parasha features the juxtaposition of two apparently unrelated subjects. First the Torah tells us about the “rebellious son” and immediately thereafter the rule that when a person is hung, their body may only be hung overnight and must then be properly buried. Rashi, in quoting an earlier commentary, explains this apparently random narrative order interestingly: “this comes to teach that if parents do not properly watch their children and keep them from becoming rebellious, they will eventually commit a capital crime and receive the death penalty.”

Is this one of the earliest examples of overanxious Jewish parenting? Will all poorly raised children turn into criminals? Considering that the Talmud closely analyzes the entire “rebellious son” piece of text, so closely in fact that the Talmud in Sanhedrin famously concludes that the “rebellious son” is a legal fiction, and the Torah simply placed this text there so we could “learn this conclusion and receive the mitzvah of learning Torah.” What is the point of the Torah’s textual order?

I think that it represents a hint to us about the psychology of repentance. There is a famous Yiddish proverb about a mother who doesn’t like her daughter-in-law but is afraid to critique her, so she complains about her daughter instead. (“Zei zogt der tochter abe zei mind der schnier.”) It is so much easier to find fault in others, including how we raise our children, than look at our own faults. It may be hard to change child rearing techniques even with self-help books, but it is still simpler to fix the children than ourselves, especially when much of their behavior is learned from what we do or don’t do. Seen in this light, and because of this parasha’s perpetual proximity to Rosh Hashana, we can best understand this as a hint about how to turn the glare of sight on our own behaviours.

This is not easy. Indeed it is so challenging that our prayers are very merciful; they are all framed in the plural. Consider the best example, the Vidui, the alphabetical acrostic confession of sins. How many of us have “robbed”? No one in the shul I know. But saying it in the plural makes it just a bit easier, especially when we come to the errors that we know we have made. And that is the starting point: we need to think in the singular, so to speak, about what we have done wrong, while we are protected by the anonymity of the plural. If we allow our worst behaviours to carry through from year to year we may very well find ourselves on the “slippery slope” that Rashi talks about in his commentary. Negative behavior can indeed become bad habits that impact our lives and influence those closest to us negatively. Often, and this is Rashi’s point, we may not even be aware of the fact that our ingrained behaviours have an impact on those around us until it is too late. So, now that we are equipped psychologically, let’s begin the process of renewal for our sakes without the Jewish guilt.

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Whenever we talk about Jewish law, we of necessity speak of Rabbis, who are now the inheritors of the right to adjudicate law first given to the Sanhedrin. This week’s parasha speaks at length about the powers of the Sages and how important it is to listen to their decisions. But in the modern day, we must first ask: how does a person choose a Rabbi, a teacher and to what extent are they prepared to follow their teacher’s teachings?

For most Jews who attend synagogue, the answer is simple: their Rabbi is their halachic decisor and that is not a problem. While there are many reasons for joining a shul, the vast majority of these do not include: “we like the way the Rabbi explains Jewish law.” Unless you are hareidi, the Rabbi’s point of view about Jewish law doesn’t matter to most congregants anyway; certainly non-Orthodox Jews do not look to Rabbis to tell them how to run their everyday lives.

This is actually a serious obstacle to Intelligent Jewish observance. If one wishes to slowly and steadily improve their Jewish observance level they need to follow a process of learning, studying, practice, and asking questions about what they have learned. Indeed practicing Judaism leads to the best questions. Sometimes the answer is very clear—especially in areas of missed prayers. But in many practical areas of everyday Jewish life, there are often a number of possible permissible halachic positions. Can the average Jew simply pick and choose? The average Jew will; the Intelligent Jew will not. The Intelligent Jew will remember that Rabbi Graubart, the Stashover Rav and a leading interpreter of Jewish law in the early 20th century, did not merely rule whether chickens were kosher or treif based on what he saw, but also on what he knew of the families’ economic status. Other Sages did the same, basing their rulings not only on the accumulated weight of jurisprudence but on the personal circumstances surrounding each case.

Rav Graubart was following the dictum in today’s parasha: “and you shall go and enquire of the judge that shall be in those days.” The Talmud [Rosh Hashana 25b] explains: “this unnecessary phrase teaches that the judges in your time will be as good as the judges in the time of the Sanhedrin.” To which I would add: provided that we as intelligent Jews invest the time to choose a judge who understands us and is in synch with where we are on the road of Jewish observance. The road to Intelligent Judaism requires much study, practice, and that many tough questions be answered by the religious expert in the Intelligent Jew’s life. That is why for Intelligent Jews, it is important to know the halachic decision maker and make sure that they are comfortable with the approach to Jewish law offered. This is certainly what the Rabbis mean when they say: “acquire a Rabbi for yourself.” That is why I refer any tough questions, or issues about which I have the slightest shred of doubt, to Rabbi Marty Lockshin. His rabbinic and academic training are impeccable, but, most importantly, he also understands where I am, and where this congregation is, in terms of our journeys together through Jewish learning, practice, and observance.

Rabban Gamliel famously explained that he only wanted students “whose inner feelings matched their outer behavior.” This is what we must strive for: practicing Judaism that we can explain intelligently to our children, our friends, and our neighbours because we deeply understand it ourselves.

Posted By The Stash
As we move closer to Rosh Hashana, it is time to take our Intelligent Judaism to a higher level. That means revisiting foundational ideas in Jewish law and thought, and learning even more about them. This parasha makes it easy with its well known opening: “Behold, I have set before you today a blessing and a curse,” after which the text proceeds to outline the consequences of obeying or disobeying halacha. This is taken, quite correctly at a basic level, as the Torah’s reminding us that we have free will and that reward and punishment are based on human capacity to choose between mandated and illicit behaviors.

Actually, choosing is not that simple. Even obedience has levels. Let me cite three examples. The second verse of the Shma reads “and you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart…” Rashi’s commentary sets the tone for other cases by observing that the commandments that are fulfilled out of love are superior to those that are fulfilled out of fear. So, assuming that you have chosen to observe, then one should choose the highest motivation for observance.

Our second example adds another element. You may have noticed the slight differences between the Sefer Shmot and Sefer Devarim versions of the 10 Commandments. In the Shmot version we read: “Lo tachmod beit re’e’cha.” In Devarim the words are “lo titaveh beit re’e’cha.” The English translation “do not covet your neighbor’s house” does not bring out the key difference between these two words. Hirsch’s commentary sharply distinguishes the cases. In the former, “covetousness” means taking your neighbor’s Ferrari and driving off with it. But in the latter the word means “staring at your neighbor’s Ferrari and thinking about how you could steal it because you are so jealous of him.” The deeply Intelligent Jew will train their mind so that they don’t even think jealous thought because these will lead to the action that is forbidden to all.

The Sifra (a Rabbinic commentary to Vayikra) goes even further with this theme. “Rabbi Elazar b. Azariah says: “How do we prove from the Torah that a person should not say “I do not want to eat pork or any other forbidden thing?” and that instead a person should say: “I want to eat pork but my Heavenly Parent has forbidden it, so what can I do?” Because it is written in the Torah “you shall be holy to the L-rd your G-d.” You must honestly choose to become holy and not offer excuses for doing so. In a similar vein, a Rabbi told a disciple, “the non-kosher meat smells delicious, but I know I cannot eat it.” Once again, the higher modality of obeying the commandments is to be honest and not sublimate our true feelings.

And these three examples teach how to reach the next level of Intelligent Judaism when you observe a mitzva, follow it for reasons that bring you praise in the eyes of G-d and humans.




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