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Posted By The Stash

Most of this week’s parasha is written in a double column with a very distinctive appearance. This is the “song” that Moses was commanded to write and teach the Israelites before his death. It was to serve them as an aide-memoire to ensure that they followed the commandments of the Torah after his death as they conquered the Land they had been promised. The final paragraph of the parasha describes Moses carrying out this command, as we read: “Moses wrote this song on that very day and taught it to the Israelites…And it came to pass after Moses had completed writing the words of this law.” As Nechama Leibowitz points out, on this occasion Rashi and Ramban actually agree with one another that “this law” is identical with the “song” that Moses has just taught the Israelites.

That is where the disagreements begin. The Talmud in Nedarim 33b bluntly contradicts the opinion of these two commentators. It states that Moses wrote down the entire Torah, and that here the word “song” actually refers to Torah. This interpretation, which goes against the plain meaning of the text, is very puzzling. What prompted the Gemara’s comment? The Ralbag argued that the Gemara is based on simple logical reading of verse 30 in our parasha: “And Moses spoke in the ears of the Israelites all the words of this song until they were finished.” Surely, argues the commentator, Moses would not have reviewed only the words of the song of Ha’azinu, it was the entire Torah that was worthy and necessary of review!

But, as Leibowitz observes, this explanation does not fully explain why the reader should accept that a “song” suddenly means “the entire Torah”. As she puts it: why should the Torah be likened to poetry? Leibowitz then cites the father of the Lithuanian yeshiva system, Rabbi Yehuda Berlin, who argues that “only one who is familiar with the allusions and figurative expressions of poetry can better appreciate the Torah’s character.” He argues that even though much of the Torah narrative is clear, there are many allusions and metaphors that can best be understood if the reader recalls that the Torah is a form of poetry. This is quite an incredible explanation from a mitnagged, an opponent of Chassidic reading, who prefers the literal analysis to the metaphorical.

What an appropriate way to end the regular Shabbat Torah reading cycle: a reminder that there are many levels of meaning in the Torah and we must spend our time searching for the ones that speak to our minds and our hearts. Our Sages called these levels Pardes, the orchard, after the first letter of each of the 4 genres of interpretation: p’shat, the plain meaning of the text, drash, the moral message of the text, remez, hints in the text that point to other ideas/meanings, and sod, the mystical level of explanation. May we all merit a year in which we further our knowledge of Torah through our Voices of Torah classes, and in casual discussions in shul and at home. Doing this we will enrich our lives and always find new meaning in Judaism. We will ensure that as Intelligent Jews, our religion grows as we do and continues to delight and challenge us.

Posted By The Stash

Moses has already told the Israelites he will not accompany them into the land, but that announcement had been given quite a while before. Therefore, when Moses announced, “Today I am 120 years old, I cannot easily go back or forth, and G-d told me ‘you shall not cross the Jordan,’” we can well imagine the gasps that filled the air even after Moses consoled and reassured the people that Joshua, who long ago had been designated for leadership, would take over.

The Talmud in Sota 12b interprets “today I am 120 years old” as an allusion to the fact that Moses died on his birthday. It seems clear from the text, and there are a number of midrashim that underscore the issue, that Moses expected that he would die on this day. His death was a final opportunity for him to encourage and exhort the people to successfully conquer the land and live there.

We often read this parasha on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur; an appropriate choice as it teaches us the power of making every day count. Think of how Moses must have conducted his life knowing in advance its precise limit. Would we run our lives differently if we knew exactly how long we would live? One Rabbi famously advised that we live every day as though it were our last. This advice has remained popular and found its way into many self-help books such as the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People where Steven Covey famously asked readers to imagine they were attending their funeral and to imagine the eulogy that their lives would evoke.

Moses’ choice of the word “hayom” (=today) is not accidental. “Hayom” also means “the day”. If we live our lives as though each day is vital, each day is “THE DAY” on which some important part of our master plan for self-improvement will be realized, then we will certainly accomplish something. Because true change is incremental, it is very difficult to remain motivated—as dieters know all too well. Finding a time frame and pace for improvement is a key stage in success. Yom Kippur, referred to in the Talmud as “Yoma”S, THE day, provides us with the blueprint of how to change our relationship with G-d and our fellow humans. We cannot hide our failings. We need to face up to them by apologizing to those who were impacted by them. This means going to the people we have hurt through words and deeds and actually asking up to three times for their forgiveness. Only after we have made peace with our fellow humans can we raise our machzorim and seek to address G-d, who is much more ready to listen if we will but speak. A number of prayers provide the rubric—even filling in the names of the acts we may have committed—but we must supply the honest desire to change, to bring the words past a mere formula. This is what the Mishna means when it states: “I will sin and repent, sin and repent”—such a person will not be forgiven. We must bring our deepest selves to these prayers and truly invest the words with meaning.

Finally, we need to see Yom Kippur as a way station—a first step to a much more significant destination—truly changing ourselves, which takes much longer than the 10 days of repentance. We need to rediscover who we want to be and recover lost relationships on the way. This takes time, effort, persistence, and some Divine assistance.

Posted By The Stash

In our parasha, which is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana, we read the very encouraging and eloquent phrases of Moses’ final speech to the people. Desperate to inspire his people to continued observance he proclaimed: “this commandment [to observe the entire Torah, Rashi] that I command you today is neither difficult nor far away. It is not found in Heaven, so that you cannot say “who will go to Heaven and get the Law for us so we can do it.” And it is not found across the sea, so that none of you can say: “who will cross the sea for us to get the Law so that we can do it?” For the law is close to you—in your hearts and your mouths to observe.”

I must confess that these inspiring words, which always resonated so powerfully for me when I saw our crowded shul, are ringing a bit hollowly this year. My informal conversations with my students and with my children’s friends indicate that the importance of Rosh Hashana as a holy day is fading quickly. Of course, there are family dinners galore—wonderful affairs with extended family gathering around tables laden with food and drink—but as for shul attendance—this is certainly down based on the anecdotal evidence I encounter. Many students, including day school students, don’t hear the shofar either because they don’t attend services or they simply are in the halls rather than in their designated services.

On the other hand, Orthodox synagogues catering to the “ba’alei teshuva” demographic have never been fuller. What do they offer? Their attendees cite “authentic” and/or “a meaningful services”. Many report “feeling welcomed by the community.” Certainly, welcoming people to shul is important and we should go out of our way to welcome those who will be joining us on the High Holy Days. But issues revolving around prayer are not so easily resolved. What are the criteria of a “meaningful” service? Judging from the contents of these services, people want a prayer experience that speaks to their feelings and their life experiences, and they want it in a language they can understand. They want the “key prayers” recited and the service to last 2 hours, or perhaps 3 at the most.

This is “doable”—at a price. The prayer leaders of these abbreviated services have told me that they themselves pray either before or after they lead these services, admitting that they “do not meet the minimum requirements of Jewish law.” But they justify them on the basis of “kiruv”—attracting the less observant in the hope that they will become observant. I can’t justify this halachically or educationally. I am proud that we have shortened our service in a meaningful way within the bounds of Jewish law. In addition, and just as importantly, we have raised the bar in terms of educating ourselves about the meaning of key prayers and emphasizing communal singing to tunes that have resonated for decades within our walls. And our journey, like all important ones in life, is ongoing. We will continue to dialogue about our services and learn about prayers. We will sing from the heart and understand with our minds. We will continue to stress both the emotional and the intellectual—for the Intelligent Jew maximizes their use of the various intelligences we are Divinely gifted with—so we may “learn, and do, learn and teach” for many years to come. Only through this can we fulfill the payyetan’s hope that “the words of our prayers will come forth fluidly before you O G-d!”

Posted By The Stash

As the Israelites reach the borders of the Promised Land, Moses issues final instructions for their conquest and their spiritual survival. Of particular interest is the commandment to build a monument of large uncut stones, which will be plastered together into a monument that is to be erected after the conquest on Mount Ebal. At the base of this monument Moses was told “to write the words of this Law (ha-Torah ha-zot) very plainly.

The purpose of this monument is hinted at by its location. Our parasha gives us the script for a great ceremony that took place on Mount Ebal after the conquest. Six tribes were to stand on Mount Ebal, and the other six were to gather on Mount Gerizim a few kilometers away but in plain sight. One group of tribes would solemnly proclaim a large number of cursed actions such as moving a boundary marker and offering bribes to pervert justice. The final verse of this dramatic ceremony states: “cursed is the person who will not obey this law (ha-Torah ha-zot),” offering a clear parallel to the purpose of the monument’s inscription.

Based on this the Rashbam observes, “all these curses shared the fact that they were secret acts.” And thus we infer, from the commentator who reveled in brevity, that this is why these curses are called a “Torah” and merit being written on a monument that will be mounted in the Promised Land. For the Land of Israel is holy and special, the “eyes of G-d are always upon it,” which means that all the acts committed within its borders are subject to special scrutiny. That is why Moses reminded the Israelites that “you shall not contaminate by sinning in the land in which you will live.” If the Israelites do not listen then “the land will vomit you out just as it vomited out the nations who came before you.”

This is precisely why Rashbam believes that the monument to be erected at Mount Ebal has these secret sins enumerated upon it. The final test of a religious person is their private behavior. When a sofer, a trained scribe, writes a mezuzah he must write it in order. If he makes an error in a letter, he cannot correct that letter once he has written the next. So if the sofer makes a mistake of this type, the whole parchment is useless. But parchment is expensive—if he kept writing, who would be the wiser? But that is why the sofer is qualified for his job. He possesses a level of spiritual honesty that meets or exceeds his hand eye coordination.

We read this parasha on the eve of Selichot, the late night or early morning prayers begging forgiveness that directly precede the 10 Days of Repentance. The Rashbam reminds us this is no accident. The machzor calls G-d “the One who knows our thoughts” and the Ethics of the Fathers says: “know what is above you: an eye that sees, a hand that writes, and all is written in a book.” We fool no one when we act differently in private than in public. Secretly committed evil acts, no less brazen than public ones because of the doer’s assumption that “G-d can’t see” would cost the Israelites the Promised Land unless they were advertised in a plastered monument in the bright light of day and public scrutiny. The same holds true for us: we cannot repent until we realize how true the words of “Al Chait” are: “forgive us for the sin committed in secret.” We must strive, as Rabbi Gamliel put it, “to have our outsides match our insides”. He spoke of these as the criteria for selecting which students had the moral prerequisites to work with him, but it applies well to all of us. Our goal is to make ourselves wholesome and holy—identical within and without. In this way, we can say, as did Moses a few weeks ago: “you shall be wholehearted before the L-rd your G-d.”




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