Sunday, September 28, 2008



This coming Shabbat we will read Vayyelech.

Vayyelech is the Torah's shortest portion. Moshe begins his final address to the Jews, on the last day of his life. We are told that Moshe never became frail; he died only because Gd had determined that this would be his time.

Moshe relents from the Sturm und Drang of his previous addresses, and presents a message of encouragement for Yehoshua and the nation. He then gives the Jews the last two Mitzvot:
1. Hakhel - Gathering at the Temple every seven years for a national Torah reading by the monarch, and
2. The Mitzvah for every Jew to write a Torah. We can fulfill the Mitzvah of writing a Torah by hiring a scribe to write or fix a Torah. Every time we purchase Torah texts, we fulfill a dimension of this Mitzvah.

Moshe then gathers the nation for a final prophecy, which will make up the rest of the Torah - the portion of Haazinu for next Shabbat, and v'Zot haBerachah for Simchat Torah.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a great new year,

Rosh haShanah


On the two days of Rosh haShanah we read sections from Bereishit (Genesis) 21 and 22. In addition, on both days, we read a "Maftir" section describing the Temple offerings of Rosh haShanah.

The section for the first day records the birth of Yitzchak (Isaac) to Sarah and Avraham. There are many reasons to read this on Rosh haShanah; the chief reason is that Gd answered Sarah's prayer for a child on Rosh haShanah.
During the period when Sarah could not give birth, Sarah had asked Avraham to marry her maid, Hagar, that he might have a child through her. Avraham and Hagar had a son, Yishmael, who was about 14 years old when Yitzchak was born.
Yishmael was wild, and involved in various sins. Further, he threatened Yitzchak. As such, Sarah asked Avraham to evict Yishmael and Hagar. Avraham was repulsed by the idea, but Gd backed up Sarah. Hagar and Yishmael ran out of water in the desert, but Gd rewarded Yishmael's prayer by sending a well.
The reading concludes with an attempt by Avimelech, a Philistine king, to make a pact with Avraham.

The section for the second day records Gd's instruction to Avraham to "raise up" Yitzchak on a mountain. "Raise up" is a term uniquely associated with sacrificial offerings, and so Avraham prepared to offer Yitzchak to Gd on an altar. Yitzchak, who was 37 years old at the time (based on the recording of Sarah's death right after this story; she was 90 when he was born, and 127 when she died), went along with it.
As Avraham was about to offer up Yitzchak, Gd called to him to stop, and he did so. Gd declared that Avraham had proved his dedication to Gd, and that the result would be that his descendants would receive great blessings. Avraham offered up a ram to Gd; the horn of that ram is our first "Shofar" image in the Torah.
Avraham was then informed of the birth of Rivkah (Rebecca), who would later marry Yitzchak.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a great new year of health and happiness,

Wednesday, September 24, 2008



This week's portion is Netzavim.

We begin by sounding an optimistic note. The previous portion (Ki Tavo) ended with warnings of horrific suffering if we turn away from Gd; this portion reminds the Jews that despite their various Desert debacles, they are still standing. They should not lose hope.

Moshe then describes the Jews' covenant with Gd. This is a covenant which crosses all generations (Deuteronomy 29:14). We all become responsible for each other within this covenant, insofar as correcting visible flaws and encouraging growth (Deuteronomy 29:18).

Moshe promises that repentance will always be possible (Deuteronomy 30:1-6), and that everyone can reach Gd; Gd's Mitzvot are not impossible, and are within our grasp (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). Moshe concludes this portion with a reiteration of our power of Free Will.

Have a great day,

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ki Tavo


This week's portion is called Ki Tavo.

The portion begins with our obligation to remember that Israel is not our land, but rather it is Gd’s land. This is played out in two Mitzvot: The bringing of the Bikkurim (First Fruits) to Jerusalem, and the timely processing of Tithes.

Bikkurim: The central element of the Bikkurim is the Bikkurim-bearer's formal declaration, recited inside the Temple. The declaration's text includes a five-line summary of early Jewish history, culminating in Gd's delivery of the Jews into Israel. With this text the Bikkurim-bearer acknowledged that his land, and his success, has come from Gd. This Mitzvah of bringing Bikkurim is performed only in the times when there is a Temple in Jerusalem.

Tithes: Under this Mitzvah, a percentage of one's produce goes to the Kohanim, and a percentage goes to the Levites. A third tithe is given to the poor in some years, and in other years was consumed by the owner, in Jerusalem, in the time of the Temple. This third tithe is distributed in its different ways based on a three-year cycle, and at the end of each three-year cycle the owner is responsible to make sure he has properly distributed the tithes of the previous three years. If he has done so, he appears in the Temple and declares the proper disposition of tithes, and asks Gd to bless us.
We still separate these tithes today, but we no longer distribute them due to the absence of a Temple and its rites of purification.

The portion then delivers the instruction for the Jews to record the Torah on stones on their entry into Israel. This would serve a dual purpose of educating both the Jews and the rest of the world.

The Jews are then reminded of their covenant. The Levites deliver this reminder, speaking of great reward and warning of potential punishment. This leads into the Tochachah, a frightening warning of punishment, delivered twice in the Torah - once at the end of the book of Vayyikra (Leviticus), and once here.

The fearsome Tochachah runs through to the end of the Torah portion, and the next portion begins with the statement, "You are still here today; don't panic."

Have a great day,

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ki Tetze


This week's portion is Ki Tetze.
Last week's portion concluded with military issues, and this week's portion begins with the same - the law of "Eishet Y'fat Toar," governing treatment of female POW's. Jewish men were allowed to bring them home and marry them, provided they first went through a "cooling-off" period in which the women would mourn for their families and accept Judaism. The women could not be forced to accept Judaism.
There is debate among the authorities as to whether the Torah permitted the soldier to live with his intended wife once before he brought her back from the battlefield, or not.
The commentators understand this law as an outlet for the soldier, preventing brutality in the heat of battle by forcing him into a holding pattern to give him a chance to discover whether his feelings are simply the effect of the battlefield.
The portion then discusses inheritance law, dealing with a case where a man has two wives and loves one more than the other, and would like to have her children inherit the greater portion of his wealth. He is instructed to follow the Torah's prescribed structure of inheritance.
The portion then discusses the law of Ben Sorer UMoreh, a rebellious son who develops addictions to meat and alcohol, and steals from his parents to feed that habit. If he refuses to listen to repeated warnings, and he continues this pattern even after being lashed in court, and the parents come back to the court requesting capital punishment, that punishment is administered.
The Talmud points out that the Torah's rules for the child's age as well as the parents' physical stature and mental state, and the requirements for what the child and parents have to do in order to get into this case, render this case an impossibility. Rather, the Ben Sorer UMoreh is introduced here in order to warn parents to keep an eye on their children, and nip addictive and destructive behavior in the bud.
The Torah now deals with social law, presenting laws regarding everything from burial and human dignity, to respect for property, to prevention of cruelty to people and animals. There are laws of local government, too - laws governing marriage and fidelity, and financial institutions.
The portion concludes with a reminder of our war with Amalek. Amalek attacked the Jews when they first came away from the Red Sea, even before the Jews received the Torah at Sinai. We are instructed to remember this battle by a nation which was so adamantly against the basic beliefs of Judaism, that it attacked even though it knew it would lose - Gd had just split the Sea and drowned the Egyptians! We commemorate this with an annual reading of these verses during the winter, right before Purim, and this week those verses are a part of our Torah portion. Someone who missed the special annual reading during the winter can still make it up by hearing this reading, and concentrating on fulfilling that Mitzvah.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, September 3, 2008



This week's portion is Shoftim.
The portion begins with a discussion of the institutions needed to run a Jewish Israel:
We begin with a Judicial System. There must be judges, and fair justice, for all people; social status may not affect justice. We see that judges preserve the social order, but they are also charged with maintaining the religious function of society.
The central court was located in the Temple complex. The judges were situated at the Temple, but they were not necessarily Kohanim (priests); the Torah says to go to "the Kohanim and Levites, and to the judges who will be around in those days."
The Torah then discusses the concept of Monarchy. It is not clear whether monarchy is an ideal, or only a concession to political necessity. The Torah places limits on the monarch's rights and powers.
The Torah then discusses the Kohanim (priests). They would not own land, but would instead live in 48 scattered cities, among the rest of the Jews.
The Torah concludes this section by discussing prophecy, repeating the constant warning against idolatry, and condemning idolatrous practices like sorcery.
The Jews are told they now have prophets because at Sinai they were afraid to hear directly from Gd.
The litmus test for a valid prophet is whether he follows Gd & Torah, or not.
Shoftim then discusses community-oriented laws, including:
Creation of a city of refuge (Ir Miklat) for accidental murderers, to protect social order and ensure justice is maintained.
Hasagat Gevul - The prohibition against cheating other people by invading their property.
Laws of false testimony.
Laws governing the military.
The portion concludes with the section of "Eglah Arufah," detailing a rite to be performed if a murdered person is found outside a town. The town is considered culpable, for their lack of hospitality indirectly caused this person's death out on the road.

Have a good day,