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Showing posts from July, 2021

Earth's Bonds

The Torah, and the Book of Deuteronomy in particular, argues that if we care for God’s commandments, if we follow the mitzvot, then the land will in turn care for us. In fact, the second paragraph of the Shema, reminds us: “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God, and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late.” (Deuteronomy 11) In other words, follow God’s mitzvot and then it will only rain when it is supposed to rain. Nature will follow its proper course if we listen to God. (As if it were that simple!) Too often people think that observance means lighting candles, wearing a tallis, or reciting the Shema. It also entails ethical mitzvot: loving your neighbor, giving tzedakah or honoring parents. We forget the agricultural commandments that are also part of our sacred literature. We are commanded to leave the gleanings of the field for the poor and the stra

Please God! Help Us Bring Peace

For all his successes and triumphs, our hero Moses is denied setting foot in the Promised Land. Because he grew angry at the Israelites and hit a rock, God states that he will not be allowed to enter the land of Israel. This week Moses begs God to change this decree: “And I pleaded (vaetchanan) with the Lord… Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan.” (Deuteronomy 4) The commentators are bothered by Moses’ behavior. They think it is unbecoming that Moses pleads. How can the great Moses sink to such a level and beg, they wonder. His words seem undignified for a leader. They wonder as well how Moses can question God’s judgment. The medieval writer, Moses ibn Ezra, suggests that even in this instance, Moses, who the tradition calls “Moshe Rabbeinu—Moses, our teacher,” is offering a lesson. And what is it that he teaches the people? It is a lesson about the supreme value of living in the land of Israel. It is as if to say, “To be able to live in t

Teach in All Languages

This week we begin reading the Torah’s final book, Deuteronomy. Moses is now 120 years old and is told he must relinquish his leadership to Joshua. Soon he will die and be buried on Mount Nebo, on the other side of the Jordan. Beforehand he takes the time (pretty much the entire book of Deuteronomy) to remind the Israelites about the many rules they must follow. He begins by reviewing their adventures (and misadventures) during their forty years of wandering the wilderness. This is Deuteronomy’s plot. “I am about to leave you. Don’t forget to…” The Torah states: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 1) The rabbis ask: How did he begin to teach the Torah? Being rabbis they answer their own question and state, “Moses began to explain the Torah in the seventy languages of the ancient world.” Didn’t the Israelites all speak the same language? Didn’t they speak Hebrew? Of course they did. So why would Moses need to ex

Rejoice and Be Glad

I am looking forward to the moment when the band leader says, “It’s Hora time. Everyone to the dance floor!” And we jump from our seats and join in dancing and singing the words of Hava Nagila. “Let us rejoice. Let us rejoice. Let us rejoice and be glad. Let us sing. Let us sing. Let us sing and be glad. Awaken brethren. Awaken brethren with a joyful heart.” And then my heart will most certainly rejoice. Few realize that the words to this familiar song are not that old. In fact, the tune is based on a Hasidic niggun, prevalent among Jews living in nineteenth century Ukraine. And many nigguns are based on what was then popular songs. The Hasidic rebbes removed the words from these songs and transformed them into wordless, religious melodies. Hava Nagila is no different. It is apparently very similar to a Ukrainian folk song. The Hasidic movement gave these wordless melodies meaning and import. They were known to sing them over and over, their voices growing softer and then louder. Th

A More Perfect Union

On this July 4th weekend we pause to celebrate the United States of America whose Declaration of Independence was adopted 245 years ago and whose words have inspired people for countless generations. Its opening words stir our souls. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And so, on this July 4th we pause to celebrate the gifts and blessings of this country, the freedoms we enjoy, unparalleled in our thousands of years of wanderings and the blessings we have garnered, unrivaled in the many nations we have called home. Here, we can freely profess our faith, here we can proudly declare our beliefs, here we can rest on the guarantees of a constitution that grants no religion primacy over another. In this great land we can indeed enjoy life, liberty and happiness. There is much for which to celebrate. There is much