Torah Thoughts for Today
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Weekly Torah Portion of NITZAVIM – VAYEILECH

Constancy and Change: The Torah Remains Relevant

By Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin, Director www.jpi.org | Weekly Torah Portion of NITZAVIM – VAYEILECH.

This week’s double Torah portion Nitzavim – Vayeilech is in the Book of Deuteronomy (29:9 – 31:30).

The two names of this doubled-up parsha denote polar opposites: The word “nitzavim” means “standing” (“You are all standing before the Lord your God…”) with the nation assembled, while the word “vayeilech” means “[and (he)] went” (And Moses went and spoke the following words to all Israel…” — “Standing” means to stand still, literally like a “pillar” i.e. “netziv” which is the root Hebrew word of “nitzavim” the plural of “netziv” meaning “[many people] standing”, in this case all the Israelites “assembled” before Moses and God and it is a stationary state. While the word “vayeilech” translates as “he went” i.e. Moses “went about” the business of telling the Children of Israel the words of God as Moses nears the end of his life and the Torah nears its closure. The classical commentaries (as cited by Rabbi Aryeh Kapan in The Living Torah) say that Moses was in a mobile state as he literally “went” to each of the Twelve Tribes, to each individual tent, to the Israelite camp, to the study halls. Moses took the initiative and went to the Israelites instead of assembling them.

The root of the word “vayeilech” is “lech” meaning “to go” and is also the source for the word “Halacha” the name for “Jewish Law” but which translates literally as “the way to go” implying “the path to follow” for Jews who wish to “follow” in the “way” and “path” of the Torah.

This is one of the great paradoxes and mysteries of the Torah: That on the one hand it seems to be “rooted” and “stationary” while on the other hand it is also something that “moves” and even “changes” as long as it remains true to itself and its commandments are not violated. This is a notion that is hard to grasp and it often stumps people in BOTH directions. While some think or act like that the Torah is unchangeable (which it is, but one must understand how that works and why that is so), the Karaites only believed in the written Torah and refused to accept what the Oral Law taught, others act on the assumption that the Torah is an endless ongoing piece of putty and wet clay that never dries allowing anyone who comes along to “change” and “modify” it to suit the times or to support some sort of new set of beliefs. Thus Christianity and Islam, while on the one hand drawing from Judaism’s constancy, try to impose a new set of changes that runs counter to what the Torah wants JEWS to practice and believe. There are many more examples of this in modern times as well: Reactionaries justify their actions based on the Torah while extreme radicals will do the same, as if the polar opposites of radicals and reactionaries had the same source book but came out with opposite conclusions. This is something that has puzzled me as it may also have bothered you, and if you dwell on it, it may even induce a “shut-down” and you just walk away from this seeming intellectual confusion.

Yet the amazing thing is that by simply looking at the clear words in this week’s double parsha some of the above “mystery” of constancy versus change is “solved” if one is willing to accept that the Torah is meant for all generations, whether in the times of Moses or for any generations that follow until our own times, into the future. In fact this final part of the Torah is nothing but a “final prophecy” for the end of days, and each generation after that of Moses and the Children of Israel has had the potential of being the “final generation” of the “end of days” and it is only known to God just which generation will be the true final one.

The subject matter of the parsha speaks for itself and it is incredible to see in plain words that the Torah is somehow capable of speaking to a generation over 3,300 years ago yet still be addressed to us today, not to mention all the intervening generations that could have applied these words to themselves. (From Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah translation):

“(From NITZAVIM:) “…It is not with you alone that I am making this covenant…I am making it both with those who are standing here with us…and with those who are not [yet] here with us today…A future generation, consisting of your descendants, who rise up after you…shall see the punishment directed against that land…All the nations will ask, ‘Why did God do this…What was the reason for this great display of anger?’...They shall answer, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant’…There among the nations where God will have banished you, you will reflect on the situation…God your Lord will once again gather you from among all the nations…God your lord will then bring you to the land that your ancestors occupied, and you too will occupy it. God will be good to you and make you flourish even more than your ancestors…This mandate {mitzvah) is not too mysterious or remote from you….It is something that is very close to you…(From VAYEILECH:) God your Lord will be the One who will go across before you. It is He who will destroy these nations before you…Be strong and brave. Do not be afraid…He will not fail you or forsake you…God said to Moses, ‘…this nation shall rise up and stray…They will abandon Me and violate the covenant…I will hide my face from them…they will say, It is because my God is no longer with me that these evils have befallen us.’...[God also] gave Joshua orders, saying, ‘Be strong and brave, since you will bring the Israelites to the land that I promised them, and I will be with you.’ Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll…Moses then gave orders…‘Even while I am here alive with you, you are rebelling against God. What will you do after I am dead?...I know that after I die, you will become corrupt…You will eventually be beset with evil, since you will have done evil in God’s eyes, angering Him with the work of your hands.’”

How bitter-sweet this all sounds! The yin and yang of present realities versus futuristic predictions and events is almost maddening. Yet with the words and predictions of “tough love” also come words, actually prophecies, of hope, triumph and redemption. No matter how many changes and challenges history will bring and no matter how many personal, sociological, cultural and even pseudo-spiritual changes and onslaughts will be attempted, for all sorts of reasons, yet nevertheless, there is one constant result that will always come through, that not just the words of the Torah but its commandments and God’s plans for all of Creation and God’s love for the Jewish People in particular will always remain and grow.

Shabbat Shalom! 

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Weekly Torah Portion of KI TAVO

Acquisition of Israel: The Land That Does Not Come Cheap

By Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin, Director www.jpi.org | Weekly Torah Portion of KI TAVO.

The Torah portion of Ki Tavo is in the Book of Deuteronomy (26:1 – 28:69).

Classical Judaism teaches that three things are acquired by suffering: Torah, Israel and the World to Come (olam haba). This week’s Torah portion is a good example of that with the Torah outlining many types of “curses” and “blessings” for following in its ways, too many to mention let alone analyze in one brief essay. 

But please allow me to take a stab at one angle here with reference to the way this Torah portion opens with the words (translation from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah): “when you come (ki tavo in Hebrew) to the land [Israel] the God your Lord is giving you as a heritage, occupying and settling it…you shall make the following declaration…The Egyptians were cruel to us, making us suffer and imposing harsh slavery on us. We cried out to God…and God heard our voice, seeing our suffering, our harsh labor and our distress…God then brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand…He brought us to this area, giving us this land flowing with milk and honey…I am now bringing the first fruit of the land that God has given me…rejoice in all the good that God your Lord has granted you and your family…” with this being taught by Moses as the Children of Israel are battling their way to the Holy Land facing and fighting multiple enemies along the way determined to stop or better yet, annihilate them.

Seems not much has changed in the more than 3,300 years since those words were spoken for eternity. Now in our days after the Jews have been in a 2,000 year exile from their homeland in Israel, in the last century especially, they have been battling and surmounting the attacks against them as they pursue their inexorable goal of returning from the their exile on a national level now for the third time in history.

The beginning of the first time the Jews were on the road to Israel was as recorded in this week’s parsha, when they left Egypt and traveled to the “land of milk and honey”.

The second time was following the destruction of first of the Ten Tribes of the Kingdom of Israel by Assyria, and then after destruction of the Kingdom of Judah and the First Temple (Beit HaMikdash) by Babylonia over 2,500 years ago when the Jews began their return to the land having been exiled by Babylonia and then Persia which then granted them “permission” to return to rebuild the Second Temple.

And now in our days, after Greece and Rome undermined, attacked and then destroyed the Second Temple that has been in ruins for about 2,000 years, the Jews have commenced the third national return to their Promised Land that will result in the re-building of the Third [and final] Temple.

In each of the three returns there were enemies to overcome and lessons to be learned. While the Jews were forcibly thrust off of their homeland and kept out of it, the condition was called Galut (exile) and the process that begins when Jews return to the land is called “kibbutz galuyot” (the in-gathering of the [Jewish] exiles).

I had often wondered if there was an underlying or over-riding principle or Divine master plan that one could pinpoint as the key factor in this more than 3,300 year cycle of Jewish history saga. I am not sure if you have given this matter some thought. It is not easy trying to find some sort of “golden rule” that can be used as a yard-stick for “measuring” such vast and sweeping historical and spiritual currents or tsunamis.

But I came across one and here it is, make of it what you will:

Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1904-1980) one of America's leading yeshivah deans, was asked whether the term "Shoah" (literally, "Holocaust") was acceptable in describing the destruction of European Jewry. (Published as: Yitzchok Hutner, "'Holocaust' – A  Study of the Term, and the Epoch it is Meant to Describe," translated by Rabbi Dr. Chaim Feuerman and Rabbi Yaakov Feitman, The Jewish Observer, October 1977, pp. 1;8) His reply was: "CLEARLY NOT". The reason being, that the word shoah in Hebrew, like "Holocaust" in English, implies an "isolated catastrophe, unrelated to anything before or after it, such as an earthquake or tidal wave." This approach is "far from the Torah view of Jewish history" because "the churban [destruction] of European Jewry is an integral part of our history and we dare not isolate and deprive it of the monumental significance it has for us."

In the later stages of the article "'Holocaust' – A Study of the Term, and the Epoch it is Meant to Describe" (1977), Rabbi Hutner asserts that ironically, the "artificially contrived term [i.e. “The Holocaust”] . . . empties the churban of its profound meaning and significance." Those who coined the term "Holocaust", and who thereby appropriated a term which signifies isolation and detachment from history, "did not realize that, the significance of the 'Holocaust' is precisely in its intricate relationship with what will come after". Thus, the pattern of Jewish history throughout the ages is Churban – Golus – Geulah: Destruction – Exile – Redemption, and no event requires new categories or definitions.

The phenomenon of "Destruction – Exile – Redemption" should be the prism through which to view all of Jewish history. One aspect of this phenomenon cannot be isolated from the rest. For a unified perspective there must be a unified approach.

One should not minimize the dimensions of "Destruction". One should follow the course of "Exile". The final national objective is "Redemption" that brings the Jewish people to their Divinely promised Holy Land flowing with milk and honey.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Weekly Torah Portion of KI TEITZEI

Redressing the Balance: Restoration of Equilibrium in the Torah

By Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin, Director www.jpi.org | Weekly Torah Portion of KI  TEITZEI

Teitzei means “to go out” in Hebrew. It is in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy 21:10 – 23:26).

What many do not realize or appreciate is that the Torah is based on connecting principles. Not just that, but that the world is based on connecting principles, and that ultimately God Himself, so to speak is consistent and runs the universe consistently based on connecting principles. Thus, is something at some point seems disconnected or dissonant at any given point in time, it will be redressed and reconnected and the final consequence will be such that not matter what seemed out of shape at one point, it will be straightened out or “reconnected” at the end.

Therefore when first reading many of the seemingly novel or inexplicable events that take place especially as the Torah commences, once must realize that “justice will be done” and “wrongs will be righted” and what was made crooked or even destroyed will be restored. That is true when it comes to the principles of justice, that when lines are crossed and crimes or sins are committed, it will not go unnoticed and forgotten. There is a kind of divine system of “NO returns for faulty items” which is after all what a system of justice is about, to rectify what has gone wrong.

There are so many examples of this in this week’s parsha that would fill volumes. Perhaps the most bizarre outlandish case of the so-called “Eishet Yefat Toar” literally the “beautiful female” captive who is a GENTILE, that in spite of the fact that the Torah warns not to marry or succumb to the whiles of gentile women and forbids marrying them, yet in this case the Torah says that if a front-line soldier comes across such a woman and is overcome with irresistible passion and a desire for her, then, he may take her as his wife. The rabbinic commentaries have various opinions on this. (Sources listed in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah). The Talmud and Maimonides maintain that he can marry her immediately if she agrees to convert to Judaism. While others maintain that he must still wait three or up top twelve additional months before being intimate with her. The commentaries then vary greatly if this applies to a willing convert or if the gentile female is converted to Judaism even against her will, which is a very radical view.

Without getting into even more details, there is a huge question that bothers me and perhaps you as well. And that is, exactly what is the Torah trying to “redress” or “straighten out” what is mystically known as a “tikkun” or a “correction” or “rectification” here? I am not a mystic and I am not privy to that world. But I do know that when similar or even exact words are used in the Torah, especially in very similar contexts, then there is a connection there and it’s worth figuring out.

What struck me was that I recall that there is another famous case of a “teitzei” of a “going out” but it was by an Israelite female that resulted in a major catastrophe, as recorded in the beginning of the Torah in the Book of Genesis: The episode of the seduction and eventual rape of Dinah by the Canaanite prince Shechem Ben Chamor (Genesis 34) who then wanted to marry her, starts with the Hebrew words “VaTeitzei Dinah” she “went out” to visit some girls, but along the way she was seduced and raped (no, not by the big bad wolf like little red riding hood, which is probably what that story is based on as a cautionary tale) but a human “wolf” an overly zealous suitor who was smitten by her looks and could not resist himself, overpowering her and then as the Torah tells it, he was willing to be circumcised and CONVERT in order to legitimately marry her. There are many more details here, but it does sound a lot, almost exactly in fact that Jacob’s daughter Dinah was fated to become an “eishet yefat toar” of Shechem during the times when they were at a stage of still conquering the Land of Canaan. The story did not have a happy ending because when Shechem and his people agreed to be circumcised, Dinah’s brothers Shimon and Levi took up their swords and slaughtered all of them as “revenge” for the rape of their sister that they regarded as an abomination.

Now fast forward hundreds of years to when the Torah was given in the times of Moses and the Children of Israel after the Exodus, and even further millennia into the future when the Israelites would be conquering the Land of Canaan and confront such issues, and even in our own times in modern Israel when Jews are confronted with the challenges of how to deal with “beautiful” gentiles on the way to taking possession of the Promised Land, there is a challenge there.

The Torah clearly states that in the case of conquering the Land of Israel, there can be a possibility of an “eishet yefat toar” although no one really knows how many times it actually happened. But in our parsha it depicts a situation that is the polar opposite of the case of Dinah who was entrapped and overpowered by a Canaanite prince. Whereas Dinah was an Israelite woman the daughter of Jacob, the latter-day gentile eishet yefat toar female Canaanite captive is the one who is now faced with an arduous Israelite warrior who is overcome with a passionate desire for her that he cannot control and is granted permission by the Torah to “marry” her.

Notable too is what the additional commentaries say, that this is only a concession to the “yetzer hara” (evil inclination) and will not have good results. Likewise the attempted union between Shechem and Dinah did not have good results. But the important point to note is how the Torah sets up a kind of divine system of redressing balances. There are many other obvious and less obvious examples of how this can be learned. The fundamental principles of reverting to the equilibrium meant for the world expresses itself through many episodes and mechanisms.

VaTeitzei Dinah” in one direction looks like a mirror image in reverse of “Ki Teitzei a beautiful woman” that puts the shoe on the other foot, and seemingly, the balance, whatever it may be in the divine scheme of things, is somehow or other redressed.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Wednesday, August 07, 2013
Weekly Torah Portion of SHOFTIM

Balance of Power: It’s a Torah Concept

By Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin, Director www.jpi.org | Weekly Torah Portion of SHOFTIM

Shoftim means “judges” in Hebrew. It is in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9).

People think that the modern constitutional and political concept of “the balance of power” between different branches of government is something that was created “ex nihilo” in modern times. Particularly in America, people would be hard-pressed to realize that the origins of this formulation for good government and governance was directly derived from the Hebrew Bible, the Tanach, by America’s Founding Fathers who were devout Christians who placed great emphasis not just on knowledge of the Hebrew Bible but who also drew not just inspiration from it, but when they got around to formulating a formal constitution for the newly formed United States of America after the American Revolution of 1776, they looked at, and directly derived from, the Hebrew Bible how a government should be set up.

Just reviewing the main topics makes this very clear. Commandments to appoint and/or accept legitimate; Judges, administrators, elders and police; a Supreme Court, a Monarchy; Priests; Prophets; Witnesses; War-time leaders. For all of these there is a role. The constitutional structure of the land where the Jews will live, in Israel, is to have all of these functioning in harmony simultaneously. There is no conflict between of them if all goes well and all are guided by the fact that it is God who has commended it and through the Torah teaches the Israelites how they are to govern themselves.

In the passage of time, more like the several millennia from the time that Moses received the Torah and taught it to the Children of Israel over 3,300 years ago, until two to three millennia later, through its acceptance by both other religions and secular cultures, the Torah’s system of government has become viewed as the “perfect system” even though it is noted more for the lapses it has suffered than for the perfect order and society it was meant to usher in.

Now one might say, wait a minute, the ancient Greeks and also to some extent the Romans had a form of government that had a “Democracy” or a “Senate” or some form devolution and sharing of power from the absolute tyrannies of ancient monarchies. And it is from those lessons of history that modern men such as the American Founding Fathers drew their inspiration.  However, it may be very partially true, probably mostly false, because Greece and Rome were the “new kids on the block” since ancient Greece and Rome arose and flourished about 1,000 to 1,500 years after the Torah was taught to the Children of Israel.

As the famous British Prime Minister of Jewish origins Benjamin Disraeli retorted to an anti-Semitic barb thrown at him in the British Parliament in the 1800s: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island [Ireland], mine were priests in the temple of Solomon. (Reply to a taunt by Daniel O'Connell [an Irish political leader, per Wikipedia].)

And since it is Disraeli who refers to the ancient King Solomon, son of King David and Bathsheba, who lived about 3,000 years ago, it is worthwhile to note that the Torah warns with the utmost severity that appointing a king could lead to problems, with NOT  ENOUGH  BALANCE  OF  POWERS  AS  A  CAUSE  OF  DESTRUCTION, and many, many problems did eventually emanate from the Jewish kings of both the Kingdom of Israel and the subsequent King of Judah.

The very start of the Jewish monarchy was riddled with problems and infighting between two rival dynasties, that of King Saul (father of Jonathan and of Michal who became King David’s childless wife) and then that of King David who had the throne thrust upon him by the Prophet Samuel on account of the failings of King Saul. All this is recounted in great detail in the Books of Samuel and the Books of Kings in the Tanach, and it did not have a “happy ending” at all! Both Jewish kingdoms, of Israel and Judah, were eventually destroyed. Eventually the two Jewish Temples were destroyed as well. And the Jewish people went into two exiles, first a short seventy year exile, then a longer over 2,000 year exile still ongoing. Not to mention the utter destruction of the Kingdom of Israel when its people became the Ten Lost Tribes!

There were so many problems with the ancient Jewish monarchies that not just the accounts of how they arose and what happened to them during their existence are in the Tanach in the Books of Samuel and Kings, but there are even more significantly the great books of the Prophets in the Tanach that recount how prophets arose, and some at the risk of their own lives rebuked the kings and the people for having strayed from the Torah paths that God had required of them. The books and works of Isaiah and Jeremiah and all the other prophets in the Tanach all focus primarily on the consequences of a nation going astray.

The Jewish people have yet to accomplish, yet continue to pray for, a present of a future where the “balance of power” will be restored in Israel!

But there should have been no surprise really, because the Torah itself forewarned that all this could happen. It is as if the warnings were also missed by the Kings of France and the Czars of Russia and many others in modern times who lost their power and wealth, and some even paid with their lives, for mishandling the power and wealth they had selfishly forgotten was handed to them as a trust (even if they viewed themselves as having a “Divine Right of Kings” they should have used that “Right” the way the “Divine” had wanted them to do originally) and not as a private property “expense account” to be spent on self-gratification and nepotism alone.

Let us hope and pray that that whoever the leaders of the Jewish people are or will be, will be upstanding and righteous people.

Shabbat Shalom!

Here are the words of the Torah as forewarning what would happen with the wrong kinds of kings and leaders, translation from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan edition:

“When you come to the land that God your Lord is giving you, so that you have occupied it and settled it, you will eventually say, 'We would like to appoint a king, just like all the nations around us.' You must then appoint the king whom God your Lord shall choose. You must appoint a king from among your brethren; you may not appoint a foreigner who is not one of your brethren. [The king,] however, must not accumulate many horses, so as not to bring the people back to Egypt to get more horses. God has told you that you must never again return on that path. He [also] must not have many wives, so that they not make his heart go astray. He shall likewise not accumulate very much silver and gold. When [the king] is established on his royal throne, he must write a copy of this Torah as a scroll edited by the Levitical priests. [This scroll] must always be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life. He will then learn to be in awe of God his Lord, and carefully keep every word of this Torah and these rules. He will then [also] not begin to feel superior to his brethren, and he will not stray from the mandate to the right or the left. He and his descendants will thus have a long reign in the midst of Israel.” (Deuteronomy, Chapter 17: 14-20).

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