12 Tishri, 5776

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, September 25, 2015 /12 Tishri 5776

What a pleasure it was to celebrate my first high holidays with this striving community. I want to take a moment to thank the vast number of individuals who worked diligently behind the scenes to ensure that things flowed smoothly during our Days of Awe. It would be impossible to name everyone, from our Torah rollers to our volunteer parking lot monitors; from our chanters to our service leaders; from our baby sitters to our shuttle cart drivers. Let’s not forget our amazing and hard-working professional staff. If you know someone who has given their time and energy to the shul, I would appreciate it if you’d take a moment to thank them. It surely does take a village.

Even as we step away from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we quickly turn to Sukkot, one of the holidays in which I find tremendous joy. Images of all the sukkot that Laura and I have built and slept in float before me, from our island booth to our Jerusalem rooftop, shared with some black hat yeshivah students who lived in the downstairs flat. Nor can I forgot our miniscule balcony sukkah in our New York co-op apartment. I doubt the neighbors below us have forgotten either–one windy night, the roof blew off and down on to their balcony!

Many compelling reasons have been given for why we are commanded to dwell in booths. In fifteen century Spain, Rabbi Yitzhak Aboab offered his explanation, found in his classic, Menorat Hamaor:

The commandment leishev, to dwell in the sukkah, teaches us that we should not place our trust in the size or strength or conveniences of our homes, no matter how beautiful they are. Nor should we depend (solely) on other people, no matter how powerful they might be. Rather, we should place our trust in the One who created the universe…

One of my teachers, Rabbi David Golinkin, in interpreting this passage, noted how our sturdy homes protect us from the elements–from rain, heat and cold. Therefore, he argued, most of us end up placing our faith in our homes (or in powerful people) instead of in God. Living in a sukkah for seven days reminds us where our real trust ought to lie.

As someone who is very grateful for our new house in Portland, I’d be the first to acknowledge that most of the time, our homes earn our trust. What about when they don’t though? Eight or nine years back, I took a group of teenagers to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina. We met a man living in a FEMA trailer. He had lost so much. Both material possessions, and beloved family members. Yet as he told us his story, his eyes danced and a rich smile played across his leathered face. Rather than focussing on what had been taken from him, he spoke of his gratitude for what he had been given. Just a bit later, I heard one of our teens sobbing hysterically through her long curls. “I’m so spoiled, I have everything. He has nothing and he’s happier than me. I’m never going to complain about my life again.” This man and this girl both were confronted with the reality of Rabbi Aboab’s teaching. Witnessing both of their stories, I was too.

What always strikes me both intellectually and emotionally, is that according to our Sages, Sukkot is the happiest Jewish holiday. There is a lesson in the simplicity of living in a booth that gives rise to joy. I hope to speak more about this theme over the holiday, and look forward to celebrating in our marvelous community sukkah.

Chag Sameach,

Rav D


Neveh Shalom provides these Torah Sparks to spur your thinking during services, and to provide you discussion material afterwards.

Parashat Ha’azinu
September 26, 2015 – 13 Tishrei 5776

Annual (Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52): Etz Hayim p. 1185; Hertz p. 896
Triennial (Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52): Etz Hayim p. 1185; Hertz p. 896
Haftarah (2 Samuel 22:1-51): Etz Hayim p. 1197, Hertz p. 904

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Moses calls on heaven and earth to bear witness to his poem. He recounts that God (who frequently is referred to as “the Rock”) always has treated Israel with consistent justice. God punishes the people as a result of their sins, but reduces the punishment. Moses promises that God will redeem the Israelites.

God calls Moses to ascend Mount Nebo, where he will soon die.

Theme #1: National Divisions

When the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of man, He fixed boundaries of peoples in relation to Israel’s numbers. For the Lord’s portion is His people, Jacob His own allotment. (Deuteronomy 32:8-9)

The Israelites are depicted as the measuring stick against which all other nations are compared.

The song says that when the “Most High” was dividing up the human population into different nations and granting each its national territory, He did so on the basis of the total number of the “sons of God” (or “sons of El”). That is, things were arranged so that each of these lesser deities would have his own nation to look after. But God kept Israel for Himself: “the Lord’s own portion is His people, Jacob His allotted share.” It is certainly significant that there is no hint here of monotheism, the belief that only one God exists — indeed, the opposite seems to be just the point. Nor is any reason offered for God’s choice of Israel — it was apparently simply Israel’s good fortune that things turned out that way. This contrasts somewhat with the rest of Deuteronomy, which stresses God’s love of Israel’s ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the reason for Israel’s privileged position. — James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible

Yahweh does not need his destiny of other deities. The closest hint to anything like this in the Old Testament would be in Deuteronomy 32:8 if the variant reading is correct and “sons of God” should be read instead of “sons of Israel.” — John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament

The plain text was taken to mean that the 70 nations who peopled the earth were a macro-image of the 70 souls whom Jacob brought to Egypt. — Targum Yerushalmi

Questions for Discussion:

Kugel tells us that this passage from today’s portion does not indicate the kind of strict monotheism that we see in most of the book of Deuteronomy. In many ways, modern Jewish practice does not reflect the most stringent form of biblical monotheism – if it did, we would be focused on eradicating other religions who accept deities other than the God of Israel. Can we still call today’s Judaism – in which we respect people with other creeds and faith – monotheistic? If not, is that a bad thing?

Walton teaches that there may actually be polytheistic elements in Moses’s poem, at least in alternate manuscripts. This is in addition to some passages in the Torah in which God refers to God’s self in a plural form (i.e. “let us …”). Is it problematic to think of an ancient Jewish world in which there are subsidiary divine beings?

Targum Yerushalmi has an intriguing twist on the notion of the 70 nations, saying that they parallel the 70 people that moved to Egypt upon Jacob’s discovery that Joseph was still alive. This idea resonates with the modern Jewish world, which is, in many cases, as ethnically, economically, and culturally diverse as any other society. Do we as a community do enough to recognize the different backgrounds of those who populate the Jewish world? What differences are particularly unique to the past generation or so?

Theme #2: The Key to Everything

For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land that you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan. (Deuteronomy 32:47)

As Moses winds up his final address, he reaffirms that following the commandments is not simply an aspect of our personality, but the entirety of our being.

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Moses] could not, of course, give the Hebrews the intelligence to grasp the new religion with their reason, since their rational faculties had not yet been sufficiently developed, but he did get them to accept this religion blindly because of their faith in his leadership and to make it the basis for the Hebraic theocratic state. And so it came about that the unworthy Hebrews became the impure vessel for the pure truth of monotheism, and the Hebrew Torah, the religious scroll that embodied the best of Egyptian religious wisdom. — Sol Liptzin, Biblical Themes in World Literature

Lest you say, “I will read a difficult portion and set the easy one aside,” Scripture declares, “This is not a trifling thing for you”. Lest you say, “I studied Jewish law and that is enough for me,” Scripture declares, “You shall be mindful of this entire commandment” (Deuteronomy 11:22). You are to study Midrash of both law and Aggadot. — Sifrei Deuteronomy

It has been taught in accordance with Rabbi Hisda: If one was walking in a dirty alley way, he should not recite the Shema; and what is more, if he was reciting and came to one, he should stop. Suppose he does not stop, what happens? Rabbi Meyasha the grandson of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: Of him Scripture says: Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good and ordinances whereby they should not live. Rabbi Assi said: Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity. Rabbi Adda ben Ahabah said: Because he hath despised the word of the Lord. And if he stops, what is his reward? — Rabbi Abbahu said: Of him Scripture says: Through this word you shall prolong your days. – Berakhot 24b

Questions for Discussion:

Liptzin says that the Israelites of Moses’s time were not a particularly sophisticated group, at least according to modern standards, but they were as willing as anyone to accept Jewish maxims on faith. Considering that Jewish culture is so centered on scholarship and knowledge, can Moses’s strategy work today in the same way it did in his time? Or is our modern tendency to approach faith skeptically too much of a barrier?

Sifrei Deuteronomy reminds us to not only tackle the more sophisticated elements of Jewish learning, but also to be well-rounded in our studies, and to be open to its technical and entertaining aspects alike. Should we take this advice regarding all pursuits of knowledge? Are so-called frivolous events in the world of sports and entertainment a waste of time for the serious student, or is it better for us to at least be somewhat aware of popular culture?

Berakhot reflects a common theme in biblical parlance: doing the right thing will enable us to “prolong our days.” What are the benefits of doing good simply for its own sake?