If You Only Observe My Commandments

Have you ever wished that someone would just do what you asked of them? Perhaps it is an obstinate child or a friend who won’t take your advice. Have you threatened to punish the person for his/her disobedience? A familiar passage from the end of our Torah reading should come to light.

The sixth Aliyah in Parshat Eikev has become the second paragraph of the Shema. It begins by stating that if the Israelites listen to and follow G-d’s commandments, specifically when they are living in the land of Israel, they will be rewarded with rain in its proper time as well as flourishing crops. In contrast, if they disobey, there will be no rain. The commandments are supposed to be bound on our hands and between our eyes (the Tefillan) and inscribed on the doorposts of our homes and our gates (the Mezuzah).

This passage, at the center of our worship, has troubled many, including the rabbis, who stated צדיק ורע לו רשע וטוב לו, “the righteous suffer and the evil prosper.”[1] Because of this, the Reform Siddur has excised this paragraph of the Shema and the Reconstructionist offered an alternative section about blessings that will befall our people when they enter the land of Israel.[2] The question is just because there are examples liturgy?

In the Conservative Movement, rather than removing passages which seem incongruous with contemporary life, we keep them in and try to reinterpret them. I truly believe that our performing mitzvot contributes to improving society. Our taking one day out of a week to rest recharges our batteries, making us better parents, employees and friends. Following the commandments to look after those most vulnerable in our society helps protect those who have no advocates, strengthening them to hopefully one day be in a position of self-sufficiency. Our inviting people who have nowhere to go to Rosh Hashanah dinner or Yom Kippur breakfast not only engenders goodwill but also motivates them to “pay it forward” and continue to look out for others.

Even if we do not always see the manifestations of justice in the world, we must strive to believe in a G-d who is just, who wants our betterment and for us to do what we can to strengthen those who need support. A Talmudic statement reads מה המקום נקרא רחום וחנון אף אתה  הוי רחום וחנון, “Just as G-d is compassionate and merciful, so too must you be compassionate and merciful.”[3] The passage continues that we must follow every one of G-d’s 13 attributes because we are commanded to “walk in G-d’s ways”[4] and as G-d is called all of these things so too must we emulate G-d.

What it means for us to listen to G-d’s commandments is not just a matter of obedience but also to take on the opportunity to emulate G-d in providing for those who have needs. The people of Israel are viewed as   אגודה אחת, a collective bundle. If one of us is suffering, all of us are suffering. We therefore must ensure that we are the best people we can be, as we are emissaries of G-d working to make the world a better place. In that vein, all of us will have the crops that we need, the resources that we require in our proper time. Let us stop relying on G-d to provide for those in our midst and take it upon ourselves to contribute to creating a just society. In that vein the second paragraph of the Shema remains relevant to us, one which must be said and acted on by us at least twice a day.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 7a

[2] Deuteronomy 28:1-6 in Kol HaNeshamah

[3] Sifrei Eikev 49

[4] Deuteronomy 26:17

The Ten Commandments Part II

Once again we find ourselves reading the Ten Commandments this Shabbat. Deuteronomy means deutero nomos, or second word, and it is often a repetition of what came before. However, there are some key differences between this version of the Ten Commandments and the one we have in Exodus, and I’d like us to look at why they are different. In Deuteronomy Moses says he will serve as the people’s intermediary because they were afraid and would not go up to the mountain an account of the great fire.[1] We do have a parallel to this in Exodus, where the Israelites tell Moses, “You speak to us and we will obey; but let not G-d speak to us, lest we die.”[2] However, prior to that Moses says to G-d
“The people cannot come up to Sinai, for You warned us, saying ‘put boundaries around the mountain and sanctify it.”[3] Why would Moses say in Deuteronomy that the Israelites had an option to ascend and chose not to when in Exodus he asserts that G-d forbade them from ascending?

Perhaps another difference between the texts will shed light on this. In Exodus G-d is proclaiming the words, whereas in Deuteronomy it is Moses. According to Midrash, the people heard the first commandment from G-d and could not take it-their souls departed from them. After the angels revived them, G-d said the second commandment, and the Israelites’ souls departed again. Finally they pleaded with Moses to say the rest of the commandments, and he did so. This is one source for the 613 commandments, for the gematria of the word תורה is 611, corresponding to the 611 commandments that Moses taught them, whereas the additional 2 corresponds to the commandments they heard directly from G-d.[4]

The next difference of note is that the Exodus text takes place at Mount Sinai, whereas the Deuteronomy text occurs at Horev. Ibn Ezra responds to this conundrum by stating that Horev is just another name for Sinai.[5] However, perhaps Horev was a different place where the Israelites made a covenant with G-d before accepting the commandments. Moses is speaking to the next generation of Israelites here (as the ones at Sinai had already died in the desert) so he is emphasizing that this covenant was not only with that generation but to those that followed. Further illustrating this point is that the commandments are referred to in Exodus as d’varim,[6] or statements, just referring to those words alone, whereas in Deuteronomy Moses refers to hukim v’mishpatim, [7] an inclusive term for all of the commandments. Moses is now addressing the Israelites with all of the commandments so that they will observe them when they enter the Land of Israel.

Now we examine the content of the commandments themselves. The first major change (besides just the absence of a “vav”) is in the fourth commandment, where in Exodus it says zachor (remember) whereas in Deuteronomy is says shamor (observe).[8] The well-known Midrash to this is that G-d said both words at the same time, something which the mouth cannot say and the ear cannot hear. After all, this is G-d saying the words, and G-d had the power to communicate in ways that we as mere humans cannot. We refer to this in Lecha Dodi when we proclaim שמור וזכור בדבור אחד, ‘observe’ and ‘remember’ were said with one word. The next major difference is that the passage in our parsha focuses on the importance of one’s slaves resting on the Sabbath day because we were slaves in the land of Egypt.[9] It thus ties our redemption from slavery to our giving our slaves a respite from labor on the Sabbath. While we no longer have slaves, this same law would apply to our servants as well. In contrast, the Exodus text has our resting on the Sabbath as an act of imitatio dei, following in G-d’s example of resting on the Sabbath.

The next change of note comes in the ninth commandment, where in Exodus the word שקר is used for not being a false witness whereas in our portion the word  שואis used. שוא was previously used in the third commandment for not taking G-d’s name in vain. The Yerushalmi takes a similar line of thought as to what we previously discussed, stating that the words שקר ושוא were both said at the same time.[10]

Finally we reach the tenth commandment, which uses the word תחמוד, or “covet,” when referring to one’s neighbor’s house. However, in our parsha it uses תתאוה, speaking about an inappropriate desiring, when referring to one’s neighbor’s wife, as opposed to Exodus, which uses תחמוד again. The Torah Temimah indicates that desiring leads to coveting which leads to taking by force.[11] Hence, one cannot even have desirous thoughts about one’s neighbor’s wife. Generally Judaism does not penalize people for their thoughts but here an extra fence or precaution is taken to prevent someone from engaging in an inappropriate act.

Why so many differences in the two sets of 10 commandments-especially if the tablets were stored in the Ark which followed the Israelites throughout their journeys? It appears to me that the differences indicate that one should not place too much import on these commandments. It is true that they are the basis for creating a just society, but they are not the be all and end all. This is the reason why the recitation of the 10 commandments was taken out of our daily liturgy, as people were ascribing too much import to these commandments and not all the other aspects of living Judaism. We should learn from this that while we stand for these commandments and relive their majesty each time they are read, we cannot stop there but rather must utilize it as a base point for increasing our observance and turning to all of the mitzvot. As we turn towards the coming year 5777, let us determine how we want to strengthen our Jewish observance in the year ahead. How do we want to make Shabbat, Kashrut, Prayer or Hagim more integral parts of our lives?

[1] Deuteronomy 5:5

[2] Exodus 20:16

[3] Exodus 19:23

[4] Babylonian Talmud Makkot 24a

[5] Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 5:2

[6] Exodus 20:1

[7] Deuteronomy 4:45

[8] Mechilta Exodus 20:3

[9] Deuteronomy 5:14-15

[10] Yerushalmi Nedarim 3:2

[11] Torah Temimah on Exodus, Page 265

Og, King of Bashan

One of my favorite streets in Jerusalem is Emek Refaim in the German Colony. I lived off of it when I studied at Pardes and the Conservative Yeshiva, and I loved going out on Saturday night to the restaurants-especially Burgers Bar. Emek Refaim is generally taken as meaning “valley of the ghosts” but an alternative meaning is “valley of the giants,” and it is that on which I want to focus today. Og King of Bashan, who was killed in Parshat Hukkat, is described in this week’s portion as the only survivor of the Refaim.[1] The Refaim were a group of giants who lived during biblical times. They were larger than any other people-as we learned in Tractate Soferim, Og was so big that he could hide Abraham’s feet in the palm of his hand, and Abraham himself was the height of 74 men![2]

What happened to the Refaim? In Genesis,[3] King Chedarlaomer waged war against the Refaim and killed them all, except for one refugee[4] who told Abraham of the destruction and of how his nephew Lot was captured-and that refugee is said to be Og.[5] Abraham made Og into his servant and there is even an account of Og being Eliezer who went down to find a wife for Isaac.[6] A different account has Og surviving the flood by sitting on one of the wooden planks in the ark after promising Noah and his sons that he would serve them forever.[7]

Where in this story did things go wrong, where Og became a king who waged war against Israel during its journey in the desert? Midrash Rabbah presents a different account-that Og had told Abraham about the capture of Lot so that he would die in battle, at which point Og could marry Sarah.[8] It appears that Pharaoh and Avimelech were not the only two jealous of Abraham’s marriage to Sarah. It was therefore quite to Og’s surprise when Abraham can back unscathed from his defeat of Chedarlaomer, and Og would from that point on be at war with the descendants of Abraham.

In addition to Og surviving from among the Rephaim, the Torah describes him as having an iron bed which can still be found in Rabbat B’nei Amon and which was 9 cubits (13.5 feet) long and 4 cubits (6 feet) wide. According to Midrash, when Og was a boy placed in a crib, he broke through the wood and hence needed iron to sustain his massive frame.[9] He was certainly a giant of a man.

Why should we care about this? After all, Og had become an enemy of our people so his massive size should not be described in such great detail. The Midrash states that Og’s giant nature needed to be described to show the greatness of Moshe in defeating him.[10] Similarly, many verses are given to describing Goliath in detail in order to show the greatness of David in being able to defeat him. This is why G-d had told Moses אל תירא אותו “Do not fear him,”[11] as you have the ability to defeat him. Through faith in G-d, Moses was able to defeat this giant and conquer his land.

As we prepare for Tisha B’Av this evening and tomorrow, the day on which we recount the destruction of both our Temples, our expulsion from Spain and all the other calamities that befell our people, we need to take a moment to have the faith of Moses that through trust in G-d we will eventually prevail over those who seek to do us harm. If the giant Og could have been defeated, how much more so can we defeat our adversaries. We also have to keep in mind the possibility that people are not always who they appear to be. According to our tradition, Og began as a “gentle giant” and full-fledged member of the household of Abraham. It’s only later on that he turned against our people. As vigilant as we are and as we must be against our enemies let us also keep in mind the possibility of their repentance and turning back to join with our way of life.

[1] Deuteronomy 3:11

[2] Tractate Soferim 21:9

[3] Genesis 14:5

[4] Genesis 14:13

[5] Midrash Tanhuma 153:25 and Talmud Niddah 61a

[6] Masechet Soferim 21:9

[7] Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer 23

[8] Bereshit Rabbah 48:8

[9] Devarim Rabbah

[10] Lekah Tov

[11] Numbers 21:34

Zelophehad’s Daughters

As the father of a young daughter, I often look to tradition to find qualities that are empowering to women. A great example comes from this week’s portion. The daughters of Zelophehad, a man whom we have never heard about before this portion, stand before Moses and ask for a share in their father’s inheritance. They state that their father died in the wilderness not out of an act of rebelling (such as that of Korah) but rather from his own sin, a sin which is not specified.[1] Zelophehad’s daughters asked for a portion in their father’s inheritance, as there are no sons. Moses was not sure what to do, one of only a handful of times when he turns to G-d to adjudicate. G-d tells Moses to grant Zelophehad’s daughters their father’s inheritance. We learn that a man who has no sons transfers his inheritance to his daughters.[2]

There was a concern that the land would pass from the hands of one tribe to another and thus one tribe could gain land from another. Our concerns are laid to rest when we learn at the end of the Book of Numbers that Zelophehad’s daughters married within the tribe and hence the land remained within the holdings of Manasseh.[3] Nevertheless, I find it revolutionary that women were allowed to own property in the Bible. The biblical idea was that women would pass from the domain of their fathers to the domain of their husbands, yet this is one example (another is a widow) where women were able to inherit property from a loved one.

The reason given for the inheritance to pass on to the daughters is so that the father’s name will live on. If it went to another tribesman, the father’s portion of land will be absorbed in another family, and his identity will be lost. We often see in the Torah that genealogies are listed in accordance with one’s family, the importance of the משפחה as a unit. It therefore makes sense that one’s family’s holdings must continue.

Some follow the tradition of Beit Hillel, striving to have one son and one daughter. I have no doubt that Zelophehad, even though he lived well before the time of Hillel, strove to do just that, and instead he ended up with 5 beautiful daughters. These daughters, unlike many women in the Bible, are referred to by their names. They also merited going before our great leader Moses, making a request and having that request granted not by Moses but by G-d Himself! What a great honor to be given this opportunity to speak before Moses.

I think part of the merit of the daughters was in how they handled themselves. First they drew near to Moses, not making their request from afar or through the grapevine but by approaching Moses directly. Then they stood before Moses, demonstrating to him the respect that he deserved. Next they gave background about their father, indicating that he was not one of the rebels against Moses. Then they asked a question regarding the inheritance, not for the sake of their own benefit but for their father’s. Finally they requested an inheritance-not necessarily the entire land, but a holding “amongst their father’s kinsmen.”[4] With such a thoughtful and gentle approach, how could they be denied?

The lesson we can learn from this is that when we want to get something, we need to approach someone in the right way. First we need to go face-to-face rather than relying on email, a text, a tweet or a secondary messenger. Second, we must ensure that the person has necessary background information regarding the situation. Third, it is important to indicate that the benefit that we want to receive is not just our own but rather that of others. Finally, we make the request but we do so not in a forceful, vindictive way but rather gentle and assertive. Because Zelophehad’s daughters became close (תקרבנה) to Moses, he was drawn close (ויקרב) to them when he brought their case before G-d.

Zelophehad’s daughters have much to teach us about how to achieve what we want, even if such action is unprecedented, in a calm, thoughtful and thorough way. Let us learn from their example and make it our own, conquering whatever challenges we face along our way.

[1] Rabbi Akiva posits that Zelophehad is the one who gathered wood on Shabbat, a position which is rebuked by Rabbi Ishmael.

[2] Numbers 27:8

[3] Numbers 26:10-13

[4] Numbers 27:4