Bereishit: Ready?

We see once again the glory of Eden,
sunrise and sunset in unclouded skies

we shiver once more at the chill of expulsion
and leave on a journey to find the way home.

Our innocence fades as the story unfolds,
brother slays brother and God Himself weeps.

Do we dare to show up and wrestle once more
and search for the light embedded within?

In her book Our Lives As Torah: Finding God in Our Own Stories, Dr Carol Ochs notes that psychologists have long understood the value of storytelling: therapy facilitates the reframing of the patient’s “story”. She says, “The power of story is evident in the political domain. People fight against repressive regimes by remembering better times, and by forming stories of liberation. Regardless of what Jews have undergone in the past two millennia, they recall that they were slaves and that, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, God liberated them. This memory shows them the possibility of God’s intervention on their behalf; it gives them a vision of possibilities and keeps their hopes alive.”
Dr Ochs notes that we live in a society that offers us a plethora of stories, but frequently we remain oblivious to their relevance to us. However, she suggests that the stories related in the Torah, which we read and re-read, uncover for us the presence of God. She says “In other words, the invisible gives rise to the visible.”
She discusses the story of Joseph and his brothers. We see how the narrative, initially focused on the dysfunctional relationship between the brothers, gradually “zooms out” to portray the brothers’ gradual transformation. She notes that after having escaped being murdered by his brothers, sold into slavery at their hand and undergoing years of exile and imprisonment, Joseph looks back on this painful history with the largest possible perspective and declares, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Dr Ochs acknowledges the difficulty inherent in reframing the story and entering a broader perspective. She continues, “We live in a complex time, no longer nomads or shepherds. Yet we find that the biblical stories resonate with our fundamental questions about family, our essential goodness, suffering, our quest for meaning and our relationship with God. The Bible stories are difficult because the characters are not simply heroes or villains. But the stories are instructive for the same reason. The characters are flawed, and their flaws help us examine, integrate and accept our own flaws.”

Within the Torah are hidden all our stories. This week we begin the cycle again, rolling the scroll back to the beginning. We know how the stories end, yet with each re-reading, maybe we can uncover something that will serve us in our own lives.

As Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said, “It is impossible for there to be a session in the house of study without some new interpretation.” (Chagigah 3a)

On a personal note
I wrote the first poem that set me off on this journey on Sukkot 2012, and the following year, with the encouragement and indispensable technical assistance of two of our sons, I started posting subsequent poems and commentaries on this blog.
I am about to embark on a two-year program in Jewish Studies, to which I am looking forward immensely, but which I suspect will not leave me enough time to continue writing, at least not at the same frequency as previously. I hope to post sporadically and to re-post previous work. I have loved writing and especially researching the poems that have appeared here. I am filled with gratitude for having had the opportunity to share what I have discovered. Thank you so much for reading and commenting (on these pages and off) and learning with me.

Vezot Haberachah: Re-reading the words

Moses charged us with the Torah as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. (Devarim 33:4)

Meticulous, mindful, the scribe writes the words
that haven’t been altered in thousands of years

yet each year they change as we read them once more
for we have transformed in the year that has passed.

If once we believed that we grasped what they say
today we might see that they speak to us otherwise.

Parashat Vezot HaBerachah, the last parasha of the Torah, actually has no Shabbat of its own: it contains two chapters that we read on Simchat Torah. We thus complete the yearlong Torah cycle and seamlessly start to read again from the first parasha of the Torah – Bereishit. In a commentary from 2000,, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch notes that one of the verses from VeZot HaBerachah, “Moses charged us with the Torah as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob” (Devarim 33:4) was chosen by the Talmudic sages to be the first verse of Torah that parents teach their young children. Rabbi Schorsch says “Long before our children start their formal education, we are obliged to give them a sense of place. As Jews, our lives are shaped by Torah. The triad of God, Torah and the people Israel is an inseparable and indestructible unity. The compression of the verse has a creedal force that will take a lifetime to unpack (B.T. Sukkah, 42a).”
“The ritual statement of this unity is the festival of Simhat Torah. There is to be no interruption in our public reading of Torah, because it is the link that joins God and Israel. Torah is the medium through which Jews experience the reality of God as well as express it. Torah is the form and content, language and substance of our religious being. Its centrality in the synagogue service merely reflects its seminal role as the infinitely expanding curriculum of daily study.”
Rabbi Schorsch continues that the pathway to this ever-expanding study of Torah is pointed to in the Shema, the cornerstone prayer that we recite morning and night: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.” (Devarim 6:5-6).” Rebi, who compiled the Mishnah, teaches that the second verse is advising us how to fulfill the first. By constant, assiduous study of Torah we “take to heart” these instructions, and thus understand more and wish to cleave to God more closely. Rabbi Schorsch notes “The specificity of Torah helps to concretize our inarticulate love (Sifre, ed. by Finkelstein p. 59).”
Rabbi Schorsch continues, mentioning a further rabbinic comment on the clarification that the Shema offers us, which notes the present tense of the verb, “which I charge you this day.” He says “That immediacy suggests that, “we are not to regard the Torah as an old statute to which no one pays attention any more, but rather like a new one that everyone is eager to read (Sifre, p. 59).” Each time we take up the Torah should be like the first, full of novelty and discovery.”
Rabbi Schorsch suggests that the each reading of the Torah might reveal something new to us, only if we allow “our growth and maturation” since the last encounter, to unmask something that we were unready to detect before. He says “The lens through which we look at Torah is always being modified by experience. The great German philosopher Hegel stated this deep truth in a striking way: “The absolute idea may be compared to the old man, who utters the same religious doctrines as the child, but for whom they signify his entire life. The child in contrast may understand the religious content. But all of life and the whole world still exist outside it.” Thus the creed with which we began, “Moses charged us with the Torah…” contains the same words for toddler and grandparent alike, yet the meaning they carry for each could not be more different.”
Rabbi Schorsch recounts an encounter between Franz Kafka* and a small girl, which illustrates this phenomenon: On his last visit to Berlin before his premature death from tuberculosis, Franz Kafka encountered a small girl in a park where he often walked. She was crying inconsolably. She had lost her doll and was desolate. Kafka offered to help her look for the doll and arranged to meet her the next day at the same spot. He could not find the doll, but he composed a letter from the doll which he read to the little girl at their next meeting. In it, the doll purportedly told the child that she was not lost but had gone on a trip, and would return. In the meantime, she was sending letters with anecdotes of her adventures. On each subsequent day, the two met, and Kafka read another letter to the little girl. On his final day in Berlin, Kafka came to meet the child one last time, and brought with him a doll which he lovingly gave to the child. However, the doll did not look at all like the one she had lost, and the little girl said so. Kafka reassured her that it was her doll, telling her that her travels and experiences had simply changed the way she looked.
Rabbi Schorsch concludes, “For millennia Jews have pored over the same sacred canon. But history has recorded its effects in their understanding of its words. Alongside the Written Torah of Moses, unfolded and accumulated the Oral Torah of Israel, befitting the settings and sensibilities, the dilemmas and disputes of generations of Jewish interpreters, who coupled ingenuity with reverence and freedom with fidelity. As experience proliferated layers upon layers of meaning, the underlying sacred text remained immutable, effectively yielding a canon without closure, ever open to new readings. The concept of a dual Torah spawned a discourse over the ages that embraces both continuity and change.
“Thus Simhat Torah, which is the latest of the traditional Jewish holidays (not found in either the Tanakh or the Talmud), celebrates a religious culture founded on the plasticity of the written word. The Torah we are about to begin anew is not exactly the one we have just finished, because in the intervening year we ourselves have changed.”

In an interview on the Days of Awe, from On Being, aired in 2010, Krista Tippet interviews Rabbi Sharon Brous. Rabbi Brous also addresses the need to discover the newness and relevance as the Torah is studied each time. She notes that rabbinic tradition holds that the Torah was transmitted in fire, and in fire it has to be handed down from generation to generation. Rabbi Brous considers the analogy of fire to allude to the need to find something to warm and illuminate, something more than “just the memory of something that once touched our great-great-grandparents…” She searches continually for what it means to her, and adds “…not only does it mean something different to me than it meant to my grandparents, it means something different to me this year than it meant to me last year.” She concludes “And that…[is] the great power of a religious tradition. It’s versatile enough to really sustain itself over the course of many thousands of years, to say…the text is the same every year, but we are different. There is something newborn every time that I encounter this text or this holiday or this piece of liturgy.”

*Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924) was a German-language writer of novels and short stories who is widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature.

Ha’azinu: God of faithfulness

The Rock! — His deeds are perfect, indeed, all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, true and upright is He. (Devarim 32:4)

God Who formed the world
in all its glory –
and its brokenness –
entrusted it to us:
a jigsaw, incomplete –
a sweep of endless hues
and incomparable design.
We stand before Him,
with all our shades
of dark and light,
and He has faith that each of us
will add the absent piece.

In a commentary on parashat Ha’azinu from 2008, (when parashat Ha’azinu fell, as it does this year, on the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot,), Reb Mimi Feigelson cites the Alexander rebbe, Rabbi Chanoch Chenich HaCohen Levin (1798 – 1870) who re-interprets a phrase from the parasha. The Children of Israel are on the cusp of entering the Promised Land and Moses is singing his valedictory poem to them reprising the themes of the first section of D’varim: God’s faithfulness and Israel’s folly. The phrase describes God as “El emunah ve’ain avel – a God of faithfulness, without injustice”. This is understood to mean that we believe in God Whom Rabbi J H Hertz describes as possessing “unchangeable rectitude” which is to say that we can rely on His moral perfection. But the Alexander rebbe turns this around to suggest that this verse does not allude to our faith in God, but rather His faith in us. Reb Mimi adds that her teacher Reb Shlomo Carlebach (1925 – 1994) would add, when sharing this teaching: “Imagine how much faith God has in us to create a world and then hand it over to us!”
Reb Mimi continues that now we have no Temple and therefore no high priest who intercedes for us in the Holy of Holies [on Yom Kippur] “we all stand before God as a high priest or priestess. And it is with greatness that we are asked to do so. The Talmud teaches us that the service of Yom Kippur was solely dependent on the high priest – that if he could not fulfill the practices of the day, they were rendered not fit (literally not “kosher“). Imagine how much responsibility lay on his shoulders! This is the responsibility that now rests on ours!”
Reb Mimi points out that on this Shabbat of Ha’azinu, we are, in a sense, poised between the Holy of Holies of Yom Kippur and our Sukkah. She says “…we are invited to join Moshe and to sing to God. Moshe is our teacher in knowing that humility resides with greatness. He is the most humble of men on the one hand, yet the one who God speaks to face-to-face. His shortcomings walk hand in hand with his virtues and it is with this sense of integrity that he leads us through the desert, sometimes in greatness, sometimes in what may seem as a compromised face of leadership.”
She notes that it is Moses’s wholeness that has empowered him to move from being a stutterer who lacked the confidence to express himself, to becoming the poet he is today. She submits that in parashat Nitsavim that we read a fortnight ago, when Moses said to the people “You are all standing here today” he was addressing “the totality” of each person standing there. She continues “The God that believes in us, versus the God that we believe in, is not blind to our shortcomings or challenges. The contrary is true – they are apparent to the Divine even in those moments that we ourselves are blinded to them. The God that believes in us seeks a true and honest encounter – similar to a relationship that ripens beyond the trappings of a first or second date.”
She quotes Rebbe Meir Hagadol of Premishlan (1711 – 1773) who says that there are three mitzvot that we dwell in as we are – [with] garments, dirty shoes, compromised consciousness etc. – [and these are] the Land of Israel, the Shabbat, and the Sukkah. Reb Mimi says that before entering into the Holy of Holies, we must divest ourselves of our clothes and immerse in the pure waters of the mikvah. But, she says, “to enter into a sukkah we need nothing more than the courage to step inside. Where do we derive our strength to take that step? From where do we draw trust that enables us to stand as we are in God’s temporary dwelling?”
She concludes, “God created a world and handed it over to you, so that in return you can shape it and change it; a world that you can actualize and evolve. God is the God of faith – the God that believes in you. The God that we believe in is sufficient to draw us into the Holy of Holies, but it is the God that believes in us that invites us into His/Her divine chamber for seven days.”

God’s faith in us is reflected, too, in the first prayer recited on awakening, while still lying in bed – the “Modeh/Modah ani” prayer. We thank God for having returned our soul to us, in His great faith that we will use the day to accomplish the work for which He brought us into the world, even if, on the previous day, we did not fulfill our potential.

In a article entitled God’s Faith In Us – #Thoughts4YomKippur5775,, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the work of Professor Reuven Feuerstein (1921 – 2014) who was an eminent child psychologist “a man who transformed lives and led severely brain-damaged children to achievements no one else thought possible.”
Rabbi Sacks, who knew Prof Feuerstein, notes that although the latter’s methods and theories were complex, the improvements that he achieved with special needs children were rooted in three crucial factors. Rabbi Sacks enumerates “First, the basis of his work was love. He loved the children and they loved him. Second, he had transformative faith. Under him children developed skills no one thought they could because he believed they could. He had more faith in them than anyone else.
“Third, he refused to write anyone off. He insisted that children with disabilities should be included in society like every other child. They too were in the image of God. They too had a right to respect. They too could lead a full and meaningful life.”
Rabbi Sacks continues, “I learned from Professor Feuerstein that faith really does change lives. The one thing that can rescue us from despair and failure to fulfill our potential is the knowledge that someone believes in us more than we believe in ourselves.
“That is what God does. He believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. However many times we fail, He forgives us. However many times we fall, He lifts us. And He never gives up. As we say in Le-David Hashem ori ve-yishi [the psalm we recite from Rosh Chodesh Elul until the end of Sukkot]: “My father and mother might abandon me but God will gather me in.” (Psalm 27: 10).
“At the heart of Judaism is one utterly transformative belief: our faith in God’s faith in us. That, as Reuven Feuerstein showed, can lead us to a greatness we never knew we had.”

Yom Kippur: Relinquishing the bonds

All the promise I deny
the labels I affix
the vanities I cherish
the image I project
the shell that shields me
from changing who I am
the vow that stops me
from being something more
the bonds that tie me
to last year’s former self

I now relinquish
from this Yom Kippur
to next

Before darkness, as we approach Yom Kippur, we recite the “Kol Nidrei” prayer that lends its name to the entire opening service of Yom Kippur: “All vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and consecrations, and any synonymous terms, that we may vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves, from the previous Day of Atonement until this Day of Atonement and from this Day of Atonement until the [next] Day of Atonement, may it come to us for a blessing. Regarding all of them, we repudiate them. All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect. Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.”

This prayer has, in fact, a very chequered history. It was widely believed that it originated during a period of unbearable persecution, during which Jews were forced to convert on pain of death (either to Christianity or Islam) and that Kol Nidre was intended to nullify that forced conversion. However, it was already in existence in the Geonic period (589–1038 CE). The Torah very clearly prohibits the indiscriminate making of vows, and because of the ethical difficulties arising from unfulfilled vows, the Halachah has a mechanism for absolution from them (either by a scholar or expert, or by a “court” of three Jewish laymen). Thus the ease with which vows could be made and annulled spurred the geonim (leaders of early medieval Babylonian Jewry) to diminish the power of dispensation. (The study of Nedarim, the Talmudic treatise on oaths was thus outlawed for a hundred years). So Kol Nidrei  was regarded as a minhag shtut – a foolish custom. The Kol Nidrei declaration was discredited in both of the Babylonian academies. Even today, certain communities do not recite it.
Originally, the ceremony of the annulment of vows took place on Rosh Hashanah – the New Year, ten days before Yom Kippur. The Talmud (Nedarim 23b) says, “Who wished to cancel his vows of a whole year should arise on Rosh Hashanah and announce, ‘All vows that I will pledge in the coming year shall be annulled.'” (There is a ritual for this – the hatarat nedarim – annulment of vows) in which the person comes before a tribunal of three others and recites a Hebrew formula (nothing like the one in the Kol Nidrei prayer) and he asks for annulment of every vow or pledge that he swore and the trio responds by reciting a formula three times, reminding him that there exist pardon, forgiveness and atonement, and releasing him of his vows. He then declares the vows null and void.
So prior to the formulation of the Kol Nidrei prayer, there was this ritual for Rosh Hashanah. According to Asher ben Yechiel (early 14th century), Kol Nidrei was added to the liturgy of Yom Kippur, ten days after Rosh Hashanah, because that service seemed more solemn and appropriate to the underlying themes on Yom Kippur of repentance and remorse, and also, perhaps, because Yom Kippur services (even then!) were better attended. In addition, the Kol Nidrei prayer includes an expression of penitence with which to open the Day of Atonement (as opposed to the legalistic formula employed in the hatarat nedarim), and the entire congregation is present.
Although the notion has been disproved that Kol Nidrei was composed by Spanish Anusim (Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity, yet who clandestinely practised their Judaism as far as they were able), they did recite this prayer, and this may account for its resonance and widespread adoption.
The original wording of the Kol Nidrei prayer actually said “…from the last Day of Atonement until this one” and Rashi’s son-in-law, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel (early 12th century) made a significant change in the tense, from past to future ie “from this Day of Atonement until the next”. Thus the annulment does not concern past vows, rather future ones. He also added the words “we do repent of them all”, as annulment is conditional upon genuine repentance. The Talmudic discussion of annulment of vows relates to those to be made in the future. Furthermore, should a person die with his vows unfulfilled, having annulled them in advance would be preferable than dying with them unfulfilled and unatoned for.
Rabbenu Tam, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel’s son tried to render the grammatical tenses more accurately, but for unclear reasons, did not succeed, so two versions still exist, and because it is traditional to recite Kol Nidrei three times, some communities, (especially in Israel) recite both versions (usually referring to the previous Yom Kippur the first and second times and the next Yom Kippur in the third).

The Kol Nidrei prayer is prefaced by the words “With the sanction of the Omnipresent, and with the sanction of the congregation, by authority of the Heavenly Court, and by authority of the earthly court, we hereby grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed,” and the Zohar offers a very different slant to that suggested above. It submits that if we, in the earthly domain, can unbind ourselves from vows we made using the Kol Nidrei mechanism, perhaps God, in the Heavenly Court might be persuaded to annul vows He has made concerning punishments He might otherwise inflict upon the people for their sins. The Orot Sephardic machzor (festival prayer book) says: “According to the holy Zohar, Kol Nidrei is recited on Yom Kippur because, at times, the Heavenly judgment is handed down as an ‘avowed decree’ for which there can normally be no annulment. By reciting the Kol Nidrei annulment of vows at this time, we are asking of God that He favor us by annuling any negative decrees of judgment that await us, even though we are undeserving of such annulment.”
The Kol Nidrei prayer was used by non-Jews as proof for their accusation that an oath taken by a Jew may not be honored. There was even a special oath formulated for Jews (“Oath More Judaico”) and many judges refused to allow them to take a supplementary oath, due to the untrustworthiness they believed was reflected in this prayer. In 1240, in the Disputation of Paris, Yechiel of Paris defended Kol Nidrei against these charges. However, Rabbinic sources unanimously confirm that the only vows released by this prayer relate to obligations a person undertakes towards himself or regarding his own religious obligations. The formula is constrained to those vows between man and God alone; and not to those vows made between one man and another. No form of vow or oath that concerns someone else (Jew or non-Jew), a court of law, or the community is implied in the Kol Nidrei prayer. The Jewish Encyclopedia states, “According to Jewish doctrine, the sole purpose of this prayer is to give protection from divine punishment in case of violation of the vow.”
Regarding the annulment of vows (described in B’midbar 30), in his additional notes on vows and vowing in Judaism, Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz wrote:”… Not all vows or oaths could be absolved. A vow or oath that was made to another person, even be that person a child or a heathen, could not be annulled except in the presence of that person and with his consent; while an oath which a man had taken in a court of justice could not be absolved by any other authority in the world.”
None-the-less, concerned about possible anti-Semitic ramifications, the prayer was omitted from the liturgy by the pioneers of the Reform movement, but was restored by popular demand (its haunting melody is considered by most to be an inextricable element of the entire Yom Kippur service). However, it was not only among the Reform communities that the prayer was omitted. The eminent pioneer of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, omitted it during Yom Kippur services at least twice, but then restored it.

In his Shabbat Shuvah (5777) derashah, The Power of Custom and the Limits of the Law: The Case of Kol Nidrei, Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sinclair surveyed the history of the Kol Nidrei prayer, from its beginnings, when it was outlawed by the Geonim, until its almost universal recital today. He noted that if we look at the confessions that we recite together throughout the Yom Kippur services, the vast majority of sins that appear on the lists are speech-related. He pointed out the tendency to speak unthinkingly, unkindly or coarsely, rather in the manner of a rashly made vow. So he sees a value in starting the whole service, relating to the Kol Nidrei prayer as a way to contemplate the adoption of thoughtful, appropriate speech.

In his book Or P’nei HaMelech (In the Light of the Countenance of the King) Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael (Steinsalz) notes that we attach to ourselves all sorts of labels, nicknames, associations, definitions. He says a person might define himself as an intellectual or a Chasid or not a Chasid or someone not easily roused to emotion. We splint ourselves, he says, into all sorts of limitations: there’s a certain thing we convince ourselves that we cannot do; there are certain things about which we are not willing to think or talk; and there are certain issues that we convince ourselves do not relate to us at all. And then, when we shut ourselves up in our shell, nothing can influence us. So he paraphrases “All those associations, affiliations and definitions that I have fixed on myself and perhaps will fix on myself, they should all be annulled and revoked. I release myself from all of these, from the past and in the future, from this Yom Kippur to the next, may it come to us for a blessing.”

Vayelech: Leading the words

Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel (Devarim 31:1)

I hold the book before me,
reciting prayers by rote,
my mind afloat far off.
The power of the words
might yet invite me, guide me back.

But sometimes, focused,
I hope that I might find within
a vessel, to hold the ancient words.
I might then lift them up
and set them free.

The opening words of Parashat Vayelech “Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel”  (Devarim 31:1) elicit the immediate question “Where did Moses go to speak these things?” He was already in front of the assembled people, as we know from the last parasha.
Surprisingly, Rashi has no comment on this, but other exegetes offer their suggestions: the Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi, 1194–1270) teaches that after Moses finishes his address to the people (in Parashat Nitzavim), the people disperse to their tents. Moses desires to bid them all farewell before he dies, but he wishes it to be a personal leave-taking – he wants to deliver his message himself. So this is the meaning of “he went” – from the Levite camp where he lives, to the tribal areas where the people live, and speaks to them all in turn.
Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra, 1089–1167) makes a further suggestion of where Moses goes: he submits that Moses wants to comfort and encourage the people in the face of his imminent death. He assures them that God will guide them, through the agency of Joshua. Ibn Ezra surmises that it is now, when he visits individually with each tribe, that Moses bestows his final blessings, as we read later in Parashat Vezot Ha’berachah.

The Chasidic Masters also have suggestions concerning the nature of Moses’s “going”. The Noam Megadim (Rabbi Eliezer HaLevi Horowitz of Tarnigrad, d. 1806) teaches: “Moses, even after he went, after he died and passed from the world – “He spoke these things”, he is still speaking and making the voice of his Torah heard – “to all Israel”, because anything a learned pupil might suggest in the future, has already been said to Moses…”
The Mishmeret Itamar (R. Itamar ben Israel Wohlgelerenter of Konskowola, d. 1831) teaches “The steps [literally “goings”] of his life and his behavior throughout his days and years – Moses spoke these things to all Israel – he discussed and taught to all of Israel.”
The Devash veChalav’s teaching, (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Krengel of Krakow, 1847-1930) suggests that the people knew that Moses was to deliver all 613 mitsvot to them before his death. Until he gathered them together, as we read in last week’s parasha Nitsavim, they had only received 611 (the last two yet to be given were “Hakhel” – concerning the mandatory assembly of all Jewish men, women and children, as well as “strangers” to hear the reading of the Torah by the king of Israel once every seven years; and the instruction to “Write down this poem [and teach it to the people of Israel…]” (the commandment for each Jew to write a personal copy of the Torah – nowadays, helping towards the purchase of a Sefer Torah and having a scribe fill in a letter on one’s behalf at its completion is considered fulfillment of this mitsva). So the Devash veChalav brings the notion that the people did not assemble again to receive these last two, thus delaying the bitter moment of Moses’s death. Once he realised, “Moses went” himself to instruct them about these last commandments, as he did not want their entry into the land to be delayed on his account.
The Me’aynah shel Torah (Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman 1897 – 1943 (incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto and murdered in Trawnicki)) notes “It is not written where [to which place] Moses went, but the end of the phrase clarifies its beginning. “Moses went – to all Israel” – he entered the heart and spirit of all Israel. In the innermost recesses of every person in Israel, in his blood and his soul, in all the times and eras, there can be found a spark of Moses our Teacher.”
From the Toledot Yitschak (Rabbi Yitschak Karo 1458-1535) we learn: “And it is not written to where Moses went – because wherever he went, he spoke these words: in the street, during negotiations, at work, in private and communal undertakings – everywhere he introduced the word of God.”
Chasidic writings add “This phraseology has not been used elsewhere in the Torah. Everywhere it says: he said, he spoke, he gathered – and here – he went. So we learn that according to the sages (in Berachot 31) “Before taking leave of his fellow a man should always finish with a matter of halachah, so that he should remember him thereby” thus when Moses was about to take leave of the world, he died with a matter of Halachah – the laws of repentance and the commandment to reprove one another [a loving rebuke intended as constructive not destructive criticism]…”

However, the Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, has a different idea for this enigmatic phrase. In his book A Partner in Holiness* vol 2 Rabbi Jonathan Slater cites the commentary on Parashat Vayelech from the Kedushat Levi – the teachings of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. The Berditchever suggests that we interpret this verse in the light of the idioms which the Talmudic sages employ in speaking of someone leading the congregation in prayer. They use two idioms, one found in Shabbat 24b “[shaliach tsibbur ha’yored lifnei ha’teivah] – a prayer leader who goes down before the ark” (here we can visualize an ancient amphitheater-like synagogue), and the other in Berachot 34a “[ha’over lifnei ha’teivah] – one who passes before the ark.”
Rabbi Slater quotes Rabbi Levi Yitschak “When a righteous person prays before God, he must attach himself to the words (teivot) that he is praying [a play on words – teivah means both word and ark]. Those holy words direct him in prayer. But there are those who are at a higher spiritual degree and they direct the words of prayer.” This, he tells us, is the level of Moses, as we learn in the Zohar. Rabbi Slater continues with Rabbi Levi Yitschak’s teaching, “So someone who “goes down before the ark” is led by the words, and he is below the words (teivah). But there is a righteous one who “goes before the ark,” and she leads the words (teivah, she stands above them. Here we are at the end of Moses’s life when the wellsprings of wisdom were stopped up from him (cf Sotah 13b), and so instead, the first quality applied to him and the words led him. This is the sense of our verse “Moses went and spoke” – he went toward Speech, and the word was above him.”
Rabbi Levi Yitschak then suggests an explanation why Moses’s prophecy in Ha’azinu (next week’s parasha) is quite enigmatic, unlike anything else in the Torah. He says that until then, Moses’s prophecy had been as through a clear glass, whereas all other prophets’ prophecies had been as through unclear glass (Yevamot 49b). Thus Moses was able to express his words exactly as he had received them from God, with no “garment” or use of riddles or parables. The other prophets had to “dress” their words with parables and thus their prophesies are frequently enigmatic. However, before Moses died, the channel of wisdom was transferred to Joshua. Hence the poem Ha’azinu is obscure and “covered in garments.”
Rabbi Slater extrapolates Rabbi Levi Yitschak’s teaching to modern times. He says that today we might have a different explanation for the obvious contrast between the language used in Ha’azinu and elsewhere in the Torah. But the Berditchever, he says, is always seeking to “connect Torah to lived experience, to help us apply it to our own lives.”  So he frames the experience for us, not in terms of prophecy, but of prayer.
Rabbi Slater says, “The experience of (Moses’s) prophecy is likened to the experience of one who prays with such concentration that authentic words of prayer issue forth with clarity and intention. We can assume that this sort of prayer is grounded in the siddur [prayer book] but extends beyond it. The words of the prayer book may be the start of prayer but no longer lead the person in his or her devotion. This is, in Levi Yitschak’s eyes, a higher form of prayer. The lower form – “going down before the ark (word – teivah),” being led by the words of the siddur – is still that of a righteous person (a tzaddik), and so laudable. But the challenge to us, perhaps, is to investigate how we pray, how we pray the words of the siddur, and how we express ourselves through those words and beyond in our prayers.”

*A Partner in Holiness: Deepening Mindfulness, Practicing Compassion and Enriching Our Lives through the Wisdom of R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s Kedushat Levi

Nitsavim: The hardest quest

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess. (Devarim 11-16

We’ve conjured up the stuff of dreams:

we’ve walked in space and seen the heavens
radiant with galaxies of stars,

we’ve plumbed the depths beneath the waves,
and walked the ocean floor,

we’ve charted lands beyond the sea, and
marveled at the glory of Your world, yet

we struggle with the hardest quest –
to walk the path illumined by Your light.

Parashat Nitsavim contains Moses’ third discourse which he imparts to the people as he approaches his own death. It is a summons to ratify the covenant between God and the people, and is always read close to Rosh Hashanah, which is a time for taking stock of our commitment to the covenant with God.

In a commentary on the parasha from 2014,, Professor Arnold Eisen addresses this discourse. He says, “It would be difficult to think of a Torah portion that speaks with greater urgency than this one. The Israelites are about to cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Moses is about to die, at God’s command, on the wilderness side of the river. He needs to sum up the teaching to which he has devoted his life in a manner that is persuasive, indeed unforgettable, for the people will not get to hear from him directly again, and the teaching is not meant for his generation alone. The Torah wants to speak to Children of Israel in every time and place, in a way that leads them — leads us — to carry forward the project that Moses has directed. It succeeds in that effort: we too are stirred by Moses’s language, compelled by his vision, moved to undertake responsibility for his Torah.” Professor Eisen notes that four passages in Parashat Nitsavim seem to him especially crucial to Moses’s teaching and our response.
First, the opening words are addressed to the entire community. Absolutely everyone is included, both from that time and throughout all coming generations. Implicit is the assurance that the Torah will be relevant in every time and place.
Secondly, Moses says that “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, while revealed things belong to us and our children forever, to do all the things/words of this Torah.” (Devarim 29:29). Prof Eisen comments, “We must resign ourselves to the fact that we will never know much of what we would dearly like to know. But — the Torah insists — we do know enough to live in this world, to do good, to make things better. We have God’s Torah and the tradition built upon it over the generations. We have the promise of God’s justice and compassion, and are occasionally vouchsafed moments in God’s presence. We have abundant gifts of human culture and society: arts and sciences, experience and wisdom…”
He continues, “As if in response to the protest, “But it is so hard! Hard to know what is right, and harder still to do it!,” Moses attempts reassurance. When the people stray from the path, God will “take you back in love” ([Devarim] 30:3). The task he sets for them is not beyond their capabilities. “This Instruction [mitzvah] which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” It is not in the heavens, or beyond the sea. “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.” ([Devarim] 30:11–14). Finally, Moses emphasizes that although God’s mitzvot – commandments may not be easy to keep, they are within our reach. We are to bring them into every aspect of our daily life. Moses seems to be saying that the “word” is very close to us otherwise we would not be able to access it. He encourages the people to walk in the way of Torah.

In a commentary on the parasha from 2011,, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen too addresses this second-to- last speech by Moses to the people, before he dies and they enter the land. Rabbi Cohen notes that as Moses departs, his role as mediator is taken away also. Rabbi Cohen says, “It is no longer necessary for somebody to go up to heaven (not once, but twice) to bring the Torah down. It is no longer necessary for there to be one person who mediates the word of God for the people. “It is in your mouth, and in your heart to fulfill.”
He notes that a frequently-cited Talmudic tradition understands this verse to mean that once the Torah was revealed at Sinai, it was transferred from the heavenly realm to the human one, and thus, interpreting and understanding it became the responsibility of humans. He adds, “God is no longer a voice in the debate. “It is in your mouth, and in your heart to fulfill.”
Rabbi Cohen continues that there is another view that appears in the Midrash (Mechilta deRabbi Ishmael, Bachodesh 9) and holds that “Israel merited prophecy because they refused to hear the voice of God directly at Sinai, and begged Moses to be the intermediary.” (Shemot 20:19). When Moses retells the story of the Revelation at Sinai he adds God’s response to the people’s request not to hear God’s voice. “The Lord heard the plea that you made to me and the Lord said to me, I have heard the plea thsat this people made to you ; they did well to speak thus.” (Devarim 5:25) The Midrash sees this as an endorsement of having a mediator. However, Rabbi Cohen suggests that Moses’ statement in this week’s portion, does not seem to clarify the question of approval or disapproval of mediation. He says, “The point of Moses’ statement is that you cannot rely on the fact that there might be somebody else to get the Torah and teach it to you, or for you. You must get it, study it and teach it. There is no longer an excuse. The fear that Israel had at Sinai of hearing the voice of God, cannot now be avoided – for the voice of God is what happens when Torah is studied. God is in the space between the student and her text, between teacher and student, between student and study partner.
“When Moses finishes speaking, he immediately writes “the words of this Torah on a scroll, in their entirety.” He then entrusts them to the Levites to carry with the Ark of the Covenant. The Torah is now text, and inert unless studied. This is the obligation of freedom, and the criteria for membership in the community: being involved in the ongoing dialogue of Torah study. For those who take up the challenge – it is theirs; for those who don’t-it remains beyond the ocean and above the Heavens.”
Rabbi Cohen concludes with a thought by the Sefat Emet, who teaches that Moses broke the tablets of stone only when he saw the golden calf, as he realised that the people were not yet ready to receive them. Had they done so then, they would have worshiped the tablets like an idol. So Rabbi Cohen suggests “When Torah is static it is an idol: inaccessible, beyond the heavens, and for all intents and purposes, mute. When Torah is studied, and therefore dynamic, it is close at hand and alive. It is the word of God.”

In her book The Five Books of Miriam, a Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, Dr Ellen Frankel relates the Yiddish folklore story of Skotsl. Dr Frankl reminds us that when Moses is preparing to die, he assures the people that the Torah is neither in the heavens nor across the sea but “very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart. ([Devarim] 30:14). She asks “Is that still true? For isn’t it also written “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us” (30:12)? What are we supposed to do now that we no longer have a superhuman champion like Moses to intercede with God on our behalf?”
And she answers, “Once upon a time, there lived in Russia a community of women who reached just such a point of despair when the Russian army came and marched off all their men. Because the women themselves had no direct access to the Torah, neither to its words nor to the performance of many of its mitzvot , their Jewish lives came to a standstill. There were no men to perform a bris (ritual circumcision), slaughter kosher meat, lead prayers, read from the Torah, or conduct a funeral. Finally, a young woman, named Skotsl, suggested that they build a human ladder to heaven and ask God what to do. Because it was her idea, Skotsl was elected to be their spokeswoman.
“But just as Skotsl reached the top of the wobbling tower, the woman at the bottom sneezed, and the whole pillar of women collapsed. After they had picked themselves up and made sure no bones were broken, they looked around for Skotsl – but she was nowhere to be found. And since that day she has never been seen again. Did she reach heaven and become stranded there? Or did she fall to earth somewhere so distant that she could not find her sway back home? Or did she die in the fall?
“To this day, when some Jewish women greet each other, they announce, “Skotsl kumt!” – hoping that at last Skotsl has returned with answers from heaven and beyond the sea.”

Ki Tavo: Forty years to understand

Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. I led you through the wilderness forty years – the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet; you had no bread to eat and no wine or other intoxicant to drink — that you might know that I the Lord am your God. (Devarim 29:3-5)

No instant insights
despite the wonders on the way.

Forty years from revelation
to understanding.

Forty years to pare the husk
and find the heart within.

In a talk* that he gave at the Se’udah Shelishit (third Sabbath meal) on Shabbat Parashat Ki Tavo in 1996,, Rabbi Yehudah Amital (1924 – 2010) cites the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 5b) which recalls the incident in which the people grumbled against God and Moses that there was no bread and water in the wilderness and that they had come to loathe the miserable food… (B’midbar 21:5). Yet the Gemara says that Moses only reminds the Israelites of this incident some forty years later. We read there “As it is said, ‘And I have led you forty years in the wilderness . . . but the Lord did not give you a heart to know, and eyes to see and ears to hear, until today.’ [the quotation in the Gemara actually changes the order of the verses cf the Torah’s text itself as cited above)]. Said Raba: From this you can learn that it may take one forty years to know the mind of one’s master.” Rav Amital wonders what the Gemara is teaching us. He asks, “Does it really take four decades to learn a lesson?”
In order to address this, he brings the Talmudic analogy (Chagiga 15a) of toch – the meaning, value, or truth that lies at the heart or core of a system, and its kelipah – the shell or husk that surrounds it, and which can take many forms. Rav Amital notes that Chasidic thought differentiates between “a kelipah of desire, which one may penetrate to reveal the truth, and a kelipah of falsehood, which has no toch at its core. In such a case, he says, the shell is truly empty.”
Rabbi Amital, speaking twenty years ago, addresses a challenge no less pressing today, which he describes as a new culture of falsehood. He says, “Now it is the mantra of the West which rules, that image is everything, that only kelipah counts. Within this culture of hidden lies, falsehood is attractively packaged and marketed. Whether it is commercial advertisement or political propaganda, modern media present us with enchanting and beautiful externals, the connection between them and the internal value of the product or person being negligible.  There are even those who attempt to sell the toch of Judaism in the same way, by exhibiting all of its ostensibly desirable and appealing elements, instead of delving into its content and depth.”
Rav Amital brings a strange story from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Chagigah 2:2) which tells of two righteous men, one of whom dies and whose spirit then appears to his friend and describes the afterlife. Among other things, he tells him of a woman there, who has the bizarre name of Miriam-Daughter-of-Onion-Leaves, in whose ear the hinge of the gate of Gehinom [hell] revolves! The friend learns that she earned this punishment because of her false piety – she fasted a lot and took great pains to publicize it, or, according to another opinion, she exaggerated it.  However, the deceased informant adds that Miriam will be replaced in her uncomfortable position by none other than Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, who was the Nasi – the President of the Sanhedrin,** who when he dies, will take her place! The amazed friend wonders what could have been the sin of the Nasi? He learns that prior to becoming Nasi, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach undertook to use his position to eradicate sorcery, but did not kept his resolution once he reached office. The friend immediately visits R’ Shimon ben Shetach, who resolves to fulfill his promise, but is awestruck, because he hadn’t ever actually spoken of his intention aloud, having only committed in his own heart to do so!
Rav Amital asks what we learn from this passage. He teaches that Miriam-Daughter-of-Onion-Leaves’ curious name gives us the clue. He notes the marked difference between the onion and other vegetables: while other vegetables have a kelipah and a toch, the onion has only kelipah; after each layer of peel is shed, there is another layer of peel. The onion thus symbolises things which have only an exterior, but no core. This passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi comes to denounce that which has no inner truth or value, that which merely consists of a possibly attractive but actually empty husk. Miriam-Daughter-of-Onion-Leaves puts on a show of fasting, appearing to be pious, but really seeks public approbation. R’ Shimon ben Shetach lets himself believe that he wants the high office of Nasi in order to eradicate paganism, but he does not fulfill the promise, even though he made it only to himself.
Rav Amital adds, “Judaism demands that, just as one should not write a check unless he has funds to cover it in the bank, one must also have “coverage” for all his assertions, promises and even intentions. The Torah despises facades and hypocrisy.  We must inspect our actions, making sure that they validate our words and thoughts…”
He concludes, “With this in mind, we can return to the Gemara in Avodah Zarah cited above. The template of Moses in the desert shows us that it is insufficient to memorize and declaim the rabbi’s words verbatim, being satisfied with the way they appear at first glance, on a kelipah level. Instead, we must understand them well and plumb their depths, exposing the toch.  This requires a great deal of time, but it is the only way to ensure that at our core, we are people of truth.”

After the number seven, forty is the most frequently-occurring number in the Tanach, and it often seems indicative of some sort of transition or turning point (forty days of the Flood, of Moses fasting on Mount Chorev, forty days granted to Ninevah to repent, forty days of purification following the birth of a baby boy (double that amount for a baby girl); forty years was the age at which both Isaac and Esau were married, that Calev was sent to spy out the land, forty years of the Children of Israel’s sojourn in the desert,while several judges and kings ruled each for forty years.)
In the Talmud, we learn that a new level of understanding is attained at the age of forty – “ben arba’im le-binah,” (Pirkei Avot 5:26). Tradition tells us of three great Rabbis – Hillel, Yochanan ben Zakkai and Akiva who embarked upon their rabbinical studies when they were forty years old.
Forty is also paralleled in the period between the first day of Elul, when we begin to blow the Shofar to prepare for Rosh Hashana, until Yom Kippur, the end of the period of repentance. These 40 days are considered a meaningful period for striving to reach a deeper level of understanding of what is required of us.

*Rav Amital’s talk was summarized by Matan Glidai and translated by Yoseif Bloch.
**The Great Sanhedrin, similar to a Supreme Court, was made up of a Nasi (President), who functioned as head or representing president, but was not a member of the court, an Av Beit Din (the chief of the court), and sixty-nine general members.