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, http://etzion.org.il/vbm/english/archive/sichot67/50-67kitavo.htm, 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.

Ki Tetzei: Lost and saved

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must surely return it to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you may not hide yourself. (Devarim 22: 1-3)

All that we’ve misplaced
from last year until this:
the faith that Your design is good;
our hopeful resolutions to do better;
our connections with each other
and with You

are safeguarded, in “lost and found.”
You don’t need signs to know they’re ours.
You hold our vision, undespairing,
until we come to claim it.


In a commentary on Ki Teitzei from 2001, Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun notes that amid the plethora of laws concentrated in this parasha [more than in any other parasha] we find the following law with which, traditionally, countless students have entered the complex world of Talmud study: If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must surely return it to your fellow (Devarim 22:1). The Talmud (in Bava Metzia) expounds upon the laws of returning lost property, hashavat aveidah. Rabbi Eichler Berkun ponders why this subject was chosen by early Jewish teachers as an opening into serious religious learning.
She observes that we read this parasha in the month of Elul, when our thoughts are turning towards preparing for the Yamim Nora’im – the High Holidays. She suggests that there is a connection between the laws of lost property and the process of repentance. She notes the use of the same words for these two concepts. With regard to lost property the Torah teaches, hashev te’shiveim – literally “return, you shall return [lost property].” During the month of Elul, the over-riding theme is of repentance, teshuvah which means returning – to God. So Rabbi Eichler Berkun wonders how the laws of returning lost property inform us about the “spiritual discipline of repentance”? She notes that we learn in the Talmud that we are only responsible for returning a lost article that bears an identifying mark. So if we find coins or money bills on a street, we may keep them, as we have no chance of finding the owner, who in any event will not have any expectations of being located (he is considered to have reached a stage of ye’ush – despair – of receiving his money back). However, the Talmud also mandates that if we find something with a siman – a “sign” which identifies the owner, then we are obliged to make every effort to find him and return his property. He too, will not have despaired since the object is identifiably his. Moreover, we are enjoined to expand our efforts beyond obvious markings, but to consider where the object was found in an attempt to find the owner.
Rabbi Eichler Berkun says “Similarly, during this month leading up to the Yamim Noraim, we are called upon to look for the simanim, the “signs” that we have hurt someone in the past. We must search our souls for both the obvious and the subtle indications that obligate us to engage in teshuvah with those around us. If we wait too long to return, our loved ones may despair of ever finding a renewed relationship with us. As we make amends with all of those whom we have wronged in the past year, we return something which was lost to them. Perhaps we must return a family member’s sense of dignity. Perhaps we must give back our neighbor’s sense of self worth. Perhaps we must bring back our child’s sense of independence, our parent’s sense of honor, or our friend’s sense of trust.” She adds that in addition to truly seeking out ways to return something that was lost, or to repent for a misdeed, the Torah emphasises the need to keep on trying to do so. She cites the Mishnah: If one returned [an animal] and it ran away, and he returned it again and it ran away, even [if this happens] four or five times, he is still obligated to return it [yet again], for it is stated [in the Torah]: hashev t’shiveim, “return, you shall return them…” [Bava Metzia 27a]. She notes that double emphasis of the verb “to return” in the Torah verse is a reminder to “repeatedly and diligently” return lost property. She compares this to the teaching of the Rambam (1135-1204) in his work Hilchot Teshuvah – Laws of Repentance, that if one asks another for forgiveness and is rejected, one is obligated to return a second and even a third time in an attempt to attain forgiveness. She says, “Teshuvah, like finding the original owner of a lost article, is certainly a challenging and painstaking process.”
Rabbi Eichler Berkun mentions the Stone of Claims from Temple times, as depicted in Bava Metzia 28b: “Our Rabbis taught: There was a Stone of Claims in Jerusalem: whoever lost an article repaired thither, and whoever found an article did likewise. The latter stood and proclaimed, and the former submitted his identification marks and received it back.” She says that this transaction of restoring lost property would occur during the festival seasons when the people gathered to celebrate at the Temple in Jerusalem. She says “Imagine how much easier it would be, nowadays, to return lost property at one universally recognized place and time. In the case of teshuvah as well, the Temple offered a specific method for gaining atonement. The sacrificial system and the priestly rites enabled a person to achieve repentance each year. However, as Maimonides explains: At present, when the Temple does not exist and there is no altar of atonement, there remains nothing else aside from teshuvah (Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:3). In the post–Temple era, Maimonides is telling us, we have no means of returning to God and to those whom we love other than the hard work of personal introspection, prayer, and earnest attempts to ask for forgiveness.”
Rabbi Eichler Berkun suggests that the Temple represents God’s presence among the people. She says, “Like the owner of a lost article, who could meet us at the “claimant’s stone” in Jerusalem, God would meet us in the Holy Temple as we returned each year to offer sacrifices. Today, we strive to recreate that sense of God’s immediate presence in our lives through our rituals, prayers, and studies.” She adds that the Yamim Nora’im represent our “claimant’s stone” where we return to God and each other. She concludes, “The laws of lost property in this week’s parashah speak to the fundamental experience of what it means to be a Jew. Jewish educators have trained their students first in the ethic of returning lost property in order to shape the moral and spiritual instincts of these Jewish souls. May our reflections upon these laws of hashavat aveidah serve as an intellectual and spiritual first step towards the transformative process of teshuvah.

In a further commentary on the parasha from 2010, http://www.jtsa.edu/the-jewish-lost-and-found, Rabbi Daniel Nevins reviews the very detailed system the rabbis developed to determine the level of responsibility a finder has to restore lost property. He notes, however, that rabbinic sensitivity also encompassed the psychological and social context. Thus, if returning lost property would engender too high a social or financial cost, the finder would not be expected to do so. He also mentions that, mindful of human frailty, the Torah enjoins us to restore lost property to our enemies as well as our friends. Thus, he suggests “I like to think that they were concerned not only with taming the petty instincts of a person who finds lost property, but also with restoring good relations between people who had been enemies. In this sense, the “lost possession” is friendship, and the commandment is to turn an enemy back into a brother.”
Rabbi Nevins also perceives the concept of “lost property” as an allegory. He asks “What is the most valuable property of the Jewish people? Is it not the Torah itself, which is called “the inheritance of Jacob’s congregation” (Deut. 33:5)?” He continues, “The Torah, which belongs to all of us, is nevertheless a lost inheritance for most Jews. An ancient story about Rabbi Yannai makes this point — if you meet a Jew who knows nothing of the tradition, do not mock him, but become his teacher (Vayikra Rabba 9:3). The Hasidic author Sefat Emet said that every day a heavenly voice announces that a valuable lost object — the Torah — has been found and is waiting to be claimed (Ki Tetzei for 5661). He finds a nice hint of this in the verse “until your brother comes to seek it (drosh).” On Shabbat, the Jewish soul remembers that it is missing something, and it goes to seek (drosh) the Torah and study it (drash).”
So Rabbi Nevins believes that this is the ultimate mission of every teacher and student of Torah – to restore this “lost property” the Torah, to its rightful owners. He concludes “The Jewish People is well familiar with popular culture, but the vast majority of our people are clueless about their lost treasure. Our duty is to announce the clues — the simanim — that mark this possession as valuable. Our job is to show our fellow Jews that the Torah does not belong to some scholarly elite, but that it is theirs to enjoy, to learn from, and to reclaim.”

And finally, in a commentary on Ki Tetzei from 2007, https://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5663, Reb Mimi Feigelson says that if in the time leading up to Pesach, we are engaged in physical housecleaning, in Elul, we are engaged in spiritual housecleaning. She too notes that the Chasidic masters view the laws of restoring lost property in a more mystical manner. Thus, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) deduces that the meaning of “every lost thing of your brother’s which he has lost” refers directly to the spiritual realm. He addresses the “spiritual objects” whose losses we sustain throughout our lives. Reb Mimi expands, “When we lose our love for a person that we once indeed loved deeply; when remembering how there was a time where our belief in God, humanity, or a sustaining philosophy that held us are now lost from us; when words of the siddur (prayer book) that once felt like ‘home’ have lost their meaning and significance – in these moments, who is the finder of such losses in our life?”
She answers that for Rebbe Nachman the answer is clear – the Ribbono Shel Olam (the Master of the World) – He is the finder of such losses. She continues “And He will hold on to it for us until we are ready to reclaim it and bring it back into our direct possession. We may need time to work through a relationship or a theological challenge. That is not a problem in Rebbe Nachman’s interpretation. God’s time is infinite, and as long as we hold on to the desire to return to the plain that we stood on, then it is only lost to us, but not to its own existence. And our Creator will hold on to it, in faith, trust and love till we come to claim it.”
Reb Mimi submits a further step, based on Rebbe Nachman’s teaching “Can we be this ‘spiritual finder’ for each other? Can we hold on to each other’s greatness and promise, in those moments when one of us has lost their vision? Can we help each other reclaim that which was dear to our heart and soul? While journeying through this month of Elul and cleaning out the rooms of our heart and soul, can we designate one corner as a ‘lost and found’ for our dear ones to come and claim that which they have lost, and we in love and faith have been holding on to for them?”

Devarim: Sought: Ideal Leaders

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes…and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue…
If…you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” …he shall not keep many horses…and he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left…(Devarim 16:18-20, 17:14-20)

Let them be clear of claims of corruption,
reputations unsullied by charges of graft.

Let them be honest in all of their dealings,
and also be humble and willing to learn.

Let them not have consorted with numerous partners;
let their hands not be brimming with ill-gotten gains.

Let the words of the prophets resound in their ears;
let them wrestle profoundly with moral concerns.

We’re searching for leaders of crystal transparency
through whom the light of the Lord will shine forth;

who will heed the command that echoes in darkness
“Justice, justice you shall pursue!”


In a commentary on Parashat Shofetim from 2015, http://www.jtsa.edu/judging-the-individual-guiding-the-community, Professor Shuly Rubin Schwartz notes that the 2016 US presidential election primary season was launched with more than two dozen potential candidates. She points out that observing the ways in which they advocated for public support lent itself to focusing not only on each candidate, but also on which leadership qualities we both look for and reject in our elected officials.
Prof Rubin Schwartz observes that Parashat Shofetim examines a variety of leaders, including judges, officers, priests, kings and military leaders. She says that here we find “insights on the leadership qualities the Torah deems essential to the establishment and sustenance of a just society, qualities applicable not only to elected officials today but to anyone in a position of authority or responsibility over others. In this parashah devoted to the central theme of “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof,” [“Justice, Justice shall you pursue,”] (Deut. 16:20) the Torah teaches that the social order will thrive only when all leaders are attuned to upholding justice. A straightforward goal, but the parashah acknowledges that the reality is inevitably more complicated. Even the most inspiring leaders will struggle, and the parashah opens by exhorting leaders not to succumb to all-too-human impulses to play favorites or take bribes. (Deut. 16:19).”

In a commentary from 2014 http://www.rabbisacks.org/shoftim-5774-learning-leadership/ Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the parasha as “the classic source of the three types of leadership in Judaism, called by the sages the “three crowns”: of priesthood, kingship and Torah.” (Mishnah Avot 4:13. Maimonides, Talmud Torah, 3:1). He continues, “Power, in the human arena, is to be divided and distributed, not concentrated in a single person or office. So, in biblical Israel, there were kings, priests and prophets. Kings had secular or governmental power. Priests were the leaders in the religious domain, presiding over the service in the Temple and other rites, and giving rulings on matters to do with holiness and purity. Prophets were mandated by God to be critical of the corruptions of power and to recall the people to their religious vocation whenever they drifted from it.
“Our parsha deals with all three roles.” Rabbi Sacks notes that with regard to the kingship, the Torah is very clear on what the king may not do: acquire great numbers of horses, take many wives and amass great riches. (Devarim 17: 16-17) And he adds that as we learn, later on in the Bible, even the wisest of kings, King Solomon himself, succumbed to these temptations.
He adds that “consistent with the fundamental Judaic idea that leadership is service, not dominion or power or status or superiority, the king is commanded to be humble: he must constantly read the Torah “so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God … and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites” (17: 19-20). It is not easy to be humble when everyone is bowing down before you and when you have the power of life and death over your subjects.”
Rabbi Sacks mentions the ambivalence (reflected from the Torah itself) among the commentators regarding whether the monarchy was a positive institution or not, but notes that there was one extremely significant aspect of royalty – that the king is mandated to study continually. He adds that Joshua, who succeeded Moses as leader, is enjoined in very similar words “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8)
So Rabbi Sacks concludes “Though few of us are destined to be kings, presidents or prime ministers, there is a general principle at stake. Leaders learn. They read. They study. They take time to familiarise themselves with the world of ideas. Only thus do they gain the perspective to be able to see further and clearer than others. To be a Jewish leader means spending time to study both Torah and chokhmah: chokhmah to understand the world as it is, Torah to understand the world as it ought to be.
Leaders should never stop learning. That is how they grow and teach others to grow with them.”

In a further commentary from 2016, http://www.rabbisacks.org/greatness-humility-shoftim-5776/ Rabbi Sacks expands on the theme of the Divine mandate addressed to the king, to remain humble. He says “Great leaders have many qualities, but humility is usually not one of them. With rare exceptions they tend to be ambitious, with a high measure of self regard. They expect to be obeyed, honoured, respected, even feared…”
So he suggests that this instruction to the king is surprising and powerful. The Torah, he notes, is speaking about a king, in ancient times, when kings commanded absolute power. Rabbi Sacks says, “If a king, whom all are bound to honour, is commanded to be humble – “not feel superior to his brethren” – how much more so the rest of us…”
Rabbi Sacks continues “This is a clear example of how spirituality makes a difference to the way we act, feel and think. Believing that there is a God in whose presence we stand means that we are not the centre of our world. God is.” He cites research published in 2014 by the Harvard Business Review that showed that “The best leaders are humble leaders.”* He says that such leaders “learn from criticism. They are confident enough to empower others and praise their contributions. They take personal risks for the sake of the greater good. They inspire loyalty and strong team spirit.”

And finally, in a commentary on Shofetim from 2005, http://www.jtsa.edu/the-responsibility-of-holding-office, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch addresses the responsibility that is so often shirked by those who hold public office. He considers the horrors wrought by Hurricane Katrina, which left devastation in its wake and engendered great suffering, while the federal government had been unprepared for a disaster that was just waiting to occur. He says “In the months ahead, investigative commissions without number will seek to plot missteps, assign blame, and propose initiatives. But how will politicians, for whom winning is everything, cleanse themselves collectively of guilt where no one is directly culpable? How do we spiritually atone for the stain left on our body politic by Katrina’s assault?
“This week’s parashah, which takes up the contours of good governance, among other subjects, actually addresses the issue with an exotic proposal.” He then describes the ritual of the beheaded heifer (which I addressed in a post in 2015 https://parashapoems.wordpress.com/category/book/Devarim/Shofetim/). This ritual was prescribed for the leaders of a community to confess and atone for an unsolved, unpunished murder that happened on their “watch”. Rabbi Schorsch notes “the intent of the confession is to exonerate the elders of facilitating the travesty by their indifference.” He continues, “I have often wondered if office holders should not be made to undergo a rite of purification when the public suspects their culpability. Not an investigation in which they exercise their right to defend their actions, but a sacred setting in which they might give voice to their feelings of remorse and sense of fallibility. Their oath of office, taken on a Bible, implies a duty to God as well as society. An occasional confession in the house of worship of their choice might even reinforce the sanctity of their public trust. It certainly would give authority a more human face.”
He concludes, “…the ideal remains valid even in contemporary America. Office holders are accountable to God as well as to their constituencies, otherwise they would not swear on Scripture. And for God, humility has always been one of the qualifications of leadership. Moses looms as the greatest of ancient Israel’s leaders because in part at least he was also the humblest of men (Numbers 12:3).”

*Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib, ‘The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders’, Harvard Business Review, 12 May 2014.

Re’eh: Accord

You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. (Devarim 14:1)

Do not carve yourselves up
into pure and impure,
men and women,
left and right,
rich and poor,
gay and straight,
migrants, citizens,
them and us.

Do not slash the body
that houses every being,
do not split the skin
that girds you all, for
underneath it, black or white,
each one is My child.


In Parashat Re’eh, we read the commandment “You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves (lo titgodedu) or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. The literal meaning of this verse prohibits pagan mourning customs that include self-mutilating practices similar to those described in Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Ba’al (1 Kings 18:28). However, the Rabbis of the Talmud in Yevamot 13b re-interpret the verse in a way that has lost none of its relevance today. They suggest that the word titgodedu is etymologically related to the word agudah meaning group. They compare this verse with that in Psalms 94:21 which contains the word yagodu, meaning “they group together (against the soul of the righteous).” So the Rabbis derive that lo titgodedu is actually an exhortation meaning “Do not divide up into rival factions (agudot agudot).”
Tellingly, this injunction is preceded by the reminder “You are children of the Lord your God.
In the twentieth century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972) stands out as a giant of “building bridges” both within the Jewish community as well as in pioneering interfaith dialogue. In an interview in On Being with Krista Tippett, on the “Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua Heschel” http://www.onbeing.org/program/spiritual-audacity-abraham-joshua-heschel/227/extraaudio?embed=1&start_track=1&?embed=1, Professor Arnold Eisen recalls that in 1953 Rabbi Heschel addressed the Assemblage of Reform Rabbis and later in the same month, he spoke to the Conservative rabbis. (He told the former that they needed to pay more attention to Jewish law which Reform Judaism had rejected, and to the latter he told that they paid too much attention to law and needed to address Jewish spirituality.)

In an article on Rabbi Heschel http://www.crosscurrents.org/heschel.htm, Dr Reuven Kimelman summarises, “Heschel’s fulfilled desire to be connected with … diverse constituencies is reflected in the fact that over thirty national organizations, Jewish and otherwise, sponsored the sheloshim in his honor. His roots in Judaism reached so deep that they penetrated that substratum of life which nourishes all mankind. Heschel’s ability to relate to so many people on their various levels flowed from his conviction that man’s grandeur surpasses his ideologies. His ability to deal with the thought and attitudes of so many religious communities issued from a certitude that God transcends His theologies.”

With regard to Rabbi Heschel’s interfaith activity, Professor Eisen comments “Heschel was a mystic. And you’ll find a lot of mystics throughout the ages — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu — who believe they have an experience of God that goes beyond language, that goes beyond culture, that proves to them the unity of the Divine and then they understand various religious traditions as ways, as it were, of putting this experience into words. And the words always fall short. And one of the things that enabled Heschel to be so open to people of other faiths and to feel real kinship with them was this fundamental mysticism, this sense that the experience of God goes beyond any individual tradition, is greater than any individual tradition, as it were, encompasses all of them.
“And then there was the personal experience, and here was the man who was able to see in other human beings that he met, for example, the Pope and the cardinals that he met in encounters through Vatican II, Martin Luther King, Reinhold Niebuhr. He encountered other people of faith and I think was open enough to see in them depths of religious, as it were, belonging. That they too live in the presence of God and therefore they have kinship with him. And these encounters reinforce one another and grow in him this sense of a mystery beyond any tradition’s capacity to fully understand it.
“So there’s Heschel out there in the world marching in Selma sure that those people marching with him are no less children of God, full of insight into God, than he is. This is rare in a contemporary world. Even with all of our talk about pluralism and all of our religious dialogue, the deep conviction that we need to be open to others because we have something important to learn from them. This remains rare. And it’s one of the things that Heschel had to teach that I’m most grateful for.”

Ekev: Chosen

Yet it was to your fathers that the Lord was drawn in His love for them, so that He chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all peoples — as is now the case. Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. — You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Devarim 10: 15-19).

Chosen to befriend the stranger,
as we were strangers once.

Chosen to uphold the poor,
the widow and her child.

Chosen, for the world is broken,
to lift up scattered sparks.

Chosen to remove the husk
that suffocates the heart.

Chosen not for who we are
but who we might become.

Chosen to receive Torah.


In Parashat Ekev, Moses reminds the people that God has chosen this particular nation for a specific purpose: to uproot idolatry and serve Him as a holy people, living by His commandments.
Immediately following Moses’s declaration that the Children of Israel have been chosen by God, he tellingly continues with an exhortation to “circumcise their hearts” which is understood to mean to remove the barrier that blocks them from absorbing God’s teachings. Moses continues, reminding them that God is an incorruptible judge who upholds a compassionate society and tends to the disenfranchised, and he concludes this chapter with the admonition that the people too should befriend the stranger, remembering that they once were strangers in Egypt.

The notion of Jewish chosenness is one that engenders discomfort in many modern readers.
In her book The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, Dr Ellen Frankel addresses “the mixed blessing of chosenness.” She notes that the claim to specialness has singled the Jewish people out for resentment, censure and persecution. She says “Our broken world still needs God’s Torah as its repair manual. That’s why the traditional blessing for an aliyah [laTorah] still echoes this biblical verse proclaiming that God “chose us from among all the peoples and gave us the Torah.” ” She notes some modern attempts to address contemporary discomfort with the concept of chosenness. One of these retranslates this blessing: instead of “chose us from among all the peoples and gave us the Torah” the reformulated rendition says “chose us from among all the peoples by giving us the Torah” hence intimating that the Jewish people is special only in its possession of the Torah. Others, Dr Frankel notes, go further by replacing the phrase “Who chose us from among all peoples” with “Who has drawn us to Your service [by giving us the Torah].” She adds that some of the early Zionists totally repudiated the singular burden of chosenness and maintained that the antidote to anti-Semitism was for Jews to deny their chosenness and become a nation like all others in their own land.
However, Dr Frankel notes in conclusion, “But many of those who settled in Israel reappropriated for themselves the biblical prophets’ legacy of ethical vocation, a variation of chosenness. In our own ways, each one of us must choose how to serve as chosen advocates of God’s teachings.”

From earliest times, the concept of the chosenness of the Jewish people never contradicted the belief that God has a relationship with other peoples. Judaism understands that God has a relationship with all mankind. Both biblical and rabbinic texts support this view: Moses refers to the “God of the spirits of all flesh,” (B’midbar 27:16), and the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) also identifies prophets outside the community of Israel. The Mishnah tells us that “Humanity was produced from one man, Adam, to show God’s greatness. When a man mints a coin in a press, each coin is identical. But when the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, creates people in the form of Adam not one is similar to any other.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) The Mishnah teaches further that anyone who saves (or destroys) one single human, not Jewish, life, has saved (or destroyed) an entire world. The Tosefta (a collection of post-Talmudic discourses) also teaches: “Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin 105a).

It is clear that this chosenness with which God endows the Jewish people is connected with ethical obligations. It is understood that Jews have obligations exclusive to them, while non-Jews receive from God other covenants with concomitant responsibilities.

Thus, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits (1921-1999), former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, propounds his (Modern Orthodox) understanding of chosenness: “Yes, I do believe that the chosen people concept as affirmed by Judaism in its holy writ, its prayers, and its millennial tradition. In fact, I believe that every people — and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual — is “chosen” or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only, some fulfill their mission and others do not. Maybe the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parliamentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society. The Jews were chosen by God to be ‘peculiar unto Me’ as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was and is their national purpose.”

Rabbi Norman Lamm, another leader of Modern Orthodox Judaism writes: “The chosenness of Israel relates exclusively to its spiritual vocation embodied in the Torah; the doctrine, indeed, was announced at Sinai. Whenever it is mentioned in our liturgy — such as the blessing immediately preceding the Shema….it is always related to Torah or Mitzvot (commandments)…”

The Conservative movement states the following: “Few beliefs have been subject to as much misunderstanding as the “Chosen People” doctrine. The Torah and the Prophets clearly stated that this does not imply any innate Jewish superiority. In the words of Amos (3:2) “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth — that is why I will call you to account for your iniquities“. The Torah tells us that we are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” with obligations and duties which flowed from our willingness to accept this status. Far from being a license for special privilege, it entailed additional responsibilities not only toward God but to our fellow human beings. As expressed in the blessing at the reading of the Torah, our people have always felt it to be a privilege to be selected for such a purpose. For the modern traditional Jew, the doctrine of the election and the covenant of Israel offers a purpose for Jewish existence which transcends its own self interests. It suggests that because of our special history and unique heritage we are in a position to demonstrate that a people that takes seriously the idea of being covenanted with God can not only thrive in the face of oppression, but can be a source of blessing to its children and its neighbors. It obligates us to build a just and compassionate society throughout the world and especially in the land of Israel where we may teach by example what it means to be a “covenant people, a light unto the nations”. (Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, JTSA, New York, 1988.)

In 1999, the Reform Movement stated: “We affirm that the Jewish people are bound to God by an eternal covenant, as reflected in our varied understandings of Creation, Revelation and Redemption […] We are Israel, a people aspiring to holiness, singled out through our ancient covenant and our unique history among the nations to be witnesses to God’s presence. We are linked by that covenant and that history to all Jews in every age and place. ” (Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, adopted at the 1999 Pittsburgh Convention, Central Conference of American Rabbis.)

Finally, Reconstructionist Judaism rejects the concept of chosenness. Its founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) believed that the idea that God chose the Jewish people leads to racist beliefs among Jews, and thus must be expunged from Jewish theology.

Va’etchanan: Listen!

Listen O Israel! The Lord our God the Lord is one. (Devarim 6:4)

Elohim is the God
of infinite cycles:
of genesis, growth,
senescence, decay;
of life’s wondrous design
and all its mutations.

Adonai is the God
of endless redemption:
the drive towards progress
the impulse for change –
the call that cries out
to attend to the world.

Can we marry what is
with what could yet be;
can we hear these two voices
and meld them as one?


In the middle of Parashat Va’etchanan, we read the verse “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad – Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord is one.” (Devarim 6:4). This verse opens the Shema, the prayer that is recited twice each day, both in the morning and at night. The first prayer taught to small children, it is also to be recited on the death-bed. The Talmud (Berachot 61a) tells us that Rabbi Akiva, who was martyred in the second century, died with the Shema on his lips as did a long succession of Jewish martyrs.
A Midrash traces the origin of this verse to the dying moments of Jacob’s life, when he was concerned that his descendants living in Egypt would assimilate. They reassured him, saying, “Listen O Israel! We accept the one God as our God.” (Devarim Rabbah 2:35).

The Etz Hayim commentary notes that the word “Shema – Hear (or listen)” reminds us that not only should we be talking to God when we pray, but we should also be listening when He talks to us. In an increasingly noisy world, we are mandated to stop and listen to what the words of the prayer are trying to impart to us.

In a commentary on Parashat Va’etchanan from 2008, http://www.jtsa.edu/va-ethannans-personal-message-to-us, Professor Arnold Eisen submits that this parasha contains theological concepts so essential to the Torah’s aspirations for Israel that the rabbis incorporated them into the daily liturgy. However, Rabbi Eisen adds that he believes that in this parasha, each reader is being addressed individually. “It addresses us person by person, one-on-one, in the same way we enter into every serious relationship and tremble with each true love.” He notes that in the first phrase, the command to listen is in the singular – it could thus be translated “Listen O Israelite!…” He continues “How shall we — each of us — perform the acts of listening and hearing (both meanings for shema are explicit in the course of the parashah) to which the Torah calls us?”
He notes that the Torah does not address belief in God from a philosophical standpoint, rather it is occupied with a template for a social order in which there is justice and righteousness.

In another commentary on Parashat Va’etchanan, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/loving-god-by-acting-with-compassion/, Rabbi Gilah Langner addresses several interpretations of this verse noting the changes in meaning of these six words through history. She suggests that when the Israelites were surrounded by pagan civilizations, the emphasis might have been: there is only one Israelite God and He is Adonai. Once monotheistic religions became more widespread, the Shema took on a slightly altered meaning – that while Adonai is our God, eventually Adonai will come to be recognized and accepted as the one unrivaled God.
Rabbi Langner continues “Another strain of thought, which has had a resurgence of popularity in recent years, focuses on the different aspects of divinity implied by the terms Adonai (Lord) and Elohim (God). While Elohim relates to the timeless, cyclical manifestation of God in the natural universe, Adonai is the Jewish God of transformation, the God who makes a difference, who liberates from slavery and brings about healing and creativity.” Rabbi Langner cites Rabbi Harold M Schulweis in his book For Those Who Can’t Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith, “divinity includes both the reality principle of Elohim and the ideality principle of Adonai. Adonai is the source of healing; Elohim, the life of the universe.”
Rabbi Langner suggests that the Shema is teaching us that both aspects are merged in the Divine. “Adonai and Elohim are one and the same. What a radical notion that is, what a radical statement about the universe the Sh’ma becomes: yes to reality, and yes to transformation! Yes to nature (including human nature) and yes to healing. Yes to unchanging permanence and yes to constant becoming – ‘ehyeh asher ehyeh’, God’s self-proclaimed name: ‘I will be what I become.'”
Rabbi Langner expands this: “The Sh’ma can be seen as a fundamental principle for grounding social action and social transformation in a deep understanding of the limits of what is, as well as a boundless optimism for what can yet be achieved.” She cites a conversation about the concept of Adonai and Elohim with Rabbi Ira Eisenstein who said, “Adonai in a sense is fighting Elohim to let people live. You look at Elohim – you see disease, earthquakes, people dying. If you didn’t find a trace of Adonai, you’d be living in a godless world. But the Adonai side is the difficult side. [Rabbi] Mordecai Kaplan would say that you have to seek out those aspects of reality that make for salvation. There is a verse in [this week’s portion of] the Torah that says: ‘You will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and spirit’ (Deuteronomy 4:29).”
Rabbi Langner maintains that this first verse of the Shema summons us to foster this perception as a people. She cites Harold Fisch in his book Poetry With a Purpose, “The divine unity is realized only when there is a community of hearers to achieve that perception, to make that affirmation; it is a perception that has to be striven for, created in the act of reading, hearing, and understanding.””
So she wonders how we can bring this concept of divine unity into the world.
The answer follows in the next verse: “Ve’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha – you shall love the Lord your God…” We are enjoined to adhere to God’s commandments and keep them wholeheartedly, all the time – when we are at home or away, when we are resting and when we are active.

The Etz Hayim commentary notes that the commandment to love our neighbor is found in Vayikra 19:18; the commandment to love the stranger is found in Vayikra 19:34, while the commandment to love God comes later, in Devarim. This commentary continues “We learn to love God by practicing loving God’s creatures, our fellow human beings. “Love the Lord your God” commands not belief but behavior.”

Rabbi Langner concludes, “Only by acting in the world with compassion, and treating one another with justice and equality will the healing aspects of God become manifest and draw others to a deeper understanding and love of God. To “love God” we must act with loving intention towards all of Creation.”

And finally, in a commentary on Va’etchanan, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hear-amp-act/
Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman opens with the poem entitled Shema by Primo Levi:

You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house,
when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

Rabbi Richman ponders why Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, entitles his poem Shema “Hear!” and structures it on the framework of possibly the best-known prayer in the Jewish prayer book.
She suggests that Primo Levi is revisiting this ancient prayer through the prism of human suffering, and enjoining us to listen to this suffering. This, she contends, is what Levi would have us engrave on our hearts and be attentive to at all times. She says “His poem commands a single-minded focus not on the unity of God but on a sub-set of God’s creatures, people living in poverty and chaos.” So she asks how might we hear this suffering. She says in some ways, it is easier than ever before. Internet access affords instant exposure to countless tragedies particularly in the developing world. Crises of poverty, disease, violence and war are almost ubiquitous. But, Rabbi Richman says, “…listening is not enough. The verb shema carries additional meanings –it also denotes doing, obeying, performing, acting. Perhaps Levi titled his poem Shema precisely for its multiple meanings. He wanted to jolt his reader, through graphic and painful images, into action. Emmanuel Levinas, a famous contemporary Jewish philosopher, described the traditional Shema as an awakening: “‘Hear, Israel!'”
Rabbi Richman concludes “I read the poem’s upsetting closing curses as a contemporary warning: if we do not awaken, if we will not hear, if we do not use our blessings of privilege to improve the situation of those who suffer privation, we deny our own power to create change. There are serious consequences to this failure of action.
“There are many ways to respond to the voices of those who suffer: to educate ourselves on issues of global justice, to volunteer, to advocate, to share our resources. The Shema, according to Jewish law, is supposed to be said aloud. It makes sense: we are crying out to one other: “Listen, Israel! Act!” This week, will you hear it?”

Devarim: Words (Three Haikus)

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel (Devarim 1:1)

Words (1)
Once my speech was lame –
words congealed behind stiff lips –
now my words sing forth.

Words (2)
Words unsaid resound
in deafening silence, as
duty is betrayed.

Words (3)
Trembling, here I stand,
filled with love and fear for you:
will you hear my words?


Words (1)
In a commentary on Parashat Devarim from 2009, Rabbi David Hoffman notes that the first four books of the Torah, Bereishit, Shemot, Vayikra and B’midbar, all relate the story as it occurs, and the characters are described experiencing the events in “real time.” However, in Devarim, we see a different approach: Moses recalls events through which his current listeners never lived, as, except for Joshua and Caleb, this is the new generation of the children of Israel. No-one here stood at Sinai. The covenant entered into there was with their ancestors who were redeemed slaves. The challenges facing the new generation differ hugely from those with which their ancestors had to contend. This new generation will have to enter the land and build a society vastly different from that of their wandering predecessors.
Rabbi Hoffman comments that Moses initially demurs from taking on the leadership of the people, telling God “…Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words [devarim], either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Shemot 4:10) And now, this final book opens with the words he speaks: “These are the words [devarim] that Moses addressed to all Israel…” (Devarim 1:1). As Rabbi Hoffman notes, “Indeed, the entire book constitutes one powerful and sustained verbal presentation.”
He suggests that Moses’s objectives now are still our religious challenges today. He asks “How do you render a story that happened to other people and make it your story, as meaningful to you as the day it occurred? How do you tell the story of our people’s relationship with God and move a new generation to willfully and passionately enter into this sacred Covenant? How do you make the argument to a generation of Jews that the Jewish community and Torah provide a rich and compelling framework to pursue ultimate questions of meaning?”
And he suggests that in Devarim, a new approach for the renewal of the covenant is forged. He notes that the Hebrew root l-m-d which in its different conjugations means to learn or teach, appears nowhere else in the Torah except for in this book, where it appears 17 times in twice as many chapters. So he says that he believes that learning and teaching form the essence of Devarim. We see this verb used in the context of God teaching the people; Moses teaching them, and, he says, perhaps most importantly, the people themselves teaching Torah: “Impress My words upon your heart . . . and teach them to your children — reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Devarim 11:18–19)
Rabbi Hoffman continues “Limud (learning) constitutes the process through which we Jews connect with our history and make these historical stories our personal narratives. Understood in these terms, learning is not simply a means to acquire information. Rather, for the Jew, learning is an active process that is primarily about making meaning. The book of Devarim makes very clear that if we – in our generation – are to develop a personal, rich, and nurturing relationship with God, we must learn and study God’s Torah that reveals God’s aspirations for the world. Study is the means by which we make meaning in our own lives and it is activity whereby the Jew responds thoughtfully to the challenges of our particular age.”
He adds that at the conclusion of the book of Devarim, Moses, who once asserted that he was not a man of words, bows out, singing words of poetry:
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew . . .
Give glory to our God!

(Devarim 32:1–3)
Rabbi Hoffman concludes “I submit that Moshe’s strength and newfound confidence emerged from his deep belief that he had finally found the path for real religious awakening. The thunder and direct experience of God at Sinai did not work even for the generation of the desert.
The book of Devarim creates the possibility that if God’s Presence is to be made manifest in our world, it will be in the words (devarim) of those who pursue with love the Will of the living God.”

Words (2)
In a commentary from 2010, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5611, Rabbi Gail Labovitz says that as she looked through the parasha, preparing to write the commentary on it, one particular verse caught her eye. She notes that Moses does not recount the history of the people in their wanderings in an entirely chronological fashion. In the first chapter he relates the episode of the twelve spies, their negative report, and the people’s subsequent lack of faith which led to God’s anger and His decision to let that generation wander and die in the wilderness over 40 years (B’midbar 13, 14). Then Moses says the following “The Lord was incensed at me too because of you, saying you too shall not enter there.” (Devarim 1:37)
Rabbi Labovitz is troubled by two issues here. The first, more obvious problem is that Moses seems to be condensing two episodes: after the incident of the spies, the people were condemned to die in the wilderness but Moses was not punished. He was denied entry to the Land because of another incident in which he hit the rock rather than speaking to it as instructed at Merivah.
However, Rabbi Labovitz detects a deeper problem: it sounds like Moses is blaming the people for his punishment rather than shouldering the responsibility himself! And he makes similar statements subsequently. (Devarim 3:26, 4:21) She asks “What are we to make of this picture of Moses, of all people – the person considered to be the greatest leader in our history! – attempting to pass the buck?”
She says that among the commentaries addressing both these issues, she is drawn to that offered by the Ramban who says, “For the anger against Moses and against Aaron was because they struck the rock twice before the people and did not do as they were commanded, and the people reflected on the matter. And this is what it says [Devarim 32:51] “for you did not sanctify Me among the children of Israel” – that the punishment was only because the matter took place among the children of Israel, such that the Glory was not sanctified in their eyes.
So the Ramban is teaching that Moses is not saying that his punishment is their fault not his, rather that it was because of what he did in their presence that aggravated his misdeed. In effect, it was because he failed to set the appropriate example as a leader in the presence of his people, that led to such severe punishment. Rabbi Labovitz says “What a leader does or does not do, especially when it is done publicly and will influence others, can be of ultimate significance.”
Rabbi Labovitz continues with the story told in the Gemara (Gittin 55b,56a) concerning the events preceding the destruction of the Second Temple (the razing of both Temples and other catastrophes that devastated the Jewish people are commemorated on the upcoming fast of Tisha be’Av). The Gemara says “R. Yochanan said…The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamza and a Bar Kamza in this way. A certain man had a friend Kamza and an enemy Bar Kamza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamza. The man went and brought Bar Kamza. When the man [who gave the party] found him there he said, See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out. Said the other: Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink. He said, I won’t. Then let me give you half the cost of the party. No, said the other. Then let me pay for the whole party. He still said, No, and he took him by the hand and put him out. Said the other, Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them, to the Government. He went and said to the Emperor, The Jews are rebelling against you…”
Rabbi Labovitz notes that Bar Kamza did not only hold the host responsible for his humiliation, but also the rabbis who sat silently and thus passively colluded with the host. She says “How leaders respond, especially before others, matters…while the people (such as the host of the party or Bar Qamtza) may act sinfully, leaders bear an extra level of responsibility for how they respond. And, moreover, failure begets new, increasingly difficult choices. What people see from their leaders, or fail to see, has cosmic consequences.”

Words (3)
In a commentary from 2009, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5610, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes that we learn in Midrash Sifrei Devarim that whenever the text uses the root DiBeR the speech is of a rebuking nature, whereas the root AMaR indicates praise. [Further, in Midrash Devarim Rabbah 1:6 an etymological link is suggested between devarim (words) and devorim (bees). Just as a bee stings before it dies, so did Moses offer a stinging rebuke of the people before his own death.]
So Rabbi Shavit Artson wonders why Moses is speaking harshly to the people when they are on the cusp of entry to a new life. Why are his parting words a chastisement, a reminder of how far they have moved from the ideals enumerated in the Torah? And he asks, too, “And did the people resent Moses’ apparent harshness, as most of us would? Did people say, “He never gives us a break,” or note that even at the end, he was still haranguing them, unable to focus, even for a moment, on their virtues and better natures?” Rabbi Shavit Artson concludes that the people seemingly were not resentful, as they mourned his death and he is still referred to as “Moses our teacher.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson continues “Can you imagine what it would be like if a Rabbi, at a dinner honoring 25 years of service with a particular synagogue, rather than dwelling on warm memories, started to list all of the congregants’ flaws over the past two-and-a-half decades? Can you imagine how resentful and bitter most of us would feel?”
He cites Rabbi Tarfon, a great sage of the Mishnah, who comments on the rebuke Moses delivers in this parasha “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is fit to rebuke others. For if one says to another, ‘Remove the mote from between your eyes,’ the reply invariably is, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes.’ ” It seems that at that time, there was no-one worthy of being a role model to others.
Rabbi Shavit Artson continues with Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s comment “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is able to receive rebuke.” Rabbi Shavit Artson says “Rabbi Eleazar observed that people no longer accepted criticism as an act of love. Instead of listening openly to a description of how they had acted inappropriately and then working to modify their behavior to remove that flaw, the object of rebuke would respond defensively by either ignoring or insulting the person who had highlighted the error.”
Finally he notes that Rabbi Akiva, a contemporary of Rabbi Tarfon, adds his lament to those of his colleagues. “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke.” Rabbi Shavit Artson concludes “Pointing out someone’s shortcoming or error should not be a chance for insults or a sense of superiority. It should not become an opportunity to humiliate or gloat. Instead, a rebuke, if properly intended and given, becomes an act of affirmation and love, an affirmation that the person is worth the effort in the first place, and a faith that he or she remains capable of improvement. Offered with love and a sense of humility, a rebuke is a gift and a challenge. Without our friends, colleagues and families willing to point out our own errors of judgment or action, we all blind ourselves to our own faults and to those aspects of reality we don’t want to see. Each of us depends on the caring of others, their courage to articulate disappointment in our action, as the indispensable prerequisite to self-improvement and refinement.
“We cannot afford to wait for the perfect, loving hero to point out our flaws. Instead, we rely on those around us, family and friends, to act as our early warning system, pointing out moral failure and ethical obtuseness before it is too late to improve. But when they do, we must be able to really listen.”

************************

These three poems are based on the structure of an English language Haiku which is a very short poem following, to a greater or lesser extent, the form and style of the Japanese haiku. Traditional haiku consist of 17 syllables in three phrases of 5, 7 and 5 respectively. Japanese Haiku are often written on one line, while English Haiku are frequently written in three lines.
Haiku has become a term sometimes loosely applied to any short, impressionistic poem, but there are certain characteristics that are commonly associated with the genre. The first English Haiku is considered to have been written in the early 20th century while Japanese Haiku date back to the 17th century.