Category Archives: D’vrei Torah

Torah Study: The Trap of Literalism

Today is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return, and today’s Torah portion is Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1-30). It is the shortest parshah in the Torah at only 30 verses, and is part of Moses’ farewell to the Israelites as they all stand across the river Jordan from the Promised Land.

At this point, Moses has already been informed by the Eternal that he will not be going with his people to the Promised Land. He is 120 years old, and he is about to die. He is, at this point, trying to make sure that the people leave with the last wisdom he can give them.

In this parshah, the main messages seem to be “be strong and resolute” and “take these teachings with you and teach them to your children.” This generated a lot of discussion at our Torah Study meeting, but there’s just a few threads I want to braid together for you in this post. Mainly, those threads are leadership, adulthood, and interpretation. So let’s go, shall we?

One of my notes was on verse 31:27, where Moses says to the Israelites:

For I know your rebellious spirit and your stubbornness. Even while I am alive with you today, you are rebelling against the Eternal, and surely after my death!

My original note on this was, “Does Moses think that only his presence is what’s keeping the Israelites on the good path?” Then, during the discussion, I realized that of course he does. He’s already seen what happens when their leader leaves for a while – witness the episode of the golden calf, when he was only away for 40 days. This is not his first rodeo. He’s seen how the Israelites all go off in their own rebellious directions if they don’t have a strong, charismatic leader to keep them together and focused on the main point. They’ve had him leading them for the last 40 years, and there’s nobody really ready to replace him (oh, sure, Joshua’s going to try – but remember how well Joshua did with anyone challenging Moses’ authority back in the day; is he really going to do all that well as a leader when someone challenges his authority? We never find out, since this is essentially the last few chapters of the Torah).

Anyway. Moses is naturally more than a little worried, here. He knows his people well enough to know that without strong leadership, they’re likely to fracture into many squabbling tribes and not follow Torah, even with his dying exhortations to do exactly that. So let’s take this as the setting of this parshah: Moses, the anxious leader/father figure, worrying about the people who have been in his care and under his guidance for 40 years, and how they’re going to function once he’s not there to guide them any more.

During discussion, many people identified this as the same feeling as parents who are watching their nearly-adult teenager finally leave for college or marriage or the job that takes them out of the family home have at that moment. At this point I was reminded of the midrash I read about Adam and Eve and their departure from the Garden: Adam’s kind of like a trust fund baby. He doesn’t have to actually do any work. He just plays all the time. This is what we would call “childhood.” But Eve gets tired of this after a while, so she pulls a stunt that gets Adam’s dad angry enough to throw the kids out and make them earn their own way. They have to grow up – at least a little bit.

Now, here we are again, with Moses worrying about how these kids of his – not just his blood kin but his spiritual children as well – are ever going to make it out in the real world if he’s not there to make sure they’ll do things the right way. They have to grow up – and he won’t be there to guide them.

Up until now, the Hebrew people have pretty much had Moses to tell them what God wants. But he’s not going to be there when they get to the Promised Land. He’s already been informed: this buck stops here. So he’s trying to distill whatever wisdom he can send them off with before he dies, much like a parent helping their kid unload the car at the dorm room door tries to awkwardly say a few words of wisdom before their child flies away into a life where the nearly-adult child will no longer move in rhythm to the same backbeat as the one their parents and younger siblings hear like a heartbeat in the center of their home.

Moses is worried. He knows how his people do when they have a strong leader. He has no idea what they will do when that leader is irrevocably gone.

But he also knows that his departure is inevitable. He knows that they will have to function when he is gone. So he gives them caution – but he also gives them instruction. And that instruction is, essentially: It’s time for you to each develop your own interpretation of what the Law means. It’s time for you to grow up a little more. Now, instead of having me to tell you what the Law means, you’re going to have to start figuring it out for yourselves. It’s time to take the next step – out of childhood, where literalism and black-and-white thinking is normal, and into adulthood, where there are many possible interpretations and all of them can be right.

Rabbi mentioned that the commentary that we use in Torah Study left out an important word in its translation of verse 31:19. The commentary’s translation is, “Write down this song and teach it to the children of Israel.” But there’s a Hebrew word in there that didn’t make it into our commentary’s translation, and it changes the entire meaning of what Moses is saying. That word (which, sadly, I could not catch the Hebrew for during study), means “for yourselves,” and the correct translation is, “Write down for yourselves this song and teach it to the children of Israel.”

Rabbi felt that this was important enough to also bring in some other texts. One of them is a comparison of the Torah to the Greek legend of the Odyssey. The author of that text, who lived in Nazi Germany and escaped, pointed out that the Odyssey leaves nothing to interpretation, while the Torah leaves almost everything to interpretation. The Torah is sparse, not detailed; it conveys truth, not representation. As a result, with the spaces between the words and the ambiguity of Hebrew, we are given – mainly – the bullet-point description of what happened. This leaves us with the need and the requirement to interpret the rest of it (hence midrashim). Rabbi felt that this need for interpretation is actually of Divine intent, not an accident, because things are always in a state of flux and new interpretations of the Torah will always be necessary for us to maneuver our way through daily life.

Judaism is largely a religion of interpretations, not of literalism. We have many sayings about the space between the words being important – in fact, all our midrashim are, in some sense, about the space between the words. That’s where interpretation happens.  Mozart said that “the music is in the rests,” or the quiet moments where no instruments are playing. The very characterization of this last piece of instruction (which we will see in next week’s parshah) as a poem or a song means it must be open to interpretation, or it has no real meaning.

When we demand the “one true meaning” of our scriptures, we totally miss the point. There are as many meanings as there are stars in the sky, and each one of them can be true. God is in the spaces in between.

Here’s the trap of literalism: the literal mindset that only allows for one interpretation and no other is the mindset of a ten-year-old child. Piaget called it the “concrete operational” stage. This is where the rules are the most important thing, and adherence to the rules is what matters. Some adults are still children under the surface, and still look for the rule set that will make everything simple and straightforward and understandable.

No such rule-set exists. This parshah, in part, is telling us: now that Moses is departing, it’s on us to interpret in order to begin to understand. It’s time for us to grow up. We’re not the children of Israel anymore – we are the people Israel, and it’s time for us to be adults about it.





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Torah Study: Yitro

Today’s parshah was Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23, which is the story of the giving of what we colloquially label the 10 Commandments. But it’s also the story of Yitro (Jethro), Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, telling Moses: “Hey, you know what? You’re trying to do everything. You need to delegate some of this work to other people.”

Let’s look at Moses for a minute, first. He’s been the (semi-reluctant) leader of the Israelites for quite some time now. He’s also his people’s head judge – everyone comes to him with their questions and their disputes to get them resolved, whether those are petty disputes or big ones. And, of course, he’s a prophet – he and God have conversations about the Israelites and what needs to be done or should be done.

You know, that’s kind of a heavy load to bear. When is he supposed to sleep, eat, bathe, spend time with his wife and kids? Is he supposed to do any of those things?

So when Jethro takes him aside and says, “Mose old son, you might want to establish a court system so that only the really big problems come to you to resolve,” Moses does just that.

Now hold that thought, “Moses delegating jobs to others,” while I bring in a few other thoughts and tie them together for you.

In our Torah study session today, someone brought up the question of when, exactly, the Israelites shifted to the belief that there was only One God – when did they actually adopt monotheism? Was it when HaShem stated here in Exodus that The Eternal was the only God and that the Israelites were to worship that God and no other?

This created a lively discussion. One of the participants brought up Maimonides’ conclusion that we cannot know the true nature of God, and it’s useless to try, so turn your mind to other things. Someone else pointed out that in the parshah (in verse 19:9), HaShem tells Moses “See, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will be able to hear when I speak with you and also to trust in you forever,” and asked why, after everything HaShem had already taken them through and preserved them from (the Egyptian slavery, the parting of the seas, manna from heaven) they would still need proof in order to trust Moses. My note here was that the move for the Israelites was to begin to have faith without necessarily having proof – that they were growing up and learning to hold contradictions in their minds, moving beyond concrete reasoning.

The third thing that came up in Torah study today was the question of the types of rules the Israelites were given in the 10 Commandments – some of them were “don’t do that” kinds of rules, or what we call “proscriptive law,” but others were “you must do this” kinds of rules, or prescriptive law. It made me think of the statement in the Ethics of the Fathers by Rabbi Tarfon, about tikkun olam: “You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to evade it.” Up to this point, most law was proscriptive – you are not allowed to do these bad things. But now, we have laws commanding people to actively do things that are good and that have good effects. To me, this means that HaShem was demanding active engagement with, and not just passive acceptance of, the Commandments (and indeed, the entire Torah). Again, this is demanding that the Israelites grow beyond their spiritual childishness and move towards adulthood, an active adulthood in which their behavior was oriented towards healing the world.

Now let me tie these three thoughts together.

Before humans knew about HaShem, humans figured that gods were like bigger people – but they still had to specialize. The work, in a sense, was delegated. This god took care of trees, that one took care of small animals, that one dealt with water and the other took care of weather. But no single god, in early belief systems, could possibly handle every process and every demand of the system we call the universe.

When HaShem became the God of the Israelites, that changed everything. A god that could literally handle everything? Unheard of. But that also put pressure on some human leaders to try to do everything, too. We still see this today – people who can’t delegate.

What I’m trying to get at here is, when we delegate, we admit we are not God. We are accepting that we have to complete a piece of the work and we’re not free to refuse that piece, but we are also accepting that we cannot do all the work ourselves, no matter how pressured we feel to do so. When Jethro points out to Moses, “You know, you have to give some of the work to others, here,” he was, in a sense, saying, “Hey, you’re the leader of your people – but you’re still not God.”

By taking our part of the work and taking an active part in the work, by following not just the proscriptive but the prescriptive commandments, we are admitting both the fact that we are not God, and that we are approaching the work as adults with the knowledge that we are not God.

I remember reading somewhere that Judaism is a religion for adults, not for children. This seems to support that point.

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Elul 14 and Learning (How to write a d’var Torah)

BlogElul 2015

Today, I went to my first Torah Study as a Jew. And I want to talk about what I learned there. This is a modified version of a post that I put up on my converts community message board. You can call this entry “Learning how to write a d’var Torah.”

The Torah parshah for this past week was Ki Teitzei (כי תצא), which is Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19. Like most of Deuteronomy, this is a list of many, many rules. Some of these rules are worrisome – for example, in chapter 22, we get this little gem, about a man who falsely accuses his wife of not being a virgin:

18 Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, 19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days.

Sounds like rather rough times for her, right? But when we look at this another way, we can see that this is actually giving the woman protection in a patriarchal society, where women who were separated from their fathers’ homes and were not married rarely had protection from anyone, of any kind. This seems to be saying “he will provide for her all of his days; he may not put her aside and stop paying alimony.”

Much of this parshah is like that. On the surface, it seems rather harsh. When you dig down, you find that most often, the laws in this parshah are about protecting those who are most vulnerable; who cannot protect themselves.

The final verses of Ki Teitzei are about Amalek, who attacked the Israelites when they were escaping Egypt:

17 “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.

This is not the only time Amalek is mentioned in the Torah, but let’s just look at this time. We’re supposed to blot out his memory but not forget him at the same time. This seems contradictory.

However, when we take these final verses in the context of the entire parshah – about protecting the vulnerable – it becomes clear that Amalek stands as a representative of the yetzer ha-ra, or the evil inclination, that we all carry within us. Why is he a representative of yetzer ha-ra? Because he epitomizes the thing that this entire parshah is saying “don’t do” – he attacked the vulnerable in the group of Israelites, the women and children and ill and elderly who were in the rear of the train. Historically, it was considered extremely unethical to do that – you were expected to attack the warriors at the front of the train, not the vulnerable non-fighters at the back of the train.

So perhaps the final exhortation to blot out the memory of Amalek is to blot out the yetzer ha-ra that leads us to attack the vulnerable in too many ways: blog post comments, snide words, gossip, taking advantage of people simply because we can.

This is the lesson I’m taking forward into my week: be kind to those who are unable to defend themselves, regardless of the reason, and take no unfair advantage of them even if opportunity should present itself.


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