In discussing the last Torah portion, Arama discusses a midrash depicting God as offering the Torah to other nations, who then reject it. Arama interprets this legend as follows: Israel’s deprivations somehow caused them to achieve “the level of freedom [from physical urges] that enabled it to benefit from receiving the Torah.” By contrast, other nations “have sold themselves to their senses [and thus] will not derive much benefit from Torah.” I’m not sure I find this very persuasive; it could just as easily be argued that the absence of Torah made other nations more sensual.
He goes on to write that “Slaves, women and children are each subject only to limited sections of the Torah, since their self determination is restricted and they are not truly free.” I can see how this is true for children, but why women? My guess is that women were so subordinated that they almost were like slaves in Arama’s time.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses predicts that Israel will abandon God and be punished. Arama asks: if the Israelites have free will, how can Moses predict their downfall?
He tries to reconcile these ideas by suggesting that Moses speaks “on the basis of his psychological insight of the character of his people,, not on the basis of prophetic knowledge.”
He then goes further: what about God? If Israel’s exile is inevitable, why did God bother to take them out of Egypt? Arama suggests that “God had constructed man in a way that makes attainment of his ideal state an extremely difficult task. It is only through the passage of time and the lessons learned from history that man will ultimately achieve the ideal state that is his purpose.” It seems like Arama (or more precisely, Munk’s paraphrasing) is saying that bad stuff will happen eventually because God has made man that way, but free will determines which generation(s) go bad.
This interpretation seems to fit with another remark by Arama a few pages later: “observance of Torah at any given time, ensures of its adherents prolonged periods of well being.” So God foresees exile, but not necessarily which generations are virtuous and which not.
I’m still not sure Arama makes sense, but at least I understand the logic. But if God doesn’t foresee what a generation does is that consistent with the idea of Divine perfection?
Why bother with a Dvar Torah for the next Torah portion when Rosh Hashanah is coming up? Why not?
This week’s portion contains the mitzvah of hakhel- after Sukkot every seven years, the people shall gather to hear the Torah (Deut. 31:10-12). Arama notes that even children should be present.
Why? Arama says that according to the Talmud, “the children seeing and remembering the king himself reading the Torah, will help their reverence for God in the future.” The broader point here is that ceremony has a power to instill reverence; for example, I vividly remember Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the synagogue of my youth (The Temple in Atlanta). Even though I don’t remember what was said, I do remember the atmosphere. The size and fanciness of that synagogue, which now seems kind of overdone to me, seemed majestic when I was younger.
Last week was very simple: I just had basil chicken (delicious, though not very Thai tasting) and pad thai (mediocre but edible) from Gan Asia. Also frozen chocolate ball mix (I am too lazy to try to get the proportions exactly right for chocolate balls, so I made it into sorbet instead).
Rosh Hashanah is more complex: the usual ritual foods, duck sausage, pastrami from Essen, some blue potatoes from a farmers’ market, pawpaw (weird fruit) from Pomegranate, loquats.
In this week’s portion, Moses says yet again that the Jews will be punished if they don’t keep the Torah. That makes sense for the generation that agreed to keep it. But what about future generations that aren’t party to the covenant? Why should they be bound?
Arama argues that Jews are bound because it would be self-destructive not to be: that if they ignore the Torah, God will ignore them, causing them to be destroyed. In other words, abandon the covenant if you like but be prepared to suffer the consequences.
But of course, Jews (and even entire Jewish communities) have assimiliated into the general population without any obvious ill effects. So its not always true (at least post-Temple) that Jews will be physically punished for abandoning the Torah.
However, it does seem to me that there’s another way of looking at it. If your community abandons the covenant, they may not be physically harmed- but they will be cease to exist as Jews. They will just become part of the general community, for good or for ill.
To put it another way, Judaism is a bit like baseball: if you deviate far enough from the rules of baseball (however you interpret them) eventually you’re not playing baseball any more. You may be playing football or soccer or basketball, but not baseball.
So where do differences among Jews fit into this? Just as baseball changes, Judaism changes. But how much change creates an entirely different game? Orthodoxy argues that any change outside its boundaries turns the game into a different sport; non-Orthodox Jews argue that they are still close enough to the original rules to still be playing more or less the same game.
I continue to take advantage of Manhattan’s selection of kosher restaurants. This week: Kai Fan, a Chinese restaurant in Riverdale. Since I live in Manhattan (and not even on the Upper West Side but Midtown) why would I drag myself that far north for take out food?
Because Kai Fan has a small Korean menu, so I got bulgogi and galbi short ribs- although they tasted pretty similar, both surprisingly good.
Also: green salad and zucchini (added by the restaurant)
brown rice (ditto)
Ozuke kimche (which I just had lying around)
meringue (at bake shop in Riverdale)
chocolate goop (choc ball mix but I didn’t get portions right to cohere)
This week’s Torah portion begins with the bikkurim ritual, in which a farmer brings his first fruits to Jerusalem. This ritual is part of an elaborate ceremony- so much so that it takes up a full chapter of Deuteronomy (26).
Why so much pagaentry? Arama writes that the more “time has elapsed since Israel has entered the Holy Land, the greater the danger that this fact may be forgotten. It therefore becomes progressively more important to remind ourselves of this.” In other words, don’t just be thankful for the present, but for the past as well.
I thought of this recently in the context of my father’s life. While saying Modim, it occurred to me that I was acknowledging not only positive things in my own life, but also the miracle that led me to exist. My father spent a big chunk of World War II (1943-45) hiding out from the Gestapo in and around Berlin. He managed to not only survive, but avoid concentration camps. So just as the Jewish farmers of Temple times thanked God for the long-ago miracle of ancestors escaping Egypt, I suppose I should be equally thankful for the long-ago miracle of ancestors avoiding Auschwitz.
How many minyans have I said kaddish at since my father died? Here’s my count so far, a minimum of 51 i think:
Nashville (update oct 9)- Shearith Israel
Pittsburgh- Kesser Torah
Chabad (at least one of the minyans, the one that meets at Naamat – I know I’ve davened at the main Chabad at Wightman, not sure if after my dad died though)
(other shuls? Maybe, can’t remember if after dad died in Jan. or before)
Jacksonville- Etz Chaim
Atlanta- Beth Tefillah
New Toco Shul
Washington- Agudat Israel afternoon minyan
(OSTT maybe- can’t remember if after first of year)
Baltimore- Agudat Israel
Detroit- Young Israel of Oak Park
Kollel in Oak Park
Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan
Beth Israel (Ann Arbor)
Queens- Briarwood Jewish Center
Young Israel of Queens Valley
Brooklyn- 770 Eastern Parkway (Chabad headquarters)
Prospect Heights shul
Boro Park “minyan factory”
Young Israel-Beth El of Boro Park
Young Israel of Flatbush
Bronx- Hebrew Institute of Riverdale
Staten Island- Young Israel of Staten Island
Manhattan- Adereth El
Chabad of Midtown
West Side Jewish Center
Milliney Center Synagogue
Park East Synagogue
Mt. Sinai Jewish Center
Khol Adath Jeshurun
Stanton Street Shul
Mechon Hadar (not really a shul, more of a beit midrash)
Los Angeles- Shaarey Zedek (Valley View)
Adat Yeshurun (Moroccan)
Valley Beth Shalom
Young Israel of Century City
Young Israel of Hancock Park
One of the more unusual laws in the Torah (Deut. 25:11) states that if two men “get into a fight with each other, and the wife of one comes up to save her husband from his antagonist and puts out her hand and sizes him by his genitals, you shall cut off her hand.” (I note that the Talmud requires payment of damages by the wife rather than hand-slicing).
JPS refers to the fighting males as “men.” However, Arama calls them “brothers” and writes that this language “indicates that the quarrel was not that serious that one parth tried to kill the other. When the wife interferes in such a situation in a manner that endangers the life of her husband’s opponent, she has heightened the tension between them.”
I am not sure Arama’s translation is right. But I like the ethical point he is trying to make: when two acquaintances are having a quarrel, try to avoid escalating the conflict.