I was just starting to read next week’s Torah portion (which begins with a discussion of the first fruits offering, Deut. 26) when something in the Soncino Chumash grabbed my attention. The Torah says Jews shall rejoice (Deut. 26:11) while giving the first-fruits offerings to the Temple, and the Chumash says that according to Rashi, the phrase “rejoice” means “that the fruits could only be given during the season of rejoicing, viz. between Pentecost and Tabernacles.” So Rashi is saying that in Temple times the summer and early fall (roughly June-Oct.) were the “season of rejoicing.”
I can’t say he’s wrong. But it does appear to me that the season between Shavuot and Succot is the opposite of the season of rejoicing today. After Shavuot we get (1) three weeks of mourning in the summer, bookended by two fasts (17th of Tammuz, 9th of Av), (2) Rosh Hashanah, (3) a third fast (Fast of Gedaliah) right after Rosh Hashanah and (4) Yom Kippur. Four fasts in four months – not exactly a “season of rejoicing.” In post-Talmudic Judaism, when is our season of rejoicing? I would say that it starts with Sukkot, then goes to Hanukah, then Purim- in short, late fall and winter, the opposite of the Temple-era season of rejoicing.
I guess the Destruction of the Temples really did change everything (as well as the evolution from an agricultural to a more commercial economy, I suspect).
After several weeks of traveling to see family members, I am in my new home town for good. And happily, I have a Torah portion that challenges me to do interesting things with dinner.
Deut. 22:6 says that you shouldn’t take eggs and a mother bird at the same time. So naturally I started to think of ways to combine chicken and eggs. So:
Dish 1: Chicken sausage, chickpeas and diced tomatoes (because I had to had vegetables somewhere in the meal) with some sort of local “sandwich spread” sauce with egg in it
Dish 2: sesame chicken from local kosher market with hard-boiled egg whites (why not the yellow parts? because I don’t like them).
Also, since the portion mentions silver-based fines for various things (e.g. Deut. 22:19) I thought I would have something silver, so I am starting the meal off with herring.
And corn cakes, because the portion says you shouldn’t use a sickle to cut your neighbor’s corn (23:26)
And for dessert: a parve donut, just because I saw it in the local kosher market and I’m not sure I have ever tried (or heard of) a parve donut. Also a cookie I bought before seeing the donuts.
Coming attractions: next week’s parsha, which I just skimmed, mentions again and again and again that the Jews are coming back to the land of milk and honey. So dairy it shall be!
“thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou were a stranger in his land” (Deut. 23:8).
Why should it matter that Jews were strangers in Egypt? After all, the Egyptians oppressed us because we were strangers, so maybe this fact is an argument for abhorring Egyptians.
Nachmanides explains that this sentence really means that Egypt gave Israel’s ancestors hospitality in a time of famine. In other words, because Egypt was nice to Israel at first, we should be grateful to Egypt for the good times (despite the bad times). His emphasis on gratitude is relevant to us in our personal lives: even if we aren’t getting along with someone, we should be grateful for whatever they have done for us in the past.
More broadly, it relates to our relationship to other nations. While some Jews (especially older ones) still abhor Germany because of the Shoah, this passage suggests that we should mitigate this fury by remembering that for a century before the Shoah, Germany was fairly good to the Jews. In the 19th century, the Czar’s regime oppressed the Jews of Russia and Poland, and Germany was (in comparison) a place to escape from such oppression.
On the other hand, the Torah does not suggest that gratitude (at least not in this situation) should be absolute and unconditional. It next states that Egyptian “children of the third generation that are born unto them may enter into the assembly of Hashem.” (23:9). According to Nachmanides, this means that if an Egyptian converts, his descendants are not fully accepted (whatever that means) until the third generation. In other words, the Torah is telling us that Egyptian converts are not completely excluded (unlike Moabites and Ammonites, see 23:4) but are still means they are accepted less than men of nations who had not dealt harshly with Israel. More broadly, it means that we can accept the good in people but still be a little cautious about them if they have dealt harshly with us.
“At the mouth of two witnesses…shall he that is to die be put to death” (Deut. 17:6). This means that under halacha no sentence of death can be passed without two witnesses actually testifying.
Because of this and other safeguards, a halachic execution would rarely (if at all) happen even in a Jewish theocracy. The Mishnah states:
“A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one. R. Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘Or even once in 70 years.’ R. Tarfon and R. Akiva said, ‘If we had been in the Sanhedrin no death sentence would ever have been passed’
But contrary to what some believe, this does not mean that Judaism is anti-death penalty. There is a doctrine called horat shaah (“teaching for the hour”) which allows a king or even judge to punish without other halachic authorization. For example, Joshua executed Achan for theft without witnesses, apparently because the Jews had suffered a major military defeat because of the theft (looting the defeated city of Jericho) (see Joshua 7).
“thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him” [that is,thy needy brethren] (eut. 15:8). Rashi says this means that one “has to help the needy again and again” (quoting Soncino Chumash paraphrase)- very different from the individualist/conservative view that dominates American politics.
Of course, some of my conservative friends will say “but that doesn’t mean the government!” And in a secular society, that point of view might have some merit.
But on the other hand, I notice that my conservative friends are anti-poor more than they are anti-government. Government policies that are pro-poor tend to be singled out for criticism on the Right (e.g. Medicaid as opposed to Medicare for the middle-class elderly), while government programs that are targeted towards the wealthy or middle class tend to be less controversial.
This coming week’s portion urges the Jews to tear down graven images etc. created by the Canaanites, and even to :destroy their name” (Deut. 12:3). Acording to Ibn Ezra this means to expunge them from memory.
Even though Christians are not Canaanites, we do face halachic questions sometimes that are sort of related to this concept. For example, at shul this week (not at home, but in my hometown which I am visiting) someone spoke about this situation: he was at a Catholic university taking courses and there were enough Jews for a minyan in a classroom. The problem: the classrooms had graven images of Jesus. Do you:
a) do nothing about it, since Christianity isn’t really idolatry;
b) cover the image, since it is still foreign enough to Judaism that you don’t want to be exposed to it
c) pray so that you are not facing the image.
I actually was in a similar situation when visiting a friend’s house and picked B. But the speaker contacted a rabbi with a different view: he said that covering the image meant you would have to uncover it, so it was sort of honoring Jesus. So the best answer is option C.
In this week’s portion, Moses again preaches about the evils of getting too close to the neighborhood idol-worshippers, stating “thou shalt consume all the peoples that the LORD thy God shall deliver unto thee; thine eye shall not pity them” (Deut. 7:16).
Nachmanides explains that “the false pity of fools destroys all justice.” These words could be relevant today. Today’s “progressives” tend to have a lot of pity for the enemies of society, whether it is Arab terrorists or underclass criminals- and this sort of sympathy does indeed destroy justice.
Having said that, the Torah is hardly a “conservative” document in modern terms, as we shall see over the next few weeks when the Torah discusses issues such as charity and relief of debtors. The Torah may be a “law and order” document, and is certainly anti-pacificist- but it is not anti-welfare.
In the context of the police brutality-related controversies of the past year, here’s an interesting few lines written in 2006 (in a very different context) by R. Aharon Lichtenstein of blessed memory:
On various occasions, I have mentioned the fact that the prohibition against hitting appears in the Torah specifically in connection with the agent of the court: “Forty lashes he may give him; he shall not exceed” (Devarim 25:3). This seems strange: after all, it is prohibited to strike any person, at any time. Why, then, is the prohibition mentioned specifically as an issue pertaining to the agent of the beit din, who is assigned to carry out a punishment ordered by the court?
The answer is that it is specifically when a person enjoys a special status because of his position that there is a danger that his inner aggressive streak – the wild animal that exists within each of us – will burst forth. It is specifically in a situation where a person is performing his actions out of a sense of duty, when he feels that his actions have official sanction, when he feels that he is representing a system it is precisely then that there is a need to emphasize the prohibition against “excessive beating.”
This week’s portion contains the Shema: “Listen Israel HASHEM is our God, HASHEM is one.” There are lots of different interpretations of this of course. One I never heard (from Rashi by way of Soncino Chumash): now Hashem is just OUR God, but in the future the whole world’s.
Rashi was on to something even in the 1000s. At the time of the Torah, the invisible God of the Jews was arguably just our God.* But by the time he was writing, our God was already the God of the Christians and Muslims, and both religions have (I suspect) grown over the past millenium as they have spread into Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa. So our God is, if not quite the entire world’s deity, probably that of a majority of humanity. So in a sense Jews are winning.
But has this trend made people any better? Hard to say (though here’s an argument that the answer is yes).
*or at least not the God of the Greeks and Romans and Egyptians- given the sparse historical record, we don’t really know if Canaanites and other Torah-era neighbors of the Jews thought of our God is part of their pantheon of deities or not.
This was my first shabbos dinner in my new city (not counting last week when I was invited to someone’s house). I didn’t really think as hard as I usually do about dinner (and tying dinner to the parsha) because I was too busy moving in. So I just took advantage of the fact that I was in a city with an actual kosher market and got some things I couldn’t have gotten where I lived last year.
In particular, the main course was a tuna filet with tomato sauce and mustard. (Next time I’d try a stronger sauce like BBQ or hoisin). Also, I discovered a cupcake-size kosher angel food cake (made by a company in the region, so a local specialty), which was nice to have warm.
On a more boring note:
– marinated eggplant mixed with chickpeas (kind of an odd mix, the eggplant was too salty to go with the chickpeas very well, but mustard makes it all nice).
– caramel wheat cakes
– dates and figs (part of my pre-fast meal)
– raspberry hamantashen