Tag Archives: Devarim

Devarim: Lessons in Teshuvah

devout_jewish_prayerThe Torah portion begins with the words:

“These are the things which Moses spoke to all of Israel” (Deut. 1:1).

The Torah then enumerates what is seemingly a list of places the Jewish people had traveled. The Siphre elucidates that out of respect for the Jewish people, Moses alluded to their transgressions by the name of each place, without being explicit. What can we learn from this?

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Chasman of the famed Hebron Yeshiva comments that a person who is sincerely interested in self-improvement and growth only needs a slight hint that he has done something wrong in order to realize that he needs to improve. Such a person looks for opportunities to make positive changes in himself and uses his own ability to think to fill in the details when someone gives him a hint that he has made a mistake. The Jewish people only needed a hint.

The goal of life is to improve and to be the best that you can be. Just like a person interested in becoming rich will use any tip if he thinks it will be of financial benefit, so should we look for messages which will help us improve. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter once asked a shoemaker why he was working so late and with an almost extinguished candle. Replied the shoemaker, “As long as the candle is still burning it is possible to accomplish and mend.” From this Rabbi Salanter understood that “as long as the light of the soul is still going, we must make every effort to accomplish and to mend.”

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Dvar Torah based on Growth Through Torah by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Commentary on Torah Portion Devarim

Easier said than done.

On the other hand, it seems to be God’s expectation that we should all strive to improve, to make amends, to become better.

When describing Tisha B’Av, Rabbi Packouz says:

Tisha B’Av is a fast day (like Yom Kippur, from sunset one evening until the stars come out the next evening) which culminates a three week mourning period by the Jewish people. One is forbidden to eat or drink, bathe, use moisturizing creams or oils, wear leather shoes or have marital relations. The idea is to minimize pleasure and to let the body feel the distress the soul should feel over these tragedies. Like all fast days, the object is introspection, making a spiritual accounting and correcting our ways — what in Hebrew is called Teshuva — returning to the path of good and righteousness, to the ways of the Torah.

Teshuva is a four part process: 1) We must recognize what we have done wrong and regret it 2) We must stop doing the transgression and correct whatever damage that we can, including asking forgiveness from those whom we have hurt — and making restitution, if due 3) We must accept upon ourselves not to do it again 4) We must verbally ask the Almighty to forgive us.

despairThat sounds a lot more complicated than how most Christians just shoot a quick “forgive me” prayer up to God before continuing on with their business. OK, maybe that was really cynical, but I wonder if a lot of Christians have a concept of repentance the way we see described above.

I hope so. It’s not easy. Maybe if we appreciated from the start how much work it is to repent, how much strife and anguish our mistakes make, the enormous effort that goes into a repair of damaged relationships and of damaged people that will never quite be enough, maybe we’d put more effort into not sinning in the first place.

The goal of life is to improve and to be the best that you can be.

That may be true. But there’s a long, hard distance between the goal and where most of us are on the journey.

According to Rabbi Packouz:

Learning Torah is the heart, soul and lifeblood of the Jewish people. It is the secret of our survival. Learning leads to understanding and understanding leads to doing. One cannot love what he does not know. Learning Torah gives a great joy of understanding life. On Tisha B’Av we are forbidden to learn Torah except those parts dealing with the calamities which the Jewish people have suffered. We must stop, reflect and make changes. Only then will we be able to improve ourselves and make a better world.

In an ideal sense, this is how Jewish people are to approach and immerse themselves in the experience of Tisha B’Av. It is said that the Temple was destroyed because of the lack of love the Jewish people had for one another. This is part of the reason why there is such intense mourning in Jewish communities at this time of year. This is why there is such an emphasis toward teshuvah.

Only when true repentance has been made can the Jewish person move forward and begin the process of self-improvement.

What should the rest of us learn from this? Is our candle still burning?

For a different perspective on this portion of the Sidra, visit Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s blog.

Good Shabbos.

75 days.

Devarim: At the Threshold of a Dream

Moshe recited the Book of Deuteronomy as the Jews stood on the banks on the Jordan, preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael. The crossing of the Jordan River was to be a spiritual as well as a geographic movement. During their journeys through the desert, the Jews depended on miraculous expressions of Divine favor: they ate manna, their water came from the Well of Miriam, and the Clouds of Glory preserved their garments. After entering Eretz Yisrael, however, the Jewish people were to live within the natural order, working the land and eating the fruits of their labor.

To make this transition possible, they required an approach to the Torah that would relate to man as he functions within his worldly environment. It was for this purpose that Moshe taught the Book of Deuteronomy.

Herein lies a connection to the present day, because we are also “on the banks of the Jordan” preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael together with Mashiach. It is through the approach emphasized by the Book of Deuteronomy fusing the word of G-d with mortal wisdom that we will merit the age when “the occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G-d,” the Era of the Redemption.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“A Mortal Mouth Speaking G-d’s Word”
from the “In the Garden of the Torah” series
Commentary on Torah Portion Devarim

“I have to confess, I don’t really get it. If you believe in Jesus, you believe he is the King. The Lord. The Boss. Your Boss. There is no other option. It’s an integral part of his identity. The fact that some people have lost sight of that fact is evidence, to me, of how far we have come from a really Biblical idea of who Jesus is. We have forgotten that there is no such thing as a Jesus who is not our King, a Jesus we don’t have to obey.”

-Boaz Michael
Founder and President of First Fruits of Zion

I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to stand there on the banks of the Jordan river, watching and listening to Moses, knowing that this was the last time he would speak to Israel, knowing that they were on the threshold of the fulfilled promises of God, knowing that Moses wouldn’t be part of that fulfillment.

It must have been an incredible thrill mixed with passionate anticipation and more than a tinge of bitter sorrow. How could Israel go into Canaan, take possession of The Land as God had ordained, and yet have God deny the man they had come to know as Prophet, tzaddik, and even father entrance with them? What would the realization of a dream mean if Moses wasn’t there in their midst?

From Moshe’s point of view, how difficult it must have been for him. For over forty years, he had guarded the Israelites. He had guarded them from hunger and thirst, from losing their way, both geographically and spiritually. He had guarded them from hostile kingdoms and armies and he had protected them from their own folly. He had watched the entire generation he brought out of Egypt die one by one in the desert, and he had watched their children grow up and become the people who replaced them; the people who would enter The Land.

But he wouldn’t be going with them. Who would protect them from their folly should they speak against God and God’s anger flare against them?

That’s what Deuteronomy is all about. Moshe’s last message to the Children of Israel before he was to die and they were to live and go forward. It was his last opportunity to speak out, to encourage them, to warn them, to beg them, to scream at them, “Don’t screw this up! I won’t be with you to save you anymore!”

The Chassidic sages have much to say about the last speech of Moses, trying to reconcile the words of God that came through the prophet in the first four books of Torah with the words of Moses that fill to the brim this last, fateful tome:

Our Sages note that the Book of Devarim differs from the first four Books of the Torah in that the latter are “from G-d’s mouth,” while Devarim is “from Moshe’s mouth.”

This does not — Heaven forfend — imply that the words in Mishneh Torah are not G-d’s. Rather, as Rashi explains: (Sanhedrin 56b.) “Moshe did not say Mishneh Torah to the Jews on his own, but as he would receive it from G-d he would repeat it to them.”

Since the words of Mishneh Torah too are not Moshe’s words but G-d’s, why are the first four Books of the Torah considered to be from “G-d’s mouth” while the Book of Devarim is considered to be from “Moshe’s mouth”; what difference is there between the first four Books and the fifth?

The inherent sanctity of Torah is such that it completely transcends this physical world; in order for it to descend within this world an intermediary is necessary — one who is both higher than this world yet within it. This intermediary bridges the gap between the sacred Torah and this corporeal world.

from “The Chassidic Dimension” series
Commentary on Torah Portion Devarim
Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. XIX, pp. 9-12
and on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

I know. It’s difficult for me to comprehend as well. How can the first four books of Torah basically be from God as “dictated” to Moses and yet the fifth book be from Moshe’s own mouth and yet still be inspired by God?

I don’t know.

How can the letters of Paul be Paul’s own words, written in his “style,” expressing his own concerns, his own fears, his anger at the screw ups some of the churches were making, and still be the inspired word of God through the Holy Spirit?

It’s a mystery.

Can you have a rant and still have it be a “holy rant?”

I don’t know that either. But that’s what Deuteronomy is mostly about. The deep anguish and pain of a man who was about as close to God as any human being ever got expressed in his own words, through his own feelings and yet…

…and yet, God was still in all that somehow.

I don’t think I’m a prophet. Far from it. I’m just a guy with a blog. I sincerely doubt that there are any prophets in the world today that we could compare with Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Holy people, tzaddikim, sure, but no prophets. I don’t think there are “letter writers” (today, they’d all be emailers and bloggers) who have the special mission Paul had, to communicate to the churches in such a way that our words would become holy documents.

But we have our own words. As people of faith, we sometimes faintly hear the whispers of God. Most of the time, we have no idea what we’re hearing. It it our imagination? Is it just the wind? Is it only my feelings?

Paul wrote letters and, in all likelihood, he probably never had any idea that they’d become part of what we consider the Holy Scriptures. He was just doing his job, being the Messiah’s disciple, being the emissary to the Gentiles, trying to make it all work somehow, depending on the Spirit of God to get him through it all.

When Moses was standing there at the Jordan, did he realize that God would have him record everything he was saying later for the Torah? Did he think that it all ended with Numbers? After all, he knew he was to die soon. Maybe he thought the responsibility for recording God’s words was already past. How could he possibly imagine that God would have him record the moment of his own death and then what happened next?

I have no idea. I’m not theologian or historian. For all I know, Christian and Jewish scholars and authorities may have answered these questions ages ago.

Or not.

All I know…all I can tell for sure, is that both Moses and Paul were mere flesh and blood. Just like you and me. Moses had an unparalleled relationship with God. They spoke, for all intents and purposes, as if they were “face to face.” Paul saw a vision of the Master on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-6) and later was taken up into the third Heaven. His experience in the latter case goes something like this:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. –2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (ESV)

These were both men who led lives and had experiences probably none of us could even begin aspire to. And yet they were human beings, they got hungry and thirsty, they became angry and frustrated, they cried out to God.

Just like you and me.

So as Moses launched into his last, impassioned speech to the Israelites at the Jordan river, anticipating all that was to come and knowing that time was extremely short, God was somehow infused in this last book of Torah, and yet everything that was of Moses was there, too.

What does this teach us?

I can’t give you a definitive answer, I can only give you my answer.

I think it teaches us that a life of faith is a life of companionship. Some people think of time as a predator, stalking us all our lives, closing in on us as we get older and weaker, waiting for the moment to strike and make the kill. However, God shows us that time and a life spent in faith is a life of companionship. God goes with us on the journey and reminds us to cherish every moment, because it will never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we’ve lived. After all, we’re only mortal. (with apologies to Patrick Stewart and his alter ego Captain Picard as they appeared in Star Trek: Generations 1994)

Each morning when we wake up, we stand at the threshold of living out our dream. It’s not a dream of the house you’ve always wanted to live in, the clothes and the car you’ve always wanted to own, or the places you’ve always wanted to visit. It’s the dream of a day lived out with God as a companion. It’s the realization that we can be, and we indeed are, fully and completely ourselves, frail and mortal human beings, and yet we can still walk our path, step by step, with the lover of our souls. Moses walked this path until the day he died. So did Paul.

By the grace of God, so will we all. Like them, we will try to continually listen to His Voice and to obey His Words. But as we live out His Words, they will be expressed to the rest of the world through whatever we say and do. This is just like Moses in his farewell to Israel recorded in Deuteronomy. This is just like each of Paul’s letters to the various churches of the diaspora.

This is just like us every time we speak of our lives, our journey, our very existence at the side of our God. The words and the voice everyone hears are ours. But somehow, God is in them, too.

When the white eagle of the North is flying overhead
The browns, reds and golds of autumn lie in the gutter, dead.
Remember then, that summer birds with wings of fire flaying
Came to witness spring’s new hope, born of leaves decaying.
Just as new life will come from death, love will come at leisure.
Love of love, love of life and giving without measure
Gives in return a wondrous yearn of a promise almost seen.
Live hand-in-hand and together we’ll stand on the threshold of a dream.

-Graeme Edge
from the song “The Dream”
on the album On the Threshold of a Dream (1969)

Someday we will cross the threshold with our Master, our Messiah, and we will enter the final Shabbat rest in the Kingdom of Heaven. And the whole world will know God. The dream will become reality.

Good Shabbos.

Devarim: One Man’s Story

MosesThis week’s Torah reading begins: “These are the words that Moshe spoke to the entire Jewish people.” Noting the distinction between this book and the previous four, which are all “the word of G-d,” our Sages explain that Moshe recited the Book of Deuteronomy “on his own initiative.”

Rabbi Eli Touger
Commentary on Torah Portion Devarim
“A Mortal Mouth Speaking G-d’s Word”
Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, p. 1087ff; Vol. XIX, p. 9ff

For most Christians, who don’t have a conservative evangelical view like the one I had, these textual facts can be interesting, but there is nothing in them to challenge their faith, which is built on something other than having the very words that God inspired in the Bible. And I certainly never intended to lead anyone away from the Christian faith; critics who have suggested that I myself stopped being a Christian once I realized there were differences among our manuscripts are simply wrong and being ridiculous.

Author and New Testament Scholar
Bart D. Ehrman in his book
Jesus, Interrupted

Today’s “extra” meditation and my commentary on this week’s Torah Portion Devarim.

Occasionally people ask why most of the book of Deuteronomy (in Hebrew, “Devarim”) even exists. It seems to do little more than repeat and summarize the events in the first four books of the Torah. The answer can be a little disturbing to some Christians and even to some Jews. Our understanding is that the first four books of the Bible were the words of God as dictated to Moses and Deuteronomy is in Moses’ own words.

Does that mean Deuteronomy is completely human in origin and without the influence of God? Let’s return to Rabbi Touger’s commentary:

This does not…mean that the Book of Deuteronomy is merely a mortal invention. Our Rabbis immediately clarify that Moshe delivered his words “inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Similarly, when the Rambam defines the category of “those who deny the Torah,” he includes: “a person who says that the Torah even one verse or one word does not emanate from G-d. If one would say, ‘Moshe made these statements independently,’ he is denying the Torah.”

Not a single commentator maintains that there is a difference in this regard between the Book of Deuteronomy and the four preceding books.

For the Book of Deuteronomy are merely Moshe’s words. Moshe’s identification with G-dliness was so great that when he states: “I will grant the rain of your land in its season,” he speaks in the first person although the pronoun “I” clearly refers to G-d. “The Divine Presence spoke from his mouth.”

The origin of the Bible and exactly how it was written and codified is complex and more than a little mysterious. The simple belief among many Christians is that each author wrote under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit and what they wrote originally is exactly what we have in our Bibles today (translated into the language we prefer to read). I included the quote from Bart Ehrman’s book to illustrate that even among modern Bible scholars, there is some doubt as to whether or not we can read the Bible as if it were a history book, newspaper, and court reporter’s record all rolled into one. In fact, we can’t.

The Bible is as much a human document as a document of the Divine. It’s a series of “stories” that illustrate something about God and His interactions with humanity. That it contains internal inconsistencies and historic flaws in no way disqualifies its moral and mystic significance among the community of faith. The stories tell us what we need to know, not as a history lesson, but as a guide to righteous living and as a doorway into domains that leave our mortal plane and allow us to glimpse the Throne of God.

In referring to Midrash Tehillim to 90:4; Bereishis Rabbah 8:2, we see that the Sages believe that “The Torah preceded the world” and when we read John 1:1, we see that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. From this, we understand that only part of the Bible’s function is to act as a record and a document. Beyond the scroll in the Ark or the book on our hand, it exists in transition between our world and the next.

Rabbi Touger continues:

Here, the concept of precedence is not chronological, for time like space is a creation, relevant only after G-d brought existence into being. Rather the intent is that the Torah is on a level of spiritual truth which transcends our material frame of reference. Although the Torah “descends” and “enclothes itself” in our world, speaking of seemingly ordinary matters such as agricultural laws, codes for fair business practice, and the proper structure for marriage and family relations, this is not its essence. The essence of the Torah is “G-d’s will and His wisdom,” united with Him in perfect unity (see Tanya, ch. 4).

The Amazon.com product description for Ehrman’s book states that “the New Testament is riddled with contradictory views about who Jesus was and the significance of his life”, yet from a mystic point of view, this doesn’t present a problem.

The Ba'al Shem TovWhen I was reading The Hasidic Tale by Gedaliah Nigal, I wrote several commentaries about what I gained from the text including The Messianic Tale and Stories are Miracles. From these, we see that the stories of the Chasidim are less a series of historical facts and more a collection of mystic and allegorical tales designed to reveal something about ourselves, about holiness, and about God. How much of each story is factually accurate isn’t particularly relevant, because one does not approach the tales of the Chasidim that way. What we are looking for is something that will peel away the covers from the world of the supernatural and give us a peek at what lies around the next bend on our path of faith.

We can apply that commentary back to the Bible thus.

Jorge Quinonez, in his book “Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader” Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34 (quoted in Love and the Messianic Age) describes Levertoff, a Chasidic Jew and devoted disciple of Jesus, this way:

He read the Gospels in German. Then he obtained a Hebrew version and reread them. Though he was in the midst of a Gentile, Christian city where Jesus was worshiped in churches and honored in every home, Feivel felt the Gospels belonged more to him and the Chasidic world than they did to the Gentiles who revered them. He found the Gospels to be thoroughly Jewish and conceptually similar to Chasidic Judaism. He wondered how Gentile Christians could hope to comprehend Yeshua (Jesus) and His words without the benefit of a classical Jewish education or experience with the esoteric works of the Chasidim.

This perhaps, is what scholars like Bart Ehrman miss when they study and criticize the Bible for not reading like a story posted at CNN. Divinity and humanity collide, meld, mesh, and blend within the pages of the Bible and we are not always meant to be able to tell where one leaves off and the other begins…or if that division is even possible.

Rabbi Touger states:

But why is the Book of Deuteronomy necessary? Enclothing the Torah in human intellect seemingly does nothing but lower its spiritual content. What purpose is served?

Nevertheless, this is G-d’s intent in giving the Torah: that it permeate mortal thought and thus elevate man’s understanding. Whenever a person studies Torah, regardless of his spiritual level, he is making its infinite truth part of his personal nature.

Were there to have been only four books in the Torah, it would have been impossible for our powers of understanding to unite completely with the Torah. It was only by having the Book of Deuteronomy pass through Moshe’s intellect that this goal accomplished. Moreover, Moshe’s review of the Torah in he Book of Deuteronomy gives us the capacity to understand the previous four books in a similar fashion.

Enclothing the Torah in mortal intellect does not merely grant man the opportunity for advancement, it also introduces a higher quality to the Torah itself, as it were. For clothing limitless spirituality in the confines of mortal intellect represents a fusion of opposites that is possible only through the influence of G-d’s essence. Because His essence transcends both finiteness and infinity, it can weld the two together, bringing the spiritual truth of the Torah within the grasp of mortals.

TranscendentWho we are and who God is in us requires that we leave behind some of our attachment to what we call “reality” and allow ourselves to stand transcendent at the uncomfortable and mystic threshold between Heaven and Earth. We don’t have to rely on the Bible to be a book of facts but rather a book of truth.

Consider this:

These are the words which Moses spoke to the children of Israel, across the Jordan, in the desert, in the plain, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, Lavan, Chatzeiroth, and Di-Zahav –Devarim 1:1

All these “places” are allusions to sins committed by the Jewish people during their forty years of wandering in the Sinai Desert. Moses rebuked them only by insinuation so as not to embarrass them.

-Rashi’s commentary

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch once delivered a scathing critique of a certain type of outlook and behavior. Later, one of those present complained to him: “Rebbe, why did you rebuke me in public? Could you not have privately made me aware of my negative traits, without embarrassing me in front of everyone?”

Replied Rabbi Menachem Mendel: “Did I mean you? Obviously, I did. You see, I am a hat-maker. The hat-maker fashions a hat and places it in his window. People come in and try it on, until someone finds that it suits his head perfectly. Whom did he have in mind when he made this hat? Why, he made it precisely for the very customer who finds that it fits him!”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Commentary of Torah Portion Devarim
“The Discreet Hatter”

The Bible serves many purposes in our lives, not the least of which is to reveal the nature of who we are, for good or for ill. It is a book that condemns but also encourages. It shows us the goodness of God and where we fall short of that goodness (Romans 3:10). Let the Bible be what God intended it to be and let God be who He is. Listen to the words of Moses and his “Chasidic” tale of the wanderings of the Children of Israel, of his own journey with God, of the approach to the end of his life, and in listening to him, learn something about yourself.

Good Shabbos.