This Torah Portion is filled with blessings and curses that sealed the covenant between the people of Israel and Hashem before entering into the promise land. The seventh, and last blessing, says, “And the Lord will set you at the head, and not at the tail…” (Deut. 28:13). Our vast majority of Sages understood this verse to mean that if we follow God´s commandments the people of Israel will be at the top of the nations and not dominated by them (Nachmanides). The Targum Onkelos translates the verse from Hebrew to Aramaic as follows: “and the Lord will make you strong and not weak” and a later translation to the Aramaic reads as follows: “And the Word of the Lord will appoint you to be kings and not subjects” (Targum Pseudo Jonathan).
Interestingly this verse is also the source of the invocation we recite over the head of the fish in our Rosh Hashanah tables: “May it be Your will, Lord our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that we be a head and not a tail.” But here the meaning changes, it´s not about the people of Israel as a whole anymore but a plea from each individual; and is not about power and dominion over others anymore but about control ourselves. At the beginning of the year we pray that we should be blessed to be at the vanguard of our life and not look at it from behind. We pray to be at the forefront of our projects and dreams and not just passive spectators of our lives.
Rosh Hashanah is the reminder that we must be the head and not the tail of ourselves, not of others.
Shabbat Shalom and an early Shanah Tovah!
Have you ever dreamt of being a judge? According to our Torah portion God will designate judges for each one of our cities. In the times of the Temple the judges were the priests. After the destruction of the Temples the rabbis assumed that position. And today, who is the judge? In an open, free and democratic society many of us take the liberty to become judges in a daily basis. Hashem did not designate us to hold that position but we took it for ourselves because we think that we are entitled to do it.
The ideal situation will be that none of us should act as judge if anyone else–or at very least we should do it in the right way. Twice in this Parsha the Torah reminds us that when we are about to condemn someone we should, “…hear it, and investigate thoroughly…” (Deut. 17:4) Further it tells us, “And the judges shall inquire thoroughly” (Deut. 19:18). This is called by our rabbinic tradition Drisha veChakirah, inquiry and examination (M, Sanhedrin 4:1). The judge before condemning someone should do a very thorough investigation, looking for witnesses, evidence, and proof that will verify the complaint.
So before you judge someone else just remember two things: (1) God did not put you in that position–you took it for yourself; (2) but if you still decide to judge another person’s behavior, behave like a true judge by investigating and making every effort to discern the truth.
Concrete action from this Dvar Torah: never share a story or a post on Facebook, or in any other social media, until you verify the source.
After expounding on many laws and commandments our Torah portion says: “Keep and hearken to all these words that I command you, that it may benefit you and your children after you, forever, when you do what is good and proper in the eyes of the Lord, your God” (Deut. 12:28). From the plain reading of this verse we get the idea that we should only act to please Hashem. We should do what is “good and proper in the eyes of the Lord”. But what if our actions are pleasing to God but hateful to other human beings? What if our love for Hashem make us hurt (willingly or unwillingly) others?
Rashi (XI c.e., France) solves this puzzle that every observant person must often confront. Rashi explains: “Good (HaTov): refers to an action that is proper in the eyes of God”, while “Proper (VeHaYashar): refers to an action that is proper in the eyes of men”. Our actions should please not only God, but it should also be right and proper in the eyes of other human beings. Many times we do something and we say “it doesn’t matter what other people think about me; God knows my true intentions”. It doesn’t work this way; our actions should please God as well as the people around us. Not one or the other, but both.
If according to the Torah all our actions are directed at pleasing God, and Rashi divides those actions between those that please God and also other human beings, the Bechor Shor (XII c.e., France) goes one step further. He says that the only way to please God is doing what is good in the eyes of other human beings. This is our Jewish way to serve Hashem, through little (or big) acts of loving kindness.
For centuries many religions have dealt with the same question, “Do actions without the proper intention count?” In Judaism, the answer is yes! The answer can be found within the first two paragraphs of Shema Yisrael. The first paragraph is taken from last week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, while the second paragraph is taken from this week’s Torah portion, Ekev. Both paragraphs are similar because they both deal with the commandments of teaching our children about Mezuzah, Tefillin, and loving and serving God.
Why are two paragraphs needed if both paragraphs talk about the same things? To answer this question, we can examine the way in which the paragraphs were written. If we look at the first paragraph, we see that it is written as a set of orders: “You shall do this..” or “You shall do that…” The second paragraph adds certain conditions, followed by retribution or punishment based on whether or not we obey and fulfill those orders.
According to our Sages, the first paragraph emphasizes the importance of doing something for the right reason or with the right intention (in Hebrew: Lishmah). The second paragraph speaks about the exact opposite; doing something and expecting a reward in return or refraining from doing something in order to avoid punishment (in Hebrew: Lo Lishmah).
It is more meaningful to act with the right intentions. However, if we act simply on whether or not something is the “right thing to do,” it stills counts in the eyes of Hashem. We have these two paragraphs in the Shema to remind us that we should strive to consciously act with the right intentions but, if we are not able to do so, we should still always do “the right things.”
For example, according to Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel, the bread that you give to the poor will taste the same whether you were being charitable for vain reasons or whether you wanted to give Tzedekah because it is the right thing to do.
Shema Yisrael is, without a doubt, one of the most well known prayers of the Jewish People. Throughout the generations, Shema Yisrael has become one of the greatest expressions of faith of our people. This prayer is one of the first Hebrew prayers we teach our children and one of the last expressions spoken by million of Jews before they pass on.
This week’s Parsha Vaetchanan, says to recite Shema Yisrael “… when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deut. 4:7). Why should we recite Shema twice? Why is one time not enough? Rav Kook hints that the reason we say Shema twice is to acknowledge the presence of God and His unity both in public and private realms. In the morning, we prepare ourselves to go out in the world and live in the “public eye.” At night, we return home to our private lives, either alone or with our families.
However, there are people who divide themselves and have dual personalities; people who behave one way in public and another in private. There are people who might be loving and caring parents or spouses but awful bosses or coworkers. The opposite could ring true, as well. There are people who might be dedicated and loyal employers or coworkers but are wicked spouses or parents. By reciting Shema Yisrael, we are acknowledging, twice a day, that God is one, and so should we strive to be. We should strive to be the same loving, caring, dedicated and loyal beings in both our private domains and in our public lives.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses recounts the story of the wilderness and he uses the expression, “Rav Lahem” twice. In the beginning of the Parsha Moses says: “You have dwelt long enough (Rav Lahem) at this mountain (Mount Horeb/Sinai)” (1:6). Later, Moses adds: “You have circled this mountain (Har Seir) long enough (Rav Lahem); turn northward” (2:3).
“Rav Lahem!” is the voice of God calling to the people to say that they have stayed too long in one place without moving or advancing, which is is never a good thing. The Jewish people are a wandering people. Our history begins with the journey of Abraham and it continues through our present day. When we aren’t on the move, we become stagnant. God urges us to keep moving! The same idea can be applied to our relationships, professions, and in other areas of our lives. When we go for a long period of time without change, without challenging ourselves, God is calling to us and saying: “Rav Lahem.” He is urging us to keep moving towards our promised land.
This week’s combined Torah portion begins with laws regarding vows and oaths. The Torah states: “…he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do.” (Num. 30:3). Rashi points out the wording in the original Hebrew text and interprets the text: “he shall not violate his word” to mean “he shall not profane his word.” The Midrash adds: “he shall not treat his word as being unholy” (Sifrei, Matot 8).
God created the world with words. Adam named the animals with words. We build up our relationships, create our dreams, recite blessings and pray with words. Words are holy and for that reason the Midrash teaches us that our words should not be profane or mundane.
Holiness is something that is separate from the ordinary. For example, Shabbat is holy because it is separate from the rest of the week. To keep something holy it shouldn’t be misused, holiness is something special. Our words should be special, as well. Let’s speak the words, “I love you,” only with the people we really love because if not it becomes common loses its value once we mean it. The same is true with words like, “friend”, “I’m sorry”, “forgive me,” etc. Let’s make our words holy and special again.
If you look closely at the first paragraph of this week’s Torah portion, you will see a tiny Yud in the name Pinchas and a broken Vavin the word Shalom. Pinchas is a descendant of Aharon HaKohen. In last week’s Torah portion Pinchas took justice into his own hands and killed two people who were sinning. At the beginning of this Torah portion, God honors Pinchas for his zeal and grants him the covenant of peace. For many centuries this idea disturbed our rabbis. How could our rabbis explain why God rewarded Pinchas the covenant of peace for killing someone even if the person might have been deserving of punishment? We cannot change the Torah but we can change the way we read the Torah.
The rabbis wrote the Yud in Pinchas’ name in a smaller size compared to the other letters in order to teach us that when we use violence the Yud of our Iahadut (Jewishness) and of the ineffable name of God (I-H-V-H) are diminished. Pinchas’ Jewishness, a religion of love and tolerance, were diminished when he killed in the name of God. Our sages, of blessed memory, wrote a broken Vav in the word Shalom to suggest that peace could not be possible when it comes as the result of violence or war. We may find a temporary peace through war but that peace will never be eternal.
Only by altering two letters, our rabbis were able to teach us a deeper meaning behind Parashat Pinchas. The story goes from one that praises zealots and fanaticism to a story that teaches us the risks of fanaticism and zealous behavior.
Rabbi Uriel Romano