Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Quite often regular synagogue goers see the Torah as divided into discrete units, the weekly readings.  However, the truth is more complex.  It's important to see the entire books of the Torah as a volume which develops and builds certain themes.   This missing the forest for the trees effect is partially on purpose.  The Rabbis for centuries have taught the weekly sections as stand alone entities.  But periodically it is important to step back and get a little perspective on the larger picture.  If a careful reader does move away from the parsha this week, an interesting pattern emerges.  A major shift has occurred in the style of Deuteronomy.  In the first three readings of this book which is a long valedictory address by Moshe, there is an emphasis on history with a bit of chastisement.  However, this week we begin a major of portion of Deuteronomy which emphasizes specific mitzvoth, rather than historical and philosophic musings.  This segment goes from the middle of chapter eleven until the end of chapter twenty-six.  There's another tip to the fact that we've changed scenery in the book, and that's linguistic.

            Until now the key word of instruction by Moshe is shma or listen.  Suddenly this week we are told re'eh or see.  What's the difference?  Studies show that historically a majority of the information gathered by humans has been by listening.  It far outstrips sight.  That's why Rabban Shimon tells us in Pirkei Avot (1:18) that he grew up in a house filled with scholars (He's Hillel's son.), and the best thing in the world is to remain silent, just listen.  The first part of the book is about gathering the necessary data for making spiritual decisions.  At this point in the book we are supposed to be convinced and, therefore, we can switch to the word which denotes surety and clarity namely see.  The accumulated knowledge is supposed to make it obvious that now it's time to act.  So, we begin with the mitzvoth required when the Jews get into Israel, but also those which begin a moral life.

            So, it's instructive to notice which mitzvoth come first.  Initially, we have instructions to banish idolatry.  Then we have laws of setting up the cultic center in Jerusalem.  This is followed by laws of permitted and prohibited animals.  The fourth area of concern is social justice.  Laws of agriculture emphasize the need to share with those less well off than ourselves.  Placing these charitable concerns at the head of our religious requirements shouldn't surprise any students of Jewish tradition and culture.  Jews are expected to be heirs to Avraham who embodied kindness and generosity.  The very word that we use for charity, namely tzadakah, says it all.  The word means righteous or correct behavior.  We don't view philanthropy has an option, but an obligation.  When God tells us of the necessity to inform Avraham about the impending doom of Sodom and Gomorrah, God says:  For I have known him because he commands his children and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness (tzadakah) and justice (mishpat, Genesis 18:19).   The way of the Lord and, therefore of us is tzadakah and mishpat.

            In this section there appears an interesting anomaly.  It almost seems like a typo. Moshe tells us that when we adhere to this principle of helping the poor and the stranger, Then God will bless you in the land and there will not be any more poor among you (Deuteronomy 15:4).  That sounds amazing.  The Great Society finally achieved.  But in verse eleven it says that there will never cease to be needy within the land. Therefore, I command you, saying, you shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor one, and to your needy one in your land.  Are Moshe and God giving us a prophecy which will never be fulfilled?  I'm sure you will not be surprised to hear that I'm not the first to ever notice this discrepancy.  The Midrash (Sifri, Re'eh 132) already commented that this discrepancy refers to different historical situations.  When we heed God and the Torah there will be no impoverishment in the land, but when we ignore the demands of Torah, especially those areas concerned with social justice, then we'll have a multitude of needy to deal with.  The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Epharim Lutzhits, 1550-1619) explains that the first statement about there being no needy refers to the situation in the Land of Israel, where laws of shmittah and tithing for the needy were in force, but the second quote about there always being poverty refers to the rest of the world.               

I'd like to suggest another approach.  The ideal society rushes to the aid of those in need.  We must unfortunately deal with reality.  Our societies don't live up to that ideal.  We don't, either personally or communally, hurry to ascertain and heal the woes of our neighbors.  Expecting government to solve the problem is irresponsible and maybe even cowardly.  We must view the needs of others with compassion and concern.  This anxiety over the plight of others is a fulfillment of the principle that we must love others as we love ourselves (Leviticus 19:18).  It is the bedrock upon which the moral society stands.  Ultimately, according to the interpretation of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, we are only the possessors of our assets, while God is the true owner.  As guardians for the One and True Owner, we must utilize these assets with the altruism which resides in God.  The fulfillment of the prophecy about the end of poverty depends on us.

Eventually, we believe that this Tzadakah will return to us.  The future reign of Israel will be established in tzadakah (Isaiah 54:14).  Israel will be redeemed through justice, but those who return home will do so out of tzadakah (1:27).  Never begrudge the charity you share.  Therefore, we must give tzadakah with the same largesse and graciousness that we await from God. 


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