Praying to Pray: Va-Et’chanan Prayer Links

The earliest prayer links in Va-etchanan come in the first verse, long before what is probably the portion’s most famous passage: the first paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9). In fact, there are prayer links galore in the portion’s first word: “va-etchanan” [I pleaded, implored]. Some commentaries examine details of the communication between Moses and God as the portion opens. Some focus, more generally, on what prayer can (or should) mean to regular folks.

**Speaking of communication, please see the query below about sources and editing. Thoughts most welcome.**
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Be Not Afraid: Community and Challah

Two of the most iconically gendered concepts in Jewish prayer — that “tenth man” for a minyan, on the one hand, and taking challah, one of three “women’s commandments,” on the other — come from this week’s portion. But gender issues can, I think, distract from other prayer ideas suggested by these same verses.
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Acharei Mot: Great Source(s)

The Holy One declares no creature unfit, but receives them all. The gates [of mercy] are open at all times, and he who wishes to enter may enter.

R. Meir said: What is the proof that even a Gentile who occupies himself with Torah is like a high priest? Scripture says, “With which if a man occupy himself, he shall live by them (Lev. 18:5). It does not say, “A priest, a Levite, an Israelite,” but, “A man.” Hence you many infer that even a non-Jew who occupies himself with Torah is like a high priest.

R. Jeremiah used to say: What is the proof that even a Gentile who keeps the Torah is like a high priest? The verse “Which if a man do, he shall live by them.” Scripture also says, “This is the Torah of man, O Lord God ” (2 Sam 7:19) –not “of priests, Levites or Israelites,” but “of man.” Scripture also says, “Open ye the gates, that the righteous Gentile…may come in (Isa 26:2) — not that “priests, Levites, or Isrealites may come in,” but that “the righteous Gentile who keeps the faith may come in.” Scripture also says, “This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter it” (Ps. 118:20) — not priests, Levites, or Israelites shall enter it,” but “the righteous shall enter it.” Scripture also says, “Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous” (Ps. 33:1) — not “Rejoice, O ye priests, Levites, and Israelites…” but “Rejoice…O ye righteous.” Scripture also says, “Do good, O Lord, unto the good” (Ps. 125:4) — not “to priests, Levites, and Israelites,” but “Do good, O Lord, unto the good.”

Thus even a Gentile who keeps the Torah is like a high priest.

— from The Book of Legends, 354:151, Bialik and Ravnitzky*
Bottom sources: Babylonia Talmud Sanhedrin 59a and Baba Kama 38a; Exodus Rabbah 19:4, and Sifrei Leviticus 86b

Vayikra/Leviticus 18:5 is also cited by Rabbi Judah, in the name of Samuel, when he heard about five traveling rabbis considering, “How do we know that danger to human life supersedes the laws of the Sabbath?”: If I had been there, I should have told them something better than what they said: He shall live by them, but he shall not die because of them. — Babylonian Talmud Yoma 85a (also found in Bialik & Ravnitzky, 683:39)
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Vayishlach: A Path to Follow

Twice in this portion, Jacob is told he will henceforth be called “Israel”:

“Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out,” Jacob is told after his wrestling match on the bank of the Jabbok river (Genesis/Breishit 32:23-31). In Genesis/Breishit 35:9-10, we read: “God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him, ‘You whose name is Jacob, You shall be called Jacob no more, But Israel shall be your name.’ Thus He named him Israel.”

In his Five Books of Moses* (2004), Robert Alter comments on this name change:

It is nevertheless noteworthy–and to my knowledge has not been noted –that the pronouncement about the new name is not completely fulfilled. Whereas Abraham is invariably called “Abraham” once the name is changed from “Abram,” the narrative continues to refer to this patriarch in most instances as “Jacob.”

This is an odd statement, given the plethora of comments — from very different views of Torah, stretching back centuries — referencing the fact that “the pronouncement about the new name is not completely fulfilled.” Here are just a few:

Jacob no more. But in fact the appellation Jacob continues at once. Critics have attempted to distinguish between an “Israel tradition” and a “Jacob tradition.” If these every existed, they have been thoroughly interwoven, and the names have now become interchangeable. — Plaut,* (1981)

Your name is Jacob. Although He was about to give Jacob the additional name of Isreal, God told him that he would continue to be called Jacob (Ramban [16th Century CE Italy]; Sforno [12th Century CE Spain]). From that time onward, the name Jacob would be used for matters pertaining to physical and mundane matters, while the name Israel would be used for matters reflecting the spiritual role of the Patriarch and his descendants (R’ Bachya [Ibn Paquda, 14th Century CE Spain]).

Although both Abraham and Jacob were given new names there is a basic difference between them, for the Talmud states that anyone who refers to Abraham as Abram is in violation of a negative commandment (Berachos 13a), whereas both names continue to be used for Jacob….

Or HaChaim [18th Century CE Italy] explains the reason for the difference. Every name in the Torah reprsents the sould that God emplaced in that person. Consequently, the name “Jacob” represents his soul, while the name “Israel” represents an enhancement of the soul, which Jacob earned by growing and transcending the mission signified by the original name…. — Stone,* (1993)

Alter does elaborate a bit differently (although I’m not sure that it’s a unique perspective):

Thus, “Israel” does not really replace his name but becomes a synonym for it — a practice reflected in the parallelism of biblical poetry, where “Jacob” is always used in the first half of the line and “Israel,” the poetic variation, in the second half.

For more on this rich path, here are just two of the many further avenues to explore: Shefa Gold’s Torah Journey, including a personal spiritual practice, for this portion and/or a discussion of universalism versus nationalism based on the work of Rav Kook (1865-1935).

*See Source Materials for Torah commentary citations and further details.

The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Shoftim: A Path to Follow

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human [ki ha-adam eitz ha-sadeh] to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees which you know do not yield food may be destroyed….
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Shoftim: Language and Translation

Devarim/Deuteronomy 18:13 contains a command to be “wholehearted [tamim]” with God. I found the same English word, “wholehearted,” used in seven different sources, two commentaries and all five Torah translations on which I regularly rely: Alter, Fox, Jewish Publication Society, modified JPS (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary) and Scherman (Stone Edition); see Source Materials for citation details.
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Re’eh: Great Source(s)

“It is your God YHVH alone whom you should follow, whom you should revere, whose commandments you should observe, whose orders you should heed, whom you should worship, and to whom you should hold fast.” — Devarim/Deuteronomy 13:5

R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: “After the Lord your God shall ye walk” (Deut. 13:5). But is it possible for a man to walk right behind the Presence? Has it not already been said, “The Lord thy God is a devouring fire” (Deut. 4:24)? Yes, but what the verse means is that you are to follow the ways of the Holy One.
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Matot: Something to Notice

Eleazar the priest said to the troops who had taken part in the fighting, “This is the ritual law that YHVH has enjoined upon Moses: Gold and silver, copper, iron, tin and lead — any article that can withstand fire — these you shall pass through fire and they shall be pure, except that they must be purified with water of lustration [mei niddah]; and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through water.Continue Reading