Heel-dom: gods of comfort and power

10599394_717380508311895_7027393843189443889_n“Every 28 hours across America a black person is killed by security guard, police officer or some other executive of the state,” Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson said on the recent “Face the Nation,” adding that President Obama needs to use his “unique position” to explain the rage emanating from Ferguson, MO:

[Obama needs to explain] to white people whose white privilege in one sense obscures from them what it means that their children can walk home every day and be safe. They’re not fearful of the fact that somebody will kill their child who goes to get some ice tea and some candy from a store.”
— Michael Eric Dyson on August 17 Face the Nation

The Torah portion known as “Eikev [heel]” calls us to consider whether we might be, however inadvertently, tugging on the heel of a brother. And Mishkan T’filah‘s adaptation of words taken from this portion demands that we avoid making “gods of own comfort or power.”

Meanwhile, the Torah portion known as “Eikev [heel]” calls us to consider whether we might be, however inadvertently, tugging on the heel of a brother. And Mishkan T’filah‘s adaptation of words taken from this portion demands that we avoid making “gods of own comfort or power.”

If we turn from Sinai

The portion Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25) includes verses that make up the second full paragraph of the Shema. These words, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, are included within tefillin as well. This passage, therefore, appears several times in many prayerbooks. But it’s far less prominent in, or missing entirely from, some liberal prayerbooks.It’s easy to see why a passage that speaks of reward and punishment as a direct result of the People’s actions was omitted or diminished in Reform Prayerbooks. (See, e.g., Richard Sarason on the Three Paragraphs of the Shema.) But Mishkan T’filah (URJ, 2007) includes, as an alternative reading, a thematic paraphrase of the Shema’s second paragraph.

The reading — by Richard Levy, a member of the editorial committee for the prayerbook and an author of many contemporary liturgical pieces — can be found on page two of these Mishkan T’filah sample pages:


But if we turn from Sinai’s words
and serve only what is common and profane,
making gods of our own comfort or power,
then the holiness of life will contract for us;
our world will grow inhospitable.

Let us therefore lace these words
into our passion and our intellect,
and bind them as a sign upon our hands and eyes….
— from Mishkan T’filah, p.67 and p.235

Levy’s is one of a number of approaches to this paragraph that take what theologian Judith Plaskow calls “a more naturalistic” view, focusing on the need to avoid thinking that “we can trample on or transcend the constraints of nature.”

The passage also seems to capture what another theologian, Elliott Dorff, calls the insistence that God is ultimately just. He points out that the ancient Rabbis had trouble with the way reward and punishment are described in this portion. Still, he says, they included this passage as a central part of the prayers because of their “deep faith in the ultimate justice of God as the metaphysical backdrop and support for human acts of justice.”

(Both Dorff and Plaskow quotes are from Jewish Lights’ My Jewish Prayerbook, vol 1: The Shema and its Blessings)

I see this idea reflected in the passage which is recited when laying tefillin on the hand (wrapping around the finger three times):

  • I will betroth you to me forever;
  • I will betroth you to me through justice and rule of law, kindness and compassion;
  • I will betroth you to me in trust, and you will know that I am God

— Hosea 2:21-22

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Shavuot: Forward, Eyes Wide Open

The story of Ruth, read on the holiday of Shavuot – the time of the giving of Torah — centers around a “redeemer”: a “redeemer” in the financial sense, a male relative to retrieve the land holdings of a widow; and a “redeemer” in broader understandings, encompassing messianic hopes and God as ultimate Redeemer of Israel. And the story of Ruth itself is a powerful redeemer in its own right.

Ancestresses of Ruth’s Story

Ruth is one in a line of women – including Lot’s daughters (Gen 19:30-38) and Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen 38) – who use their sexuality, one of the few powers women could employ in the world of these ancient texts, to accomplish crucial goals for themselves, their families, and all Israel. Boaz is one in a line of men – including Lot and Judah – who are seduced by younger women as part of larger schemes in which the men function chiefly as seed-providing tools.

Lot and his unnamed daughters flee Sodom as it is destroyed. According to some commentary, Lot knew that only a few cities, including their own, had been destroyed; his daughters, however, feared that they were the last people on earth. In an effort to continue the human race, each, in turn, plies their father with drink and then seduces him in order to conceive. Lot, in a drunken sleep throughout both incidents, is “not aware of her lying down or her getting up” (Gen. 19:33, 35).

We’re told that the sons of Lot’s daughters become progenitors of the Moabite and Ammonite peoples. Israel is later forbidden from allowing these peoples into their congregation, for reasons linked to these peoples’ behavior and not to their conception. (Deut. 23:4; rabbinic tradition later determines that only men of these peoples were banned). But the Genesis story moves on before we learn anything about the lives of Lot and his daughters post-seduction. top


Tamar dresses as a prostitute and seduces her father-in-law after he delays in giving his third son to her in leverite marriage. Judah has thus prevented her from conceiving a child to support her in life; denied his own son (her first husband) the chance for an heir, and, in some understandings, a rebirth of his soul; and added another obstacle in the birth of the child who was to become – and some say Tamar knew would become – an ancestor of the Davidic dynasty.

Tamar is veiled, and Judah does not recognize her during the time he is intimate with her. Later, when Tamar is pregnant and on trial for sexual misconduct, she sends out Judah’s wrap, staff, and signet – which he’d given her as pledge in lieu of her “prostitute’s fee.” Only at that point does he recognize the woman with whom he fathered a child. He takes that opportunity to say, “she is right” (Gen. 38:26). top
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Remember Miriam: Process & Patience in Parashat Ki Teitzei

“Remember what your God YHVH did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt.” — Deuteronomy/Devarim 24:9 — What is this personal remembrance doing in the midst of a portion which consists largely of commandment after commandment? And what might it tell us, in these days leading up to the high holidays, about memory and return ([teshuvah])?
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Hearts, Eyes and Ears: Ki Tavo Prayer Links

The Torah portion Ki Tavo closes with a wonderfully disorienting perspective, as the reading cycle prepares to leave the Israelites on the banks of the Jordan, while we, as readers, prepare for the new year. Who experienced what in the desert years? Who is about to enter the Promised Land, with instructions for bringing the first fruits? And who is in the exact same spot reached each year at this point, wondering about the meaning of the journey and what chance there is for moving forward?
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Remember: Ki Teitzei Prayer Links

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s challenge to explore the “soul” of words in our prayers (see last week’s post) suggests consideration of “zakhor [remember],” which occurs several times in the portion Ki Teitzei:

Remember [zakhor] what HASHEM, your God, did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt. — Deut./Devarim 24:9

You shall not pervert the judgment of a proselyte or orphan, and you shall not take the garment of a widow as a pledge. You shall remember [v’zakharta] that you were a slave in Egypt, and HASHEM, you God, redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing. — Deut./Devarim 24:17-18

Remember [zakhor] what Amelek did to you on the way when you were leaving Egypt….wipe out the memory [zekher and/or: zakhor] …you shall not forget! — Deut./Devarim 25:17
— all translations from Stone Chumash*

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Justice: God’s Promise or Ours? (Shoftim Prayer Links)

“We must learn how to study the inner life of the words that fill the world of our prayerbook,” Abraham Joshua Heschel told fellow rabbis in 1953. “A word has a soul, and we must learn how to attain insight into its life….We forgot how to find the way to the word, how to be on intimate terms with a few passages in the prayerbook. Familiar with all the words, we are intimate with none.”

In that spirit, I believe parashat Shoftim [judges] calls out for us to get a little more intimate with at least one word:

Tzedek — as in “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof… [Justice, justice you shall pursue…]” (Deut./Devarim 16:20).

The words tzedek [“justice” or “righteousness”] and tzadikim [“just” or “righteous” folk] feature frequently in the siddur and in the Book of Psalms, including a number of psalms recited regularly as part of the liturgy. Perhaps a few examples will provide insights into the soul of “tzedek.”
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You Can’t Spend What You Ain’t Got: Eikev Prayer Links

In this portion, Moses presents the People with a jumble of sentiments — from sweeping promises to dire threats — which found their way into prominent roles in our prayers. And, while biblical context often has little to do with the use the siddur makes of the bible’s language, our prayers do reflect this portion’s tangled relationship between the People, God and others.
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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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[One Hundred Thirty-]Six Degrees of Separation: Devarim Prayer Links

The mighty kings Og and Sihon — mentioned in Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:4, with more detail in chapter 3 — were defeated while the Israelites were still in the wilderness (Numbers/Bamidbar 20, 21). But Og and Sihon provide a direct connection to several prayers as well as to contemporary debate about what, more generally, is a “morally uplifting offering” in prayer.

The kings are also linked to midrashim on Genesis and Exodus, and, less directly, to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and an array of texts through the years. In fact, a brief exploration of Og and Sihon suggests that, as hypothesized about world population, any given Jewish text is no more than six degrees of separation from any other.
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Ki Tisa: Something to Notice

Sections of this week’s portion figure prominently in Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition, by Anson Laytner (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1990).

Anson explores rabbinic use of Moses’ arguments (p.49ff). He describes liturgical use of verse 32:12 — “turn from Your fierce wrath, and repent the evil against Your people” — in an 11th Century CE piyut (liturgical poem) recited on Mondays and Thursdays as part of Tachanun [supplication] (p.122ff). In addition, he outlines the “complete law-court argument prayer” which Moses offers immediately after the Golden Calf incident, Exodus/Shemot 32:9-14:

Here is manifest an example of complete law-court argument prayer: an opening address (verse 11), a defense argument (verses 12a, 13), a plea (or petition) (verse 12b), and a divine response (indirect) (verse 14). But the threat of destruction is not ended. Although God relents of His plan (verse 14), He still requires further appeasement…(Exodus 32:30-35)

The second argument should be considered as a continuation of the first, although structurally each can stand alone. First of all, it pursues the same line of argumentation as does the first. Second, it provides the real conclusion to the story (that is God’s actual sentence and its execution [verses 33-35]). Third, Moses’ ultimatum, “erase me,” seems to be a direct response to God’s offer in verse 10 to make of Moses a great nation. Fourth, Moses’ recounting of the event, in Deuteronomy 9:26-29, blends the two arguments of the Exodus story into a single unit. Finally, both arguments are needed to save the people fully.

— Anson, p.10-11

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