This week's Torah portion is called Ki Teitzei — meaning literally, "When you go out." It is a reference to violence and war. "When you take the field [literally, "When you go out"] against your enemies, and the Eternal your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive ... " (Deuteronomy 21:10).
This sentence is but a tiny portion of more than a thousand verses in the Tanach that deal with war. Our Holy Scriptures came into history in a world in which fighting was a normal and often necessary activity. The ancient communities of the Middle East were governed according to tribal custom and law, and each ethnic community was in a combative relationship with its neighbor. There was no United Nations in those days, no European Union designed to administer diverse people according to collective rules and laws. Some tribal federations such as the twelve tribes of Israel pooled their resources, but that was for protection rather than for advancing peaceful relations with the rest of the world. The harsh social-economic and political reality of the ancient world often triggered violent and deadly conflicts between communities and peoples, and it is rare that we read a comment such as is found in Judges 3:11: " ... and the land had peace for forty years."
This week, the Israelites are instructed that after they enter the Promised Land and begin to farm it, each head of household is to fill a basket with the very first fruits produced there and bring it to Jerusalem. They are to bring the basket before the priest and recite a story that we read every year in our Pesach seders:
My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried out to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me (Deuteronomy 26:5-10).
Nitzavim comes in the cycle of Torah readings just before Rosh HaShanah and is particularly appropriate for the High Holidays because it stresses the importance of repentance. The tone of the passage is at once both lofty and terrifying.
It begins with Moses' inspiring address to the entire people of Israel shortly before he is to die, "You stand this day (Atem nitzavim hayom), all of you, before the Eternal your God — you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer" (Deuteronomy 29:9-10).
"And Moses went (Vayeilech) and spoke these words to all Israel" (Deuteronomy 31:1). This opening marks the beginning, not only of the parashah, but also of the long death scene for Moses that will not be completed until the very end of the Torah two portions hence. Traditional commentators noticed an unusual locution. Usually the Torah reads "And Moses spoke … " Only here does it say "And Moses went and spoke … "
Haazinu is one of the shorter sections of the Torah, and it is made up almost entirely of a breathtaking and chastening poem. The term "awesome" tends to be overused today, but this poem is truly awesome. Unfortunately, the power of the Hebrew rhythm and poetic style is lost in the English translation, but we can still sense some of the majesty.
Sukkot is known in Rabbinic tradition as the "Festival of Our Joy" (Z'man Simchateinu, a name that derives from Leviticus 23:40: "You shall rejoice before the Eternal your God seven days"). Sukkot is the only festival for which the command to rejoice is given. It is a commandment — a mitzvah: us'mach'tem — "be happy!"
The Revelation on Mt. Sinai . . . the giving of the Ten Commandments . . . our Torah portion, Yitro, describes the scene with great fanfare. The text has given cinematographers plenty of good material: thunder and lightning, smoke rising up into the sky, the whole mountain shaking violently, and the loud blaring of a horn, sometimes specifically called a shofar. Miraculous? Inspiring? Awesome? Yes, our Sages teach, but it was also really, really noisy.
When the medieval rabbis read about Sinai, they focus our attention on that seemingly unimportant detail of just how loud it all must have been. One medieval commentator, the French rabbi known as Rashbam, teaches that the description of God answering Moses "in thunder" is really a metaphor about the volume of God's voice—God had to shout to be heard over all of the other noise at Sinai! (see Rashbam on Exodus 19:19). And God was shouting for good reason. "The blast [of the shofar] was louder than any sound that had ever been heard before," Rashbam's contemporary, the Spanish sage Ibn Ezra writes on Exodus 19:16.
Following the giving of the Ten Commandments in last week’s Torah portion,Parashat Mishpatim brings us a diverse collection of civil, criminal, ritual, and ethical laws. Included in the parashah is a section of text that has become relevant to a topic that is highly contested in our day.
Next month, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Whole Woman's Health v. Cole, a challenge to a restrictive Texas abortion law. It will be the first time in more than 20 years that the Supreme Court has heard an abortion case.
Anyone who has lived in New York City is familiar with the challenges of "small-space living." When I was apartment hunting in New York, I looked at one apartment where the kitchen was so small, the refrigerator was placed directly in front of the kitchen sink. In order to wash your dishes, the real estate agent explained, you could just stand off to the side and reach in. In the apartment I ended up taking, one of the bedrooms could only fit a bed — no other furniture at all. Luckily, my roommate was short enough to be able to stand underneath a loft bed to access a desk and a dresser.
Since I left New York, though, the concept of small-space living has come into vogue. HGTV, for example, currently airs three series on the glamour of living in spaces with an average size of 180 square feet. An article describes, "For some, the tiny house movement has become a way of life, adjusting to a smaller space and fewer possessions, with a goal of saving money and focusing on relationships and experiences."1
Just a few years after leaving New York City, when my husband and I moved into our not-so-tiny house, I remember wondering how we would ever fill the space. It was so much bigger than any of the apartments I'd lived in. I quickly got used to life in a house, and I'll admit that I much prefer it to the tiny apartment with the side-access sink. But a beautiful midrash on this week's Torah portion, Parashat T'rumah, suggests that God might think about things a little differently.
You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God – you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from wood chopper to water drawer – to enter into the cov