These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] The Torah

Posted on August 6, 2011 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

I am writing to you this week from my home in Toronto. It’s hard to believe that July has come and gone and the summer is starting to come to a close. I know none of us want to hear that, but it’s the truth. If you think July flew by, August will be gone in a flash! I am looking forward to starting my new job teaching in Chicago. With God’s help, it is the beginning of a new and exciting adventure and I look forward to learning and growing along the way!
This week’s parsha also marks a beginning and an end. We begin to read the last book of the Torah, Dvarim (Deuteronomy). In it, we will learn about Moses’ parting words to the Israelites and their preparations to enter the Land of Israel. An end for one and a beginning for many. Right at the beginning of the parsha, the text introduces one of Moses’ sermons as follows:
אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּעֵבֶר, הַיַּרְדֵּן:  בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף בֵּין-פָּארָן וּבֵין-תֹּפֶל, וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת–וְדִי זָהָב. 1 These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wilderness, in the Arabah, over against Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab.
ב אַחַד עָשָׂר יוֹם מֵחֹרֵב, דֶּרֶךְ הַר-שֵׂעִיר, עַד, קָדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ. 2 It is eleven days journey from Horev unto Kadesh-barnea by the way of mount Seir.
ג וַיְהִי בְּאַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, בְּעַשְׁתֵּי-עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ; דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֹתוֹ, אֲלֵהֶם. 3 And it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel, according to all that the LORD had given him in commandment to them;
ד אַחֲרֵי הַכֹּתוֹ, אֵת סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי, אֲשֶׁר יוֹשֵׁב, בְּחֶשְׁבּוֹן–וְאֵת, עוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן, אֲשֶׁר-יוֹשֵׁב בְּעַשְׁתָּרֹת, בְּאֶדְרֶעִי. 4 after he had defeated Sihon the king of the Amorites, who dwelt in Heshbon, and Og the king of Bashan, who dwelt in Ashtaroth, at Edrei;
ה בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב, הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה, בֵּאֵר אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת לֵאמֹר. 5 beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, took Moses upon him to expound this teaching (Torah), saying:
ו ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ דִּבֶּר אֵלֵינוּ, בְּחֹרֵב לֵאמֹר:  רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת, בָּהָר הַזֶּה. 6 The LORD our God spoke unto us in Horeb, saying: ‘You have dwelt long enough in this mountain;
ז פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם, וּבֹאוּ הַר הָאֱמֹרִי וְאֶל-כָּל-שְׁכֵנָיו, בָּעֲרָבָה בָהָר וּבַשְּׁפֵלָה וּבַנֶּגֶב, וּבְחוֹף הַיָּם–אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַלְּבָנוֹן, עַד-הַנָּהָר הַגָּדֹל נְהַר-פְּרָת. 7 turn you, and take your journey, and go to the hill-country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors, in the Arabah, in the hill-country, and in the Lowland, and in the South, and by the sea-shore; the land of the Canaanites, and Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.
ח רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לִפְנֵיכֶם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ; בֹּאוּ, וּרְשׁוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע ה’ לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב לָתֵת לָהֶם, וּלְזַרְעָם אַחֲרֵיהֶם. 8 Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the LORD swore unto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them.’
(Deuteronomy 1:1-8)
Putting aside the instructions that Moses gives the Israelites in this passage, I am puzzled by the usage of the word “Torah” in verse 5. What exactly does the text mean when it says that Moses is about “to expound this teaching”? Isn’t Moses doing that all the time?! Is there a difference between a law, a commandment or a teaching?
This got me thinking beyond the pages of the parsha and I began to wonder: why is it that the word that is used to generally describe Jewish laws and customs and values is “Torah”? Often I hear people say things like “Well, doesn’t the Torah believe that…..” or “I thought it’s against the Torah to…..” when they are referring to any sort of Jewish value or observance. Why has this word, Torah, been co-opted to describe almost anything related to Jewish ethics and living?
I think that this passage demonstrates not only the word Torah has come to represent any Jewish principle or practice, but it also allows us to reflect on our own interactions with these principles and practices.
Let me explain by playing out the following scenario in our minds.

You are siting in a lecture, reading a book, listening to the radio or having lunch with a friend and at at one point or another, you come across a Jewish text or practice you may or may not have known before. (Maybe) without even realizing it, you ask yourself the following question: how am I going to respond to this (new) piece of Jewish information?

But, behind that question lies an even larger question: How do I engage with the Torah?
Luckily our parsha offers us some tips, a kind of reflective practice, to address this unnerving question.
  • Step #1: Acknowledge your immediate context, your previous experiences and the baggage you may be carrying.
[See verses 1-4 in which the parsha recounts many of the places that the Israelites have sojourned, the current date in the calendar and key events that have influenced them.]
  • Step #2: Recognize that every time you interact with a “Torah”, a “teaching”, you are at a crossroads because you must decide how to respond to it. To reject it, or embrace it, or grapple with it or otherwise.
[See verse 5. Moses is speaking בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן – not simply in this geographic location “beyond the Jordan”, but he is on one side of the Jordan. He is at a crossroads.]
  • Step #3: Respond. Turn around and again acknowledge your context. Then you set up with a plan of action.
[See verse 7. First, Moses commands the Israelites to פְּנוּ (“look around”), and then to וּסְעוּ לָכֶם (“go forth”).]
  • Step #4: Confront your challenges. No matter how good your plan of action, you will inevitably encounter mountains. So you confront these internal (“mountain”) and external (“neighbours”) struggles head on.
[See verse 7. Moses instructs the Israelites to וּבֹאוּ הַר הָאֱמֹרִי and וְאֶל-כָּל-שְׁכֵנָיו]
  • Step #5: But how? Keep your eye on the prize and look ahead. Envision how you want to bring your values and principles to life. “Behold, I have set the land before you” – now go out and get it!
[See verse 8.  רְאֵה! נָתַתִּי לִפְנֵיכֶם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ]
  • Step #6: Now don’t get too ahead of yourself. Remember that you are doing this to perpetuate the values and the covenant that God endowed to your ancestors. You are a critical link in the chain!
[See verse 8. בֹּאוּ, וּרְשׁוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע ה’ לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב לָתֵת לָהֶם, וּלְזַרְעָם אַחֲרֵיהֶם.]

I find this opening of the parsha to be alarming because I feel it really speaks to the human psyche (or maybe just mine!) and many of hesitations and reservations one has when encountering a Jewish principle or practice. I hope that for all of us that these verses will guide our Jewish living and learning, so that it is genuine and empowering.
Shabbat Shalom,