Everyone Hears Torah: Vayelekh 2015

Before Moses delivers a farewell song and poem, he must take care of some logistics, including preparing Joshua to take over as Israel’s leader, and establishing a Torah text for people to refer to after his death.

Here is a text from this week’s Torah portion, with commentaries and topics for you to discuss:

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Text: “Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before your God Adonai in the place that [God] will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere your God Adonai and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere your God Adonai as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 31:10-13)

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Commentary #1: “Moses is not to teach the law only to the elders; this was not to be an esoteric tradition, held in secrecy and confidence by a privileged few. This was instead to be a tradition shared by the masses. To make sure that that is the case, the Torah insists that once every seven years, Jewish ‘men, women, and children’ – and even ‘the strangers in your communities’ – gather to hear the entire Torah read and explained.” – Elliot N. Dorff, Unfolding Tradition: Jewish Law After Sinai

Questions: As Rabbi Dorff points out, the biblical command is to read the Torah out loud once every seven years; that practice has changed dramatically, as we read from the scroll several times per week. Were we to return to the frequency prescribed by our portion, how would that change the way we see our religion? Would it lessen our commitment to Judaism in general, or would Jewish communities simply focus on matters other than biblical study instead?

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Commentary #2: “[Deuteronomy is] preeminently a public and official document. [It] is also the first biblical text to speak consistently of ‘the Torah’ or ‘the book of the Torah’, and is presented in the lawgiver’s own words as a patrimony to his people, a last will and testament. Its intent is to provide a binding and comprehensive blueprint for the Israelite commonwealth, defining … the scope and function of public offices, the operation of the judicial system and the cult, and qualifications for membership. – Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch

Questions: Blenkinsopp sees the role of the book of Deuteronomy as primarily legal, not narrative or theological. To what extent is the entire Torah a book of laws, stories, and philosophy? When you think of the Torah, which of the above aspects is most relevant to you? Why?

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Commentary #3: “Moshe Rabbenu insists that even though individuals live in different locations and probably do not see each other from year to year, nevertheless they must all come together at least once in seven years to listen to what makes them unique, what binds them together. The king would read to the people the fundamental affirmations of Jewish life that give the community its uniqueness and purpose. Everyone would hear the same message, and all would be obliged to adhere to that message. Thus would be reinforced the unity of purpose, in the atmosphere of the unified presence of all Israel.” – Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka, More Torah Therapy

Questions: To Rabbi Bulka, gathering to read the Torah in public enables the Jewish people to “be on the same page” and to understand God’s will in the same way. If that is true, why do so many active and learned Jews observe Judaism so differently from one another? Does a shared experience ensure a shared memory of the meaning of that experience?

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Emanu-El Happenings: I’d like to tell you more about the new Adult Education initiative that I’m starting after Simhat Torah. I’m calling it “Torah A La Carte.” Essentially, I’m inviting any of you with a particular educational interest – whether it’s learning to read Hebrew, figuring out how to lead services or read Torah, knowing how to do a home ritual, or any number of Jewish texts or topics – to get in touch with me so that we can set up an individual educational plan. I’m willing to schedule learning sessions, to research and provide learning materials, and to investigate whether there are other congregants who would like to learn with you. I can try to set up individual sessions, but I also will have open “office hours” – Tuesdays from 7:00-7:30pm and Thursdays from 10:30-11:00am, starting in mid-October – when you can show up, unscheduled, and discuss your latest topics and questions. I hope to learn with you.

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The Big Inning at the End: I will post the full sermon in a couple of days, but on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the fact that this Yom Kippur will mark the 50th anniversary (by the Hebrew calendar) of Sandy Koufax declining to pitch the first game of the World Series so that he could observe the Day of Atonement. Koufax, a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is legendary for many reasons, but for the Jewish community, his religious stance is his main claim to fame. Successful Jewish athletes seem to get an inordinate amount of attention due to their relative scarcity, but when we learn about them, we understand more about the American Jewish experience, and about ourselves. If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend that you read The Great Rabbino blog, created by my colleague and friend Rabbi Jeremy Fine.

Shabbat Shalom! And G’mar Hatimah Tovah – may you be inscribed for a good year on Yom Kippur!