Heart and Sheol: Ha’azinu 2015

Most of this week’s portion is Moses’s farewell poem to the Israelites, filled with praises of God and warnings to the Israelites about past transgressions and potential future pitfalls. It is one of the great literary works of the Hebrew Bible.

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

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Text: “For a fire has flared in My wrath and burned to the bottom of Sheol, has consumed the earth and its increase, eaten down to the base of the hills.” (Deuteronomy 32:22)

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Commentary #1: “Those in Sheol are viewed as separated from God, though … God has access to Sheol. Sheol is never referred to as the abode of the wicked alone. While Sheol is never identified as the place where all go, the burden of proof rests on those who suggest that there was an alternative. … It is not viewed as a place where judgment or punishment takes place, though it is considered an act of God’s judgment to be sent there rather than remaining alive. Thus it is inaccurate to translate Sheol as “hell,” for the latter is by definition a place of punishment. There is no reference that suggests varying compartments in Sheol. ‘Deepest’ Sheol refers only to its location rather than a lower compartment.” – John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible

Questions: Jewish theories on the afterlife are varied and wide-ranging. Why are we so eager to understand what might happen to us after we die? Would a unified Jewish view on this topic change the way we approach religious observance? Or, would it be better for us to be uncertain on the topic, so that we can live well on Earth for its own sake?

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Commentary #2: “The word [Sheol] is widely supposed to derive from Hebrew shaal, ‘to ask, inquire,’ perhaps referring to the practice of necromancy or the notion of calling the dead to account. In biblical texts, Sheol is the land of dust, darkness, forgetfulness, where the ‘shades’ of the dead (refaim) are gathered, although there is a tendency to associate the place with premature or evil death.” – Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, Jacob Neusner, editor-in-chief

Questions: While trying to communicate with the spirits of the dead is strictly prohibited according to Jewish law, there are many instances when our ancestors from the Bible somehow “appear” in rabbinic stories – stories that take place many centuries after their deaths. Should instances like these be seen as metaphors? If we wanted to seek “guidance” from those who have passed away, couldn’t we do so symbolically? Or are these appearances permitted to the ancient rabbis but not to those living in our day and age? And is it truly instructive to find out what our ancestors might have said about our lives today?

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Commentary #3: “The ‘hills’ are a simile for the high-ranking personages, all of whom were the first ones to be exiled prior to the destruction of the first Temple. – Sforno

Questions: Sforno seems to relate the imagery of “hills” in our verse to Jews who were exiled when the Assyrians captured the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. He notes that wrongdoing in a community tends to hurt the common people first, with those in leadership being among the last to feel the negative effects. How does this tendency manifest itself in today’s society? What measures can be taken to reverse it, if it’s possible?

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Emanu-El Happenings: Our synagogue boasts the largest sukkah in South Carolina! We will be privileged to celebrate Sukkot in it throughout the coming week. Many thanks to the Men’s Club and YAD for helping us construct the sukkah again this year.

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The Big Inning at the End: Yogi Berra’s death this week was a great loss for all who love baseball. Much has been written about Berra’s talent for mangling the English language – as his friend Joe Garagiola said about him, Berra didn’t say funny things, he said things funny. But it’s easy to forget what an elite player Berra was; he was arguably the greatest catcher who ever played (Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella and Josh Gibson certainly belong in the discussion as well). As we enter Sukkot – the festival of our joy – surely we can appreciate someone like Berra, who added to our joy both on the field and off of it. Hopefully, in heaven, it gets late early up there …

Shabbat Shalom! And Hag Sameach – have a wonderful start to Sukkot!

 

Shabbat Shalom! And Hag Sameach – have a wonderful start to Sukkot!