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August 6, 2020 - TORAH COMMENTARY: Eikev – Doing Mitzvot (Deuteronomy 8:1-)

Art: The Gathering of the Manna

Introduction/About this commentary:

This post is part of a series of weekly blog posts in which I share a bit of commentary/interpretation on some part of the week’s Torah Portion, partly for my learning but also because I want to contribute a little bit of my own perspective to the ongoing Jewish and Interfaith conversations about the week’s Torah portion.

My own bias/perspective is that I try to interpret the text from a socialist perspective, (in that I see Torah as being largely a critique of the values of Empire, put into its current form by displaced people living in exile) but also from a humanist perspective (in that I think I think we need to read and interpret these texts with critical minds, focused on human needs). And finally, I try to work through the text in a liberal Jewish way, seeking to engage in the dialogue over the millennia, seeking to hear and respond to the voices of our tradition, but also not being afraid to critique or argue against elements of that tradition.

The Text

My Commentary

For this post, I want to focus my attention on one verse in this parasha, Deuteronomy 8:1.

I think that in reading this text, the context of the composition is critical. According to most scholars, the book of Deuteronomy (Devarim in Hebrew) likely has its origins in the reforms of King Josiah (who reigned over the Southern Kingdom of Judah from around 641–609 BCE). Later the text was fleshed out into its current form during and after the days of the Babylonian exile.

This means that this book was written and edited during times of great turmoil for the people of Judah and at a time when the survival of Jewish peoplehood was by no means certain. It was a time when many people were looking to their past to make sense of their present and possible future.

Much of Deuteronomy focuses on long speeches said to be given by Moses, in which he reminds the people of their covenant obligations and the ways that God will either bless them due to their obedience or curse them for their disobedience; which is interesting since the text was written at a time after circumstances got bad, implying that disobedience by the people was responsible for their current woes.

Deuteronomy 8 picks up in the middle of one of these speeches, with the first verse being a bit of a thesis statement for the chapter:

כָּל־הַמִּצְוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם תִּשְׁמְר֣וּן לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת לְמַ֨עַן תִּֽחְי֜וּן וּרְבִיתֶ֗ם וּבָאתֶם֙ וִֽירִשְׁתֶּ֣ם אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥ע יְהוָ֖ה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶֽם׃

You shall faithfully observe all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you today, that you may thrive and increase and be able to possess the land that the LORD promised on oath to your fathers.

Hebrew text and English translation (JPS 1985) From Sefaria.org

There are three Hebrew words in this verse that I want to unpack:

  1. The “Instruction” mentioned here is in Hebrew the word מְצַוְּךָ֛ (mitzvot, the plural form of mitzvah), which refers to performing actions to fulfill a divine commandment, rather than just performing good deeds (today’s popular definition).
  2. The word תִּשְׁמְר֣וּן (the root being שָׁמַר, shamar) means to keep, guard or observe.
  3. The word לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת (the root being עָשָׂה, asah means to make or do, but also interestingly in modern Hebrew it can also mean “to have sex with” (much as the word “do” is used in English colloquially. We will come back to this concept in a bit.)

The traditional understanding of this text focuses on the idea that good things come to those who are faithful and bad things come to those who are not, however, the traditional understanding has become untenable for many, not just today but in ancient times (as seen from the book of Job, which would seem to contradict this entire passage). But certainly in modern days, it is even more difficult to reconcile this text with the idea that the Jewish victims of genocide were fundamentally at fault for their own deaths, because of the collective sins of the people.

I think that the compositional context helps to make sense of this text, since it was written by people who had seen the world fall down around them and who were yearning for answers and hope. Hence I can understand the attraction of the idea that faithful observance of mitzvot would lead to good things for the people, since it is fundamentally empowering. Because if true, this line of thinking puts oppressed people back in the driver’s seat of their own destiny, since obedience to mitzvot could then prompt God to honor the blessings of the covenant and remove their oppressors.

Of course, we have to say it didn’t work, at least in a literal sense.

Oppression and occupation continued, with only occasional times of Jewish autonomy (such as in the aftermath of the Maccabean revolt) but always followed by eventual subjugation of the land and the people by the global powers of their time, with the final destruction of the second temple and the city of Jerusalem soon to follow. Traditionalists will of course argue that this all happened because the people weren’t faithful enough in observing mitzvot (much like Chabad teaches that the return of the Meshiach can be hastened by proper Shabbat observance by all Jewish people), but I would argue instead that faithfully observing mitzvot (even when it requires rethinking and reinvention) can lead to good things.

My favorite example of reinvention in faithful observance is from the time of the Babylonian captivity. The Temple had been destroyed and many of the people were no longer in Eretz Israel (the land of Israel), which meant that many of the mitzvot could no longer be performed. Yet, Jews in captivity found ways to live their faith, partly through writing (which is where we get much of Jewish scriptures) but also in the development of synagogues (lay-led democratic communities for prayer, ritual and connection), which in time led to the development of rabbinic Judaism. And of course this time also led to new ways of understanding of place, with many Jews in time choosing to live in diaspora. And while Eretz Israel remains important (with about half of all Jews in the world living there), Judaism does not depend on the land for its survival, which I think that is a good thing.

So what does “faithful observance” of mitzvah meant to us today?

One key is the idea of action.

The JPS Torah commentary says that (emphasis added is my own):

Since his message is that Israel should always remember its dependence on God, it is noteworthy that Moses begins with an appeal to observe the commandments. This reflects the biblical view that awareness of God and obedience are not separate phenomena: the commandments are the practical expression of awareness of God and serve to foster it.

Tigay, Jeffrey H. JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (1996 Jewish Publications Society)

This idea of faithful action as being key is amplified by the Hebrew text, most notably the verbs of shamar (to guard) and asah (to make/do). Mitzvot are meant to be acted upon, and one can even argue that many of the mitzvot require us to make them happen.

One great example of a mitzvot that requires making is Shabbat. For traditional Jews, observing shabbat in our modern world requires a great deal of preparation, but even for non-traditional Jews, observing Shabbat requires effort and attention, since we not only ask what our tradition tells us we should do, but we also have to ask whether these are practices that are life-affirming and helpful to ourselves and others.

These days (during the COVID-19 pandemic), I’m something of a stay-at-home dad (my wife is family practice physician, seeing patients for 50 hours per week right now), which means that preparing for Shabbat mostly falls on my son and myself. Every Thursday, we start our preparations by vacuuming the house, putting flowers on the table, picking up clutter, planing a meal, getting out the candles, set up the computer so we watch our zoom Shabbat service, planning relaxing Saturday activities for our family to do, etc. These practices are mundane and trivial (and we still don’t always manage to execute them well), but I am learning over time that these practices are necessary to make shabbat happen.

And in the same way, I think about the phrase in our popular culture of “making love” (as a euphemism for having sex) in this same context. Like many, I too can get tunnel vision and not think of sexuality in as holistic of a way as I ought to, but I have learned that the more time and effort I put into cultivating connection with my spouse, the more that the term “making love” becomes something bigger than just about sex.

But action alone isn’t enough. Many people act with zealous energy to do evil, and many good people find themselves doing bad things with good intentions. This is why the idea of shamar (to keep, guard or observe) is important. Traditionally this idea has normally been used to enforce the boundaries of Torah observance (even to build a wall around a mitzvot with higher levels of diligence to avoid violations), but another approach might be to say that we have to observe closely and then to make good judgments — sometimes that will be in judging the mitzvot itself, but also often observing and judging our selves.

So the challenge I will pose you all with is this: What can we do for the sake of love and faith this week? Obviously, doing mitzvot will not lead to the vanquishment of the oppressive forces in our world or give us boundless wealth and fertility (we know this from history), but doing mitzvot with thoughtful attention can lead to good things, even Tikkun Olam (reparing the world).

More Resources

I have compiled a list of other resources at my website: Tango with Torah (coming soon).

August 5, 2020 - God… an imaginary friend?

Tags: #Judaism #God #Theism #Bible #Agnostic #Atheist


I am currently reading (or I should say listening) to an audiobook entitled, “How to read the Bible :A guide to scripture, then and now” by James Kugel, an Orthodox Jew who previously (and famously) taught at Harvard University, but later made aliyah and now teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel.

The book thus far is engaging and is attempting to explain two very different methods of interpreting the Jewish scriptures (one minor quibble with his title — I wish he had said “Tankkh” or “Jewish scriptures” in his title, as I’m afraid many readers may pick up the title and assume it is dealing with the Christian Bible). The methods are: (1) the world of modern Biblical criticism (which has become the mainstream method of Biblical interpretation in academia and is what is taught in most seminaries, but which is often not shared with lay people by many rabbis and ministers) and (2) the world of ancient Biblical interpretation (how those of old interpreted and used these texts).

I haven’t finished the whole book, but what I’ve read thus far intrigued me enough that I wanted to learn more about the author, which is how I stumbled across this piece: “James Kugel: Professor of Disbelief” by Michael Orbach (Mar 4, 2014 Moment Magazine).

I have two quotes I want to share from this article:

Kugel is a patient teacher, and as we talk he takes the time to offer two different responses to the dilemma I raise: how to reconcile being Orthodox and knowing too much about the history of the Bible. First is the one he points out in How to Read the Bible—that Orthodoxy, almost despite itself, isn’t really about the Bible. “Judaism has at its heart a great secret,” he writes. “It endlessly lavishes praise on the written Torah, exalting its role as a divinely given guidebook and probing lovingly the tiniest details of its wording and even spelling…Yet upon inspection Judaism turns out to be quite the opposite of fundamentalism. The written text alone is not all-powerful; in fact, it rarely stands on its own. Its true significance usually lies not in the plain sense of its words but in what the Oral Torah has made of those words.”

In other words, the Bible is not, and has never been, the last word in Judaism. Kugel can study the Bible and propose as many authors as he wants, because ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The rabbis have given their explanation of the text, and he abides by it; it’s a bifurcation between the historical reality of the Bible and the rabbis’ interpretation of it. “I consider the Torah as the first volume of a multivolume work about serving God,” he says—in his case the Jewish God.

I really like Kugel’s way of explaining this and it really helps to highlight one of the key distinctions between Judaism and Christianity, the role of tradition and dialogue within that tradition. I myself am not Orthodox, so I embrace the idea that “the past gets a voice not a veto” (which I think was first said by Mordechai Kaplan, co-founder of the Jewish Reconstuctionist movement), but I definitely think that part of being Jewish is respecting the long line of tradition and dialogue that has brought us to the present moment.

Here is the second quote:

I don’t find these answers particularly satisfactory—if the Torah isn’t the Word of God, then why bother? Or as Lewis asks in one early passage of The Kingly Sanctuary “Doesn’t the truth count for something?” Adding, “I mean, if the Torah truly is the work of some anonymous collection of authors whose names we don’t even know—shouldn’t that have some effect on Judaism, on what Jews think and do?”

To that, Kugel has another answer, something far deeper and more basic. He alludes to it in his 2008 book, In the Valley of the Shadow, his haunting meditation on his battle with aggressive cancer: His faith stems from something else, a way of seeing the world as being a small part of a larger world that includes God. “I wouldn’t call it belief,” he tells me more than once. “I would call it a way of fitting into the world.”

I wished that there was something he could tell me that would restore my faith. Kugel picked up on that, and he appeared to be sorry for what he had unleashed. I’m not the only former yeshiva student who has sought him out. Kugel explains that he gets emails from yeshiva guys around the world asking him about faith. When I ask him what they are like, he says, “like you.”

As brilliant as he is, Kugel has no answer for me. It takes a particular mindset to be able to believe in the words of the sages and, at the same time, know that they might be fiction. At first, Kugel’s position reminded me of pragmatism, the school of philosophical thought created by William James, which holds that a person can believe in something even if it’s not true, so long as that belief has real-world applications. But I found that Kugel’s belief isn’t like that; he’s a genuine believer, with a faith no different from that of a shtetl Hasid—though since he’s Sephardic, more like a shopkeeper in Aleppo, rushing home before the Sabbath begins.

I think I found this quote to be so interesting, because it reflects some of where my faith journey has been taking me of late, in trying to reconcile a human-centered scientific view of the universe (in short, humanism) with my inner yearnings for meaning and purpose, which often is connected with my understandings of the Divine. And then part of me can’t help but wonder if the long tradition of scripture and how it came to be is in large part a case of fiction coming to life, and that if “God” exists, then maybe God is only a matter of collective human imagination, seeking to find meaning in an otherwise scary world? Of course, none of these questions are new (Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong have both written about these questions extensively) but I’m experiencing these questions in new ways.

Part of me goes back to childhood when I think about these questions. I had a rich imaginary life, full of a cast of interesting people who I engaged with as a person who had power (so unlike my life as a kid in small town Oklahoma). These imaginary people made me feel important and valued. Could it be possible that my yearning for God and connecting with God is kinda the same thing? And if so, is that a bad thing, particularly to be honest with ourselves about the nature of what our faith is really about?

I will say though that talking in such a frank way about these things makes me a little nervous, because writing about God on this blog has gotten me in trouble before. In my previous time as a progressive Mennonite minister, back in 2010 there was an attempt to have me fired because I expressed admiration for one of my atheist friends and her willingness to live a life of service to humanity without the promise of eternal reward and/or the fear of divine punishment for inaction. Those dark days shook me hard (and I should say that while I kept my job, the end result of the drama was about 1/3 of the congregation leaving, but later personal reconciliation between myself and most of those who left), but despite my fears, there is something about this question that won’t let go of me, and so I keep coming back to it again and again.

Today of course I am no longer a Mennonite and instead belong to two faith communities (one Jewish and the other Religious humanist), both of whom are very supportive of these kinds of questions being asked and discussed. Still there is a part of me that continues to be nervous about being completely honest about what I believe and don’t believe.

I think I will leave it there for today.