According to the tradition there are 72 mitzvot in this parashah, more than 10% of the 613 ascribed by tradition to the Torah. This statement raises the question, “Says who?” Anyone who has read the Torah will realize that nowhere does it state that there are 613 mitzvot — in fact, nowhere is there any official enumeration of mitzvot in the Torah. In fact, there is no mention of there being 613 mitzvot in the most major ancient codification of Jewish law, the Mishnah, edited around 200 CE. The one statement found about there being 613 mitzvot in the Torah is actually part of a conversation drawing out core principles of Torah, found in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 24a. Rabbi Simlai teaches there that there are 613 mitzvot, 365 corresponding to the number of solar days in the year and 248 positive ones, corresponding to the number of bones in a person’s body. The conversation continues that David reduced the precepts to 11 principles (as learned from Psalm 15), Isaiah to six principles (as in Isaiah 33:15–16) and Micah to three (as in Micah 6:8). A closer reading of the only passage in Jewish tradition that teaches that there are 613 mitzvot reveals that it is part of a broader conversation of what it means to be a Jew, engaged in the study of Torah and the connection with God.

Nevertheless, over the centuries the tradition that the Torah had 613 mitzvot grew and in the Middle Ages rabbis began writing books enumerating them. There are many different versions, none of which agree as to which are the 613 mitzvot. However, since the Middle Ages, the list of 613 mitzvot enumerated by Maimonides has become the authoritative one, to the extent that one’s observance of these has become the litmus test of Jewish authenticity. Few know that of these mitzvot, nearly half have not been and cannot be observed since the destruction of the Second Temple, almost 2,000 years ago. In other words, it is incumbent upon each of us, if we are to live our Judaism with meaning, to understand how the traditions have developed and what is there contemporary significance.

To this day, one cannot read the Torah without further commentary and instruction to discern which are its mitzvot, which are not. For example, this week’s portion has the famous teaching of the “rebellious child” who is to be put to death. This passage becomes the subject of much Talmudic discourse, leading to the conclusion that the law has never been applied nor will it ever be. Rather, its presence in Torah is to help us learn how to learn Torah. Other laws, such as those regarding divorce, have been extrapolated from this Parashah leading to the horrible situation in some forms of Judaism of the agunah, or the “chained woman” who cannot be freed from her abusive husband. Others commit us to looking after the most underprivileged in society.

In today’s world in which there is so much conflict regarding religion, it is incumbent upon us to converse as to how we understand the words of Torah, how we understand the concept of mitzvah — commandment. Just because we understantd the notion that there 613 mitzvot as a rubric, not an exact enumeration, does not mean that we should eliminate the idea of there being a notion of being commanded. The question in front of us, however, will be how to read the Torah through the eyes of the rabbis, the received words of our tradition. But the tradition does not end in the past, but continues through us, so the further question will be which rabbis and teachers inspire us to see the Torah through a lens of more deeply connecting with the life source that unites us all.

The tension between authority and autonomy lies at the heart of Shoftim, a parasha which contains around 50 mitzvot, many of them dealing with forms of government — the power of the judge, prophet and king, and the extent of their authority. The Torah provides for the judicial development of its own law, including the statement that: “you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.” (Dt. 17:11). This passage has served for the authority not just for the courts of the Sanhedrin during the Second Temple period, but also every Beit Din or judicial court of rabbis that has been formed in any community over the ages and places where Jews have lived from then to now.

Without judicial interpretation of the law, there would be no possibility for Judaism to development of Judaism or Jews to adapt within their unfolding contemporary contexts. Without judicial power or authority, chaos among society would unfold. However, there is a puzzling aspect in the above passage reinforcing the authority of the court, “you shall not deviate either to the right or to the left.” The meaning and intent of this passage itself has been subject to interpretation and application.

On one hand, early rabbinic explications, state you must follow the court only when it tells you that right is right and left is left: “One might imagine that if they tell you that the right is left and the left is right, that you should obey them. The Torah therefore states, “right and left” — one need obey them only when they tell you that the right is the right and the left is the left.” The early sages rule that when the court has clearly made an error in fact or law, the decision does not have to be followed.

Later commentators, following Rashi, understand the passage in an opposite way. For example, Nachmanides comments on Dt. 17:11: “even if you think in your heart that they are mistaken, and the matter is simple in your eyes just as you know the difference between your right hand and your left hand, you must still do as they command you.”

Over the centuries, the tradition has favoured the latter position, giving absolute authority to the Beit Din, even should their ruling be incorrect. The problem in contemporary times is that we live in societies where there is a balance between legislative and judicial authorities, and in most nations where Jews live there is a Constitution to which both the legislature and judiciary must adhere (Israel being a major exception to this.) Further, a Constitution has procedures for amendment when necessary. These “checks and balances” and opportunities for amendment allow for more fluid responses, all the more necessary in our ever-changing world. The system of absolute authority placed in a Beit Din has been rejected by most Jews of our time, as more and more gain knowledge and independence. While this adds to the dynamism of Judaism and life itself, it also carries the risk of destroying any sense of community.

The tension between communal authority and individual autonomy continues to grow; the more the rabbinate arrogates authority to itself, the more that authority is rejected. It seems that the early sages, living in the more fluid Talmudic period, had the correct insight — judicial decisions, the rabbinic development of the Torah tradition, should be followed when ruling that “the right is the right” and “the left is the left”. Perhaps they had in mind the essential and overriding teaching in Psalm 119:126: “there comes a time to do the will of God when they have made void your Torah.” We understand “the will of God” as honouring the life force, adhering to core principles of Torah such as the dignity of each human, justice for the oppressed and care for all life with love in any interpretation of Torah. A punctilious ruling without those values “makes void the Torah” and claims the right is left.

While the written Torah will never change, we the people must form an ad hoc legislature to balance the decisions of the rabbinate, and vice versa. Thus we have seen that as the community has become more concerned about the rights of women, the rabbinic tradition has moved toward their ordination and inclusion. Similarly, as the people became more outspoken about the need to embrace and include those of different sexual orientations, rabbinic ordination has been opened to the GLBT community and marriage equality advocated. In response to crucial environmental issues, traditions regarding energy and animal consumption must also be reviewed. For Jews to remain a community of communities, we must ensure greater learning of our sources, our values and our understanding of what it means to “do the will of God.”

This week’s Torah reading, Re’eh, continues Moses’ second sermon to the Jewish people. It begins with the statement, “See this day I set before you a blessing and a curse” — a blessing if the people obey God’s commandments and a curse if they choose to disobey. Then the reading presents the laws themselves, not in a comprehensive code, but rather in general principles.

Which begs the question: why is there no specific road-map on how we can create a blessed life? Could it be that God wants us to decide how we choose to create lives of blessing? For me, the answer lies in the name of the portion itself, Re’eh.

Re’eh is the Hebrew imperative “see”. We alone have the power to see what is possible in our lives, to create a life of integrity or one of dishonesty. No one can do the work except us. If we are to imagine such a life we need to look within, see our deepest desires and visualize ways we can make a difference in the world around us. Seeing then, encourages us to live each day with greater courage, purpose and fulfillment.

Armed with a compelling vision for the future, the ability to act on that dream is an entirely different story. It can be challenging to reinvent ourselves, particularly as we age. But the example has been clearly set; for thousands of years Judaism has re-contextualized our ancient wisdom in exciting, new ways so as to be relevant in our lives today.

The word Israel means “One who wrestles with God”. To be Jewish is not to accept something unconditionally, but to wrestle with an idea for as long it takes, until a resolution is found. Part of the richness of that thinking is that within the discomfort of the struggle we have the possibility of evolving as individuals, and as a people. Our rabbis say, “Our task is great, our time short. Even though we may not complete the task, we are not free to desist from trying.”

Our tradition also reminds us that we mustn’t allow fear to dissuade us from heeding the call. “The world is a narrow bridge. The main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.” Let us move forward to a new place not through a lens of fear, but of hope, promise and joy.

At this sacred time of year we have the opportunity to reexamine our lives and ask the important questions. Who am I? What am I doing here? Where’s the meaning in my life? And where am I going to find that meaning? I share with you a process that has empowered me to visualize a life of blessing, in the hope it might do the same for you.

Find places of inspiration that take you out of our head and into your heart. Breath in deeply, then out very slowly. Feel your heart open wide. Next, immerse yourself in great literature, art, dance, or music. Seek to be transported, moved. Feel the spark of inspiration. Lastly, surround yourself with the people you love. Be with those who accept you unconditionally and without judgment. Seek those with whom you can speak honestly and fearlessly.

Meditate as long as you wish. Listen for the still, small voice within you. You’re now ready to SEE. Take your time, build a dream leaving no details out. Every piece is vitally important. Share it with someone you love. Then go for it!

Facing these coming High Holy Days as a community in prayer, my prayer is that we will hear what is truly in our collective hearts and build an inspiring vision of what we can achieve together.

Whenever a rabbi speaks about social issues, the response of the community tends to be, “It was striking how much you spoke about politics.” From my understanding, politics concerns activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power. I sense that people believe that religious leaders are meant to speak about matters of “religion”, that is, those things that for many concern how one uses ritual to relate to the ineffable. However, that is not, and never has been what Judaism, the faith path of our people is about. Especially in this season, when we read stirring prophecies from Isaiah that distil the values of the extensive speeches of Moses that comprise the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), we understand that the prime concern of Judaism is that which we call the social weal, or communal well being.

Moses begins the words of this week’s Parasha, Eikev, with the exhortation that “if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your fathers. The Parasha will close with a parallel teaching that has become known as “the second paragraph of the Shema”, a teaching that we are meant to recite every evening and every morning, a teaching that is found on the scroll inside our mezuzot and tefillin, so that when we look upon these objects we are reminded of our role as a covenantal people. As one reads the details of the covenant, which the Torah first records and that are further explicated in the thousands of years of our teaching tradition, one realises that there is a blend of obligations incumbent upon us — some ritual, some relational and social. As our prophetic tradition teaches, the performance of ritual without ethical is meaningless, for the relationship we have with that which we call God is judged first and foremost by our treatment of that which shares life with us: our respect for the environment, our treatment of animals, our care for other human beings, especially those less materially privileged.

Speaking in support of those who are marginalized or unprotected in society follows in the Torah tradition of each one of us is created in the “divine image”, that we should love the other as we love ourselves, and that our particular obligation as Jews who escaped oppression in Egypt is to provide for the stranger and oppressed. Indeed, each of these issues will play out in the political arena as society attempts to find solutions to these failures of humanity. To remember with great grief the murders of Ali Dawabsha and Shira Banki this last week in Israel is to remember our covenantal commitment to right the wrongs of society. The religious voice compels us to speak out about these issues from the core of what it means to be fully human, as conscious and caring as possible. We can all learn from each other in these matters, including hearkening to the words of our tradition, calling us to be a faith people, teaching us he sacredness of all life.

This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, contains some of the “greatest hits” of our tradition with its inclusion of the shema and the ten commandments. In this continuation of Moses’ address to the people, he reminds them of the essential principles of Judaism: our grounding in the Exodus from Egypt, adherence to the commandments and the centrality of God and God’s unity. Moses exhorts the people to follow the rules of God, the mitzvot, in order to create a just and compassionate society. But then comes a curious phrase where Moses says: “Remember to do what is right and good in the sight of God.”

Rabbi Artson challenges: if we are to merely follow the mitzvot and the halacha, why add a command to do what is right and good? Surely that is redundant. He then brings examples from the tradition to show that the phrase exists to help us interpret and live the rules of God. Often when we have the chance to implement laws there is more than one way of understanding and applying the rule. This overarching principle reminds us that, in its application, the halacha is to help guide us to do what is right and good. And sometimes this means that we need to depart from the strict letter of the law in order to bring in an element of compassion, goodness or heart.

Rashi says that the verse “implies compromise, going beyond the letter of the law”. The Ramban says “even in regard to those things where no specific command applies…it is impossible to record every detail of human behavior…God included a general injunction to do what is right and good in every matter, accepting where necessary even a compromise in a legal dispute.” (Bedside Torah by Rabbi Artson, pg. 294)

So flexibility when it comes to the application of the law is crucial to maintaining its relevance, but also in ensuring that we continue to apply the principles of Judaism with the effect upon people at the heart of all that we do. Rabbi Yochanan is recorded in the Talmud as saying that the Temple was destroyed because our ancestors acted only to the letter of the law and did not go beyond it. (Bedside Torah by Rabbi Artson, pg. 294)

Sometimes we can become so entangled in the minutiae of a situation that we don’t see the broader implications of our decisions. This week’s parashah reminds us to always have compassion, kindness and goodness at the heart of our application of Jewish principles so that we can bring the vision of our world as a place filled with love, generosity, peace and blessing, to fruition through our deeds and the work of our hands.

May we always act to do what is right and good so that we can be a blessing.

This Shabbat we commemorate Tisha B’Av, the culmination of the period begun three weeks ago to recall the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the loss of our national sovereignty in the Land of Israel. While after the destruction of the First Temple we were fortunate to return to the land after 70 years, after the destruction of the Second Temple our exile lasted 1,900 years (and some say continues until the Third Temple is rebuilt). For 2,600 years we have looked at the destruction from a dual perspective. On one hand, we have seen it as a reminder of the errors of our ways, the need to take responsibility for our actions in community. On the other, we have seen it as a call for a return to our core values as a people. In this sense, the period of the three weeks mirrors the period of the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that also have us look at ourselves self-critically with a goal to improving our individual way of being in the world.

The traditions of Tisha B’Av mirror those of Yom Kippur, except that since the former is not a holy day mentioned in the Torah, one is allowed to work — to drive, to use electronic devices, to use money and so forth. Its other restrictions are the same as on Yom Kippur: for 25 hours no eating, no drinking, no sexual relations, no bathing or anointing, and no wearing of leather shoes. We come to synagogue evening, morning and afternoon to hear the words of Scripture, particularly the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, particularly the latter’s haunting words in the book of Lamentations, or Eicha. Their teachings have been enshrined within the prayers of our tradition, written over the last thousands of years: “because of our sins we have been exiled from our land”. Indeed, this entire period, culminating on Tisha B’Av, is one of reflection on how we, as a people and a nation, have failed to live up to our values as Jews.

The prophets of old are quite clear as to what they understand those values to be. On the Shabbat of Devarim – Chazon, always the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, it is made clear. While ritual may be necessary to live one’s life as a fully engaged Jew, it is by no means sufficient. In fact, ritual without ethics has no meaning. One’s connection to God is expressed first and foremost in one’s connection to one’s fellow human beings. As Isaiah says in his “chazon”, or prophecy:

Wash yourselves clean;

put your evil doings away from My sight.

Cease to do evil; learn to do good.

Devote yourselves to justice;

aid the wronged.

Uphold the rights of the orphan;

defend the cause of the widow.”

(Isaiah 1:16–17).

Jeremiah concludes Lamentations as follows (a phrase now entered into our Torah service): “Hashivenu Adonai Eleikha – Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, and let us come back; renew our days as of old”. We must remember that the way back to God is through God’s creatures.

Just as we teach on Yom Kippur that there is none on earth who does only good and never sins, this day of Tisha B’Av gives us the opportunity on a communal level – thinking of how we as Jews behave in Israel, the States, New Jersey and at CBTBI – to look at those actions for which we need to repent, and those ways we wish to improve.

This week’s double parasha marks the end of the book of Numbers. In the second portion, there is a curious list of 42 places where the Israelites stopped during their wanderings in the desert. There they are, poised to enter the Promised Land, about to conclude a journey which has taken 40 years, and Moses recounts a small travelogue. Interestingly, he does not say anything about any of the places, he simply recites the list of names. It was as though he only had limited space and had to get in as many memories as he could. So rather than give details about what happened, he just says: there was Sukkot then Etham and Migdol…

I imagine the Israelites listening to the stories of those places and remembering what happened there; laughing, smiling, cringing, crying. Through that list they are inspired to recall the people who walked beside them during their travels; many of whom no longer walk the earth. They recall the moments of pride, the times they were ashamed of their actions and so much more. It is interesting to see which places are left off and which included. There is, for example, no recalling of Mount Sinai, the place of revelation — perhaps the most momentous event of their entire travels. Instead, the smaller moments are recalled; those which might otherwise have been lost in the sands of time.

There is much discussion in the commentaries about what this list of place names is trying to teach us, because we do not have the memories of the Israelites to be triggered. We did not have the experiences – we only have the stories of them – and so the list might seem dry and somewhat irrelevant. But, just as with everything else in the Torah, the sages of our tradition have extracted great meaning from just a few verses. One of my favorite explanations is from the Apter Rebbe. He refers to another section in the Torah portion which commands the creation of six cities of refuge to which people can flee. The Rebbe notes that there are six cities of refuge and six words in the shema; 42 places in Moses’ travelogue and 42 words in the veahavta prayer. This teaches us, he says, that just as people found refuge in the six cities, we should find refuge in the shema:

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad,

Listen Israel Adonai is your God Adonai is One.

When people cry out, we need to shema – to listen – to hear their cries, to hear their pain; and then veahavta – to reach out in love – in openness with compassion and justice. Shema Yisrael – listen Israel – our tradition calls to us. Listen to the pain, the hurt and the suffering; and work for justice with an open heart and with love. The Israelite journey was about finding a place where we could be one. It was about finding a home away from persecution and pain; a place where we could live true to our principles and our faith: the cities of refuge.

We fled the persecution and slavery of pharaoh; we journeyed to 42 places, healing, becoming one, learning to love and to be; and then we arrived at the Promised Land. So many are in that same place, on that journey — seeking hope and safety, a future for themselves and their families. Judaism, the Torah, and our parashah all call upon us to listen. To hear and to act, to create cities of refuge, places of healing, of welcome, and of love.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.