September 30-October 1, 2016 – 28 Elul 5776
Annual (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20): Etz Hayim p. 1165; Hertz p. 878
Triennial (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20): Etz Hayim p. 1165; Hertz p. 878
Haftarah (Isaiah 61:10-63:9): Etz Hayim p. 1180; Hertz p. 883
Remember those who Chop your Wood and Draw your Water
Rabbi Peretz Rodman, of Jerusalem, is a teacher, writer, and translator, and head of the Masorti bet din of Eretz Yisrael
Do you ever look past the main characters in a play, a film, or a TV show, to focus on the bit players, the supernumeraries? Who are those spear carriers, anyway? Are they two-dimensional figures who merely move the plot along? Might they, like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, someday step into center stage?
In the opening of Moses’ oration in this week’s parasha, he spins out a list of who he means by attem, the plural “you” whom he is addressing with his message of covenantal responsibility. He enumerates: “your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel; your children, your wives, even your stranger within your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water” (Deut. 29:9–10).
The most striking note sounded here is the repetition of “your.” Looking closer, we see that the pronouns are plural at first. Standard English is poor at enabling us to hear the distinction, but the “you” who have an officialdom and children and wives are “you guys,” “y’all,” or however you convey the second person plural. But the last mentioned—the gercha, the alien, the foreigner who is “yours,” whatever menial task he performs in your household and farm in ancient Israel—is addressed to the single, individual “you.”
This last rhetorical flourish, detailing some of the menial labor performed by one’s household workers and calling each worker “yours” individually, is the hallmark of the author (or Author) of Deuteronomy. That author is adept as addressing the reader as a person with individual responsibility and an individual conscience. In the present verse the message is: “You [singular, this time] are the person who determines the living conditions of another human being, one whom you might ignore or neglect because his social status is low and his agency over his own life is limited. Do not overlook him.”
This is the same individual ger referred to already in the first chapter of Deuteronomy, where the author lays down the rule of equality before the law, as “his ger” (1:16), the alien resident on a person’s family landholding, with whom an Israelite might enter into a dispute. That resident alien is afforded protection under the law equal to that granted to any Israelite.
He is the same ger, I would suggest, whom the author of Exodus 23:12 is concerned about as well, when he writes that the purpose of Shabbat is “so that… your maidservant’s child and the ger” (who live with your family on your property) “shall [rest and] be refreshed.”
In our lives as well, there are such nearly-invisible figures. Some are there for us to see: the people cleaning our airport restrooms and those filling the shelves in our supermarkets. In our post-industrial societies, we may literally not see them, though: the people packing our orders in giant warehouses and those sorting somewhere what we tossed into our mixed recycling receptacles. They are our gerim. The conditions of their lives are determined by those who own and patronize the institutions that employ them—if they find employment at all. They are dependent upon those of us with access to money and power and influence.
The author of Deuteronomy, in his usual nuanced way, is reminding us: They too stand with us in the wider social bond that ensures the safety and survival of us all. Do not overlook them.
A Vort for Parashat Nitsavim
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty
Deut 30:15 says that God sets before us “this day life and good, death and evil;” the choice is ours. The Kotzker Rebbe (Hasidic, Poland 1787–1859) explained that the purpose of life is to do good. But for lack of understanding or other reasons, all too often we confuse things, and act as if the purpose of life is pleasure, and use the good we have been given to that end. The Vilna Gaon (1720 – 1797) points out that this is addressed to the individual (לְפָנֶיךָ- “before you” singular) to teach that even if the masses are confused and bent on sin, each of us has a covenant with God and a duty to follow it.
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty
On this last Shabbat of the Jewish year, in a period of reflection and preparation for the High Holidays, we find an entire passage about Teshuva (returning to God) in our Parasha.
1) We open with the ceremony of ratifying the covenant (29:9-11). Who is present? Why is it important to have every person there, would it not suffice to have representatives of the people present?
2) To give the people a sense of how bad the result of breaking the covenant will be, Moshe mentions a location that was destroyed under special circumstances (29:21-22). What is the location? Why was it destroyed? How does this make Moshe’s message more effective?
3) Choosing to leave the God of Israel for the sake of other gods has consequences, according to Moshe’s warning. What will happen to the people if they do this (29:26-27)?
4) 30:1-10 tells about returning. Who is returning to whom in this passage? How will the ‘return’ of each side manifest itself? Why do you think that Moshe brings the possibility of return in the context of this Parasha?
5) God has placed choices before us (30:15-20). What are we choosing between? Our choices are apparent from our behavior. What kind of behavior will demonstrate each choice? Presumably, no one will intentionally choose a path that will harm him, so what do you think might have brought him to a destructive path?