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Sunday, August 28, 2011


Dvar Torah For Parshat Reeh, 5771.

Do you remember the story of chicken little? According to Wikipedia, “There are several Western versions of the story, of which the best-known concerns a chick that believes the sky is falling when an acorn falls on its head. The chick decides to tell the King and on its journey meets other animals which join it in the quest. After this point, there are many endings. In the most familiar, a fox invites them to its lair and there eats them all.” The story is actually listed in one of the folklore indexes in the category of world-wide folktales –in this case a fable- that make fun of paranoia and mass hysteria .

I have been thinking about Chicken Little as I’ve read Parshat Reeh, in particular its warnings about false prophets. Let’s read what Deuteronomy has to say about them, Humash Etz Hayyim, pages 1068-1069:

If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or portent, saying, “Let us follow and worship another god” whom you have not experienced; even if the sign or portent that he named to you comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream diviner. For the Lord your God is testing you to see whether you really love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. Follow none but the Lord your God and revere none but Him; observe his commandments alone, and heed only his orders; worship none but him and hold fast to Him.

Far from merely warning us away from disloyalty to God, the Torah is also warning us not to engage in chicken-little style behavior: that state of being instantly smitten with something, some idea or someone we encounter, even something, some idea, or someone whose pronouncements about truth are so impressive as to seem absolutely definitive. We need to guided by what the great Torah commentator, Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, refers to as shikul ha-daat, the patient, sober use of reason and good, common sense. Even if a prophet calling us to worship another god produces the promised sign or portent as proof of his legitimacy, we should still not be fooled into believing him, because his claim is still at odds with what we know about God and truth.

This prohibition that Moses gives to the Israelites is true to the form and content of Deuteronomy: it emphasizes absolute loyalty to the one, universal God, even when the faithful person is faced with seemingly compelling evidence to the contrary from a charismatic figure who can back up his or her claims with miracles. Deuteronomy spends a great deal of energy appealing to the people’s good sense and reason, constantly reminding them that they personally experienced God’s redemptive power during the Exodus from Egypt, as well as God’s appearance to them to give them the Torah at Mount Sinai. Signs and portents that support the idolatrous claims of a prophet or diviner might be wondrously seductive, but they are merely tests by God to determine the people’s fidelity to God.

This last argument at first glance feels like a bit of circular reasoning: follow God only, not a false prophet; how do I know he’s a false prophet? He tells you to worship gods besides the God of Israel; but he’s given me signs and wonders that prove his point that I should follow other gods; no, his proof is really a test by the one true God to determine your loyalty; but how do I know it’s merely a test from God, and not a real sign from that prophet? Because that prophet is telling you that you should worship other gods, besides the one true God, so he must not be telling the truth, and his signs must be God’s test, not real signs.

However, we should not be fooled by what appears to be mere circular reasoning. What this passage of the Torah is warning us not to do is mistake the bells and whistles of charisma for the not always popular appeal of reason, and loyalty to the sober boundaries of Torah as determined by the ongoing process of interpretation of a living faith community. Dynamic personalities and emotional appeal can make a huge difference in our lives by inspiring us and giving us meaningful narratives by which to live. However, they are no replacement for truth arrived at through the use of reason, the discovery of fact, and the rule of law. It is far too easy for a demagogue to use all kinds of verbal and emotional sleights of hand –what the Torah referred to as signs and portents- to make an impressive point that convinces people to follow him or her, despite the extremism of his or her claims. The balancing of personal faith with personal reason is a very difficult challenge, but it is the only way to keep faith from degenerating into spiritual fascism and self-destruction, and to keep reason from degenerating into soul-deadening, inhumane rigidity.

How do these teachings apply to us? The presidential election is a little over a year away, and already a whole group of prophet-wanna-be’s are crowding the presidential candidate playing field, each of them hawking his or her form of signs and portents. Each will campaign in poetry and govern in prose, a conceit which we are used to, and which we largely accept as the price to be paid for a free electoral process and a complex system of checks and balances. Each will make near-prophetic claims about what ails America and the world, then make sweeping pronouncements about what he or she will do to solve our problems. To paraphrase our Torah portion: warning, America, we are being tested: can we resist the apparatus of America’s false prophecy arsenal-- the prettily packaged promises, the telegenic shots of baby-kissing shape shifters who keep crafting their messages to the latest voting bases, and the shameless use of obscene wealth to crush opponents in elections? Can we see past the false prophecies of jingoistic fear mongering, of race baiting? Can we curb our own idolatrous impulse to set aside the sober search for truth and fact out of a desperate need to be coddled by the soothing words of people who tell us what we want to hear, and not what we need to hear? Can listen past the smoke-and-mirrors to discover the ideas and leaderships qualities that will make a great leader for the future?

These are frightening days for America and the world, and as Chicken Little would have said, it feels at times like the sky is falling. Precisely when things feel this way is when the Torah raises its warning to us about false prophets, reminding us that it will take all of our moral, spiritual, and intellectual courage not be taken in by their impressive signs and portents. We will need to ask tough, thoughtful questions about the claims of those who rise up among us, and who might speak charismatically in the name of truth, yet whose claims turn out to be nothing more than calls to us to worship false gods of hysteria or complacency that cannot save us. The Torah of the one true God reminds us: follow none but the Lord your God. Pursue the truth and the values that make us Jews worthy of being God’s people, and that make us Americans worthy of our nation’s legacy.


In Torah portion Ekev, as we go more deeply into Moses’ second speech to the Israelites prior to their entering Canaan, look carefully at how he explains to the people the meaning of their having wandered in the desert for forty years. In Deuteronomy, chapter 8, Moses makes clear what God’s intent was: to test the people’s faith by simultaneously subjecting them to hardships and supporting them. God, Moses tells them, was like a parent disciplining his child, constantly refining their spiritual resilience and clarifying their consciousness of the true source of their blessings. Some of my students and I were stunned when we recently studied this portion in comparison with Numbers, chapter 14. There, God berates the Israelites for their faithlessness and their attempt to return to Egypt, due to their fear-filled refusal to try to conquer the promised land. God declares explicitly that the generation of former slaves would die in the desert, while their free-born children would possess the promised land after the whole slave generation had died out over a period of forty years of wandering.

Look at the contrast between these two explanations of the same event. God declares that the forty year wandering was decreed by God out of anger, as punishment for Israelite intransigence. Moses later reads the history of the forty year wandering in a radically different way: it was a form of spiritual discipline imposed by a loving God upon this people that needed to grow up spiritually and emotionally. Interestingly enough, Moses explanation is followed by his command to them that when they enter the land and enjoy it to the fullest, they will thank and bless God for all of it: an even more emphatic way of saying that their wanderings were a teaching tool for developing in them a sense of appreciation and gratitude.

Which version explaining the forty year wandering of the people is correct? From the Israelites’ back-looking perspective, perhaps both. God did punish the people for their rebellious intransigence, but God also wanted to refine the people’s understanding of where their support and blessings truly come from. Moses seems to be telling the people and us that we read our lives in many different ways. The goal of a cultivated spiritual perspective on life is twofold: to look with maturity at the reality of the hardships we experience, without pretending them away. At the same time, we try to interpret those hardships and challenges in ways that help us to form a meaningful appreciation of our experiences, what we learn from them, and how we grow in compassion as a result of them.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Dvar Torah For Parshat Dvarim//Shabbat Hazon 5771.
אלה הדברים אשר דבר משה אל כל ישראל

“These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel…”

Thus begins this morning’s Torah portion, the Book of Deuteronomy, and the great, eloquent speech that Moses presents to the people just as they are about to leave the desert and their past lives as slaves, in preparation for entry into the promised land. In her introduction, Rabbi Kieval pointed out the significance of Moses opening Deuteronomy with his speech, for we have known him throughout the Torah as a stutterer, who is slow of speech, and in need of his brother, Aaron, to be his mouthpiece. Moses has grown over the forty years of Israelite wandering, and the Torah emphasizes this as he is preparing to die.

What is also significant is that Moses –not God- is the focal point of this opening verse of Deuteronomy. Moses, the humblest man upon the earth, whose burial site is not even known and who is never even mentioned in the Haggadah that retells the Passover story, is at the center of Deuteronomy’s drama of entering Canaan, and as a preacher no less! The opening sermon in Deuteronomy Rabbah, an early collection of rabbinic homilies on this book of the Torah, also makes Moses the focus of Deuteronomy for a very important reason. After explaining some rules concerning whether or not a Torah scroll may be written in translation, the rabbi giving the dvar Torah weaves together an intricate set of proof verses and word associations to prove that the words of Torah can cure speech impediments, and that in fact they cured Moses’ problems with speech. How do we know, the homilist asks? Before receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, when he stood before God at the burning bush, Moses begged off his mission to Pharaoh by telling God, “I am not a man of word…I am slow of speech.” Here, on the borders of the promised land, forty years after receiving and teaching the Torah, Moses the law giver has also become Moses the eloquent speaker who prepares the people before his death.

In this opening passage of Deuteronomy Rabbah, we find God personally testifying that God’s gift of Torah is so precious because it cures the tongue of its maladies. Our sages were referring specifically to the actual disorders of speech, such as that of Moses who was miraculously healed and turned into a great public speaker. However, I cannot help hearing the other morally weighty meaning of these words that they would have intended: engagement with Torah heals us of the sickness of Lashon Harah, the evil speech of gossip and slander that destroys people, relationships, and communities. It is obvious that Torah does this by teaching us the rules of civility and moral self restraint, by forcing us to focus our words and speech on holy matters, and not garbage, and by allowing us to learn the value of carefully measured, well thought out words. Certainly, the sages of the Talmud understood that the life of Torah study could actually result in dangerous uses of speech, because heated debate over matters of Torah sometimes has a way of degenerating into name calling and public humiliation. However, they more often exemplified in their lives the value of Torah as a path to healing and peace through its harnessing of human speech for good purposes.

How significant, then, that evil speech is at the center of the most famous story about why Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, a tragic event that occurred on the ninth day of Av, which we will commemorate on Monday night and Tuesday. An enemy of one of the notables of Jerusalem was mistakenly invited to the man’s home for a party. The host roundly humiliated the man who had shown up, thinking that they were to be reconciled. As he threw the man out of his home, the rabbis of the community who were at the party passively watched the scene and did nothing to stop it. Wounded by such despicable behavior on the part of his enemies and the rabbis, the man went to the Roman authorities and slandered them, claiming that they were plotting a rebellion. The emperor marched on Jerusalem and destroyed our holy Temple. As actual history, the story has little merit. As a moral object lesson it is brilliant. In his book analyzing great rabbinic stories, my colleague, Professor Jeffrey Rubenstein, argues that this story is a good example of rabbinic self-criticism. The sages of a later time are criticizing their own class for failure to heed the words of Torah by doing the right thing: defending a humiliated person who has been wounded by words and working decisively to stave off disaster. I also see in this passage its more obvious message: words used in acts of senseless hatred have genuine ripple-effect potential to destroy an entire community. Like a caustic chemical, they corrode the life of our community from the inside, so that enemies from without have only to show up at our doors and easily finish us off. This is a moral message that we learn in the Torah, and it is a truth that underlies a good deal of ancient and contemporary history.

The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote: A word is dead//When it is said//Some say.//I say it just//Begins to live//That day. She was talking about the power of poetry, but she likely also was referring to the power of words in general. On this Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av, let’s allow ourselves some quiet moments to think about how words come alive in our own lives, from our own mouths, as forces for healing and destruction. Let’s also recommit ourselves in the midst of this period of deep sadness to a life engaged with the words of Torah, words that can heal our tongues and harness our speech for good and holy purposes.

Shabbat shalom.