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This week’s Torah portion: Nitzavim

It’s that time of the week! Welcome to our post on the weekly Torah portion.

This time around:

🌳 NITZAVIM 🌳

Trees will be happening. Talking trees. Delightful trees. Get to know the Talmudic proof by flying tree! (We would like to take this time to reassure you that hurricanes and other extreme weather events are not involved.)

A photo of a tree and a red bench by the seaside, Crete, Greece. Image by Marc Ryckaert.

This parsha includes a very famous section about how the Torah is not in the heavens, and not beyond the seas either…

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.

It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?””

“Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”

No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deut 30:11)

(Sea provided above ⬆️ )

So for our first Torah tidbit of the day, I picked something that involves this quote!

It’s from our book AN ANGEL CALLED TRUTH AND OTHER TALES FROM THE TORAH by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon & Emma Parlons –

It has short, illustrated parsha stories for all ages!

I’m going to put here images of the pages so that you can see the illustration too 🌳 but I’ll also type up the text below…

(yes, a FLYING TREE is coming!)

This Tree Shall Prove I’m Right

A verse from this week’s reading, which states that the Torah is not in the heavens, appears at the heart of one of the most famous arguments in rabbinic literature. The argument is between Rabbi Eliezer, who claims that a particular kind of oven doesn’t need to be demolished, while the rest of the rabbis think that it does.

If you’re wondering if this is a typical topic for the Talmud, yes it is…

Rabbi Eliezer proves his point time and time again, but the rabbis simply don’t accept his arguments. This is our retelling of that Talmudic passage.

“If you still won’t listen to me,” Rabbi Eliezer said, pointing in the direction of a carob tree, “then this carob shall prove I am right.” The rabbis shook their heads in resignation. That Rabbi Eliezer – you could almost hear their scorn – how does he think a tree is supposed to prove anything?

The sidebar helpfully tells us:

The carob, or Ceratonia siliqua, is native to the Mediterranean region. Some people say carob fruit tastes like chocolate. But who do they think they are kidding?

So, back to the story, how does the carob prove Rabbi Eliezer is right? Oops!

Then the tree uprooted itself from the earth and flew through the air. Rabbi Eliezer nodded quietly to himself. Surely – he thought – he would have their attention now. But no. Oh no. These rabbis were not about to accept proof-by-flying-tree.

Rabbi Eliezer tried again. “If I am right, let this stream of water prove it.” The water began to flow upstream, but the rabbis were not accepting proof-by-backwards-flowing-stream.

Rabbi Eliezer tried a third time.

And now, in unison, let us say NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, Rabbi Eliezer, NOoooooo~

“If I am right, let the walls of this study hall prove it.”

It’s going to be JUST FINE…

…right?

And the walls of the study hall started to lean in and fall.

At that moment, Rabbi Joshua stood up and told the walls, “When rabbis argue, who are you, walls, to get involved?” Out of respect for Rabbi Joshua, the walls stopped falling inwards but, out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, they didn’t right themselves either.

Very Jewish solution, but I guess they were the walls of the study hall after all….

Rabbi Eliezer summoned the powers of heaven. Looking upwards, he called on God to settle the debate. A voice came from the heavens. “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is always right.”

Rabbi Joshua rose again, “The Torah itself says that the law IS NOT IN THE HEAVENS. It was given to us!”

And – to this day – the walls still stand and lean. Neither siding with Rabbi Eliezer nor with Rabbi Joshua.

And we should note a very important detail, namely that G-d did not kill Rabbi Joshua for the ALL CAPS either… Though that might only be because Hebrew has no capital letters 😉 But to be honest, G-d has a high tolerance for people yelling at Them.

We also have some discussion questions to go along with the story:

Rabbi Eliezer was in the minority, so should he have sided with the majority? When have you agreed with a majority, even though you thought that position was wrong? When should you agree with the majority?

Rabbi Eliezer attempts to prove his point with miracles. Do you think Rabbi Joshua was right to refuse to accept miraculous proofs? If so, why?

Is it good to be the odd one out? Why? Do you tend to stand alone or with the crowd?

The story ends here, but I should add that it actually goes on even further in the Talmud. Wikipedia has a summary, with some interpretations too! But now we’re going to segue to our next tidbit, which also includes trees.

(I have to say it’s easier to do this with trees than with cats. The Torah doesn’t include very many cats. For that, you’ll need our Jewish Cat Calendar.)

This one I’ve picked from THE JEWISH BOOK OF DAYS: A Companion for All Seasons by Jill Hammer. (Incidentally, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award!) It has something for each day of the Jewish calendar – and for some mysterious (or not so mysterious) reason, for this Shabbat, it includes a fascinating midrashic quote about trees.

It is from the midrash collection Genesis Rabbah (or Bereishit Rabbah) and it’s a commentary on the very beginning of Genesis, where all manner of plants and trees are created. You probably already know this one from Genesis, but do you know the midrash that goes with it? Genesis Rabbah tells you………

*dramatic suspense*

R”All trees speak with one another. All trees speak with other creatures. All trees were created for the delight of other creatures.” (13:2)

You heard it here first! I mean, this was written ~1500 years ago, but still.

So let’s see what Rabbi Hammer says about this quote and why she picked it for this day:

Those of us who are raised around trees are used to a certain whispering in the leaves. For those of us who grow up where trees dry out in the autumn, the leaves’ rustlings grow particularly intense at this time of the year. In the imagination of one midrash, the trees actually are speaking, to one another and to us.

On the third day of Creation, the Divine creates plants and trees. A midrash in Genesis Rabbah focuses not on the things trees do for us by giving fruit, wood, sap and medicines but on their companionship. The aliveness of trees feels like friendship to us. We celebrate the plants that are our companions on earth.

Some plants will grow all winter. Some plants have died down to a bulb, yet they will come to life again in spring. Some seeds have been torn away by the wind to distant places. At the new year, we may feel like any one of these plants. In that sense as well, the plants are our companions, showing us the way to renew ourselves.

And for our last tidbit I chose one of Rachel Barenblat’s Elul poems from Open My Lips: Prayers and Poems.

This one has a LOT of High Holiday poems (and prayers!) so I’ve been quoting from it a fair amount…

Rocking chair (for Elul)

The exalted throne on high
   is a gliding rocker.
      God watches us with kind eyes

rejoicing when we figure out
   how to fit two pieces together
      and create something new

looking on us with compassion
   when we struggle for balance
      and thirst for what we can’t name.

The sages of the Talmud knew
   more than the wobbly calf wants to suck
      the mother yearns to give milk

God is the same way
   overflowing with blessings, and yet
      we turn our faces away and wail.

When will we learn?
   God’s lap is always open
      all we have to do is return.

Thank you for following along, and stay tuned for multiple surprises coming up and a lot of new things during the holiday season. When we are not away, we will be here with double the intensity 😀 G-d willing, but this is the plan.

In the meanwhile, you can browse our previous parashah threads on Twitter – with a lot of fun stuff (and some weird, and some terrifying…).

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This week’s Torah portion: KI TEITZEI


It is time for our weekly discussion of the Torah portion!

This week we have Ki Teitzei, a portion filled with a lot of small details and lesser-known commandments! Including, yes, something related to birds…

Nesting Eurasian Coot. Photo by SkywalkerPL

But before we get to the birds, let’s discuss something else about the portion, based on Rabbi Shefa Gold’s always fascinating Torah Journeys

She notes that Maimonides counted the commandments in this portion and there were 72 of them. That’s a lot! We have all these commandments, so what do we start with?

(I note that it’s not “A list of a bunch of commandments”. If the Bible happened to be edited by an academic press, it would’ve been like that. Subheading 2! Underline! We are not an academic press either and can be forgiving of a lack of subheadings. 😉 )

No, the Torah portion starts with something rather unexpected: “If you go out to war against your enemies”.

How does that relate to the commandments?

Well, there are commandments about going to war too, but there is also a deeper meaning, as Rabbi Gold explains. This is about how commandments can be a struggle. Not just doing them (though I’d say, that too…), but also understanding and receiving the values and qualities they are meant to convey.

I am reminded of the classic Chasidic song…

“Essen esst zich, trinkn trinkt zich, vos zol men ton az es davent zich nisht”

Which means, eating and drinking work by themselves, but what can one do if the davening doesn’t go by itself?! Here is Avraham Fried singing it – probably a relatable sentiment.

As Rabbi Gold says:

“Ki Tetze begins by acknowledging the struggle. It’s much easier to be a decent human being when you are at peace… but there is a battle to be waged and that battle will try our decency, challenge our integrity and put every good intention to the test.”

What can be a struggle? Rabbi Gold notes that one possible clue comes from the title of this book of the Torah. Deuteronomy is called in Hebrew “Devarim”. Which also means THINGS (among other things).

(Are we covered in things already? I am covered in books…)

“One voice inside keeps saying that if only I would be more organized then the battle with clutter could be won.

Another voice whispers that perhaps the problem is deeper and the solution more radical.”


(We suggest the Marie Kondo method, it’s not only good for messes, but it also helped me resign from a job!)

Rabbi Gold also has a bunch of suggestions, some are related to the holidays… E.g., on Passover, instead of buying the extremely processed readymade kosher-for-passover food items, cooking and eating simpler foods. (We had to do this because of the pandemic and we survived!)

Another suggestion that you can try RIGHT NOW …welll, ok, *checks time* in a few hours… is about Shabbat.

She suggests that even if you don’t observe Shabbat traditionally, you try turning off the computer/TV for one day.

My friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who works so passionately for social justice throughout the rest of his week, turns off his computer before Shabbat and says,

“The world will just have to save itself for the next 25 hours!”

(He still managed to write several books this way, we have a small pile of them!)

And we also have a small pile of Rabbi Shefa Gold’s books – hmm, maybe it’s time for a bundle? (This also brings up one of Rabbi Jill Hammer’s books, because it was blurbed by Shefa Gold 🙂 )

But while we’re at Shabbat, let us enhance your Shabbat experience and your upcoming High Holiday experience at the same time with an excerpt from Wilhelmina Gottschalk’s The Sabbath Bee, from our imprint the Jewish Poetry Project! This book has prose poems, microstories and thoughts about Shabbat – often personifying it or presenting it by analogy to something else…. Like in this chapter: beads.

Beads
(Rosh Hashanah)

Shabbat clinks into place with the lacquered clarity of a bead sliding onto a necklace string. At this stage, the new Shabbat is clear and unmarked — a perfect pearl.

It takes its place along the length with nearly a year’s worth of Shabbats, each one engraved with the faces of all the people I saw that day. The workmanship is flawless.

Soon this bead too will grow heavy with the gilt edges of delicate designs, dozens of tiny faces etched upon its surface.

The necklace weighs down like a yoke upon my shoulders, almost choking me.

Is it heavier than usual, or do I simply notice the weight because I know that the jeweler will be coming soon, to examine each individual bead and determine the value of my year?

If you liked the excerpt, you can get the whole book:

The Sabbath Bee

It also has genderbent Shabbat Queen!! You need genderbent Shabbat Queen in your life.

The last tidbit I picked from Rabbi Jill Hammer’s The Jewish Book of Days – it is for today (12 Elul) and it relates to the theme of struggle and to the theme of the commandments.

She quotes from the Midrash Tanhuma:

“There were two sittings of Israel where they would meditate on Torah night and day. Twice a year, in Adar and Elul, all Israel would gather and engage in the battle of Torah until the word of the creator was established.” (Noah 3)

What kind of battle was this?! Rabbi Hammer explains. This was the classic Talmudic way of studying:

“Their method was to study in pairs, with each person bringing prooftexts and arguments to one another.”

She also notes:

“Both Elul and Adar are before harvest festivals (Passover and Sukkot). The tradition of Torah study during these months reminds us to gather in the fruit of the Torah as well as the fruit of the earth.”

What does this teach us?

“[T]wo study partners must listen carefully to one another’s positions while holding to their own points of view,” and this “trains us in how to have respectful conflict with one another.”

And if you liked this, we do have a Rabbi Jill Hammer bundle!

The Jill Hammer Collection

(Now that you’ve gotten rid of the things that do not spark joy, you can bring in things that do 😉 )

And at the end, back to the birds!

I just wanted to highlight some of the lesser-known commandments from this portion, and ask you for your favorites.

1. (My paraphrase) If you take a bird’s eggs, chase away the bird first.

Here I must say that I had to change the cover image for the portion, because my first choice had a license that explicitly ruled out its use in a context of chasing away birds. Therefore I can’t show it to you either.

2. If your husband is fighting with another man, don’t grab the genitals of the other man.

I remember being rather scandalized to realize that this was explicitly stated in the Bible, but I was young and innocent.

3. Fence in your roof, because if someone falls from it, that’s going to be terrible.

(Interestingly, the Talmud discusses people falling from roofs & things falling from roofs, so I guess not everyone put up a parapet, regardless…)

Thank you for following along! Now it is your chance to share some commandments you found interesting, either from this weekly portion or from any other! Chabad brings you the complete list, as per the Rambam.

Some other favorites that are timely:

* Not to destroy fruit trees even during the siege
* Not to insult or harm a sincere convert with words
* Not to move a boundary marker to steal someone’s property

Now it’s your turn!

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A poem for Elul! Teshuvah by Rachel Barenblat

To help along your repentance and self-reflection, we share this Elul poem from Rachel Barenblat’s Open My Lips: Prayers and Poems. This is one of two Rachel Barenblat collections we published in our Jewish Poetry Project imprint; the other one is Texts to the Holy.

Open My Lips cover art, featuring a painting of a hand wrapped in t'filin pointing at a place in the Torah text.

Teshuvah
by Rachel Barenblat

God and I collaborate
on revising the poem of myself.

I decide what needs polishing,
what to preserve and what to lose;

God reads my draft with pursed lips.
If I really mean it, God

sings a new song, one strong
as stone and serene as silk.

I want this year’s poem
to be joyful. I want this year’s poem

to be measured like flour,
to burn like sweet dry maple.

I want every reader
to come away more certain

that transformation is possible.
I’d like holiness

to fill my words
and my empty spaces.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

who will be a haiku and who
a sonnet, who needs meter

and who free verse, who an epic
and who a single syllable.

If I only get one sound
may it be yes, may I be One.

*

Thank you for reading! If you appreciated this poem, we offer free shipping on the book within the US. We also have more information to entice you:

This volume of contemporary liturgical poetry is both a poetry collection and an aid to devotional prayer. Open My Lips dips into the deep well of Jewish tradition and brings forth renewed and renewing adaptations of, and riffs on, classical Jewish liturgy. Here are poems for weekday and Shabbat, festival seasons (including the Days of Awe and Passover), and psalms of grief and praise. Open My Lips offers a clear, readable, heartfelt point of access into the Jewish tradition and into prayer in general.

Those who wish to begin a prayer practice in English but don’t know where to start will find this volume offers several starting points. These poems could be used to augment an existing prayer practice, Jewish or otherwise ­— either on a solitary basis or for congregational use. For the reader of poetry unfamiliar with liturgical text, they can serve as an introduction to prayer in general, and Jewish prayer in particular. And for the pray-er unfamiliar with contemporary poetry, these poems can open the door in the other direction.

We offer another way of preparing for the High Holiday season as well – have you checked out our calendars for the upcoming Jewish year? We have cats and also plants, for the cat and/or plant lover in your life. Start your new year with us!