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.)
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…
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………
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…).