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  • A Curious Absence in the Biblical Text

    '[God] found them in a desert region, In an empty howling waste. [God] engirded them, watched over them, Guarded them as the pupil of God's eye. Like an eagle who rouses its nestlings, Gliding down to its young...' (Deut. 32:10-11). Our Torah passage is taken from the ‘Song of Moses.’ We pick up the story in the Book of Deuteronomy, just prior to Moses’ death and to the Israelites’ long-awaited entry into the promised land after forty years in the wilderness. Moses is remembering the divine kindnesses bestowed by God on the Israelites in the story of their tumultuous, developing relationship. Jewish interpreters noticed something missing in this text. Jewish sages and scholars who have studied this passage over the centuries notice a curious ‘absence’ in the text. Asks Abravanel, [1] 'What was the reason that Moses did not mention here the departure from Egypt which was the first kindness...prior to their entering the wilderness? How could he say that God found them in the wilderness when God really had found them in Egypt?' Why is the exodus event absent? Anticipating such a question, Rashi [2] sees the wilderness emphasis as showing forth Israel’s faithfulness to God. He associates this passage with the words found in the prophetic utterance of Jeremiah where the Lord remembers with pleasure Israel’s fidelity: ‘The devotion of your youth, Your love as a bride— How you followed me in the wilderness’ (Jeremiah 2:2). Says Rashi, it was in the desert that the Israelites 'accepted upon themselves God’s Torah and kingship...They were drawn by faith...' But does this approach really answer Abravanel’s question? After all, Israel exhibited a great deal of rebellion in the wilderness and our Torah portion reproves Israel for its waywardness. Can we suggest another reason why Moses begins his Song not with the Exodus from Egypt but with the wilderness experience? An alternative view from Nehama Leibowitz [3] reminds us to think about the audience Moses is addressing. They are not the generation that left Egypt but rather the next generation that was raised in the desert. Perhaps, then, Moses is speaking to the experience closest to the hearts of his listeners. Then again, continues Leibowitz, a stronger explanation can be found by pondering the real purpose of the Exodus... It was not simply to remove the people from the slavery of Egypt but to lead them somewhere positively extraordinary: to be a nation who is given the Torah, God’s 'teaching,' thus entering into covenant with God... and this sublime vocational calling takes place in the wilderness, at Sinai. In this light, the image of the eagle (which also appears just before the giving of the Torah on Sinai) is certainly apt. 'You have I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to Me' (Exodus 19:4). 'Like an eagle who rouses its nestlings...' (Deuteronomy 32:11). The image of a parent eagle teaching its young to fly illustrates the action of God who prepares Israel to receive the gift of Torah and thus to grow into a life of covenant, of living as a holy nation, as God’s own treasured people. Reflecting on this image, how might it speak to us about the way God continues to call and teach each person? In what ways does the above discussion contribute to our appreciation of the wilderness/desert as an image and theme encountered in Scripture? What further insights emerged from your Torah reading? 1. Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) 2. Rashi: Rabbi Shelomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105) 3. Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) Bibliography: Goldstein, ed., The Women’s Torah Commentary (Vermont, 2000); Herczeg et al, The Torah: with Rashi’s Commentary (New York: Mesorah, 2001); Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (New York, 1996). Scripture: trans. JPS, D. Stein, in W.G. Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: URJ, 2006). © Teresa Pirola, 2013. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-52), which is the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical calendar. Shabbat shalom!

  • "Return to Me"

    This Sabbath in the Jewish calendar is called Shabbat Shuvah, "Sabbath of Return". It falls between Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Yom Kippur is the most solemn day in the Jewish liturgical year – a day of fasting and prayer, a day of personal and communal atonement for sins. These "in-between" days leading up to Yom Kippur are known as “Days of Awe”. They are imbued with themes of teshuvah, the return to God, the renewal of one’s life – life lived with God, and within community. In Jewish tradition the voices of the sages abound with keen biblical insights into the practice of teshuvah, the return to a merciful God. They often speak through the simplicity and power of story (midrash). You may like to ponder this story from Jewish wisdom, during these Days of Awe: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God” (Hosea 14:1/2). A king’s son was a distance of a hundred days’ journey from his father. Said his friends to him, “Return to your father.” He said to them, “I cannot.” His father sent word to him, saying, “Go as far as you are able, and I shall come the rest of the way to you.” Thus, the Holy One said to Israel: “Return to Me, and I will return to you (Malachi 3:7).” [1] 1. From Pesikta Rabbati, a medieval book of midrash (Jewish storytelling traditions), quoted in Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days, edited by S.Y. Agnon (New York: Schocken Books, 1965, 1975), 139. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The Torah portion read in Jewish communities on this Sabbath is Parashat Vayelech, Deuteronomy 31:1-30.

  • From Age to Age, A Living Tradition

    Moses and the Israelites are encamped on the plains of Moab, poised to enter the promised land. There Moses gives a final speech, restating the obligations of the covenant between God and Israel. As he speaks, we hear this arresting statement: “I am making this covenant, sworn by an oath, not only with you who stand here with us today before the LORD our God, but also with those who are not here with us today.” Deuteronomy 29:14-15 (NRSV) Who are those “who are not here with us this day”? It can’t mean absentees on the day since just a few verses earlier we were told that all Israelites from all groups are assembled. According to the great medieval Jewish scholar known as Rashi, the souls of all future generations of Jews were present at this covenantal moment, just as they were at Mount Sinai. This concept is of profound importance to Jewish understanding of what it means to be God’s people, bearers of the divine promises and the covenant from generation to generation. The fact that this verse uses the word “stand” when referring to those “here” and then omits it when speaking of those “not here” can perhaps be taken as a distinction between those bodily present and those spiritually present. [1] But how can a covenant made long ago obligate generations to come? Surely this is not possible! Abravanel, a 15th century Spanish-Jewish Torah commentator, tells of an argument he had with other sages over this very question. Before we hear how Abravanel replied, what reflections do you bring to the discussion? [Ideally, pause to discuss this with a friend, or havruta partner.] Perhaps you made the observation that what occurs in the present does indeed impact on future generations. Every family, for instance, is shaped by the actions and choices of their ancestors, for good or for ill. Abravanel compares Israel to a family debt. “Just as the children inherit their father’s property, so they inherit his debts. Even though the children were not alive when the debt was incurred they are still liable to repay it. Similarly, God conferred a privilege on Israel and they were indebted to God for it.” [2] What was that privilege that makes future generations “indebted” to God and bound to the covenant? Abravanel names first and foremost the Exodus miracle. Remember the verse that introduces the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). The serious obligation brought to bear upon the Jewish people derives from the wonder of being called into a relationship with God who liberates and calls them into a life of freedom as God’s people. Our Torah passage invites reflection on what God has done and continues to do for the Jewish people as they live in covenant with God. When we do this, we will surely be led also to new insights and questions about what God has done and continues to do for us Christians in calling us into covenantal relationship through Jesus Christ. For Jews, the all-embracing nature of their covenant with God has been experienced through history as both a joyful privilege and a heavy burden. Says Abravanel, writing at the time of the Inquisition and various forms of persecution: “Many of our people have forsaken the religion of their forefathers as a result of persecution and wished to be like the nations of the world... Though they and their descendants would do all in their power to assimilate they would not succeed. They would still be called Jews against their own will and would be accused of Judaizing in secret and be burnt at the stake for it.” [3] These are sobering words for Christians to hear, in light of Church history. This week's Torah portion draw us to ponder the privilege and burden of being not only a believer, but part of a people of faith. It leads us to view our present experience in light of the past and the future, knowing that our faithful God is with us always. May this exercise in interfaith listening enrich and deepen our spiritual lives, lived in community, with all its joys and struggles. 1. Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah, vol. 5 (New York, 1995), 319. 2. Quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (New York, 1996), 299. 3. Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim, 302. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20), which is the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical calendar. Shabbat shalom! Parashat Nitzavim is read on the Sabbath that comes before Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year). Rosh Hashana commences in 2021 on the evening of 6 September. Here's wishing our Jewish friends a good and sweet year! L’shana tova u’metuka!

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