I will have to confront a bias right at the start. In any reading, this portion of the Torah raises several issues which are difficult for us to confront. “Confront”, as in “confrontation”, for there is not an element in this narrative that is not problematic at a very visceral level.
The uproar over San Francisco’s proposed ban on circumcision has largely died down after a judge struck the measure from the city’s ballot, but the national conversation is far from over. Indeed, just this week, the American Medical Association voted to adopt a policy officially opposing any future attempts by cities or states to outlaw circumcision.
The concerns of the book of Bereishit now seems to shift. Perhaps having given up on the expediency of world shaking totalizing cataclysmic events as a way to improve or even impress humanity, the narrative becomes more local, away from grandiose spectacles, more concerned with the daily life of individuals . . .
The imagery of the boat full of animals, the dove with the olive branch, and the rainbow, are simply irresistible. The only problem with these festive bedspread patterns, however, is that, at the core, it represents a horrible story.
The problem with the opening passages of the Torah in a sense is the problem of being. As Rashi points out from the outset with the teaching of R. Yitzchak, the narration of the creation is meant to teach us not basic lessons in science and cosmology, but rather something about our being in the world (the fact that all through my early Jewish Day School years all the Rabbis seemed to be concerned with was attacking “evolution” is, I believe, a phenomenon of the internalization of certain Protestant agendas, but that’s a subject for some other discussion). At any rate, as this question of “being” is so fundamental an aspect of contemporary discourse, it is worth addressing, right at the Beginning, as it were.
The period of time in the Hebrew calendar reaching from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur is thought of generally as one unit, in English commonly referred to as the High Holidays, whereas Sukkot, the festival which follows four days after Yom Kippur, is generally thought of as a festive holiday, one of the three biblical Temple festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), entirely distinct from the Days of Awe which happen to precede it. The mystics, however, view the period from Rosh Hashana until the end of Sukkot as one long arc . . .
In the shiur regarding Rosh Hashana, we saw how the shofar connected us to a moment unlimited by, or outside of, time. This radicalization of the perception of time bears an even more immediate relationship to the concept of Yom Kippur and its central component, Teshuva, or repentance, as the word teshuva is roughly translated.
The liturgical and ritual richness of the High Holiday season has produced a number of vibrant symbols which seem to maintain their ability to reverberate in consciousness repeatedly through the ages. After all, the theme of the period is the interplay of creation and judgment, reflection and repentance, concepts at the core of human existence; after all, it is traditional to look at Rosh Hashana as the day which determines life or death, as it were, for the coming year.
After the long speech by Moshe, a summation of the exodus and the wanderings through the desert, which constitutes the Mishne Torah, the fifth book of the Torah, Moshe decides to wrap things up with two things, a lengthy poem, which makes up the bulk of Perashat Ha’azinu and a set of blessings to the tribes which brings the book of Devarim to an end.
Central to, or lurking behind, if you will, any discussion appropriate to Rosh Hashana is the problem of time. For while we all talk of Rosh Hashana as a celebration of the “New Year”, the texts, biblical and talmudic, are rather ambiguous as to what the actual date of creation is. One thing is certain– Rosh Hashana is not meant to be the date of the creation of the world per se.
Perashat Ki Tavo, read this week, is noteworthy for containing a lengthy restatement of a blessing and curse sequence. Not the cheeriest or most readable of passages by any means, rather a long recitation of all the nastiness that will overtake the people should they fail to hearken to Gd’s word. I suspect the custom of reading these sections fast and sotto voce was not one that needed to be forcibly impressed upon the community; one wants to be done with these passages.
Most of this week’s perasha deals with the authority structures of the society meant to be established in the new land. First we are presented with the commandment to appoint judges and magistrates at all the gates, then in cases of doubt, we are told to turn to the priests. Following this comes the appointing of a king, and finally the role of the prophet is elucidated.
This week’s perasha begins with a resounding cry (Devarim 11:26): “See! I am presenting before you all today, a blessing and a curse! A blessing such that you shall keep my commandments…and a curse should you not hearken unto my commands and veer from the way set before you today…” The commentators note several interesting points as they dissect virtually every word in this passage; we will note several.