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Dvar Torah prepared by Mike Garmise for Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh Elul 5776, 2nd September 2016
You are the leader of your people, your end is not even a matter of time, you have been ranting and raving about past sins and what not to do in terms of following God’s commandments, and suddenly you realize: you haven’t told them what they should actually DO once they’re in the country. God is important, but the day to day is no less necessary. And that’s what we see in today’s parsha. Moshe is getting down to brass tacks. How you should run your lives.
He begins with a choice: the right way and be blessed or the wrong way and be cursed. As I noted last week, it’s not: “If you don’t do this you will be struck by lightning.” It’s more: “If you act this way your lives will be better.” The rest of the parsha explains how to choose the blessing.
The first step, which is a logical continuation of the traumatic events of the past, is to clear the land of its negative influences. I know you, Moshe says. If there’s any chance of you being led astray, you’ll find it. So get rid of the biggest danger – idolatry.
Now for the good news. After 40 years of meager fare, you’ll want meat. I know I said you could only eat it in a certain place, but now I’m changing the rules. You can eat meat anywhere. But not blood. Drain it.
You’ll need a leader – after Joshua, of course, he should live and be well till 120. Be careful. Not every person who can perform acts of divination and demonstrate supreme supernatural powers is right for you. Not everyone who can bend a spoon is a true prophet. The minute that person starts talking about following other gods – you’ve got to wash that man right out of your lives – and his. That is Temptation. Fight it.
And by the way, watch your food intake. Here are the forbidden foods. Why are they forbidden? Because they are. Did I say for health reasons? No, but if it makes you happy, ok. After all, non-Jews can eat those other animals and it won’t kill them. Oh, so, kosher is just a way of keeping us apart from the others? Right! Or not.
And if we’re talking about food, here’s another reminder. We have shmitta – every seventh year the land lies fallow. You can’t gather and sell your crops. (This entry to the new land is sounding less and less inviting, don’t you think?) Why? So that you know whom the land belongs to: God. And while we’re at it, let’s add another stipulation. During the seventh year we also cancel monetary debts.
Wait a minute. What’s money got to do with this? Rabbi Ari Kahn puts the pieces together beautifully. What happens when a farmer can’t work his land? Even if he had a good sixth year, he loses money, he goes into debt. So he borrows. That is one sure way to lose your land because you can’t pay back, and you can’t pay back because of the mitzvah of shmitta. So, let’s change the rules. Let’s cancel his debts.
That’s very kind of the Torah but it opens another can of worms. Who’s going to lend money if he knows he won’t get it back? So the Torah tells us not to be tightfisted in this year. But those are only words. Centuries later Hillel came up with a solution, the pruzbul, a legal loophole in which a person signs over his debt to the courts to collect – and therefore the debt is not cancellable.
This legal loophole business came to mind while I was reading a newspaper article by Nehemia Strassler about how haredi Knesset members have no problem allowing Jewish waiters to work (and serve them) on Shabbat. They explained: the waiters get paid for the hour they worked just before Shabbat…. There’s always a way around the law, and I don’t say this in a negative sense (except when these same gentlemen cry gevalt when work is done on a major highway, on Shabbat, to prevent unnecessary traffic jams and losses to the economy).
Back to the parsha. We have the land, but we also have the poor, and we had better treat them well. And those unfortunate Hebrews who have to sell themselves into servitude also deserve our consideration (we have to be very understanding and not too demanding). Because all wealth is temporary, all power is transient, and we are all servants to only one master, of the universe. And those who treat the weak well will be blessed – not only from above but also on earth –by those who were helped.
And finally, we close with happiness – the pilgrimage holidays and the happiness that we are supposed to experience (the word “happiness” or “joy” appears several times).
In a nutshell, Moshe has begun to give the people a blueprint for their future behavior in the country. In this parsha and in coming weeks he is envisaging them in the country in which he will not set foot, and behind every piece of advice and instruction he gives we can almost feel his sorrow, that he will not be there to ensure the people’s adherence and to enjoy the fruits of his 40 years of labor.
We, on the other hand, are indeed fortunate to be in this country, to enjoy its fruits, whether agricultural, technical or intellectual, and if we could only learn to do what is right for the majority of the people rather than what is right for political survival, we could have an even greater and more wonderful country.
But as we say every year, just wait till next year!