The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary shows teens in their own language how Torah addresses the issues in their world. The conversational tone is inviting and dignified, concise and substantial, direct and informative. Each pamphlet includes a general introduction, two model divrei Torah on the weekly Torah portion, and one model davar Torah on the weekly Haftarah portion. Jewish learning—for young people and adults—will never be the same. The complete set of weekly portions is available in Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin’s book The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary (JPS, 2017).
About the Author
Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin serves as the senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida. He is the author of Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, winner of the Benjamin Franklin Award for the best religion book published in the United States, and The Gods Are Broken: The Hidden Legacy of Abraham (JPS, 2013).
Read an Excerpt
'Ekev: Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25
This portion continues Moses's final orations to the People of Israel. It emphasizes that if the Israelites observe God's laws, God will favor them and bless them, and cause them to be fertile. Repeating an earlier theme in the Torah, Moses reminds the Israelites that they should prevail over idolatrous nations of Canaan, and destroy the places where the Canaanites worship their gods.
Moses recounts the Israelites' long trek through the wilderness, and the times they had been tested by various adversities. In preparation for the people's eventual entry into the Land of Israel, Moses warns them not to be arrogant, believing that their own strength will win them the prosperity that they will one day enjoy; rather, it will be God who will bless the people and make it possible for them to conquer and possess the land.
As a reward for observing God's laws and commandments, the Israelites will be blessed — through the gifts of fertility, health, and prosperity. (7:12–15)
Moses reminds the people that they will conquer the Land of Israel, get rid of the people who live there, and destroy their false gods. (7:16–26)
Moses goes to great lengths to describe the natural beauty of the Land of Israel. He offers the Israelites a vision of a prosperous future in the land, and tells them to always remember that God is the source of their strength. (8:1–20)
Moses recalls his experience of having waited on Horeb (another term for Mount Sinai) for the tablets of the commandments, and how the Israelites profoundly disappointed both God and him by building the Golden Calf. Moses remembers how he destroyed the tablets and the Golden Calf. He reminds the Israelites how he interceded for them and for Aaron, who had acquiesced to their demand for a visible god. (9:8–21)
Moses reminds the Israelites that Canaan (Israel), which they are about to enter, is very different from Egypt. For one thing, Egypt required watering through irrigation in order for it to be fertile, but the Land of Israel gets its water from the rains of heaven. (11:10–17)
The Big Ideas
The Torah imagines that the observance of mitzvot comes with tangible rewards. Nowadays, we are likely to believe that the "rewards" for doing the mitzvot include: being a loving person; strengthening the Jewish people; and feeling good about living disciplined, ethical lives. But the Torah goes one better: God's gift for doing the mitzvot will be material prosperity, symbolized by being fertile and having an abundance of crops.
While loving the Torah is an essential part of Judaism, there are certain passages in the Torah that are not "likeable." Many of the more warlike passages in the Torah are in Deuteronomy, and there are some in this parashah. From a historical point of view, most scholars believe that all the "destroy those people and their idols!" stuff is merely, well, made up. Many archeologists think that the ancient Canaanites had already destroyed their cities in their own internal wars, and that the Israelites had little, if anything, to do with it. These passages give the author an opportunity to be especially fierce about idolatry — and idolatry, as we know, is among the worst things a Jew can do.
Gratitude is a fundamental Jewish value. This value makes its first appearance in this Torah portion. It is too easy to become vain and self-important, and think that you have gotten to where you are all by yourself. American culture celebrates "self-made people," who seemingly do it all by themselves. But Judaism rejects that idea. The Jewish tradition does not see individuals as being separate from their communities, and it recognizes that, ultimately, God is behind and beyond all our achievements.
Memory sometimes plays weird tricks on us. In the account of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32, there is no mention of Moses interceding with God to spare Aaron; indeed, it doesn't even say that Aaron had been in any danger of being punished by God. But here in Deuteronomy he talks about how he begged God to spare Aaron. Did that really happen, and Moses suddenly remembered it at this moment? Or is Moses, knowing that he is at the end of his life, making up that little detail, wishing that he had really done so? This is not the only time that Deuteronomy adds details to previously told stories and laws; think of the repetition of the Ten Commandments in last week's portion. History is often a book that constantly reveals new pages.
The difference between Egypt and Canaan is not only geographic, and not only about the nature of their agricultural requirements. It's theological as well. Egypt is watered through irrigation; Israel is watered by rain. But the rain will only come if the people observe the mitzvot. The difference between the two lands is that God is intricately involved with the Land of Israel, and our conduct matters.
Why This Land?
There is an old one-line joke that goes like this: the Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness, and they managed to settle in the only place in the Middle East that doesn't have oil! (Actually, there are natural gas preserves in the Mediterranean, which might make the need for oil irrelevant — but you get the point.)
Israel is a great land, but it doesn't have everything. Jews love the Land of Israel, but they would be the first to admit that their love is a little biased. Jerusalem is a beautiful city, but, to be honest, there are many beautiful cities in the world. Tel Aviv is a cool place, but it's not Paris. The beaches of Israel are great, but compared to, say, the beaches of Brazil — not so much.
Natural resources? The land is "a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper" (8:9). Yes, but no oil. Great food resources? Sure — "wheat and barley, vines, figs, pomegranates ... olive trees and honey" (8:8) — great, if you're a vegetarian. But there were many famines in the Land of Israel, all of which Abraham, Jacob, and Ruth experienced.
So, what's special about the Land of Israel? Precipitation. In Egypt, there was always enough water. It came from the Nile, and Egyptians watered their crops through the irrigation systems they built. People had to do it.
What kind of religious attitude does the Egyptian style of agriculture produce? A modern rabbi, Rabbi Eliahu Ha-Cohen of Casablanca, teaches: "The Egyptians rely on their own labor to water their lands, and therefore it appears to them that they are at the center of all that is done. In the Land of Israel, by contrast, there is a constant relationship between worshipping the Lord and performing the commandments, on one hand, and having rain to make the crops grow, on the other."
In the Land of Israel it's different. You have to pray for rain. As a prayer states: "Remember Abraham, his heart poured out to You like water. You blessed him, as a tree planted near water. You saved him when he went through fire and water. For Abraham's sake, do not withhold water." And it's not as if rain is "always" there; it only rains between Simchat Torah and Pesach (roughly, between October and April). And if you don't observe the mitzvot, God will withhold the rain.
Without God's love, Israel would have no rain, and nothing would grow.
The real spiritual difference between ancient Egypt and the Land of Israel is that in Egypt, people took charge of watering the land, and that meant they might think they were the most important thing. Bottom line: God "looks after" the land (11:12) — just like God looks after the Jewish people.
Living in arid, rain-dependent Israel teaches dependency on God. Sometimes we may be thirsty and hungry ... but faith makes us stronger.
No Need to Stuff Yourself
There used to be a strange custom in summer camps: food-eating contests. Two contestants would sit in front of piles of food (hamburgers, or ice cream, or pie). The buzzer would go off, and whoever could eat the most food in a given period of time would win.
It's gross. We should respect food and not waste it, especially when we consider how many people around the world don't have enough to eat.
Jews sanctify the act of eating by saying brachot — blessings. The best-known blessing is the one we say before the meal — ha-Motzi. And then there is the long blessing after the meal — Birkat ha-Mazon. Now comes the question: How much do you have to have eaten before you say a blessing after the meal? A little? A lot? Do you have to walk away from the table stuffed?
Here is what the Torah says: "When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you" (8:10). In fact, this verse is the entire reason why Birkat ha-Mazon became a custom. So, you should say a blessing when you have eaten and are totally satisfied — totally full. Right?
That was certainly the Torah's vision. After all, Deuteronomy imagines the Israelites living in the Land of Israel and everyone having enough to eat. But, the early sages, writing after the Romans had exiled the Jews from the land, had a different answer. They said that you should thank God for your food — even if you have eaten as little as an olive or an egg! Huh? An olive or an egg? How could that possibly fill you up? The sages even imagined God approving of this change. God boasts about the Jewish people: I wrote for them in the Torah: "When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord" — and they give thanks if the quantity is only as much as an olive or an egg!
Why would God take such pride in the Jewish people for choosing to say a blessing over such a meager meal?
Because it takes courage to say a blessing, even when you're still hungry, or even when you are in difficult circumstances. In the words of the contemporary teacher Rabbi David Hartman: "The ancient Rabbis taught the community to experience God's love in the life of mitzvah even when the community was struggling to survive under foreign domination."
That was what it was like for the Jews after the Romans destroyed Judean independence (when many of the sages we quote actually lived). They had been crushed, but their spirits were still alive. Many lived in poverty, and may not have had enough to eat. Yet they still had the power of gratitude, even for the small things in life.
And if they could live with that kind of spirit, can we do any less?
Do you believe that people should observe the mitzvot because they want a reward? What are the best reasons for observing the mitzvot?
Are there things that happened in your childhood that you now remember differently from the way they really happened? What are some examples?
What are you most grateful for?
Why do you think there should be a blessing after the meal as well as before?CHAPTER 2
'Ekev: Isaiah 49:14–51:3
A people, long abandoned, living in exile — that is the Jews living in Babylon. They are feeling dejected and depressed. The decades of oppression have taken a toll. Has God totally forgotten them?
No. The prophet known as Second Isaiah tells them that their time of exile is coming to an end, and that they will be able to return home to the Land of Israel. God is still in their midst.
For those of us who are accustomed to imagining God as a male, father, king, the language of this haftarah will come as a surprise. Instead of Avinu Malkheinu (our Father, our King), we have the image of God as Mother, and, more precisely, a mother who will never abandon her children. There is no shortage of Jewish ways to think about God. God as "Mother" is a compelling metaphor; then and now.
In Order to Have a Future, You Must Look to the Past
Perhaps you are on a sports team, and you've been losing a lot. Perhaps you've not been working up to your potential in school. Perhaps your Hebrew preparation is not what it should be. And so you get a pep talk. It could be from a coach, or a teacher, or your parents, or your rabbi, cantor, or religious school teachers. What do they say to you? "C'mon — you can do it. You've got to do it! You're better than this! Get your act together!"
But, there is something else they might say. They might say: "You have done this well in the past. You can do it again." The Jews in Babylon need that kind of pep talk. They have been separated from their native land for a long time. Many of them are choosing Babylonian names for their children and assimilating into the ways of the Babylonians.
What do the Jews need to hear? For one thing, a vision of a shining future, which the prophet gives them: "As for your ruins and desolate places and your land laid waste — you shall soon be crowded with settlers, while destroyers stay far from you" (49:19). The Jews will return to their land, and they will rebuild it.
Ironically, the prophet's promise was fulfilled again in the twentieth century, when Jews returned to Israel after two thousand years! Jews turned the Land of Israel into a prosperous and powerful state. Yes, true to the words of Isaiah, even crowding began to happen, and new housing developments have sprung up all over Israel. Regarding those "destroyers" staying far away, that has not proven completely true. While Israel has thankfully not faced a major war with its neighbors, terrorism is still a grim reality.
But let's not forget how true the prophetic promise is. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson has written: "Israel's existence is a miracle: After wandering in exile for almost twenty centuries, the Jewish people have returned to their homeland where they govern a Jewish democracy, speak the ancient language of the Torah and the Mishnah, and conduct their daily routine in the neighborhoods of Isaiah, King David, and Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi. It is easy to take this collective resurrection for granted. Even after visiting Israel many times, I still forget how astonishing the establishment of Israel really is."
Jews rebuilt Israel by never forgetting the dream that once was. But before you can get to that glorious future, you have to remember your glorious past. That's what will give you the inspiration to continue. As Isaiah reminds the people: "Look back to Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth. For he was only one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many" (51:1–2).
Why are Abraham and Sarah role models? The great medieval commentator Rashi says: "Because Abraham was alone when he came forth from his homeland and from his father's house." The prophet knew what he was talking about. After all, where had Abraham been born? In Ur, the land of Babylon! The very place where the Jews were sent into exile. If Abraham and Sarah could leave Ur, which means leaving Babylon, and go to the Land of Israel, so could the Jews of the generation of the exile. They looked to Abraham, and they found courage.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The JPS B'nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary 'Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25) Haftarah (Isaiah 49:14–51:3)"
Copyright © 2018 Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
General Introduction 'Ekev: Torah Commentary 'Ekev: Haftarah Commentary