In this week’s portion Ki Tavo, we have a series of things to do after entering the land of Israel. After writing the Torah on a stone tablet, there is a set of curses for those who do wrong, and a set of blessings for the nation, and another set of curses for the nation. We start with the commandment of the first fruits.
Yet something else has been chewing at me lately.
Last week I talked about my being sub standard. In comments I received last week, most didn’t happen to see that in that piece. Yet a few things this week reflect why I find that true. One was last week’s Torah study. As is common, the person leading the D’var Torah was more interested in giving an opinion than actually engaging the text, her agenda was pushing her personal agenda on others. I though about myself and realized that I too have an agenda, but a far different one. We have not just the Torah as the text of our tradition. As such we should not just engage with Torah and skip the Prophets, writings, Talmud,Midrash or even later Hasidic folklore.
Among many congregants there is of course an accessibility issue. Many of these texts are in Hebrew, and translations rare. Even when a translation is handy,Rabbininc thinking is not understandable to most people. This week for example, we find the following verse in the Torah:
1. And it shall come to pass, if you shall give heed diligently to the voice of the Lord your God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command you this day, that the Lord your God will set you on high above all nations of the earth;[Deuteronomy 28:1]
Devarim Rabbah VII:1, the major commentary for this verse starts in a rather oblique place, making one wonder what this has to do with the verse:
1. Halachah: Is it permissible for one who acts as Reader to say ‘ Amen ‘ after [the benediction of] the priests? Our Sages have taught thus: One who acts as Reader should not answer ‘ Amen ‘ after [the benediction of] the priests for fear of becoming confused; and our Rabbis have taught us: If, however, he is able to answer ‘Amen’ without becoming confused, he should answer. For there is nothing greater before God than the ‘Amen’ which Israel answers.
Apparently if one is reciting the prayer publicly, they are not to say Amen because they might lose their place in the prayers. Prior to the printing press there were no siddurim . Prayers were memorized and thus the prayer leader could lose their place. Yet if they could keep their place, then they are to say Amen. What does saying Amen have to do with diligently fulfilling the commandments? Here it is not clear. Yet the discussion continues with another Rabbi describing what Amen is supposed to do:
R. Judah b. Sima said: Amen contains three kinds of solemn declarations, oath, consent, and confirmation
He then goes on to give an example of each use in the biblical text.
Whence oath? For it is said, Then the priest shall cause the woman to swear… and the woman shall say: Amen, Amen (Num. V, 21 f).6 Whence consent? For it is said, And all the people shall say: Amen (Deut. XXVII, 26).7 Whence confirmation? For it is said, And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada answered the king, and said: Amen; so say the Lord (I Kings I, 36).
Another thing the Rabbis had memorized was the Biblical text. So very often they will recite only part of the verse. For those of us who have not memorized such texts, looking up the context of the passage may be helpful. For example the consent Amen is from this week’s portion,
26. Cursed be he who does not maintain all the words of this Torah to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen.[Deut 27]
On the other hand the Torah requires a few lines to make sense out of the example of an oath. Here, we have the bitter waters rite of a suspected adulteress, who takes an oath
21. Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say to the woman, The Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh fall away, and your belly swell; 22. And this water that causes the curse shall go into your bowels, to make your belly swell, and your thigh to fall away; And the woman shall say, Amen, amen.
The oath here is answered by the accused woman with an Amen. Of course the woman says Amen, Amen, and we are left to wonder if one is for a curse and one for an oath, as both are mentioned in the passage. The third case is an even longer passage, with the captain of King David’s guard confirming to David that he and his companions will make sure Solomon will be made king after David.
We thus have learned that Juda b. Sima belives that amen contained three attributes of commitment which make God like it so much. And yet, none of this says anything about our verse. TheMidrash then makes another interpretation of why Amen is so loved by God.
Another comment: R. Judan said: Whosoever answers ‘Amen’ in this world will be privileged to answer ‘Amen’ in the time to come.
This is a interesting and profound Statement to say the least. Saying Amen means you will be able to say it in the afterlife. Of course implicit in this means you will have somewhere that you could say Amen in the afterlife. Where is that in the the time to come? And what proof is there that such a statement is true? Another alternate interpretation refines this
Another comment: R. Joshua b. Levi said: Whosoever enters synagogues and houses of study in this world will be privileged to enter synagogues and houses of study in the time to come. Whence this? For it is said, Happy are they that dwell in Thy house, they will for ever praise Thee.Selah (Ps. LXXXIV, 5).
When one prays, one says Amen. One prays in a synagogue or in a house of study, so this must be where we say Amen. Synagogues and Houses of study according to R. Joshua b. Levi are God’s house, so Psalm 84:5’s statement that praise will be forever for those who dwell in God’s house includes the afterlife, since it couldn’t otherwise be forever. But another version of the same comment goes one step farther. In synagogues and houses of study, we learn Torah, So R.Judan, who made the original comment about saying Amen in this world and the word to come, takes it one step farther:
Another comment: R. Judan said: Whosoever listens to the voice of the Torah in this world will be privileged to listen to the voice of which it is written, The voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, etc. (Jer. XVI, 9). Moses said to Israel: ‘ Since whosoever listens to the words of the Torah is so exalted in both worlds, be diligent to listen to the words of the Torah.’ Where [can this be inferred]? From what is written in the context, AND IT SHALL COME TO PASS,IF THOU SHALT HEARKEN DILIGENTLY1 UNTO THE VOICE OF THE LORD THY GOD (XXVIII, 1).[Midrash Rabbah – Deuteronomy VII:1]
R. Judan takes a verse from Jeremiah, and attributes “the voice” to the voice of God,
9. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will cause to cease from this place before your eyes, and in your days, the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride.
In this world the voice of God is written in the Torah. In the word to come we will learn from God directly. Here he teaches that Moses understood this and that is why Moses said the verse themidrash is supposed to be commenting on. R. Judan bases this conclusion due to a grammatical trick on the phrase Hearken diligently which in Hebrew is Shamoah tishmah. Both words have a root of Shema, listen. Shamoah is actually a infintive which in Hebrew intensifies the verb Tishmah to mean diligently hear instead of just hear. But without vocalization, Shamoah can be rendered as Shomei-ah, a .present tense verb, and tishmah is already a future tense. So R. Judan believes the verse hints that if we hear God’s voice in the present we will hear God’s joyous voice, like the voices at a wedding, in the future time to come.
Hopefully you followed this logic. It is not the stuff we usually use in the western world. It’s basis is different by believing a book has a lot of questions begging to be asked instead of questions begging to be answered. As I’ve said before while Christianity and Judaism are known as the people of the book by Muslims, in reality Jews are the people of the question. The word for interpretation isn’t the verb for an answer but Darash, the word for a question. Midrash is named not for the answer but the question, which is why this is Shlomo’s Drash. It’s my questions that are important. The frame work in the Midrash was not to give you answers but to ask a lot of questions, and pull at you to ask other questions. The editors of Midrash Rabbah could have started with the verse and worked backwards to Amen, but instead stated an obscure rule about saying Amen and worked their way though questions to the verse just to get you, to ask questions. The midrash did not use quantative data to back up its conclutions but a toolbox of litereary constructs which require digging throughout the biblical text, not just Torah. This is not the way most of us think, and thus it’s hard for someone to take such a text and work with it, even in English translation.
Yet If you shall diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God points to our need to do so. The voice of God is in the text, even in a text written by Moses as tradition believes, or later scribes as some scholars believe. It’s in the prophets and writings that make up the wholeTanaich , even if written by someone else besides God. If we dig we find things, treasures we did not know before that God hid there for us. Like the sea what we see at the surface is next to nothing, when we dive blow it do we see the rich beauty of the coral reef. So too is Torah, not he five books of Moses but all of the literature of our ancestors who made those deep dive to see the special, beautiful treasures hidden below. All too often it saddens me to see how few today make that journey. My agenda is simple: like an underwater photographer, I want to show that beauty underneath.
I hope you will join me. Amen.