Torah from around the world #132

By Rabbi Mark H. Levin, DHL, Congregation Beth Torah, Overland Park, Kansas

Atem Nitzavim

is read twice in the annual Torah reading cycle in Reform congregations:  in its proper place in the order of weekly portions and again, in part, on Yom Kippur morning. The parashah opens with the famous spiritual/historical promise that all Israel stood at Sinai receiving revelation, both the generation of the exodus and every future soul. It continues by assuring that the


(commandments) are no longer in God’s hands, but are the property of the Jewish people. A famous


, referred to as the Oven of Achnai, concludes that after Sinai God no longer controls the meaning and content of Jewish law. Instead they thrive within the decision making of the Jewish people.

The foundational text for Chabad Hasidism, the Likutei Amarim (Tanya) of Schneur Zalman of Liadi opens with and is an exposition of the meaning of verses from our portion, “Surely, this Instruction (Torah) which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach…”  (Deuteronomy 30:11ff, Jewish Publication Society trans. p. 322-3) Schneur Zalman’s mystical instruction for the common person describes the necessary inner, psychological state of the average person who seeks to serve God in the joy of holiness.  It describes the choices Jews should make not only in our actions but in our thoughts in order to serve God.

The parashah describes a fundamental choice facing every human being: whether we will make life into a blessing or a curse. The portion admonishes:  “… I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life – if you and your offspring would live…” (Dt. 30:19)  The obvious superficial (


) meaning being that choosing to live according to the


(commandments) and thereby fulfill God’s will for us enables us to live fulfilling lives.

Curiously, the Talmudic interpretation of “to choose life” circum specifies a father’s obligation to teach his son (and in modern Judaism we would say his daughter as well) a productive trade that s/he might be able to earn a living. The Jerusalem Talmud teaches (Kiddushin chapter 1 halakhah 7, gemarah) “Commandments that a father is obligated to do for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him, to teach him Torah and to teach him a craft, to take a wife for him. And Rabbi Akiva says, ‘To teach him to swim on the water’ … ‘and therefore choose life,’ this is a craft.”

A parallel text in the Babylonian Talmud is even more explicit:  “The father is bound in respect of his son, to circumcise, redeem, teach him Torah, take a wife for him and teach him a craft. Some say, to teach him to swim, too.  Rabbi Judah said: He who does not teach his son a craft, teaches him brigandage; Brigandage’! can you really think so! – But it is as though he taught him brigandage.” (Kiddushin 29a, trans. Soncino p. 137-8)

Rashi, commenting on “…it is as though he taught him brigandage,” teaches us, “Because when he has no trade and he lacks bread he will reach a crossroad and rob others.”

In Victor Hugo’s famous Les Miserables, made even more famous and popularized by the Broadway musical, Jean Valjean steals bread to feed his family and is imprisoned for acting upon the innate desire to preserve his child’s life. Difficult moral problems involve the choice between two or more bad options. Shall I save my child’s life by stealing, or shall I neglect my child? Many reasonable people will choose to save their child and steal. It may even be argued that stealing in such circumstances saves a life, a higher mitzvah than avoiding theft. According to Rashi’s comment, and the opinions of other sages, teaching a trade to our children saves a life, avoids the complexity of making such an agonizing decision, and therefore is a fundamental parental responsibility.

In Leviticus 19:18 we find the admonition, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Traditionally, the mitzvah applied to Jews regarding Jews.  But in our modern world, where all humans, created in God’s image, are morally equal, are we obligated to protect others as we would protect Jews? (Genesis 5:1-2) And if we have the responsibility of teaching our own children a trade, do we then possess the social responsibility to make the same opportunity available to all children?  In other words: in our complex world, is it a mitzvah to ensure that all children have access to learning to make a living so that none is trapped into deciding between theft and starvation? Clearly we possess an obligation to train our own children. Does that obligation extend to creating opportunities for others to obtain equivalent training? We have admitted to the moral choice that will result if we do not.  Can we then blame those children who have not been afforded training for productive work if some of them descend into the abyss of crime?  Our own Talmud admits to just such a danger!

At the very least, our tradition places squarely before us the question of access to the basic training to live without resorting to crime. Each of us must answer the question for ourselves, and provide accordingly.  As Rabbi Tarphon taught, “It is not incumbent upon us to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it altogether.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)

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