This parshah begins with a long description of all of the wonders God did for the Israelites to get them out of Egypt and protect them in the desert. The point is that now that the desert generation is gone, and the people can expect relative success in the Promised Land, the lessons of Egypt should be remembered. This strikes me as a parable for Jews in North America. North American Jewry began mainly with working-class immigrants from Eastern Europe who were fleeing pogroms, and a lack of economic opportunity. Of course there remain divisions in class amongst North American Jews, but as a whole our population has ascended in wealth dramatically. We should, however, remember the lessons of those that struggled to make it in North America. We should remember that class struggle still exists, and should be committed to alleviating poverty. We should also acknowledge the hard work it took for Jews to change their status, and be grateful that many of us live much easier lives because of that work. We should teach labour history to our kids in our schools, and acknowledge the continuing struggles of labour and class for Jews and all peoples today. This parshah recommends that remembrance be not just a mental, but also a physical act. The commandments and oaths should be marked on the hand, the head, and the doorpost. From this we get the rituals of tefillin and the mezuzah. Most Humanistic Jews do not practice putting on tefillin, because the words contained inside the box are prayers. But it is something to consider that the physical ritual act does create symbolic remembrance. What of our past do we wish to remember, and how can we make that remembering physical? One example is the ritual act of lighting Yahrzeit candles on the anniversary of a death. Another is taking a walk to perform taschlich (the symbolic casting away of sins) on Rosh Hashanah. The physical rituals of the Passover seder, such as dipping greens into salt water, is another physical example of remembrance.
Some Humanistic Jews like the idea of a mezuzah as a marker of Jewish identity and a Jewish home, but we do not use the traditional scroll containing the shema. We can use a Humanistic shema instead (see last week’s parshah commentary for more on this), or we can find any text – a poem, a piece of scripture we like, a blessing or saying – and put that inside the mezuzah instead. Finding physical ways to enact our identities keeps us grounded in our Judaism as well as providing a link with the broader Jewish community.
Part of our physical necessities involves eating, of course. In this parshah we have the idea that eating can also be a way of remembering and ethical behaviour. There are several parts of this parshah that mention eating. One is that Moses says that God fed the cattle first in Egypt and then the humans. There is a lesson here about care for animals and for others. We should not satisfy our own needs before ensuring that those we care for are also satisfied. The Torah tells us to eat, be satisfied, and be grateful. In this parshah we have the origins for the “Birkat Hamazon” or blessings after meals. These blessings traditionally are theistic, but it can be a wonderful Humanistic practice to say blessings or some kind of acknowledgement of gratitude before and after meals. On Shabbat many of us bless the wine and the bread (there are Humanistic adaptations of the traditional prayers that thank those who bring forth the bread from the earth and the sun and rains that produce the fruit of the vine, for example), and at some meals it is a good practice to reflect on the good fortune and satisfaction we experience.
This parshah also is where we get the phrase that “man” (people) does not live by/on bread alone. The text means that God provides bread but also spiritual sustenance. The idea is very applicable Humanistically as well. It is useful to consider what we are hungry for in our lives – what is missing that could provide us with sustenance? Some commentaries read the “on bread alone” line as being about prayer. Some see it as making sure our intentions are good, as well as our actions. Some read it as stressing the value of education – we need learning as much as we need food. All of these are possible readings for us. What is true, for sure, is that a fullness does not come from satisfying only our physical needs, our mental, emotional, and “spiritual” (if this is a term one finds meaningful) needs must be met as well.
In this parshah, Moses tells the people that they are “stiff-necked.” He recalls how he descended the mountain to deliver the commandments, written on tablets by God himself, only to find the golden calf. He admonishes the people, telling them that “As long as I have known you, you have been defiant toward the Lord (9.24). In parashat Ki Tissa, which tells the golden calf story, the term “stiff-necked” is also used. In the commentary on that parshah I wrote that being stiff-necked could be viewed as a positive Jewish trait. Our stubbornness has led to a tenacity that has kept us going and kept us strong. We have never bowed down easily to Gods or rulers, and this is a good thing in terms of how we choose to define our own lives. Humanistic Jews see our own roots in this biblical admission. our people have always questioned the idea of God and the place of a God in our lives. Deuteronomy places such emphasis on ensuring that other religious/cultural rites and traditions are not followed, and that God should become central in the lives of the people, precisely because there were so many people who were living their spiritual lives in contravention of these rules. The Torah is showing us that there has always been pluralism when it comes to belief and practice of our people.
The final thing I wish to discuss in this parasha is the repetition, once again, of the commandment to love the stranger. Rabbi Eliezer counts 36 times that the Torah gives this commandment (twice chai, or life). The love thy neighbour/the stranger commandment also often comes with a note of remembrance: we know we must be good to others because we too were strangers in the land of Egypt. The JPS commentators suggest that in this iteration of the commandment it is clear that the “stranger” is not simply the convert or the Israelite neighbour, but in fact extends to other nations/ethnicities. Judaism has not always done a great job of practicing the idea of being good to others across ethnic lines, but it is a point of pride that many of our soup kitchens, philanthropic agencies, or community projects do seek to benefit Jews and non-Jews alike. Again, there are modern parallels to the idea that we have learned to love our neighbours because we have lived amongst neighbours that are inhospitable to us. We have been minorities, we have been immigrants, we have struggled. Thus we should be mindful to be welcoming and good to minorities, immigrants, and those who struggle. This is what the tradition teaches.