We are nearing the end of 5778, the Israelites’ journey, and our annual Torah reading. Nitzavim has only 40 verses. Its key points: 1) Everyone is entering into the covenant – men, women, children. 2) Obeying the Law is each individual’s responsibility. Thus, everyone must learn the Law, and they are capable of doing this (according to Moses, anyway). 3) However, obeying the Law is still their choice. 4) Individual or national straying from the Law will lead to disaster, including dispersion. But genuine repentance can lead to both spiritual return and physical return from exile.
The haftarah is the seventh and last Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 61:10-63:9. Its tone is ecstatic at the prospect of redemption, which is symbolized as a wedding between the Lord and Israel.
At the end of Nitzavim, the Israelites are presented with a choice (30:19-20):
“19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live — 20 by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.”
But how to choose is not as simple as Moses puts it. Studying is not easy. Even though the Law is supposed to be available to all equally, it was not long before access narrowed. Boys and men who lived in densely populated areas always had the best chance of obtaining a knowledgeable teacher. Scholarship was highly valued through the centuries, and study was encouraged (at least for all males).
As fewer understood Hebrew, translations were needed. For example, by the third century B.C.E., the first language of the Jews of Alexandria was Greek, whence the need for the translation into Greek now known as the Septuagint. Accessibility was also a motivation for Christian scholars who wanted to compare the Greek and Hebrew Biblical texts. Origen of Alexandria, in the 3rd century C.E., even arranged 6 columns of texts in his Hexapla: Original Hebrew, transliteration in Greek letters, the Septuagint, then three Greek translations by Christian scholars
At this time, the primary motivation was still accessibility to ordinary Christians. There was even a version of some of the texts in the Goths’ language, using an alphabet invented by Ulfilas around 360. Latin translation was needed in the western Roman empire as Christianity spread, culminating in Jerome’s Vulgate, completed in 405. However, over the centuries, as Romance languages developed, fewer ordinary people understand the Vulgate, and it because the province of the learned (mainly priests). Thus, the church held a monopoly on Biblical truth, and knowledge of that truth was a source of power. Translation into the vernacular was generally discouraged and eventually became a sign of heresy (or reform – same thing).
The 16th c. was a time of transition. Martin Luther’s complete German translation was published in 1534; but William Tyndale was burned in 1536 because of his English translation, which became the basis for Coverdale’s Great Bible in 1539 and later, the King James Bible. Eventually, especially to support missionary efforts, the Bible was translated into hundreds of languages, coming full circle to the push, even need, for accessibility promulgated in Deuteronomy.
But access to knowledge is useless if you don’t take advantage of it. Thoughtful choice is critical in a democracy. That choice needs to be made with knowledge and understanding of the possible ramifications of your choice. The ancient Israelites needed to understand how to follow the Law. We need to understand what and whom we are voting for. [It’s primary day in Delaware, and, yes, I voted.] We need to educate ourselves to a degree commensurate with our responsibility and avoid knee-jerk categorizations. For example, a candidate who is a businessman is often touted as being able to run the government “like a business.” But, while accountability and efficiency are good traits in both business and government, government is not a business. Our government is (supposed to be) the servant of the people. And being a CEO, especially of a private company where the CEO is an autocrat, will not necessarily equip you to get things done in a government of checks and balances. Not legally, anyway.,
Yes, I know Rosh Hashanah starts Sunday night. You’ll get another missive in time.
Quotes about Life and Death
Serenity is the balance between good and bad, life and death, horrors and pleasures. Life is, as it were, defined by death. If there wasn’t death of things, then there wouldn’t be any life to celebrate. Norman Davies
Some people think football (soccer) is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that. Bill Shankly
Life and death. They are somehow sweetly and beautifully mixed, but I don’t know how. Gloria Swanson
The very essence of literature is the war between emotion and intellect, between life and death. When literature becomes too intellectual – when it begins to ignore the passions, the emotions – it becomes sterile, silly, and actually without substance. Isaac Bashevis Singer
The department head is a wise, friendly old man, and one day, during an interview in his office he was asked, “Sir, What is the secret of your success?”
He said, “Two words.”
“And, Sir, what are they?”
“But how do you make right decisions?”
“One word.” He responded.
“And, sir, What is that?”
“And how do you get Experience?”
“And, Sir, what are they?”
Impossible final exams (selections)
Instructions: Read each question carefully. Answer all questions.
Time limit: 2 hours. Begin immediately.
Art: Given one eight-count box of crayons and three sheets of notebook paper, recreate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Skin tones should be true to life.
Biology: Create life. Estimate the differences in subsequent human culture if this form of life had developed 500 million years earlier, with special attention to its probable effect on the English Parliamentary System circa 1750. Prove your thesis.
Civil Engineering: This is a practical test of your design and building skills. With the boxes of toothpicks and glue present, build a platform that will support your weight when you and your platform are suspended over a vat of nitric acid.
Computer Science: Write a fifth-generation computer language. Using this language, write a computer program to finish the rest of this exam for you.
Electrical Engineering: You will be placed in a nuclear reactor and given a partial copy of the electrical layout. The electrical system has been tampered with. You have seventeen minutes to find the problem and correct it before the reactor melts down.
Epistemology: Take a position for or against truth. Prove the validity of your stand.
General Knowledge: Describe in detail. Be objective and specific.
Medicine: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze, and a bottle of scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until you work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes.
Philosophy: Sketch the development of human thought. Estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.
Political Science: There is a red telephone on the desk beside you. Start World War III. Report at length on its socio-political effects if any.
Religion: Perform a miracle. Creativity will be judged.
Extra Credit: Define the universe and give three examples.