the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce…(Devarim 11:13-17)

So the rain was a sign that God found them worthy. And every year the Israelites would spend the summer in the hot sun, harvesting that which that year’s rains had made grow, and steadily consuming the water they stored. By the end of Elul, as the harvest was coming to an end, their thoughts would turn toward the year ahead. It is with this state of mind that they greeted the month of Tishrei – the month to do all they could to be worthy of the rain.

And like all other human beings, they were aware of the different states and capacities of water. When it is deep, it can cover things. When it flows, it can carry things away. Things dissolve in it, and then it can evaporate, leaving those things behind.

And it is perhaps for all of these reason that water imagery features so prominently in the holidays of Tishrei, with each successive holiday from Rosh HaShanah through Shemini Atzeret taking us through the natural water cycle – from the salt-water of the sea through the pure rain from Heaven.

From Elul through Rosh HaShanah, we identify and gather our sins. And then we perform tashlich, casting them away from us into a body of water that will carry them to the sea, acting out the verse from Micah 7:19, “You will…hurl our sins into the depths of the sea.” But even after our sins have been cast away, their filth is still upon us; the fabric of our lives is still stained by our misdeeds. So on Yom Kippur we reference the power of water to dissolve impurities. In Mishna Yoma 8:9, Rabbi Akiva says about Yom Kippur:

Happy are you, Israel! Before whom are you purified, and who purifies you [of your transgressions]? Your Father Who is in heaven. For it is said, "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean.” (Ezekiel 36:25)

But the water that cleans and purifies us does not stay polluted. Just as we on Yom Kippur transcend ourselves and become spiritual beings who would never (again) sin (thus rendering even our intentional sins as if they were unintentional), so to the water rises. By evaporating, it also leaves behind its accumulated impurities and returns to Heaven.

What happens next should be obvious…but since that connects to Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, we’ll leave that for the next Torah Sparks!

In the meantime, I hope you have a Shabbat shalom!


Parashat Ha’azinu
September 22, 2018 | 13 Tishrei 5779

Annual | Deuteronomy 32:1-52 (Etz Hayim p. 1185-1195; Hertz p. 896-903)

Triennial | Deuteronomy 32:1-52 (Etz Hayim p. 1185-1195; Hertz p. 896-903)
Haftarah | 2 Samuel 22:1-51 (Etz Hayim p. 1234-1238; Hertz p. 891-895)

D’var Torah: Words Like Rain

Rabbi Andy Shapiro Katz, Conservative Yeshiva Director of N.A. Engagement

After commanding the Heavens and Earth “HA’AZINU” – to LISTEN to his words – Moshe makes a request that is quite fitting for this time of year. He says: “May my discourse come down as the rain, my speech distill as the dew, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass…” (Devarim 32:2). God spoke from Sinai with fire, but Moses wants his words to be like water.

Why water? Maybe Moses wants his words to be welcomed joyously and absorbed fully. Maybe he wants his words to wash away impurity and bring forth life. For such is the power of water – rain in particular – and nobody knew this as well as the Israelites. After years of wandering in the desert, hunger satisfied only with manna and thirst quenched only by miraculous wells, the Israelites were literally dying to enter a land overflowing with natural abundance made possible by the gift of rain.

But rain was really to be more of a reward than a gift, a blessing contingent on their behavior. This they had been told earlier, in the part of Deuteronomy read twice every day as the second paragraph of the Shema:

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the LORD your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season…and thus you shall eat your fill. [But] take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the LORD’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up


D’var Haftarah: Models of Justice

Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

This week’s haftarah, known as the Song of David, is an ode to a lifetime of battle and of David’s ultimate triumphs. It is also a paean of thanksgiving to God for God’s help in overcoming his enemies and his other life obstacles. In the middle of this poem, David touches upon the issue of how God metes out justice in the world: “(26) With the loyal You act loyally, with the blameless warrior You are without blame. (27) With the pure You show Your pureness, with the perverse You twist and turn. (28) A lowly people You save, You cast your eyes down on the haughty.” (26-28)

Two major ideas run through these verses. In verses 26-27, God acts in accordance with the deeds and actions of his subjects. The reward and punishment of God’s subject will match their actions. In rabbinic parlance, this idea is known as “midah k’neged midah – measure for measure”. Verse 28 suggests an additional model. God also serves as an advocate for the weak and as an adversary to those who in their haughtiness oppress them. (A. Hacham, Tehillim, Daat Mikra, pp. 87-88)

Targum Yonatan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, illustrates the first type of justice using as an example the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who through their loyalty, blamelessness, and purity were answered by God in kind. This model suggests that God expects human beings to take responsibility for their actions and are answerable for them for both good and bad.

Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (France 13-14th century) offers an insightful explanation of the idea expressed in verse 28: “God saves the lowly, even though they are the masses of people who are normally ignored, and sets His eyes on the haughty to bring them down low for sinning against you (the masses), even though they may be kings.” According to this explanation, God does not take kindly to the repression of the weak, especially at the hands of those in power. Justice requires that those who abuse their power “haughtily” be put in their place and brought down.

It is significant to note that these expectations are expressed by the king, the one most often charged with abuse of power. For David, social order is an expectation. His vision includes just behavior and the hope that people act fairly and be treated fairly. God is expected to enforce these standards and God’s subjects to live by them. These ideas are as relevant today as they were in ancient times.



Parashat Ha’azinu Self-Study

Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Most of our parashah is a poem that functions as a testimony, telling the relationship of the People of Israel with God. The Hebrew in this poem is often archaic, making it difficult to understand.

1) The poem of Haazinu is supposed to remind the people of their relationship with God especially when they fail in that relationship. Why do you think that this text is put together in form of a poem?

2) Moshe asks the Heavens and Earth to listen (and bear witness) to his words (32:1). Why are these good witnesses for warning about the relationship with God?

3) The people are warned of the day when they will have plenty (32:13-15) and will ‘grow fat and push away’ – who will they push away, and what is the potential danger of material excess? Do you think that there are forms of excess that carry similar dangers?

4) God will punish the people of Israel for their behavior, but will not let the enemy wipe them out (32:27-30). It is not because of Israel’s merit that God will not let the enemy succeed fully, so what might be the reason?

5) At the closing of the parashah, after Moshe is done speaking to the people, God tells him to go up the mountain and see the land that the people of Israel will receive, and die there (32:48-52). Why, and for whom, do you think that it was important that Moshe will see the land?





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