Monday, September 10, 2012

Lessons from the parsha

If you're like me, you probably sighed at that title. "Lessons from the Parsha?" Isn't the lesson almost always something like "daven harder" or "believe more in God? Well, yes. In fact, we had a Rebbe in yeshiva who mocked the typical dvar torah as always concluding with  "So we learn from this to be a good person." He was teasing about how High School students make Torah presentations, but we have found that most, if not many, grown-up vorts are constructed in the same way.

So how about a real lesson, for a change? Here are two good ones, both derived from the same phrase in Kee Savo.

The words are ולא נתתי ממנו למת. Translated literally, this means "I have not given from [the tithe] to the dead.

Here is the first lesson
Ancient Jews were not like haredim, hasidim or modern Orthodox Jews in their practices or beliefs. 
The words ולא נתתי ממנו למת are almost definitely a reference to kipsu, an ancient Cannanite practice in which people regularly delivered food and water to their dead relatives. The food, apparently, was conducted to the corpses via a tube, and archaeologists have found examples of such tubes at Bet Shean. This strongly suggests kipsu was a Jewish ritual. Additional evidence is found in our verse, which seems to reference kipsu without prejudice, as part of the liturgy the Torah establishes for offering tithes.  

Here is the second lesson
Historical context is important
At some point, the kipsu ritual was abandoned and forgotten, creating something of a puzzle for interpreters: Why were pilgrims told to recite those words? Giving food to the dead? What could it possibly mean? The solution was to read the words creatively. Instead of taking ולא נתתי ממנו למת as "I have not given any of [the food] to the dead" both the Mishna and the Sifrei (followed by Rashi) interpret the words as "I have not given any [of the sale proceeds] of the food to a dead person [to use for coffins or shrouds.]"

And because Rashi read it this way, this has become the Official Torah True Interpretation, though it is based not in the Truth, but in Something We Forgot.

Better, right?

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