The Torah as lived in Hope Valley

The way the Torah says some things about God, especially in His name, tends to turn off many people from accepting it as the legitimate transmission of His word. For those who do believe in the Torah, it gives them the feeling that they somehow are not worthy of God’s blessings.

Both are wrong, but only because they misunderstand “Torahspeak.” They read the words and take them at face value; what the words say must be precisely what they mean, even though we never were supposed to look at Torah that way. Says Rabbi Yosei, God “never descended to Earth, nor did Moses or Elijah ever ascend to heaven,” even though it is so stated in the Tanach. (See BT Sukkah 5a). The words have meaning, but often we need to look beyond the words to what that meaning actually is.

Thus, for example, in the second paragraph of the liturgical Shema, it says that if we obey God’s mitzvot [commandments], He “will grant the rain for your land in season…and [He] will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle —and thus you shall eat your fill.” (See Deuteronomy 11:13-15.)

On its face, what is being said is this: There are two farms, side by side, one owned by a mitzvah-observant farmer, the other by someone who has turned his back on the mitzvot. When the rains come, they will fall on the observant farmer’s land, but no rain will fall next door.

That is what the words say, but it is not what the words mean.

Most often, when the Torah says “you,” it means the corporate you — meaning the entire nation, not an individual. If no rain falls on one farm, it will not fall on the other one, either, no matter who owns that other farm. What matters, though, is how the nation, or the community, beset by drought reacts to the crisis. If it obeys the mitzvot — in this case, those mitzvot that require us to all care for each other and help each other, especially in bad times —then the effects of the drought will be minimized. No one will go hungry if everyone does all that is needed to be done for the benefit of the entire community.

In “Torahspeak” terms, when God is quoted as saying He will do something, what it means is that He expects us to do that something on His behalf. We are God’s agents and “a person’s agent is as the person himself,” says the Talmud. (See, for example, Kiddushin 41b, B’rachot 34b, Nazir 12b, and elsewhere.)

Two examples suffice to demonstrate that this applies even when it is God who appoints an agent.

The first is Deuteronomy 15:4-5, which tells us, “There shall be no needy among you…, if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all the mitzvot that I enjoin upon you this day.” A few verses later, however, we are told that “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land,” which would be a glaring contradiction except for the context. Here is the complete statement:

“Give to him [who is in need] readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” (See Deuteronomy 15:10-11.)

In other words, there is no contradiction. God will see to it that there are no needy in the land by making us His agents to take care of that for him.

In the second example, the Torah uses a bit of wordplay to make its point. Deuteronomy 8:10 says, “When you eat and are satisfied, you are to bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.” Based on this verse, we derive the mitzvah of reciting the Grace After Meals. That, however, is only one takeaway from this verse. The other is found by its connection to Deuteronomy 14:29. The preceding verses command us to provide food to those who otherwise might go hungry. If we do so, then they “shall come and eat and be satisfied, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake.”

Eat, satisfied, bless — the three verbs given in the same order connect the two verses. More important, it connects the Grace After Meals (Birkat Hamazon) to the mitzvah of feeding those in need. The first paragraph of Birkat Hamazon begins with these words: “We praise You, Adonai our God, King of the universe, who graciously sustains the whole world with kindness and compassion. You provide food for every creature, as Your love endures forever.” That paragraph ends with these words: “You sustain all life and You are good to all, providing Your creatures with food and sustenance. We praise You, Adonai sustains all life.”

Yet we know that is not the way things are. According to statistics released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, almost 11 percent of the world’s population went hungry in 2016, the last year for which statistics are available. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that one in every six Americans go hungry in our own country. Thus, based on the eat-satisfied-bless connection, if we recite the Grace After Meals, but we, as God’s agents, have done nothing during a given week to help feed the hungry — even if it is just donating one, three or five dollars at the supermarket checkout counter — we are perjuring ourselves and committing a chilul ha-Shem. We are disgracing God.

What applies to feeding the hungry applies to everything else. Droughts will happen, but we can work to prevent their devastating effects. Violent storms will happen, but we know how they work, can predict when they will come, and can do what is needed to protect against them. There is no catastrophe that cannot be mitigated at least in part by people coming together to help each other. When deaths occur, we cannot reverse them, but we can be there to help the bereaved in any way we can.

There is a television series on the Hallmark Channel, “When Calls the Heart,” which most readers probably never heard of, and even if they did, they would choose to avoid. I came across it by accident and almost dismissed it. I am glad I did not.

The series is set in a small late 19th-early 20th century Canadian community called Hope Valley. At least several times each season, Hope Valley is faced with some kind of disaster, either one that has occurred or an impending one, either a natural disaster or a man-made one. The people, however, band together to deal with it because they care for each other and for their community. The community, by the way, originally was called Coal Valley. Its name was changed following a coal mine disaster and events that continued to flow from it, and how the community came together to turn things around.

The series is set in a Christian community but it is not Christological. (There were not many Jews settling in those areas back then.) Rather, it epitomizes the Torah’s message. If we obey God’s law, meaning if we give people the love and respect the Torah demands, if we observe those mitzvot that require us to all care for each other and help each other, especially in times of need, then God — through us, His agents — will see to it that things are set right.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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