D’var Torah: The World is Imperfect: Get Real! (Student Rabbi Nicola Feuchtwang)
Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 9 August 2021
Suppose two of us claim to be witnesses to an accident, and we both give statements to the police, but our accounts are very different. You – and the police – might reasonably wonder whether we were both really there. On the other hand, suppose our stories are identical, word for word. You might then suspect us of having colluded and made it up.
How similar or different must two versions of a story be, before we can reasonably conclude that they are – or cannot be – describing the same thing?
The rabbis of the Talmud, and later commentators, were always uncomfortable about any apparent inconsistencies in Torah, whether it was two similar but non-identical accounts of the same incident, or different ways of spelling the same name. They would discuss at length how to square the circle, how to explain away the discrepancies, convince each other that there was no real inconsistency. Some of their suggestions can sound far-fetched to us, but it could be an extremely creative and productive exercise.
The most familiar example of this is probably the text of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, which has several significant differences from the version in Exodus. Most memorably, it starts the Shabbat commandment with the word ‘Shamor’ (Observe) rather than ‘Zachor’ (Remember). It was of course too preposterous to consider that Moses may have remembered incorrectly, or that it may have been a scribal error… and thus arose the amazing notion that the Divine utterance at Sinai must have actually incorporated both meanings … Hence the line in Lecha Dodi ‘Shamor veZachor beDibbur Echad’ (‘Observe and Remember in a single utterance’).
There is an inconsistency in our reading this morning which is not so easy to explain.
The matter in hand is a review of the rules governing the Sabbatical seventh year, and the requirement that creditors must at that time remit all debts to their impoverished fellow Israelites. It then goes on to the even more dire situation where because of extreme poverty a person has been sold, or sold themselves, into debt slavery – but must be set free in the seventh year.
Verse 4 says: There shall be no needy among you….
Verse 7: If however there is a needy person among you….
Verse 11: There will never cease to be needy ones in your land….
These verses are not in different books, or even different chapters; they are almost adjacent in the text, yet at first reading they sound mutually incompatible.
As we might expect, the traditional commentaries lean on the principles of cause and effect, reward and punishment. For example, Ibn Ezra wrote:
if all Israel or most of them would heed God’s voice, then there would be no pauper among you who needs you to lend to him…
And the Bechor Shor (C12 France) explains away the discrepancy but saying that ‘there is no such thing as a rule without exceptions’…
Or as Rabbi Hertz summarised in the Soncino edition of the Chumash: ‘this (verse 4) expresses an ideal which would only be realised if the condition of obedience in verse 5 were fulfilled…There is no contradiction…’
So what is going on here? On the one hand Deuteronomy is configured as Moses spelling out the vision for the just society which is to be established in the Promised Land, and then almost in the same breath saying, ‘but you have always rebelled, things hardly ever go according to plan, I know you are not going to keep the rules….
…… So here is ‘Plan B’ !
I would like to suggest that this is even more remarkable than just an idealistic but impossible set of rules. Isn’t it rather amazing that Torah itself recognises that its rules will not be kept, and makes provision for life in the real world! Torah assumes, takes almost for granted, that the world and people in it are not perfect, and that there will always need to be compromise, and adaptation to real circumstances.
Let’s look at a few more key phrases in our Torah reading.
Verse 8: (about loans): open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs
Verse 10: (loans): give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so…
Verses 13-14: (about freeing a slave): do not let him go empty-handed…. Furnish him generously from your flock, threshing floor and vat…
Do not just lend, but give… Do not just do it because you have to, but ‘open your hand’, be generous of spirit. Ideally there should be no needy people, but that isn’t going to happen, so get used to it, and adapt without begrudging it.
Later in the service, we will be announcing Rosh Chodesh Ellul, which begins tomorrow – jolting us into the realisation that it is only one month until Rosh Hashanah. It is an uncertain time for all of us, and we still don’t know exactly how our High Holydays will look – except that it won’t be exactly how we would like it to be, and that we will need to adapt and compromise, possibly even in the last minute.
Cantor Tamara spoke last night about the name Ellul and how it has given rise to a lore of its own, based mainly either on the idea that Ellul ( אלול ) can be read as an acronym for Ani LeDodi veDodi Li, and represents a metaphor for the love between God and Israel; or on the value of its letters in Gematriya word-play.
I would like to suggest that Ellul has the same ‘value’ spelt backwards…as לולא Lulei.
The word Lulei in Hebrew is a negative conditional: ‘If only…’ or ‘Were it not for…’ (אילו לא ). The word features towards the end of Psalm 27 which we read daily during the month of Ellul: ‘If I had not trusted…’ Modern Hebrew dictionaries offer an additional usage which I think is apt here: במקרה שלא.. ‘In the event that it doesn’t happen….’
As we enter Ellul, our Torah portion tells us to plan for an ideal society, while recognising that in reality there will always be imperfection and failure. We have to create a ‘Lulei’ society in which we can live with that. Our responsibility is to do the best we can, and to do it with an ‘open hand’ and generosity of spirit.
 Deuteronomy 5: 6-18
 See Forms of Prayer 2008 p121
Hertz, J H, ed. (1937) 1988. The Pentateuch and Haftorahs. 2nd ed. London: Soncino Press. p812
 Psalm 27: 13