May 28: 8:01 p.m.
May 29: 8:02 p.m.
All beginning students of Torah face this obstacle: in their original, the primary texts of our Jewish tradition have no punctuation. In recent years, publishers have included vowels and punctuation marks in the new editions of almost all basic Jewish texts.
However, before these innovations and throughout our history, there have been numerous disagreements as to how the unpunctuated texts should be read. Let me provide one example of such a text from the Torah portion which we will read on the first day of the upcoming festival of Shavuot, in Exodus/Shemot 19:5-6. Unpunctuated, and translated literally, it reads as follows: “And now if you will listen in My voice and keep My covenant and you will be for Me a treasure among all the nations for Mine is all the land and you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people…”
Many commentators struggle with the above verses. Permit me to introduce you to one of them. His name was Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, and he lived in the latter half of the 19th century. He was the dean, or rosh yeshiva, in the Lithuanian town of Volozhin. Known as the Netziv, he gave daily lectures on each week’s Torah portion, which formed the basis of his five-volume commentary, Haamek Davar.
The Netziv uses certain basic themes to resolve a wide variety of textual problems. One of these themes is the distinction between passages directed to an exclusive audience, versus those that are addressed to all the Jewish people, and occasionally all mankind. In this column, I will confine myself to the message for the broader group.
Here is the Netziv’s suggested punctuation, with his interjected interpretive remarks, as addressed to the group he calls the “hamon am” (the “masses”) or, as I prefer, the “entire team,” all who stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. “And now if you listen well in My voice, and keep My covenant, then, and only then, will you be My treasure, among all nations, for people of all lands are Mine. You are qualified to serve as My kingdom of priests/servants, you are qualified to be a holy people…
The Netziv proceeds to elaborate upon the message: “From this moment forward, you must ‘listen to My voice.’ That is, you must ponder Torah and attempt to understand it precisely. ‘Listen in,’ rather than merely ‘listen to.’ This is a precondition for My divine support of your national interests, your political agenda, matters of war and peace.
“Then, you must ‘keep My covenant,’ the covenant I made with Abraham regarding sacrificial worship, the avodah, in the Holy Temple. This is a precondition for My divine sustenance, providing you with a fertile land, with abundant food and nourishment.
“But note,” continues the Netziv, “that reference is only made to Torah and avodah, to Torah study and ritual observance! What about gemilut chesed? What about interpersonal relationships, charity, kindness, generosity, tolerance, compassion? I, the Almighty, expect those behaviors of all human beings, not just of you! Remember Sodom, totally destroyed because it neglected the poor and needy…
“Beyond those two essentials, Torah and avodah, without which there is no nation of Israel, you may elevate yourself yet higher by becoming exemplary in your relationships with others, by acting nobly in your dealings with others. But, when it comes to human relationships, much depends upon the special circumstances of time and place. In those matters, you must strive to discern My will, you must attempt to determine what the Almighty expects of you. For that, you must be a mamlechet kohanim, a ‘kingdom of priests.’
What a powerful message these words have for us as we enter z’man matan Torateinu, the Festival of Shavuot, when we not only commemorate the Almighty’s revelation upon Mount Sinai, but relive it.
The Netziv reminds us of the fundamental requirements that we have as a people and as individuals: Torah study and ritual observance. He reminds us that we have responsibilities, not just as Jews, but as members of human society. He urges us to go beyond those universal responsibilities and to excel morally and ethically.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.