Watch for the Old Lady

47th Torah Portion, 4th in Deuteronomy

Re’eh 11:26-16:17 (126 verses)

Saturday, August 3, 2013



            God places both blessing and curse before the Israelites. They are taught that blessing will come through the observance of God’s laws. Moses’ third discourse includes laws about worship in a central place; injunctions against idolatry and self-mutilation; dietary rules; and laws about tithes, debt remission, the release and treatment of Hebrew slaves and firstlings. Moses reviews the correct sacrifices to be offered during the festivals of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot.


            Upon entering the Promised Land, the Israelites were to pronounce blessings on Mount Gerizim and curses on the mountain on the opposite side, Mount Ebal. These instructions are repeated in chapter 27. So they would find the mountains easily, directions are given in chapter 11 verse 30, “Both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the way which is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah – near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh.”

            Commenting on the words, “beyond the way,” the Talmud (Sotah 33b) sees in this geographic compass, a moral compass. These are not simply directions to a place. They are directions on “how” to get to a particular place. “The Way” is important. In their zeal and eagerness to get to their appointed destination they might become oblivious to nature, insensitive to the world around them, and even wantonly destructive as they proceeded forward. Isaiah reminds us, “Holy, holy, holy! Adonai of the multitudes, whose glory fills the entire world” (6:3). The entirety of our world and reality can be an experience of God. It is not just the doing of a particular task that is important. God is not found just in doing good in the world, nor is God some booming voice or looming presence in our world. God is found within the essence of nature and in the “still small voice” of our response to it. The spiritual compass is our directional compass. If we are running to perform a precept, we must be careful not to bump into people on the way; we must be careful what we are trampling in our haste to do good.

            Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810–1883) was the founder and spiritual father of the Musar (strict ethical behavior) movement. His disciples were preparing to bake matzah for Passover. Eager to please their rebbe by attending strictly to the various complicated details associated with the making of matzah, they asked the rebbe what they should be on the lookout for. Rabbi Yisrael perceptively told them, “There is an old lady there who has to drag the water that is used to knead the dough. Make sure that she is not abused.”

            Often we are so set on arriving at our destination that we forget the journey and those we “meet” along the way. Our spiritual compass directs us to our deed (the destination). That deed by the way is with the understanding that our intent is aligned with God’s intent. This is not so easy as it sounds. Finally, our compass directs us on a way where we are aware of our environment and the people we meet upon the way. Do not neglect your responsibility to be attentive to the people and the very real wonders around you. The rebbe’s instructions reminded his students that it was not the making of matzah; but the awareness of the old lady which ultimately serves God’s purpose. There are countless opportunities to fulfill our responsibilities, but the Torah instructs us not to do so if at the same time we are being unresponsive to the people and the circumstances that surround us.


  1. What do you suppose you are missing as you run off to work in the morning or when you return home?
  2. When getting things done at home or work, who is the “old lady dragging the water” whom you are abusing or ignoring?


            Read Rabbi Alvin Fine’s poem, A Sacred Pilgrimage – “…Victory lies not at some high place along the way, but by making the journey, stage by stage….”