Va-et’chanan / I Besought Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
With the opening of chapter 4, Moses moves into the second section of his address, exhorting the people to obey God’s laws so that they might dwell securely in the Promised Land. In a sense, chapter 4 introduces what follows: general themes that Moses will repeat throughout the book. Here Deuteronomy highlights Israel’s experiences of deliverance and wandering, of the threat of exile, and of God’s forgiveness and teshuvah (repentance) in the places to which they will be scattered. In this chapter Moses stresses the commandment to worship only Adonai and to love God, prior to presenting the outlines of the mitzvoth (commandments). This provides a model for later theology and law codes, such as the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides. These laws make it possible for Israel to dwell in the land with security and compassion: “Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples.”
The Torah then warns against idolatry, recalling the gift of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, and calling on the Israelites to never give in to worshipping images of any corporeal being or astral body. Moses calls heaven and earth to witness against Israel, should the Jewish People transgress when he is no longer alive, and points out the penalty of exile should they sin. Yet he also assures his listeners that God will remain open to the possibility of teshuvah wherever they may be, “for Adonai your God is a compassionate God.”
Moses then appeals to his listeners (and to us) to observe the commandments as a response to God’s uniqueness and to God’s kindnesses to our ancestors and to us, “Know therefore this day and keep in mind that Adonai alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other. Observe God’s laws and commandments, that I enjoin upon you this day.” Moses then establishes the three cities of asylum east of the Jordan. The second address, the core of the biblical book, begins with a lengthy prologue in which Moses describes how God appointed him to lead the Israelites. He recapitulates the revelation at Mount Sinai including the Ten Commandments and the people’s selection of Moses as their intermediary with God.
Chapter 6 opens with the Shema, the core affirmation of Israel’s faith in God’s uniqueness and special relationship with the people Israel. We are to tell our children about our miraculous liberation from slavery, and to remain distinct from the pagans in Canaan, faithful to our covenant with God, in the service of holiness and justice. Themes When you think of the core teachings of Judaism, certain essentials quickly come to mind: The liberation from Egyptian slavery The Shema (declaring the uniqueness of God) The Ten Commandments (affirming a moral and sacred order to human existence) Mitzvot – halacha – Jewish law which implements the love relationship between God and the Jewish People All of these insights are found in this week’s Parsha. Here – our greatest prophet and teacher reminds us that the central task of the Jew is to live in accord with the teachings of God – to conduct ourselves and our dealings with others in such a way that we cultivate the wisdom, compassion and justice possible for all human societies.
At the very heart of Moses’ speech is the belief that doing God’s will and obeying the mitzvoth are the sure path toward establishing a society of justice, of infusing every aspect of life with spirituality and allowing the fullest possible personal development and growth. Halakhah is the key – an authoritative network of sacred deeds which guides us every step of our spiritual path, directing us what and how to eat, when and how to work, why and how to apply God’s healing vision to human life. These beliefs characterized Judaism from its earliest days, and all traditional forms of Judaism even today. Particularly shocking, then, is one beautiful and yet seemingly extraneous verse in Moses’ elegant and impassioned plea. After urging his followers to follow all of the mitzvoth, he adds, “Do what is right and good in the sights of the Lord.” If God’s will is expressed in halacha, then why add “do right and good”? And if we need to be told to do what is right and good, why bother with halacha?
Ours is not the first generation to wrestle with the difficulty of knowing what, exactly, God wants from us. From the age of the prophets into our own, Jews have tried to discern the paths of righteousness. The command to “do what is right and good” may offer us a guidepost on our road. Rashi suggest that this verse “implies a compromise, going beyond the letter of the law.” In other words, there will be times when applying the law strictly will no longer embody doing what is right and good. In such moments, as obedient servants of God, we are to have the courage to forge a compromise that may go beyond the current formulation of the tradition. The tradition itself provides for its own dynamic growth – Halacha is a process, not an outcome.
The Ramban is even more explicit: “Even in regard to those things where no specific command applied . . . it is impossible to record every detail of human behaviour . . . God included a general injunction to do what is good and right in every matter, accepting where necessary even a compromise in a legal dispute.”
There are many examples of this today – from the plight of the agunah – to the battle right now in Israel between Heredi and secular Jews with particular emphasis on the recognition of non- Orthodox conversions. What both Rashi and Ramban recognize is that there are two ways to destroy a legal tradition: abandon its authority and relevance, on one hand, or reduce it to its rulings rather than its method, on the other. Both destroy the living tree of Judaism by undermining its jurisdiction or by denying its ability to respond to new insights and new phenomena. The Talmud records the understanding of Rabbi Yohanan that Jerusalem was destroyed only because our ancestors acted in accordance with the letter of the Torah and did not go beyond it. In our age, as in times past, there are temptations to abandon the process initiated in the Torah, through both excessive permissiveness and excessive rigidity. The command to do what is right and good is our summons to live our lives according to a halacha that is dynamic, the purpose of which is compassionate, and the details of which are just. Our vitality and authenticity as Jews as well as individual growth and spirituality and, ultimately God’s love and sovereignty intersect in one place: in the continued flowering of a dynamic halacha, one which seeks always to establish the right and the good.
The story is told of a poor man who came to the Brisker Rav on Erev Pesach (the day before Passover) with a question. Could he use milk instead of wine for the four Cups at the Seder? The Brisker Rav didn't reply. Instead he took five rubles from his pocket and gave them to the man. The Rav's wife wondered why he had given the man so much money. "Wouldn't one ruble have been enough for wine?" she asked. "True," the Brisker Rav answered, "but if he was planning on drinking milk throughout the seder, that means he had no money for meat either. I gave him enough for both wine and meat." The Brisker Rav combined keen perception with adherence to the spirit of the law, for though he could have answered the poor man's question, he went the extra mile to ensure that the poor man would fulfill the mitzvot (commandments) of Pesach as well as enjoy its festive spirit.
A similar precept is encapsulated in the verse, "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." It is possible, the Ramban comments, for a person to keep the letter of the law while violating its spirit, thus becoming a naval birshut hatorah--a degenerate within the confines of the Torah. The Torah commands us to be holy, to sanctify ourselves even in those circumstances that are permitted according to the strict interpretation of the law. These two verses complement each other. "You shall be holy" tells us to take a step back in order to uphold the spirit of the law. It tells us that even though a certain act seems permitted, we must nevertheless demonstrate self-restraint to prevent the spirit of the law from being violated. In doing so we become holy. At the same time, "You shall do that which is right and good" tells us to take a step forward in order to promote the spirit of the law. Though we may find ourselves in situations where we feel we can sit back and not get involved, the spirit of the Torah demands that we take initiative and get involved.
One of the most important themes of this Parsha is its connection with The Shema.
From Alan Mintz -the Chana Kekst Professor of Hebrew Literature and chair of the Department of Hebrew Language at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Mintz joined the JTS faculty in June 2001 after ten years at Brandeis University as the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature.
Dr. Mintz writes, "In the Shema, three passages from the Bible form the theological center of the prayer book. The passages are Deuteronomy 6:4-8 and 11:13-22 and Numbers 15:37-42. The first of these begins with one of the most famous and resonant statements in all of Jewish literature. During the service, the pray-er recites it with eyes closed and in a moment of great concentration: Hear, O Israel Shema Yisra'el The Lord is our God Adonai Eloheinu The Lord is one! Adonai ehad! The context for this verse in Deuteronomy reveals that it is uttered in a dramatic, interactive situation. The first phrase ("Hear, O Israel") is spoken by God to Israel; it carries no message, only the fact of being addressed by God, the experience of divine attention. Israel responds to being addressed by proclaiming that "the Lord is our God!" In English this sounds like a redundancy, but Hebrew differentiates between Adonai, which is the particular and proper name of God in the Bible (itself already an avoidance of the unpronounceable sacred name), and Eloheinu, which is the generic term for gods or divine beings. God is One So Israel's response has the force of declaring that God, alone of all the claimants to divinity, is He Whom we choose. The last phrase, Adonai ehad, is understood by some interpreters to stress the exclusivity of the choosing of God (reading ehad as "alone"; "The Lord our God, the Lord alone ) and by others to introduce a further concept: the oneness of God. Exclusive fidelity to God and God's unity are the two major concepts of the Shema. The first demands that no system of value--not just another religion but an ideology, art, success, or personal happiness--be allowed to replace God as the ultimate ground of meaning. God's unity, conversely, asserts that all experienced moments of beauty, good, love, and holiness are not in and of themselves; they are disparate and scattered signals of the presence of the one God. Now, if this is the "message" of the Shema, the continuation of the passage from Deuteronomy, which completes the prayer's first paragraph, mandates what to do with the message: how to be loyal to it, how to transmit it, how to remain mindful of it. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Love By using the term love, the text implies that these truths can be fulfilled less through cognitive affirmation than through relationship. This is a relationship that passionately transcends legal obligation and demands the mobilization of all the dimensions and resources of one's being. The question now becomes: How is this love preserved and guaranteed? The answer: by intentional, structured mindfulness. Children must be actively taught and rehearsed in the truths of God's ways rather than being left to the vagaries of nature. The adult, too, must not trust his or her nature; one must purposefully undertake to recall to mind God's unity within the coordinates of everyday life: morning and evening, at home and on the road. Symbols play an important role in this mnemonic (memory aid) regimen. The tefillin, the phylacteries, on hand and forehead, and the mezuzah affixed to the doorpost, are in themselves the source of no totemic (symbolic) powers. They are concrete signs that remind one of larger truths. The function of the commandments as spurs to consciousness is elaborated in the third paragraph of the Shema (Numbers 15:37-42), which mandates and describes the wearing of tzitzit, fringes on garments. The middle paragraph (Deuteronomy 11:13-22) is monitory in tone: it warns that the enjoyment of God's grace, especially material prosperity and secure residence in the land of Israel, is absolutely contingent upon obedience to God's will as expressed through the commandments."