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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VA'ET'HANAN - SHABBAT NAHAMU
July 31, 2004 - 13 Av 5764

Annual: Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11 (Etz Hayim, p. 1005; Hertz p. 755)
Triennial Cycle: Deuteronomy 5:1 - 7:11 (Etz Hayim, p. 1015; Hertz p. 765)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1 - 26 (Etz Hayim, p. 1033; Hertz p. 776)

Prepared by Rabbi Naomi Levy
Author of To Begin Again and Talking to God

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Parasha Summary

In our portion this Shabbat Moshe tells the Children of Israel that he pleaded with God to allow him to enter the Land of Israel, but God refused to let him in. It takes a great deal of courage to stand before the people you have led and admit to them that your prayers have no power to sway God. Moshe then continues to recount the happenings in the desert and urges the people to listen, to observe, and to follow God's law. In this portion we encounter two central pillars of Judaism: the Ten Commandments and the Shema.

Discussion Theme 1: How to Pray, When to Pray

"And I pleaded with God at that time." (Deut 3:23)

Derash: Study

  1. Rabbi Shmuel of Shinova taught: The first time I came to my rebbi, Rabbi Simcha Bunim, I told him I was worried over the fact that when I prayed my head hurt… because I tried so hard to pray with kavanah. My rebbi said to me: what does a headache have to do with prayer? One's prayer should be primarily from the heart." (Torah Gems, p185)
  2. "And I pleaded with God at that time." When should we pray? The Torah does not specify what time this is referring to. This is a hint that a person should always be ready to pray to God, and should not say, "I don't have the time or patience to pray right now." Rather, one should be willing to pray in any place and at any time. (Rabbi Naftali of Rophshitz in Torah Gems, p186)

Questions for Discussion

  1. The rabbis tell us that prayer is the service of the heart, but how do we learn to pray from our hearts? At synagogue on Shabbat where do your prayers come from - head, heart, elsewhere? How could your congregations help people have that kind of intense prayer experience?
  2. Immediately after the revelation at Sinai God said to Moshe: "Go say to them, 'Get into your tents again.'" God wanted to see if they could take that heightened experience back into their daily lives. How does your Shabbat experience at shul translate back into your daily lives? Where and when do you pray? Do you pray at home? At work? In bed at night? Can you describe your most intense experience of personal prayer - where were you? How long ago was it? What led to the prayer? Were you alone or with others? Has a place of natural beauty ever inspired your prayer? Where were you? What did you say?

Discussion Theme 2: Mind and Heart

Moshe desperately tries to teach the people to have faith in God at all times. He says: "Know this day, and lay it to your heart that the Lord is God." (Deut. 4:39) Why does the Torah make a distinction between the mind and the heart? Why must the knowledge of God enter our hearts?

Derash: Study

  1. Rabbi Israel Salanter expounded these words in this way: It is not sufficient merely to "know" it; this sublime knowledge must be taken into your very heart… The space that separates "knowing" from "laying it to your heart" is as great as that which stands between knowledge and ignorance. In other words, knowledge alone does not constitute faith. The intellect cannot grasp God. Faith requires a believing heart.
  2. Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter of Ger offered a slightly different focus: If the main concern is to "lay it to your heart," it follows that the heart must first be cleansed in order to make room for all this knowledge so that it may take root there. In other words, in order for faith in God to take root, we must first cleanse our hearts of all impurity and distraction.
  3. Rav Kook teaches that the intellectual knowledge of God must be accompanied by an emotional acceptance of God.

Questions for Discussion

  1. The Talmud tells us, "God wants the heart." Why is it so important to God to have our hearts? Most of the time Judaism instructs us that it's our actions that are central. What would make actions count more than our hearts? What about the opposite?
  2. "Know this day and lay it to your heart." The verse teaches us that knowledge leads to emotion. What are we to do when we can't even take the first step because so many of us have intellectual doubts about our Torah and our faith? How can we possibly reach the level of emotion when we live in a state of intellectual doubt? Is it possible to skip a step? What do we do to suspend our disbelief? What does it take to journey from doubt to love?
  3. Onkelos commented that the great voice of God that called out to our ancestors at Sinai never ceased. The Sefat Emet extended this point. He said that the voice echoes to this very day, but in order to hear it we must prepare ourselves just as our ancestors prepared themselves to receive God's word at Sinai. How do we cleanse our hearts to make room for the knowledge of God? Is your heart too crowded? What excess baggage does it contain leaving no room for God? Are our hearts too broken to receive God or to forgive God?

Discussion Theme 3: The Shema: Again the Heart!

"Listen Israel, Adonai, our God, is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might." (Deut 6:4-5)

Derash: Study

  1. Rashi brings a Midrash to teach us that the commandment to love God means that we should observe God's commandments out of love. "For one who acts out of love is on a higher plane than one who acts out of fear."
  2. "With all your heart." The Talmud (Ber 54a) instructs us that with all your heart means: "with your two inclinations" (the evil inclination and the good inclination).
  3. Rashi: "With all your soul" -- even if God takes your soul, even if your faith leads you to martyrdom, "With all your might"-- with all your property. "These words which I command you this day"- they should not seem antiquated or outdated in your eyes, but as words that are newly given each day.
  4. "These words that I command you this day shall be upon your heart." They should not be only on your lips, but also in your heart…. The span that separates lip-service from the service of the heart is as great as the distance that parts heaven from earth." (Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Przysucha, Wellsprings of Torah, p 381)
  5. Rabbi Israel Salanter taught: When we recite the Shema proclaiming God's rule over the earth, we must not forget to allow God to reign also over ourselves.
  6. "Love the Lord your God" - The Sefat Emet asked: Love is a human emotion, and how can a person be commanded to love? He answered: Deep within every person there is embedded a love for God, but one's challenge is to bring this emotion into the open.
  7. "And these words which I command you this day shall be on your heart." Why are we instructed to put the words on our hearts and not in our hearts? Of course they should be in your heart, but that is not always possible. At the very least you can put them on your heart and they may just sit there for a very long time. Some day your heart will open and be ready to receive those words, and if they are already on top of your heart, they can slip right in." (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, Torah Gems, p 203)

Questions for Discussion

  1. How does a person serve God out of love? Fear? Do you agree that serving God out of love is greater than serving out of fear? Why then do so many of our prayers ask us to have "yir-ah" (fear, awe)? Do the high holidays inspire love or fear in you? How does one move from fear to love?
  2. Convince the person next to you that there are ways to serve God with your evil inclination? Here's an example. The rabbis tell us that jealousy between scholars leads to great learning. Think of three other examples?
  3. Has this ever happened to you - someone offered some words of wisdom or comfort that didn't really penetrate your being at the time your heard them but at some later point the full impact of the person's words entered your heart? Can you remember what the words were? What they meant to you at that later point? Has this experience ever happened to you with words of Torah or of prayer? What verse or prayer? When did it hit you?

 
 
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