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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VA'ETHANAN
August 20, 2005 - 15 Av 5765

Annual: Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11 (Etz Hayim, p. 1005; Hertz p. 755)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 3:23 - 5:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 1005; Hertz p. 755)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1 - 26 (Etz Hayim, p. 1033; Hertz p. 776)

Prepared by Rabbi Daniel A. Ornstein
Congregation Ohav Shalom, Albany, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Where We Are in the Torah

This week's portion is Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11, the second in the book. It always coincides with Shabbat Nachamu, the first of seven Shabbatot of Consolation that follow Tisha B'Av and precede Rosh Hashanah.

Summary

Moshe continues his first speech and begins his second speech to the Israelites. He reminds them of how God has forbidden him from entering Canaan with them.

He admonishes the people to remember everything that they saw with their own eyes in Egypt and when they received the Torah. They are wise enough to understand that all of their redemption and wise laws come from the one God. He warns the people to stay away from idol worship and from the worship of anything in nature. God alone is to be obeyed. He warns the people that they will be exiled if they fail to follow God's covenant, but that God will not abandon them even in their exile. Mention is made of the three cities of refuge that Moshe established as sanctuaries for those who kill someone by accident. Moshe reminds the people about the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Horev, (Sinai.) He includes a detailed reading of the Ten Commandments. Through the words of the Sh'ma, he tells the people that God is one and that they must love God. The people are admonished to remember God and follow God when they inherit the land of Canaan. Moshe ends with more admonitions about following God alone, following God's Torah and maintaining distinctiveness among the nations.

The First Text From our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

Know therefore this day and keep (it) in mind: that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other. (4:39)

  • From The Prayer, Aleinu. (Attributed to the house of the 3rd century sage, Rav, though possibly much older) - It is our duty to praise the Master of everything, to declare the greatness of the Creator of the cosmos, who has not made us like the other nations nor created us like the other families of the earth… He is our God, there is no other. In truth He is our King, nothing compares with Him. As it is written in His Torah, "Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other." (Placed originally in the "Malchuyot-Kingship" section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service, and now found at the end of each daily service.)
  • From Or Ha-Chayyim, (Torah Commentary of Rabbi and Kabbalist, Chayyim ben Moshe Attar, Morocco, 1696-1743) - (When Moshe says, "Know therefore this day and keep [it] in mind"), what made that specific day different from all other days for the Israelites? What about that day would the individual have to keep in mind? Based upon traditions in the Talmud we learn that the day being referred to by Moshe is the day of one's death. Moshe is telling the people that a person should develop humility by "knowing this day," that is, recognizing the day of one's death, (i.e. that we are all mortal). Keeping this reality in mind is what brings us back to the straight and narrow path of good living, and prevents us from succumbing to the evil inclination, (presumably because we contrast our frailty and mortality with God's Oneness and infinite power in heaven and on earth).
  • From Mei Hashiloach, (Hasidic Commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Mordechai Leiner of Ishbitz, Died 1854) - Our verse is juxtaposed with the passage about the cities of refuge for those who commit murder accidentally. This is because Moshe our teacher of blessed memory recognized that God reigns over everything, even in empty space, (lit. "mere air"). Nothing happens except as a result of God's will. Moshe therefore created a means of protection for those who kill without intention; for how else would the axe that slipped out of a person's hands, flew through the air and killed someone have done this if not because God wanted it to happen? In fact, even everything that happens unintentionally happens because God wanted it to be so.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Discuss the following: Aleinu uses our verse to teach us that we must praise God for making us Jews special among all the nations because we recognize God as the sole Creator of everyone and everything. Does a tension exist between God as Creator of the universe and God as the One who relates to Jews in a particular and privileged way? Is this a contradiction? How can (or do) Jews live as a part of the world while also living apart from it?
  2. Rabbi Attar asks us to read our verse slightly out of context as a humbling reminder that we are all mortal, and that therefore we must bear in mind our servitude to the one God of heaven and earth. Do you agree with his assertion? Can the fact that we only live once and that we won't live forever make us better, more humble people?
  3. Food for thought: Rabbi Leiner's reading of our verse is based upon a highly deterministic view of the world found in many Hasidic sources. Drawing on earlier Hasidic interpretations, he reads the words, "there is no other, (God)" literally, as "There is nothing but God, even in the empty spaces of the world." Since everything in our endless universe is really just a part of God, everything that is or that happens is the result of God's will and initiative, even accidents. Free will and choosing to do God's will are crucial, but are mere illusions covering God's bigger reality. How much free will do we really have? Do you believe that anything in life is determined by God, by fate, by genetics,environment, etc?

The Second Text From our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. (6:5)

  • From the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 86a - LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD: This means that through your actions you should cause others to love God. (That is, you should be a role model for the imitation and service of God) You should learn Torah and serve teachers of Torah, as well as engage in honest business practices and speak kindly to others. Then other people will say about you that you are a student of (God's) Torah who behaves pleasantly and with integrity. (By loving and respecting you, they will come to love and respect God.)
  • From the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brakhot 54a - WITH ALL YOUR HEART: This means that you should love God with both your good and evil impulses. WITH ALL YOUR SOUL: This means that you should love God even if God takes your soul away, (that is, takes your life). Based upon this verse, the sages taught that a person should bless God for the evil things that happen to him as much as for the good things. WITH ALL YOUR MIGHT: This means that you should love God using all of your financial means.
  • From Sefer Oheiv Yisrael, (Hasidic Torah commentary of Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, Poland, died 1825). Comment On Genesis 24:62 - Love of one's fellow Jew is connected with love of God: the two are really one. A person who loves God should also love Israel, His people. This is demonstrated in the holy Torah through the verses: LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF (Leviticus 19:18) and LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD. (Deuteronomy 6:5)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The passage from Tractate Brakhot alludes to our role as God's agents in bringing others close to God. Discuss the idea that we find and reveal God through how we interact with and model living for each other.
  2. How do we love with our "dark sides" as well as with our "nicer sides"? Think about the Talmud's idea that we serve God with all of our wholeness and brokenness.
  3. Discuss the Talmud's teaching that love of God includes praising God for everything that happens to us - good and evil -- as being part of God's will and plan. Is this idea a radical insight into the unitary nature of life or a simplistic statement of faith that, whatever happens, it's all part of God's plan?
  4. Is God responsible for the bad things that happen to good people?
  5. How do we serve God with our money? Can our wealth be made holy? Though materialism and the excesses of wealth are condemned by Judaism, the above comment on our verse is making an important point about the way that the blessings of wealth can be employed for loving God through how wealth is used. Discuss this.
  6. Rabbi Heschel is using a time-honored tool of Torah interpretation to make his point: the word LOVE shows up in both verses that he mentions. Therefore, the two verses can be compared and connected.
  7. Rabbi Heschel reads the verse in Leviticus narrowly, as referring exclusively to fellow Jews. We would read it more broadly today, as including all of one's fellow human beings. Why should/can love of God lead to love for one's fellow Jews or one's fellow human beings? Can a person who loves God still be a misanthrope? Can an atheist still love humanity? What is it about our love for God that can motivate us to love God's creations?

 
 
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