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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VA’ETHANAN - SHABBAT NAHAMU
August 16, 2008 – 15 Av 5768

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 Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Moses continues his review of the history of the wilderness years, describing how he pleaded with God to be allowed to enter the land and how God rejected his plea.

Moses then speaks to the Israelites, giving them the first of several exhortations in this parasha about the importance of obeying God’s commandments, with particular emphasis on the prohibition of idolatry.

Moses sets aside three cities of refuge on the east side of the Jordan. If a person committed manslaughter, he could flee to one of these cities and be safe from the relatives of the person he killed unwittingly.

Moses again exhorts the people to study and observe all of God’s laws and rules. He reminds them of the revelation at Sinai and reviews the Ten Statements. He recalls their reaction to hearing God’s voice and encourages them to retain that feeling of reverence so that they may thrive in the land.

Moses teaches the first paragraph of the Shema. He tells the people yet again that they must keep God’s commandments and shun idolatry. They are to teach their children about the covenant – that God brought Israel out of Egypt and into the land so that they might worship God and keep His commandments. Finally, Moses warns the people against intermarriage, pointing out the danger that it might lead to idolatry.

1. Simple Arithmetic

You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you. (Devarim 4:2)

  1. You shall not add: For example, five [instead of four] passages in the tefillin, five species in the lulav, or five tzitzit, and similarly, or take anything away [using three rather than four]. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. From where do we learn that a kohen who goes up to the duchan should not say since the Torah has given me permission to bless Israel I will add a blessing of my own, for example, may Adonai the God of your ancestors add to you one thousand times? The Torah says, “you shall not add anything.” (Talmud Rosh Hashannah 28a)
  3. When murderers increased in number, the rite of breaking the heifer’s neck [performed when a murder victim was found and the killer was unknown] was abolished... When adulterers increased in number, the ritual of the bitter waters [performed when a husband suspected his wife of adultery] ceased. (Mishnah Sotah 9:9)
  4. A Jew has to find the golden, middle path, as Maimonides refers to it, in his fear of God and in his observance of the commandments. Just as a wicked person is liable to violate the prohibition of You shall not... take anything away, a righteous person is liable to violate the prohibition of You shall not add anything, and can thereby bring tragedy upon the world. (Rabbi Alexander Moshe Lapidot, 1819-1906, Lithuania)

Sparks for Discussion

The rabbinic interpretation of this verse, as found in Rashi and the Talmud, is that adding or subtracting numbers is prohibited here. Was that your initial understanding of the verse? How else might it be understood? Why do you think the rabbis chose to interpret it the way they did?

Rabbi Alexander Lapidot makes the startling statement that violating the prohibition of You shall not add may bring tragedy upon the world. What do you think he means by this?

2. Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously [elsewhere: only take heed to yourself and guard your soul diligently], so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live... (Devarim 4:9)

  1. Look after your body and ensure that it remains healthy, for then it will be easy for you to guard your soul. (Likutei Yesharim)
  2. Anything that is a potential danger, it is a mitzvah to remove it and be very careful of it, as it states, take heed to yourself and guard your soul diligently. If a person does not remove it, but leaves the dangerous thing in its place, he transgresses a positive commandment, and also transgresses the negative commandment of do not bring bloodguilt on your house (Devarim 22:8). (Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 427)
  3. The body being healthy is of the ways of the Lord, for it is impossible to understand or know the knowledge of the Creator while unwell. Therefore, one should keep away from things which destroy the body, and accustom oneself to healthy and curing matters... (Rambam [Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt], Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, 4:1)
  4. The Torah brings these issues in the name of guarding the soul and not guarding the body or guarding oneself in order to teach us that when one is engaged in matters of the welfare of the body, such as eating and drinking or business, one must be very careful not to do anything that will be harmful to the soul... For a person is not under his own authority but was sent into this world by God to do His will and this should be his motivation in all he does. And even when a person is occupied with the needs of his body he needs to be aware that this is also part of his mission, that this is also the will of God, that he should guard his soul. (Hafetz Hayim [Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen, 1835-1933, Poland])
  5. I have a fiduciary relationship with God with respect to my body – that is, God entrusts it to me for the duration of my life on the condition that I take care of it. So, for example, I may not eat a half gallon of ice cream every night of the week even if I want to do so and do not care about the pragmatic results – that I will gain 100 pounds in no time and thereby endanger my health and cease to look good or feel good. Conversely, I have a positive duty to God to practice habits of proper diet, exercise, hygiene, and sleep, whether or not I want to do so. (Rabbi Elliot Dorff, “Body: Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices,” pp xii-xiii)

Sparks for Discussion

Caring for your own health is a mitzvah, one of God’s commandments, and not just a matter of good sense and pragmatism. What does this mean? How might you respond to someone who says, “Why shouldn’t I smoke or participate in dangerous sports as long as I’m not hurting anyone else?” Are there circumstances under which you believe it is acceptable to endanger your health or life? Should Jews outside of Israel become police officers, firefighters, or soldiers? Why?


 
 
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