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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VA'ETHANAN
July 24, 2010 - 13 Av 5770

Annual (Deut. 3:23-7:11): Etz Hayim p. 1005; Hertz p. 755
Triennial (Deut. 5:1-7:11 OR 6:4-7:11): Etz Hayim p. 1015 OR 1024; Hertz p. 765 OR 769
Haftarah (Isaiah 40:1-26): Etz Hayim p. 1033; Hertz p. 776

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. Then he delivers the first of several exhortations in the parasha. This one is about the importance of obeying God's commandments. Moses particularly emphasizes 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 had killed unwittingly.

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

Moses teaches the people the first paragraph of the Shema, telling them 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. The “L” Word

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)

  1. How can commandments be given about those things that are not under a person's control? It is inconceivable that a person should be charged to do things not dependent on his own will. (Akedat Yitzhak [Rabbi Isaac Arama, 1420-1494, Spain])
  2. It is asked: Love is a human emotion, and how can a person be commanded to love? And what should a person do if he does not have that emotion? Rather, it appears that deep within every person there is embedded a love for God, but we must bring this emotion out into the open. That is what this commandment of “You shall love” implies - that you should take such actions as lead to bringing this emotion to the fore. (Sefat Emet [Rabbi Judah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1874-1905, Poland])
  3. Make Him beloved to humanity, as did our father Abraham in the matter referred to in the verse, “And the people [literally, souls] that they had acquired in Haran” (Genesis 12:5). But is it not true that if all the creatures in the world were to convene in order to create just one gnat and endow it with a soul, they would not be able to do so? Hence we learn that Abraham converted people, thus bringing them under the wings of the Shekinah. (Sifre)
  4. That the name of heaven should become beloved through you; that a Jew should study the Bible and Mishnah and minister to Torah scholars and be on good terms with his fellow creatures. What do his fellow-creatures say of him? Happy his father who taught him Torah! Happy his teacher who taught him Torah! So-and-so who studies Torah - see how well-mannered he is and how proper are his actions. To him the text applies: “And he said to me: You are My servant, Israel in whom I glory” (Isaiah 49:3). But he who studies Torah and Mishnah and ministers to Torah scholars, yet is not honest in his dealings nor on good terms with his fellow creatures - what do people say of him? Pity so-and-so who studies Torah! Pity his father who taught him Torah; pity his teacher who taught him Torah. So-and-so who studies Torah - see how corrupt are his deeds and how ugly his behavior! To him may the text be applied: “In that it was said of them: These are the people of the Lord, yet they had to leave His land” (Ezekiel 36:20). (Talmud Yoma 86a)
  5. We must be careful, however, not to mistake love of God for sentimentality. The love of God that Moses describes is not merely an emotion or some abstract feeling, rather it is love that leads to action, to the fulfillment of God's will and to a life dedicated to the pursuit of the good: “Love, therefore, the Lord your God, and always keep His charge, His laws, His rules, and His commandments” (Deuteronomy 11:1). (Rabbi Reuven Hammer, “Entering Torah,” p. 262)

Sparks for Discussion

Can love, or any emotion, be commanded? Our commentators understand that this verse commands actions, not feelings. Why do you think they chose to make that shift? What is the relationship between meaningful love and behavior? What does it mean to love another human being? What does it mean to love God?

2. Teach Your Children Well

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. (Deuteronomy 6:7)

  1. If you would impart the laws and the moral teachings of the Torah to others, you yourself must be imbued with the words you want to teach. Only then will your words leave an impression on your listeners, for “only those words that proceed from the heart can enter the heart of another.” Only if you will “take to heart” the words, only if they are engraved upon your own heart, will you be able to “impress them” also upon your children. Then your own words of instruction will act like sharp, penetrating arrows when you direct them at your children or your disciples. But if the words of God are not firmly impressed upon your own heart, your words of instruction will have no effect on others. (Rabbi Moses Alsheikh, 1508-1600, Israel)
  2. This seems a redundancy, but the word “recite” also can mean “act.” It is not enough to teach your children the law; you must show them by your personal example how to act. (Minhat Marheshet, Rabbi Hanoch Ochs)
  3. What the child says in the street are his father's words or his mother's. (Talmud Sukkah 56b)
  4. If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise, they will not themselves study Torah but will simply instruct their children to do so. (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787-1854, Poland)

Sparks for Discussion

Parents are a child's first and (we hope) best teachers, but how is this teaching accomplished? Our commentators are clear that children learn more from their parents' behavior than from their words. Do you agree? What lessons are you impressing on your children or grandchildren? For what do you praise them? For whom do you express admiration? If you were to ask your children what qualities and attributes you consider most important for them to develop, what do you think they would say? Are you teaching your children well?


 
 
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