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Torah Sparks

Parashat Va'ethanan (Shabbat Nahamu)
July 20, 2013 – 13 Av 5773

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

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

Parashat Vaetchanan is always read on the first Shabbat after Tisha B'Av. In this parashah, Moses continues addressing the Israelite nation, recalling his plea – which God rejects – to be allowed to enter the Promised Land. Moses delivers an eloquent oration, adjuring the Israelites to observe God's commandments, neither adding to them nor subtracting from them. He gives special attention to the prohibitions against idolatry and the creation or use of graven images for idolatrous purposes. All of this is linked explicitly to Israel's historic experience following the departure from Egypt and the revelatory encounter with God at Sinai.

Following a brief recap of the prescription of the three cities of refuge, the theophany at Sinai is recalled. The Decalogue is repeated – with subtle changes in language and phrasing from the Exodus version. It is further recalled that the Israelites, fearing a direct revelation from God, plead with Moses to act as intermediary, delivering God's commandments to the nation in a less awesome and lethal manner. God assents to this method of transmission.

The parashah continues with the famous passage, known as the Shema and V'ahavta. God's uniqueness, and Israel's imperative of exclusive devotion to the Almighty, are declared. The verses prescribe Israel's duty to love God (v'ahavta), as well as providing the source for the observance of tefillin, mezuzah and recitation of the Shema.

The commandment to transmit the story of the Exodus from Egypt to our children is prescribed. The Israelites are warned not to test God's patience or tolerance, but to "do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord." Israel is commanded not to enter into treaties with the Canaanites and not to marry them; their idolatrous altars and sanctuaries are to be destroyed.

God's faithfulness to those who love and obey Him, as well as His promise of punishment to those who reject Him, is re-emphasized, as are God's reasons in choosing Israel: His love for the Israelite nation and the merits of their ancestors.

Theme #1: "A World to the Wise"

"See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as the Lord my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.'" (Deuteronomy 4:5-6)

Derash: Study

"How shall I forsake wisdom? I have made a covenant with her. She is my mother, I her dearest child; She has clasped her jewel about my neck. Shall I cast aside the glorious ornament? While life is mine, my spirit shall aspire unto her heavenly heights. I will not rest until I find her source." (Solomon ibn Gabirol)

"The primacy of wisdom in the worldview of Deuteronomy is sharply reflected here. Israel's greatness as the other nations come to recognize it is not its fecundity and military might (as, for example, in Balaam's oracles in Numbers) but in its wisdom, demonstrated by its adherence to a set of just statutes and laws." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"Moses believed that there would come a time when the idea of a nation founded on a covenant with God would inspire other nations with its vision of a society based not on a hierarchy of power but on the equal dignity of all under the sovereignty and in the image of God; and on the rule of justice and compassion. ‘The nations' would appreciate the wisdom of the Torah and its ‘righteous decrees and laws.' It happened. As I have argued many times, we see this most clearly in the political culture and language of the United States… How ironic that the political culture of the United States should be more Judaic than that of the Jewish state. But Moses warned that it would be so. Keep the Torah's laws carefully, Moses said, ‘for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.' Moses knew that Gentiles would see what Jews sometimes do not see: the wisdom of God's law when it comes to sustaining a free society." (British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks)

"The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live in a circle of those who are." (C.S. Lewis)

Questions for Discussion

To what extent has Moses' prophetic message been realized in Jewish history? What is the Jewish People's greatest contribution to "other peoples? The idea of law as fundamental to civilized society? Scriptural Law itself? Our collective example of fidelity to the Covenant? Wherein do others perceive greatness and wisdom in the People Israel?

Consider Professor Alter's proposition. Is Deuteronomy (perhaps our very verse) the beginning of Jewish spirituality's emphasis on learning and scholarship? Are these the same as wisdom and discernment? How does this emphasis distinguish us from other religious faiths and disciplines?

Respond to Rabbi Sacks!! Is he too generous to the American experience? Too harsh and jaded on the Jewish State? How has American society (and politics) processed its biblical "heritage?" How are Jews (as individuals, communities, and – according to the Chief Rabbi – as a sovereign nation) sometimes slow to recognize the wisdom of our Tradition and the miraculous nature of our experience? Could it be that Rabbi Sacks suffers from this same deficit in his estimation of the State of Israel?!

Theme #2: "Conflagration B'nai Israel"

"Let us not die, then, for this fearsome fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die." (Deuteronomy 5:22)

Derash: Study

"Ordinarily human beings cannot behold the Divine and live… Only Israel was granted moments of exception." (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary)

"Not the Revelation of God, but the physical accompaniments of that Revelation fill them with fear." (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"The sound of God's voice. The sound of questions dropped into the mind like stones into water. Yes, that sound." (Rabbi Jill Hammer)

"The true contemplative is not one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but is one who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect to anticipate the words that will transform his darkness into light. He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation. He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence, and, when he is answered it is not so much by a word that bursts into his silence. It is by his silence itself, suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a word of great power, full of the voice of God." (Thomas Merton)

"Stern Daughter of the Voice of God! O Duty! if that name thou love, Who art a light to guide, a rod To check the erring, and reprove." (William Wordsworth)

"Conscience is the authentic voice of God to you." (Rutherford B. Hayes)

Questions for Discussion

Compare Moses' description of Israelite trepidation here to the original account in Exodus 19-20. The Deuteronomy account ignores dire warnings to the Israelites which may have contributed to their fear (Exodus 19:12, 21). The Deuteronomy account also suggests that the Israelites did experience God's revelation directly (at least for a time) before expressing their fear. This does not seem to be the case in Exodus. Why the inconsistent accounts? Which version of the Sinai experience is more appealing? More flattering to Israel?

Rabbi Plaut makes a remarkable claim. Has the Jewish People alone been permitted direct experience of God? Is this consistent with the mainstream of Jewish thought? Is this a necessary correlation of chosenness?

Imagine Rabbi Hammer, President Hayes and William Wordsworth in conversation. What do their understandings of the God's voice have in common? How is Rabbi Hammer's association of God's voice with questions especially useful in a Jewish context? How does questioning draw us closer to God and attune us to the Divine Voice? How does this differ from Merton's perspective?

How do these various sources help us to understand Israel's fear?

Historic Note

In parashat Vaetchanan, read on July 20, 2013, we are instructed, "When you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them…" (Deut. 4:19). On July 20, 1969, Apollo XI astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. On July 20, 1976, the Viking 1 Lander, an unmanned American planetary probe, became the first spacecraft successfully to land on the surface of Mars.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Deuteronomy 4:15 states, V'nishmartem me'od l'nafshoteichem – "For your own sake, therefore, be most careful" (also translated as "You should greatly beware of your souls." The verse, in context a stern admonition against idolatry, has been understood by the Rabbis as a sweeping obligation to maintain our safety, physical health and well-being (See BT Berachot 32B). Rambam states: "Preserving a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God, for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator when one is ill. One must therefore keep far from that which harms the body and accustom oneself to that which is healthful and strengthens the body" (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot 4:1). The Rema reinforces this principle: ‘One should avoid all things that might lead to danger, as a danger to life is a more grievous concern than a ritual prohibition… It is forbidden to rely on a miracle or to put one's life in danger" (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 116:5). Dr. Daniel Eisenberg writes: "Preventive healthcare is included in the mitzvah to be a prudent steward of one's body. Therefore… well-baby visits, mammograms, colonoscopies, and prostate exams, all of which have the potential to save lives, are part of the mitzvah of venishmartem me'od lenafshoseichem ("Venishmartem Me'od: Guard Your Soul, The Jewish Observer, Nov. 24, 2007,p. 20)."

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