Torah Readings for Saturday, August 1, 2015
Va-etchanan (And I pleaded)Devarim (Deuteronomy)
Va-etchanan is the second sedrah in the book of Devarim or Deuteronomy. It takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the weekly reading. “And I pleaded (Va-etchanan) with the Lord at that time, saying,” (). According to some commentators, this is one of the richest weekly readings in the entire Torah. There is enough here to study for an entire year and still not have dealt with it all. The sedrah opens with the last part of the First Discourse () and continues with the opening section of the Second Discourse (). Broadly speaking, the First Discourse is historical in nature. In reminding the Israelites of events of the past forty years, Moshe is providing a historical backdrop for the introduction of the material to follow. The Second Discourse begins with that material and includes the Ten Commandments (5:6-18), the Shema (6:4-9) and instructions on how to behave when confronting the current inhabitants of the land west of the
. But the sedrah includes so much more that it
is almost impossible to cover it all. So
what follows are just some of the highlights.
The overriding messages of the sedrah are the concept of the oneness of
God, the need to accept God and reject all other gods and that all blessings
flow from following the laws and ordinances of God. Jordan
Moshe Entering the Promised Land (3:23-3:26; 4:21). The sedrah starts with what might be the most poignant, the most soul-searing of expressions, “Va-etchanan,” “And I pleaded.” Here we find Moshe recounting how he begged God to let him enter the Promised Land and how God turned him down. He did not just say no. He dismissed him with a stinging rebuke, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again.” What is worse, the fact that Moshe must show his shame by telling of this rejection or the fact that nobody was there to plead on Moshe’s behalf? From Shemot through Bamidbar we read of the times when Moshe interceded on behalf of the Israelites, pleading with God to spare them. But who can plead with God on Moshe’s behalf? This is a play on that old question of “Who hears the confession of the Pope’s confessor?” What would have happened if, when the Israelites heard that Moshe was not to enter the Promised Land, they had pleaded his case with God? Would it have changed the Divine Decree? We will never know. The idea of the Israelites challenging a Divine decree is not beyond the realm of possibility. The tales of the Second Pesach and the Five Daughters show that the Israelites were willing to question what God had commanded. More importantly, God was willing to listen and modify His words. But one lesson of this Sedrah might be that everybody, high and low alike, needs somebody to intercede on his or her behalf at some time. From the point of view of modern day management, the sedrah reminds us that everybody has a boss. And sometimes your job is to keep your boss' boss off of your boss’ back. At any rate, Moshe will not enter the Promised Land. And while God may have told Moshe not to mention it to Him again, Moshe is not finished with the subject. Later he reminds the Israelites again (-22) that he is to die on the plains of
because “the Lord was angry
with me on your account.” Moab
Peroration (4:1-40). This section of the First Discourse might be viewed as a summary of basic Jewish concepts and history that are intended to provide the philosophic background for the revelation of the most important elements of the sedrah that will be introduced in chapters five and six. What follows are just a few of the highlights.
Obey Chukim and Mishpatim (4:1, 5, 8, 21; 5:2, 20, 28; 6:1; ). The sedrah uses the phrase Chukim and Mishpatim or Laws and Rules at least nine times. Chukim are commandments for which there is not an obvious reason. These include the Dietary Laws and the Law of the Red Heifer. Mishpatim are commandments with what we would call a rational explanation. These might include the prohibition against murder or stealing or the injunctions to keep an honest set of weights and measures. Together they form what Moshe calls the “Instruction.” It is what was given to us at Sinai (). Obeying it is the key to our success and survival (). We should try and understand the law. But our inability to comprehend it is not a reason for disobedience.
Observe the Law (4:2). “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it.…” Judaism has survived because its leaders have known how to interpret the law without doing away with it. At the same time, Moshe is reminding us that it is difficult to obey the law as is and there is no reason to create additional burdens and demands. Some commentators feel that this is a quantitative injunction. For example, we are told about the four species at Sukkoth. That means four species. We are not allowed to drop it down to three or increase it to make five. Such a view brings consistency to a later injunction in the sedrah concerning observance, “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord…” ().
Worship God, Not Nature or Idols (4:15-19). Moshe reminds the Israelites that since they saw no shape at the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Israelites should never create and/or worship the likeness of a man or woman. At the same time, the Israelites are never to confuse God with His natural manifestations such as the Sun or the Moon.
Prophecy - Exile and Redemption (4:25-31). This section is especially appropriate for reading at the time of Tisha B’Av. Moshe predicts that once the Israelites enjoy material prosperity, they will forget about God. The penalty will be exile. But God will not forget the Israelites and eventually we will be redeemed and brought back to the Promised Land.
The Existence and Greatness of God (4:32-39). Moshe does not offer one of those philosophic proofs of the existence God, the kind that are so popular in Freshman Philosophy courses. Instead, he tells the Israelites to examine their own history. For in the events that they and their parents have experienced, the Exodus from
and the Revelation at Sinai,
the Jew has empirical evidence of the existence of God and His greatness. Egypt
The Start of the Second Discourse (5:1-7:11). Different commentators provide different divisions for Devarim. According to some, this marks the start of a second discourse, which includes a compendium of laws concerning human behavior and the on-going reminder to obey them because they are the word of God.
The Giving of the Ten Commandments (5:1-29). Moshe recreates the scene at the mountain, which he calls Horab this time instead of Sinai. Before reciting the Decalogue, he tells the Israelites to study them. And why do we study them? We study so that we may observe them (5:1). Study is not a form of mental gymnastics. It is a way to draw God into the universe; a way to elevate the mundane.
The Recitation of the Decalogue (5:6-18). The commandments in Shemot and Devarim are very similar. The biggest difference comes with the Fourth Commandment, which covers Shabbat. In Devarim the commandment begins “Observe” (Shamor) while in Shemot it begins “Remember” (Zachor). In Devarim, we observe Shabbat to remember the Exodus, while in Shemot we remember Shabbat because of creation. In the typically Jewish attempt to harmonize what appears to be conflicting views, we include both of these concepts in the Kiddush on Shabbat. In the spirit of putting first things first, the Decalogue begins with a statement of the primacy of God and the ban on other forms of worship. Some say the first five commandments buttress the relationship between the individual and God, while the second five commandments concern themselves with the relationship between individuals. Others say that the first five are applicable to the unique relationship between the Israelites and God, while the second are applicable to the general society as well as the Israelites. Obviously this guide is too brief a document to delve into all of the nuances of each of the commandments.
Establishing the Authorship of the Law (5:24, 28). We have heard several conflicting views about the authorship of the Torah. As can be seen from these two verses, the Torah states that God is the author of the Law. This concept of divine authorship is critical to the concept of obeying the Instruction, be it Chukim or Mishpatim.
Presenting the Shema (6:4). “Hear O Israel! The Lord Our God, The Lord is One!” In one simple sentence, which then becomes a prayer, Moshe calls the Israelites to bear witness to the basic belief of their faith. The Shema, this one sentence, is so basic that it is usually the first line of Hebrew a child learns and the final utterance of the dying, including those who have perished as martyrs. It is found in the Morning Supplications, in the Shacharit and Ma’ariv (with additional paragraphs), in the Torah Service, in the Musaf and at the very close of the Yom Kippur liturgy. There is even a Bedtime Shema. This simple statement has too many meanings and implications to cover in what is supposed to a summary document. This declaration of “Oneness” is the core of monotheism. It is a statement that denies the validity of idolatry, pantheism and the Trinitarians. It is a statement that dictates a common origin for the universe and all mankind. It is a statement that means that all people are equal before the law and that all people must follow a certain basic moral code. This one simple statement means ever so much more than this. You should seek out any one of a myriad of resources including the Siddur and Chumash of Rabbi Hertz, Etz Hayim, The Stone Chumash, and The Plaut Chumash. Other sources to consult include To Pray As A Jew, The Synagogue Survival Kit, Jewish Prayer, My Prayer, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practices, the writings of Rabbi Telushkin and the commentaries in the Artscroll prayer book. And that is just the tip of the intellectual iceberg. There are more, many, many more.
Presenting the V’ahavta (6:5-9). The Shema is actually made up of three paragraphs known as the “Kriat Shema” or The Reading of the Shema. The V’ahavta is the first of those three paragraphs. Specifically, it commands us to love God totally and completely. And in interpreting the text we find the commandments about the tefillin and the mezuzah. We also find the injunction for teaching our children, which means establishing schools. And last but not least, we find the command to continue our education as adults. How do we express this total love of God? As Moshe points out, we express it by following His commandments. Once again, there is too much commentary to summarize. This is the sort of thing that keeps people studying year in and year out.
Behavior upon Entering the Promised Land (7:1-11). The source of what will seem to be military success is really God (7:1-2). In a command that rings harsh in our modern ears, the Israelites are to destroy the inhabitants giving no terms and no quarter. As we know from Neviim, the Israelites did not carry out this command since the natives continued to live among us, serving as enemies and tempters. The reason for this harsh decree can be seen in the following instruction to destroy all manifestation of the pagan religion and the injunction against inter-marriage lest it weaken the bond with God. In a world of idolatry,
be the one haven for the monotheism and the worship of God. Moshe ends this part of the oration by
reminding the Israelites that God is taking them into the land as a sign of His
greatness, not theirs. And all that He
asks in return for his manifold blessings is that the Israelites “…observe
faithfully the Instruction…” i.e. all of the Chukim and Mishpatim. Israel
416. The prohibition against desiring what belongs to one’s neighbor ().
417. The obligation to acknowledge that God is One (6:4).
418. The commandment to Love God (6:5).
419. The obligation to teach Torah to one’s children (6:7).
420. The obligation to study Torah both day and night (6:7).
421. The commandment to put tefillin on one’s arm (6:8).
422. The commandment to put tefillin on one’s head (6:8).
423. The obligation to place a mezuzah on one’s doorpost (6:9).
424. The prohibition against testing God ().
Shabbat NachamuThe Shabbat following Tisha B’Av is known as Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort. The
This Shabbat always makes me smile and not because of the comfort offered at Tisha B’Av. Decades ago, this was the portion of my brother David. He was a joy to behold that day and he still is a “sweet singer of song” in the House of Israel.
Sinai - The Edited VersionIn Exodus, the story of the Ten Commandments is a long, rambling one that wanders over several weeks’ worth of reading. The actual recitation of the Decalogue begins with “all these words” not the term “Ten Commandments.” By comparison the version in Deuteronomy is neat and tidy including the use of the term Ten Commandments to describe the Decalogue. The version in Deuteronomy lacks the pageantry and does not have the sense of a theophany that is found in Exodus. But it really is the one that most people know. Why the difference? One might be the fact that Moses was pressed for time and he did not want to dabble in the details. Or maybe he wanted his audience focused on the laws themselves and not all of the extraneous issues that consume the version in Exodus. It would be consistent with the concept of Deuteronomy being a summary.
The Chosen PeopleMoses tells the people that God chose the Israelites because of the promises He made to their forefathers and because He loves the Israelites. For some this begs the question because it does not tell us why God decided to love the Israelites or why he chose to make the promises to our forefathers. Is this one of those questions, like the Red Heifer, that will only be answered when the Moshiach arrives?
Jewish EducationThere are many who feel that the command to “teach them to your children” is fulfilled by supporting Jewish education. This is only partially true. While making financial contributions to Jewish schools and sending children to these schools is important, it is only half the job. Real Jewish education requires an active Jewish home life. In America, we have seen the consequences when there is a lack of connection between what are youngsters are taught and what they experience. We cannot expect our Jewish educators, no matter how dedicated and competent, to be a substitute for Jewish practices in the home - both in terms of ethics and customs and ceremonies. For those who do not feel competent to teach their children, it is up to them to educate themselves. One of the on-going themes of Devarim is that Judaism is not a spectator sport.
The HaggadahThis sedrah provides some of the language used in the Haggadah. Look at and and subsequent verses for specific examples.
The Difference Between the Written Law and the Oral Law“The Written Torah does not elaborate on the detailed laws concerning the performance of the commandments. On the mitzvah of tefillin, for example, the Written Torah merely states ‘You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand; they shall serve as frontlets between your eyes.’ It is not at all clear exactly what shall be bound, how it shall serve as a sign, and precisely where it shall be placed ‘between your eyes.’ All these particulars are elaborated in the Oral Law.” (From Lessons in Tanya, Vol. IV, by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi) This sedrah provides an excellent example of how and why the Oral Law developed. How do you write the commandments on the doorposts of your house? How do you wear commandments on your arm or on your head? How do you observe what are really brief injunctions? In the Kitzur Shulchan Orach (an abbreviated code of Jewish Law), the laws pertaining to Tefillin take up eleven pages. The laws pertaining to the Mezuzah cover seven pages. The laws pertaining to the recitation of the Shema cover four pages. And the laws pertaining to various aspects covering Shabbat cover 25 chapters of varying lengths. The scary part of this for some people is that these examples are from a code of law that is called “abbreviated.” How much more is there in the longer versions of the Oral Law that is not included? The good news is that a lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to flesh out the spare text of the Torah. It speaks to the vitality of the Jewish people that we constantly examine and re-examine our laws and traditions to ensure that they are helping us to fulfill some of our ultimate responsibilities including making us a nation of priests, elevating the mundane and repairing the universe. The Oral Law is not a case of making law just for the sake of making law. In fact the creation of the Oral Law and the on-going commentary of the sages is a way of obeying the injunction, “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” found in this sedrah. According to the commentators, this was an admission that the Torah could not deal specifically with every issue that might arise. Therefore it was incumbent to keep the law fresh to meet the needs of the time and yet consistent with the teachings of the Torah.
An Etiological ViewThose who see the Torah as a collection of stories might have a different view for explaining current customs by creating ancient origins for them. For example, our ancestors may have been placing some sort of amulet containing “holy words” on the doorposts to ward off evil spirits. When somebody asked why this was done, the writers of Deuteronomy included the words about "And you shall inscribe these words upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates." In other words, we really don’t know where the custom came from, but now that we do it, we have words from God to provide an origin for the custom. Remember, nobody knows who hung the first mezuzah any more than they know who put on the first pair of tefillin. I am not saying I like this approach to Torah study, but it is one that some commentators use.
The “Prayer” of the LordAfter the revelation at Sinai, the Israelites asked Moshe to serve as an intermediary between them and God i.e., he should hear the teachings and convey them to the people (5:24). According to the commentary, the Israelites were so in awe of God’s teachings and so afraid of violating the law that they sought guidance from Moses to insure full compliance. In what some commentators describe as a bit of anthropomorphism, God responds with the prayerful utterance, “Oh, that they had such a heart as this always, to fear Me, and keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and their children forever!” (). According to the classical commentator Nachmanides, this is a reminder that “everything is in the power of God except the ability of inspiring man with the fear of Him.” Fear of the Lord, making the choice between Good and Evil, falls into the realm of free will.
The Extra WordThe sedrah begins, “And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying….” (). Most commentators focus on the word “Va-etchanan.” Rabbi Artson calls our attention to the last word of the phrase “laymor” (saying). Since no word in the Torah is superfluous, why tack on “saying” to this phrase? Rabbi Artson cites the Midrash on Devarim that this term “saying” was Moshe’s way of asking God to list any other reasons for his not going into the Promised Land other than that he had struck the rock and not spoken to it. Since Moshe knew this was the only reason, he was taking responsibility for what he had done wrong. At the same time, he was protecting the sanctity of his teachings against any future charges that he had somehow fudged the word of God and that somehow the Torah was Moshe’s and not God’s. This certainly runs contrary to all of those commentators who keep looking for some other, unmentionable transgression which kept Moshe from crossing over the
The Six RemembrancesAccording to some sages’ interpretation of the Torah, there are six occurrences that we are to remember at all times. In an effort to comply with this injunction, following the Morning Service, many Jews recite the Six Remembrances. Five of them come from Devarim and one from Shemot. The Second of the Six Remembrances is found in this week’s sedrah (4:9-10). It has to do with remembering the receiving of the Torah at
“And you shall love the Lord” (6:5)“I hear that you have a Segula for a great variety of needs, and these spiritual remedies and talismans that you dispense actual bring results,” said a certain non-Chassidic rav to Reb Avraham of Stretyn. “In fact I would like you to give me a Segulah for being God-fearing.” Rev Avraham replied, “I am afraid that for the fear of heaven I do not have a Segulah but for the love of heaven I do.” “That’s fine with, said the visitor, “for is not the love of heaven a loftier thing than the fear of heaven? Let me have such a Segulah, please.” “A great Segulah for the love of heaven,” said Reb Avraham, “is the love of one’s fellow Jew. Whoever has attained this can readily arrive at the love of heaven.” (A Treasury of Chassidic Tales)
In the world of the Kabbalah, a Segula was mystic sign or amulet imbued with spiritual powers. But a Segulah can also refer to an “action that is reputed to lead to a change in one’s fortunes.” “The word segulah might be translated as a spiritual remedy or an auspicious tradition.” In this week’s Torah portion we find the term “Am Segula” meaning “a treasured nation.” (7:6) which refers to the special relationship God has with the Jewish people. Perhaps then, a segulah might be understood to be an action that demonstrates a treasured relationship with God by doing something extra which brings people joy and draws them closer to God. (Based on readings from “Jewish Treats: Juicy Bits of Judaism.”)
The Man and the Book: The book of Isaiah consists of 66 chapters. There seems to be a consensus among many scholars and commentators that that the first 39 chapters were written by the historic figure described in the opening of the book. According to this, he would have lived in Judah (the Southern Kingdom) at the end of the eighth century B.C.E., more than one hundred years before the destruction of the
. Based on internal literary evidence, Chapters
forty through sixty-six (the last part of the Book of Isaiah) were written by
an unknown author who lived at the end of the sixth Century B.C.E. Besides a difference in style and tone there
are two specific mention of Cyrus, the Persian King who defeated the
Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to First Temple .
We have no idea who this anonymous preacher was or why he attached his
writings to those of Isaiah. We do not
even know if “he” was a “he.” There are
those who contend that that these chapters were added to the original works of
Isaiah to make the book as long as those of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Of course, there are those who still contend
that the whole book is the work of one author; that the references to Cyrus are
merely evidence of great prophetic insight. Jerusalem
The Message: The reading opens with the classic words, “Nachamu, nachamu, ami, or Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people.” In words that would have been consistent with victories of Cyrus, the prophet announces that the Exile is over and the time for Return and Redemption is at hand. The prophet reminds the people of the greatness of God. In what might be a reference to the transgression that brought on the exile, Idolatry, the prophet reminds the people that God is greater than any idol or make of idols (40:18-20). Men are like “grass which withers and flowers that fade.” The “rulers of the earth” are like “straw” that can be blown away by the storm. All strength lies with the Lord, who is the protector and shepherd of the Israelites.
Theme-link: The link is with the calendar, not the sedrah. The Shabbat following Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu. It takes its name from the first words of the haftarah, “Nachamu, nachamu ami…” “Comfort, comfort My people says your God.” This is the first of the seven Haftarot of Consolation. They all come from the book of Isaiah and are intended to offer hope to the Israelites facing the destruction of the
and exile. Yes, the prophets warned the
people that this would be their punishment if they did not obey the law. But in a lesson that we should all learn, the
prophets do not rub it in. Rather, they
reach down to help their brethren who have stumbled regain their footing; in
this case by providing a message of ultimate redemption and return. Temple
Personal Note: This was my brother’s Bar Mitzvah portion. It was the first time the adults of our congregation were treated to the lilting sound of his voice. All these years later, he is still going strong as he leads the davening with joy and knowledge at his “neighborhood” synagogue.
Copyright; July, 2015; Mitchell A. Levin