Va’etchanan 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

OVERVIEW

Moshe continues to review the history of the Israelites from the time of their liberation from Egypt; he also repeatedly implores them to accept and faithfully follow the Torah, stressing its goodness and wisdom. Moshe warns the people not to worship any other god or power except the One God who gave them the Torah. Moshe then reiterates the Ten Commandments. The paragraph which we know as the first paragraph of the Shma forms part of Moshe’s long exhortation to the people. He wants them to keep faith with God after they enter the land, when Moshe himself will no longer be able to guide or instruct them.

IN FOCUS

“The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horev. It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today. The Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain. At that time I stood between the Lord and you to declare to you the word of the Lord, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain. And the Holy One said. . . ” (Deuteronomy 5:2-5))

PSHAT

Moshe recalls the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai- here known by its other name, Horev. He reminds the people that the covenant at Sinai is binding not only upon the generation that witnessed it, but upon future generations as well- in the words of one contemporary theologian, it is a living covenant. Moshe also reminds the people of his role in the drama; he went to the top of the mountain to receive the tablets, and the people were only too happy that he went instead of them. (Cf. Exodus 20)

DRASH

The plain meaning of our text is clear, although a bit different than the version in Exodus. Moshe was the one who went to the top of the mountain, and the people were afraid of God’s awesome Presence. In the plain reading of the story, Moshe’s standing “between” the people and God was a good thing, because the people felt overwhelmed by the experience and needed a leader.

So far, so good. An entirely different reading of the text reads the words “I stood between the Lord and you” as referring not to Moshe, but to the “I,” or egocentric self, as what comes “between” a person and God:

    “I stood between the Lord and you. . . ” It is this “I” of a person that is the barrier dividing a human and her Creator. Any time one dwells too much on “I” it is hard to draw close to the Sacred. (From Itturei Torah, credited to “Hassidic texts,” translation mine.)

I don’t think this text is saying that one should lose all self-identity in one’s religious quest, nor is it about losing one’s sense of individuality while dissolved in a mystic vision. Rather, I think this text points out that an essential aspect of religious growth is learning to see beyond one’s own immediate desires and needs- perhaps learning to put others first, and delaying the gratification of one’s personal wants. This can also include acquiring spiritual or ritual discipline, even at the price of our usual entertainments and distractions. After all, every hours spent studying a sacred text is an hour one is not watching TV or going to the movies.

At the very least, religion teaches that others have a claim on our moral attention- sharing our bread with the hungry or our our clothes with the naked sometimes means that our instinctive, childlike desire to have MORE of everything needs to be subordinated to our sense of obligation and justice. The laws of Judaism, in particular, are very often limitations on our natural appetites, informing what we do with sex, food, clothing, money, houses, and even words. It’s hard to grow in these areas when our own desires- the “I” of our midrash- is always first on the list of considerations.

Conversely, one widens the scope of one’s spirituality with the realization that it’s more important to be grateful than gourmet, or that money can be a means to the performance of mitzvot. It’s important to remember that restraint or selflessness is not an end in itself, but part of removing the “barriers” we feel in the spiritual life. The goal is not restraint, but a joyful life lived in the Holy Presence.

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