Va’etchanan: Don’t Forget What You Already Are

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan


For the last time, it’s Torah from the North Shore. . . . . I hope my move will
not interrupt
our Torah learning schedule, because Sefer Devarim (Book of Deuteronomy) is
right along. In this week’s portion, Va’etchanan, there is a continuation of
the review of
Israelite history since the Exodus, which, as Moshe reminds the people, should
remembered as a great and unprecedented miracle. Moshe predicts that in the
future, the
Israelites will turn away from God and Torah, but there will be an eventual
The Ten Commandments are recapitulated; parshat Va’etchanan also includes the
known as the Shma, as part of Moshe’s overarching plea for loyalty to the

This idea- that loyalty to the covenant needs consistent attention- runs through
as a recurring theme. On the one hand, it’s quite amazing to think that a people
who had
been liberated from slavery and brought (albeit by a circuitous route) to a Land
of Milk and
Honey would NOT be loyal to God and Torah- but on the other hand, the preceding
books of the Torah make it clear that rebellion, doubt, and conflict are
constant realities in
the Israelite community. Moshe pleads with the people to stay conscious of what
learned over the past 40 years:

” And which great nation is it that has just statutes and ordinances, as this
entire Torah,
which I set before you this day? But beware and watch yourself very well, lest
you forget
the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart . .
. (Devarim/
Deuteronomy 4:8-9)

Now, again, it’s an amazing idea: could the Israelites forget the Exodus and the
miracles of
the desert (“the things that your eyes saw”) and if not, would Torah really
depart from their
hearts? After all, sometimes I forget where I’ve parked my car at the mall, but
I rarely
forget major life-saving miracles that have changed me and my people forever!

My sense of the text is that we’re not talking about the kind of forgetting in
something leaves our memory for good. Rather, I think the text is suggesting
that the
people may remember the events of the Exodus and the experience of receiving
Torah at
Sinai, but may not truly integrate these principles into their consciousness,
into their
being. The challenge is not simply to remember, as such; the challenge is to
stay true to
our memories.

We all have peak moments of spiritual or emotional insight- Sinai moments, as it
were; not
having peak or wondrous experiences is not actually the problem that religion
comes to
solve. The problem is that the potential of these moments becomes lost when we
return to
daily life, with its stresses, temptations, and distractions. What a religious
discipline (such
as Shabbat, or daily prayer, or putting on tallit and tefillin, or regular Torah
study) can do
is call us back to those peak moments, those flashes of insight, those
experiences of utter
commitment to the depth of true living.

Think of our relationship with God like a relationship with a lover: there are
moments of extraordinary connection, and then there is cleaning up after dinner.
challenge, in a human relationship or our relationship with the Divine, is to
stay true to the
deepest connection, even in stressful or routine moments.

In fact, I think of Judaism as a grand attempt to stay true to our people’s
experience at
Sinai; every mitzvah, every line of text, every prayer, becomes a link back to
that moment
when the people Israel stood completely awestruck before God, and responded by
committing to the highest ideals of compassionate and spiritual living- i.e.,

Sinai is the template for my own “peak” (in both senses of the word) moments;
challenge of my life, as I understand it, is to constantly reorient myself
towards that higher
awareness. This is what it means that “these things” will not “depart from my
heart.” There
are many things I have to remember on any given day- and probably a few I’d like
forget- but the deeper remembering isn’t a matter of writing something down or
jotting a
note. The deeper remembering is integrating our experiences with our ideals, and
becoming the people we know we can be, if only we remember what we know.

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