Va’etchanan: Nothing Else

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan/ Shabbat Nachamu

In Va’etchanan, Moshe reviews how he was denied entry into the Land, and warns the people to stay loyal to the covenant once they enter the Land. He tells them that God is One (the Shma) and reviews the Ten Commandments.

Good morning!

Va’etchanan has so many links to the prayer service I could hardly choose- but then again, many commentaries have been written on the Shma , so let’s look for something with less ink (fewer electrons?) spilled over it.

How about Aleinu, then? Aleinu, as you may recall, is one of the penultimate prayers of a typical service- morning, afternoon, or evening- and has two paragraphs. The first paragraph (here is the text) speaks of Israel’s uniqueness as a people, and the second paragraph speaks of the hope that someday all idolatry will be swept away and the world will be united in a common spiritual consciousness.

Yet it’s interesting that the first paragraph of Aleinu ends with a quote from the Torah- from this week’s portion, of course- that also speaks to a universal spirituality, a radical monotheism which in its Biblical context served as a rebuke to any thought of worshiping other gods:

“Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 4:39)

The final word of this verse- ein od– literally mean “no other” or “nothing else”, or “nothing but this”, and again, when you look at the verse in its Biblical context, it’s clear that Moshe is warning the people not to make the theological mistake of assigning the different parts of nature- heaven and earth- to different gods or lesser powers than the One who is the Source of all realms. Yet more recent commentators from the mystical streams of Jewish thought have interpreted ein od– “no other”- more radically: there is nothing else but God. Heaven, earth, animals, plants, seas, stars, people. . .it’s all God, all connected, all ultimately One. The goal of religious practice is to learn to perceive this unity in a world of infinite diversity and complexity, and to let those experiences transform us into more compassionate, connected, less ego-bound beings.

You might object that the first paragraph of Aleinu is not at all about the unity of the cosmos- it’s about how the Jewish people have a unique mission and obligations. To which I would reply: of course Judaism is a unique spiritual path, and it’s uniquely suited for Jews because of our shared history and spiritual inheritance, but the deepest experiences of Judaism also open one up to the awareness of connection and surrender to . . . well. . . there’s no other way to put it except: ein od. We delve deep into a particular tradition in order to see the interconnection of all things, just as we delve deep into a language in order to understand poetry and song.

We can’t write a love poem, which is a universal thing, without using a particular language. Similarly, Aleinu teaches us that if we want to understand, through deep experience, that God is One, there is no other, then we have to delve deep into our specific practices of mitzvah, study, and community, which pry us from solipsism and open up the heart to connection and love. Our verse says: know and take to heart, that is, know in your intellect but let your heart be changed when you feel deeply that what we call God is right here, filling the cosmos, there is no other.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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