Archive for Va’etchanan

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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Va’etchanan 5760

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 5760 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 exhortation to the people 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

“Know this day and set it upon your heart that Adonai is God- in heaven above and on earth below- there is no other.” (Deuteronomy 4:39)

PSHAT

Moshe delivers a long sermon to the people on the dangers of forgetting their experience of Liberation and Revelation- he warns them that they might fall into idolatry once they enter the land of Israel. He also promises that God will take them back, just as God took them out of Egypt to be a unique people. Moshe urges the people to remember the giving of the Torah at Sinai and be mindful of God’s presence.

DRASH

The main point of Moshe’s sermon seems fairly straightforward: don’t forget about the God who liberated you once you settle in the Land. The verse above could therefore be a simple rhetorical device, employing extra phrases merely for emphasis of the basic point. Read this way, there would be no substantial difference between “know this day” and “set it upon your heart”- they might mean basically the same thing, a steady consciousness of God’s existence, authority, and instructions. The next phrase, “in heaven above and on earth below”, could also be read this way, as complementary images which strengthen each other. Scholars of Biblical rhetoric and poetry call this “parallelism,” from the idea that two parallel or similar images strengthen the rhetorical point but don’t really have two different meanings in themselves.

Traditional rabbinic Bible commentators, on the other hand, often like to read the text in more expansive and creative ways, perceiving new and additional meanings in each seemingly superfluous word. Thus Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant [popularly known as R. Israel Salanter], a 19th century giant of mussar [ethical development] teachings, sees “know this day” and “set it upon your heart” as two different stages in a process:

    It is not sufficient merely to “know” it; this sublime knowledge must be taken into your very heart, so that your will and your virtues both should function in conformity with what you know. This task constitutes the entire service of a Jew. There is as much distance between “knowing” [something] and “setting it upon your heart” as there is between knowledge and ignorance.
    [Quoted in Hebrew in
    Itturei Torah; this translation modified from the English Wellsprings of Torah]

R. Salanter draws an important distinction here: what we know only intellectually may not actually influence our behavior; this must come from a more integrated “knowing” of mind, heart, and soul. We might think of somebody with a bad habit, for example, who knows with their brain that their habit is self-destructive, yet cannot stop until they have really emotionally internalized their desire to change. I think R. Salanter is making the same point regarding the spiritual life: we can know something purely abstractly or intellectually, yet the challenge is to act at all times out of our spiritual convictions.

That’s a deeper, more holistic kind of spirituality; not merely believing something, but acting with great integrity, wherein one naturally behaves according to one’s own ideals. The great American preacher and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King put it this way:

    But we must remember that it’s possible to affirm the existence of God with your lips and deny [God’s] existence with your life. The most dangerous kind of atheism is not theoretical atheism, but practical atheism. And the world . . . is filled up with people who pay lip service to God but not life service. (A Knock at Midnight: the Great Sermons of Martin Luther King, p.15)

I am especially moved by Dr. King’s notion of “practical atheism;” this seems to me very close to what R.Salant is saying: while religious knowledge is a good thing, it’s not the same as leading a truly religious life. There’s a well known story, attributed in different places to different 19th century rabbis, about a man who boasts that he’s been through the Talmud many times. “Fine”, replies the rabbi- “but how many times has the Talmud been through you?”

Striving for a wholeness, an integration, of mind, heart and soul – this is the “entire service” of a Jew.

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