Parshat Va'etchanan/Shabbat Nachamu
The Book of Deuteronomy
July 19th-20th, 2002
11 Av, 5762
There's a very big problem with this week's parsha: there's too much to write about.
Not that there is a shortage of profound topics in any portion of our holy Torah (if not any single verse, properly understood). But when it comes to fundamental principles (yesodos) of our Jewish faith, powerfully and memorably expressed, this parsha of Va'Eschanan--which continues Moshe's series of final orations to the Jewish people before his death--is hard to equal.
Since the plainest and most superficial reading of these verses is inspiring, I am going to give in to the temptation--before launching into any commentary whatsoever-- to quote some of them to you verbatim. (It is not just because I am too tired to compose on the day after the longest fast of the year…I am quite recovered, and have replenished requisite blood caffeine levels.)
On the immutability, completeness and unity of the Torah:
"You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it, to observe the commandments of Hashem, your G-d, that I command you."(4, 1)
On the great distinction of our Torah, and our unique closeness to G-d as a people:
"See, I have taught you decrees and ordinances, as Hashem, my G-d, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it. You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, 'Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!' For which is a great nation that has a G-d Who is close to it, as is Hashem, our G-d, whenever we call to Him? And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances, such as this entire Torah that I place before you this day?"(4, 5-8; Artscroll translation.)
On the prophesied Exile of our people, due to our transgressions, and ultimate return to G-d (it should happen soon, in our days):
"When you beget children and grandchildren, and will have been long in the Land, you will grow corrupt and make a carved image, a likeness of anything, and you will do evil in the eyes of Hashem, your G-d, to anger Him. I appoint heaven and earth this day to bear witness against you that you will surely perish quickly from the Land to which your are crossing the Jordan to possess…Hashem will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where Hashem will lead you…From there you will seek Hashem, your G-d, and you will find Him, if you search for Him with all your heart and soul. When you are in distress, and all these things have befallen you, at the end of days, you will return unto Hashem, your G-d, and hearken to His voice."(4, 25-30; Artscroll translation)
On G-d's clear and unequivocal pledge that despite what we do, and what befalls us, He will never renounce His covenant with the Jewish people (whatever the claims made by others in this regard):
"For Hashem, your G-d, is a merciful G-d, He will not abandon you nor destroy you, and He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore to them."(4, 31)
On our obligation to teach our faith to our children. (These words are likely to sound familiar to you from somewhere.)
"If you child asks you tomorrow, saying, 'What are the testimonies and decrees and the ordinances that Hashem, our G-d, commanded you?' You shall say to your child, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. Hashem placed signs and wonders, great and harmful, against Egypt, against Pharaoh and against his entire household, before our eyes. And He took us out of there in order to bring us, to give us the Land that He swore to our forerfathers."(6, 20-23)
Finally…On G-d's special love for the Jewish people, and on the source of our election not specifically being our own righteousness (or purported business savvy):
"For you are a holy people to Hashem, your G-d; Hashem, your G-d, has chosen you to be for Him a treasured people above all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. Not because you are more numerous than all the peoples did Hashem desire you and choose you, for you are the fewest of all the peoples. Rather, because of Hashem's love for you and because He observes the oath that He swore to your forefathers did He take you out with a strong hand and redeem you from the house of slavery…"(7, 6-8)
Now, then, to look at one idea in the parsha a bit more deeply, I direct your attention to a couple of verses from yet another quotable (and famous) passage, the first paragraph of the Shema:
"You shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might [or, as our Oral Tradition explains, your possessions]. And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart…you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way…You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm…And write them on the doorposts of your house…" (6, 5-9)
Our commentators and ethical masters explain that love of G-d--which is mentioned other times in the Torah as well--is one of the very highest rungs on the ladder of His service.
Our forefather, Avraham, was an exemplar of this trait. He expressed his love of G-d chiefly through the kindness (chesed) that He showered on all G-d's creations; he fulfilled what the Talmud says is the pinnacle of our obligation to love G-d--making Him beloved in the eyes of our fellow man through our words and actions.
That is to say, Avraham's love of G-d was not a passive attitude or some fuzzy feeling he harbored (conveniently) in his breast. Rather, it was a steady force that guided his life, and that expressed itself in his unwavering commitment to do actions that sanctified His name--teaching about the Creator at the risk of death (the tyrant, Nimrod, tried unsuccessfully to incinerate him), feeding hungry (and thirsty) travelers in the desert, even obeying the incomprehensible commandment to offer his son as a sacrifice. He was the antithesis of what people nowadays sardonically call "the cardiac Jew"--i.e., claiming to love G-d in one's heart, but with little concrete action or commitment to show for it. Avraham was ready to sacrifice everything, including himself and everything he held dear, for his love of G-d.
Avraham truly loved G-d with his heart, with his mind (the Midrash says that he came to his faith originally through intensive study of the elements, and interconnectedness, of Creation), with the limbs of his body, and with the wealth that G-d had liberally bestowed upon him. He exemplified true love: the utilization of all of one's gifts--of every breath--to demonstrate one's devotion to the beloved.
The words of the Shema clearly make the link between "love" and action. Look at the sequence in the verses quoted above. Love of G-d means putting the words of the Torah "upon your heart," i.e. constantly studying and internalizing the teachings of the Torah. It then means speaking those words--making them the principal part of one's actual conversation (as Rashi explains)--and teaching them to children and disciples. It means sanctifying one's body and one's home through the performance of the mitzvos (commandments).
In fact, so much is the essence of the Shema love-as-expressed-in-action, that Rashi elucidates the initial clause itself--You shall love Hashem, your G-d--with the following words: "Perform His words [i.e., His commandments] with love." In the Torah's view, Rashi is telling us, true love of G-d is expressed in the loving performance of His commandments.
Now, this is not to say that there is not a mitzvah to feel love for Hashem. There certainly is. It is a tragic misconception of some people that our Torah only commands actions, and doesn't really care about what we think or what we feel--the contents of our inner life. One of the greatest works of Jewish ethics ever composed, The Duties of the Heart, is dedicated to disabusing us of just this very notion.
G-d wants the service of the outer person (expressed in mitzvos like tefillin, charity, Sabbath observance) and the service of the inner person (the cultivation of love and awe of G-d, clinging to Him in our thoughts, faith and trust in Him, empathy for our fellow man). The Torah is comprised of duties of the body, and duties of the heart (and mind). The very first of the 10 Commandments--repeated by Moshe in this parsha--is a duty of the heart, in fact: "I am Hashem, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt." Our minds must acknowledge G-d, and His wondrous deeds for our people.
Performance of deeds, as essential as they are, are not the whole Torah any more than emotions alone are. We must strive to feel love for G-d, and also to express that in our commitment to learn and keep the Torah with joy and love.
How do we achieve such love? And how can the Torah command us to feel love? (The latter is a famous question, asked by the Ohr HaChayim and other commentators.) Well, the answer is under our noses. After telling us to love Hashem, our G-d, the Torah gives us the helpful advice we need: "And these words that I command you this day shall be upon your heart." It is through the dedicated study of the Torah itself that we reach the lofty level of love. In Rashi's unmatchable words: "For as a result of this [i.e., keeping the words of Torah close to your heart], you become aware of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and attach yourself to His ways." Interesting that Rashi here again links love to action: studying Torah is not only about feeling close to G-d--though that is an important part--but about clinging to His ways. (Maimonidies also wrote extensively about another path to reaching love of G-d--and one that, as mentioned before, Avraham himself made much use of: meditating on the great wisdom found in the marvels of G-d's creations.)
It's a great time to work on developing our love for G-d. This Shabbos is the first of the Sabbaths of consolation following the Ninth of Av; the Haftarah opens with the famous words of Isaiah, "Comfort, Comfort (nachamu, nachamu), my people--says your G-d." There are horrors in our world, of course--our Sages well predicted that this period prior to the coming of Moshiach would be tumultuous. But there are still blessings abounding--in our lives, in the words of our Torah, in our continued (and guaranteed) survival as a people. May we take some of these blessings to heart this Shabbos…and pray that we see their full and complete realization speedily in our days.
My new e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923
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