You can find the rest of the parsha text on at Va’etchanan.

37 thoughts on “Va’etchanan

  1. Aryae Post author

    Reb Shlomo Carlebach
    on Parsha Vaetchanan
    (posted on Facebook by Stewart Wax)

    Shabbat Nachamu
    The month is called Menachem Av. Menachem is the Hebrew word for “consolation.” So the name of this month means that G-d is begging us, His children, “Please, console Me.”

    I heard this gevalt Torah from my uncle, in the name of the Maggid of Mezrich. My uncle could have gotten away from Germany a thousand times, but he said, “As long as there is one Yiddele left in my city of Hamburg, I have to stay.” My father would always tell me this Torah which he heard before he left his brother, my uncle.

    My uncle would say like this: This week the Haftorah starts with “Nachamu Nachamu Ami,” – “My people, Console, Console.” The Ribbono Shel Olam is begging us, “Please, Yidden, console Me; please, My People, console Me. Please mamesh console Me!”

    And my uncle would say that we Yidden answer, “Menachem Av” – Our Father, we will console you. How do we console our father? We promise You that this will be the year. This year, we’ll come back to You. This year, we’ll come back to the Temple. This year we will bring Mashiach, let it be now!


    Stewart Wax:

    I heard from Reb Shlomo in the name of the Bal Haturim. Moses prayed to G-d 515 times (numerical value of Vaetchanan וָאֶתְחַנַּן ) to be allowed to go into the Land of Israel. [Later] G-d said, “[If you had prayed] one more time like the last one, and I would have to let you cross the Jordan River to go into Eretz Yisrael!”

    What was that prayer?
    The numerical value of 515= שירה ( song)
    It was the Tefilla ( prayer) of Song.

    Prayer through song can break down any locked gates.
    Good Shabbos!

  2. Wendy Berk

    From JTS

    The Words Upon Our Hearts


    In this week’s parashah we encounter anew perhaps the most well-known words in our tradition, the first paragraph of the Shema:

    Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai alone. You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your “muchness.” Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down, and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

    (Deut. 6:4–9)
    In these verses, we are commanded to place before us at all times words of Torah. They are to be in our hearts, in our mouths, on our heads and hands, and at the entrances to our homes.

    Indeed, according to the rabbinic tradition, the commandment in verse 6 to place these words on our hearts is intended to teach us how to fulfill the foundational commandment to “love God” found in the previous verse:

    “These words which I command you today shall be upon your heart.” Why is this written? Because it says, “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart.” But I do not know how one comes to love the Holy Blessed One! Therefore it says “these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart.” Keep these words on your heart, for in this way you will come to recognize the Holy Blessed One and to cleave to God’s ways.

    Sifrei Devarim 33
    This causal connection makes intuitive sense. Love for another is premised on our encountering and coming to know (or at least recognize) the other; it is then expressed by our acting on what we know (i.e., behaving in ways which will please the beloved). So too with our love for God. By bringing the words of Torah into our hearts, we sensitize ourselves to God’s presence, learn more about God’s ways, and are thus better able to act in consonance with the Divine will.

    Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, however, points to a problem with the phrase al levavekha, “on your heart”: “[t]he text should have written ‘in your heart’ for it needs to be in the innermost parts of the heart.” The challenge is significant. How effective are words of Torah which remain on the surface of the heart, never penetrating within?

    The Kotzker answers:

    But, the intention of the verse is that at the very least, the words should be upon your hearts. Because for the majority, the heart is closed. Yet, there is no person whose heart is never open. And then, the words can fall, truly, into the heart. And it is regarding this that we pray, “open my heart with Your Torah” (petah libi betoratekha); God will open our hearts with the Torah.

    Sefer Amud Ha’emet, on Deut. 6:6
    The Torah commands us to place these words on our hearts, rather than in them, because it is not always within our ability to place words of Torah into our hearts. In Biblical parlance, the word “heart” (lev) refers at once to the seat of intellect and of emotion. Human experience, however, teaches that the two are often quite far apart. Studying the words of Torah and understanding them intellectually—even at very profound levels—is no guarantee that they will permeate our being. We are all too capable of reading the words without living them, speaking them without integrating them into who we are. Sadly, this is often true despite our very real desire to live what we learn. For even when the mind is wide open, the heart can be sealed shut. Therefore, sometimes the best we can do is make the words available, so that should the heart open, the words will be there.

    In acknowledging these limitations on our ability to internalize the words of God, the Kotzker subtly recasts our obligations as Jews. I am told that within the discourse of psychoanalysis, faith is sometimes described not as a belief “in” something, but rather as a disposition such that despite the trauma of the past, one remains open to the possibilities offered in the next moment.[1]

    Many of us carry disappointment, hurt, or shame that affects our religious lives, whether or not we’d call it “trauma.” We are the inheritors of a Torah filled with narratives of human beings and God disappointing and angering each other, and we likely each have our own stories. We may feel wronged by God or by “religion”—having lived or witnessed Job-like suffering or been wounded or disappointed by a faith leader or community. Or we may carry feelings of shame and inadequacy from our own failures, or hopelessness in the face of the failures of humanity. Looking at our individual and collective history, we might conclude that we will never be able to live up to what the Torah demands. No matter how many times we declare God’s oneness, we sometimes divide rather than unify, sow discord rather than harmony. Most often, we do not love God with all of our hearts, with all of our souls, and with all of our “muchness”; our resources are all too frequently engaged in the service of something else, usually our own egos. We may come to believe that no matter how much we study, and how long we pray, our hearts and the hearts of our fellow human beings will remain closed, unable to receive as truth that which our minds know to be true.

    So the Torah, in commanding us to continually place “these words” upon our hearts, commands us to remain open to possibility despite this “past trauma,” whether that trauma challenges our faith in God, ourselves, or humanity. To place these words upon our hearts is an assertion of faith that, because “there is no person whose heart is never open,” our past need not dictate our future. Despite our history—and our all-too-painful experience of ourselves and our world—we trust that our (and our fellow humans’) habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting will not govern us forever. Our usually closed hearts will indeed open, and the things we just can’t seem to “get” will one day take root and blossom within. To love God, then, is not simply to strive to better know God through words of Torah. To love God is to adopt a particular stance: that despite previous distance, greater closeness with God is always possible.

    Each one of us has likely placed upon our hearts particular words of Torah that somehow cannot seem to find their way in. There are teachings that we as a people cannot seem to master, lessons that humanity cannot seem to learn. When the heart is closed, the imagination must take over. We place these words upon our heretofore-closed hearts yet again, day after day, imagining that perhaps today there will be a moment of openness and the words will sink in. Petah libi betoratekha—open my heart with Your Torah—for there is no person whose heart is never open.

  3. Wendy Berk

    From My Jewish Learning

    Dealing Wisely with Torah
    In Parashat Vaetchanan, Moses “places” the Torah before the Israelites with a warning.


    Commentary on Parashat Vaetchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

    The Book of Deuteronomy is often described as Moses’ review of the Torah, but in its deepest sense it is a meditation on the nature of Torah. Moses teaches some new laws and refreshes the old ones, and he argues for the centrality of the Torah and the commandments. But he also offers a nuanced perspective on the limits of Torah and how it must be approached with care and curiosity — even caution. This perspective invites us to think critically about the role of Torah in our lives as active producers of, and engagers with, the text — not just as passive recipients and obeyers.

    Much of this conversation hangs on a single verb, which we first encounter in Parashat Vaetchanan.

    וְזֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂם מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
    This is the teaching that Moses placed [sam] before the Israelites. Deuteronomy 4:44
    Many readers will be familiar with this verse, which is recited in many synagogues as the Torah is displayed after the public reading, but the language is a little strange. Why does it say that Moses “placed” the Torah before the people? Why didn’t he give it, or maybe better, teach it?

    In the Talmud, we encounter a significant but difficult truth about the Torah embedded in this verb.

    Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And this is the Torah which Moses put [sam] before the children of Israel.” If one merits it, the Torah becomes a potion [sam] of life for him. If one does not merit it, the Torah becomes a potion of death for him. Yoma 72b
    Using talmudic wordplay, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi observes that the Hebrew word for “placed” is a homophone for the Hebrew word for “potion.” From this, he argues that the nature of the Torah is not absolute, but relative. The kind of person you are and the way that you approach the Torah determines whether or not you will find the Torah life-giving or life-taking, invigorating or exhausting. According to this teaching, the Torah is not properly thought of as something that transforms us, but rather it is we who transform the Torah — through interpretation and application, but perhaps most importantly, through our attitude. We determine the nature of the Torah based on our own nature.

    The question is: How? How does one become the sort of person for whom the Torah is a blessing instead of a burden? Where does this elusive merit come from?

    A mishnah in Makkot offers this answer:

    Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia says: “The Holy Blessed One desired to bring merit to Israel, therefore He gave them much Torah [to study] and many commandments [to perform]: as it says, “The Lord desires [his servant’s] vindication, that he may magnify and glorify [His] teaching.” Makkot 3:16
    According to this mishnah, the Torah and the commandments provide us with opportunities to find merit. In other words, what Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi tells us can be either life-giving or life-taking based upon our merit is the very thing that Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia says is the source of the merit itself! Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia does not take a selective or cautious approach to the Torah. He thinks that the goal and the function of Torah is merit and that we need to take the Torah upon ourselves and approach it with confidence and joy. The trepidation and anxiety embedded in Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s approach seems quite far from the outlook of Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia.

    Yet perhaps both Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s wariness and Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia’s confidence are necessary to approach Torah successfully. Perhaps it is precisely the belief that the Torah brings merit is what makes us the kind of meritorious people that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says will make Torah a positive force in our lives.

    If we choose to embrace Torah completely and enthusiastically, as Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia urges, while holding on to the full awareness that it can be both complicated and difficult, as per Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, then and only then are we set up to derive the goodness inherent in Torah. Both perspectives are necessary to avoid the pitfalls of an unhealthy or unbalanced approach. The Torah can be distorted — or distorting, harmful even. But by recognizing this possibility, and choosing to engage with it anyway, we enter into the relationship prepared for the risks and capable of weathering whatever storms arise. It’s only when we’re unaware that something could be misapplied or misunderstood that our innocence invites us to fail. The caution of Rabbi Yehoshua enables the confidence of Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia, while the latter’s confidence ensures the former’s followers that the risk is indeed worthwhile.

    In Parashat Vaetchanan, Moses places the Torah before the people and says: Deal with this wisely. I am promising you that this is hard, that it requires careful attention and that there is a possibility that you may not succeed. But I promise you that it is worth it. I provide you with this warning so that you can be successful, so that you will be strategic as well as loving in ensuring that the Torah is a source of blessing and of life.

  4. Wendy Berk

    From reform

    The Oneness of Diversity
    Va-et’chanan, Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11


    I was a second-year Rabbinical Student, serving a midwestern congregation for the High Holy Days. Prior to my arrival, the local Jewish paper wrote a short article as a means of introducing me to the community. Among other things, the article included that I am Chinese. After reading it, a woman from the congregation found me at services and said, “It doesn’t matter where you are from, you can be just as Jewish as the rest of us.”

    I didn’t understand what she was saying at first. I am from San Francisco, a detail also included in the article. Was she suggesting that people who hail from the west coast are less Jewish than midwesterners? Then I realized, of course, that she was betraying a different, two-fold bias. First, that all Asian people were born somewhere in Asia, and second, that Chinese Jews must be welcomed into the Jewish community.

    It’s a strange feeling to have someone welcome you into your own community. It’s like having a stranger try to welcome you into your own home. I already knew that I was as Jewish “as the rest of us.” But I didn’t know that she didn’t think of me as equally Jewish until she told me by saying what she said. She was not welcoming me so much as trying to convince herself that I could be as Jewish as she was. Someone telling you that they don’t think you belong, even in a nice way, is a hurtful thing to hear.

    Thinking of diversity as a matter of welcome or inclusion is a mistake we often make in the Jewish community. Both of those terms suggest that there are insiders who have to bring outsiders in. That sets up a power dynamic that can be diminishing and insulting. Rather, diversity is a matter of recognition; recognizing who already comprises our communities. When we try to be inclusive, we have a fixed understanding of who those insiders and outsiders are. When, instead, we try to recognize who we are as a community, our minds focus on learning in order to grow our perceptions of who we are as a people.

    This week’s Torah portion, va-et’chanan, can give us a helpful frame as we consider what it means to truly recognize the diversity we have in our community. Through the words of the sh’ma, we explore the meaning of Oneness.

    Sh ‘ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

    Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.

    This six-word phrase is one of the most important texts in Jewish life. As we chant and say it ritually, it connects us with all other Jews through time and space. It grounds us as a part of the Jewish people, and it teaches us the Jewish perspective on the nature of God.

    Taken as an adjective, “one” means that God is singular. The sh’ma , then, is a statement of monotheism. There is only one God as opposed to many gods. That is the idea at the foundation of Jewish thought and tradition. It helps to remind us that our God is the God of all people, and thus all of humanity comes from the same source.

    Taken as a noun, however, “one” means unity. “One” is the sum of all fractions and parts and represents wholeness, completeness. No one and nothing exists outside of that Oneness. Dr. Judith Plaskow captures this beautifully when she writes in her book Standing Again at Sinai, “[T] he capacity to see the One in and through the changing forms of the many, to glimpse the whole in and through its infinite images, is…what monotheism is truly about.” God is the whole and everything else is a piece of that unity. We might not know what each of those parts are, but when we encounter them, we know that their very existence means they are a part of the Oneness.

    When we mistakenly see some as insiders and others as outsiders, we have split the One into multiple parts. That is what makes us feel fractured and broken. That is what makes some people ostracize and isolate others. If, instead, we see all others as already a part of the whole, then we approach the encounter with openness, ready to accept whatever aspects of diversity that they bring, even if it is new to us.

    Our goal must be to change our perception of who “we” already are. When we do, we may come closer to truly experiencing Oneness.

  5. Wendy Berk

    From The Hebrew College

    Seeds of Consolation: Open-Eyed Torah for a Friend

    Naomi Gurt Lind Rabbinical Student
    Parashat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

    Parashat Vaetchanan begins with Moshe deep in his feelings, as he recalls pleading with God to be allowed to enter into the Promised Land. He has devoted his life to his people, has endured hardship and frustration, conquered self-doubt and overwork, only to find that at the end of his life he will not get to see the task come to fruition. In Deuteronomy 3:25, early in the parashah, he says:

    אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה וְהַלְּבָנֹן׃

    Please let me cross, so I can see the good land which is across the Jordan, that good mountain, and Lebanon besides.

    You can hear in the first word of this verse “e’b’rah na” the way his plea almost catches in his throat—a sob, maybe, or the return of the stammer he overcame to grow into leadership. This is hard for him. Letting go is so hard.

    When the answer to his supplication comes back from God, the same root letters—ayin, bet, resh—appear:

    וַיִּתְעַבֵּר יְהֹוָה בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלָי וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֵלַי רַב־לָךְ אַל־תּוֹסֶף דַּבֵּר אֵלַי עוֹד בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה׃

    And God was cross with me, on your account, and would not hear me.
    And God said to me, “You are too much. Don’t say another word to Me about this matter.”

    Moshe never gets the answer he is hoping for; his transgression (aveirah, another ayin-bet-resh word) is deemed too great. Nonetheless, he composts his devastation at the lost opportunity and returns to his task. He doesn’t get to cross over, but nonetheless, he teaches us how. Sometimes disruptions—even catastrophic ones—can point the way.

    This seems an apt message at this moment in the Jewish calendar. Parashat Vaetchanan is always closely paired with Tisha b’Av, the holiday commemorating the destruction of the Temples along with many other calamities throughout Jewish history. Tisha b’Av is the culmination of the season of admonition in our liturgical calendar, which traces the mounting horror of the three weeks from 17 Tammuz to 9 Av in the year 70 CE, as Roman invaders breached the walls of Jerusalem, laid siege, and eventually reduced the Second Temple to rubble.

    Our observance of Tisha b’Av is leavened, finally, in the afternoon hours, when tradition teaches that Moshiach (The Messiah) is born. The seeds of consolation are planted in the soil of the worst catastrophes, watered with our tears. Within the week comes Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, and we are making our way—sobered, changed—toward wholeness again. It is our job to sift through the ashes of the ruined city and find a reason to go on.

    Parashat Vaetchanan is bathed in resilience and faith. Despite his disappointment, Moshe takes up the thread of instructing the Israelites in how to acquit themselves to the longed-for privilege that he will never share in. He reminds them of mistakes along the way and of the slow-acting reward of staying true to core beliefs. In Deuteronomy 4:3, we read about the fate of some Israelites who backslid into idolatry. By contrast, the next verse teaches:

    וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים בַּיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם׃

    But you who stuck with Adonai your God, each and every one of you is alive today.

    This verse, familiar from our Torah Service, bespeaks the value of holding on in faith when things seem to be crumbling all around you. Faith keeps us alive as a people, even as individuals die. Holding onto our essential beliefs, as articulated in Deuteronomy 5:6-18 in עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת (Aseret Hadibrot, commonly translated as The Ten Commandments), is fundamental both to our relationship with God and to our survival.

    Then in chapter 6 we encounter possibly the most famous words in all of Jewish tradition, a stark declaration of faith, as succinct as a haiku (which it also is):

    שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהֹוָה  אֶחָד׃

    Listen, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.
    (Deuteronomy 6:4)

    In the Torah scrolls, there is something interesting with the calligraphy: the ayin of the word “shema” and the dalet of the word “echad” are larger than the other letters. There are no accidents or mistakes in Torah, only opportunities for deeper meaning to emerge. What could be behind these oversized letters? What magic do they hold?

    Chizkuni (13th century France) suggests that the ayin is a reference to the way God created the world. Using gematria (Hebrew numerology), Chizkuni links the ayin to the number 70, and places each element of creation into a long chain of seventies: Israel is one of seventy nations, which is one seventieth of the number of four-legged beasts on the earth, which is one seventieth of the number of birds, and so on. Chizkuni writes, in part:

    הקב״ה ברא מעש׳ו בעי״ן צי״ן

    The Blessed Holy One engages in creation with ayin ayin.‎

    Rereading Chizkuni, we might say that God created the world with both eyes open (another meaning for ayin is “eye”)—knowing that there would be pain and brokenness, and that through faith, humanity would fumble through and cope. With our eyes open, we can see the struggles of others. With our eyes open, we can see where our society can be more righteous. With our eyes open, we can see the beauty of this incredible planet, and pledge ourselves to treat it with tenderness.

  6. Wendy Berk

    From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    The Right and the Good


    Buried among the epic passages in Va’etchanan – among them the Shema and the Ten Commandments – is a brief passage with large implications for the moral life in Judaism. Here it is together with the preceding verse:

    Be very vigilant to keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and the testimonies and decrees with which He has charged you. Do what is right and what is good in the Lord’s eyes, so that it may go well with you, and you may go in and take possession of the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you.

    Deut. 6:17-18
    The difficulty is obvious. The preceding verse makes reference to commandments, testimonies, and decrees. This, on the face of it, is the whole of Judaism as far as conduct is concerned. What then is meant by the phrase “the right and the good” that is not already included within the previous verse?

    Rashi says it refers to “compromise (that is, not strictly insisting on your rights) and action within or beyond the letter of the law (lifnim mi-shurat ha-din).” The law, as it were, lays down a minimum threshold: this we must do. But the moral life aspires to more than simply doing what we must.[1] The people who most impress us with their goodness and rightness are not merely people who keep the law. The saints and heroes of the moral life go beyond. They do more than they are commanded. They go the extra mile. That, according to Rashi, is what the Torah means by “the right and the good.”

    Ramban, while citing Rashi and agreeing with him, goes on to say something slightly different:

    At first Moses said that you are to keep His statutes and his testimonies which He commanded you, and now he is stating that even where He has not commanded you, give thought as well to do what is good and right in his eyes, for He loves the good and the right.

    Now this is a great principle, for it is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of man’s conduct with his neighbours and friends, all his various transactions and the ordinances of all societies and countries. But since He mentioned many of them, such as, “You shall not go around as a talebearer,” “You shall not take vengeance nor bear a grudge,” “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour,” “You shall not curse the deaf,” “You shall rise before the hoary head,” and the like, He went on to state in a general way that in all matters one should do what is good and right, including even compromise and going beyond the strict requirement of the law… Thus one should behave in every sphere of activity, until he is worthy of being called “good and upright.”

    Ramban is going beyond Rashi’s point, that the right and the good refer to a higher standard than the law strictly requires. It seems as if Ramban is telling us that there are aspects of the moral life that are not caught by the concept of law at all. That is what he means by saying “It is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of man’s conduct with his neighbours and friends.”

    Law is about universals, principles that apply in all places and times: Do not murder. Do not rob. Do not steal. Do not lie. Yet there are important features of the moral life that are not universal at all. They have to do with specific circumstances and the way we respond to them. What is it to be a good husband or wife, a good parent, a good teacher, a good friend? What is it to be a great leader, or follower, or member of a team? When is it right to praise, and when is it appropriate to say, “You could have done better”? There are aspects of the moral life that cannot be reduced to rules of conduct, because what matters is not only what we do, but the way in which we do it: with humility or gentleness or sensitivity or tact.

    Morality is about persons, and no two persons are alike. When Moses asked God to appoint his successor, he began his request with the words, “Lord, God of the spirit of all flesh.” (Num. 27:16) On this the Rabbis commented: what Moses was saying was that each person is different, so he asked God to appoint a leader who would relate to each individual as an individual, knowing that what is helpful to one person may be harmful to another.[2] This ability to judge the right response to the right person at the right time is a feature not only of leadership, but of human goodness in general.

    Rashi begins his commentary to Bereishit with the question: If the Torah is a book of law, why does it not start with the first law given to the people of Israel as a whole, which does not appear until Exodus 12? Why does it include the narratives about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the patriarchs and matriarchs and their children? Rashi gives an answer that has nothing to do with morality – he says it has to do with the Jewish people’s right to their land. But the Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin; 1816-1893) writes that the stories of Genesis are there to teach us how the patriarchs were upright in their dealings, even with people who were strangers and idolaters. That, he says, is why Genesis is called by the Sages “the book of the upright.”[3]

    Morality is not just a set of rules, even a code as elaborate as the 613 commands and their rabbinic extensions. It is also about the way we respond to people as individuals. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is at least in part about what went wrong in their relationship when the man referred to his wife as Ishah, ‘woman,’ a generic description, a type. Only when he gave her a proper name, Chavah, Eve, did he relate to her as an individual in her individuality, and only then did God make “garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” (Gen. 3:21)

    This too is the difference between the God of Aristotle and the God of Abraham. Aristotle thought that God knew only universals not particulars. This is the God of science, of the Enlightenment, of Spinoza. The God of Abraham is the God who relates to us in our singularity, in what makes us different from others as well as what makes us the same.

    This ultimately is the difference between the two great principles of Judaic ethics: justice and love. Justice is universal. It treats all people alike, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, making no distinctions on the basis of colour or class. But love is particular. A parent loves their children for what makes them each unique. The moral life is a combination of both. That is why it cannot be reduced solely to universal laws. That is what the Torah means when it speaks of “the right and the good” over and above the commandments, statutes, and testimonies.

    A good teacher knows what to say to a struggling student who, through great effort, has done better than expected, and to a gifted student who has come top of the class but is still performing below their potential. A good employer knows when to praise and when to challenge. We all need to know when to insist on justice and when to exercise forgiveness. The people who have had a decisive influence on our lives are almost always those we feel understood us in our singularity. We were not, for them, a mere face in the crowd. That is why, though morality involves universal rules and cannot exist without them, it also involves interactions that cannot be reduced to rules.

    Rabbi Israel of Rizhin (1796-1850) once asked a student how many sections there were in the Shulchan Aruch. The student replied, “Four.” “What,” asked the Rizhiner, “do you know about the fifth section?” “But there is no fifth section,” said the student. “There is,” said the Rizhiner. “It says: always treat a person like a mensch.”

    The fifth section of the code of law is the conduct that cannot be reduced to law. That is what it takes to do the right and the good.

    [1] See Lon Fuller, The Morality of Law (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1969), and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s much reprinted article, “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of the Halakhah?” in Modern Jewish Ethics, ed. Marvin Fox (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975), pp. 62–88.

    [2] Sifre Zuta, Midrash Tanhuma and Rashi to Numbers ad loc.

    [3] Ha-amek Davar to Genesis, Introduction.

  7. Wendy Berk

    From The Hebrew College

    Take Care of Yourself

    By Rabbi Minna Bromberg

    Parashat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11)

    So take care of your soul, my friend, she is far more precious than gold.

    Every evening for months and months now, I have started my 19-month-old’s bedtime songs with these words. They are from Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld’s interpretation of a 16th-century North African piyut (a Jewish liturgical poem) and to me they call on each of us to honor and protect the preciousness and brilliance of every human being—each of us a soul whose “light is like seven mornings in one.”

    This charge to tend to our own souls, to our own well-being, in its deepest sense is one way of hearing the halakha (Jewish law) that obligates us to shmirat hanefesh—a principle that traces its origins to this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11).

    With so many dos and don’ts, so many “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” Va’etchanan, is really a “Greatest Hits” of the Torah’s ideas about how we ought to be living our lives. It’s got the actual Ten Commandments in a “remixed” version, which differs from how they appear in the book of Exodus. It includes the Shema with its declaration of God’s Oneness and the rousing commandment to “love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” And it doesn’t hesitate to also go into detailed instructions about how to perpetuate this love: “teach these words to your children, speak of them in your home and on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up . . . . ”

    Tucked away in Moses’ pre-Ten Commandments exhortation to the people are the words that are used to teach the principle of shmirat hanefesh: “v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshotehem” (“be very careful for your own sake” or “take very good care of yourselves,” from Deuteronomy 4:15).

    Shmirat hanefesh is usually seen as an obligation to avoid unnecessary risks to our own health and safety. Of course, ideas about what constitutes an avoidable risk change over time as our understanding of the world itself changes. In the Talmud, for example, there are a number of risks that are easily understandable in our day, but there are also warnings against, for example, blood-letting on cloudy days or on days when the wind is blowing from the south.

    Jewish law has also been mindful of weighing the risks of certain behaviors—such as hunting for wild animals, versus the need of people to earn a living. If hunting wild animals is how you feed your family, then the obligation of shmirat hanefesh does not apply to you around this activity. The risk is still there, but avoiding it would cause too much damage in another area of your life.

    In more modern times, shmirat hanefesh has been the principle used to debate whether smoking cigarettes should be forbidden under Jewish law. And in these times of COVID, shmirat hanefesh has been used to infuse the practice of wearing a face mask with religious and spiritual meaning.

    I first encountered the concept of shmirat hanefesh when it was used, or rather misused, by “concern trolls.” In response to calls of mine to grant equal respect, dignity, and rights to people regardless of their size, I’ve received messages, emails, and comments on social media asking how I, as a rabbi who is a fat activist, plan to address shmirat hanefesh. Here were folks who want to further stigmatize fat people by feigning concern for our health—an all too familiar “concern” to any fat person—but this time they were dressing it up in halakha.

    This raised a number of genuinely interesting questions for me, such as: Does it make sense to think of fatness as an avoidable risk that an individual is taking given what we know about the failure rates of attempts at intentional weight loss? Does shmirat hanefesh apply to physical health over and above mental and spiritual health? And who, in each generation, gets to decide what risks shmirat hanefesh applies to?

    Beyond these questions, the messages people were sending me also sent me back to the origins of shmirat hanefesh itself, those three words at the beginning of a verse in Deuteronomy (4:15). Look what happens when we read verse in its entirety as well as the verse that follows: “Take very good care—since you saw no shape when Adonai your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire—not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman.”

    The words that are used to bolster the idea of shmirat hanefesh are actually plucked from a verse about idolatry; they are specifically warning against the temptation to worship “the form of a man or a woman.”

    Such irony! What a retort from the text itself!

    The people who were using shmirat hanefesh to concern troll me were, to my way of thinking, engaged in the very act that the verse is warning against. By taking an overly narrow view of what our bodies ought to look like (at any cost) and then elevating that ideal to something that our society basically worships, they were, dare I say it, engaging in the very idolatry that the verse warns against!

    Rather than ceding the concept of shmirat hanefesh to the concern trolls, I want us to re-expand our sense of what taking care of ourselves might really mean: our mental health as well as our physical health; our soul’s well-being as well as our body’s; a warning against taking unnecessary risk, yes, but with an understanding that no single risk we take is isolated from the rest of our lives as a whole.

    Rather than using it as a tool for reinforcing stigma, I want a shmirat hanefesh that resonates with the kind of soul-care in Rabbi Anisfeld’s song. I want a shmirat hanefesh that starts from the premise that the ability to serve God with joy requires us to be deeply good to ourselves.

  8. Wendy Berk

    From My Jewish Learning

    Dealing Wisely with Torah
    In Parashat Vaetchanan, Moses “places” the Torah before the Israelites with a warning.


    Commentary on Parashat Vaetchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

    The Book of Deuteronomy is often described as Moses’ review of the Torah, but in its deepest sense it is a meditation on the nature of Torah. Moses teaches some new laws and refreshes the old ones, and he argues for the centrality of the Torah and the commandments. But he also offers a nuanced perspective on the limits of Torah and how it must be approached with care and curiosity — even caution. This perspective invites us to think critically about the role of Torah in our lives as active producers of, and engagers with, the text — not just as passive recipients and obeyers.

    Much of this conversation hangs on a single verb, which we first encounter in Parashat Vaetchanan.

    וְזֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂם מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
    This is the teaching that Moses placed [sam] before the Israelites. Deuteronomy 4:44
    Many readers will be familiar with this verse, which is recited in many synagogues as the Torah is displayed after the public reading, but the language is a little strange. Why does it say that Moses “placed” the Torah before the people? Why didn’t he give it, or maybe better, teach it?

    In the Talmud, we encounter a significant but difficult truth about the Torah embedded in this verb.

    Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And this is the Torah which Moses put [sam] before the children of Israel.” If one merits it, the Torah becomes a potion [sam] of life for him. If one does not merit it, the Torah becomes a potion of death for him. Yoma 72b
    Using talmudic wordplay, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi observes that the Hebrew word for “placed” is a homophone for the Hebrew word for “potion.” From this, he argues that the nature of the Torah is not absolute, but relative. The kind of person you are and the way that you approach the Torah determines whether or not you will find the Torah life-giving or life-taking, invigorating or exhausting. According to this teaching, the Torah is not properly thought of as something that transforms us, but rather it is we who transform the Torah — through interpretation and application, but perhaps most importantly, through our attitude. We determine the nature of the Torah based on our own nature.

    The question is: How? How does one become the sort of person for whom the Torah is a blessing instead of a burden? Where does this elusive merit come from?

    A mishnah in Makkot offers this answer:

    Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia says: “The Holy Blessed One desired to bring merit to Israel, therefore He gave them much Torah [to study] and many commandments [to perform]: as it says, “The Lord desires [his servant’s] vindication, that he may magnify and glorify [His] teaching.” Makkot 3:16
    According to this mishnah, the Torah and the commandments provide us with opportunities to find merit. In other words, what Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi tells us can be either life-giving or life-taking based upon our merit is the very thing that Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia says is the source of the merit itself! Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia does not take a selective or cautious approach to the Torah. He thinks that the goal and the function of Torah is merit and that we need to take the Torah upon ourselves and approach it with confidence and joy. The trepidation and anxiety embedded in Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s approach seems quite far from the outlook of Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia.

    Yet perhaps both Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s wariness and Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia’s confidence are necessary to approach Torah successfully. Perhaps it is precisely the belief that the Torah brings merit is what makes us the kind of meritorious people that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says will make Torah a positive force in our lives.

    If we choose to embrace Torah completely and enthusiastically, as Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia urges, while holding on to the full awareness that it can be both complicated and difficult, as per Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, then and only then are we set up to derive the goodness inherent in Torah. Both perspectives are necessary to avoid the pitfalls of an unhealthy or unbalanced approach. The Torah can be distorted — or distorting, harmful even. But by recognizing this possibility, and choosing to engage with it anyway, we enter into the relationship prepared for the risks and capable of weathering whatever storms arise. It’s only when we’re unaware that something could be misapplied or misunderstood that our innocence invites us to fail. The caution of Rabbi Yehoshua enables the confidence of Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia, while the latter’s confidence ensures the former’s followers that the risk is indeed worthwhile.

    In Parashat Vaetchanan, Moses places the Torah before the people and says: Deal with this wisely. I am promising you that this is hard, that it requires careful attention and that there is a possibility that you may not succeed. But I promise you that it is worth it. I provide you with this warning so that you can be successful, so that you will be strategic as well as loving in ensuring that the Torah is a source of blessing and of life.

  9. Wendy Berk

    From JTS

    The Wholeness of a Broken Tablet


    Parashat Va’et-hannan (Deut. 3–7) is always read on Shabbat Nahamu—the “Shabbat of Comfort”—which falls immediately after Tishah Be’av, the day when we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It receives its name from the opening line of the Haftarah: “Comfort, comfort, my people” (Isaiah 40:1).

    The themes of this Shabbat mirror the process of moving through grief, from the devastation characterized by Tishah Be’av to the comfort expressed by Shabbat Nahamu, and eventually to the renewal hoped for on Rosh Hashanah. When the Temple stood, its service had provided a mechanism to mark, engage, and move through life’s experiences, whether joyful or painful. Not only was the destruction of the Temple a calamity; it was also the destruction of the system for coping with calamities, the system for grieving and offering and receiving comfort. The Jewish people were at a loss for how to heal from this disaster and yet, somehow, they managed to do so.

    The early rabbinic text Avot De’Rabbi Natan shares a story of healing and resiliency in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple. The story begins, “Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai left Jerusalem, and Rabbi Joshua followed after him. Rabbi Joshua saw the Holy Temple destroyed, and he lamented: ‘Woe to us, for this is destroyed—the place where all of Israel’s sins are forgiven!’” The Temple was the place where the people would bring sacrifices to mark significant moments in their lives and to experience spiritual transformation—including when they sinned and sought an intangible sense of forgiveness or atonement. This ritual was a way of spiritually cleansing themselves and starting afresh. Rabbi Joshua feared that without this ritual, they would feel a perpetual sense of guilt and shame and carry with them feelings of sadness and incompletion.

    Rabban Yohanan replied, “My child, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Acts of kindness, as it says, ‘For I desire kindness, not a well-being offering’” (Psalm 89:3). Rather than feeling bereft, Rabban Yohanan expressed hope, vision, and purpose.

    These two individuals had experienced the same loss but each had his own unique process of grieving. The text does not tell us Rabbi Joshua’s response to his teacher’s words. Was he comforted? Was he angered? Did he feel ignored or misunderstood? We know from other midrashim that Rabban Yohanan and his students, including Rabbi Joshua, established a yeshiva in Yavneh (BT Gittin 56b) and constructed a new form of Judaism that provided radically different ways to structure a meaningful life and to cope with existential crises, including coping with one’s own wrong-doing and regret. A lesson of this text is to make space for the multiplicity of conflicting responses to crisis. The hope of the text is that emotional and spiritual healing are possible.

    The Torah reading of Shabbat Nahamu, Parashat Va’et-hannan, also points us toward a teaching about healing from brokenness when the system for coping itself breaks down. Twice our Torah portion refers to how the Ten Commandments were engraved on tablets (Deut. 4:12–13, 5:19). These tablets are the subject of a more in-depth narrative in other parts of the Torah: Moses descends the mountain with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments and sees the people worshipping a golden calf they have built in his absence. He is shocked and smashes the tablets. Eventually, God summons him back up the mountain and he receives a second set of tablets, which he delivers intact to the Israelites.

    The Midrash teaches us that both sets of tablets, the broken and the whole, are holy and worthy of our attention and respect. Based on a verse in next week’s parashah (Deut. 10:2), Rabbi Yosef taught that “both the tablets and the fragments of the tablets were deposited in the Ark” (BT Bava Batra 14b; also see BT Berakhot 8b). The Israelites literally carry the two sets with them, recognizing that both were sources for guidance and inspiration in their lives.

    Imagining the whole tablets and the broken shards side by side in the Ark and thinking of them as metaphors for our spiritual lives, one can wonder what breaks a person’s sense of meaning, and how one might reconstruct it.

    Rabbi Harold Kushner, in a talk to chaplains at Memorial Sloane Kettering Hospital in 1993, taught another midrash from Avot De’Rabbi Natan about the breaking of the tablets. According to the Midrash, Moses “looked and saw that the writing was flying off the tablets, and he said: ‘How can I give these tablets to Israel?’ For there is nothing on them! So instead, I will take ahold of them and smash them!”

    In Kushner’s interpretation of this midrash, it is at this point that Moses could not carry the stones anymore, and they fell from his hands and shattered. The midrash, Kushner explained, is about how a sense of purpose in a person’s life is crucial for their resiliency: “When there is a purpose to what you are doing, you can do things which are too hard for you. When there is a sense of futility, when you’re not sure you’re doing any good, even a doable task becomes too hard. So one of the things we have to do to avoid burnout is to redefine success” (“Religious Resources for Healing,” The Caregiver Journal 10:3 [1993]).

    Moses experienced moral distress. A concept originally developed within the nursing profession, moral distress occurs “when one knows the right thing to do, but institutional constraints make it nearly impossible to pursue the right course of action” (Andrew Jameton. Nursing Practice: The Ethical Issues [Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984], 6). Moses’s distress was also vocational; what he had learned about how to lead people, what to teach them, and how to help better their lives no longer seemed true, or even possible. Indeed, according to the Midrash, when he saw the people dancing around the Golden Calf, he asked himself, “How can I give them these commandments?!” because he knew that they would initially be in violation of the commandment not to worship idols. Moses needed to break and replace not only the literal stones of the tablets, but also his own sense of purpose as a leader.

    The Torah teaches that Moses ascended the mountain a second time. Whereas the first tablets were prepared before his arrival—in fact, created by God before the Creation of the world, according to the Midrash—the second tablets required Moses’s involvement in their creation. He carved the stones and wrote the words (Exod. 34:27–28).

    In order to reconstruct a sense of purpose, Moses needed to be able and willing to start again and to conduct himself differently—just as Rabban Yohanan and Rabbi Joshua needed to imagine different ways of relating to God and one another. Shabbat Nahamu provides comfort in part by reminding us of the flexibility of the human spirit to experience real healing and transformation in new ways.

  10. Wendy

    From AJR/CA

    Parshat Va’etchanan

    “Holy Supplication”
    By Rabbi Janet Madden PhD

    “I commend these words to you.
    Engrave them on your hearts.”-Primo Levi, “Shema”

    Parshat Va’etchanan, the parsha that is always read on Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort/Comforting, is best known as the parsha that contains the Shema and the V’ahavta, words and concepts that are central to our liturgy. And what a vehicle it is for teachings about boundaries and limitations and hopes and warnings and disappointments and the Divine gifts of life and Torah.

    The connection that I feel with this, my birth parsha, is held in its name: Va’etchanan- “And I pleaded/entreated/beseeched/implored.” When I was younger, I was dazzled by the beauty of the prayer and poetry, the reiteration of the Aseret Dibrot. I thought it terribly sad and so very unfair that Moses, who had given a lifetime of service to HaShem and to the people, was denied entry to the Land, in spite of his pleading/entreating/beseeching/imploring. I wondered how embittered he felt and I thought, fearfully, of how many of my own dreams, hopes and prayers would inevitably be denied.

    I see things differently now. I am still dazzled by the beauty of its prayer and poetry, but now, with every death that I attend and funeral that I officiate, I am reminded of the words of the medieval Spanish rabbi Bachya ibn ben Pakuda: that our days are scrolls and that we “Write on them what we want remembered.” And so I see Moses’ pleading in a different light: his urgent awareness that he is coming to the end of his life is translated into Devarim, his extended ethical-spiritual will, the transcendent history and inheritance that he longs for his people to fully receive, to take into their hearts.

    In Va’etchanan, Moses is not so much pleading with HaShem as with the Children of Israel. He has parented them from the throes of birthing as he led their parents and grandparents to freedom out of the Place of Narrowness through the birth canal of the Sea of Reeds, on to the expansive, barren and terrifying experiences of Desert-Wilderness and now, to fruition: the emergence of the new generation that will enter the Land. For this generation, the literal Egypt is a metaphor, a story, but not a memory. Almost ready now to pass his leadership role onto a new leader, Moses is the embodied keeper of memory, the conduit to direct conversation with the Divine. Through two or three lifetimes of marching, kvetching, rebellions, errors, repentances, deaths, births and wars, from the terrifying to the mundane the sublime, he has struggled to lead. And he has also struggled with his own frustrations, triumphs, joys, losses, griefs, fears, exhaustion.

    The poignancy of Moses’ extended and painstaking valediction is that it is not merely a recapitulation. His retelling of the story of the holy and painful journey of their ancestors to this new generation, poised as it is to enter into their inheritance, so naturally focused on the present and the future and so in danger of forgetting the past, is not only a series of reminders and warnings. It is also a mechanism for Moses’ own processing, the transformative process by which he comes to understand and articulate the reality that every life, including his own, is encoded with limitations, and that as each of us becomes a memory keeper for the next generation, we hold that realization in bittersweet balance with cautionary tales of the lessons we have learned and our loving hopes for those who come after us.

    “I must die in this land, I must not go over the Jordan,” Moses tells the people. “But ye are to go over, and possess that good land.” This hope for taking possession of the good land by the generations that will come after us becomes our comfort and consolation, a way to project our love and care into the unknown and unseeable future. It is a form of comfort and consolation as we consider how we have written our scrolls, what what we have learned, what we have and continue to hold dear, what we yearn for, now, not for ourselves, but for those we love and from whom we know, in our deepest knowing, that we must part.

  11. Wendy

    From My Jewish Learning

    Inverse Tablets
    Although beliefs matter most regarding God, our actions matter most regarding our fellow people.


    In this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, Moses recounts the revelation at Mount Sinai, during which the Jews were given the Ten Commandments. The Commandments were carved on two stone tablets, five on each. According to tradition, the first five concern obligations between an individual and God, while the latter five govern relations between human beings.

    An interesting pattern distinguishes the two types of Commandments. Regarding one’s obligations toward God, the Torah first commands us regarding thought, then speech, and finally behavior.

    Thus, the first two commandments are to believe in one God and not to accept any other gods. These duties of the heart and mind are followed by a speech-related mitzvah (commandment), the prohibition against saying God’s name in vain. The last two Commandments on the first tablet require action: observing the Sabbath and honoring one’s parents. (This last commandment actually involves obligations both to God and to other human beings, but it is included on the first tablet and thus traditionally is considered a mitzvah between an individual and God).

    The Commandments on the second tablet, which relate to interpersonal relationships, have an inverse order: first action, then speech, and finally thought. Thus, we have the prohibitions against murder, adultery and theft (actually kidnapping, according to the Talmud), followed by that against swearing falsely. The final commandment proscribes coveting one’s neighbor’s possessions in one’s heart.

    The Torah seems to be teaching us a fundamental lesson. With respect to our worship of God, the primary emphasis is on our belief and mental processes; what we say and do is secondary. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, however, actions are foremost.

    It matters what we say to others and even what we think about them. Yet what the Torah demands is that we behave toward other human beings in the proper manner. If we fail to respect and care about each other, then no amount of words or thoughts can rectify the situation.

    Reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.

  12. Wendy

    From My Jewish Learning

    Loving God By Acting With Compassion
    Our affirmation of the unity of God and our love for God serve as fundamental grounding principles for social action.


    The Torah portion Vaetchanan contains the Shema, one of the great foundational statements of the Torah:

    Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad
    Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
    For centuries the watchword of the Jewish people, the Shema has had a resonance and power unmatched by any other statement in Judaism. Books and commentaries have been written about it; countless Jewish children have learned the Shema as their first prayer; countless Jews have died with the Shema on their lips.

    But the subtleties of meaning conveyed by the six words of the Shema have changed over time. The earliest understanding — at a time when the Israelites were surrounded by pagan civilizations — may have been along the lines of “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, only Adonai.” In other words, among all the other gods around, only Adonai is the Israelite God. Over time, as pagan gods faded away, the Shema took on a subtly different meaning — that while Adonai is our God, in time Adonai will come to be acknowledged by everyone as the one and only God.

    Another strain of thought, which has had a resurgence of popularity in recent years, focuses on the different aspects of divinity implied by the terms Adonai (Lord) and Elohim (God). While Elohim relates to the timeless, cyclical manifestation of God in the natural universe, Adonai is the Jewish God of transformation, the God who makes a difference, who liberates from slavery and brings about healing and creativity. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis has written in For Those Who Can’t Believe, “divinity includes both the reality principle of Elohim and the ideality principle of Adonai. Adonai is the source of healing; Elohim, the life of the universe.”

    And, says the Shema, both aspects are joined in the Divine. Adonai and Elohim are one and the same. What a radical notion that is, what a radical statement about the universe the Shema becomes: yes to reality, and yes to transformation! Yes to nature (including human nature) and yes to healing. Yes to unchanging permanence and yes to constant becoming — ehyeh asher ehyeh, God’s self-proclaimed name: “I will be what I become.”

    The Shema can be seen as a fundamental principle for grounding social action and social transformation in a deep understanding of the limits of what is, as well as a boundless optimism for what can yet be achieved. In a conversation about the concept of Adonai and Elohim with the late Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, alav ha-shalom (may he rest in peace), he once remarked,

    Adonai in a sense is fighting Elohim to let people live. You look at Elohim — you see disease, earthquakes, people dying. If you didn’t find a trace of Adonai, you’d be living in a godless world. But the Adonai side is the difficult side. Mordecai Kaplan would say that you have to seek out those aspects of reality that make for salvation. There is a verse in [this week’s portion of] the Torah that says: ‘You will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and spirit’ (Deuteronomy 4:29).
    The opening of the Shema calls on us to develop this understanding as a community. As Harold Fisch has written in Poetry With a Purpose, “The divine unity is realized only when there is a community of hearers to achieve that perception, to make that affirmation; it is a perception that has to be striven for, created in the act of reading, hearing, and understanding.”

    How do we actualize that understanding of divine unity? The answer comes immediately following the Shema: through love. “Ve’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha, you shall love the Lord your God.”

    One wonders how the Torah can command a person to love. Rabbi Norman Lamm in his book The Shema, cites Rabbi Shneur Zalman as saying: “We are not commanded to impose upon ourselves an extraneous, extra-human sentiment; rather, this love for God already exists in potential form… within our soul. The mitzvah to love God demands that we remove all obstacles and impediments that interfere with our free and open expression of that love.”

    An ancient book of midrash offers another interpretation of “ve’ahavta.” The Sifre interprets “you shall love the Lord your God” as meaning: you shall cause God to be beloved by human beings. Perhaps, then, the “ve’ahavta” in this week’s parasha is predicated on another ve’ahavta from the Book of Leviticus: “Ve’ahavta le’rayacha kamokha, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

    Only by acting in the world with compassion, and treating one another with justice and equality will the healing aspects of God become manifest and draw others to a deeper understanding and love of God. To “love God” we must act with loving intention towards all of Creation.

    Reprinted with permission from

  13. Daniel Lev

    Parashat Va-Etchanan
    The “Love Drash”
    (8-2019 – Hawaii)

    1. I love you, I love you, I love you………..…..are you freaked out yet….But this is so Jewish!

    2. Please be aware that no matter what words I share with you today – be they funny or serious, profound or superficial, deeply Jewish or only Jew-lite – all I’m trying to say is that “I love you.”

    3. And that’s what it means to be an intentional and spiritual Jew. To love and accept love. And by “love” what I mean in the deepest way is that I care about you and feel connected to you. From a mainstream traditional perspective and from the lens of Jewish mysticism – and really most mystical perspectives – I love you because I am you, there is really no separation between us on the highest deepest level.
     One Chassidic teacher quoted Lev 19:18 “VE-AHAVTA LE-REYECHA KAMOCHA” – “Love your neighbor as yourself. The rebbe said: “All souls come from the same root. Even when they are divided into parts, there exists in each part the entire essence. So your love for a neighbor is not only love of another, but love of yourself.”
     This kind of love is called AHAVAH ATZMUT – “Essence Love” because you see all souls as part of the same Holy Essence and that you also see them as extensions of the deepest parts of yourself.

    4. You don’t even need to be religious or spiritual to promote love – one of the most secular Jews in history, a community organizer named Saul Alinsky who wrote books about how to operate as a progressive, social activist, even Saul defined a radical as a person who loves people.

    5. Now before I talk more about Love and Judaism let me kvetch a little.

    6. One reason that my talking about love – especially in a gushy hippie way – sounds a little unusual is because in this venue, it is. In too many shuls we don’t hear enough “love-talk” coming from our Jewish leaders and teachers. Heck! – in both religious and secular Jewish contexts we don’t hear leaders speaking enough about the core goal of Jewishness  that is, to love.

    7. Others do it – take the Christians  they are way into talking about love. Christian love – whether it is practiced or not – is legendary. Even the Buddhists talk about love – but for many of them the way they say “I love you” comes out sounding like, “I am cultivating great compassion for you and all beings.” OK, enough kvetching – we’re gonna talk about love now.

    8. But lest I get too heady in speaking about matters of the heart, let’s do an experiential quickie right now  if you’d like you can close your eyes and simply think about someone you love. Visualize them, maybe during a special moment in your lives. Just take a brief moment now to quietly bring them into your mind and heart….

    9. Much of Jewish mysticism focuses us on the oneness and unity of reality. But, in our ordinary consciousness we are all separate from one another. And that way of perceiving reality is not bad or unspiritual – we need some separation so we can do things in this world like taking out the trash, having conversations and doing our work. What’s special about this separation is that it gives us the opportunity to transcend this separateness and draw close to one other.

    10. How do we do this? What does our tradition teach us to do in order to achieve AHAVAH ATZMUT – “Essence Love?” …. Not by immersing in continuous prayer or meditating on a mountain top until we are enlightened. What is the Jewish practice Jews engage in that cultivates this essential love?

    11. Before I answer let me say that I don’t love you guys as much as I love my wife, Margie Walkover  my holy, Gushy soulmate-woman of love. That is not only because she is my soulmate but because – for over 16 years – she and I have taken on a Jewish observance that reveals and cultivates the love and connection we have.

    12. That practice is called relationship. When we practice consciously relating with one another we can sense more and more closely the connection that has been there all along (just like G-d!) You know the kind of relating I’m talking about – intentionally talking over things, compromising, giving each other our presences, letting go of who we think we are in order to manifest who we really are deep down…stuff like that.

    13. Relationship joins us together in loving connection and this breaks down the walls of angry separation – presidential or otherwise.

    14. Now as I’m winding up this drash you might wonder where the Torah portion went! Sometimes I’ll speak off the parsha topic – but not this week. Where do we find the centrality of love expressed in this week’s Torah portion? If you look at Deuteronomy Chapter 6:4-9 you will find two pieces of Torah that speak to love

    15. Quickly, let me point out that the second piece of Torah obviously speaks to love by saying,
    וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ.
    You will love HASHEM with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might”

    16. Many of our teachers tell us that the way to love HASHEM is to love people in these three ways: loving with heart, soul-mind, and body.

    17. I’ll conclude by sharing the first piece of love Torah in our parsha. It comes from the SHEMA which says: “Listen up Israel, HaShem our god, HaShem is one.” Although the prayer says many things I want to focus on the last two words: HASHEM ECHAD – “G-d is one.” The Torah teaches us this idea in several places and it’s monotheistic message becomes even more pronounced by the time of the Rabbis.

    18. But what does this have to do with love? For that, we need to go to the practice of Jewish numerology – which is called Gematrya. Here each Hebrew letter is assigned a number. So Aleph is one, Bet is two, and so on. When you take the letters in the word ECHAD, and you add up their corresponding numbers, you get the number thirteen…….cool number

    19. So, ECHAD, oneness, is the number thirteen. What other word equals thirteen? the word AHAVA – Love! So chevra, when we say the Shema we are not only proclaiming that HASHEM is one, we are saying something the Christians have borrowed from us for centuries – we are saying that “G-d is Love!” SHEMA YISRAEL  “Listen up Israel – HASHEM our G-d, HASHEM is Love.”

    20. Even the most central prayer in our siddur invites us to follow the path of the G-d of Love – and through the practice of relationship we can connect to AHAVA ATZMUT – this essential love.

    21. I want to bless you – and please bless me back – that we should all remember that the Jewish path is love. That each time we say the Shema, we should remember that, and finally that we should feel the presence of HASHEM in every loving act that we do for each other, for all people, for all beings, and for the planet.


  14. Wendy

    From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    Making Love Last (Va’etchanan 5778)

    Over the past few months I’ve been having conversations with leading thinkers, intellectuals, innovators and philanthropists for a BBC series on moral challenges of the 21st century. Among those I spoke to was David Brooks, one of the most insightful moralists of our time. His conversation is always scintillating, but one remark of his was particularly beautiful. It is a key that helps us unlock the entire project outlined by Moses in Sefer Devarim, the fifth and final book of the Torah.

    We had been talking about covenants and commitments. I suggested that many people in the West today are commitment-averse, reluctant to bind themselves unconditionally and open-endedly to something or someone. The market mindset that predominates today encourages us to try this, sample that, experiment and keep our options open for the latest version or the better deal. Pledges of loyalty are few and far between.

    Brooks agreed and noted that nowadays freedom is usually understood as freedom-from, meaning the absence of restraint. We don’t like to be tied down. But the real freedom worth having, in his view, is freedom-to, meaning the ability to do something that’s difficult and requires effort and expertise.[1] So, for example, if you want to have the freedom to play the piano, you have to chain yourself to it and practise every day.

    Freedom in this sense does not mean the absence of restraint, but rather, choosing the right restraint. That involves commitment, which involves a choice to forego certain choices. Then he said: “My favourite definition of commitment is falling in love with something and then building a structure of behaviour around it for the moment when love falters.”

    That struck me as a beautiful way into one of the fundamental features of Sefer Devarim specifically, and Judaism generally. The book of Deuteronomy is more than simply Moses’ speeches in the last months of his life, his tzava’ah or ethical will to the future generations. It is more, also, than Mishneh Torah,[2] a recapitulation of the rest of the Torah, a restatement of the laws and history of the people since their time in Egypt.

    It is a fundamental theological statement of what Judaism is about. It is an attempt to integrate law and narrative into a single coherent vision of what it would be like to create a society of law-governed liberty under the sovereignty of God: a society of justice, compassion, respect for human dignity and the sanctity of human life. And it is built around an act of mutual commitment, by God to a people and by the people to God.

    The commitment itself is an act of love. At the heart of it are the famous words from the Shema in this week’s parsha: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). The Torah is the foundational narrative of the fraught, sometimes tempestuous, marriage between God and an often obstinate people. It is a story of love.

    We can see how central love is to the book of Deuteronomy by noting how often the root a-h-v, “to love,” appears in each of the five books of the Torah. It occurs 15 times in Genesis, but none of these is about the relationship between God and a human being. They are about the feelings of husbands for wives or parents for children. This is how often the verb appears in the other 4 books:

    Exodus 2
    Leviticus 2
    Numbers 0
    Deuteronomy 23

    Again and again we hear of love, in both directions, from the Israelites to God and from God to the Israelites. It is the latter that are particularly striking. Here are some examples:

    The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you … (Deut. 7:7-8)

    To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set His affection on your ancestors and loved them, and He chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. (Deut. 10:14-15)

    The Lord your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you. (Deut 23:5)

    The real question is how this vision is connected to the legal, halakhic content of much of Devarim. On the one hand we have this passionate declaration of love by God for a people; on the other we have a detailed code of law covering most aspects of life for individuals and the nation as a whole once it enters the land. Law and love are not two things that go obviously together. What has the one to do with the other?

    That is what David Brooks’ remark suggests: commitment is falling in love with something and then building a structure of behaviour around it to sustain that love over time. Law, the mitzvoth, halakhah, is that structure of behaviour. Love is a passion, an emotion, a heightened state, a peak experience. But an emotional state cannot be guaranteed forever. We wed in poetry but we stay married in prose.

    Which is why we need laws, rituals, habits of deed. Rituals are the framework that keeps love alive. I once knew a wonderfully happy married couple. The husband, with great devotion, brought his wife breakfast in bed every morning. I am not entirely sure she needed or even wanted breakfast in bed every morning, but she graciously accepted it because she knew it was the homage he wished to pay her, and it did indeed keep their love alive. After decades of marriage, they still seemed to be on their honeymoon.

    Without intending any precise comparison, that is what the vast multiplicity of rituals in Judaism, many of them spelled out in the book of Deuteronomy, actually achieved. They sustained the love between God and a people. You hear the cadences of that love throughout the generations. It is there in the book of Psalms: “You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1). It is there in Isaiah: “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet My unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor My covenant of peace be removed” (Is. 54:10). It is there in the siddur, in the blessing before the Shema: “You have loved us with great love / with everlasting love.” It is there, passionately, in the song, Yedid Nefesh, composed in the sixteenth century by Safed kabbalist Elazar Azikri. It remains there in the songs composed year after year in present-day Israel. Whether they speak of God’s love for us or ours for Him, the love remains strong after 33 centuries. That is a long time for love to last, and we believe it will do so forever.

    Could it have done so without the rituals, the 613 commands, that fill our days with reminders of God’s presence? I think not. Whenever Jews abandoned the life of the commands, within a few generations they lost their identity. Without the rituals, eventually love dies. With them, the glowing embers remain, and still have the power to burst into flame. Not every day in a long and happy marriage feels like a wedding, but even love grown old will still be strong, if the choreography of fond devotion, the ritual courtesies and kindnesses, are sustained.

    In the vast literature of halakhah we find the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of Jewish life, but not always the ‘why.’ The special place of Sefer Devarim in Judaism as a whole is that here, more clearly than almost anywhere else, we find the ‘why.’ Jewish law is the structure of behaviour built around the love between God and His people, so that the love remains long after the first feelings of passion have grown old.

    Hence the life-change idea: if you seek to make love undying, build around it a structure of rituals – small acts of kindness, little gestures of self-sacrifice for the sake of the beloved – and you will be rewarded with a quiet joy, an inner light, that will last a lifetime.

    [1] This is similar to, though not identical with, Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive freedom, in his famous essay, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty,’ reprinted in Isaiah Berlin, Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy, Oxford University Press, 2002, 166-217.

    [2] This was the original rabbinical name for the book. The name Deuteronomy, from the Latin meaning “second law,” was an attempt to capture the sense of the book as a restatement of the laws.

  15. Wendy

    From JTS

    Holding Fast


    This week we emerge from the destitution of Tisha Be’av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temples, and receive the gift of Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of our being comforted. נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, “Comfort, oh comfort My people, Says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). What is comfort? One way of understanding the essence of comfort is by engaging with Moshe Rabbenu (our teacher, Moses) in this week’s parashah.

    All of Torah is shaped by the knowledge of where the story ends—not with the people of Israel entering the Land, but with them situated on the other side of the Jordan. They will enter the Land in the book of Joshua, but that is not part of the Torah. The Torah ends with the not yet, with the longing, with an experience of incompletion. There are profound theological implications to this ending. We don’t focus on triumph, on everything being right. We make space for brokenness. And perhaps the story of yetziat Mitzrayim, being redeemed from Egypt, is told in this way to keep us connected to the personal story of Moshe Rabbenu. It is Moshe Rabbenu who is most acutely affected by not being able to enter the Land. In this week’s parashah we encounter Moshe’s anguish in a powerful way. The parashah begins with his plea:

    וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל־יְהוָה בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר׃

    I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying, “O Lord GOD, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.” (Deut. 3:23–25)
    Moses pleaded with God. Va’et-hannan. What’s the meaning of Va’et-hannan? Midrash Tanhuma (Va’et-hannan 3:1) acknowledges that prayer is called by many names and asks why Moshe prayed in the language of “tahanunim”—consolation/comfort. This is because God doesn’t owe God’s creatures anything, “rather I give it to them as a free gift.” We learn this from Exodus 33, when Moses pleads to see God’s presence, God responds by saying: “I will offer grace when I offer grace (hanoti) and have compassion when I have compassion.” The word for pleading—et-hannan—and the word for consolation—tahanunim—and the word for grace—hen—share root letters, helping us to understand that the choice of verb conveys that Moshe is hoping his pleading will evoke God’s grace, and that will be the source of Moshe’s comfort. Moshe uses the word va’et-hannan to say: ten li hinam, please give me a free gift.

    Moshe has a strong idea about what that gift needs to be: being allowed to go into the Land. But God tells Moshe not to speak of this again. “But the LORD was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The LORD said to me, ‘Rav lakh, Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!’” (Deut. 3:26).

    The Bekhor Shor, the French Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac, understands God’s admonition as follows: “I’ve done enough miracles for you. Leave space for others to feel that they have been distinguished by me. Because there won’t be an end to what you want me to do for you. After you enter the Land, you will then ask to see the Temple.” This is a reverse Dayyenu, the song that proclaims, “it would have been enough” that we sing at the Passover seder. Here, God warns, there will never be enough. The only way for there to be enough is if you see that this, even in it not being enough, is enough.

    God is instructing Moshe to see the abundance. God is helping Moshe to cultivate a sense of gratitude in the face of brokenness. The comfort comes in seeing the gifts that exist even in the brokenness. The hen, the grace, the free gift, does not depend on reaching the Land. It is already possessed by you. When God tells Moshe that he can see the Land from where he is, God teaches him that the gift, the abundance, doesn’t need to look like what he thought—and hoped—it would look like. If we can find a way to cultivate gratitude, to find ways to affirm rav lakh, enough, then we can experience the hen/grace in our lives. And this is where we can find comfort.

    In this week’s haftarah, the prophetic reading, we find another layer of teaching about comfort, in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “A voice rings out: ‘Proclaim!’ Another asks, ‘What shall I proclaim?’ ‘All flesh is grass, all its goodness like flowers of the field: grass withers, flowers fade when the breath of the LORD blows on them. Indeed, man is but grass: grass withers, flowers fade—but the word of our God is always fulfilled!’” (Isaiah 40:6–8). These words are offered as comfort, so the question is, what is comforting about them? For me, it’s the honest acknowledgement of the fragility of life, along with the faith that God’s word—and God’s self—is eternal. There’s an invitation to depend on the largeness and permanence of the divine to help us experience the abundance. Each individual life withers and fades, but we are all held in the divine abundance which endures forever.

    A verse in our parshah captures this beautifully: וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים בַּיהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם, “while you, who held fast to the LORD your God, are all alive today” (Deut. 4:4). I love the image of holding fast to God. There’s an urgency here. And the promise that life—abundant life—is tied not to achievement, to reaching the Land, but to being in relationship with that which is eternal. We say this verse each time we are about to read from the sefer Torah, the Torah scroll, in community. As a community we can help one another to hold fast. Coming together as a community, for the sake of holding fast, fosters deep possibilities for comfort.

  16. Wendy

    From Rabbi David Kasher

    A MATTER OF INTERPRETATION – Parshat Va’etchanan
    Midrash, the rabbinic method of interpreting the verses of the Torah, always begins with a problem in the text. Something about the way the verse is written is strange or confusing, has missing or extra words or letters, or is inconsistent with some other verse. Such verses, as the rabbis described them, are virtually calling out to us, “Darsheini – Interpret me!” Midrash, then, is first and foremost an exercise in problem-solving.

    Sometimes, however, the midrashic solution itself becomes so well-known that we forget what the problem was to begin with. The classic example of this phenomenon comes from the most famous midrash of all, the legend of young Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop. This story has been so fully absorbed into Jewish collective consciousness that we rarely recall it as an attempt to grapple with a very specific textual difficulty: the abrupt beginning to Abraham’s story. Chapter Twelve of Genesis opens with the Lord suddenly calling out to Abraham (who was then called ‘Abram’), “Go forth!” But who is Abraham? Where does he come from? And why does he, of all people on earth, merit a special relationship with God? So the rabbis, building on a handful of clues in the text, construct the midrashic narrative of Abraham the teenage iconoclast. That midrash is so familiar, in fact, that many people assume it is in the text of the Torah itself. The solution has eclipsed the problem.

    Another midrashic interpretation that has taken on a life of its own is the following piece from the Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael:

    “Remember” (Zachor), and “Guard” (Shamor), were said as one utterance… In a way that a human being would not be able to pronounce. As it says (in Psalms 62:12), “God has spoken one word, but I have heard two.”

    “זכור” (דברים ה יב) ו“שמור” – שניהם נאמרו בדיבור אחד… מה שאי אפשר לאדם לומר כן, שנאמר (תהלים סב יב) “אחת דבר אלקים שתים זו שמעתי”

    Shamor and Zachor, the Hebrew words for ‘Remember’ and ‘Guard,’ the midrash tells us, were pronounced in the same breath, both at once, when God gave the fourth commandment at Mount Sinai. These two words will come to represent two aspects of that commandment.

    “Remember the sabbath” is a call to acknowledge God as the Creator of the universe by remembering the original Sabbath, when God ceased from the work of the first six days. We do this by making the kiddush blessing over wine, which testifies to the work of Creation. “Guard the sabbath” is a warning not to work ourselves on the seventh day, to rest from all of our creative labors. We do this by being careful to refrain from the 39 categories of forbidden labor. Remembering, then, is a positive commandment – a “thou shalt” – while guarding is a negative commandment – “thou shalt not.”

    This binary structure becomes a standard way of describing the dual nature of the Sabbath. The Sabbath liturgy employs the phrase, “Remember and Guard, in one utterance,” in the famous Lecha Dodi prayer. Rabbinic commentary will repeat the notion again and again in different formulations. Here is but one such expression of the twofold Sabbath, by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, the Meshech Chochmah:

    The reason for the Sabbath is to proclaim the new phenomenon of the Holy Blessed One having created the world, as something from nothing, and so to testify that God is the Creator of the world.

    And then there is another reason, which is to set aside one day for people to rest from their work, and turn their hearts to knowing God’s ways and studying Torah, and not engaging in worldly affairs.

    והנה טעם השבת יש בו הודעת החידוש שהשי“ת ברא העולם יש מאין וזהו עדות שמעידין שהוא ברא העולם, ויש טעם פרטי, כדי שיתיחד יום אחד שינוחו ממלאכתם ויפנו לבבם לדעת דרכי ד’ והנהגתו וילמדו תורה ולא יתגשמו בהויות העולם ומסבותיו

    So Sabbath is both time to honor God and God’s Creation, and a time for us to rest and reflect, and renew ourselves. It is a day both dedicated to honoring God and set aside to enrich human life. These seemingly separate goals coexist in the day, and, since their directives were spoken at the same instant, it is as if the Sabbath was always meant to speak to both the godly and the terrestrial realms.

    With such an elegant construction in place, one could almost forget that our midrash emerged in an attempt to resolve a very specific problem in the text. That is, when the Ten Commandments were first given in the Book of Exodus, the fourth commandment read:

    Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. (Exod. 20:8)

    זָכ֛וֹר֩ אֶת־י֥֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖֜ת לְקַדְּשֽׁ֗וֹ

    But when Moses repeats the Ten Commandments in our parsha this week in Deuteronomy, he gives the same commandment this way:

    Guard the Sabbath day and keep it holy. (Deut. 5:12)

    שָׁמ֣֛וֹר אֶת־י֥וֹם֩ הַשַׁבָּ֖֨ת לְקַדְּשׁ֑֜וֹ

    What has happened? Has Moses simply forgotten the precise wording of the commandment? That seems unlikely, for it is not only the first word that he changes. Take a look at the how the commandment finishes in both places:

    Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy… For on six days the Lord made the heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and then rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the seventh day and made it holy. (Exod 20:8, 11)

    כִּ֣י שֵֽׁשֶׁת־יָמִים֩ עָשָׂ֨ה ה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֔ם וַיָּ֖נַח בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֑י עַל־כֵּ֗ן בֵּרַ֧ךְ ה אֶת־י֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖ת וַֽיְקַדְּשֵֽׁהוּ

    Guard the Sabbath and keep it holy…. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the seventh day. (Deut. 5:12, 15)

    וְזָכַרְתָּ֞֗ כִּ֣י־עֶ֤֥בֶד הָיִ֣֙יתָ֙ ׀ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔֗יִם וַיֹּצִ֨אֲךָ֜֩ ה אֱלֹקיךָ֙ מִשָּׁ֔ם֙ בְּיָ֤֥ד חֲזָקָ֖ה֙ וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֑֔ה עַל־כֵּ֗ן צִוְּךָ֙ ה אֱלֹקיךָ לַעֲשׂ֖וֹת אֶת־י֥וֹם הַשַׁבָּֽת

    This is not a mere slip-up of one word. In fact, it looks as if Moses is deliberately changing the emphasis of the Sabbath, shifting it from a day of tribute to God into a day of rest for people.

    But neither forgetfulness nor willful alteration sits very well with the traditional picture of Moses as the faithful prophet who transmitted the word of God exactly, a premise upon which the divinity of the Torah rests. The rabbis can’t have Moses just changing things here and there, when the mood strikes him or memory fails him. That won’t do.

    So instead they come upon a more mystical solution. The two versions of the fourth commandment, Remember and Guard, were both said by God at Sinai at the same time. For God always intended to convey both these aspects of the Sabbath. Moses is not changing anything; he is simply revealing the second layer of God’s word, which had been embedded in the first all along. God speaks in multitudes, and we hear different aspects of the divine word in different moments.

    This solution is metaphysically bold and beautiful, but it starts to become strained when we realize that it is not just “Remember” and “Guard” that we have to insist were spoken in one moment. For, as we have seen, the entire second clause of the commandment also appears differently in the Book of Deuteronomy. Will we also have to say that, “For on six days the Lord made the heaven and earth and sea…” and “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…” were also spoken in one utterance? Two entirely different paragraphs pronounced in one breath?

    The problem is greater still. For the power of this midrashic imagery has caused us to forget not only the differences between the two versions of the fourth commandment. It has also distracted us from the fact that there are a host of other differences between the two versions of the Ten Commandments. There are extra letters in one set that are missing in the other. There are slight word variations, and entirely extra phrases from one version to the next. The Maharal of Prague counts no less than fifteen differences between the two editions of the Commandments! Is our midrash suggesting that all these little discrepancies were also uttered by God at Mount Sinai, all sorts of textual variations garbling out of the Divine Mouth at once? Was the voice of revelation an incomprehensible cacophony of multiple messages that had to be painstakingly disentangled over time?

    A return the language of the midrash itself, however, reveals that we may have been reading its message wrong all along. For the proof text for that classic phrase, “Remember and Guard were spoken in one utterance,” is the verse from Psalms:

    God has spoken one word, but I have heard two. (61:12)

    אַחַ֤ת דִּבֶּ֬ר אֱלֹקים שְׁתַּֽיִם־ז֥וּ שָׁמָ֑עְתִּי

    That does not suggest that God said two things at once, but that God said one thing, and we heard two things. The multiplicity of revelation, following that logic, comes not in the speaking, but in the hearing – not in the giving of Torah, but the receiving.

    God said one thing – who knows exactly what it was, for the divine word was overwhelming, unlike anything we’d ever heard before. Some of us heard, “Remember the Sabbath.” Some heard, “Guard.” Some heard an extra word here or there, others would swear there was no such word. But who really knows? Yes, we do believe that there was one, perfect Torah revealed at Sinai. But we all heard it differently. And so what we are left with is two, or three, or four… or seventy Torahs.

    In that case, the classic formula, “Remember and Guard were said as one utterance,” does not mean that they were both said at once. Rather, it means that one utterance was pronounced – maybe “Remember,” maybe “Guard,” or maybe something else entirely – and then we heard what we heard, and what we heard becomes the Torah we have.

    This may sound like a weaker version of revelation, plagued with obscurity and rendered indeterminate. But it is just that indeterminacy which allows for the interpretive project of the rabbis to begin. The whole point of engaging in midrash, after all, is that the text itself is unclear. It is riddled with holes, jagged with fragments, and twisted into forking paths.

    The Torah God spoke is singular, perfect, to be sure. But the Torah we heard is manifold, and full of problems. And it is begging us for solutions. In a sense, then, we do know what that one word God spoke was:

    Darsheini. Interpret me.

  17. Wendy

    From the Hebrew College

    Seventy Faces of Torah
    By Rabbi Elisha Herb
    Wisdom for Crossing Over

    From the top of Mount Pisgah, Moshe surveys “the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country and the Lebanon.” (Deut. 3:25) The land on which he would never set foot; the land that had been the collective Israelite destination for forty years; the land of their ancestors.

    Now 120 years old, Moshe entreats God to allow him to cross over.

    Surely, this cannot be all that Moshe seeks. For from the plains of Moab, all of Israel can see the “goodly hill-country” of which he speaks. But Moshe also asks to see “the Lebanon.” And, concealed in Moshe’s petition, is the wish to see fulfillment of the blessings of peace in the land after all the seven nations have been vanquished, and Israel, living in harmony with each other and God, live in peace and security on the land (Lev. 26: 3-13). “You have begun to show your servant our greatness and your strong hand …” As if to say, “You have only begun to show me. But I want to see the full fruition of the promises; I want to guide Israel in the observance of the ‘statutes and the ordinances’ (Deut. 4:1) so that it may be well with them. Moshe asks to live beyond his 120 years and beyond the sharp physical boundary God has laid for him. But on the surface, he asks only to see the land.

    Moshe’s question angers God. “Rav lakh! Let it suffice for you!” God answers in wrath. “Do not speak to me of this again!”

    Rashi, our beloved teacher and study partner, who lived in France in the 11th century, writes of this phrase, rav lakh: “Much more than [the Holy Land] is kept for you; vastly abundant is your treasure.” Rashi’s comment is most likely a reference to the world to come, to life after death. But it may simultaneously be read, “The abundance which you have already experienced, which you already have, is more than sufficient for you.”

    Rabbi Shefa Gold writes in Torah Journeys that God says, “Rav Lakh! You have so much! Stop fixating on what you want!”

    Her careful reading of this phrase, rav lakh, echoes it’s use in Parashat Korach when Korach, leading a rebellion against Moshe, says, “You have (too) much!” – implying an excess of power and status. Moshe, responding to Korach and his rebels, says “You have so much.” (Num. 16:3, 7) Korach was, after all, one of the Levites, the tribe chosen by God for a particularly high status among the tribes of Israel. Moshe thus responds, “Why do you want more power than you already have?!”

    One of my teachers in my shul in Oregon, similarly heard resonances in Esau’s words to Jacob. “I have an abundance, my brother. Let what you have be yours; [I do not need your gifts].”

    Like Korach, Moshe wants something more and is dissatisfied with having to let go, with having to die on the other side of the Jordan. But, as my teacher at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, Rabbi Ebn Leader, says, “Moshe’s Torah does not end in the promised land.” Moshe’s Torah ends on the other side of the Jordan, with his death. And then it is rolled all the way back to “… at the beginning ….” (Gen. 1:1) where we begin again. This is a bitter pill for Moshe. And indeed, letting go of your aspirations, your children, and your very life is often a distressing for all of us.

    “You have so much! Do not speak to me of this again,” God responds to Moshe’s plea. And yet God, in his love for Moshe, relents a bit. Moshe ascends the peak of Pisgah from which he miraculously beholds the Land “… westward and northward, and southward and eastward” (Deut. 3:27). Rashi cites a tradition that from this vantage point, Moshe saw the whole of the land, not only in space but throughout time. Rabbi Shefa Gold writes of this perspective that Moshe “…gets a clear view in all directions so that he might see and know that he has already arrived. The promise has already been fulfilled.”

    The art of letting go of our expectations is most dramatically seen in “crossing over” into death. Rabbis Joel Baron (also a graduate of Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School) and Sara Paasche-Orlow delve into this subject in Deathbed Wisdom of the Hasidic Masters. One of the key lessons they learned in writing this book is the lesson of gratitude, in seeing the abundance of one’s life, when passing on into death. Dying gracefully requires recognizing the Grace that exists in one’s life: “I have so much.”

    The stories of the deaths of some of the Hasidic masters recorded in Deathbed Wisdom relate that “R. Zusha of Plotsk, just before he dies … quotes, ‘I will arise at midnight to thank you’ (Ps. 119:62) … R. DovBaer of Mezritch expresses his gratitude with a joy-filled heart that affirms his trust in God. R. Aaron of Staroselye dances and celebrates life up until his final moments. R. Shmuelke of Sasov sings out his praise of God.” (Deathbed Wisdom, 196)

    Legend has it that King Solomon had a golden ring on which was inscribed, “This, too, shall pass;” This, too, shall cross over. This discipline of remembering the ephemerality of our lives, and each moment, is a practice that allows us to see that the promise is already fulfilled. The world to come is flowing into the world even now, at this moment.

  18. Wendy

    From Rav Kook

    Va’Etchanan: Introducing Prayer with Praise

    Moses’ Prayer

    The Torah records Moses’ pleas to be allowed to enter into the Land of Israel:

    “O God, Eternal! You have begun to show me Your greatness and power. What force is there in heaven or earth that can perform deeds and mighty acts as You can? Please, let me cross [the Jordan River] and see the good land….” (Deut. 3:24-25)
    Rabbi Simlai analyzed Moses’ prayer, breaking it up into two components:

    Praise — “You have begun to show me Your greatness….”
    The actual request — “Please let me cross….”
    This, Rabbi Simlai explained, is a model for all prayers. One should begin by praising God, and only afterwards present one’s requests. We need to understand this model. Is it simply a matter of flattering God, just as one might ‘butter up’ a mortal king before making a request? Or is there a deeper significance to this protocol for prayer?

    How does Prayer Work?

    Rav Kook explained that the requirement to precede prayer with God’s praise relates to the very foundations of prayer and its efficacy. Following this format prevents us from grossly misinterpreting the mechanics of prayer. One might think that prayer is some sort of magic loophole built into the framework of Divine providence, and that by pleading our case it is possible to cause God to change His mind. The notion that we have the power to influence God’s will, however, is untenable.

    Rather, we should view prayer as a wonderful gift which enables us to refine ourselves. Prayer does not effect a change in God; prayer effects a change in us. It is only by virtue of the soul’s moral and spiritual elevation that prayer has the power to annul harsh decrees. We cannot change the basic universal order manifested in a particular decree. But we can change ourselves. Then, as a result of our transformation, the decree is no longer relevant.

    Thus it is advisable to introduce every prayer with praise of God. Such praise affirms God’s eternal nature and ensures a correct understanding of the efficacy of prayer.

    Even Moses

    It is noteworthy that Rabbi Simlai’s insight was gleaned from examining a prayer of Moses. One might consider himself above making such a mistake regarding the nature of prayer. Yet we find that even Moses, despite his unparalleled knowledge of spiritual matters, took care to introduce his request with praise of God. Certainly we should follow Moses’ lead, thereby ensuring that we correctly grasp the true nature of prayer.

    (Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 147)

  19. Wendy

    From Rav Kook

    Va’etchanan: Prolonging Echad
    Judaism’s ultimate prayer is the Shema, our declaration of God’s unity. And the ultimate word in the Shema is its concluding word – Echad (‘God is one’). The Sages provided detailed instructions how to carefully pronounce this critical word:

    “All who prolong the word echad will have their days and years prolonged. Rabbi Acha bar Ya’akov taught: one should prolong [the last letter in the word,] the Dalet. Rabbi Assi added: provided that he does not slur over [the middle letter,] the Chet.” (Berachot 13b)
    Why should the word echad be stretched out? And what is the significance of the letters Dalet and Chet?

    God’s Reign Over All Events

    The Talmud explains that one should pronounce the word echad long enough to envision God’s reign over all that is above, all that is below, and the ‘four sides of the heavens’ (“arba ruchot ha-shamayim”).

    When we proclaim God’s unity in the Shema, we acknowledge God’s unique control of the universe. While His absolute reign may be expressed in spatial terms (in all six directions), a deeper insight is aware of God’s providence in all events that occur in the world. We may divide up the universe into three functional categories:

    The initial causes that place into motion all of the myriad actions and events in the world.
    The final effects and goals that are the fulfillment of the original causes.
    The various intermediate means that lead from the initial causes to the ultimate effects.
    God’s reign incorporates all three categories. He rules over the heavens – i.e., the initial causes. His control extends to the earth – the completion and fulfillment of each goal. And Divine rule even includes the diverse intermediate means and events. These means are referred to as the “four sides of the heavens,” since they form an intermediate stage connecting the heavens (the initial causes) with the earth (the ultimate goals).
    Why is God’s oneness so significant? What is the principle message to be derived from the Shema?

    By recognizing this underlying unity, we acknowledge that all of the various events in the world – even though they appear to be dispersed and disconnected, like the four sides of the heavens – are in fact directed towards one unified purpose, towards the goal of that which is good and elevated.

    Emphasize the Dalet – But Remember the Chet

    Why prolong the letter Dalet when saying the Shema? Dalet has the numerical value (gematria) of four. It represents the four diverse directions, the myriad intermediate means in the universe. By emphasizing the Dalet, we affirm the connection of these means to the unified goal of creation.

    Still, the ‘heavens’ and the ‘earth’ should not be ignored. In order that we will be able to properly value the intermediate means, we must contemplate the lofty counsel which directs all events towards their purpose. And we should consider the value of the sublime goal, as it is attained and revealed in all its splendor.

    Thus, the letter Chet needs to be articulated clearly. Chet has the numerical value of eight; it represents the seven levels of heaven (shiv’ah reki’im) together with the earth. These eight levels indicate the various stages, from the initial cause to its final, practical fulfillment. In addition, the number eight signifies the realm of time: the seven days of the week, and the eighth dimension, unlimited by the confines of time.

    To ’swallow up’ the Chet would show an insensitivity to the value of the initial cause and the final goal. Then the intermediary events would certainly lose their true significance.

    (Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I p. 71; Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 245)

  20. Wendy

    From Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

    Va’etchanan (5774) – The Fewest of all Peoples

    Buried inconspicuously in this week’s parsha is a short sentence with explosive potential, causing us to think again about the nature of Jewish history and the Jewish task in the present.

    Moses had been reminding the new generation, the children of those who left Egypt, of the extraordinary story of which they are the heirs:

    Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? (Deut. 4:32-34)

    The Israelites had not yet crossed the Jordan. They had not yet begun their life as a sovereign nation in their own land. Yet Moses was sure, with a certainty that could only be prophetic, that they were a people like no other. What has happened to them was unique. They were and are a nation summoned to greatness.

    Moses reminds them of the great revelation at Mount Sinai. He recalls the Ten Commandments. He delivers the most famous of all summaries of Jewish faith: “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” He issues the most majestic of all commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Twice he tells the people to teach these things to their children. He gives them their eternal mission statement as a nation: “You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” (Deut. 7: 6)

    Then he says this:

    The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you are the fewest of all peoples. (Deut. 7:7)

    The fewest of all peoples? What has happened to all the promises of Bereishit, that Abraham’s children would be numerous, uncountable, as many as the stars of the sky, the dust of the earth, and the grains of sand on a seashore? What of Moses’ own statement at the beginning of Devarim: “The Lord your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Deut. 1:10)?

    The simple answer is this. The Israelites were indeed numerous compared to what they once were. Moses himself puts it this way in next week’s parsha: “Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Deut. 10:22). They were once a single family, Abraham, Sarah and their descendants, and now they have become a nation of twelve tribes.

    But – and this is Moses’ point here – compared to other nations, they were still small. “When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you …” (Deut. 7:1). In other words, not only were the Israelites smaller than the great empires of the ancient world. They were smaller even than the other nations in the region. Compared to their origins they had grown, but compared to their neighbours they remained tiny.

    Moses then tells them what this means:

    You may say to yourselves, “These nations are stronger than we are. How can we drive them out?” But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. (Deut. 7:17-18)

    Israel would be the smallest of the nations for a reason that goes to the very heart of its existence as a nation. They will show the world that a people does not have to be large in order to be great. It does not have to be numerous to defeat its enemies. Israel’s unique history will show that, in the words of the prophet Zechariah (4:6), “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

    In itself, Israel would be witness to something greater than itself. As former Marxist philosopher Nicolay Berdyayev put it:

    I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jews, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable from the materialistic standpoint . . . Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history. The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history: all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny.[1]

    Moses’ statement has immense implications for Jewish identity. The proposition implicit throughout this year’s Covenant and Conversation is that Jews have had an influence out of all proportion to their numbers because we are all called on to be leaders, to take responsibility, to contribute, to make a difference to the lives of others, to bring the Divine presence into the world. Precisely because we are small, we are each summoned to greatness.

    S. Y. Agnon, the great Hebrew writer, composed a prayer to accompany the Mourner’s Kaddish. He noted that the children of Israel have always been few in number compared to other nations. He then said that when a king rules over a large population, he does not notice when one dies, for there are others to take his or her place. “But our King, the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He … chose us, and not because we are a large nation, for we are one of the smallest of nations. We are few, and owing to the love with which He loves us, each one of us is, for Him, an entire legion. He does not have many replacements for us. If one of us is missing, Heaven forfend, then the King’s forces are diminished, with the consequence that His kingdom is weakened, as it were. One of His legions is gone and His greatness is lessened. For this reason it is our custom to recite the Kaddish when a Jew dies.”[2]

    Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Gandhi said: “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” That must be our faith as Jews. We may be the fewest of all peoples but when we heed God’s call, we have the ability, proven many times in our past, to mend and transform the world.

    [1] Nicolay Berdyayev, The Meaning of History, Transaction Publishers, 2005, 86.

    [2] Quoted in Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish,London : Picador, 1998, 22-23.

  21. Wendy

    From Reb Zalman

    Moshe’s Lesson for Us

    Vaetchanan / I entreated YHVH at that time, saying… (Deut 3:23).

    The word אתחנן / etchanan / I entreated,

    [Moshe is praying that he not die in the land of Moab, but that he be allowed to enter the Land of Israel with the rest of the Israelites]

    is written in the reflexive case which means that the object of the verb is also the subject. So in the case of prayer, it means that Moshe prayed himself. A reflexive in this instance functions as an intensifier with respect to the impact of the action, to the experience Moshe has.

    We may think of prayer as consisting of the one who prays and a God to whom one prays. But by putting the verb in the reflexive, it creates a feedback loop; the praying has more intensity.

    Moshe says, in effect, “It davvened itself out from me. Even before I knew what I was about to do, the prayer burst out of me.” It’s on the level of (Psalms 69:14), ואני תפלתי / va-ani t’filiti, usually translated as “I am my prayer” but it really means and I pray myself; it sort of imbued his being and he was his prayer which basically flowed from his mouth involuntarily.

    And this happened, despite the fact that he wasn’t feeling confident that the result for which he was praying would come to pass. He was told in no uncertain terms that he was not going to enter the Land and it must have felt unlikely to him that God would change his edict in that regard. So from his perspective at this time, he was approaching God humbly and lowly-kneeling. Nonetheless, “I didn’t avoid praying”.

    This teaches us that that even if our judgment says something is impossible, as long as we feel the desire for it in our hearts, we should still pray for it. The reason is, as it says, (Eccl 3:1) “Everything has an appointed season and there is a time for every matter“, which is interpreted in this context as, “if you feel a desire in your heart, then at some time that desire will have its appointed season; and who knows, maybe now is the time.” Or, don’t shut down your desire because you are expecting to be disappointed and hope to avoid for yourself the associated pain. Give your desire room to grow and to breathe and take it to YHVH. It was appropriate for Moshe to pray to bring about that which was a desire in his heart.

    There’s a time to speak and a time to refrain from speaking, as it is written, (Exodus 14:14), “but you shall remain silent“, however, as it was previously said by david hamelech a’h, even for the time to refrain from speaking, (Psalms 34:2), as it is written, “I should bless Hashem at all times, His praise is always in my mouth“. Refraining from speaking doesn’t apply to prayer; since the Good One and the Source of Goodness and the True Judge are blessed, His praise is always in my mouth. Even at that time when our judgment tells us it’s not propitious, that God’s not going to answer our prayers, nonetheless, it changes the way we feel when we pray about things that we long for and it raises us up. Just being a supplicant raises us up in our feelings, in our relationship to the result for which we’re praying. Therefore it is said that one shouldn’t only say one’s prayers in a whisper; rather one should vocalize, should sound it so that it becomes as a dialogue between the person and between the One who established that person, created that person, i.e., the Source. (cf Sefer mei hashiloach in the first section of vaetchanan.)

    Here’s a paraphrase of what the Izhbitzer is saying in the referenced section: Moshe is letting the Israelites know that he prayed about this and on the surface of it, it seems like the prayer did not have any benefit. But that’s only if you’re looking on the level of his nefesh and whether the nefesh went into the Land with the rest of them. Despite the fact that his nefesh didn’t come into the land, nonetheless he wanted them to understand that they shouldn’t consider that his prayer was just for the preservation of his nefesh because, in truth, when they actually did enter the land, he was in fact still with them because he was their Rebbe. The same holds as well for every generation; he was their Rebbe too. Therefore, the prayer was not in vain. And he was teaching them at this moment, his prayer was a lesson for us. So the lesson is that prayer is not in vain.

    Also we learn something from the way that the text is written because it’s in the reflexive which means that he became filled with supplication, it sort of imbued his being and he was his prayer which basically flowed from his mouth. Here’s the proof that it wasn’t in vain because if it filled him in such a way then clearly it was coming from God who had sent it to him and who had stirred his prayer in him. And certainly, if God is moving us to do something then it’s not going to be in vain if it seems to come about by itself from another place like that, overcome with the feeling.

    And the text also has the words “at that time” which means that even when you get a clear message that the thing which you desire, which you have in your heart, is not going to happen, that it’s impossible to happen — because in this particular case, at that time, the Holy One blessed be He had promised definitively that he was not going to enter the Land — nonetheless he did not hold back praying.

    No matter what our judgments tell us, nothing stands in the way of mercy. When you’re faced with a wall, with something that seems impenetrable, that you shouldn’t get discouraged to the extent that you won’t pray. You should pray your discouragement. And the word in Hebrew for wall, קיר meaning that it’s impenetrable is from the same root as the word for the source of life מקור. So therefore you should never cut yourself off from God’s rachamim, from God’s mercy no matter how dark and thick it seems and impossible it seems that you’re going to get that which you really desire; nonetheless you should pray.

    So in sum, Moshe’s prayers were answered, just not on the level of his nefesh. It wasn’t in vain. No matter how dark and bleak the picture, if we can access our feelings and our desires we should put them into our prayers because the level of God’s mercy is a deeper level than the level of our judgment regarding whether a thing can or cannot happen. Moshe our Rebbe taught us all of this through his prayer at this time.

  22. Wendy

    From Rabbi James Stone Goodman

    Three weeks in the center of sadness
    Seven weeks of consolation

    Depth of descent
    Gentle ascent

    There is nothing other than Center-Mourning
    In sadness all in

    Sit with me

    We are reminders to each other
    Beggars for our lives

    jsg, usa
    Maqam hoseini

  23. Wendy

    From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

    Shabbat Parashat Va’et’hanan / Shabbat Nahamu
    July 20, 2013 / 13 Av 5773

    By: Reb Mimi Feigelson,
    Mashpiah Ruchanit
    Seeking a Comforter in the Heat of the Summer

    Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 3:23 -7:11
    Maftir Reading: Isaiah 40:1-26
    I usually wait till the second paragraph for my public confession, but this time I already alluded to it in the title – yes, I use a comforter when going to sleep even in the summer! I use it all year round! I like the feeling of being embraced and held, I like the sensation of being contained.

    My mind here is playing the bilingual game that I often play with myself. This Shabbat is not only Shabbat ‘Va’etchanan’ – a Shabbat of ‘Beseeching’ but it also one of the four Shabbatot that are named for their haftorah (the reading of the prophets after the Torah portion) – last week – Shabbat Chazon; the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – Shabbat Shuva; the Shabbat before Pessach – Shabbat Hagadol; and our Shabbat – Shabbat Nachamu – as the prophet Y’sha’ayahu (Isaiah 40:1) calls upon us: “Nachamu, Nachamu Ami / Be comforted / consoled, be comforted / consoled, my people.” If you search for the function of ‘con’ in the English language, one of the definitions your search engine will offer you is: “Used in compounds to indicate the completeness, perfecting of any act, and thus gives intensity to the signification of the simple word” it is for this reason that I ask you to read Y’sha’ayahu’s offering as ‘be con-souled, be con-souled my people”. The prophet is asking of us to find a way to reconnect to our soul and make it whole again. To be con-souled and comforted, but what does this mean, and how can we achieve this state of being?

    I want to return to the opening verse of our Torah portion and bring it into our learning: “And I besought God (va’etchanan) at that time saying (lay’more).” Two well known and loved Chassidic masters, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1809) and Reb Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) read this verse in a similar way, creating a distinction between beseeching and saying. They don’t read the verse as a precursor to what is going to come in the next verse but as a directive in itself. There is a request, a beseeching of God, that one can actually speak to God, to be able to say something in the presence of God. There is a va’etchanan moment that begs the possibility of lay’more.

    I find myself asking what would this look like and how does one create this possibility of being able to share their heart with God, and to feel heard by God. I ask, what is the nature of this speech? My memory draws me back to a paper I wrote on the therapeutic relationship for a diagnostic course I took in my undergrad years (special education and history – at the time this was everything a person needed to go out in the world with). I remember discussing at length the need for a common language for the therapeutic discourse to be effective, and that the therapist needed to be attentive to the sensory mode their client was using and respond with it. Each one of us is aligned with a different one of our senses. Some of us “hear what is being said,” some can “see the point being made,” some can “feel where you are coming from,” or even “touch upon an issue” or “smell that something is just not right.” When we respond to someone using the sense in which they have expressed themselves, they feel heard / seen/ felt / touched in a qualitatively greater manner.

    It is in this manner that I believe that Y’sha’ayahu is revealing to us what is the mode of communication that God needs to hear from us, how we can help each other as well and even if the Torah that is being presented to us is what we need for our growth and spiritual wellbeing. The repetition of the word ‘nachamu’ – be con-souled / comforted – is God’s way of telling us what it is that God offers and needs in the process of rebuilding a relationship that only a few days earlier, on the ninth of Av, has experienced devastation and destruction.

    Reb Shlomo Carlebach (1925 – 1994), my Teacher of many lifetimes, taught us many years ago, that the repetition comes because we are being asked to comfort with words of comfort. “How many times,” he would ask, “do you find yourself saying to someone that has just shared a heart breaking story, or a painful experience, ‘you think that’s bad, let me tell you a really horrible story…’ or ‘I heard so-and-so went through something equally bad…’? We don’t need to bring more heartbreak into the world; we don’t need to compare hardships! What we are challenged by our prophet to do is, to find words of comfort to comfort with!”

    I believe that ‘nachamu’ / ‘comfort’ and ‘con-souling’ is God’s sixth-sense! It is with words of comfort, and words that help us put our soul back together again, after we have unraveled, that we can stand in the presence of God and feel heard. It is words of comfort and con-souling that God offers us to mend our brokenness. Not rebuke nor judgment, but rather comfort.

    May we be such comforters and con-soulers for each other in the heat of the summer, and God willing, in the chill of the winter as well!

    Shabbat Shalom.

  24. Wendy

    From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan

    A Prayer for All Stages (5767/2007)

    Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad – Listen Israel! The Ineffable is our God, the Ineffable is One. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:4)

    James Fowler speaks of six possible stages in the development of a person’s religious faith. In stage one, a child encounters religion as magical and larger than life. In stage two, one learns the literal stories and teachings of a religious tradition. In stage three, one enjoys religious community. In stage four, one begins to question. In stage five, a person answers their own questions through symbolic reinterpretation of traditional stories. In stage six, a person understands religious ethics and core teachings universally.

    The Shema prayer offers teaching to seekers at almost every stage. Those who are learning stories in stage two will recognize the Shemaas a core teaching from our prophet Moshe. For those enjoying community in stage three, the Shema calls together the community of Yisrael– Israelites – in the name of the Divine. For the questioners in stage four, it calls to Yisrael– translated literally as “God-wrestlers” – to ponder religious teachings. For the symbolic interpreters in stage five, it invites multiple interpretations of “God” and “One.” To the universalists in stage six, it teaches that all human representations of God ultimately refer to the Holy One.

    No wonder the Shema is the most famous mantra in Jewish prayer! It’s a gift of words that keeps on giving.


    ONE (5766/2006)

    Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad – Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One (Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:4)

    What does the Torah mean when it says that God is “One”? Does it mean that God is like the number one: the first Being to exist in our multifaceted universe? Or does it mean that there is only one God, singular and unique, different from any other being in our experience? Or that there is only one real Being in the universe, whose energy manifests in all creation, and that Being is the One we call God?

    Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (writing in 1869) argued that, according to Torah, there is only one real Being. To prove this, he used gematriya, the numerical value assigned to each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Hebrew word echad, one,is composed of three letters: aleph, chet,and dalet.Dalet has a gematriyaof 4, symbolizing the four corners of the earth. Chet has a gematriya of 8, symbolizing the seven heavens plus the one earth. Aleph has a gematriya of 1, symbolizing the One God who is in the heavens and on the earth. When the Torah says that God is echad, One, it teaches that the earth is part of the larger universe, and the universe is part of God.

    Thus, there is only one real Being, whose energy manifests in matter and spirit, in physical and intellectual encounters, in the heavens and on the earth.


    How to be Godly – A Teaching from the Ba’al Shem Tov (5765/2005)

    You, O God, have begun to show Your servant Your greatness (Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:24). Moshe was God’s faithful servant, the greatest of the prophets, the recipient of the Torah from God. Yet after 120 years of the most Godly life ever lived, Moshe sees himself as only having begun in his relationship with God!

    And from there you will seek God your God, and you will find Him (Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:29). The Torah stresses that when you seek God from there, from your place of exile “among the nations,” you will find God. For God is to be found everywhere, and every corner of creation can serve as the vehicle to reach God. If divine providence has dispatched you to a certain place and life, your surest path to God is from there.

    And you shall bind them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as tefillin between your eyes (Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:8). God’s tefillin, the people of Israel, also consist of a hand-tefillin and head-tefillin. There are the head-Jews, the scholars and thinkers, and the hand-Jews, the doers. Both are precious to our Parent in Heaven, both are integral to the role of God’s “one nation in the earth.” But when God ties the divine tefillin to reaffirm God’s bond with God’s people, God gives precedence to the “simple” deed, cherishing it above all else.

    Adapted from

  25. Wendy

    From Rabbi Arthur Waskow

    In the Dangerous Doorways

    By Arthur Waskow

    Twice in the Torah, we are taught to place upon our doorways (for which the Hebrew is “mezuzot”) some words that “I [God] command you this day.” These words are also to appear between our eyes, upon our hands, and upon our gates.

    What are the words? After centuries of experiment and difference, we have settled on the two passages that are themselves the sources of the commandment: Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 and 11: 13-21, itself.

    These passages begin with the Sh’ma. At first hearing, the Sh’ma itself, the six bare words, may seem to be simply an assertion of the unity of YHWH. But the Word “sh’ma” itself is an imperative, a command, to listen, to hearken.

    Then come a command to love God; a command to write out these very words in the everyday places of our doors, our eyes, our hands, our gates; and a warning to act in accord with God’s Teachings so that the earth’s fertility is assured. For, we are told, if we prostitute ourselves to “other gods,” the heavens will close and the rain will halt and the earth will not feed us.

    To these two paragraphs, rabbinic tradition has added a third — about wearing bud-like fringes, tzitziot, upon the corners of our clothing — for us to read three times a day as part of the recitation of the Sh’ma. If the 19 blessings of the standing prayer, the Amidah, are the vertebrae of the service, the Sh’ma and its three paragraphs are perhaps the head, resting on the spine.

    In the nineteenth century, many rationalist Jews cited ancient texts, including the Talmud, to show that mezuzot were merely magical amulets to lessen the magical danger that the superstitious may feel hovering at doorways, and so were inconsistent with the nobility and spirituality of monotheism, the very Unity that the Shema proclaims. So these “amulets” were abandoned by many of the people, only to return to the doorways of almost all Jews — even the marginally connected — by the end of the twentieth century.

    But the questions of meaning remain: Is there any way to reunite these “magical amulets” with the sense of Unity and the hope of earth’s fertility? Why were these words to be placed where the Torah commands?

    The doorway, the gate, the eyes and hands, the corners of our clothing — all are marginal. Spaces in between. So are the special times the Torah also mentions when these words are to be spoken — between sleep and wakefulness, between the generations (“Teach them to your children …”). These are times and places when and where we might easily feel ourselves falling from one world into an utterly different one.

    Inside my house — family, familiar; outside, scary. Or inside, boring; outside, adventurous. Beyond the gates of my city, a strange barbarian people: Those folks don’t speak my language. Dreams or reality: two utterly different worlds. Those beings beyond all human settlements– rivers, clouds, the ozone layer — that do not even speak at all: utterly different from humanity.
    The danger of these thresholds is not magical. What is dangerous is the temptation not only to distinguish but to separate, to denigrate — as if these others, the Outsiders, were not also part of the One.

    And so precisely at these boundaries we remember to remind ourselves: Ehad. The Unity.

    What if we carried this sense of the meaning of these texts back into the liturgical chanting of the Sh’ma? Is there a way to get “Israel” — the Jewish people — actually to hear, to hearken, to listen to this assertion of the Unity?

    Imagine pausing after reciting the Sh’ma to ask a congregation: See yourselves caught in the doorway between home and unfamiliar turf — and then softly chant the Sh’ma again; between our own culture and a foreign one — pause; and then softly chant the Sh’ma again.

    See yourself —
    between the horrified eye that sees the broken bodies of the terror victims, and the doer’s hand that aims the bomb to blast an enemy neighborhood, and pause;

    between the sleeper’s hopeful dream, and the wakeful sense of constricted possibility, and pause;

    between the wordless global-scorching hurricane and the wordy politician tuned to the purr of Big Oil’s automobile commercials, and pause;

    — and at each perilous threshold, pause to softly chant the Sh’ma again.

    For the Sh’ma is saying — :

    “Listen!” Listen, you Israelites, “our” God is not a tribal figure; “our” God is the very Breath of Life, the One who brings being into being, the One who transcends past and future, the One Who breathes into tree and ozone layer the breath that we breathe out, and breathes the wisdom of the other cultures into us; “our” God is not our property, “our” God is One!

    Can we dare to hear the Sh’ma as somewhere between a rebuke and a reminder?

  26. Aryae Post author

    Reb Avraham Greenbaum

    Readings from Rabbi Nachman
    on Faith and Knowledge of God

    Know it in your heart

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

    The only way to know God is through complete faith. Only faith can bring you to true knowledge and perception of God’s greatness: “And I will betroth you to Me with faith, and you shall know God ! ” (Hosea 2:22)…

    Sichot Haran #217

    Knowing God
    It is impossible to explain to someone else how you personally perceive God’s greatness. You can’t even explain it to yourself from one day to the next. Tomorrow you will not be able to recapture completely the understanding you had today.

    It is impossible to describe one’s perceptions of God. They are so lofty – higher than high! They cannot be put into words.

    Sichot Haran #1

    The goal of knowledge:
    to know that we know nothing

    The ultimate goal of all knowledge of God is to realize that one knows nothing. Yet even this is unattainable. A person may come to realize his own ignorance, but only in a certain area on a particular level. There is still the next level, which he has not even touched. He does not know enough about the next level to begin to realize his ignorance. No matter how high he climbs, there is always the next step. A person therefore knows nothing: he cannot even understand his own ignorance. For there will always be a level of ignorance beyond his present level of perception.

    Sichot Haran #3

    Hints, messages and guidance
    You should reflect on the different situations and occurrences that God sends your way day by day. Each day has its own thoughts, words and deeds. They are all completely unique to that day. God “contracts” His infinite, endless Godliness in such a way that Godliness is present even in the innermost point of the finite material world in which man finds himself. Thus God sends to each individual the thoughts, words and deeds appropriate for the day, the person and the place. Within them are hints intended to draw the person closer to God’s service.

    This is why you should pay attention to what happens to you and consider what it may signify. Think about the thoughts, words and deeds that God sends you each day in order to understand His hints to you to draw closer to Him at every moment. This applies to everyone, no matter who and in what circumstances.

    But be cautious when thinking about these things: you must stay within certain limits and not delve to excess, because otherwise it is possible to stray beyond the bounds of holiness. Flying off into speculation can be dangerous. Stay within the limits of human understanding and steadily expand your horizons without trying to step beyond your level, because “you may not investigate that which is too wondrous for you” ( Chagigah 13a).

    Likutey Moharan I, 54

    God is in everything
    The whole earth is full of God’s glory. No place is devoid of God, Who fills all the worlds and transcends all the worlds.

    Therefore even one whose occupation involves contact with non-believers cannot excuse himself from serving God on account of being constantly surrounded by gross materialism. Godliness can be found everywhere, in all material things and even in the languages of the nations. Without Godliness they could not exist or endure at all. It is just that as the levels descend, Godliness becomes increasingly “contracted” and veiled in many garments.

    Accordingly, even if you are sunk in the very lair of evil on the lowest of all levels, even if you believe you are so far from God that it is impossible for you to draw closer, you can still find Godliness in the very place to which you have sunk. There too you can attach yourself to Him and repent with all your heart. Even there, God is not far away. It is just that the veils are thicker.

    Likutey Moharan I, 33

    Wisdom for life
    This world exists only to bring about God’s eternal purpose.

    There is no need to be upset about whether or not you have money. Even with money, you could waste away your days. The world deceives us completely. It makes us think we are constantly gaining but we end up with nothing. People spend years working to make money, but in the end, when they come to the final reckoning, they are left with nothing in their hands. Even when someone becomes rich, in the end he is taken from his money.

    Man and wealth cannot remain together. Either the money is taken from the man or the man from his money. No- one has ever stayed with his money. Where is all the money people have been making since the beginning of time? People have always been busy making money – so where is all the money? It has all become absolutely nothing!

    Who can say that he serves God according to God’s true greatness? Someone who has even the faintest conception of God’s greatness cannot understand how anyone could claim to serve Him. Even the highest angel cannot boast that he is able to serve God.

    The main thing is desire. Always long and yearn to come closer to God.

    Sichot Haran #51

  27. james stone goodman

    O holy

    Listen up Israel

    God is one
    God alone
    God the one and only
    God integrated and unified
    the seamless embrace of Existence
    O holy God remind me –

    So I’ll know it.
    Eid – be a witness
    let me climb up that large ayin
    slide down the big dalet
    let me know it, let me be a witness to the seamlessness –
    or let me turn it around in dyslexia
    plow the language like a palindrome
    Da’ – know!

    I climb up the Hebrew running right to left
    jump it back left to right
    let all directions fold into the ascent of the letters
    into knowing
    Da’ – let me know
    God is one
    God alone
    only God
    lonely God.

    O lonely God
    I am recovering from the sadness too
    three weeks I sat in sadness
    seven weeks I am taking to recover.

    God recovering too –
    listen O Israel
    everything is going to be better now.
    Slowly slowly
    we are into the ascent.

    I ask God in my prayers to lose that loneliness
    we are witnessing
    at least along for the ride
    trying to know something
    when knowing is not

    O holy God –
    we are trying to do something
    after all.

    jsg, usa

    Maqam Hoseini
    D E-flat F G
    Maqam is a musical figure, cognate to Hebrew Maqom signifying Place. Each Shabbat is associated with a maqam.

  28. Aryae Post author

    Reb Sholom Brodt


    In our parsha, Moshe Rabbeinu says to each person of Israel: “Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad”. “Hear Yisrael, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One.”

    The Baal Shem Tov teaches:
    The ‘kavanah’ intention thought of the word “echad”, [one] of the unification that we do in the reading of the Shma Yisrael is to focus our thoughts to be aware that there is no one in the entire universe but Hashem, the Holy One Blessed Be He, whose glory fills all the earth.
    The main aspect of the ‘kavanah’ [the way to attain this unification with Hashem] is that the person should consider him/herself as dust and ashes, and that his/her essential being is the ‘neshamah’ soul which he/she possesses. This ‘neshamah’ is a part of G-d from above.
    Thus [when we accomplish this nullification of the separate self] there is only the Holy One ‘baruch Hu’ who Is One.

    And the main ‘kavanah’ [when saying] of “echad” is that all the world is filled with His Glory, and there is nothing [no place, being or thing] that is void of Him blessed be His Name.

    Covering The Eyes

    During daavening when we say this verse, we close and cover our eyes so that we can concentrate on the Oneness of Hashem. When we elongate the word “echad” and we meditate on its letters… ‘aleph’=1 – Hashem is One …’chet’=8 – Hashem is One in this world and its seven skies… ”daled’=4 – and in all four directions.

    Uncovering The Eyes
    When our eyes are open we see division. So we close our eyes to better focus on the Oneness of Hashem. The ‘avodah’- the ‘work’, the service is that when we open them again we should continue to see only One… we should always have a vision of a united world in front of our eyes.

    Loving Hashem

    “V’ahavtah es Hashem Elokecha, b’chol l’vavcha ub’chol nafshecha uv’chol m’odech”; and you shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your wealth.”

    I heard from our Rebbe Reb Shlomo zt”l who told us in the name of the holy [Belzer ?] Rebbe, that b’chol m’odecha can also be translated as “with all your very much”. I.e. Love Hashem with all your ‘very much’ … with all your special gifts and talents.

    Loving Hashem And Loving Your Friends

    We have two mitzvot that begin with the word “v’ahavtah” and you shall love. “V’ahavtah l’reyacha kamocha…” and “V’ahavtah es Hashem Elokecha. “You shall love your friend as you love yourself …” and “You shall love Hashem your G-d”.

    The Baal Shem Tov taught that if you want to check out how much do you actually believe in Hashem and how much you love Him, check out how much “ahavat Yisrael” love of your fellow Jews you possess.

    If one wants to strengthen their love of Hashem, they can do so by doing acts of loving-kindness. When you are doing someone a favor, Hashem is giving you an opportunity to put on His face. You can even do favors and acts of kindness, even when you are not sure about your faith in Hashem. When someone asks you for help, help them yourself first, as much as you can, before sending them to G-d.

    The test of one’s belief in Hashem is expressed through not coveting and by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. For, “Lo tachmod … you shall not covet,” is the inverse of “V’ahavtah l’reya-cha kamocha- love your neighbour as yourself…Ani Hashem – I Am Hashem.”

    We also find expression of this relationship between believing in Hashem and being a ‘mentsh’ in the following ‘Gimattria’ {the study of the numerical values of letters and words of the Torah … actually quite a sophisticated study that requires very careful study.}. One concept in ‘gimmatria’ is that there are links between words of the same numerical value.

    The word “Echad” which means ‘one’ ; has the “gimmatria” {numerical value} of 13. [‘aleph’=1, ‘chet’=8, ‘daled’=4] = 13. The word “Ahavah”, which means ‘love’, also has the “gimmatria”, {numerical value} of 13. [‘aleph’=1, ‘hei’=5, ‘bet’=2, ‘hei’=5] =13.

    Now, Hashem is One, “Hashem echad” and in a similar but different way, each individual is one, “echad”. How can ‘one’ individual {whose numerical value equals 13} enter and be in the Oneness of Hashem {gimmatria=26}? The ’13’ needs another ’13’! Two individuals united bring down the presence of Hashem.

    “Beyn adam la’Makom,” between the individual person and Hashem, the individual ‘echad’ [13], joins into the Oneness of Hashem, with “ahavah” [13] love for Hashem. To really be connected we must be in love. So too, to truly ‘be with Hashem’ we need to love G-d.

    “Beyn adam l’chaveyro,” between the individual and his/her friend, the two can enter into the Oneness of Hashem, only by being one with each other. When two individuals… ‘echad’ and ‘echad’, love and unite with each other, you have “echad” [13]+ “echad” [13], {or “ahavah” [13] + “ahavah” [13] }; then they enter into the Oneness of Hashem, … 13+13=26, which is the ‘gimmatria’ of Hashem’s name. [Y=10, H=5, W=6, H=5].

    Reb Shlomo zt”l used to say, “What is the difference between the arithmetic of the weekdays and the arithmetic of Shabbos? During the week 1+1=2, but on Shabbos 1+1=1, but not 2!” For the number two represents division. To ‘be in Shabbos’ we need to ‘be’ in the Unity of The One.

  29. Wendy

    From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

    Finite language, infinite truth
    Here’s the d’var Torah I wrote in 2006 for this week’s Torah portion, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

    And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that Adonai, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of Adonai your God that I enjoin upon you.

    Setting aside for the moment whatever mixed feelings some of us may have about entering and occupying the land — maybe especially this week, as we endure the emotional rollercoaster of Tisha b’Av and we remember the destruction of the temple and the spiritual growing pains that the diaspora brought upon us — this is a fascinating snippet of parashat Va-etchanan. What are we to make of this injunction neither to add to, nor to subtract from, the Torah of God’s commandments…especially given that in its retellings, the book of D’varim is already doing just that?

    Traditional Jewish legal exegesis reads that verse in a very specific way. What it really means to say, later scholars hastened to explain, is that no prophet may add laws claiming that they are in the Torah, nor may individuals add or subtract details in any of the commandments. (My thanks to the JPS Commentary series for outlining this perspective so clearly.) In other words, we need to know our sacred text well enough to know when it’s being adapted inappropriately.

    Another interpretation hangs on the fact that this instruction concerning addition and subtraction of Torah teachings appears in the middle of a passage about the worship of other gods. This can be read to show that it is primarily an injunction to eschew idolatry. If the primary statement which underlies Torah is “I Adonai am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods besides Me,” then it is of utmost importance that we not fall into the trap of equivocating about (or adding to) those particular words.

    In the essay Paradoxes of Canon and Authorship in Ancient Israel, Bernard Levinson offers some context. He points out that “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of Adonai your God that I enjoin upon you” is a recognizable legal form used throughout the ancient Near East. Text like this was once used to prevent royal inscriptions, sets of laws, and treaties from being altered. Our challenge, of course, is reconciling this “fixity and textual sufficiency” with our need for our religious canon to address the needs of our day:

    [L]ater generations face the conflicting imperatives of subsuming their lives to the authority of the canon while adapting that unchangeable canon to realities of social, economic, political, and intellectual life never contemplated at the time of its composition…By means of exegesis, the textually finite canon becomes infinite in its application. One of the chief means, therefore, by which a religious tradition demonstrates its creativity is the variety of ways it finds to accommodate itself to and overcome an authoritative yet textually-delimited canon.

    Maybe the injunction against modifying God’s commandments is a kind of koan. The text tells us not to augment or modify the word of God — and yet it’s arguable that in trying to concretize God’s speech, we can’t help changing the nature of that speech, if only into something we can fully express and understand.

    God’s words are infinite; ours are necessarily finite, as our minds and consciousnesses are finite. When we connect with God, however briefly, we touch a kind of transformation that ordinary language and interpretation can only approximate. “I am Adonai your God…” is our attempt to encapsulate the Sinai experience in words, to express the inexpressible reality of what it feels like to be permeated with the deep awareness of God’s presence and uniqueness. Maybe that reality is the real “commandment” we are forbidden to modify…and we do the best we can to comply, though the fact of putting that reality into words means we’re always already modifying it somehow.

    As Ben Ben Bag says (in Pirke Avot 5:25), “Turn it and turn it over again, for everything is in it.” Sure enough, the deeper we look the more we can find here. One way of turning (and re/turning to) the text is looking at it through a new metaphorical lens, and in this day of computers and internet, there’s a whole crop of new metaphors for our interactions with holiness.

    Today we can understand Torah as a document which contains within itself the seeds of its own transformation. When I download new software onto my computer, often as not that software comes packaged with the software necessary to “unpack” or “unStuff” or “unzip” itself. Just so, new Torah insights often hide within other interpretations, condensed and waiting to unfold. And that multiplicity of interpretations — how a text which appears to be simple and singular can actually prove multilayered and ever-changing — is a fundamental part of how we as Jews interact with Torah, even with those parts of Torah which at first glance appear to contradict the notion of multiple layers of meaning. As Levinson writes,

    Properly understood, the canon is radically open. It invites innovation, it demands interpretation, it challenges piety, it questions priority, it sanctifies subversion, it warrants difference, and it embeds critique.

    Or, as Rabbi Ismar Schorsch wrote in his commentary on parashat Beshalach a few years ago:

    We tend to think of revelation as a highly restrictive term. The fate of a revealed text is to be immutable. We humans have no right to alter what God has given. But in Judaism precisely because the Torah is revered as divine, it becomes susceptible to unending interpretation. It would be a denigration of God’s word to saddle it with just a single meaning. In contrast to human speech, which carries a finite range of meanings, the language of God was deemed to be endowed with an infinity of meanings. This theology freed the Rabbis to do midrash, creating the anomaly of a canon without closure. The vessels kept changing their contents. New challenges elicited new insights into a text inviolable only on the surface.

    Amen v’amen.

    A mother poem for Shabbat Nachamu: Comforter

    Posted: 23 Jul 2010 04:28 AM PDT


    you wake in your crib’s embrace
    from the dream of a distant heartbeat

    a voice says cry out!
    and you cry out

    bewailing the tragedy of separation
    until I gather you to my breast

    glowing numbers shift silently
    and your desperation eases

    someday you’ll learn to fumble soft stars
    into their places

    to nuzzle your giraffe
    and count adinkra like talismans

    but for now I am consolation
    I make the rough places plain

  30. Wendy


    From there you will seek G-d your G-d, and you will find Him (4:29)

    The Torah stresses that when you seek G-d from there, from your place of exile “among the nations,” you will find Him. For G-d is to be found everywhere, and every corner of His creation can serve as the vehicle to reach Him. If divine providence has dispatched you to a certain place and life, your surest path to Him is from there.

    (Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)

    You shall love the L-rd your G-d… (6:5)

    The Maggid of Mezeritch expounded on this verse, and asked: how can there be a commandment to love? Love is a feeling of the heart; one who has the feeling, loves. What can a person do if, G-d forbid, love is not embedded in his heart? How can the Torah instruct “you shall love” as if it were a matter of choice?

    But the commandment actually lies in the previous verse, “Hear O Israel…” The Hebrew word shema (“hear”) also means “comprehend.” The Torah is commanding a person to study, comprehend, and reflect upon the oneness of G-d. Because it is the nature of the mind to rule the heart, such contemplation will inevitably lead to a love of G-d. If one contemplates deeply and yet is still not excited with a love of G-d, this is only because he has not sufficiently refined and purified himself of the things which stifle his capacity to sense and relate to the Divine. Aside from this, such contemplation by the mind will always result in a feeling of love.

    (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch)


    You shall bind them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as tefillin between your eyes (6:8)

    While putting on the tefillin, one should have in mind that G-d commanded us to inscribe [within the tefillin] the four passages [Exodus 13:1-10 and 13:11-16, and Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21] which speak of His unity and the Exodus from Egypt… and that He commanded us to place them on the arm opposite the heart, and on the head opposite the brain, so that we should submit the soul which is in the brain, as well as the desires and thoughts of our hearts, to his service…

    (Siddur HaRav)

    When one puts on the tefillin, one should first put them on the arm and then on the head. And when one removes them, one should first remove them from the head and then remove them from the arm.

    Why is this so? I understand that one should first put on the hand-tefillin, since the verse states, “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as tefillin between your eyes”; but from where do we derive that the head-tefillin are to be removed first?

    Said Rabbah: Rav Huna explained it to me. The verse states “and they shall be as tefillin between your eyes” — they, in the plural — to imply that at any time that there is tefillin between your eyes, there shall be both (i.e. both the head and the hand-tefillin).

    (Talmud, Menachot 36a)

    The deeper significance of this law:

    The head-tefillin represents the mind; the hand-tefillin represents action. Both mind and deed are to be enlisted in man’s service of his Creator. Doing, however, must come first, as the people of Israel proclaimed at Sinai, “We will do and we will hear (comprehend).” Hence the law that the hand-tefillin is to be bound first.

    Furthermore, while it is possible to conceive of a temporary state in which doing exists without understanding, understanding that is divorced from deed is utterly worthless. Hence the law that “at any time that there is tefillin between your eyes, there shall be both.” In the words of our sages (Talmud, Yevamot 109b), “Whoever says, ‘I have only Torah,’ does not have Torah, either.”

    (The Lubavitcher Rebbe)


    You shall bind them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as tefillin between your eyes (6:8)

    What is inscribed in G-d’s tefillin? The verse (II Samuel 7:23), “Who is like Your people Israel, one nation on the earth.”

    (Talmud, Brachot 6a)

    Torah law prescribes that we first tie the hand-tefillin on our arms and then set the head-tefillin upon our heads (see above).

    G-d’s tefillin, the people of Israel, also consist of a hand-tefillin and head-tefillin. There are the head-Jews, the scholars and thinkers, and the hand-Jews, the doers. Both are precious to our Father in Heaven, both are integral to the role of G-d’s “one nation in the earth.” But when G-d ties His tefillin to reaffirm His bond with His people, He gives precedence to the “simple” deed, cherishing it above all else.

    (Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)

  31. Wendy

    From Rabbi Miles Krassen

    Ve-Etchanan BS”D

    “And at that time, when the desire to realize the dream of the Land of Israel was most present in my mind, I prayed 515 times to the Lord of Being: please, please let me express the true prayer that would enable me to realize my dream.” (Devarim 3:23) In this verse, which begins parashat Ve-etchanan, if we read the Torah of our Hearts, we can each feel the depth of the great yearning of Moshe to bring about the ultimate Redemption in his lifetime. “But, since the time was not yet ripe, for your sakes, the Source of Being, became pregnant with my Dream. And the Lord of Life assured me, ‘you have already done enough, you really don’t need to speak to me about this again. Just go up to the highest level (beyond time and space) and there you will see it All for yourself…'” (Devarim 3:26, 27).

    This parashah, which we read after the 9th of Av, points to one of the deepest and challenging moments in life, when we realize that despite our best efforts, we simply are not going to get the job done in one lifetime. This is not to say that we have not accomplished and experienced great miracles. But, we ultimately come to the sobering realization that the true purpose for our being here in this world, which is envisioned by the Moshe in us, is not going to be completed by us. That is the great, shocking, reality-check of the 9th of Av. And yet, in this parashah, which is read on Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation, we already begin to discover a new energy. We can already anticipate the 15th of Av, linked in Tractate Ta’anit with Yom Kippur, as one of the two most joyous and auspicious Holy Days of the year.

    What is the secret of this amazing energy shift? The Zohar gives us a hint in a fantastic myth. Ya’akov and Esav were bargaining over the months of the year. Every month that Ya’akov gained would be a month of Compassion, but all of Esav’s months would be difficult months of Judgment. Esav took Tammuz and Av, while Ya’akov was able to claim the months of Elul and Tishri. However, always seeking ways to sweeten jusgment with lovingkindness, Ya’akov managed to liberate the second portion of Av from Esav. The result is that now the second half of Av is joined with the entire month of Elul, the month of Teshuvah, the best time for getting back into alignment with the Divine will. Indeed, the Holy Qedushat Levi, Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, noted that Av is an acronym for Arur (cursed) and Barukh (blessed). The blessing part of Av begins with this parashah and reaches its height on the 15th of Av.

    So what is its secret? When Moshe accepts his mortality, his thoughts turn immediately to how to insure that his dream will continue to unfold after him. He immediately receives divine guidance concerning the need for a successor and he makes sure to include in this parashah, the most essential keys to consolation and continuing the path to Redemption. Here are several of the most important.

    “Just be as careful as possible to stay awake so that you never forget what you yourself experienced.” (Devarim 4:9). Especially, at this time, we need to remember and recount those amazing and undeniable moments when we experienced directly in our own lives, the Divine Presence.

    “I AM the Source of Being, your Divine Empowerer, who enables you to break free from identifying with the apparent limitations (of the egoic personality) that periodically enslave you.” (Devarim 5:6). “Hear (and meditate) on this for yourself (in the way your mind can understand it)…the Source of Being, your Divine Empowerer is (the only) One.” (Devarim 6:4). “Right now, shift into the parasympathetic mode of feeling consciousness in which your Heart does know that…there is nothing anywhere other than (the One).” (Devarim 4:39). “And then you yourself will have direct knowledge that there really is nothing other than that One.” (Devarim 4:35).

    “And, even if that (ego death) seems scary to you, (don’t worry), the Moshe in you can mediate between you and the Truth” (Devarim 5:5) “so that you can cleave to the Source of Being, your Empowerer, and remain alive” (Devarim 4:4), “even though the Source of Being, your Empowerer, is truly a consuming fire… ” (Devarim 4:24).

    And when you really do see this in your own way, “you will love the Source of Being, your Empowerer…” (Devarim 6:5) “and you will be sure to mindfully do everything that you need to do and that it is right to do, which I AM commands you to do.” (Devarim 7:11).

    May we all have the merit to really take the message of this parashah to heart and recognize for ourselves, the ultimate consolation of knowing “eyn od milvado,” there truly is nothing but the One. May we slough off the old persona that dies on the 9th of Av and be reborn and renewed together in the re-aligning energy of the 15th Av, that greatest of all Holy Days, because it draws energy from the future, in which the Holy One is already dancing with us in a circle in which all are equal.

    Rabbi Moshe Aharon Ladizhyner
    (“Reb Miles”)

  32. Wendy

    ~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~


    (And I implored)

    DEUTERONOMY 3:23 – 7:11

    V’Etchanan tells the story of Moses’ plea to enter the Promised Land. It goes on to recount the Ten Commandments, and also gives us the Sh’ma, our central prayer that affirms the Unity of God.


    THE DRAMA OF V’ETCHANAN recounts Moses’ plea for grace. As our story unfolds, Moses implores God to allow him to enter the Promised Land. God’s response is interpreted by Moses as an angry and terrible “NO!”… as a withholding of grace.
    God says, “Rav lakh!” You have so much! Stop fixating on your idea of what you want! And then God instructs Moses to climb to the top of the mountain and get a clear view in all directions so that he might see and know that he has already arrived. The promise has already been fulfilled.
    As we search for Grace in our own lives, we often come to that search with a preconceived notion of what our success must look like. We look towards the Promised Land – the right partner, perfect health, enough money, the right places to live and work. Our time and culture condition our goals; they drive us onward in our journeys, blinding us to the destination beneath our feet. As Grace pours into our lives from within or without, we will not recognize or receive its flow if we are fixated on a certain picture, on a particular outcome, a specific idea of success. Our expectations will blind us to the Promised Land that is before us and within us.

    THE BLESSING of V’Etchanan is the opportunity to hear God’s words again, “Rav lakh,” You have so much! I am answering your request in this very moment, but you must open your eyes to receive it. You must lift your eyes beyond your own limited expectations. You must climb the mountain to take in the wide expanse. You don’t need to cross the Jordan. You are already Home.
    We take this journey in order to be strengthened, purified, transformed, refined. We journey so that our eyes may be opened.
    V’Etchanan blesses us with a map for that path of awakening in the form of the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma.

    THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, written on the tablets, represent the Covenant. This covenant is the Truth of our connection to the ultimate reality hidden beneath the apparent surface of things. V’Etchanan blesses us with a path of attunement to the essential truth of our existence. Ignoring or contradicting the guidelines carved on the tablets of covenant, will serve to keep us from knowing and experiencing that connection to God and to the whole of Life. If the line of connection to our Source is broken, then awakening becomes impossible and our relationship to Reality becomes distorted.
    But what kind of blessing is this? Haven’t we already received the blessing of this gift earlier in our journey in the Book of Exodus? How can it be given again? Here is the secret of Deuteronomy; its earliest title being Mishneh Torah, the “repetition of the Torah.”
    What looks like repetition is actually the journey spiraling to a deeper level. When the Ten Commandments are given a second time, they are not accompanied by fire and thunder as they were at first. Instead they are given in the quiet of our practice, and they open us to an even deeper mystery, which is the Sh’ma. “Listen God-wrestler, YHVH is your God, YHVH is One.” The words of the Sh’ma pierce through the veils of illusion. These words have the power to awaken us from our trance of separation that obscures the truth that there is Only God.

    I FIRST EXPERIENCED the power of the Sh’ma in a Native American Sweat Lodge. This happened one moonlit night more than twenty years ago in a lush New York forest. The ceremony was being led by a very learned and devout man, Jewish by birth, who had been adopted into the Lakota tribe. He chanted in their holy language and followed their rules and traditions with respect and reverence.
    Sweat Lodges are designed to facilitate our deepest prayer. Volcanic rocks are heated all day in a fire and then ceremoniously placed in to a hole at the center of the lodge. The door is closed and the circle sits in complete darkness except for the glow of the red-hot rocks. As sacred herbs touch the rocks, the lodge fills with smoke. As water is poured onto the rocks, the lodge fills with fragrant steam. As our artifice is burned away, the lodge fills up with prayer.
    This particular lodge was hotter than any I had ever experienced before. The heat, smoke, and chanting seemed to strip away everything – ideas, memories, hopes, will, my very identity felt as if it was burning away. I felt like I was going to die. Suddenly we all cried out the Sh’ma. (In truth, I didn’t even know these people were Jewish.) As the sound of this ancient prayer poured through us, ten spiritual seekers – all born Jewish – none of us connected to a Jewish path, were all startled awake. Completely cleansed of fear, we were all suddenly open to a Love that was at once given and received.
    I still call on the memory of that Sh’ma in the Sweat Lodge to inspire me in my prayers. It inspired in us the power to transcend our fear of Death – a fear that is rooted in our identification with Duality – the mistaken conception that anything is separate from God.

    WHEN GOD TELLS MOSES to climb the mountain and lift his eyes, we are being invited to receive a glimpse of Unity. From the summit of this mountain, everything that we thought separate, all of the opposites that have warred within us, are suddenly united. It is all Echad – “One.” Then the fullness of Love can flow. Then, “You shall love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.” When we experience the knowledge of the Unity beyond Duality, it takes root inside us, and we become lovers of the highest order.


    V’ETCHANAN OFFERS US the challenge of transforming the power of Desire from a potential prison into a vehicle for Enlightenment. Each of us must climb the mountain of our own desires and lift our eyes to see beyond what we have come to expect or imagine.
    Sometimes our spiritual challenge comes to us in the form of a koan. In the tradition of Zen Buddhism, a koan is a question that can’t be answered by linear thinking. Instead we must embrace the question itself, by taking it into our meditation and into our lives. The apparent contradictions that emerge on the path of our Torah Journey require that we open ourselves to living with and being with the Mystery until the answer breaks forth from a place beyond rational thought, a place of knowing and experience.
    V’Etchanan teaches us that our very lives depend upon developing the practice of D’vekut, cleaving to God through the fullness of loving desire.1 Twenty verses later, God defines Herself as “a consuming fire.” 2

    The Talmud asks: “How do we cleave to a God who is
    a consuming fire?” 3

    This koan leads us to the edge of a great abyss. Every step of our journey has been fueled by a profound longing for D’vekut, the experience of Oneness. Yet the self who desires must be annihilated in the process. “How do we cleave to a God who is a consuming fire?”

    1 Deuteronomy 4:4

    2 Deuteronomy 4:24

    3 Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 111b

    For Guidelines for Practice please click on link to website.

  33. Wendy

    From Rav DovBer Pinson

    Energy of the Week: Parshas Va’eschanan


    This weeks portion opens with Moses imploring, entreating and praying to be allowed into the promised land.

    The Verse says of Moses “Va’eschanan/ I entreated Hashem at that time, saying, O Hashem, God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand… Pray let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan. (Chap.3: 23-25)

    Our sages say that Moses implored the Creator with Five Hundred and Fifteen prayers, as is hinted by the word Va’eschanan, of which the numeric value is 515, and equal to the numeric value of the classic word for prayer, Tefilah.

    Yet, his prayers, so deeply felt and expressed, are only partially answered. Moses is told, “Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes…and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan.” (3:27)

    He is permitted to see the land, but not to enter it.

    This seems like more of a punishment than a response to his prayers, as the viewing of the land creates an even greater longing to enter, and a stronger sense of lack, and thus propelling an even more intense desire to enter the land.

    Most years, we read the portion of Va’eschanan in the week of Tisha B’av/the Ninth of Av, the day commemorating the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, and our ensuing exile from the land.

    To be in collective and individual exile is to experience disconnection and displacement. Exile is separation. The separation creates the longing. The greater the separation, the greater the longing.

    The longing itself creates the unity. The connection between what you have or who you are with what you want and who you desire to become, is forged by longing.

    Moses’ seeing the land created a greater longing for the land and in this way, an even deeper connection.

    This is the value of longing.

    Energy of the Week:Overall, this week is a difficult week. It is a week of separation. This is a good week to stay close to home, and stick to the familiar. This is not a good time to seek out the new, to start new projects, a new business, move into a new house, or make any large purchases. It is a time to be cautious, and stay safe.

    This week, allow yourself to feel the losses in your lives and be in the sadness.

    This sadness is the sadness of separation, and separation creates longing. Therefore, in the course of the week, through mourning and feeling our losses, we receive the energy of longing – longing for world redemption and for personal redemption. Through feeling the pain of collective and personal exile and we thus awaken a stronger desire for collective and personal redemption.


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