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D’var Torah written by Mike Garmise for Shabbat, 16th Av 5776, 20th August 2016
If we were to try to choose which parsha of the Torah has the most important messages – not the most mitzvoth but rather the most basic elements of Judaism – chances are Va’etchanan would be chosen. We have here two of the most fundamental readings of the whole year: the Ten Commandments and the Shema.
True, the Ten Commandments were given earlier, in the book of Shemot, but the Shema – the prayer which can be found in our morning and evening services and before going to bed – is undoubtedly the most well-known paragraph in the entire Torah. In actual fact, it supports and deepens our understanding of what is meant in the first two of the Ten Commandments.
The Shema, which says that God is One, can be read in two ways. We can understand this to mean that God is “one” – one of the gods, like Baal or Zeus or any of the other gods in the pantheons of the various nations. That’s the wrong way.
The right way is to read it as: God is the ONLY “one”. This is the message of the second commandment as well: You shall not have any other gods. And here we see that this is our God and He is the one and only.
This is, of course, the difference between polytheism and monotheism, many gods versus one God. But as Rabbi Jonathan Sachs elucidates in his book, “Not in God’s Name,” this difference has ramifications that have been reflected in the systems of rule in many cultures and the accepted way in which kings or rulers treat their subjects.
Polytheism implies a hierarchy. There are many gods, some of which are above the others. If I am having some trouble with my crops or fertility or dangers at sea, I have to appeal to the appropriate deity who will either accede to my wishes or not. If not, I can bring my case before a higher tribunal, as it were, to a higher god.
This idea of a hierarchy was brilliantly transplanted into monotheism in a science fiction book by Robert Heinlein. In his book, “Job, a Comedy of Justice,” the main character, after many adventures that are obviously whims of God (like Job in the Biblical book), has a request that only God himself can decide on, and this God, the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, rules against him. Dissatisfied, the character demands a higher divinity – and we are talking about monotheists! – and sure enough, we find that our God, and Satan, and all the other gods we have ever read about, are subservient to a greater entity who actually rules the universe. This supreme being rules in favor of the character, of course. This is polytheism at work in monotheism.
How is this reflected in how people are ruled? If we take the polytheistic approach, with its hierarchy, the extrapolation is that certain people (like certain gods) are lower than others. And they can be treated as lower creatures, enslaved, beaten. They can be kept poor while others become rich because this is the way things are. Kings, of course, are higher on the pyramid and therefore entitled to do as they wish to those below.
In a monotheistic world, this is not supposed to happen. And please note – not SUPPOSED to happen. Because the message of monotheism, as reflected in the Shema – is that just as there is no hierarchy above, there should be no hierarchy of privilege below. People, like the lack of multiple gods, are equal. They are all different faces of the same God.
Of course when you have many gods, if you want to compete as to which one is stronger, you go to war; the side that wins has the stronger god.
But what happens if all of us, of whatever monotheistic religion, believe in one God who is more or less the same God, but in each case is represented by a different chief prophet? And that is more or less the situation we have both internally in Israel and internationally between and among all the states and religions.
Now the fight is not for the strongest God but for the strongest VERSION of the one God that we all serve (even though THEY wouldn’t say that – they would say that we are basically pagans worshipping a non-god).
It is interesting to see that the extremists of any religion (or dogma) are willing to do anything – including grossly violating the basic tenets of their own faith – to punish others who do not believe the same way. Think ISIS, or think the messianists of any movement you want, in our little country or the rest of the world.
But the Shema, in simple and beautiful language, says what we should do. We should love our God and do our utmost to serve him, and talk about his laws and teach them to our children. Where is murder and violence against others? Not in our book.
We have our own extremists, and it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that extremism is a form of idol worship. Let us hope that our extremists take the simple p’shat meaning of our reading today to heart, so that in this period of reconciliation after the terrible events of Tisha B’Av, we can experience cohesion, cooperation and acceptance.