Parshat Vaetchanan 2017
It is hard to find a more personal and more emotional parsha than Vaetchanan. It begins with Moshe’s confession that he tried to convince God to let him enter the land of Canaan, the object of his desire for 40 years in the desert, but to no avail. God said, case closed, don’t even mention it again.
We have Moshe’s description of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. We have the reading that was read on Tisha B’Av afternoon, warning what would happen if the people did not remain true to God. We have a reprise of the Ten Commandments, with slight variations introduced by Moshe, and we have the Shma, perhaps the most fundamental statement about the essence of Judaism.
Let’s examine the Shma for a moment. According to Rabbi Shimon Cohen, this is a complex statement which becomes even more so when connected with the paragraph that follows, “v’ahavta” – and you shall love your God.
Shma Yisrael – Hear o Israel. This is a clarion call, much more direct and introspective than “And now Israel, hear (what God has to say). At this point, he should say “YOUR God (because he is talking to the people), but instead he says, OUR God (eloheinu), indicating that he counts himself as a full part of Israel.
But as Rabbi Cohen points out, this is another opening for confusion. God is eloheinu – our god, but Elohim (which means both God and judges) is in the plural. Does this mean that there is more than one god, or that each person has a different view of what or who God is? Think of the consequences of such a thought, after the Ten Commandments have made clear that there is only one God.
The sentence ends with “Adonai echad – He is one.” We can understand this to mean: However we perceive God is OK, because each of our own views and perceptions come together as the ONE.
But another approach is also possible. Ariel Seri-Levi reminds us that the two names of God in the Torah (hashem and Elohim) are perceived as referring to two different qualities. Hashem, the Lord, is the private God of the Children of Israel, and the use of this name indicates a more merciful approach to us. The use of Elohim, God, refers to the ruler who is the judge, and more severe. And when the two names appear together as they do here (Hashem eloheinu – the Lord our God) – we can understand it in this way: Hashem, the Lord, who is as you know our God (eloheinu) is one and unique. The question that remains unanswered is whether this means that there are other gods in the world (of other nations) who are not our god, or that there are no other gods at all. Seri-Levi concludes that what is certain is that this statement, the Shma, is a demand for total loyalty whose practical implementation is detailed afterwards in v’ahavta.
The first paragraph that follows the Shma is the one we read morning and night. “V’ahavta” – and you shall love your God. But notice a change. Here the language is in the singular. Hear o Israel refers to the masses of Israel (and OUR God). V’ahavta talks in the singular, where each person is responsible for the loving. “B’chol levavecha”, with all your heart – but that’s not an exact translation. The Hebrew should be “b’chol libcha”. Levav as in “Kol od balevav” in Hatikva – refers not to the pump, the muscle, the organ called the heart but rather to the essence and spirit represented by what we call the heart. In other words, when the text say our heart and our soul, it is talking about our very essence being involved.
In general, the language, structure and syntax of the parsha (and most of Devarim) are stirring and emotional. There is an urgency in Moshe’s words as again and again he repeats the message that people should remain true to the precepts they have been given. He hints at, and later lays out in graphic detail, what will happen if we don’t follow these laws.
I often wonder what can be done to help us as a people to get back to a better, more moral and user-friendly condition. I’m talking about the average person, not the big mogul or politician – they require much more serious treatment. I think that one of the many causes of our lack of caring for others as reflected in our behavior is environmental pressure.
I would like to make a modest and very focused proposal: a partial moratorium on excessive news coverage. We shouldn’t stop the press and TV from reporting what’s happening – that would give free rein to those who would do anything to get ahead and a buck or ten. But the obsession with repeating half-facts and then full stories ad nauseum brings the populace first to a state of near hysteria and then to a sense of helplessness. And it’s as addictive as coffee!
I believe that such a partial moratorium would have an immediate positive effect on the mood, behavior and mental health of our population. I base this on an almost apocryphal event. About 40 years ago Kol Israel went on strike. No radio news, no TV news. Only Galei Zahal had news once an hour. The strike lasted 2 weeks.
Later, when collating statistics, it was found that during the two week period there had been a 25% reduction in traffic accidents. Why? Simple. People in their cars were not aggravated by the endless repetitions. There was no reason to press down on the gas and the horn. They were calmer. We were calmer, more polite and more considerate. It may not bring us closer to God, but it will bring us closer to one another and that’s a good start.
It’s worth a try.