Parshat Vaetchanan 2018
You have to hand it to Moshe. He really is a special figure. His most fervent hope, to enter the land of Canaan, has been smashed to smithereens, the ultimate instance of the country-western song I heard decades ago with this refrain: “I prayed to God….and he said no.” Yet does he get depressed? Maybe. But does that stop him from his final task, which is to beat some brains into his wayward people? Not a bit.
Here we are, padding out of the deep trauma of Tisha B’Av (and indeed, the Torah reading for Tisha B’Av comes from this parsha), and setting our sights on the end of the Torah cycle and of the year and we find Moshe using every trick in the book to convince his people – us – that we should do what’s good for us.
One important trick is misidentification or misdirection. You people who were at Sinai, he says, you who were there and also you who weren’t really there. Actually, most of them weren’t. Those who heard the thunder and saw the clouds and lightning were for the most part pushing up daisies in the desert. But like a magician, he is creating ties. We weren’t there but we were there. We were all there, all of us, for all time.
This is closely connected to the second important element in Moshe’s strategy. And you shall tell this to your children. V’shinantem l’vanecha and you shall repeat it, according to the Shema, and you shall tell them, as we say in the Haggada of Pesach. Keep the story alive. Keep it relevant to each generation because that is the way to ensure our survival and continuity as a people.
In this parsha, after 40 years in the desert and a short time before his death, Moshe gives the people what will become the ultimate statement of our belief – the Shema. This statement and the paragraph that follows, which we say every morning and every evening, encapsulates Moshe’s approach. We have to want to walk in God’s ways, love him as He loves us. The word love appears in Devarim 23 times, all in the relationship between God and Israel. We have to study. We have to teach our children, and we have to take practical steps to remind us of our commitment.
This by the way, is the fly in the ointment. Why do we have to have tefilin and mezuza and tzitzit to remind us? Because we have this tendency to forget. Quickly. So here are a few reminders throughout the day to keep our commitment in clear sight in all situations.
To round out the picture, Moshe gives us a rehashing of the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, when we look at the Ten Commandments, we see a covenant between man and God where as much weight is given to relations between man and man as to those between man and God. Mindy Berman, of the UJA Federation, points out an interesting counterpoint between the commandments on the first tablet, generally considered to be those between man and God, those on the second tablet, between man and man.
In the first tablet, one’s obligations toward God, the Torah first commands us about our thought, then our speech, and finally our behavior.
The first two commandments are: To believe in one God and not to accept any other gods. That’s thought. Then we are prohibited to take God’s name in vain. Speech. The last two Commandments on the first tablet pertain to action. We have the Shabbat, and we have honoring our parents (which, actually is ambiguous as to which side it belongs. But since it is included on the first tablet it is traditionally considered to be a mitzvah between man and God).
When we get to the second tablet, the interpersonal commandments, we go the other way. First we have action – do not murder, commit adultery or steal. Then comes speech, in the form of not swearing falsely. And finally we have thought: no coveting of our neighbor’s possessions in our heart.
What lesson does Berman draw from this? That in our relationship with God, the primary emphasis is on belief and mental processes. Belief comes first, what we say and do are secondary. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, however, actions speak louder than thoughts.
The lesson is pretty clear. What we say to others and even what we think about them is important. Yet how we behave toward other human beings is most important. If we fail to respect and care about each other in our actions, then no amount of words or thoughts can rectify the damage we do.
We are living through what can only be called the Chinese curse of “interesting times” with events crowding the news broadcasts and newspapers with such haste that one can barely keep track of what happened this morning – let alone yesterday. It is at such times that we have to keep a center, a quiet place within us to which we can retreat periodically to reset our compass and remember what it is we are supposed to be doing.
This is what Moshe is doing for the people – offering them a center. This is what the haftarah is offering us in nachamu nachamu – be consoled. We have to find ours too. Hopefully, with such a center, the heat of current events and the heat of the summer will pass us by, and allow us to maintain our cool and collected selves despite the distractions.