This past Thursday marked the 27th yahrtzeit of my late sister. She was 39 years old, had 10 children, was in her ninth month with number 11 when her womb began to leak and she hemorrhaged to death. She lived in Brooklyn, I was here. That Shabbat, Vaetchanan, a boy I had prepared, read the Torah and haftara for his bar mitzvah, and so as not to detract from the simcha, I kept the tragedy to myself in shul.
Her death was a terrible blow, especially to my parents, and what made me angry was that this death could have been avoided had my sister taken certain elementary precautions. But because she believed in God and felt that she was fulfilling God’s wishes, she was sure she would be safe. As though she were an Israeli: “everything will be OK.”
At the time, I did not think about the connection between my sister’s behavior and the parsha. I was too angry. Now, 27 years later, when I read the parsha, I see the writing that was on the wall, the writing that my sister read but did not internalize.
We read: “Guard yourself and guard your soul very much (Deut. 4:9)” and “You shall guard yourselves very well (Deut. 4:15).” Although the sentences seem to refer to our belief in God, the rabbis say specifically that the reference is also to guarding our bodies and keeping them safe. Maimonides, a physician, called the body the vessel in which God has implanted His spirit, and which we must protect from harm.
My sister didn’t. And when we look around today we see a lot of people, including the religious, who do not take these mitzvoth to heart. Smoking has decreased, but our behavior on the roads as well as other dangerous activities indicate that we really don’t show sufficient concern for our bodies, or for others’.
This leads us to another idea that appears in the parsha. The idea that a person can know the Torah and halacha, and practice more mitzvoth than there are stars in the sky, and yet not internalize the messages underlying all of our practices.
As Rabbi Neil Loevinger notes, we can understand two expressions, “Know this day” and “set it upon your heart” as two parallel phrases meaning the same thing. However, traditional rabbinic Bible commentators often like to read the text more creatively. Loevinger cites R. Israel Salanter, the 19th-century giant of Mussar [ethical development] teachings, who sees “know this day” and “set it upon your heart” as two different stages in a process:
Knowing, he said, is not sufficient. We must take this knowledge into our hearts, so that our will and virtues both function according to what we know. There is as much distance between “knowing” [something] and “setting it upon your heart”, he says, as there is between knowledge and ignorance.
The thing is, we don’t always see it that way. Almost all of us have selective hearing – we hear what we want to hear and ignore the rest. We also suffer from selective cognition. Popeye used to say, I am what I am and that’s all that I am. Today (as in the past) we essentially say, “I know what I know and that’s all that I am willing to know.”
Observance is only one part of the story. You can keep a scorecard of how many mitzvoth you performed today. This includes the mitzvoth of taking care of yourself and your body. But the real test is in our hearts. Do we see why we’re doing what we’re doing? We can apply this to governments as well because they reflect us. Governments are supposed to take care of its citizens so that we are not exposed to unnecessary risks. Do they?
These are, admittedly, depressing thoughts. As a counterbalance, we should remember that this is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of consolation, because of the haftarah we read. After all the horrors of the preceding three weeks, from the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem until its destruction, we are now told that the worst is behind us. Just as the summer cools down after the hottest point, destruction will be followed by restoration.
The last time we had destruction here it took 2000 years for restoration, but time is relative and what is important is the final result. We are back, we are thriving, we are working toward….
That’s the big question. What are we working toward? A greater Israel? A greater Jewish Israel? A greater Judaism? Being like or better than all the other nations? “Know this day” and “set it on your heart.” In our parsha Moshe gives the important points for choosing our path.
We have the warning about what will happen if we stray too far from our sources – what happened can happen again. We are given a reprise of the basics, the Ten Commandments. We are given the most concise summary of our beliefs – the Shma. It’s all here.
Perhaps we can also extend and expand our nahamu, our consolation. Be a little easier on ourselves and on those around us. Perhaps we can unload some of the weights of the past, so that we can forgive the mistakes that others made, such as my sister, and that we made (yes we did!). Consider the good that emerged even from bad events, and show a little more compassion all around. Yes, that should help.