Drash on Va-Etchanan

By Don Armstrong

Devarim, the fifth and last moshianic book of the Pentetuch, lays the foundation for the monotheism of modern Judaism by highlighting the supremacy of Adonai. In the preface to Devarim on page 980 of Etz Hayim, Jeffrey Tigay notes that today’s parsha is, ”the most clear advocate of monotheism and the ardent, exclusive loyalty that Hashem’s chosen people owe to their loving, just and transcendent God.”

Commentators on today’s parsha, “Va-Etchanan,” emphasize that, despite its small size, Israel has an obligation to be a light unto all the nations of Hashem’s world. Moshe stresses Hashem’s covenant with the patriarchs that was affirmed at Mt. Sinai, Mt. Horeb and in Israel’s travels in the wilderness and which is reaffirmed when Israel enters the promised land.

The book of Devarim anticipates Israel’s enjoyment of Hashem’s bounty in the promised land, but this bounty and Israel’s welfare are conditioned upon maintaining a society that is governed by Hashem’s social and religious laws. These laws are Hashem’s gift to Israel; their observance secures the mutual closeness and love between them. The Torah’s humanitarianism is most developed in Devarim by emphasizing the ideas of social justice and Tikun Olam, with concern for the welfare of the poor and our duty to repair and maintain Hashem’s creation.

Devarim urges every Israelite to study and understand Hashem’s laws. It explains the meaning of events and the purpose of Hashem’s laws to obtain Israel’s willing, informed consent. Devarim also has strongly influenced later Jewish tradition. The core of Jewish practice is the daily recitation of the Sh’ma and the public reading of the Torah. Also based on Devarim are the duties to bless Hashem after meals, say Kiddush on Shabbat, affix mezuzot to door posts, wear tefillin and tzitzit, perform acts of charity for the poor and much more. Devarims impact on Jewish life cannot be overstated. No idea has shaped Jewish history more than monotheism, and no verse has shaped Jewish theology, consciousness, and identity more than the Sh’ma.

In researching my drash, I studied the “Va-Etchanan” drashes prepared over the last decade by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory. So what is the Sh’ma? Rabbi Sacks said that it is the supreme testimony of Jewish faith. He noted that two ancient civilizations that shaped Western culture were very different in their respective world views: the ancient Greeks were masters of the visual arts (art, sculpture, architecture and theater), a sight-based culture of the eye. Ancient Jews, as a profound religious principle, were not.

Hashem, the focus of ancient Jewish culture and worship, is invisible. Hashem could be heard, but not seen. Thus, ancient Jewish culture was an oral culture of the ear. Despite the fact that Torah, the law of the Jewish people, has 613 commandments, Rabbi Sacks noted the astonishing fact that Biblical Hebrew had no verb for to obey. This affects our entire understanding of Judaism because it shows that despite our focus on the divine commandments, ours is not a faith that values blind, unthinking obedience. Instead, Hashem wants us to understand why the commandments were made so that we can develop a moral conscience. What Hashem wants us to do is not irrational or arbitrary; it is for each Jew’s welfare, the Jewish people’s welfare, and ultimately the welfare of all humanity.

Rabbi Sacks also focused on a brief passage buried amidst the epic portions of today’s parsha that has large implications for our moral life in Judaism: “You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies and his statutes, which he has commanded you. And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you…”. What is meant by the right and the good that is not already covered in the preceding verse? Rashi says it means that one should not adhere strictly to the letter of the law because the moral life may require one to compromise his rights or go beyond his duties under the law to produce a just result. Ramban agreed with Rashi but he went further saying that, “even where Hashem has commanded you, do what is good and right in his eyes, for Hashem loves the good and the right.”

Ultimately this reflects the tension between the two great principles of Judaic ethics: justice and love. Justice is universal. It treats all people alike, rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, making no distinctions based on color or class. But love is particular. A man loves his wife and parents love their children for what makes each of them unique. The moral life combines both aspects and this is why moral decisions cannot be reduced solely to universal laws. This is why the Torah speaks of the “right and the good” over and above its commandments, statutes and testimonies.

I conclude my drash with a paraphrase of the beautiful words of Rabbi Sacks in his Covenant and Conversation written in 2007:

In the silence of the desert the Israelites were able to hear the word of Hashem. And one trained in the art of listening can hear not only the voice of Hashem but also the silent cries of the lonely, the distressed, the afflicted, the poor, the needy, the neglected and the unheard. For speech is the most important of all gestures, and listening is the most human and divine of all gifts. Hashem listens and asks us to listen. That is why the greatest of all commands, the one we read in today’s services, the first Jewish words we teach our children, the last words of Jewish martyrs as they went to their deaths, are the words of the Sh’ma. It is Moshe’s command to Israel to listen and learn from Hashem and teach this wisdom to our children.

As we did earlier in our service today when we recited the Sh’ma, we covered our eyes to shut out the world of sight so that we could more fully enter the spiritual world of sound, not the world of Hashem’s creation but Hashem’s spiritual world of revelation. But if we create an open, attentive silence in our soul, we can hear Hashem’s still, small voice of love and revelation.

I pray that in today’s troubled and disquieting times, each of us takes the time each day to listen to Hashem’s voice and find comfort and solace in his direction and love.

Shabbat Shalom

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