PARASHAT VA’ETHANAN - SHABBAT NAHAMU
August 13, 2011- 13 Av 5771
Annual: Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11 (Etz Hayim, p. 1005; Hertz p. 755)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 3:23 - 5:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 1005; Hertz p. 755)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1 – 26 (Etz Hayim, p. 1033; Hertz p. 776)
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York
As always, parashat Vaetchanan is read on the first Shabbat after Tishah B’Av. That Shabbat is called Shabbat Nachamu, taking its name from the opening words of its special haftarah. In this parashah, Moses continues addressing the Israelite nation, recalling his plea – which God rejects – to be allowed to enter the Promised Land. Moses delivers an eloquent oration, adjuring the Israelites to observe God’s commandments, neither adding to them nor subtracting from them. He gives special attention to the prohibitions against idolatry and the creation or use of graven images for idolatrous purposes. All of this is linked explicitly to Israel’s historic experience following the departure from Egypt and the revelatory encounter with God at Sinai.
Following a brief recap of the prescription of the three cities of refuge, the theophany at Sinai is recalled. The Decalogue is repeated – with subtle changes in language and phrasing from the Exodus version. It is further recalled that the Israelites, fearing a direct revelation from God, plead with Moses to act as intermediary, delivering God’s commandments to the nation in a less awesome and lethal manner. God assents to this method of transmission. Moses further adjures the people to be faithful in obeying God and in upholding the covenant.
The parashah continues with the famous passage, familiar from the daily liturgy that is known as the Shema and V’ahavta. God’s uniqueness – and Israel’s imperative of exclusive devotion to the Almighty – are declared. The following verses prescribe Israel’s duty to love God (V’ahavta), as well as providing the source for the observance of tefillin and mezuzah and recitation of the Shema. Of this critical Scriptural passage, Solomon Schechter wrote in 1907: “For more than twenty-three centuries the world has been busy with the interpretation and translation of Scriptures, and yet no agreement has been reached as to the exact rendering of the fourth verse of the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy containing the confession of Israel’s creed. But the Jew reads the Shema Yisrael and does know it. He cannot translate it, but he feels it and is it.”
The commandment to transmit the story of the Exodus from Egypt to your children is prescribed. The Israelites are warned not to test God’s patience or tolerance, but to “do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord.” Israel is commanded not to enter into treaties with the Canaanites and not to marry them; their idolatrous altars and sanctuaries are to be destroyed.
God’s faithfulness to those who love and obey Him, as well as His promise of punishment to those who reject Him, is re-emphasized, as are God’s reasons in choosing Israel: His love for the Israelite nation and the merits of their ancestors.
Theme #1: “Gimme Dat Ding”
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Deuteronomy 5:18)
“The prohibition of coveting a man’s wife is here made separate from ‘desiring’ (a different word, not occurring in Exodus) his possessions – a fundamental distinction of far-reaching moral consequence. There is also new mention of ‘his field’, an appropriate addition for a people about to enter upon the inheritance of their Land.” (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)
“Notable as a change from the earlier text is the characterization of the wife as an entity distinct from the ‘house.’” (Everett Fox)
“Covetousness is both the beginning and the end of the devil's alphabet – the first vice in corrupt nature that moves, and the last that dies.” (Michel de Montaigne)
“Excess of wealth is cause of covetousness.” (Christopher Marlowe)
“Though we take from a covetous man all his treasure, he has yet one jewel left; you cannot bereave him of his covetousness.” (John Milton)
“This was always obviously a no-hoper of a commandment. Coveting is all everyone does, all the time, every day. It’s what drives the world economy, pushes people to make a go of their lives. And would you want to be married to someone who nobody coveted?” (Charles Saatchi, British advertising mogul)
“There’s a town in Alabama that wants to abolish all laws except the Ten Commandments. Well, they’re going to have a problem. Coveting thy neighbor's wife, for instance. How’re you going to enforce that one? Plus, if I were arrested for coveting my neighbor’s wife, when asked about it, I’d probably bear false witness.” (Sam Seaborn, as portrayed by Rob Lowe on West Wing)
Questions for Discussion
Rabbi Hertz’s commentary suggests that the prohibition against coveting a field reflected the new historical reality confronting the Israelite nation when Moses addressed them: they were about to become landowners. What changes experienced by Israel since Sinai might have precipitated the change in tone and language about coveting another man’s wife? Does this represent a commendable new threshold in the evolving legal enfranchisement of Israelite women?
The new formulation of the tenth commandment to reflect a new reality demonstrates that an ancient principle may have very new applications in the contemporary world. What new significance has the twenty-first century bestowed on “You shall not covet”?
Is covetousness a function of accumulated wealth, as 16th century English dramatist Christopher Marlowe posits? Or is coveting simply a character flaw, independent of material well-being and circumstance – as John Milton (Marlowe’s 17th century countryman) seems to say?
Is the tenth commandment truly impossible to observe – a “no-hoper”? Do personal ambition (in the economic sphere) or attraction and admiration (in the romantic sphere) lead inexorably to sinful intent and covetousness? Does Charles Saatchi have a point? What positive consequences result from covetousness, and how might this ostensible evil be redirected constructively?
This is the only commandment in the Decalogue that legislates emotion, not action. Are emotions properly beyond the scope of a legal code, or is our ability to assert control over our emotional lives the essence of morality? Where else does Jewish law command an emotion? What does it mean to recognize an unenforceable commandment as law?
Theme #2: “Least But Not Last”
“It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set His heart on you and chose you – indeed, you are the smallest of nations.” (Deuteronomy 7:7)
“Because of the Jews’ small numbers, any success they would have in making God known to the world would presumably reflect upon the power of the idea of God. Had the Jews been a large nation with an outstanding army, their successes in making God known would have been attributed to their might and not to the truth of their ideas.” (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin)
“The Jewish people are very small in number, especially as compared to other major faiths in the world that count their adherents in many, many hundreds of millions. Being small in numbers and obviously never aspiring to be the majority faith in the world, for God had foreclosed that option to us at the dawn of our nationhood, Judaism could never take the position that all of the other billions of humans were automatically doomed to eternal damnation and destruction. Our understanding of the God of Israel, the all-merciful and gracious One, would not countenance such an attitude towards His creatures. Our very meagerness in numbers forces us to accept the religious axiom that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come. This is part of the Godly statement that we will always be the smallest of all peoples and therefore bound to be the most tolerant and least proselytizing of all faiths.” (Rabbi Berel Wein)
“In earlier biblical accounts, the almost preternatural numerical growth of the Hebrew people is stressed. In the historical reality of the later seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., a writer would have been keenly aware that Israel was a tiny nation surrounded by large and powerful peoples.” (Robert Alter, Five Books of Moses)
“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” (Mohandas Gandhi)
“God hangs the greatest weights upon the smallest wires.” (Francis Bacon)
Questions for Discussion
The people Israel’s diminutive size, according to Rabbi Telushkin, enhances its historic mission to teach the world about God. What other, ostensibly disadvantageous conditions described in the Bible act to magnify the inherent value of Israel’s message?
A tiny but chosen people: that things are not what they appear to be is a critical and recurring motif in the Hebrew Bible. Where else do we see this theme at work?
Ironically, perhaps, the religious tolerance inherent in Judaism – our refusal to condemn (indeed our principled admiration for) the righteous of other nations and religious faiths – is one of the most appealing characteristics of Jewish life for prospective converts. Does being the “smallest of all peoples” necessarily preclude proselytizing actively?
In addition to theological humility (see Rabbi Wein) and the creditability of our historic message (see Rabbi Telushkin), what moral or spiritual lessons are to be learned from the small numbers characterizing the Jewish people?
What achievements of the state of Israel belie its diminutive stature in geography and population? How does this remarkable history of achievement (in medicine, technology, education…) relate to our parashah and our verse? To what extent do these achievements simply represent continuity with pre-state Jewish history?
Parashat Vaetchanan, read on August 13, 2011, includes the admonition to the Israelites to destroy the idolatrous edifices constructed by the peoples indigenous to Canaan: “You shall tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred posts, and consign their images to the fire” (Deuteronomy 7:5). On August 13, 1945, in an effort to stall the German war effort, 35 Jews sacrificed their lives blowing up a Nazi rubber plant in Silesia, in what is now Southwest Poland.
“You shall not steal” applies to intellectual properties as well as material goods. Rabbi Shaul Yosef Nathanson rules that we are halachically bound to observe copyright laws (Responsa Sho’eil U-Meishiv 1:1:44). The Chatam Sofer asserts an analogous obligation in regard to reprinting a siddur produced by another publisher (Choshen Mishpat 49, 69, etc., citing BT Baba Batra 21), applying the principle of hasagat gevul (illegal encroachment). For related rulings, see Rabbi Z.N. Goldberg (Techumin 6:195ff) and Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (Noda B’Yehudah, Choshen Mishpat 2:24). The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has ruled: “Halakhah affords protection of intellectual property that can in some cases go beyond what secular law affords. We are obligated to follow the halakhah even if it is stricter than the secular law. Secular law can say it is permissible to steal; halakhah would still forbid us to be thieves” (Rabbi Barry Leff, “Intellectual Property: Can you steal it if you can’t touch it?”).