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Torah Sparks

August 4, 2012 – 16 Av 5772

Annual: Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11 (Etz Hayim p. 1005; Hertz p. 755)
Triennial #1*: Deuteronomy 5:1 - 6:25 (Etz Hayim p. 1015; Hertz p. 765)
Triennial #2*: Deuteronomy 4:41 – 6:3 (Etz Hayim p. 1014; Hertz p. 763)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1 – 26 (Etz Hayim p. 1033; Hertz p. 776)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Temple Emanuel of North Jersey - Franklin Lakes, NJ

Parashat Vaetchanan is always read on the Shabbat after Tishah B’Av, known as 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.

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.

The commandment to transmit the story of the Exodus from Egypt to our 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: “Too Much of a Good Thing?”

“You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)

Study: Derash

“The Divine Master Who commands us regarding the Torah, may He be blessed, is absolutely perfect, and all His deeds and all His commands are perfect and good. Addition to them is detraction; all the more so diminishing.” (Sefer Ha-Chinuch)

The rationale behind the commandment ‘You shall not add…’ is that we not come to denigrate or to detract from the parameters of the Torah, and this rationale applies only to the individual who adds to the Torah based on his own personal insight and private judgment and calculation. This does not apply to an enactment by the Sages, who legislate for the Jewish People as a whole… as it is said, ‘According to the instruction they shall teach you’ (Deut. 17:11). Such actions are not to be considered ‘adding’ or ‘detracting.’” (Torah Temimah)

“Yet many laws and customs have been added (and many dropped) over the centuries as circumstances changed. To legitimate the necessary expansion and evolution of Jewish law, the Sages limited this prohibition to ‘quantitative’ changes, such as adding a fourth petition to the Priestly Benediction or a fifth passage to the four passages contained in the t’fillin. Extension and clarification of the law was not seen as ‘adding.’ A modern Conservative perspective would see the Torah as a living organism, constantly shedding dead cells and growing new ones, changing and adapting to new and unprecedented circumstances. Extending the implications of a law to meet today’s needs is not a case of ‘adding or subtracting.’” (Chumash Etz Hayim)

“I don't know about doing a sequel. I think you can retroactively damage a product by adding to it.” (Simon Pegg, British actor, comedian)

“A man has no religion who has not slowly and painfully gathered one together, adding to it, shaping it; and one's religion is never complete and final, it seems, but must always be undergoing modification.” (D. H. Lawrence)

Questions for Discussion

Both Etz Hayim and Torah Temimah seem to leave room for change, adaptation and “extending the implications of a law” – though Etz Hayim does not specify who is entitled to do so. How does the prohibition against adding or subtracting from the Torah restrain rabbinic decisors in determining the requirements of Jewish Law today? What trends in the Jewish world reflect less than complete fealty to the principle articulated in our verse – beyond its “quantitative” application?

How might Jewish and Christian students of Scripture differ in applying Simon Pegg’s insight to sacred writ?

Chumash Etz Hayim offers the metaphor of “shedding dead cells and growing new ones” to describe the evolution of Jewish Law. Is this an appealing or useful image? How does it relate to the conscious, proactive exercise of rabbinic authority through halachic decision-making and legislation?

Theme #2: “The Right Oracle and the Left Auricle”

“But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:29)

Study: Derash

“’Search there.’ You will be able to search for the Lord your God from the depths of your heart and find him there, if only you will seek him diligently.” (Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Przysucha)

“The sinner must seek God, i.e. he must feel the loss of God, and take active measures to ‘find’ Him and regain His favour. And that search must be with the sinner’s whole heart and soul. Sincere repentance always and everywhere secures the Divine Mercy. It would be so in the exile, if they sought God with a radical change of heart, and the devotion of the whole being. And indeed it was in the Exile that repentant Israel found God, rediscovered the Torah, rediscovered itself.” (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

“We're always just one step away from return. The Bible insists that wherever we wander, God comes with us. My favorite image of repentance comes in Deuteronomy chapter 4. After describing a litany of terrible sins the Israelites were destined to commit, Moses foretells that they will be sent into dark and dismal exile. ‘But if you search there for the Lord your God,’ asserts v. 29, ‘you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul.’ You might have expected that Deuteronomy, which is so focused on the unique holiness of God's Temple, would assert that they would find God only when they returned to Israel. But the opposite is true — reconnecting with God is the first step. The long journey back to wholeness is one that God takes along with you. Wherever you are right now, however distant you feel from God, from yourself, from your ideals, is the perfect place to start looking.” (Rabbi Joshua Cahan)

“A woman's heart should be so hidden in God that a man has to seek Him just to find her.” (Maya Angelou)

Questions for Discussion

Is our verse applicable only to “sinners” striving to redress misdeeds and offenses so as to achieve repentance – as both Rabbis Hertz and Cahan seem to say? How is “searching for God” part of everyday Jewish living… even for the most pious and committed? Is this process at times even more critical for those immersed in Jewish observance and, therefore, perhaps liable to take God’s existence and role for granted?

Rabbi Hertz demonstrates that feeling the loss of God is a critical first step toward renewing our relationship with the Divine. How might this theology be productively applied to our understanding of the Holocaust… or other times of national or personal adversity… where God seems absent?

What significance do you find in the fact that the Jewish People “found God, rediscovered the Torah, rediscovered itself” in Exile? What implications does this have especially for Jewish communities of the Diaspora?

Is there spiritual peril in asserting that we search for God primarily in our own hearts… rather than through traditional forms of Jewish expression or under the tutelage of spiritually refined and religiously accomplished mentors? How might these two paths be combined?

Consider Maya Angelou’s lyrical insight in the context of Jewish marriage and family life… and Parashat Vaetchanan’s emphasis on endogamy (marriage to fellow Israelites). How might Angelou’s counsel find practical expression in Jewish education and youth activities? In your own personal and love life?

Historic Note

In Parashat Vaetchanan, read on August 4, 2012, Moses instructs Israel concerning their conduct upon entering the Land of Israel. The Zohar comments: “How fortunate are those who merit the privilege of immigrating to Eretz Yisrael and occupying themselves with Torah in the place of holiness and purity! For by doing so, they cause the Shechinah (Divine Presence) to dwell in the lower land and in the Upper Land” (Vaetchanan 268a). The first printed edition of the Zohar was published on August 4, 1558.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Parashat Vaetchanan provides the biblical source for the observance of Mezuzah – to be affixed to “the doorposts of your homes” – the word mezuzah itself means “doorpost.” The practice of wearing a mezuzah on a chain as jewelry (as to elicit divine protection) is not encompassed in the biblical commandment. However, both Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef (Halichot Olam 8:216) and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Responsa Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:141) declare it permissible to wear a mezuzah around one’s neck. Rabbi Eli Mansour states that it is similarly permissible to store a mezuzah in one’s car – as on the dashboard or in the glove compartment. He rules, however, that it is improper to hang a mezuzah from the rear-view mirror, comparing the practice to hanging tefillin on a wall – which is explicitly decried in BT Berachot 24A (see also Tosafot ad loc., “Ha-Toleh;” Nimukei Yosef ad loc.).

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