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Parashat Va’ethanan – Shabbat Nahamu
August 9, 2014 - 13 Av 5774

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina


Moses recounts to the Israelites that he plead with God to allow him to enter the Promised Land. God refused to reverse Moses's punishment; God allows Moses to see the land from afar.

Noting how God had struck down Israelite idolaters at Baal-Peor, Moses urges the people to follow God's wise and appropriate commandments. At several points, Moses speaks to the people as if they, and not their parents, witnessed the Revelation at Mount Sinai.

After designating several refugee cities in Transjordan, Moses resumes speaking to the Israelites by repeating -- almost verbatim -- the ten utterances God said at Mount Horeb, as well as the peoples' initial, frightened reaction.

The people must remember that there is only one God, and that their devotion must be absolute and touch every aspect of their lives. They must not grow lazy in their observance, nor should they test God, lest they feel the wrath of God's anger.

Theme #1: Ain’t Too Proud To Beg

I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, “O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon. (Deuteronomy 3:23-25)

In the book of Numbers, when Moses is barred from entering the Promised Land, Moses says nothing to protest God’s decision. But we are informed otherwise at the outset of today’s Torah portion.

It never even occurs to the truly righteous man that he has done anything good. How, then, could he support his claim to reward by citing a record of his past good deeds? Actually, the righteous may base their claims on the good deeds which they may perform at some future date, if they are preserved in life. Nevertheless, they do not approach the Lord with that plea but solicit their reward only as an ex gratia gift. Moses, too, could have based his claim for reward on the good deed which he expected to perform in the event he would live to enter the Promised Land, fulfilling the commandment to “cleave to the Land.” Nevertheless, he did not request anything of the Lord. He only “besought [God],” praying for an ex gratia gift. -- Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, Rabbi of Kotzk

Is it not obvious that if [Moses] will go over into the land, he will be able to see it? But a man must pray at all times that God may cause him to see the good in everything. Therefore Moses prayed, “Let me go over … and see the good land … cause me to see only the good side of the Promised Land.” -- Ohel Torah

Listen to the imploring words Moses ascribes to himself as he tries once more to bend the will of God. The form of address used, “Lord God,” appears only twice in a personal plea. -- Yoram Hazony, Moses as Political Leader

 Questions for Discussion:

Menachem Mendel Morgenstern claims that the most righteous people in our societies are reluctant to “sell themselves” even when they need something for themselves. Can we think of counter-examples to this -- decent and kind people who know how to market their skills in a humble yet direct way? Why are some people uncomfortable marketing themselves to others? Do they fear such behavior will put people off? Or do they feel that such behavior is compromising who they feel themselves to be?

Ohel Torah’s suggestion that it is best to see the good in everything is a wonderful sentiment for us to follow. But sometimes, expecting good things from every situation can result in disappointment when circumstances are truly negative. What methods should we use to avoid setting overly high expectations that lead to a letdown?

Yoram Hazony implies that the language Moses used reflects his wish to appeal to God by using personal language, such as “Lord God.” Does addressing people in a personal manner help to bring us closer together? Are there times when it is risky to use personal names? Are there ways to know when it is appropriate to use personal names and when not? Has that standard changed in recent years?

Theme #2: Taking Two More Tablets

It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today. Face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire... (Deuteronomy 5:3-4)

As Moses prepares to review the Ten Commandments, he emphasizes that the generation that would enter the Promised Land were personal witnesses to this event, even though it happened almost 40 years before.

The concern in this passage is that Israel may come to think of themselves as obliged in a distant way by the covenant of Sinai/Horeb, but not as direct partners in it. Lest the freshness of the experience be lost, verse 3 hammers home the theme contemporaneity in staccato fashion … the goal of this speech, as of the covenant renewal ceremony in which it probably originated, is to induce Israel to step into the position of the generation of Sinai, in other words, to actualize the past so that this new generation will become the Israel of the classic covenant relationship. Thus, life in covenant is not something merely granted, but something won anew, rekindled and reconsecrated in the heart of each Israelite in every generation. Covenant is not only imposed, but also accepted. -- Jon D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible

The concept of face-to-face encounter of the people with God is foreign to Deuteronomy. Besides, it was only with Moses that God spoke face to face. It is therefore possible that the author deliberately obscures the more common phrase panim el panim by substituting panim bepanim. -- Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11

The problem of idolatry, then, becomes a problem of dependence, in which both divine power and human power are travestied. The terror of Sinai, the consuming fire on the mountain, was the terror of the face-to-face relation of God and the human (“Face to face, God spoke with you” [Deuteronomy 5:4].) In order to sustain such a relation, it is, as C.S. Lewis suggests, necessary to have a face. -- Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections

Questions for Discussion:

Levenson says that the children of the generation that departed Egypt are equal partners in Torah even though they had not been present during the initial revelation. In a sense, it is up to each generation to receive Torah as for the first time. How does our generation “receive Torah” today? How can our communities make it possible for us to feel that our acceptance of Torah is something new and fresh?

Weinfeld notes the Israelites are described as receiving Torah using the unusual phrase panim bepani, a phrase that can literally be understood as “face in face.” Despite the odd phrasing, can we

understand it as God’s face inhabiting our own, as if the Torah is revealed to us from inside of us. If we can stretch our imaginations and consider this, can we think of times when lessons of Torah can emerge from within us? Is this even possible?

Zornberg cites C.S. Lewis in claiming that God must be thought of as having a face in order to understand the encounter at Sinai appropriately. Are there risks to think of God in an anthropomorphic way? If so, what are those risks? Are there potential benefits?

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