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Parashat Va’ethanan - Shabbat Nahamu
August 1, 2015 – 16 Av 5775 

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

Moses recounts to the Israelites that he pleads with God to allow him to enter the Promised Land. God refuses to reverse Moses's punishment, but says that he will be permitted 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 cities of refuge 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: Love Actually

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol of your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

The ultimate statement of devotion to God is omnipresent in Jewish discourse and symbols.

How could there be someone whose wealth is more precious to him than his body? Perhaps the answer is this: the goal of human life is that we repair our deeds and return “this which has been lent on deposit” to its original owner. -- S’fat Emet

Twice each day, every Jew recites the verse “You should love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This verse is phrased entirely in the second person singular. Hence, when he recites it, it is as if he were saying it not himself but to some other person. This explains the command in the verse immediately following: “and these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart.” They should not be only on your lips but also in “your heart …” For as a rule the span that separates lip-service from the service of the heart is as great as the distance that parts heaven from earth. -- Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak of Przysucha

When a Jew recites the verse “Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, is One,” with the purpose of proclaiming God’s rule over the four ends of the earth, he must not forget to allow God to reign also over his own person. -- Rabbi Israel Salanter

Questions for Discussion:

The S'fat Emet compares one's "wealth" to the deeds one performs in a lifetime. In some ways, we are said to "build up capital" in our relationships by creating connections that will benefit both ourselves and those we meet. Is comparing our actions to financial terminology, whether what we do has anything to do with money, helpful our quest to reach our full potential? Whether we like it or not, are finances a universally effective metaphor for that which is far more meaningful?

Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak of Przysucha tells us that the grammar of the paragraph following the Shema directs us to bridge the gap between talking the talk and walking the walk. Why is it so much easier to talk about proper behavior than it is to actually do it? Is it realistic to expect all of us to both say what we mean and act on what we say, or is this simply a lofty goal that no one should expect to achieve?

Rabbi Israel Salanter provides a kind of follow-up to the comment of Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak of Przysucha, saying that it's much easier to tell others how to act than to follow our own advice. Is the true test of one's character to act the same way when no one is looking as when thousands are watching?

Theme #2: Out of the Mouths of Babes

When, in time to come, your children ask you, "What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?" you shall say to your children, "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand." (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)

Two famous phrases from the Passsover Haggadah are linked together in the text; it is notable that the answer (known more popularly as "Avadim Hayinu") is given to everyone at the Seder table, not just for the wise children.

The redemption from slavery has set a different kind of logic at work: The initial and special concern is for the oppressed, dependent, vulnerable, and non-free members of the community. It is only after that point is made and insured in the Sabbath commandment and the sabbatical principle growing out of it that one can them move on to the neighbor who is met in the other relationships of communal life. Here, as elsewhere in the Commandments, the orientation is toward responsibility. One may indeed infer a right to rest from hard labor. But the Commandments do not make such a claim. They assume the human need and see the common good not in assertion of that right but in making sure that it is protected for those who cannot assume it for themselves. -- Patrick D. Miller, The Way of the Lord

The Wise Son says “you” because the law was enjoined before his own time; at the same time he acknowledges that God stands behind the law. The Wicked Son does not acknowledge the latter. -- Tosefet Berachah

There can be [instances when the word] machar means “after a long time.” -- Rashi on 6:20

Questions for Discussion:

Miller explains that making the Exodus the central theme of understanding Jewish law sends a powerful message: that the rights and privileges of living a Jewish life cannot be fully appreciated without understanding those who are bereft of rights, as we once were. In what ways does our observance of Passover match this concern for the rights of all people? Are there ways for us to include this theme more frequently and effectively?

Tosefet Berachah says that the substantive difference between the wise son and the wicked son described in the Passover Haggadah is whether God is recognized as the source of our laws and rituals. How do we best deal with members of our communities that express doubt about God's existence or efficacy? While questioning is a virtue in Judaism, are there limits to the extent that we should be allowed to doubt God? How do we know when those lines have been crossed?

Rashi posits that the word machar in our text -- which is translated here as "in time to come" --  should not necessarily be understood as "tomorrow", as the word is typically translated. In other words, our children will not just ask about the Exodus in the immediate future, but also in the long-term. When we explain history to our children, what events do we want to make sure they understand most? What events from Jewish history are most important? Is the concern we have for the Exodus truly timeless?

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