Sermons and Parsha'iot                     Parshat Va-etchanan

Summary

In Va-etchanan, Moses concludes the first of his three farewell speeches to the new generation.This portion begins with his description of how he pleaded with Adonai - va'etchanan means "And I besought ." - to permit him to enter the Land of Canaan (a request that God was to refuse). Va-etchanan stresses the timeless quality of the Torah. Thus, chapter 4 includes Moses' first impassioned exhortation to the people to remain faithful to God's laws so that they may live and prosper forever in the land that Adonai is about to give them. He reminds them of the day their parents  received the Ten Commandments from God, and of the commandment to teach their children and their children's children. Moses warns them not to make or worship idols of any beasts, animals, fish or anything that is seen in the heavens because God made all of them. Although they are about to enter the Promised Land, Moses warns them that if they act wickedly, they will not live there long. But if they seek God with their heart and soul, God will not forget the covenant that was made with their ancestors, whom God loved and whose children God still loves. Then Moses names three cities on the east side of the Jordan as refuge cities for people who unintentionally kill others.

Chapter 5 introduces the second sermon. Moses starts by telling them that God spoke not only "to our ancestors, but to all of us, every one of us who is here today." He then restates the same ten commandments found in Exodus 20. It is in this sermon that the Shema is found: "Hear O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One," as well as the first lines of the Ve'ahavta, commanding us to love God with "all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might." We are commanded to bind these words on our hands and to let them be a symbol on our foreheads, to inscribe them on the doorposts of our houses and upon our gates.

Chapter 6 continues Moses' sermon: When the people enter the land, they are not to credit themselves for their prosperity. In Deuteronomy 6:20-25, Moses commands each person to retell the story of the exodus from Egypt when their children ask about the laws that God has commanded, explaining to them that we observe these commandments for "our lasting good and for our survival" because we were slaves in the Land of Egypt, and God freed us. The parasha concludes with Moses' telling the people that God will allow them to defeat seven nations much larger than themselves as they enter the Promised Land. He tells them to destroy the people of those nations and all signs of their gods and religions, and not to intermarry with them. We are told that the Hebrews are God's treasured people, a chosen people, a consecrated people. Therefore, they are commanded to follow God's laws and rules.

Commentary

  • The Shabbat on which Parshat Va-etchanan is read is called "Shabbat Nachamu," the Sabbath of Comfort. This is taken from the first lines of the Haftarah read on this day: Isaiah 40:1-26, which begins "Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God." Shabbat Nachamu is the first Shabbat following Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, the day commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. 

  • When the Shema is written in Hebrew in both the Torah and in the siddur, the final letters of both the first and last words - the ayin un the word Shema, and the dalet in the word Echad - are larger than the rest of the letters. Together, they spell eyd, the Hebrew word for "witness." The rabbis taught that as Jews, we are responsible for being witnesses to God's oneness, unity and power by observing God's commandments - in particular, by how we act towards others. 

  • The Ten Commandments appear twice in the Torah, but the two versions are not identical. The biggest difference exists in the fourth commandment, the one that refers to Shabbat. Exodus 20:8 tells us to "Remember (zachorShabbat" because "God made heaven and earth in six days and rested on the seventh day." On the other hand, Deuteronomy 5:12 command us to "Observe (shamorShabbat" because we were slaves in Egypt and God freed us. The rabbis interpreted "remember" to mean that we should perform rituals such as lighting candles and saying kiddish over the wine and motzi over challah. In remembering, we can imitate God by resting and using the day to renew our creative powers. "Observing" was interpreted to mean that we should abstain from performing any work. By observing, we can show our appreciation of our liberation from slavery in Egypt and free ourselves from our daily work, allowing our animals and our laborers also to rest. 

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. Moses commands the people to teach the Torah to their children, and to their children's children. According to Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, "Every Jew is required to study Torah, whether poor or rich, healthy or ailing, young or old." Why is study a religious obligation for every Jew? How does our Jewish community ensure the continuation of Jewish learning? What do you do to improve your knowledge of the Jewish heritage? 

  2. Deuteronomy 4:1 warns, "And now, Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that Adonai, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add anything to what I command you nor take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of Adonai your God ." How can modern Jews justify not following some of the commandments? 

  3. We read in Va-etchanan, God spoke not only "to our ancestors, but to all of us, every one of us who is here today." According to the Midrash, this means that not only were all those who left Egypt present at the foot of Sinai - so, too, were the souls of all those yet to be created in generations to come.  In other words, each and every one of us stood there. What does it mean to you to stand at Sinai? What in your opinion is the most significant moment of Jewish history? . Why? What has been the most significant Jewish moment in the history of your family? . and for you personally? 

  4. What does it mean to be the Chosen People? 

  5. The Ve'ahavta, found in this portion, declares that "... you shall love the Adonai, your God." Can a person be commanded to love God? Can a person be commanded to love another person? How do you decide whom you love? How do you show your love for these people?

    The Ve'ahavta also instructs that love of God be given with ".with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might ." Heart, soul, and might have been interpreted many ways. Rashi said that "with all your heart" means that we should be compassionate and charitable. Maimonides believed that "heart" implied that we should devote our minds to study so that we can use what we learn to act ethically. The Mishnah says that there are two sides to every heart - one side that is inclined towards altruism (yetzer ha-tov) and one side that is inclined towards selfishness (yetzer ha-ra). Since both sides are part of life and both are important components of the creative process, we show our love for God when we perform mitzvot. Another explanation of the phrase "with all your heart" is that loving God is important not only when things are going well for us, but also when we are sad or suffering. Rashi said that "with all your soul" means that we should be willing to give our lives for the principles of our faith.

    Other sages felt that "soul" meant the spirit with which we approach our responsibilities and the good deeds that we do. In this vein, Rashi commented that "with all your might" means that we should be willing to use our property and wealth to help other people. There is a Midrash that says that the love of God is best expressed when we act in a way that makes others love God (Sifrei Deuteronomy 32). Give examples of things you might do that would make others love God.