Parashat Va-ethannan

Shabbat Nahamu
Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
August 16, 2008 / 15 Av 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Professor Arnold Eisen, chancellor, JTS.

This portion of the Torah has meant more than almost any other to me ever since I first discovered the book of Deuteronomy for myself as a teenager. Va-ethannan sets out the themes and agenda for the entire book in a way that occurs nowhere else in the Torah. It contains theological high points so crucial to the Torah’s intent for Israel that the Rabbis made them an integral part of daily prayer. But what really draws me to Va-ethannan, I think, is the way it reaches out to each one of us individually, both pleading and demanding to be heard. It addresses us person by person, one-on-one, in the same way we enter into every serious relationship and tremble with each true love.

“Hear, O Israelite”—the verb is markedly in the singular—“Listen, Jewish human being.” The Torah wants to speak to us about the things that are of most importance in life—including, of course, God. Only years after I first grasped this did it occur to me with some excitement that my Hebrew name, Hanan, is part of the name of the parashah; this portion of the Torah could be translated “And with Hanan” or—pointing to me as direct object—“And Hanan.” That knowledge, in turn, sent me back to old Jewish calendars to see if I might actually have been born on Shabbat Va-ethannan in 1951. No. I came into the world on Sunday, the day after. Not as close as I had hoped, but close enough to feel vitally and singularly connected. There is surely a lesson there.

How shall we—each of us—perform the acts of listening and hearing (both meanings for shema’ are explicit in the course of the parashah) to which the Torah calls us? In my case, how can I, this particular Hanan, join the text—with appropriate seriousness of purpose, reverence, care, and (above all) honesty—in thinking and speaking about God? In response to that perpetual and ever-difficult summons, I offer, today, three sets of reflections.

One: Hearing, Knowing, and Acting

I recently accepted an assignment to discuss God in three-hundred words or less.

I cannot imagine a task more absurd on the face of it—but, then again, three-thousand words or three-hundred thousand would not make the task much easier. This is what I wrote:

The tefillot that speak to me most powerfully—such as the Friday evening poem “Yedid Nefesh”—are those that express longing for God and a desire to draw near to a beloved who often seems far away and unknowable. I am also drawn to the tefillot—such as birkhot ha-shahar—that bless God for actions that we too can perform each day (justice and mercy, malbish arumim [clothing the naked], and zokef kefufim [raising up those who are bowed down]) and thereby bring God closer.

Perhaps (we cannot be sure) the mitzvot that we do enable God to perform them through us or with us. Uncertainty is the rule when it comes to knowledge of God, and—this too is hard—that paucity of knowledge about God never frees us of responsibility for God’s creatures and God’s world. Many lives are in our hands, so long as we live. However, our ignorance, when it comes to God’s nature, does save us (if we are wise) from smugness and cynicism—two punishments that come from knowing too much or thinking that we do.

I praise God, as Shir Ha-kavod puts it, because my soul yearns for God: “I declare Your glory without having seen You, I imagine You, I name You, though I have not known You.” Science may (we can hope!) provide us glimpses into some of the furthest reaches of God’s mind. Art sometimes, but not always, gives us means by which we can touch the rhythms that echo from God’s ever-new creation. Mitzvot provide welcome definition, saving clarity; they are actions that we can take together and know, having done them, that our time has been well-spent. When we are matir asurim (releasing those who are bound), we can rest confident that God fashioned us in a way that gives us what we need, including enough right questions for a lifetime.

Two: The Context for Hearing

The advantage of a three-hundred-word limit when it comes to discussing God is that one cannot pause to address the venerable quandaries that have always stalked the quest for faith: Why is there evil? Why does nature exhibit so much chaos, claim so many lives by fire and flood, thrive on the murder of one creature by another? How can one praise God in the morning, knowing all of this, and also knowing that, close at hand, before every evening, there awaits so much suffering, so little that seems right or makes sense? Deuteronomy does not provide satisfactory answers to these questions of course. But it does place its claims concerning God—its report about God’s interaction with Israel—in a context that enables us to credit that report and take those claims seriously.

Note, for example, that our parashah does not come at the issue of belief philosophically, from a stance of alleged neutrality. That approach has always posed problems for faith and continues to do so more than ever, because science and historical consciousness have removed God from the explanation of daily events. Rather, Deuteronomy commands the construction of a social order—a community in which laws are just, the poor are fed and housed, and common ritual schools everyone in right action. Inside this shared sacred order one can come to trust God (the Hebrew word for faith connotes trust rather than belief in the sense used by theologians and philosophers), as one comes to trust the community and to trust life itself.

The first “Hear, O Israel” in the parashah begs and pleads with us to heed the laws and statutes that are the building blocks of community: the mitzvot that God (via Moses) is teaching us to do so that we can live (with a capital L as it were) in the land set aside for this purpose. The second occurrence of Shema’ Yisrael likewise summons us to laws and statutes rather than to belief or creed. It follows a reminder that God did not establish the covenant at Sinai with our ancestors only, but “with us, these, here, today, all of us, the living, face to face.” We are meant to hear this speech directly. It is meant for us. This passage then leads to the Ten Commandments: more mitzvot that require our performance rather than truths that call for belief or understanding.

This emphasis upon law and community seems utterly right to me, and helps me hear the parashah’s message. The Torah cannot command an end to my doubts about God’s involvement in the world, though I can say that, by this point in my life, I am fairly confident in my faith that God exists and calls to us; that a Force or Being (all words are inadequate), far greater than us and far surpassing human power to conceive or imagine, is not only THERE, but somehow also HERE, and consciously so. The text cannot explain this to me, let alone prove it. It does not try. Rather it calls me to take part in the creation of a community of justice and mercy, law and love—a community inside which I can spend my life, along with others of similar commitments, puzzling out ultimate matters of faith that will likely defy human understanding forever.

What does it mean to say that God “spoke” to Moses or to Israel, let alone that God “spoke and the world came into being” or “entered into covenant?” We don’t know, despite the best efforts of mystics and philosophers and commentaries by the hundreds. But I do not need to know these things, thank God. I need to know how to live well and do good, and I am persuaded, after fifty-five years of life as a Jewish human being, that the Torah gives us more than enough to go on toward that end, despite continuing doubt. It does so by linking its profound vision of a good life—inside a just and compassionate community—with the Source of life, meaning and salvation, and by granting that life, that community, to us and to me. I am profoundly grateful.

How shall we affirm God, then, knowing as much as we do through science about the world, and as little as we do (despite many centuries of reflection in many traditions) about God? We arrive at and cling to faith, I believe, if we do so because of (1) experiences in our lives (piercing sunsets, a smile or query in our children’s eyes, the kindness of a lover or total stranger, moments when God’s presence seems so near we cannot hide) that combine with (2) reports and claims transmitted by our tradition (this parashah, for example, or the wonderfully subtle and variegated comments of commentators and thinkers through the ages) as well as (3) the best efforts of human reason (all we think we know of truth, or manage to piece together with the help of our culture). These three together bring us to the stance of trust in God and life that we call faith.

No one of them, acting alone, could take or keep me there. But together—at times correcting one another, at times supporting one another—they enable me to keep faith with some confidence and to answer the Torah’s call.

Knowledge, we know, often eludes us in life as it eluded Moses. But if we are blessed, life, love, relationship, community, meaning, and contact with God do not.

Three: Our All, God’s All

Judaism would not be the tradition it is if the summons to hear that “YHWH is our God, YHWH is One” were not followed by the command to love God with all we are: heart, mind, soul, and ability. The Torah calls on each of us to hold nothing back, stifle no aspect of consciousness, suppress no element of what we know (from science or culture or experience). It demands no compromise of integrity (moral, spiritual, or otherwise) but rather the exact opposite. It wants all of us.

Torah also calls on all of us in the other sense of these words: every single one of us, coming together, brings all of these elements of ourselves to the task. It speaks in the singular and demands that we learn to act in community that way, as a unity, when it comes to God: not surrendering our differences or losing our variety, but using that very diversity to accomplish what one mind (or one sort of mind or heart or soul or ability), acting alone, could not. The Rabbis demonstrated this effort at “unity in difference” 2000 years ago in their embrace of dispute and disagreement. We today carry it forward, at our best, in a way that embraces not only Jewish differences (though this too is essential), but the varied contributions of all God’s creatures. Only so, it now seems, will the planet itself survive.

I cannot hear the Torah’s call in any other way. The All declared by Va-ethannan, its summons to unity in difference, is precious to me, indeed life-giving. This is a major reason why I am a proud Conservative Jew. Our approach to Torah has always insisted (with due humility and proper conviction) that “these, and these, are the words of the living God, the living words of God.”

But human Alls are not the only Alls of which the Torah speaks in this parashah. It struck me more forcibly than ever this year that Va-ethannan commands us to hear God’s word at the same time as it reports God’s hearing of Israel’s word (see 5:24-25). The nature of this covenant is not edict but relationship. Sinai begins a conversation that awaits our word. And just as we bring all we are to the task, God brings more than one aspect of divinity (the text encourages us to think in this daring direction, even though God’s nature remains beyond all-knowing, all speech). Our wholeness is meant to imitate God’s and evoke God’s. This is part of what the Torah seeks to capture, I believe, in the word ehad: One, Unique, All.

Commentators beyond number have speculated on the meaning(s) of that key word or, better, on the meanings to which the word points. In my mind the ehad in the Shema’ is linked to another ehad in the Torah: the one that numbers day one of creation. Genesis does not describe this day as the “first,” as it does with the “second day,” the “third,” and all the rest. It calls it, literally, “day one.” Why? Because, I suggest, this day cannot be taken as similar to others in a series. It stands alone. It marks the start of space, of time, of energy, of God’s interaction with our world. The One in Genesis 1:5 points to a moment so beyond all moments, so unified in its uniqueness—so Whole—that language has to mark its own limit, as it were, by use of the simple word one. The text confesses that it strains mightily after an ALL that it cannot describe.

It is the same here (Deuteronomy 6:4) in The Shema’. This One is the Creator of heaven and earth, meeting us (what could this mean?) who dwell on earth at a topographic and existential high point. This One cannot be imaged in any created form, but can be heard, encountered, and followed. YHWH surpasses thought, defies language, surprises expectation—and demands everything we have and all we are just to keep as close as is humanly possible. This One somehow combines justice and mercy, engenders love and awe, and demands that we try to do the same.

How much can we understand of these matters? Not a lot, when all is said and done, but enough to tell our children, in full conviction, through the words we say and mitzvot we do that life is good; enough to affirm that despite the suffering and the evil, despite the intractable chaos and inevitable disappointment, despite all we know and all we cannot know, that they too should choose life. God awaits their word and their work. Torah points the way. We are grateful to be alive to listen.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.