Parashat Va-ethannan

Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11
August 1, 2009 / 11 Av 5769

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, Vice Chancellor and Chief Development Officer, JTS

Reenacting a historical moment through liturgy and deed is a focal point of Judaism. Our calendar year overflows with holidays and observances that transport us to former days and inspire us to enter the narrative and live salient moments of history. This week in particular, observing the Ninth of Av, we read of the destruction of the Temple and continue to mourn as our ancestors did over the calamities that befell them. While it is possible to read this narrative as a preventive measure to ensure that we, too, do not fall victim to George Santayana's dictum condemning us to either learn from our history or repeat it, I believe that Judaism's message is a blessing. It is a blessing to be able to relive life's difficult moments; the reason for this can be gleaned from Moses's behavior and our parashah this week.

Isaiah Horowitz, commenting on this week's parashah, Va-ethannan, in Shnei Luhot ha'Brit asserts that throughout the parashiyot of Devarim, we are constantly encouraged to learn and relearn the mitzvot of the Torah. The common name of Deuteronomy itself, the Mishneh Torah, means a retelling of what occurred in the previous four books. Each subject of the Torah is rehashed within the pages of Deuteronomy, according to Horowitz, and each is a call to action that asks us to study the passages to our fullest comprehension. For inspiration, Horowitz patterns Moses as the quintessential student, constantly questioning the pedagogical message of God.

By citing and expanding on a midrash from Yalkut Shimoni, Horowitz enumerates the four times that Moses, as the student of God, did not fully comprehend God's message and requested clarification of God's objectives. The first of these occurs after Moses's divine election as prophet for the people at the burning bush. He faithfully transmits God's message to Pharaoh and, the midrash states, Moses is surprised by Pharaoh's reaction. If God had meant to redeem the people, how could there be a negative response from Pharaoh? Should they not be redeemed immediately? Here, Moses questions the direction from God, seeking to fully understand God's intentions.

The same questioning occurs when Miriam is stricken with leprosy and again when Moses is told to appoint Joshua as his successor. Each time, the result of his interaction with God is not as Moses expects. Instead, the midrash has him re-approaching God for clarification of His prophecy. Moses plays the dutiful student, seeking to understand a difficult lesson.

Moses's final questioning of God occurs within this week's parashah. He beseeches God and recounts his request:

And I pleaded with the Lord at that time saying, O Lord God, you have begun to show your servant your greatness, and your mighty hand; for what God is there in heaven or in earth, that can do according to your works, and according to your might? I beg of you, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly mountain region, and Lebanon. (Deut. 3:23–25)

Questioning God's ban prohibiting him from entering the land, Moses appeals to God to cancel the decree and allow him to enter. His plea to God is compared by Horowitz to asking that an oath be nullified. Moses focuses intently on canceling God's oath, which prevents him from entering the land. In this, Moses is seeking to understand the essence of the ban (Horowitz, p. 107).

In his continual tendency to question and seek clarification and meaning, Moses provides us with a paradigm for a student's responsibility. His goal is to relearn His prophecy until he fully understands its comprehensive message. In each situation, Horowitz explains that Moses is not challenging God's message, but seeking to understand what he may have missed in the first telling.

And so it is with our calendar of holidays and observances. The historical message of each observance and holiday is clear, but our reasons for perpetuating them sometimes are not. Specifically, with Tish'ah Be'Av, finding contemporary relevance has been particularly challenging. Even as early as the days of the Second Temple, challenges were made to indefinitely postpone the fast of Tish'ah Be'Av. To guarantee relevance, we have historically defined this day on the calendar as the day on which numerous tragedies occurred.

With Israel's well being an ongoing concern, we have continued motivation for our commemoration of the Ninth Day of Av. However, our contemporary relevance is distinct from our historical observance. It is not from a position of helplessness that we commemorate, but strength. Each cycle of our calendar year is a call for us to refine and relearn our understanding of our holidays and observances. In Horowitz's conclusion, he states that this pattern of relearning is what eventually leads to actualizing the verse "You who held fast to the Lord your God are alive each and every one of you this day" (Deut. 4:4). Holding fast to our Judaism is not a passive observance but an active engagement of not simply passing through the calendar, but connecting to it and learning and relearning our most important historic moments until we achieve the level of understanding inspired by Moses.

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