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Divrei Torah

Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated (Psalms 119:99): "From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation."



Parsha Va’Ethanan: DT 3:23-7:11


Parsha V’Ethanan is a contrast in polar opposites; Love and hate, deliberateness and arbitrariness, proportionate justice and disproportionate justice…

Here we are given the Ten Devarim for a second time, and these are different from the first set in some material ways.

Here we are given the Shema and commanded to love God while God also commands us to commit genocide against indigenous tribes in Canaan.

We are given rules of justice not to commit murder, adultery, theft or fraud in the here and now and yet G-d tells us that He will punish our children and our children’s children for our sins even if they have done no sins their own.

The Parsha reminds us that Moses was punished for his sin at Meribah where instead of speaking to the rock to get water(as commanded by G-d in Nu 20, he hits it, which G-d actually commanded him to do in Ex 17! And for this sin he is denied entrance into the Land of Israel.

In recounting the incident with water and the rock, instead of accepting his own sin at Meribah (if indeed there was any objective sin to be punished), Moses tells the Israelites that his punishment was their fault. This sounds like his brother Aaron telling Moses that the Golden Calf just came out of the fire on its own, rather than Aaron creating it.

We are left to be perplexed by the Text of Va’Ethanan. Things just do not seem to be consistent or add up.

How does the Deuteronomist understand G-d? Is this an arbitrary and capricious god or is this really the god of mercy and compassion?

Perhaps a clue can be found in two sentences within the Parsha :

In Dt 4:35, the Text tells us that “it has been clearly demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is G-d, there is none beside Him.”

“Ay nod milvado” (there is none besides Him) can also be translated “there is nothing else”.

In DT 4:39, the Text says “Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is G-d in heaven above and on earth below: there is no other. (“Ayn od” (no other)can also be translated, “none or nothing else”).

Perhaps these are clues to how the Deuteronomist wants us to conceive of G-d. Surely in the Text G-d is complex; at once compassionate and also arbitrary, just and forgiving but also genocidal. Yet, the text tells us G-d is alone…a unity…One…Ehad.

Human beings are complex as well. We are told in Genesis that we are Bezelem Elohim “created in the image of G-d”. Yet, the Kabbalists tell us that the Eyn Sof is ineffable. It cannot be represented or described in any way. And It is one thing, alone, a unity of everything.

Judaism does not postulate a good god and an evil god. Only one god. And we are a reflection of that unity.

Surely that means that human beings contain both good and evil at the same time. We can be horrible to each other. And we can be compassionate. We can be just and fair. And we can be capricious. We are a reflection of the Divine as described in Deuteronomy.

Or. one might ask, is the Divine a reflection of the text upon our own selves?

Pirke Avot tells us, we have free will and choice.

Does G-d have also free will and choice? Or is G-d trapped within the basic dualism of good and evil which makes up the world?

In Mesechet Brachos it tells us the G-d also prays…”. G-d prays to G-d, “May My attribute of mercy exceed my attribute of wrath.” G-d prays to god to ensure that the choices of goodness occur and overcome the choices of evil.

Genocide is evil. How can G-d command this and also command us to love this very G-d who commanded genocide?

Perhaps, in reflection of the divine, we have to ask how can we pray to improve our own character to embrace the good and eschew the evil that exists within all of us.

This is the continual struggle to be human, to be Bezelem Elohim. The fact that it is a struggle is seen in the name” Israel “given to Jacob by the man with whom he struggled on the mountain. Israel is the one who struggles with G-d. And, if we are a reflection of the divine, then our struggle is with our own selves. Indeed, various commentators have reflected on the word “man” with whom Jacob struggled. It does not say an angel or G-d. It says he struggled with a man. Some of the commentators say he struggled with himself.

To pray in Hebrew is l’hitpalel. This is a reflexive verb indicting that in prayer we are praying to improve ourselves… just as G-d prays to have his attribute of mercy overcome His attribute of wrath.

So, as Yom Kippur soon approaches let us take to heart a message within Va’Ethanan… let us meditate on ourselves, ask ourselves for forgiveness and ask the universe to help us adopt our attributes of kindness, compassion and mercy over our attributes of wrath, hostility and arbitrariness.

Let us struggle, as Hashem struggles, to be better than we are and can become.

Va’Ethanan means “and I pleaded”. Perhaps this message of struggling with ourselves is contained within the first words of this Parsha. As Moses pleaded with HaShem, let us plead with our divine natures to be better people.

Then, perhaps, as Pirke Avot tells us, the world will stand on three things; on truth, on justice and on peace.

Shabbat Shalom

Stu Forman gave this D’var torah on July 24, 2021 at Congregation Eitz Chaim, Monroe, NY

Wed, May 29 2024 21 Iyyar 5784