Shabbat Va'etchanan ~ Memory and action

Intro: today is shabbat Nachamu. As we experienced the destruction of the Temple, Isaiah now tells us - be comforted, the best is yet to come.

Alan Lew and the structures crumbling - seven weeks for RH. This is the time of reassessment and rebuilding new structures. Our seven weeks kick off with the guidelines: Shema and Ten Commandments.

~ To whom is Moshe speaking? How does he do it? Who was present at Har Sinai, according to Moshe? What do you think of it?

~ If you feel particularly fearless, what are the arguments Moshe gives for observing the laws? You might go back to chapter 4 for that.

(ו) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֮ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם֒ כִּ֣י הִ֤וא חָכְמַתְכֶם֙ וּבִ֣ינַתְכֶ֔ם לְעֵינֵ֖י הָעַמִּ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַחֻקִּ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְאָמְר֗וּ רַ֚ק עַם־חָכָ֣ם וְנָב֔וֹן הַגּ֥וֹי הַגָּד֖וֹל הַזֶּֽה׃ (ז) כִּ֚י מִי־ג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל אֲשֶׁר־ל֥וֹ אֱלֹקִ֖ים קְרֹבִ֣ים אֵלָ֑יו כַּה' אֱלֹקֵ֔ינוּ בְּכָּל־קָרְאֵ֖נוּ אֵלָֽיו׃ (ח) וּמִי֙ גּ֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל אֲשֶׁר־ל֛וֹ חֻקִּ֥ים וּמִשְׁפָּטִ֖ים צַדִּיקִ֑ם כְּכֹל֙ הַתּוֹרָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם׃

(6) Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” (7) For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the LORD our God whenever we call upon Him? (8) Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day?

(ב) ה' אֱלֹקֵ֗ינוּ כָּרַ֥ת עִמָּ֛נוּ בְּרִ֖ית בְּחֹרֵֽב׃ (ג) לֹ֣א אֶת־אֲבֹתֵ֔ינוּ כָּרַ֥ת ה' אֶת־הַבְּרִ֣ית הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֣י אִתָּ֗נוּ אֲנַ֨חְנוּ אֵ֥לֶּה פֹ֛ה הַיּ֖וֹם כֻּלָּ֥נוּ חַיִּֽים׃
(2) The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. (3) It was not with our fathers that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today.

Since we are reminded of the episode of the spies early in the first discourse (1:22-45) with the consequent death of the Wilderness Generations, we know that all the people standing before Moses now would be under the age of twenty, perhaps most of them, indeed, as yet unborn at the time of the events recalled in his speech. Yet Moses repeatedly speaks as if they were all direct participants or observers of the episodes he mentions. There is, I would say, a slide of identification between one generation and the other... the people are imagined as one continuous being , bearing responsibility through historical time as a collective moral agent. (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, p. 872)

תניא רבי אליעזר הגדול אומר מפני מה הזהירה תורה בל"ו מקומות ואמרי לה במ"ו מקומות בגר מפני שסורו רע מאי דכתיב וגר לא תונה ולא תלחצנו כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים (תנינא) רבי נתן אומר מום שבך אל תאמר לחברך

It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Eliezer the Great says: For what reason did the Torah issue warnings in thirty-six places, and some say in forty-six places, with regard to causing any distress to a stranger? It is due to the fact that he can turn back to evil. What is the meaning of that which is written: “And you shall not mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20)? We learned in a baraita that Rabbi Natan says: A defect that is in you, do not mention it in another.

This explanation is premised on this generational slide: Our forebears were enslaved in Egypt, but we—their far-distant progeny—were not.

This clever generational slide is not an accident of a senile mind. It is not to be a description of a historical fact. It is a normative charge to us: the generation listening to Moshe in the desert, and us, the generation listening to Moshe today in Danbury, as being asked to reach past the boundaries of our own selves and become witnesses. We are asked to take on the existential reality of our enslaved ancestors.

This is an exercise of imagination, of course. And that is exactly what empathy requires: transport yourself, like any good book makes you do, to the feet and hearts of those who are strangers. Transport yourself through time and place. Inhabit that time and transport yourself from who you are today, so you can empathize. Because what stands between us and meaning is... us.

(ה) אָ֠נֹכִי עֹמֵ֨ד בֵּין־ה' וּבֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא לְהַגִּ֥יד לָכֶ֖ם אֶת־דְּבַ֣ר ה' כִּ֤י יְרֵאתֶם֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י הָאֵ֔שׁ וְלֹֽא־עֲלִיתֶ֥ם בָּהָ֖ר לֵאמֹֽר׃ (ס)
(5) I stood between the LORD and you at that time to convey the LORD’s words to you, for you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain—saying:

(ה) ... וכמו שמפרשים אנכי עומד בין ה' וביניכם (דברים ה ה), ר"ל מה שהאדם חשוב בעיניו עד שיצדק בעיניו לומר על עצמו אנכי, זה הוא העומד ומפסיק בין ה' וביניכם. וידוע (זוהר ח"ג ע"ג ע"א) כי אורייתא וקב"ה חד, על כן מהנמנע להתעצם עם התורה, רק מי שהוא עניו וכנ"ל.

R' Moshe Teitelbaum of Ujhely (Hungary, 1759-1841)

... and as we explain regarding "I stood between Hashem and you" that is, when a person sees him or herself as important in their eyes, and s/he thinks that they are righteous in their own eyes, that is what stands and breaks the connection between God and themselves. And it is know (see Zohar) that the Torah and the Holy One are one, therefore this [ego] prevents one to strengthen oneself with the Torah - this only happens to one who is humble, as we explained.

This is a teaching for us, individually, at this moment of gathering the pieces of the structures, doing teshuvah and beginning the work of return. And this is a collective teaching, as well. We are not special because we are chosen. We are special because of what our actions tell others, tell the world, about our values.

At this point in time, Moshe is asking us to notice: we have become a collective. We have a collective history. We have collective values. The ability to transcend time and place is given to us, to all Israel, as a cllective. And the ability to transcend our egos is given to us as individuals. All this is in order to remind ourselves of how to behave towards those who are our strangers nowadays: the ones who do not look like us, who do not speak like us, who do not worship like us.

And the message is clear: do not oppress - God is the parent of us all.

As we begin the next week, may we take the lessons of this week's reading, the Ten Commandments, the Shema and our collective responsibility and begin building our better future.

Shabbat Shalom.