FROM THE TORAH
While the previous Sedra Devarim dealt, in large part, with the conquest and settlement of Transjordan, this week’s Sedra Vaetchanan provides some transition to the anticipated settlement in Canaan and explains the central wilderness experience, which was revelation at Horeb, as the nucleus of lessons for permanence in that Land. A shining succinct example is the setting of the Shema. The point of view continues to be Moses, who articulates the words of the Eternal within the parameters of his own narrative.
PAST AND FUTURE
Moses Seeks to Enter the Land
I entreated (Vaetchanan) the Eternal at that time: O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your great strength, unmatched in deeds or might by any other god in the heavens or on the earth. Let me go and see the good Land which is on the other side of the Jordan, this good hill country, and the Lebanon.
But the Eternal was enraged at me because of you and so did not grant my request. Instead He warned me not to mention this matter to Him again. Go up to the summit of the Pisgah, He said, and cast your eyes to the west, to the north, to the south, and to the east; see with your eyes, as you will not go across this Jordan. Charge Joshua with strength and courage, for he will cross before this people and he will apportion for them the Land which you shall see. In the meantime, we settled in the valley opposite Beth Pe’or.
Moses Charges Israel
So, now, Israel, attend to the statutes and the ordinances which I am instructing you to observe, in order that you may live to enter and inherit the Land which the Eternal, the God of your fathers, is giving to you. Observe just what I command you, neither adding to or subtracting from the word that the Eternal your God commands. With your own eyes you have seen what the Eternal did against Baal Pe’or (cf. Numbers 25:1-11), how the Eternal your God destroyed from your midst whoever followed Baal Pe’or, “while all of you, who cleave to the Eternal your God, are alive today” (Deuteronomy 4:4).
Moses Prepares Israel for the Land
Understand that I am preparing you to observe statutes and ordinances, commanded me by the Eternal my God, for when you enter the Land to possess it. Keep them, for that is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples who will learn of them and infer that this great nation is wise and discerning. Show me a great nation to whom God is as close as the Eternal our God is whenever we call out to Him! Or show me a great nation with statutes and ordinances as righteous as all of this Torah which I am placing before you this day!
Remember Your Experience at Horeb
Take care never to forget the things that you saw, never allow them to depart from your heart, make them known to your children and to your children’s children—the day that you stood before the Eternal your God at Horeb. There the Eternal bid me: Gather the people to Me, and I shall let them hear My words, so that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live upon the Land, and that they may teach their children. You approached and stood under the mountain, the mountain ablaze with fire to the heart of heaven amid the darkness of thickest clouds. The Eternal spoke to you from within the fire; you heard the sound of words but saw no image at all. He imparted to you His covenant, that you should observe the Ten Commandments, and He inscribed them on two tablets of stone. At the same time, the Eternal commanded me to teach you statutes and ordinances for you to carry out in the Land to which you are crossing to possess.
You Saw No Image
Be ever mindful that you saw no image on the day that the Eternal spoke to you at Horeb from amidst the fire, lest you corrupt your charge by making for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman, the form of any animal that walks on the land, the form of any bird of wing that flies in the heaven, the form of anything that creeps on the ground, the form of any fish that is in the waters under the earth; lest you lift your eyes to the heavens and see the sun, moon, and stars, all the host of heaven, and be led astray to bow down to them and worship that which the Eternal your God has allowed to all of the other peoples under the heavens, whereas He took you out of the iron furnace of Egypt to be His people, the divine inheritance that you are this day.
The Eternal was angry at me because of your words. He therefore swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good Land which the Eternal your God is giving you as an inheritance. I will die here, and you will cross the Jordan. Be you careful not to forget your covenant with the Eternal your God and make for yourselves a sculptured image in the likeness of anything, as the Eternal has commanded you. For the Eternal your God is a consuming fire; He is a jealous God.
When you produce children and grandchildren and have become long established in the Land, and then make a sculptured image in the likeness of anything, and anger the Eternal your God with your evil doings, I call this day heaven and earth as witnesses against you, that you shall perish surely and quickly from upon the Land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will not long endure; you will be destroyed. The Eternal will scatter you among the peoples; you will be left a countable number among the nations to which the Eternal will drive you; and there you will worship as divine what men have made, of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear, eat or smell.
Even from there you may seek the Eternal your God and find Him, if you seek Him with all of your heart and with all of your soul. In your suffering for all of these events, in the end of days you may still turn to the Eternal your God and heed Him. For the Eternal your God is a merciful God. He will not abandon you or leave you to harm, nor will He forget the covenant He made with your fathers.
“You Have Been Shown to Know”
Consider now what has come before: the first days, since the day God created man upon the earth, and from one end of heaven to the other. Has anything like this ever happened or been heard of? Has a people heard the voice of God speaking from amidst the fire, as you have heard, and lived? Or has God ever tried to come and take for Himself one nation from the midst of another with tests, signs, and wonders, or with overwhelming force, great awesome acts, as the Eternal God did for you before your eyes in Egypt? “You have been shown to know that the Eternal is God, and there is none else” (Deuteronomy 4:35).
From heaven He made you hear His voice in order to discipline you, and on earth He showed you His great fire, from which you heard His words. Because He loved your fathers, He chose their offspring after them and brought them out personally, with His great strength, from Egypt, to dispossess from before you nations greater and mightier than you, to give you their land as an inheritance, as it is this day. So know today, and take it to heart, that the Eternal is God in the heavens above and on the earth below; there is none else! Observe His statutes and His ordinances, as I command you this day, so that you and your children after you may benefit and long endure on the Land which the Eternal your God is giving to you for all time!
CITIES OF REFUGE
Then Moses sets aside three cities east of the Jordan to which a manslayer could flee for safety, the manslayer being one who slays another unintentionally with no record of past enmity towards the victim. The three cities are: Betzer in the wilderness in the land of the plain belonging to the Reubenites, Ramot in the Gilead belonging to the Gadites, and Golan in the Bashan belonging to the Manassites.
This is the Torah that Moses placed before the Children of Israel in their exodus from Egypt—the testimonies, statutes and ordinances—on the other side of the Jordan, in the valley opposite Beth Pe’or, in the land of Sichon, king of the Amorites, who dwelled in Cheshbon, whom Moses and the Children of Israel struck down when they came out of Egypt. They took possession of the country of Sichon and the country of Og, king of Bashan, the two Amorite kings, from Aroer on the shore of the Wadi Arnon to Mount Sion, which is Hermon, and all of the plain east of the Jordan to the Sea of the Plain under the slopes of the Pisgah.
Now Moses addresses all of Israel: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I recite in your hearing this day. Learn them and keep them to do them! The Eternal our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. This covenant He made not with our fathers but with us who are here, living, this day. Face to face spoke the Eternal with you in the mountain from amid the fire. Whereupon, as you feared the fire and would not ascend the mountain, I stood between the Eternal and you, to report to you the word of the Eternal:
The Ten Commandments
(Cf. Exodus 20:2-14)
I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
You shall not have other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them. For I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children to the third and the fourth generations of them that hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments.
You shall not swear falsely by the Name of the Eternal your God, for the Eternal will not hold guiltless one who swears falsely by His Name.
Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Eternal your God has commanded you. Six days shall you labor and do all of your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Eternal your God. You shall not do any work, neither you nor your son nor your daughter, nor your male servant nor your female servant, nor your ox nor your ass nor any of your cattle, nor the stranger who is within your gates—in order that your male or female servant may rest like you. Remember: You were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Eternal your God brought you out from there, with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm! For that reason, the Eternal your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
Honor your father and your mother, as the Eternal your God has commanded you, in order that you may long endure and in order that it will be good for you upon the Land which the Eternal your God is giving to you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not lust after your neighbor’s wife, and you shall not covet your neighbor’s house or his field, his male servant or his female servant, his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.
The Eternal spoke just these words in a thunderous voice to your entire assembly in the mountain from amid the fire and thick cloud, and He inscribed them upon two tablets of stone and gave them to me (cf. Exodus 20:15-18). Now when you heard the voice from within the darkness as the mountain was burning with fire, you approached me through the Chiefs of your tribes and your Elders: The Eternal our God has indeed shown us His Presence and His Greatness, we have heard His voice from amid the fire this day, and we have experienced God’s speaking with man and man’s surviving. But why should we yet die from this great consuming fire if we continue to hear the voice of the Eternal our God? For who, like us, has heard the voice of the living God, speaking from amid the fire, and survived? You be our intermediary between the Eternal our God and us: All that He says to you, we will hear through you and obey.
When the Eternal heard the words that you spoke to me, He approved of them and wished that you would always so fear Him and keep His commandments all of your days, so that it would go well for you and for your children forever. He told me to order you to return to your tents: You, stand here with Me, and I shall communicate to you the entirety of the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—which you shall impart to them to observe in the Land which I am giving them to possess. So shall you follow the path that the Eternal your God has commanded you, and depart not from it, in order that you may live and thrive and long endure upon the Land that you are inheriting.
And this is the Mitzvah—the statutes and the ordinances—which the Eternal your God has commanded to teach you to observe in the Land to which you are crossing to possess, so that you may fear the Eternal your God and observe all of His laws which I am commanding you—you, your children, and your children’s children—all the days of your lives, that your days may be many, in the Land flowing with milk and honey.
Hear, O Israel, the Eternal, our God, the Eternal is One! So shall you love the Eternal, your God, with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your might, and these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children and speak of them when you sit in your house, when you proceed on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up, and you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes, and you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.
When the Eternal your God brings you to the Land which He promised your fathers—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—to give to you—wonderful cities which you did not build, houses full of delights which you did not acquire, hewn cisterns which you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant—and you enjoy them all, take care not to forget the Eternal, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. Fear Him, worship Him, and swear by His name! Follow not after other gods, gods of the peoples around you. For the Eternal your God, in your midst, is a jealous God, His anger liable to destroy you from off the face of the earth! Try Him not, as you did at Massah (cf. Exodus 17:1-7). Rather, keep the commandments of the Eternal your God, do what is right in His sight, in order that you may succeed to possess the good Land which the Eternal promised to your fathers and to drive out all of your enemies from before you, as the Eternal promised.
Tell Your Children
When, in the future, your children should ask you, “What is the meaning of the testimonies, statutes and ordinances which the Eternal our God has commanded you?” say to your child: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Eternal brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand” (Deuteronomy 6:20-21). He produced signs and wonders, greatly destructive to Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all of Pharaoh’s house, in our sight. He brought us out in order to bring us to and give us the Land which He promised to our fathers. Whereupon the Eternal has commanded us to observe all of these laws, to fear the Eternal our God for our ongoing benefit and survival. As long as we take care to so observe, as He has commanded us, it will be considered by the Eternal our God, as our merit.
The Seven Nations
When the Eternal your God brings you to the Land which you are entering to possess, and He clears away many nations from before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hittites, and the Jebusites—seven nations larger and mightier than you, and He delivers them to you, and you strike them down, you must zealously destroy them, making no covenant with them, showing them no mercy! Do not intermarry with them: give not your daughter to his son, and take not his daughter for your son. For he will turn your son from following Me so that they serve other gods and the anger of the Eternal your God be against you and He quickly destroy you. Instead, do thusly to them: tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred poles, burn their sculptured images in fire.
The Chosen People
“For you are a holy people to the Eternal your God. He has chosen you, from among all of the peoples on the face of the earth, to be His treasured people.” (Deuteronomy 7:6) Not because of your superior size, for you are the smallest of all peoples, but out of His love for you has He chosen you, and in order to keep the oath that He swore to your fathers has the Eternal brought you out with a strong hand and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.
The Faithful God
Know that the Eternal your God is the faithful God, observing the covenant with lovingkindness to the thousandth generation of them that love Him and keep His commandments, and requiting directly with rapid destruction those who hate him. So shall you keep the Mitzvah—the statutes and the ordinances—which I command you this day to observe.
FROM THE PROPHETS
First Haftarah of Consolation
says your God.
Speak to the heart of Jerusalem:
tell her that she has served her time,
she has repaid the Eternal
twice the debt of her iniquity.
A voice cries out:
Clear the way of the Eternal
in the wilderness!
Let every valley be lifted up,
every mountain and hill made low,
to reveal to all flesh
the Presence of the Eternal!
A voice cries out:
All flesh is grass,
the grass becomes dry,
the flower withers,
when the breath of the Eternal
blows upon it,
yet the word of our God
shall stand forever.
You with good tidings for Jerusalem,
get you up to a high mountain,
declare to the cities of Judah:
Behold, your God!
The Lord God comes in strength,
His arm ruling for Him!
His arm—will gather his lambs
as a shepherd cares for his flock.
Who else measured out the waters
in the hollow of his hand?
Or weighed the hills in scales?
Who has measured out the spirit of the Eternal?
Or given Him advice as His counsellor?
Behold, nations are as a drop out of a bucket,
the islands as heavy as dust!
All nations are as nothing before Him,
they are accounted as things of no substance.
So, to whom would you liken God?
What likeness would you compare to Him?
If it is a sculptured image,
it will be cast by a goldsmith or silversmith!
Choose a tree for its wood
that does not rot!
Do you not understand?
God is He
who sits above the vault
over the earth!
To Him its inhabitants
seem like grasshoppers;
He stretches out the heavens
like a veil
and spreads them out
like a tent to dwell in.
Here is how He handles
the princes and the judges
of the earth:
Once they are planted,
once they are seeded,
before their stock is rooted,
He blows upon them,
they are dried out
and fall away as stubble.
To whom, then, would you compare Me?
Lift up your eyes to the sky,
and see who created these:
the One who brings out their abundant host,
who calls each of them by name,
from the greatness of His might,
not one of them will fail to appear.
FROM TALMUD AND MIDRASH
Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:1
Talmud Berachot 31a
Some Rules of Prayer
“I entreated the Eternal
at that time, saying…
You who have immediately
shown Your servant
Your great and mighty works…
and He did not listen to Me,
and the Eternal said to Me:
You have said enough,
speak to Me no more…”
Halacha: May an Israelite standing at prayer recite his prayer in a loud voice?
Thus taught our Sages: If a man is standing at prayer, one might think he should let his voice be heard. Yet the opposite is inferred from the case of Hannah: “Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved; her voice was not heard…” (I Samuel 1:13).
One might think that he can recite all three prayers of the day at one time. Yet the opposite is inferred from the case of Daniel: “Three times a day did he fall upon his knees and petition and give thanks before his God…” (Daniel 6:11).
One might think that he can recite his prayer at any time that he wants. Yet the opposite is inferred from the words of David: “Evening and morning and noon do I offer up my prayer, whereupon He hears my voice!” (Psalms 55:18)
One might think that it is sufficient for him to petition for fulfillment of his needs alone. Yet the opposite is inferred from the words of Solomon: “Turn to the prayer of your servant…O Eternal my God, to listen (first) to the praise and (then) to the petition…” (I Kings 8:28).
Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:8
Entreaty and Response
“I entreated the Eternal at that time:
‘O Lord God, You began
to show Your servant Your great strength….
Let me go and see the good Land
which is on the other side of the Jordan….’
But the Eternal was enraged at me…
and so did not grant my request.”
Moses spoke before Him: Master of the universe, why am I barred from entering the Land? Is it because I said, “Listen now, you rebels, shall we bring forth for you water from this rock?!” (Numbers 20:10) But “You began to show Your servant Your great strength…” (Deuteronomy 3:24), i.e., You Yourself addressed the same strong words to me at first in reference to the people (in the incident of Korach), “Return the staff of Aaron before the Testimony as an enduring sign for the rebels…” (Numbers 17:25)!
Another interpretation of “You began to show Your servant Your strong hand…” (Deuteronomy 3:24)—Rabbi Reuben taught that Moses said to the Holy One, blessed be He: Why are You treating me in such a way? It was “You” who “began to show Your servant Your strong hand…” (Deuteronomy 3:24), i.e., You approached me, as was said, “The angel of the Eternal appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of the bush” (Exodus 3:2)! Now that You have built me up, why are you tearing me down? To which the Holy One, blessed be He, responded: But this is My oath (which My arm is strong to keep)!
Moses persisted and said before Him: But “You began to show Your servant Your great strength…” (Deuteronomy 3:24) when, in the past, You chose to revoke Your own oath! Did You not swear to destroy Your children in the incident of the golden calf and then go against your oath, as was said, “The Eternal renounced the punishment which He had promised to inflict upon His people” (Exodus 32:14)!
Then, according to Rabbi Levi, Moses argued before Him: Master of the universe, the bones of Joseph entered the Land, but I shall not enter the Land?! The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: He who in life acknowledged his Land is buried in his Land; He who in life did not acknowledge his Land will not be buried in his Land. When Joseph’s mistress, the wife of Potiphar, said in accusation, “See, they have brought us a Hebrew man…” (Genesis 39:14), Joseph did not deny that he was a Hebrew, and later he asserted as much to Pharaoh’s sommelier: “I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews…” (Genesis 40:15). Thus, he was buried in his Land, as was said, “The bones of Joseph, which the Children of Israel had brought up from Egypt, they buried in Shechem in the area which Jacob had purchased from the sons of Chamor, father of Shechem, for 100 kesitahs…” (Joshua 24:32). But you, Moses, who did not acknowledge your Land, you will not be buried in your Land. For when the daughters of Jethro said, “An Egyptian man rescued us from the hand of the shepherds…” (Exodus 2:19), Moses heard but remained silent.
Sifre Deuteronomy 26
Talmud Yoma 22b
Moses and David
“I entreated the Eternal at that time…:
‘Let me, I pray, pass over
and see the good Land
on the other side of the Jordan…,’
but the Eternal was angry with me…
and He would not listen to me,
and the Eternal said to me: ‘Enough!
Don’t mention this matter to Me again!’”
This may be understood in the context of the following verse:
“The poor speaks in entreaties,
while the rich responds in strength.”
Two competent leaders served Israel: Moses and King David.
Moses said to the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the universe, may the sin that I committed be written down after me, so that others should not think that Moses omitted the truth in the Torah or added something that was not commanded by God. This is like the king who decreed that anyone who eats unripe Sabbatical figs (cf. Mishnah Shevi’it 2:5) shall be confined for public display. There was a woman from a good family who harvested some unripe Sabbatical figs and ate them, and she was confined for public display. She entreated the king: Disclose my actual offense so that others will not assume it was adultery or sorcery; if they see me wearing a necklace of unripe figs, then they will know that I have been confined for only that offense!
Similarly did Moses entreat the Omnipresent. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: So will I write it, that it was only for the water, as was said, “Because you refused My command, in the wilderness of Zin, in the quarrel of the congregation, to sanctify Me in their sight by the water, the water of Merivath-Kadesh…” (Numbers 27:14), “you shall not lead this congregation into the Land that I have given them; they are the waters of Merivah (“Quarreling”)…” (Numbers 20:9-13).
Rabbi Simeon understood it by analogy with a king traveling in a carriage with his son. When they reached a narrow passage, the carriage turned over on his son: his eye was blinded, his hand was severed, and his foot was broken. After the accident, whenever the king passed through that narrow passage, he would rehearse his son’s injuries: “Here was his eye blinded, here was his hand severed, and here was his foot broken.” So also does the Omnipresent mention “the waters of Merivah” three times, to say: Here I killed Miriam (Numbers 20:1-13)! Here I killed Aaron (Numbers 20:24)! Here I killed Moses (Deuteronomy 32:48-52)! This is what David observed when he sang, “Their leaders (not only Moses!) slipped by means of a rock” (Psalms 141:6).
David, by contrast, said to the Omnipresent: Let the sin that I committed not be written down after me. The Omnipresent said to him: Would it not be of value to you if people should say, notwithstanding his sin, “because He loved him, He pardoned him!”
This may be compared to one who borrowed from the king a thousand measures of wheat each year. Everyone would wonder how he could be good for a thousand measures of wheat in a year, yet the king would not require security and wrote him a note of settlement. Then, one time he had a surplus but he did not pay the king anything. The king entered his home, seized his children, and offered them up for auction. At that moment everyone understood that he had accumulated no reserves from which to pay.
Similarly, when Nathan the prophet came to rebuke David for his treatment of Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, and David confessed his sin, “I have sinned against the Eternal!” (II Samuel 12:13), what did Nathan say to him? “The Eternal has transferred your sin; you shall not die” (Ibid.). In fact, all of the punishment that might have come upon David was quadrupled, as David himself said (in response to the prophet Nathan’s allegory on David’s treatment of Uriah), “He shall pay for the lamb four times over” (Ibid. 6)! His punishment was transferred fourfold to his children: the child Bathsheba bore to David (ibid. 14-23), Amnon (ibid. 13:1-39), Tamar (ibid.), and Absalom (ibid. 15:1-19:5). So said David when Nathan came to him about Bathsheba: “Against You alone did I sin and do what is evil in Your sight, and so You are just in Your sentence and right in Your judgment” (Psalms 51:6)!
Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:14
“Who is a great nation
God [Elohim] is as close
as the Eternal our God is
whenever we call out to Him!”
Rabbi Yochanan construes the same verse:
“Who is a great nation
divine beings [elohim] close to Him,
like the Eternal our God,
call out for everything!”
When the ministering angels convene before the Holy One, blessed be He, to ask, “When is Rosh Hashanah?” “When is Yom Kippur?” the Holy One, blessed be He, says to them: Why do you ask Me? I and you, let us call out to the Beit Din below!
Rabbi Yochanan also teaches:
“Festivals of the Eternal
which you shall announce…
they are My Festivals!”
The Holy One, blessed be He, is saying: Before My nation came into being, there were simply, “Festivals of the Eternal,” but from now on, with the creation of Israel, “When you (Israel) announce (their dates)…, they are My Festivals (those dates become the dates of My Festivals)!”
Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:15
“To what great nation
is God so close,
as is the Eternal our God
whenever we call out to Him?”
When we say that God is “close” [kerovim] to us, it is as if we are “relatives” [kerovim].
We are eager to acknowledge a wealthy relative and often deny the existence of a poor one. But the Holy One, blessed be He, says of Israel, ensnared in the servitude of Egypt, “I am their relative,” as was said, “He exalts the horn of His people…the Children of Israel, the people that is His relative” (Psalms 148:14)!
If our relative is poor, then we speak of ourselves as primary and our relative as secondary, as in: “Such-and-such is related to me.” But the Holy One, blessed be He, makes Israel primary. Therefore, Moses did not say, “The nation is close to God,” but “God is close to the nation!”
Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:16
Finding the Proprietor
Said Rabbi Tanchuma: There was a sailing ship. Virtually all of its passengers were idolators, but there was among them one Jew. When they arrived at an island, they said to that one Jew: Here, take some money, go up to this island, and purchase some provisions for us. Said the Jew to them: How would I know where to find the proprietor? They said in response: But isn’t there a Jewish Proprietor? Wherever you go, your God is with you, for it says, “To what great nation is God so close, as is the Eternal our God whenever we call out to Him” (Deuteronomy 4:7)!
Talmud Sanhedrin 39a-39b
“Show me a great nation to whom God is as close
as the Eternal our God is whenever we call out to Him!”
“And who is like Your people Israel,
a nation unique on the earth…!”
(II Samuel 7:23)
A certain sectarian came before Rabbi Avina to deny such assertions as these: What, after all, is their distinction? You also are mixed together with us, as your prophet has said:
“All of the nations are as nothing before Him;
as empty and void are they considered by Him.”
Rabbi Avina replied: One of your own has already testified. Balaam said, “Behold a people which dwells apart and is not to be counted among the nations” (Numbers 23:9)! Rashi: Wherever the nations are mentioned in general, Israel is not intended.
Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:31
Origins of Shema I
“Hear, O Israel,
the Eternal is our God,
the Eternal is One.”
How did Israel earn the privilege of reciting “Hear, O Israel…?”
Said Rabbi Pinchas bar Chama: Israel earned the privilege of reciting “Hear, O Israel…” from the Giving of the Torah. How? You see, the Holy One, blessed be He, began speaking to Israel at Sinai with the words, “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4a; cf. ibid. 5:6), “I am the Eternal (God’s name) your God…” (ibid. 5:6), to which they all replied, “The Eternal (God’s name) is our God, the Eternal (God’s name) is One” (ibid. 6:4b)! Then Moses exclaimed, “Blessed be His majestic, glorious Name (viz. ‘the Eternal,’ God’s name) forever and ever!”
The Rabbis teach: Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Israel: My children, all that I have created I have created in pairs: heaven and earth, sun and moon, Adam and Eve, this world and the world to come. But My glory is one and unique in the world. Whence is that known? From what we recite in that paragraph, “Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One!” and add, “Blessed is His majestic glorious Name forever and ever!”
Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:35
Origins of Shema II
“Hear, O Israel,
the Eternal is our God,
the Eternal is One.”
How did Israel earn the privilege of reciting “Hear, O Israel…?”
When Jacob’s time to die drew near, he called to all of the tribes and said to them: Is there a possibility that, when I depart from this world, you will worship another god?
Whence do we have this? From “Jacob called to his sons…, ‘Gather together and I will voice to you what might befall you in days to come; assemble and hear, O sons of Jacob; listen to Israel your father’” (Genesis 49:1-2), wherein “to [el] Israel your father” can also be read, “The God [El]of Israel is your Father,” or as a question, “Is the God of Israel your Father, (too)?”
In accordance with the latter reading, his sons answered, “Hear, O Israel (Jacob), the Eternal is our God, too, the Eternal is the only One” (Deuteronomy 6:4)! Relieved, Israel lay back and said in quiet gratitude, “Baruch ha-Shem (‘Blessed is the Name of God, viz. the Eternal’)” in effect, but more elaborately, “Baruch Shem k’vod…Blessed is His majestic, glorious Name for ever and ever!”
Said Rabbi Levi: So what do the children of Israel say now? “Hear, O our father Israel,” that watchword of the faith which you taught us in your life is still our watchword today: “The Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One!” and then we repeat our father Israel’s quiet words of gratitude, “Baruch Shem….”
Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:36
Origins of Shema III
Our Rabbis teach: When Moses ascended to the Height, he heard the ministering angels saying to the Holy One, blessed be He, “Blessed is His majestic, glorious Name for ever and ever!” and he brought it down to Israel. So why does Israel not say it aloud? Said Rabbi Yosi: To what may this be likened? To one who stole a precious gem from the palace of the king and gave it to his wife. But he cautioned her: Do not wear it in public, only in the house! Fittingly, there is the exception of Yom Kippur, when Israel is as pure as the ministering angels and can therefore “wear” the words in public, as if belonging to them: “Blessed is His majestic, glorious Name for ever and ever!”
Mishnah Berachot 1:1
Keeping Far from Transgression
From what time may one recite Shema in the evening? From the time when the Kohanim enter to eat their terumah, until the end of the first watch (the first third of the night)—the teaching of Rabbi Eliezer. But the Sages teach: Until the middle of the night. Rabban Gamaliel teaches: All night until the first light of the morning.
It happened that the sons of Rabban Gamaliel were returning past midnight from a celebration, and they disclosed to him that they had not yet recited the Shema. He said to them: If the morning’s first light has not come up, you are required to recite, and this also applies to other commandments for which the Sages teach, “Until the middle of the night!”…If so, what is the point of the Sages’ teaching, “Until the middle of the night?” In order to keep you far from transgression!
Mishnah Berachot 1:2
Credit for Mitzvah I
From what time may one recite Shema in the morning? From the time that he can distinguish between techeylet (purple-blue color of thread of tzitzit, cf. Numbers 15:38) and white. Rabbi Eliezer says: Between techeylet and green (color of grass), and one must complete it before the commencement of the sun’s appearance. Rabbi Joshua says: By the end of the third hour of the day, for by then royalty arises. If, however, one recites Shema later, although he has not fulfilled thereby the mitzvah of reciting Shema, he has not lost credit entirely, for he is as one who engages in Torah.
Mishnah Berachot 2:1
Credit for Mitzvah II
If one was reading the Shema passage from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), and coincidentally the time for reciting the Shema arrived—if he intended, in that reading, to fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Shema at its proper time, he has fulfilled it; if he did not in that reading intend to fulfill the mitzvah, then he has not fulfilled it.
Mishnah Berachot 1:3
Posture or Timing
The School of Shammai teach: In the evening everyone should lie down on his side when reciting Shema, and in the morning everyone should stand up when reciting it, as was said, “And when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). The School of Hillel teach: Everyone recites Shema in whatever way he prefers, as was said, “And in your walking on the way” (Ibid.). Then why was it said, “And when you lie down and when you rise up?” It means at the time when people lie down and at the time when people rise up!
Rabbi Tarfon recounted: Once when I was out on the way, I lay down on my side to recite Shema in accordance with the School of Shammai, and I endangered myself because of highwaymen! They said to him: You had yourself to blame for transgressing the teaching of the School of Hillel!
Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 16:4
Love to Defend, Hate to Condemn
“Take comfort, take comfort, My people—”
“You are the most beautiful of men,
grace is poured out upon your lips…
you love righteousness
and hate evil;
therefore has God, your God,
anointed you with oil of gladness
above all others!”
Rabbi Azariah in the name of Rabbi Acha associated these verses (Psalms 45:3a,8) with our father Abraham. For you find that before the Holy One, blessed be He, brought destruction upon the Sodomites (cf. Genesis 18:16ff.), our father Abraham said to Him: Master of the universe, as You swore “never again to bring the waters of Noah upon the earth” (Isaiah 54:9), did You mean that destruction by water You would not bring, but destruction by fire You would bring (cf. Genesis 19:23-25)? Do You thus mean to evade Your oath? “Far be it from You to do such a thing: to put the innocent to death along with the guilty! Shall the Judge of all the earth not perform justice?” (Genesis 18:25) God replied, “I will not destroy any of them even for the sake of ten righteous” (ibid. 32), as if Abraham had said, “The Judge of all the earth shall not perform justice” (cf. Genesis 18:25), but mercy! by sparing the lives of the wicked majority along with the lives of the innocent.
For Abraham had argued before God: If it is justice that You seek, You will be left without a world; but if You want to preserve Your world, then You must forego justice. You are, as it were, pulling the rope at both ends—You want Your world and You want perfect justice—if You do not relent a little, Your world will not be able to survive. At that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham, “You love righteousness and you hate evil” (Psalms 45:8), that is, You love to defend My creatures and you hate to condemn them. “Therefore has God, your God, anointed you with oil of gladness above all others” (Ibid.)!
What is meant by “above all others” (ibid.)? You, Abraham, are the first one, since the time of Noah, with whom I have communicated directly, as is written, “After all of these preceding events, the word of the Eternal came to Abraham in a vision, saying…” (Genesis 15:1a).
Rabbi Azariah in the name of Rabbi Yudah son of Rabbi Simon associated the verse, “You love righteousness and hate evil…” (Psalms 45:8), with the prophet Isaiah: I was spending time in my house of study, “when I heard the voice of my Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’” (Isaiah 6:8) The divine voice continued: I sent Amos, but the people derided My choice because they detected an impediment in his speech. Rabbi Pinchas: Why was he called Amos (“Impeded”)? Because he was impeded of speech! Then I sent Micah, but “they struck the judge of Israel on the cheek with a stick” (Micah 4:14)! So, “whom shall I send, and who will go for us” (Isaiah loc. cit.)? Then I (Isaiah) heard myself saying, “Here I am, send me” (ibid.)!
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Isaiah, My children are obstinate, they are trouble; you would be exposing yourself to their beatings and their insults. He said to Him: Just so, “I shall offer my back to those who beat me…and not hide my face from their insults” (Isaiah 50:6), yet I remain unworthy to carry out Your mission among Your children. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Isaiah, “you love righteousness” (Psalms 45:8a), that is, you love to defend My children! and “you hate evil” (ibid. 8b), that is, you hate to condemn them! “Therefore has God, your God, anointed you with oil of gladness above all others” (Ibid. 8c)!
What is meant by “above all others” (ibid. 8c)? The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Be assured that all of the other prophets prophesied based upon the word of another prophet. “The spirit of Elijah rested upon Elisha…“ (II Kings 2:15). The spirit of Moses rested upon the Seventy Elders, “and he drew some of the spirit which was upon him and put it upon the Seventy Elders…” (Numbers 11:25). But you shall prophesy directly from the mouth of the Mighty One: “The spirit of my Lord God is upon me, because the Eternal has anointed me…” (Isaiah 61:1)!
Moreover, all of the other prophets prophesy with simple proclamations. But you shall prophesy with double exclamations: “Awake! Awake!” (Isaiah 51:9), “Rouse yourself! Rouse yourself!” (Ibid. 17), “Rejoice! I do rejoice!” (Ibid. 61:10), “I! Oh I!” (Ibid. 51:12), and “Take comfort! Take comfort!” (Ibid. 40:1).
Talmud Sanhedrin 39a
“Lift up your eyes to the sky,
and see who created these:
the One who brings out their abundant host,
who calls each of them by name…”
A denier challenged Rabban Gamaliel: It is written about your God: “He counts the number of the stars; He calls all of them by their names” (Psalms 147:4). What is remarkable about that? I too can count the stars! So Rabban Gamaliel took some fruits and, while spinning them in a sieve, bid the denier to count them. Hold them still! protested the denier. Rabban Gamaliel responded: But the stars in heaven are always spinning!
Talmud Nedarim 55a
The Torah of Elevation
“Let every valley be lifted up,
every mountain and hill made low…”
Rav Yosef provided an explanation of the following verses:
“And from Wilderness Mattanah,
and from Mattanah Nachliel,
and from Nachliel Bamot,
and from Bamot the Valley…
that looks [nishkafah] toward [al p’ney] Yeshimon.”
When one makes himself open like the Wilderness, which is available to all, Torah is granted him to teach freely to all, as the verse reads, “From Wilderness a gift [mattanah]!” And since God has granted it to him, he rises to greatness, as the verse reads, “From God’s granting [nachliEl] high places [bamot]! But if he exalts himself, then the Holy One, blessed be He, brings him down, as the verse reads, “And from high places [bamot] the Valley—and, even moreso, he is sunk into the ground, as the verse continues, “He is sunk [nishkafah] (like the casing of a door [shakuf]) with his face [al p’ney] on the waste [hayeshimon]! Yet if he repents, the Holy One, blessed be He, raises him, as the prophet said, “Every valley will be lifted up” (Isaiah 40:4)!
Copyright © 2021 Eric H. Hoffman