What will it Take to Turn the Tide?
Av 11 5780
The word Va’etchanan וָֽאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן, “I pleaded” is related to the word חַנַּ֖ן chanan which means grace or mercy. It depicts someone who is requesting an undeserved gift. In Gematria, the sum of its letters is 515, which according to our sages, represents the number of times that Moshe pleaded with the Creator to allow him to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. Moshe continues in this portion to blame the people, saying that it was their fault that he could not fulfill his lifelong dream. Finally, the Creator said; “Enough” and Moshe stopped asking.
In this portion, Moshe is emphasizing what had brought this second generation to where they were, and what would happen to them in the future. It contains much of what constitutes Biblical Judaism as opposed to Rabbinic Judaism or what people refer to as the Jewish faith. Theology tends to distort the Words of the Creator against which Moshe warned us. It contains Ten Commandments and the “Shema” שְׁמַ֤ע, the Statement of Faith of our people. The word Shema literally means “listen” emphasizing obedience, like when a father strongly tells his children “listen to me”.
The fourth chapter of Devarim is so important for us today. It begins with “Israel shema” יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל שְׁמַ֤ע, “Israel listen” and I will teach you. Verse two tells us: “Do not add to the word which I command you, nor take away, to observe the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” We have been flooded by the teachings of the rabbis in the Sheve al Peh, the Oral Torah which have little to do with the revelation of the Creator on Mt. Sinai. Instead of “listening” to what God said to do, they tell us what they think we need to do, causing confusion and competition among the various groups. Moshe spoke in a prophetic way warning us against this very thing.
Verse 10 says “Assemble the people for Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children…” Instead of using the word “fear, it would be better to say, “have reverence or respect”.
Verse 12 is so important: “The Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of the words, but saw no image, just a voice.” Our God is neither physical nor material; rather He is ethereal, without form as in other religions.
In Verse 13, Moshe brings emphasis to the Ten Commandments: “And He told you His covenant, which He commanded you to do, the Ten Commandments, and He inscribed them on two stone tablets.” They are the basic tenets for what is right and wrong.
Verse 14: “And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances so that you should do them in the land to which you are crossing, to possess.” Here Moshe is showing us that there would be things that we would have to do which can be applied only in the land of Israel.
Verse 15 repeats the injunction against idolatry. How can we make an image of something we cannot see? Other religions have constructed gods which are like humans, animals, things from nature or from the heavens, like the sun, moon or stars. How many of us love horoscopes? Astrology is pure idolatry which is when the natural things are exchanged for unnatural things and cause us to become corrupted.
Why did the LORD call Himself a consuming fire in verse 24? It is obvious that this is a metaphor, as with King David who had the heart of a lion. It means that the LORD does not share His divinity with anyone or anything. Moshe prophesied in verses 25-28 about how He hates idolatry and what would happen to Israel in generations to come when we fell because we worshipped false gods.
Verse 29 tells us “And from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul (better translated as all your being).” The LORD won’t seek us anymore; from now on we need to seek Him, and we will find Him. He is always ready to have an encounter with us.
Verse 30: “When you are distressed, and all these things happen upon you in the end of days, then you will return to the Lord your God and obey Him.” This term “the end of days” בְּאַֽחֲרִית֙ הַיָּמִ֔ים. is very popular among the theologians today. They interpret it as the end times when the messiah will come in the future. If we look at our history, how many last days have we experienced, how many messiahs have come and gone, yet we are still here? This serves as a witness of the great love and support that the Creator has for Israel, but it doesn’t mean that He is always happy with our behavior. On a more personal level, when we are distressed in our lives, when we have come to the end of our rope (‘at the end of our days’), we can return to Him. Then in verse 31, He will have mercy upon us… “For the Lord, your God is a merciful God; He will not let you loose or destroy you; neither will He forget the covenant of your fathers, which He swore to them”. Even though we will suffer the consequences of our actions, we won’t be completely destroyed. There is always the hope of renewal when we return to Him.
In Verses 32-34 Moshe is asking us what other nations throughout history had a god who spoke to them out of the midst of the fire, or performed miracles and took them out of the hands of their enemies with signs and wonders? This is not a fabrication of human imagination; it is an actual fact of history! Verse 35: “You have been shown, in order to know that the Lord He is God; there is none else besides Him.” If we don’t believe this and prefer to believe that you are descended from the monkeys, that’s your problem.
I recommend that you read chapter 4 of Devarim in its entirety and you will see what happened to Israel throughout history for their disobedience. Last week, the Jewish community observed Tisha B’Av (9th of Av) where we fasted and mourned the destruction of the two Temples, the expulsion in 1295 from England, from Spain in 1492, the pogroms in the former Soviet Union and Kristallnacht, at the beginning of the Holocaust. Our sages say that it began when the scouts returned with a bad report about the land and the people were punished for their lack of trust in the Creator. We still do not associate it with our behavior. Did Israel suffer simply because of the world’s hatred toward them? This is a very important question because it is happening in the world again today. The Torah paints a picture of what would happen to us when we disobey His Words, His Ten Commandments as we see in this portion. The Bible does not portray the heroes of our faith as being perfect but all those who failed had one thing in common – they all did teshuva; admitted what they did wrong and turned back to the Creator. It is easy to blame others for what is happening to us but instead of blame, we need to turn back to Him and ask Him for mercy. When each of us makes this change, we transform the world which is presently on a rapid downward spiral, morally speaking. Those of us who believe in the principles of the Creator are being muzzled. Moshe told us to cling to the Creator, to His Ten Commandments so that we can ride the waves of injustice. They would be like a rudder on a ship which leads us in the right direction in a storm. Many people today are so confused that they cannot differentiate between right and wrong.
And finally, I as your rabbi, have often repeated the process that the Bore Olam puts us through beginning with his gift of emunah, faith. Faith is worthless unless it is put into action to become bitachon, trust. We, who trust in Him, use another of His gifts to us – “bechirah chofshit, free will” daily to choose to do right, which entails responsibility toward ourselves, our families and our community. In the end, our Bore Olam will judge us by our kavanah, the intention of our hearts. No one can do that but Him. In science, there are three stages in material resistance: elasticity, plasticity and rupture. Those with moral values are in the elastic stage in which they can return to their original state, where they are able to recognize their failures, do teshuvah and begin again. Those in the plastic stage have lost their morals and are in danger of rupture causing destruction. They will become completely amoral when there is no turning back. I plead with you that while we are still in the elastic stage, let us humble ourselves, “listen” to the words of our prophet Moshe and be obedient to the Ten Commandments which he gave us to share with the world.