Vezot Haberachah: Re-reading the words

Moses charged us with the Torah as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. (Devarim 33:4)

Meticulous, mindful, the scribe writes the words
that haven’t been altered in thousands of years

yet each year they change as we read them once more
for we have transformed in the year that has passed.

If once we believed that we grasped what they say
today we might see that they speak to us otherwise.

Parashat Vezot HaBerachah, the last parasha of the Torah, actually has no Shabbat of its own: it contains two chapters that we read on Simchat Torah. We thus complete the yearlong Torah cycle and seamlessly start to read again from the first parasha of the Torah – Bereishit. In a commentary from 2000,, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch notes that one of the verses from VeZot HaBerachah, “Moses charged us with the Torah as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob” (Devarim 33:4) was chosen by the Talmudic sages to be the first verse of Torah that parents teach their young children. Rabbi Schorsch says “Long before our children start their formal education, we are obliged to give them a sense of place. As Jews, our lives are shaped by Torah. The triad of God, Torah and the people Israel is an inseparable and indestructible unity. The compression of the verse has a creedal force that will take a lifetime to unpack (B.T. Sukkah, 42a).”
“The ritual statement of this unity is the festival of Simhat Torah. There is to be no interruption in our public reading of Torah, because it is the link that joins God and Israel. Torah is the medium through which Jews experience the reality of God as well as express it. Torah is the form and content, language and substance of our religious being. Its centrality in the synagogue service merely reflects its seminal role as the infinitely expanding curriculum of daily study.”
Rabbi Schorsch continues that the pathway to this ever-expanding study of Torah is pointed to in the Shema, the cornerstone prayer that we recite morning and night: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.” (Devarim 6:5-6).” Rebi, who compiled the Mishnah, teaches that the second verse is advising us how to fulfill the first. By constant, assiduous study of Torah we “take to heart” these instructions, and thus understand more and wish to cleave to God more closely. Rabbi Schorsch notes “The specificity of Torah helps to concretize our inarticulate love (Sifre, ed. by Finkelstein p. 59).”
Rabbi Schorsch continues, mentioning a further rabbinic comment on the clarification that the Shema offers us, which notes the present tense of the verb, “which I charge you this day.” He says “That immediacy suggests that, “we are not to regard the Torah as an old statute to which no one pays attention any more, but rather like a new one that everyone is eager to read (Sifre, p. 59).” Each time we take up the Torah should be like the first, full of novelty and discovery.”
Rabbi Schorsch suggests that the each reading of the Torah might reveal something new to us, only if we allow “our growth and maturation” since the last encounter, to unmask something that we were unready to detect before. He says “The lens through which we look at Torah is always being modified by experience. The great German philosopher Hegel stated this deep truth in a striking way: “The absolute idea may be compared to the old man, who utters the same religious doctrines as the child, but for whom they signify his entire life. The child in contrast may understand the religious content. But all of life and the whole world still exist outside it.” Thus the creed with which we began, “Moses charged us with the Torah…” contains the same words for toddler and grandparent alike, yet the meaning they carry for each could not be more different.”
Rabbi Schorsch recounts an encounter between Franz Kafka* and a small girl, which illustrates this phenomenon: On his last visit to Berlin before his premature death from tuberculosis, Franz Kafka encountered a small girl in a park where he often walked. She was crying inconsolably. She had lost her doll and was desolate. Kafka offered to help her look for the doll and arranged to meet her the next day at the same spot. He could not find the doll, but he composed a letter from the doll which he read to the little girl at their next meeting. In it, the doll purportedly told the child that she was not lost but had gone on a trip, and would return. In the meantime, she was sending letters with anecdotes of her adventures. On each subsequent day, the two met, and Kafka read another letter to the little girl. On his final day in Berlin, Kafka came to meet the child one last time, and brought with him a doll which he lovingly gave to the child. However, the doll did not look at all like the one she had lost, and the little girl said so. Kafka reassured her that it was her doll, telling her that her travels and experiences had simply changed the way she looked.
Rabbi Schorsch concludes, “For millennia Jews have pored over the same sacred canon. But history has recorded its effects in their understanding of its words. Alongside the Written Torah of Moses, unfolded and accumulated the Oral Torah of Israel, befitting the settings and sensibilities, the dilemmas and disputes of generations of Jewish interpreters, who coupled ingenuity with reverence and freedom with fidelity. As experience proliferated layers upon layers of meaning, the underlying sacred text remained immutable, effectively yielding a canon without closure, ever open to new readings. The concept of a dual Torah spawned a discourse over the ages that embraces both continuity and change.
“Thus Simhat Torah, which is the latest of the traditional Jewish holidays (not found in either the Tanakh or the Talmud), celebrates a religious culture founded on the plasticity of the written word. The Torah we are about to begin anew is not exactly the one we have just finished, because in the intervening year we ourselves have changed.”

In an interview on the Days of Awe, from On Being, aired in 2010, Krista Tippet interviews Rabbi Sharon Brous. Rabbi Brous also addresses the need to discover the newness and relevance as the Torah is studied each time. She notes that rabbinic tradition holds that the Torah was transmitted in fire, and in fire it has to be handed down from generation to generation. Rabbi Brous considers the analogy of fire to allude to the need to find something to warm and illuminate, something more than “just the memory of something that once touched our great-great-grandparents…” She searches continually for what it means to her, and adds “…not only does it mean something different to me than it meant to my grandparents, it means something different to me this year than it meant to me last year.” She concludes “And that…[is] the great power of a religious tradition. It’s versatile enough to really sustain itself over the course of many thousands of years, to say…the text is the same every year, but we are different. There is something newborn every time that I encounter this text or this holiday or this piece of liturgy.”

*Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924) was a German-language writer of novels and short stories who is widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature.


Va’etchanan: Listen!

Listen O Israel! The Lord our God the Lord is one. (Devarim 6:4)

Elohim is the God
of infinite cycles:
of genesis, growth,
senescence, decay;
of life’s wondrous design
and all its mutations.

Adonai is the God
of endless redemption:
the drive towards progress
the impulse for change –
the call that cries out
to attend to the world.

Can we marry what is
with what could yet be;
can we hear these two voices
and meld them as one?

In the middle of Parashat Va’etchanan, we read the verse “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad – Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord is one.” (Devarim 6:4). This verse opens the Shema, the prayer that is recited twice each day, both in the morning and at night. The first prayer taught to small children, it is also to be recited on the death-bed. The Talmud (Berachot 61a) tells us that Rabbi Akiva, who was martyred in the second century, died with the Shema on his lips as did a long succession of Jewish martyrs.
A Midrash traces the origin of this verse to the dying moments of Jacob’s life, when he was concerned that his descendants living in Egypt would assimilate. They reassured him, saying, “Listen O Israel! We accept the one God as our God.” (Devarim Rabbah 2:35).

The Etz Hayim commentary notes that the word “Shema – Hear (or listen)” reminds us that not only should we be talking to God when we pray, but we should also be listening when He talks to us. In an increasingly noisy world, we are mandated to stop and listen to what the words of the prayer are trying to impart to us.

In a commentary on Parashat Va’etchanan from 2008,, Professor Arnold Eisen submits that this parasha contains theological concepts so essential to the Torah’s aspirations for Israel that the rabbis incorporated them into the daily liturgy. However, Rabbi Eisen adds that he believes that in this parasha, each reader is being addressed individually. “It addresses us person by person, one-on-one, in the same way we enter into every serious relationship and tremble with each true love.” He notes that in the first phrase, the command to listen is in the singular – it could thus be translated “Listen O Israelite!…” He continues “How shall we — each of us — perform the acts of listening and hearing (both meanings for shema are explicit in the course of the parashah) to which the Torah calls us?”
He notes that the Torah does not address belief in God from a philosophical standpoint, rather it is occupied with a template for a social order in which there is justice and righteousness.

In another commentary on Parashat Va’etchanan,, Rabbi Gilah Langner addresses several interpretations of this verse noting the changes in meaning of these six words through history. She suggests that when the Israelites were surrounded by pagan civilizations, the emphasis might have been: there is only one Israelite God and He is Adonai. Once monotheistic religions became more widespread, the Shema took on a slightly altered meaning – that while Adonai is our God, eventually Adonai will come to be recognized and accepted as the one unrivaled God.
Rabbi Langner continues “Another strain of thought, which has had a resurgence of popularity in recent years, focuses on the different aspects of divinity implied by the terms Adonai (Lord) and Elohim (God). While Elohim relates to the timeless, cyclical manifestation of God in the natural universe, Adonai is the Jewish God of transformation, the God who makes a difference, who liberates from slavery and brings about healing and creativity.” Rabbi Langner cites Rabbi Harold M Schulweis in his book For Those Who Can’t Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith, “divinity includes both the reality principle of Elohim and the ideality principle of Adonai. Adonai is the source of healing; Elohim, the life of the universe.”
Rabbi Langner suggests that the Shema is teaching us that both aspects are merged in the Divine. “Adonai and Elohim are one and the same. What a radical notion that is, what a radical statement about the universe the Sh’ma becomes: yes to reality, and yes to transformation! Yes to nature (including human nature) and yes to healing. Yes to unchanging permanence and yes to constant becoming – ‘ehyeh asher ehyeh’, God’s self-proclaimed name: ‘I will be what I become.'”
Rabbi Langner expands this: “The Sh’ma can be seen as a fundamental principle for grounding social action and social transformation in a deep understanding of the limits of what is, as well as a boundless optimism for what can yet be achieved.” She cites a conversation about the concept of Adonai and Elohim with Rabbi Ira Eisenstein who said, “Adonai in a sense is fighting Elohim to let people live. You look at Elohim – you see disease, earthquakes, people dying. If you didn’t find a trace of Adonai, you’d be living in a godless world. But the Adonai side is the difficult side. [Rabbi] Mordecai Kaplan would say that you have to seek out those aspects of reality that make for salvation. There is a verse in [this week’s portion of] the Torah that says: ‘You will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and spirit’ (Deuteronomy 4:29).”
Rabbi Langner maintains that this first verse of the Shema summons us to foster this perception as a people. She cites Harold Fisch in his book Poetry With a Purpose, “The divine unity is realized only when there is a community of hearers to achieve that perception, to make that affirmation; it is a perception that has to be striven for, created in the act of reading, hearing, and understanding.””
So she wonders how we can bring this concept of divine unity into the world.
The answer follows in the next verse: “Ve’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha – you shall love the Lord your God…” We are enjoined to adhere to God’s commandments and keep them wholeheartedly, all the time – when we are at home or away, when we are resting and when we are active.

The Etz Hayim commentary notes that the commandment to love our neighbor is found in Vayikra 19:18; the commandment to love the stranger is found in Vayikra 19:34, while the commandment to love God comes later, in Devarim. This commentary continues “We learn to love God by practicing loving God’s creatures, our fellow human beings. “Love the Lord your God” commands not belief but behavior.”

Rabbi Langner concludes, “Only by acting in the world with compassion, and treating one another with justice and equality will the healing aspects of God become manifest and draw others to a deeper understanding and love of God. To “love God” we must act with loving intention towards all of Creation.”

And finally, in a commentary on Va’etchanan,
Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman opens with the poem entitled Shema by Primo Levi:

You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house,
when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

Rabbi Richman ponders why Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, entitles his poem Shema “Hear!” and structures it on the framework of possibly the best-known prayer in the Jewish prayer book.
She suggests that Primo Levi is revisiting this ancient prayer through the prism of human suffering, and enjoining us to listen to this suffering. This, she contends, is what Levi would have us engrave on our hearts and be attentive to at all times. She says “His poem commands a single-minded focus not on the unity of God but on a sub-set of God’s creatures, people living in poverty and chaos.” So she asks how might we hear this suffering. She says in some ways, it is easier than ever before. Internet access affords instant exposure to countless tragedies particularly in the developing world. Crises of poverty, disease, violence and war are almost ubiquitous. But, Rabbi Richman says, “…listening is not enough. The verb shema carries additional meanings –it also denotes doing, obeying, performing, acting. Perhaps Levi titled his poem Shema precisely for its multiple meanings. He wanted to jolt his reader, through graphic and painful images, into action. Emmanuel Levinas, a famous contemporary Jewish philosopher, described the traditional Shema as an awakening: “‘Hear, Israel!'”
Rabbi Richman concludes “I read the poem’s upsetting closing curses as a contemporary warning: if we do not awaken, if we will not hear, if we do not use our blessings of privilege to improve the situation of those who suffer privation, we deny our own power to create change. There are serious consequences to this failure of action.
“There are many ways to respond to the voices of those who suffer: to educate ourselves on issues of global justice, to volunteer, to advocate, to share our resources. The Shema, according to Jewish law, is supposed to be said aloud. It makes sense: we are crying out to one other: “Listen, Israel! Act!” This week, will you hear it?”