Va’etchanan: Rabbi Abraham

By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum 

 Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11. Haftara: Isaiah 40:1-26.


In the opening word of our PARSHAH of VO-ESCHANAN, Moses tells how “I tried to ingratiate myself” with G-d — elicit His favor — praying repeatedly to be allowed enter the land of Israel, “Eretz HaTzvi”, the “Land of Beauty, the graceful gazelle”, and come to the place of the Holy Temple. The Midrash teaches that in order to try to revoke the decree against his entry to the land, Moses prayed no less than 515 prayers — corresponding to the gematria (numerical value) of the word VO-ESCHANAN. The root of this word is CHEN, meaning the “grace” that is bestowed by G-d as a gift of pure love and kindness. The grammatical form of the word is HISPA’EL – reflexive: the person praying must WORK on himself or herself in order to become open to that gift. The parshah is a call to us to the inner work that must be combined with our Torah study: the work in our heart and soul to open ourselves to G-d’s grace — through meditation, contemplation, prayer and refinement of our traits. We must try and try again and again!!!

(The meaning of CHEN, and how to receive the shine of G-d’s wisdom and grace in our hearts, is fully explored in the opening teaching of Rabbi Nachman’s Likutey Moharan. For an online audio class on this teaching with full translation and commentary, click here.)

Parshas VO-ESCHANAN, is always read on this, the Shabbat of comfort after the fast of Tisha B’Av — SHABBOS NACHAMU (so-called after the opening words of the Haftara). Having mourned past destruction and ruin on Tisha Be’Av, it is now time to put the past behind us. We must bind up our wounds and embark on the work of rebuilding and reconstruction during the coming days of Teshuvah in the months of Av and Elul, leading up to the New Year and Days of Awe. To initiate this period, many Bnei Torah have the custom of taking trips away from the city in order to able to broaden their horizons, gaze at the sky, the hills, the sea and G-d’s other wonders for the sake of physical and spiritual reinvigoration.

Parshas VO-ESCHANAN provides us with spiritual sustenance for this reinvigoration process, giving us the very foundations of our faith in the One, Unified, Incorporeal G-d. In some of the most sublime passages in the Bible, Moses evokes the awesome greatness of G-d, the greatness of Israel, His chosen people, the preciousness of the Land of Israel, and the love and fear of G-d. Moses takes us again through the fearsomeness of the Giving of the Torah, and teaches us our basic declaration of faith, repeated twice daily: SHEMA YISRAEL, HASHEM ELOKENU HASHEM ECHAD. Many other phrases from our present parshah are also incorporated into the regular set prayers in the Siddur.

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At the center of the parshah are the second telling of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai and the Ten Commandments. In the annual cycle of the Torah reading, we read about the Giving of the Torah once in parshas YISRO close to 15th Shevat (January-February), and a second time half a year later in VO-ESCHANAN, which is always read close to 15th Av. The account in YISRO is also read on the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah, on the festival of Shavuot. In this way, we return at regular intervals to the birth experience of the soul of Israel. The mid-point of the months of Shevat and Av are times when our souls begin to ready themselves for actual rebirth forty-five days later in Nissan (Pesach, physical rebirth) and Tishri (High Holidays, Succot, spiritual rebirth).

The difference between the accounts of the Giving of the Torah in YISRO and VO-ESCHANAN is the difference between “before the sin” and “after the sin”. The account in YISRO comes in the days of innocent exuberance after the Exodus from Egypt, before the fall — the worship of the golden calf. The account in VO-ESCHANAN comes long after sin of the golden calf, after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (SHEMINI, Leviticus 10), after the “Graves of Lust”, the sin of the spies, the rebellion of Korach and the other sins and rebellions recounted in the book of Numbers. We are older in more ways than one. With the passage of time, we may have fallen into bad ways. In VO-ESCHANAN we come back to basics again, the Giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments — this time with the purpose of learning how to RE-build and RE-construct, even after destruction and ruin.

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We cannot avoid getting older physically, but spiritually we must try to stay young — for the wiser and more advanced we are spiritually, the closer we should be to G-d’s endless, never-exhausted fountain of vitality and grace. “It is not good to be old,” cried Rabbi Nachman. “There are pious and righteous elders, but to be old is not good. You must remain young, renewing yourself each day and making a fresh start” (Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom #51).

The journey back to the basics and retelling of the Giving of the Torah in VO-ESCHANAN come to rectify the sin of becoming old spiritually, which is the main cause of destruction and exile. This sin is so serious that the analysis of its roots, given in our parshah (Deut. 4:25-40), forms the Torah Reading of reproof in the synagogue on Tisha B’Av. “When you give birth to children and children’s children and YOU GROW OLD IN THE LAND and you CORRUPT.”

New converts and returnees who have come to the Torah from far away, with all the excitement and enthusiasm of spiritual discovery, are often shocked and deeply disturbed to find old and seemingly tired communities whose observance of the commandments looks habitual, stale and devoid of inner meaning. Similarly, newcomers to present-day Israel who came in search of the Holy Land are often shocked by the rampant unholiness and corruption they encounter.

The Torah indeed gives us to understand that one of the main hazards of a tradition handed down from generation to generation is that the enthusiasm of the pioneers becomes ossified and encrusted in forms that often alienate people and drive them away. Corruption sets in, leading to the idolatry and evil that are the very opposite of the Torah. This is the root cause of the exile, leading to the scattering of Israel among the nations.

And yet — “EVEN FROM THERE, IF YOU SEEK OUT HASHEM YOUR G-D, YOU WILL FIND, IF YOU SEARCH HIM OUT WITH ALL YOUR HEART AND ALL YOUR SOUL. In your time of trouble, when all these things find you at the end of days. And you will return to HaShem your G-d and listen to His voice” (Deuteronomy 4:29-30).

The voice we must listen to is the authentic voice of revival and regeneration emitting from outstanding Tzaddikim like the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Nachman, who broke free of the encrusted obfuscation of spiritual old-age in order to bring us back to the basics — the love and awe of G-d that must fire our service.

New enthusiasts should try to judge long-time practitioners favorably. It is far from easy to maintain consistent, energetic service of G-d for years on end, day after day praying the set prayers and practicing the rituals while facing the endless pressures of making a living, bringing up families, etc. in a troubled world where we seem to see no clear sign of Redemption.

Precisely because it is so easy to fall, Moses exhorts us again and again not to allow ourselves to grow old, not to forget, not to go astray. The regular return to the basics — reading a second time about the Giving of the Torah from a new angle, re-reading the Ten Commandments — comes to teach us that we must constantly strive to renew ourselves and keep things fresh. “And let these things that I am commanding you TODAY be on your heart” — “They should not be in your eyes like an old edict that nobody minds, but like a new one that everyone runs to read” (Deut. 6:6 and Rashi ad loc.).

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The greatest challenge for Israel is to hand on not only the outer forms of the Torah but its inner fire to the coming generations. Each of the three founding fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, strove to inculcate the knowledge of G-d in his children. VO-ESCHANAN returns repeatedly to the importance of teaching children and inculcating genuine faith in them — another task that is far from easy. “And you shall teach them diligently to your children.” (Deut. 6:7). “When you son asks you in the future, saying ‘What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws that HaShem our G-d has commanded you?’ And you shall say to him.” (Deut. 6:20).

The Torah’s answer to the new generation, given in the ensuing verses, forms the foundation of the Haggadah recited at the Pesach Seder table. In essence, the answer is that there is such a thing as slavery, and that only G-d has the power to release us from it — for our good — through the observance of His unique commandments.

Slavery may not be only physical. Today, the most prevalent form of slavery is the mental slavery of those enmeshed and ensnared in secular “culture” which encourages the pursuit of everything except G-d and His truth. At the end of parshas VO-ESCHANAN, the Torah warns strongly that we must recognize idols for what they are and destroy them. (When we are powerless to destroy the idols of the outside world, we can at least destroy them in our own minds.) The Torah teaches the maintenance of strict separation from idol-worshippers. “For you are a holy people to HaShem your G-d, He chose YOU to be a treasured people from all the peoples on the face of the earth. And you shall know that HaShem your G-d is the G-d, the faithful Power, guarding the Covenant and kindness to those who love Him and observe His commandments to the thousandth generation.” (Deut. 7:6 & 9)

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