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Dvar Torah

Shabbat Shalom

Tony, boy did you pick the wrong person to do this particular d’var Torah.  After reading the parsha, I felt humbled (and my wife says that I have plenty to feel humbled about) and inadequate to the task.

Moses prayed 515 prayers - the numerical value (gematria) of Va'etchanan, "and I beseeched" - to be allowed to enter the land.   I didn’t manage quite as many, but anyhow, here goes …

The children of Israel had wandered the desert for 40 years and now, at last, they were to enter the Promised Land.  Moses was not to go with them, but he could teach them a moral code, a way of life that would prove to be the basis of their existence as a nation, whether or not they would have their own land.   (iv.5)

The Torah, Moses says, is not only the Jew's lifeline of connection to G-d - it is also our mission to humanity: For this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes, and say: “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (iv.6)

Va'etchanan includes some of the basic texts of Judaism, including the Ten Commandments (as repeated by Moses), the Shema (which proclaims the oneness of G-d; the duty to love G-d, and to study His Torah and teach it to our children; and the mitzvot of tefillin and mezuzah), and Moses' prediction of the exile and the eventual Redemption.

“Lo et-ha’avoteinu karat HaShem et-habrit hazot, key itanu anachnu eyle paw hayom koolanu chayyim” – “Not with our ancestors [alone] did HaShem make this covenant but with us, we who are, all of us, still alive here today”. (V: 3).   Rashi inserts his one word comment “alone” (לבד) (L’vad) – he inserts this to clarify that G-d not only made the covenant with our ancestors, but with all future generations as well.  

“Aseret Hadiberot” - The ‘Ten Commandments’ (or, as some would say, the Ten Statements’) are listed twice in the Torah. They are recorded as part of the Exodus narrative in Yitro, and retold as part of Moshe’s valedictory address in Va’etchanan, where he recounts the story of Sinai for the benefit of the next generation. As is well-known, the version of the ‘Ten Commandments’ which appears in this week’s parsha differs in a number of places from the version which appears in Parshat Yitro. Sometimes the differences consist of entire changed words and additional phrases, but usually the differences are limited to variant spellings. In the limited time I have, I will deal with two of the differences.

The best-known difference regards the opening word of the Fourth Commandment. In Yitro, it begins with the word ‘Zakhor’ “remember” (the Sabbath day, to keep it holy); and in Va-etchanan, it begins with the word ‘Shamor’, “guard” (and observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy).  The obvious lesson is that there are two equal parts of the Sabbath - "zachor," the emotional, enjoyable, spiritual side of the holy day and "shamor," the legal, ritualistic observance of the commandments of the day regarding work. It is these two elements when applied simultaneously to the Sabbath day that make it a "taste of the world to come." The legal part alone would leave the day dry and sterile, unappealing and non-refreshing. The emotional part of the Sabbath would not be able to maintain the uniqueness of the day through all times and circumstances.   True, too, is the oft-repeated statement that "more than the Jews guard the Sabbath, the Sabbath guards the Jews."

The tenth and final commandment also has subtle differences.

In Yitro we read:

"לֹא תַחְמֹד בֵּית רֵעֶךָ לֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ "      

“Do not covet the house of your friend. Do not covet your friend’s wife, slave, maid, ox, donkey, or anything else which belongs to your friend (Shemot 20:13)

In Va’etchanan we read:

" וְלֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ. וְלֹא תִתְאַוֶּה בֵּית רֵעֶךָ שָׂדֵהוּ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ"  

“…and you shall not covet your friend’s wife. Do not desire your friend’s house, field, slave, maid, ox, donkey, or anything else which belongs to your friend (Devarim v:17)”

In each version, there is a single entity which is singled out, followed by a longer list. In the Shemot list, the friend’s house is singled out. The following list is all living things – wife, slave, maid, ox, and donkey. There’s clearly a regression in that list – from most to least intimate, and from a lesser to greater degree of ‘ownership’. The Devarim list separates the wife from the longer list. The longer list then contains three pairs of objects – landed property (house and field), human property (slave and maid), and livestock (ox and donkey). This method of separation calls attention to the fact that there is no parallel to the relationship between husband and wife; the woman is incomparable. She doesn’t even get the same word – she’s ‘coveted’ תַחְמֹד “tachmod" and plain old property is ‘desired’ תִתְאַוּ ; (“titaveh”) desire for one’s friend’s wife is completely different from desiring his material wealth. There’s something subtly romantic in that.

Moshe’s address is closer to the human experience, because he was one of us. Similarly, Shabbat is linked to Creation in Shemot, but to the Exodus in Devarim; the former is an abstract idea – no human witnessed Creation. The latter relates directly to human experience.

Shema Yisrael  ― is perhaps the most famous of all Jewish sayings.

The first, pivotal, words of the Shema are:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה אֱלֹקינוּ ה אֶחָד

Shema Yisrael HaShem Elokeinu Hashem Echad

Hear, O Israel, HaShem is Our G-d, HaShem is the sole one.

There are two larger-print letters in the first sentence (ay ע in שְׁמַע and daled  ד in אֶחָד) which, when combined, spell "עד" “eyd”. In Hebrew this means "witness". The idea thus conveyed is that through the recitation or proclamation of the Shema one is a living witness testifying to the truth of its message. Modern Kabbalistic schools, namely that of the Ari, teach that when one recites the last letter of the word "'echad'" (אֶחָד), meaning "one", he or she is to intend that he is ready to "die into HaShem".

In 1945, Rabbi Eliezer Silver was sent to Europe to help reclaim Jewish children who had been hidden during the Holocaust with non-Jewish families. How was he able to discover the Jewish children? He would go to gatherings of children and loudly proclaim Shema Yisrael ― "Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One" Then he would look at the faces of the children for those with tears in their eyes ― those children whose distant memory of being Jewish was their mothers putting them to bed each night and saying the Shema with them.

The Shema is a declaration of faith, a pledge of allegiance to One G-d. It is said upon arising in the morning and upon going to sleep at night. It is said when praising G-d and when beseeching Him. It is the first prayer that a Jewish child is taught to say. It is the last words a Jew says prior to death.

The Talmud says that when Jacob was about to reveal the end of days to his children, he was concerned that one of them might be a non-believer. His sons reassured him immediately and cried out, "Shema Yisrael.".

We recite the Shema when preparing to read the Torah on Sabbaths and festivals. And we recite the Shema at the end of the holiest day of Yom Kippur when we reach the level of angels.1

The words of the Shema have intrigued and excited many learned men of blessed memory.  Here are a few tasters:

The L-rd is one (vi:4)

G-d ... is one, and His unity is unlike any other unity in existence. He is not "one" as in "one species" which includes many individuals. Nor is He "one" as in "one body" which includes various parts and dimensions. Rather, [His is] a unity the likes of which there is no other unity in the world.2

You shall love the L-rd your G-d... (vi:5)

The Maggid of Mezeritch expounded on this verse, and asked: how can there be a commandment to love? Love is a feeling of the heart; one that has the feeling loves. What can a person do if, G-d forbid, love is not embedded in his heart? How can the Torah instruct "you shall love" as if it were a matter of choice?

But the commandment actually lies in the previous verse, "Hear O Israel..." The Hebrew word shema ("hear") also means "comprehend." The Torah is commanding a person to study, comprehend, and reflect upon the oneness of G-d. Because it is the nature of the mind to rule the heart, such contemplation will inevitably lead to a love of G-d. If one contemplates deeply and yet is still not excited with a love of G-d, this is only because he has not sufficiently refined and purified himself of the things which stifle his capacity to sense and relate to the Divine. Aside from this, such contemplation by the mind will always result in a feeling of love.3

In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi employs the metaphor of light to explain what is perhaps the most radical truth expressed by the Torah: the inexistence of the universe.   Twice in the 4th chapter of Devarim (verses 35 and 39 respectively), the Torah makes this amazing statement: “You were shown to know that the L-rd is G-d, there is none else beside Him.  Know today, and take unto your heart, that the L-rd is G-d, in the heavens above and the earth below, there is none else.”

The ever-sensible mind, confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, may perhaps interpret these verses to mean that there are no gods other than HaShem. I, the mind will insist, the body I occupy, the table it is sitting at, and the computer screen it is looking at, certainly exist. These verses, then, are only affirming the basic tenet of Judaism -- that there is but a single, singular creator and ruler of the universe.

Not so, say the Kabbalists and the Chassidic masters: "there is none else" means that there is none else. Indeed, they explain, to maintain that there are existences other than G-d is, ultimately, the same as maintaining that there are other "gods" beside Him. What real difference is there between saying that the universe is governed by thousands of gods, or by a god of good and an equally potent god of evil, or by a very powerful god who (almost) always triumphs over a much weaker Satan, or by a great and mighty god who pervades every iota of existence save for a single cubic centimeter of space? Ultimately, one is saying that there is more than one independently potent force in existence. To say that there is a god with the power to create and destroy universes, punish the wicked and reward the righteous, cause galaxies to spin and crops to grow, but that there also exists a single pebble with a power independent of His -- be it only the power to exist - is to deny His exclusive divinity and power.

So when the Jew daily declares, "Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one," this is more than an affirmation that there is but one deity. It is a statement on the inexistence of all else save His one being.

The sedra also is the source of the laws relating to the mezuzah and to tefillin. 

You shall write them upon the doorposts of your house, and on your gates (vi:9)

The doorway is a sort of "no man's land" between the home and the street, an area where these two realms overlap and interact with each other.

Two mitzvot are connected with the doorway: the mezuzah and the Chanukah lights. The mezuzah points inward, while the Chanukah lights are oriented outward. The mezuzah serves to safeguard the home and define it as a sanctum of holiness and Divine presence; the function of the Chanukah lights is to illuminate the street, to disseminate their message to places still untouched by the warmth and light of the Jewish home.

Perhaps, if this warmth and light could spread to other nations, there would be no war, no riots, no poverty or starvation – but we will have to wait for the Mosiach to come before this will come to pass.

…and “finally”, as Rabbi Grunwald used to say; 

There is so much more – portions of this Sedra are echoed in our daily prayers, in our services and even in the Pesach Hagaddah.  I could keep you here all day, but even ere, I can hear your tummies rumble, so I wish you “Shabbat Shalom”.

Interesting post-script re mezuzah:

On the reverse side[1][1] of the mezuzah scroll is the Hebrew name of HaShem, Shaddai - שדי. This name is an acronym for

ישראל שומר דלת Guardian of the Doors of Israel. Additionally, there are often three words at the bottom of the backside of the scroll: כוזו במוכסז כוזו. These mysterious words, transliterated as: Kozo bemuskaz Kozo. These three words are an altered form of the phrase "HaShem Elokeinu HaShem", which means "G-d, our Lord, G-d". It is actually a form of Gematria (אב׳גד) where each letter is "raised" to the next letter. Thus, an Alef becomes a Bet, and a Bet becomes Gimel, and so on. Here, the letters for HaShem's name and vav, become caf, vav, zayin, vav (cuzu); and the letters for Elokeynu become bet, mem, vav, caf, samach, zayin (bmucsz). Rabbi Moshe Isserlis quotes the Hagahot Maimoni as the source for this custom. It is only a custom and a mezuzah without these words is still valid.


Specific sources:

  1. Rabbi Shraga Simmons (of Aish)
  2. Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah (1:7)
  3. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch


General sources:

Chumas – Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (The Judaica Press)

What’s Bothering Rashi (Devarim) – Avigdor Bonchek (Feldheim Publishers)



Benson Hersch



More documents on this Parshah: