Jonathan's Little Corner : Torah : Divrei Torah : Parshat Va'etchanan

Parashat Va'etchanan, 5760

Shalom Zachar of Eiden Shaul Yisrael son of Jonathan and Helen (Maryles) Shenkman

If you had to pick a parsha for a brit or shalom zachar, you could hardly pick a better one than Vaetchanan. The entire theme of the parsha is mesorah, transmission of tradition, Torah, power, from one generation to the next.  As Rabbi Richard Wolpoe has been known to say (approximately), Judaism stands and falls on the concept of Mesorah, tradition.  This parsha delineates how and why.

{Much of my thinking about the nature of mesorah has been based on talks with R' Rich Wolpoe and correspondence with the members of the Avodah email list.}

For one thing, Moshe recounts how he is not allowed to enter Israel, therefore he has transmitted his authority to Joshua, who will continue in his stead.

3:27 Go up to the top of Pisgah, and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and behold it with your eyes; for you shall not go over this Jordan.
3:28 But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him; for he shall go over at the head of this people, and he shall put them in possession of the land which you shall see.'
More important, though, are the many mentions of transmission of tradition to one's children and one's children's children.


4:10 how on the day that you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, the LORD said to me, 'Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children so.'
sets the tone for the whole theme of transmitting the tradition down through the generations. How is it to be tranmitted? As many ways as possible. The parsha talks about three different teaching methods: mimetic, textual, and experiential.

In the Commandment about the Sabbath, God says,

6:14 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.
This is mimetic training. Not only are you, the free adults who are responsible for your own actions, and who have been trained up for this since childhood, responsible for keeping the Sabbath, but you are also supposed to make those who are in your care keep the Shabbat as well. The Mechilta on the parallel version in Exodus explains that the "son and daughter" here are your *minor* children. People who need to learn to keep the Shabbat as adults. How are they to learn? By doing: You shall keep the Shabbat, you, and your [minor] son and daughter - you will train them by getting them used to observing along with you. The same goes for [Canaanite] slaves, and converts - they were not raised to this, but they need to learn it and keep it, so they must learn by doing as well (also from Mechilta).

What needs to be transmitted?

6:1 These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess,
2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the LORD your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life.
4:44 This is the law Moses set before the Israelites. 45 These are the testimonies, decrees and laws Moses gave them when they came out of Egypt
The content of the Torah is the laws, the halacha, in all its categories: testimonies, rituals which bear witness to things God has done, such as the Sabbath as a memorial for Creation, and Pesach as a testimony of the Exodus; decrees (chuqim): arbitrary rules that we fulfill just because God said so, such as the laws of sacrifices and of mixing diverse kinds of animals and plants; and laws (mishpatim): rules necessary to govern civilized society, such as might have been constructed by any law code.

This is textual learning, specific legal content. One can't always learn by doing, but one needs to know what to do in situations one has not yet encountered: this necessitates textual learning. The explicit transmission of law is textual of necessity, be the texts orally learned or written down. R' Haym Soloveitchik in his article "Rupture and Reconstruction" talks about the decline of the value of mimetic training in favor of textual training in this century. We see from this parsha that both styles are necessary.

How is the learning cemented in place?

6:20 In the future, when your son asks you, "What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?"
21 tell him: "We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.
22 Before our eyes the LORD sent miraculous signs and wonders--great and terrible--upon Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household.
23 But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land that he promised on oath to our forefathers.
24 The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today.
25 And if we are careful to obey all this law before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness."
By experiencing the past, by becoming one with all the past generations who all experienced the life of Torah, one engages in the chain of tradition. Not only were *they* brought out of Egypt to observe the Torah & mitzvot, to go up to Israel, with miracles, but WE were brought up ourselves. Not only were THEY, the previous generation, brought out of Egypt miraculously, seeing the miracles, but YOU the children of Israel standing here TODAY at the plains of Moav saw that as well, and by extension all of your descendents.  By participating in the unbroken chain of tradition, one becomes PART of the group experience. The Torah that was given during the Exodus, in which WE participate, becomes ingrained in US, through interaction between parent and child, through experiencing the Exodus, experiencing the rituals of the year and experiencing the process of transmission.

* * *

What content must be transmitted?

This parasha gives us the entirety of that which must be given over from one generation to the next, in miniature. We read of the fundamentals of Jewish faith and philosophy, of the bases and categorizations of law, of the definition of Jewish society and its relationship with God and with history.

We are taught to love God in the Shma, the most basic statement of Jewish faith and adherence to the God-idea, with daily and everpresent binding of the Word of God to us, physically (through tefillin and mezuzah), intellectually (through Torah study both day and night), and emotionally (through declaring God's existence and unity twice daily):

6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.
7 Repeat them on your children and talk about them: when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
8 Tie them as a sign on your hands and they shall be totafot (head-tefillin) on your foreheads.
9 Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates
We are also taught the converse: to fear God, although according to the chasidim, both are aspects of love of God: love from fear and plain love:
6:13 Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.
Call it fear, call it love from fear, it comes from knowing that God has the power to reward and punish people for their actions.

But what does one do with this love and fear? One observes the mitzvot, the Divine commands, the negative ones out of fear of punishment, the positive ones out of love of God and faith in the rewards He will grant us. All the mitzvot are represented here, as categories (6:1 and 4:44) quoted above), and again, as a summary of the Law He demands that we observe, in the Ten Statements. It has often been said that all 613 mitzvot are encoded in the Ten Statements at Sinai.

The entire scope of future Jewish history is laid out here as well. The descendents of the Jews standing here in the plains of Moav will certainly stray, and worship idols, and God will be angry with them, and will toss them out of the Land. Then they will do teshuvah, repent, and ask to return, and God being merciful as well as just, will listen to them and redeem them from their captivity. It has happened before, and it will happen again (speedily in our time):

4:23 Be careful not to forget the covenant of the LORD your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the LORD your God has forbidden.
24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
25 After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time--if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God and provoking him to anger,
26 I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you this day that you will quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will not live there long but will certainly be destroyed.
27 The LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the LORD will drive you.
28 There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell.
29 But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.
30 When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the LORD your God and obey him.
31 For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath.
Why will God give us this history? Because of the uniqueness of His relationship with us. Has any other people been lifted whole out of another, experienced mass revelation, and been given a comprehensive law code by God Himself?

But this will only work if we keep ourselves an integral whole, if we do not intermarry (6:3-4). If we intermarry, then natural laziness will take over, and people will stop keeping the Torah, and will stop considering themselves part of the shared destiny of the Jewish people.

*     *     *

It has been said that the time to stop an intermarriage is 30 years before the person is born: with the raising and training of the person's parents. The whole message of this parsha brings this point home. If a person is raised in a Torah-conscious home, and is trained to know Torah intellectually, emotionally and behaviorally, one will marry in, and be able to pass the tradition on to another generation. From what I know of this family, that precation has been taken, more than adequately. This family is eminently qualified to continue its participation in the transmission of tradition to the child who will have his bris tomorrow.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe said, in a sicha published in 1995, that words of Torah learned in a house can be absorbed in the wood and stone of the walls, and leak back out on the inhabitants of the house, reinforcing the Jewish life taught in the home or the study hall. This is based on a Gemara in Taanit 11a, which speaks of this happening in the days of the final redemption, but the Rebbe sees this as a possibility in our own pre-redemption time, at least among tzadikim, from the Yerushalmi in Moed Katan 3:1 which talks about someone learning Torah from Rabbi Meir's staff after Rabbi Meir was dead.

Parshat Va'etchanan is the parsha of Jewish continuity.  May it be God's will that the Torah which is so evident in this family may not only be transmitted to the child directly, but will also be transmitted indirectly through the aftereffects of living the Torah life.

Shabbat shalom, and mazal tov.