August 19th: Va’et’chanan
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
There is a difference between facts and meaningfulness. There is a difference between understanding something intellectually and incorporating it into one’s spirit.
We find this distinction in a curious Mishnah dealing with the Shema. In Berachot 2.1, we read: “If someone is reading the verses of the Shema in the Torah and the time comes to recite the Shema, if one directs the heart, the obligation has been fulfilled; otherwise, the obligation has not been fulfilled.”
What we know as the Shema is a composite of three passages: Deuteronomy 6.4-9, Deuteronomy 11.13-21, and Numbers 15.37-41. The first Deuteronomy passage is in this week’s Torah portion: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One. And 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. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
The Mishnaic question is rather rarified since the vast majority of the Torah is not the Shema—and, since this would only be a question if it were time to say the Shema. Nonetheless, it highlights the difference between intellectual apperception and spiritual practice. Does one have to mean a text in order for its recitation to be counted as praying? According to the Mishna: Yes.
Lots of people know the first line of the Shema, and many know that it is attached to—actually part of—the Ve’ahav’ta/Thou Shalt Love. They may know that this section is not identified as The Shema anywhere in the Torah—that this prayer book unit was brought together and entitled by the Rabbis (200 BCE – 200 CE). It was during this Rabbinic Period that the mitzvah was created in which the Shema should be recited upon arising and when going to bed every day.
All these facts are good to know, but they do not get us to the heart of the matter religiously. The Shema mitzvah that the Rabbis crafted was not just for an intellectual reminder. God’s Oneness is an important fact and component of Jewish though. And, this intellectual point may be helpful to remember—especially since the cosmos seems to be filled with a multiplicity of forces. The Jewish insight that everything in the cosmos is part of a grand unity may seem counterintuitive and thus it is important to be reminded of this regularly. However, this is not the mitzvah.
The mitzvah is that we make these Biblical passage prayers and pray them. The mitzvah of saying the Shema involves connecting with the Unity in a prayerful way—as part of a relationship.
This idea of having and developing a relationship with the Holy One is part of the discussion in another famous section in this week’s Torah portion: the second presentation of the Ten Commandments. As with the Shema, our reading of this passage (Deuteronomy 5.6-18) is very much influenced by commentators and Biblical interpreters. What I mean to say is that neither original (not Exodus nor Deuteronomy) is called The Ten Commandments in the Torah text. The title and even the number ten were given many centuries after the Revelation.
There’s more: when it came to divvying up the section, different pious commentators separated the sentences into separate commandments at different points. For example, Christians count two commandments in the “Thou shalt not covet” section, while Jews count all the coveting together. There is also the question of exactly which verses comprise Commandment Number One is. Some say the first commandment is: “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” while others say that this is just an identifying prologue. The question then becomes: Is “You shall have no other gods beside Me” a continuation of the first commandment OR the beginning of the no idolatry commandment? Or, could it be the second commandment?
It is a pretty pedantic issue when one remembers that God gave the commandments without worrying about numeration. But, when one is trying to make an artistic representation of the Ten Commandments, it is helpful to know where to put the numbers. And, it can get confusing when Christians refer to the Fifth Commandment—thinking “Thou shall not murder,” while we know that the fifth is “Honor your father and your mother.” May this be the worst interreligious misunderstanding we ever experience!
The more significant question, however, is whether or not the “First Commandment” is a commandment at all. If you consider the entire text of commandment Number One as: “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” what exactly is the command?
The absence of a command leads some to say that “You shall have no other gods besides Me” is the actual commandment, and they see Commandment Number One as a prohibition of polytheism and Commandment Number Two as a prohibition of idolatry. Idols are wrong even if we only have one, and it is of the One God!
This is not a bad answer. In fact, sometimes, it is the one I prefer. However, another answer can be very instructive. If the first commandment simply states, “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” the commandment is that we recognize and have a relationship with God. It is an emotional action, a psychological action, a spiritual action, as opposed to physical nature of most other commandments.
My lesson, then, is that, in both of these monumentally important texts from our Tradition, we are instructed to engage in a relationship with God. It is what is supposed to happen when we pray the Shema. It is supposed to be the way we regard the Ten Commandments. The Holy One of Blessing is accessible to us and has guidance for us. Making this holy connection is something we really ought to do.