|My father, Bernard Wolfman|
Va-etḥannan seems like an appropriate parashah for recalling my father. I won’t suggest that he was a modern-day Moses, but my father was called teacher by many. His role as an educator—professionally and as a parent—was a tremendous source of satisfaction for him and a great benefit to all of us on the receiving end. Just as Moses is facing the end of his life by recounting to the Israelites the substance and meaning of the exceptional journey they have lived together and its implications for their future, as my father neared the end of his life he reflected on our family. There was one remarkable night when I sat by him and he narrated to me the emotional histories of each of his children, clarifying for me how closely he had paid attention throughout our lives and bequeathing to me his insights and the opportunity to build from them even in his absence.
One legacy my father left with all of us was his uncompromising commitment to social justice. This quite simply was woven into our family story—not only in what he told us, but in what we saw every day in how he lived and worked. Social justice also runs through the fabric of Moses’s narrative in Va-etḥannan.
From the opening, Moses essentially is saying “I won’t be there with you, much as I want and pleaded. So hear me because my words, and all we have seen together, are all I can give you; and what you take from them are what you can take with you.”
After recounting that he had not been worthy to live to enter the land, he nonetheless is prepared to provide the instructions that—if followed—will ensure the Israelites are worthy to do so. His personal story is instructive. As Moshe Rabbeinu, he teaches even through his frailties by demonstrating what not to do. And then he declares that this responsibility to serve as a model for others extends to all of Israel. “Observe them faithfully,” he says of the laws, “for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples.” (ch 4:vs 6)
This brings to mind the Aleinu, which says first that we bow down and then—from our example—that all the world’s inhabitants will know to do so.
Just after this, (ch 4:vs8), the theme of social justice is emerging. “What great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day?” Moses asks. But the notes in Etz Hayyim point out that the Hebrew says tzadekim, which better translates as “just” than “perfect.” So the message really is that the laws and teaching are uniquely just.
Interwoven with this is a theme of seeing, hearing and remembering. There is great emphasis on truly seeing and hearing, so one can learn, so these just laws are seared into memory and guide how one functions in the world—and into future generations. “Do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes…so that they do not fade from your mind,” he exhorts, adding, “And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” He recalls that God said to him at Mount Horeb, “Gather the people to Me that I may let them hear My words, in order that they may learn…and may so teach their children.”
Moses goes on to exquisitely evoke revelation as a mystically visual and concretely hearing experience. “The mountain was ablaze with flames.” “[Y]ou heard the sound of words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice.”
Continuing with the themes of seeing and hearing, the injunction against sculptured images of God characterizes idols as precisely the opposite of God’s appearance at Mount Horeb—they are concrete to see, and nothing to hear. And they themselves “cannot see or hear or eat or smell.” (ch.4: vs.35-37) He goes on, “It has clearly been demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is God; there is none beside him. From the heavens He let you hear His voice to discipline you; on earth he let you see His great fire; and from amidst that fire you heard His words. And because he loved your fathers, He chose their heirs after them….” Again: hearing, seeing, and passing to future generations.
After this extraordinary justification for following the laws, and before giving them, we have a seemingly incongruous moment of social justice: (ch.4: vs.41-43) “Then Moses set aside three cities on the east side of the Jordan to which a manslayer could escape, one who unwittingly slew a fellow man without having been hostile to him in the past; he could flee to one of these cities and live.” This comes from the narrative voice, not Moses’s, and the reason for its appearance here is a little unclear. Maybe it’s a bit of unfinished business, and Moses worries that – once he delivers the laws—it will be time for him to die. So perhaps he believes that this is his last chance to create this protection for those who may accidentally commit manslaughter in the chaos that could ensue as they enter and battle for the land.
Whatever the reason for it to appear here, I find it compelling that the theme of social justice enters so strongly, just as we are about to enter the Decalogue. The ten commandments, as we know, move from laws about our relationship with God to those about our relationship with each other. We might therefore expect that social justice would enter into those later commandments. But in fact they start earlier.
The laws that address our relationship with God are punctuated with exhortations for social justice among people. “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.”—this may dictate how we invoke God, but it also forbids us from sworn false accusations against each other. And the requirement to observe Shabbat also addresses treatment of slaves, equality between men and women, and fair treatment of animals. Embedded in our relationship with God is an expectation of social justice.
Once we exit the Decalogue, the focus on hearing and seeing returns, again with the visual on the mystical and even overwhelmingly frightening end of the spectrum, with “the mountain…ablaze with fire,” and the aural at the firmly human end, with Moses as the intermediary through which the Israelites will hear “the laws and the rules.” Hearing, as a theme, reaches its apex with the words of the shema (ch6:vs4), succinctly charting the path from hearing to conviction to behavior and to teaching future generations. “Shema Yisrael Adonai elohenu, Adonau ehad…” “Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai alone. You shall love Adonai with all our 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.”
Now, it gets complicated.
As we enter and take possession of the land and its many assets, we must do so with the humility of recognizing that we developed none of them. Such humility can be a key element of effectively pursuing social justice. We must “take heed that [we] do not forget the Lord who freed [us] from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,” a reminder that often is coupled with specific social justice obligations, such as our responsibilities to strangers. And we are to “do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord,” another line that might lead us to a mindset of righteousness.
But instead, we are told to destroy the nations in the land without mercy, and that we must do so because we are God’s “treasured people”—chosen, despite being a small band, on the strength of an oath God made to our ancestors.
As I said, it’s complicated.
But today I’m taking from this parashah the elements that foster clarity. Truly hearing in a manner that brings understanding. The majesty of what we see in the world and how it manifests our experience of God, or spirituality, or mysticism—however we define it. The imperative of social justice for living in community. And the urgency of teaching the next generation. Moses shows us all, and my father certainly demonstrated to me, that these are brought into particularly sharp focus when we close in on the end of life.
I wish for all of us—wherever we are in the course of our lives— that we hear, that we see, that we learn, that we teach, that we foster social justice in all we do, and that we help ensure the same for the generations that follow us.