Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Parashat VaEtchanan 5776 - Listen

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat VaEtchanan

It is very difficult to reduce a religion into a series of terse statements, particularly when that religion is Judaism. Jews have been called the “People of the Book,” a term which was first intended as pejorative. Ironically, Jews have never considered this sobriquet to be an insult; if anything, their only question is, which book? The Torah? The Prophets? The Talmud? The Shulchan Aruch? Telling a Jew to choose only one book to take to the proverbial deserted island would cause deep angst: Which book would it be? This being so, the thought of summarizing Judaism, of reducing all of the ideas contained in all those books into one statement, seems impossible.

And yet, in Parashat VaEtchanan there are two serious contenders for the title of “The Jewish Credo,” two sections that are often considered the central statement of the Jewish religion. The first is a section known as the Ten Commandments, which were first recorded in the book of Shmot, in the account of the Revelation at Sinai, and are repeated by Moshe in this parashah for the benefit of the new, Israel-bound generation; the second is the Shma.

The Ten Commandments, a list of principles also known as the Decalogue, is comprised of ten statements that are, in essence, categories of Jewish law and legal philosophy. The second contender is probably as close as Judaism gets to a catechism: The Shma is a concise statement of the belief in one indivisible God, followed by a group of commandments that are a direct outgrowth of this belief.

What, we might well ask, is the relationship between these two monumental teachings? The easy answer is that the statement of Shma is remarkably similar to the first of the Ten Commandments. The similarity might even lead some to question the necessity for this seeming redundancy; after all, these statements appear in close proximity in the text. If we are to follow this line of reasoning, we might broaden the question, and ponder the necessity of repeating the Ten Commandments in the book of Devarim altogether, seeing that these same statements were already taught in the book of Shmot.

The Midrash makes a surprising statement which may provide an answer to these questions: As the Jews prepared for the great Revelation at Sinai, in anticipation of hearing God Himself speak, they declared: “Na’aseh v’nishma,” “We will do [whatever we are commanded], and we will hearken [to the word of God].” With this declaration, they accepted monotheism, they accepted God’s authority, and they committed themselves to obeying the laws they would be taught. As we know, this commitment was cast aside very shortly after it was undertaken: The people worshipped a calf that was formed out of their gold jewelry, in an act that is the antithesis of what they had committed “to do” -- “na’aseh - we will do.” This almost unimaginable breach of their commitment was also a direct violation of the first two commandments they had heard from the mouth of God Himself (as it were): “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt…Do not make a graven image…”

The Midrash delves deeper into this point, albeit in allegorical language: When the Jews declared “Na’aseh v’nishma,” two luminous spiritual crowns were placed on each of their heads, and when they made the golden calf, they forfeited the crown that symbolized na’aseh. At first glance this seems strange: By making the calf, they had disobeyed the word of God; they had failed to listen. Why, then, was the crown symbolizing na’aseh forfeited, and not the crown symbolizing nishma? Apparently, the midrash is responding to a very particular verb used over and over in the account of the sin of the golden calf: The text is loaded, even overloaded, with variations on the word “do” or “make” -- asu. By making the calf, the midrash intimates, the Israelites demonstrated retroactively that the commitment to accept the Torah had been less than sincere. The Ten Commandments were not simply ignored, they were actively rejected when the Jews made the golden calf.

The midrash then goes on to teach a sublime idea, and in the process illuminates the link between the Ten Commandments and the Shma:

What reason did Moshe have for teaching Shma Yisrael [“Hear, O Israel] at this particular point? The Rabbis say: It is like the case of a king who betrothed unto himself a noble lady [by giving her] two precious stones. When one of the [the stones] was lost, the king said to her: ‘You have lost one, take [good] care of the other.’ So, God betrothed Israel unto Himself with the words ‘Na’aseh v’nishma’ [We will do, and we will listen]. When they lost the ’We will do’ by making the golden calf, Moshe said to them: 'You have lost "We will do;" observe, then, "We will listen."’ This is the power of Shma Yisrael [‘Hear, O Israel’]. (Midrash Rabbah Ekev 3:10)

According to this teaching, Shma Yisrael is given to us in order to strengthen the second “crown,” the crown of nishma - “we will listen.” Having lost the crown of na’aseh, “we will do,” the relationship with God had to be strengthened. Interestingly, the midrash does not raise the possibility of addressing the transgression against na’aseh, of fixing the active role the people had taken in making a graven idol and worshipping it; presumably, that aspect of the sin was countered by the command to make a Mishkan, to use their creative, active capabilities in the service of God as a means of restoring their commitment to “we will do.” Instead, Moshe chooses to educate and inspire the people in order to preserve what is left of the special relationship they already have with God, the relationship based on nishma. Moshe stresses the idea of listening, of hearing, of remaining attuned to the voice of God, and teaches them the Shma – specifically in the shadow of the sin of the golden calf: “Listen! Hearken! Hear, O Israel! God is our master, God is One.” There are no other deities, no other powers outside of Him – not a calf, nor any other man-made manifestation of divinity. In order to maintain focus on this credo, we must continue to listen, to hear God’s voice, and to hearken to the content of God’s spoken words.

An important lesson may be distilled from this teaching – a lesson that is as applicable to our spiritual lives as it is to our personal lives: Sometimes, relationships can be derailed due to a misdeed of one of the parties. The natural, instinctual response is to make an immediate and concerted effort to repair the damaged area; steps to this end are logical and important. On the other hand, other aspects of the relationship - those that have always been strong, and remain undamaged - should be strengthened. The odds of saving any relationship are greatly increased when the two sides focus on the healthy, positive qualities of the relationship and reinforce their dedication to one another through these aspects. 

The Shma is the most popular Jewish prayer. It is recited each and every day, in the morning, evening and night; it is declared at every brit milah, as every newborn male enters into the faith community; it is recited by every Jew as he or she takes leave of this world. The sin of the golden calf had profound repercussions; so much was lost, so much was changed in our national story, but the Shma has enabled us, since the day Moshe taught it to our ancestors in the desert, to repair and heal our relationship with God – both on a personal level, and as a nation.

                                                             Echoes of Eden

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