Va'etchanan - Shabbat Nachamu

justiceFoundations of Justice (5773/2013)

Parshat Va’etchanan includes a review of the “Ten Commandments,” the spiritual charter the Israelites received at Mount Sinai. Placed here as a preface to the Deuteronomic law code, several of the commandments highlight social and personal foundations of justice.

Commandment 9: Do not bear false witness. From the Torah’s perspective, bearing witness truthfully is the entire foundation of the justice system. If people lie in court, it undermines the entire society. Torah itself says, “If it is found out that you commit perjury during a trial, and your perjury has led to a false conviction, then whatever penalty was imposed on the convicted will be your punishment.” And because Torah also says, “Distance yourself from a lie,” it’s not enough just to avoid lies in court – a person is also ethically required to avoid misleading statements.

Commandment 10.  Do not covet your neighbor’s house… Some people say this is the most important commandment of all, because it tells us to work on our inner lives, and to refine our emotional reactions. This is the work that makes it possible for us to keep commandments 5-9, about honoring parents, avoiding murder, theft, adultery and false witness. Some people point out that the Ten Commandments actually begin and end with a teaching about our inner lives in order to express a developmental perspective: Be aware of God’s presence; act appropriately, even if at first it’s out of fear of punishment; through that, develop a conscience; and, over time, learn to regulate your emotions so that you simply become the sort of person who acts ethically without much inner struggle.

May the teachings we receive from parents, elders, and peers make it easy for us to fulfill Torah’s ideals.


May God Comfort You (5772/2012)

Jewish tradition recommends that we greet mourners with these words:

HaMakom yinachem etchem b’toch aveilei Tzion v’Yerushalayim.

May the Omnipresent comfort you among other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

The words appear in the Friday night prayer service, right after the hymn L’cha Dodi promises that hope will rise out of the ashes of Jerusalem.

I have never liked this greeting. Surely it made sense before the establishment of the State of Israel. But today, Jerusalem is no longer fallen. Though it is contested territory, it is also the capital city of a lively nation, and a spiritual and intellectual centre of Judaism.

Are Jews really still mourning the death of Jerusalem? Shouldn’t we instead be praying for peace in living Jerusalem? What kind of a greeting is this, anyway: “May God comfort you, together with others who should by now be getting over their grief”???

Mom passed away on Tisha B’Av, 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, the annual remembrance of the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. On Tisha B’Av, even political optimists try to imagine the devastation that took place 2500 years ago. Jewish tradition also assigns the date of 9 Av to other historical catastrophes, inviting us to understand ancient history by analogy to more recent events. Emotionally and intellectually, we each enter the analogy at different points, but together we can grasp a sense of grief.

Only the youngest, most innocent child in the safest possible place has never experienced loss. All the rest of us are marked with scars that need healing. Each of us remembers and re-enters grief from time to time. Now I do understand the mourner’s greeting: May God comfort all those in need of healing.


A Prayer for All Stages (5767/2007)

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad — Listen Israel! The Ineffable is our God, the Ineffable is One. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:4)

James Fowler speaks of six possible stages in the development of a person’s religious faith.  In stage one, a child encounters religion as magical and larger than life.  In stage two, one learns the literal stories and teachings of a religious tradition.  In stage three, one enjoys religious community.  In stage four, one begins to question.  In stage five, a person answers their own questions through symbolic reinterpretation of traditional stories.  In stage six, a person understands religious ethics and core teachings universally.

The Shema prayer offers teaching to seekers at almost every stage.  Those who are learning stories in stage two will recognize the Shemaas a core teaching from our prophet Moshe.  For those enjoying community in stage three, the Shema calls together the community of Yisrael– Israelites – in the name of the Divine.  For the questioners in stage four, it calls to Yisrael– translated literally as “God-wrestlers” – to ponder religious teachings.  For the symbolic interpreters in stage five, it invites multiple interpretations of “God” and “One.”  To the universalists in stage six, it teaches that all human representations of God ultimately refer to the Holy One.

No wonder the Shema is the most famous mantra in Jewish prayer!  It’s a gift of words that keeps on giving.


ONE (5766/2006)

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad — Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One (Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:4)

What does the Torah mean when it says that God is “One”?  Does it mean that God is like the number one: the first Being to exist in our multifaceted universe?  Or does it mean that there is only one God, singular and unique, different from any other being in our experience?  Or that there is only one real Being in the universe, whose energy manifests in all creation, and that Being is the One we call God?

Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (writing in 1869) argued that, according to Torah, there is only one real Being.  To prove this, he used gematriya, the numerical value assigned to each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  The Hebrew word echad, one,is composed of three letters: aleph, chet,and dalet.Dalet has a gematriyaof 4, symbolizing the four corners of the earth.  Chet has a gematriya of 8, symbolizing the seven heavens plus the one earth.  Aleph has a gematriya of 1, symbolizing the One God who is in the heavens and on the earth.  When the Torah says that God is echad, One, it teaches that the earth is part of the larger universe, and the universe is part of God.

Thus, there is only one real Being, whose energy manifests in matter and spirit, in physical and intellectual encounters, in the heavens and on the earth.


How to be Godly – A Teaching from the Ba’al Shem Tov (5765/2005)

You, O God, have begun to show Your servant Your greatness (Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:24).  Moshe was God’s faithful servant, the greatest of the prophets, the recipient of the Torah from God. Yet after 120 years of the most Godly life ever lived, Moshe sees himself as only having begun in his relationship with God!

And from there you will seek God your God, and you will find Him (Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:29). The Torah stresses that when you seek God from there, from your place of exile “among the nations,” you will find God. For God is to be found everywhere, and every corner of creation can serve as the vehicle to reach God. If divine providence has dispatched you to a certain place and life, your surest path to God is from there.

And you shall bind them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as tefillin between your eyes (Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:8). God’s tefillin, the people of Israel, also consist of a hand-tefillin and head-tefillin. There are the head-Jews, the scholars and thinkers, and the hand-Jews, the doers. Both are precious to our Parent in Heaven, both are integral to the role of God’s “one nation in the earth.” But when God ties the divine tefillin to reaffirm God’s bond with God’s people, God gives precedence to the “simple” deed, cherishing it above all else.

Adapted from

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