A D’var Torah for Parashat Va’ethanan
By Rabbi David Markus
It’s fitting that the “Jewish greatest hits” of Parashat Va’ethanan come immediately after Tisha b’Av.
After our spiritual calendar’s lowest day, Torah promises that anyone who seeks God with whole heart and soul will find God exactly where we are – even in exile (Deut. 4:27-29). We stand again to hear the sacred utterances we call the Ten Commandments, recalling that together we stood at Sinai (Deut. 5:6-18). We receive the Shema of unity and the V’ahavta of a love that far transcends place – both “dwelling in [our] home and walking on [our] way” (Deut. 6:4-9).
Notice how the three Va’ethanan dimensions of content, place and time commingle spiritually.
The content is core Jewish theology. It’s our full-hearted search for God amidst a promise of real sacred encounter. (Heschel’s God in Search of Man, anyone?) It’s God pouring Self into Word becoming Law shaping Life. It’s a creed of unity to infuse the world with love and ethical living – a creed for which countless have lived, struggled and died.
The place is en route, unsettled, somewhere between where we were and where we’re going, nostalgic and anticipatory all at once. The Deuteronomic plot brings these words on the “other side of the Jordan, in the desert of Aravah” (Deut. 1:1) – in the proverbial middle of nowhere. There we were, wandering a vast wasteland, trudging sandblind toward a Land of Promise we’d never seen but, we heard, awaited us with milk and honey.
The time is now – a palpable radical life-changing now. Va’ethanan shifts from three chapters of Moses recounting what happened “then” to a sudden “and now” (Deut. 4:1). All of “then” was a lead-up. In Torah’s plot, the whole point of “then” (40 years wandering) was to prepare for this “now” nearing the Land of Promise, recalling the Ten Commandments, invoking unity and love.
As for “them” “then,” so for “us” “now.” Our palpable radical life-changing “now” is just after the breaking and exile we call Tisha b’Av. Whether our Tisha b’Av is more historical (destructions and ejections) or more internal (spiritual wall-busting before the High Holy Days), tradition puts these words in our Torah cycle at this most poignant and raw “now.” It’s “now” that we are en route and unsettled, in a vastness somewhere between where we were and where we’re going.
The Ten Commandments, Shema and V’ahavta – refracted through textual lenses of place and time – take on especially poignant meaning. These words come precisely for the unanchored and raw, for the sandblind weary wanderer. In that place and time, because of that place and time, finally we could become ready to receive these words and live them.
Put another way, a deep essence of the Ten Commandments, Shema and V’ahavta is that these words are precisely for the faint of heart. We are to live these words exactly from those places inside us – and precisely for those places out in the world – that are most unsettled, vulnerable, raw, broken and exiled. We are to live them not only from our stability and comfort, in safety and ease, but also precisely the opposite.
If so, then life’s difficulties magnetize these words, like a koan, as if to say, “Live these words exactly where they are most challenging.” Living that way, we refine our souls. Living that way, we aim our most loving and ethical behaviors at people and places that most need them. Living that way, we can transform the world.
This understanding might be different from how we learned these “Jewish greatest hits” – and from how many modern communities invoke them. The Shema and V’ahavta can be liturgical, musical and meditative – but do they also galvanize all parts of us? We can receive them as comfort, but do we also receive them as orders however inconvenient? Do they send us racing to douse a burning building? How about a burning relationship? How about a burning planet?
When our settled sense of comfort and ease inhibit us from a full-hearted “yes,” then we miss the point. After all, the point of these words is not settled comfort and ease, but the opposite. We received these words as wanderers, literally hot and bothered, when nothing was safe. We are to live these eternal words now with equal courage and resolve.
To be sure, comfort has its place. After the breaking and exile comes the reassurance that God comes with us. Where Moses spoke the words of Va’ethanan – ”on the other side of the Jordan, in the desert of Aravah” – might be the same place of Haftarah’s words of comfort: “Comfort! Comfort, My people – says your God.… The way in the Aravah will be made straight, as a highway for God. Every valley will be lifted, every hill and mount made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain – and all flesh will see together the glory of God” (Isaiah 40:1, 3-5).
That place is this place; that “now” is this “now.” These words rouse us to seek God anew, in exile and yet with full hearts – not because it’s safe, but because the search is more important than safety. We do so not where life’s terrain is even, but precisely where it’s not. Living that way, we ourselves can become vehicles for Isaiah’s prophecy of comfort and transformation.
The exiles of history, and the exiles of spirit, remind that we received Judaism’s keystone ideas in exile – at the time and place that might most prepare us to live by them. Teach them that way to the children, the congregations, the students, and the students of their students. Speak them that way in your home and en route. Live them that way, in exile, in every in-between place that is most unsettled, the places that are unsafe and hot.
Do that with a full heart and we’re sure to find God journeying with us every step of the way. Let that be our comfort, our cause and our covenant.
Rabbi David Evan Markus (AJR Adjunct Faculty – Rabbinics) is rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY) and Founding Builder of Bayit: Your Jewish Home, a spiritual innovation start-up for all ages and stages. Rabbi Markus also serves as Faculty in Spiritual Direction and past Board Co-Chair for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. By day, Rabbi Markus presides as Judicial Referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, as part of a parallel career in government service.