Parashat Va’et-hannan
Shabbat Nahamu
July 30 – August 5, 2017 • 13 Av 5777
Annual (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11): Etz Hayim p. 1005-1031; Hertz p. 755-776
Triennial (Deuteronomy 3:23-5:17): Etz Hayim p. 1005-1021; Hertz p. 755-768
Haftarah (Isaiah 40:1-26): Etz Hayim p. 1032-1036; Hertz p. 776-779


Zechariah vs. Deuteronomy: Is God One?
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is Av Bet Din of the Masorti Bet Din of Eretz Yisrael. He lives in Jerusalem.

What does the prophet Zechariah have against “Shema Yisrael”?

The most famous line in the Torah appears in our parasha. It is the first verse we are to teach to our toddlers and the last we are to recite on our deathbeds: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” Or: “…the LORD is one.” (Deut. 6:4; the JPS translation offers both options).

Either way, the point is the uniqueness of the God identified in our tradition by a particular name, YHWH. No other entity is really a god, says Deuteronomy. Nothing else deserves to be worshipped, no matter what other nations might call a “god.”

That unique status leads us, in Western languages, to write “God” with a capital “G,” as though that word too were a name. If there is only one, why not write “God” instead of “god”?

Fast forward a few centuries from the Deuteronomist to the post-exilic prophet Zechariah. His prophetic speeches offer not only a critique of Judean society in his time but also a vision of an ideal future. Foretelling impending cataclysm, Zechariah’s prophecies adumbrate the apocalypse literature that became popular in the post-biblical era.

In the last chapter of the book of Zechariah, which shul-goers will recognize as the Haftarah for the Shabbat of Sukkot, we find a vision of “earth-shaking events lead[ing] to the establishment of Jerusalem as the center of the world and the place from which the LORD reigns over all” (Ehud Ben Zvi in The Jewish Study Bible). The chapter’s initial section of 9 verses ends in this: “And the LORD shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one LORD with one name.” (A more wooden rendition: “… on that day the LORD shall be one/unique and His name one/unique.”)

We all know that verse as the end of the Aleinu prayer that is the coda for all Jewish prayer, the finale (before kaddish) of each required service of the day. What does it mean, and what is it doing at the apex of our liturgy? And how can we conclude on such a discordant note? After all, isn’t Zechariah challenging the veracity of our claim in the Shema that our God is the only god?

The late Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism whose imprint is still felt on Jewish life in North America, liked to say that “king” as a metaphor for God is a relational noun: to be a king, one has to be king over a realm or over people. So it is with the term “god,” Zechariah is telling us. As seen from a human perspective, as long as some recognize other entities, going by other names, as gods, the LORD is not God but at best just “a god.”

Zechariah envisions humankind united in the recognition that there is but one God. It is to that day that Aleinu directs our hope, a day when all inhabitants of the earth finally recognize our common ancestry, our common humanity, the need for us to be one cooperative family rather than a contentious assembly of warring tribes. On that day peace will reign and what the Deuteronomist describes in principle will finally be observed in practice: one God will be worshipped, and all the names by which that God is called will be one.

A Vort for Parashat Va’et-hannan
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, Coordinator, Torah Sparks

Moses tells the people that “I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying” (b’et ha’hi lemor3:23).  At what time?  R’ Israel Salanter (Lithuania, 19th, founder of the Musar Movement) said a person should not put off prayer or study, “I’m too busy; I’m not in the mood, etc.”  “B’et ha’hi” – at this time, here and now, it is already (and always) an appropriate time for prayer.   R’ Yakov David Kalish (1814-1878, founder of the Amshinov Hasidic dynasty) said davka that Moses intention was for the future, for times of trouble for the Jewish people, when it will be difficult for them to pray b’kavana, in earnest.  He prayed that at such times, that God accept the pain in their hearts or the words of their lips as prayer.

Table Talk
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty

In this Parasha Moshe begins his epic speech about the Mitzvot, which we will follow for many Parashot to come.  Moshe will deliver commandments; some new and some renewed, as well as speak about them in general.  Let’s pay attention to his perspectives on Mitzvot here, and what might be the reason.

1) Despite having been told that he will not enter the land of Israel, Moshe pleads again with God.  According to 3:25, what is it that Moshe is asking for?  Is 3:28 an answer to Moshe’s request?  Why does this need to come into the discussion of Moshe crossing the Jordan (even if Moshe did not bring up this point)?

2) In recounting the event at Horeb, which we might call ‘receiving the Torah’, Moshe explains the significance of participating in that event (4:9-10).  What were we supposed to learn from the event, and what would we do with that knowledge?  Do you think that goal was achieved? (You can look at Joshua 24:31, and the rest of Jewish history.)

3) Moshe repeats, more or less, the covenant from Horeb/Sinai (a.k.a the 10 commandments). The prohibition to covet and crave what belongs to others (5:17) is somewhat expanded in our text (compared with Shmot 20:13).  What was added? Why do you think that this was added here?  How can the Torah place a commandment on our feelings?

4) The first part of the Shema is found in this 6:4-9.  In addition to the commandment to teach our children, 2 more Mitzvot are told towards the end of this section (6:8-9).  What are they? Why do you think that these specific Mitzvot are mentioned in a section that is so significant to the Jewish identity?

5) A danger lurks when God will bring the people into the land (6:10-15).  What is the reality that they are coming into? What dangers are presented in v.12 and v.14?  Why do you think that the people might go in that direction rather than feeling grateful to Him?