Va-Ethanan: The Road to Service of Gd

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Punishment Comes, Although We Can Hope It Does Not

Late in the parsha, 7;9, the Torah says Gd pays His enemies to their faces, to destroy them. Onkelos adds tavan di inun avdin, the good they have done, before destroying them. For evildoers, reward comes in this world, because Gd never fails to give all deserved reward.

It contrasts with the beginning of the parsha, 3;23-24, where Moshe prays to have his punishment suspended, to be allowed into Israel. Rashi thinks the conquest of Sihon and Og gave him a bit of a reason to hope Gd was letting him into the Land, and reminded him of the sin of the Golden Calf, where Gd had initiated the pleas that would help the Jewish people not suffer the immediate consequences of their wrong. Moshe hoped here, too, there was a way.

Ramban focused more why Moshe told all this to the Jewish people. He sees it as part of Moshe listing the damage the previous generation had created, denying themselves and Moshe the right to enter Israel. It warns the current generation to tread carefully, to do better.

Ways to Gd’s Service: Remembering Sinai

Key to doing better is retaining their memory of events at Sinai, as 4;9 warns them against forgetting, according to Ramban one of the 613 commandments. Moshe stresses the entire people had seen the Giving of the Torah, to give the Torah itself a permanent place as the most authoritative source guiding Jewish life. Later prophets would also have messages from Gd, but the Giving of the Torah to the whole nation meant no later prophecy could override it, because these words we all saw and heard coming directly from Gd.

Although Ramban previously said Moshe made sure to recap all of this because he was one of the few surviving eyewitnesses, he also thinks from then on there is a mitzvah to teach each new generation our belief Gd gave the Torah directly. When Moshe says he is teaching them Torah and mitzvot so the people will achieve fear or awe of Gd, 6;2, and tells the Jews ve-shinantam le-vanecha, they are obligated to educate their children, 6;7, it is because knowledge of Torah and observance of mitzvot, with the memory of Sinai, are what fuel and form the needed connection with Gd.

Sinai and Future Prophecy

Although Sinai set limits on what a future prophet could teach, the people are supposed to be ready for such prophets. Some mitzvot are called edot, 6;17, according to Ramban because they remind us of miracles Gd performed for us in the past, as a way to tell us we need to obey Gd’s commands whether we understand them or not.

It shows why it is wrong to test Gd, as 6;16 warns against. While the Torah sets up a method to check a prophet truly bears Gd’s word, once verified, the people are not supposed to challenge or test him (as they did with Moshe, such as at Merivah). Our observance of edot should remind us to act similarly with other prophets, verify, then trust, as we do when taught the edot, the permanent reminder of Gd’s involvement in Jewish history.

Shabbat as Proof

During the revelation at Sinai, Gd commanded Sabbath observance, seemingly to remember the Exodus. While Rambam took it literally, Ramban did not. He thought Shabbat commemorated Creation; the Exodus demonstrated Gd’s awareness of events on earth, unlimited ability to intervene in the world, and concern with the course of history.

For Ramban, Moshe’s calls for proper continued service of Gd start with faith issues, the revelation at Sinai, prophets and their messages, and the role of Egypt in asserting a view of Gd’s role in the world.

Beyond Faith

Faith has more practical ramifications for Ramban, too. Moshe’s call, 6;18, to do ha-yashar ve-hatov, right and good, tells Jews to perform mitzvot out of a desire to do that which Gd sees as right and good. Beyond that, he quotes a Midrash that says it means lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, beyond the letter of the law.

He attributes it to law’s inability to cover all circumstances, so the Torah generalizes, puts in a command to do whatever is right and good, regardless of the law specifically obligating it. Ramban’s service of Gd, as far as Va-Ethanan teaches, starts with faith issues and moves to observances including but not limited to those specifically set by halachah.

Oaths as the Marker

After saying Jews should fear and serve Gd, 6;13 adds that we should swear in Gd’s Name. Ramban thinks a first implication is a prohibition against swearing with any other standard of truth. Only Gd’s Name can be binding enough on a Jew for it to be the marker of an unbreakable commitment.

Midrash Tanhuma thinks the verse also sees the oath-taking as the culmination of achieving the previous qualities mentioned, proper fear and service of Gd. To have the right to initiate an oath with Gd’s Name, a Jew should have achieved those standards of faith and behavior, to Ramban’s mind a matter of dedicating oneself to service of Gd, study of Torah, observance of mitzvot, with no other allegiances.

For Ramban, the oath culminates a Jew’s developing fear and service of Gd, becoming more committed, to the point the Jew has earned the right to claim Gd as verifier his/her promise will be fulfilled.

Rashi’s Way to Gd’s Proper Service: Torah Study and Proper Attitude

Rashi turns our attention to Torah study as a central driver of maintaining our service of Gd. When Moshe warns about guarding and observing the Torah, 4;6, Rashi takes observance in the ordinary way, but “guarding” comes from study, and 4;9 says to be careful not to forget what we learned, the memory being what will qualify us as wise, forgetting as foolish.

For Rashi, 6;6, the essential identifier of a person’s love of Gd is remembering the Torah, making it the focus of one’s speech and conversation.

Not just the bare fact of Torah study, however. When the Jewish people asked Moshe to speak to them, 5;24, Rashi thinks Moshe objected to their disinterest in being as close as possible to Gd. Had they had greater love of Gd, they would have worked harder to hear directly from Gd.

The verse that commands love of Gd, 6;5, tells Rashi we must be ready to serve Gd in hard times as well as easy ones, and the love must override what would otherwise be our greatest commitments, for some of us physical life, for some of us our monetary fortunes.

The endeavor requires humility. Rashi quotes a Midrash that Moshe’s reminder Gd did not choose us because we were greater than other nations as a lesson in attitude, 7;7. Jews should not puff themselves up when Gd gives them goodness, because they descend from greats who denied their greatness, such as Avraham, Moshe and Aharon, where non-Jewish kings readily sing their own praises.

Relationships with Non-Jews

I have left for last the other possibility the Torah entertains, the Jewish people will fail to cultivate their service of Gd, incur exile, to a place where the Torah threatens va-avadtem sham elohim ma’aseh yedei adam, seemingly that we will worship gods made by people, 4;28. Onkelos seems to have been unable to believe Gd would ever doom us to idolatry and writes instead u-tefalehun taman le-amemaya palhei ta’avta, you will serve there nations who worship idols.

Rashi accepts the idea, adding that being in a position of servitude to such people counts as if we ourselves are worshipping the idols. [Rashi does not explain; I think he means, along the lines of Yehezkel 36, that when Gd’s nation is in exile and servitude, it makes it seem, Gd forbid, as if the gods these other nations worship are the more powerful gods. Although we do not think of them as idolatry in the same way, the millennia of exile among Xians and Moslems were taken by adherents of those religions as proof of their greater correctness. In that sense, Jews were “as if” supporting those forms of religion.]

Don’t Like Them, Don’t See Anything Attractive About Them

The Torah makes a similar point later in the parsha, 7;2, when it warns the Jews to remove the Canaanites from the land, not to make a covenant with them, ve-lo tehanem, give them no quarter (Sefaria). Onkelos writes lo teraham alehon, do not have rahamim for them, a word I take as do not act parentally towards them, giving them opportunities to improve and become better. We might be tempted to allow them to stay, thinking they will learn from us, and are being told not to, we must get rid of them.

Whether it means that or the more conventional translation of having compassion or mercy, Onkelos reads the Torah to prohibit a broader range of emotions towards them. More than not making a pact or giving them certain rights, we are not supposed to have any positive feelings. Rashi takes it a step further, we should not find any beauty in their religion or its appurtenances.

The road to service of Gd has an awareness of reward and punishment, focuses on faith, absorbing true and correct ideas about Gd as we put Gd at the center of our lives, grow to be people worthy of making Gd marker of truth, for Ramban. For Rashi, the endeavor involved Torah study, the loving enthusiasm to wish to become closer, and humility about one’s status and accomplishments.

For everyone, it also required a full awareness of the dangers of other nations, how failure to serve Gd properly could lead to the temporary ascendancy of those who support contrary forms of worship, making us look bad for having allowed it to happen. 

About Gidon Rothstein

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