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Parashat VaEthanan

August 10, 2011

By Cantor Marcia Lane

In this second parashah in the book of Deuteronomy Moses continues his long death-bed peroration to the Israelite people. He reiterates the division of the land to the tribes, restates (with minor differences) the Aseret HaDibrot  “ commonly called the Ten Commandments  “ and states the most primary faith-statement of Judaism, the Shema. Here, in one neat package, is the legal and emotional basis for Jewish thought and practice. Creed and deed, paired in the same parashah.

In the Torah portion, Moshe tells the people of the dangers of worshipping anything other than God.  œFor your own sake, be very careful  “ since you saw no shape when Adonai, your God spoke to you in fire at Horeb  “ not to make for yourself a sculpted image. ¦  (Deut. 4:15-16). And this is such a potent theme for Moshe that he says again,  œTake care not to forget the covenant Adonai your God made with you, and not to make for yourselves a sculptured image ¦.  (Deut. 4:23) And yet again:  œ ¦ if you act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculpted image  ¦  (Deut. 4:25) These exact words, pesel temunat kol,  œa sculpture of any thing,  are repeated three times.

The punishment for this ultimate sin, is expulsion from the land. It is the ultimate rejection:  œI call heaven and earth to witness this day that you shall soon perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess  ¦. Adonai will scatter you among the nations  ¦ and there you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone  ¦  (Deut. 4:26-28). In other words, if you make idols, then you will serve idols, and not in this special land. Moshe tells the Israelites that they have the clearest evidence that God is God:  œYou have but to inquire about bygone ages  ¦ has anything this grand ever happened? Has its like ever been known? Has any people heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived?  (Deut. 4:32-33, NJPS translation). That is, ask around! Everyone knows that this happened. It s a matter of public record!

In our prayers we say the words of the Shema and its accompanying paragraph, known as V Ahavta twice a day, evening and morning. And the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, used to be part of our morning prayer ritual. But there are two other verses from this parashah that we recite as part of our weekly prayer services.  œKnow, therefore, today and keep it in your mind that Adonai is God in the heavens above and on the earth below; there is no other  (Deut. 4:39). While the prayer Alenu is not a required part of our prayers, it has acquired the weight of custom and expectation, and is recited three times a day, at the conclusion of each of the daily worship services. More often than the Shema or the Ten Commandments, this one verse is repeated by Jews all over the world every day (albeit in silence, as it is part of the final paragraph of Alenu).

While  œHear, oh Israel, Adonai is your God, Adonai alone  is a powerful expression  “ so powerful that we cover our eyes and focus our hearts on the words  “ we must believe the words we say, to know that God is God. The knowing is the part that we need to repeat three times a day in Alenu. It doesn t matter that we  “ or our ancestors  “ saw with our own eyes. It doesn t matter that the public record accepts it as fact that these miracles happened. What matters is that we know it.

Another other verse from our parashah is heard whenever there is a Torah reading as part of the service. Moshe tells the people that those who turn aside and worship idols have been destroyed, but  œYou, who cling to Adonai your God, are alive to this very day  (Deut. 4:4). By clinging to God and rejecting idols or the rituals of other peoples, by following the laws and statues that are set out for us in the Aseret HaDibrot  “ in short, when we turn our faith in God into appropriate action, then we are promised long life and continued presence in the land that God has promised to the Israelites as an inheritance. It s not enough to recite that God is the only God. It s not enough to follow the code of behavior that is set out in the Ten Commandments. We need both knowing and doing to be complete human beings.


Hazzan Marcia Lane is a rabbinical student at AJR.