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Va’etchanan contains two of the most well-known passages in the whole of the Torah – the first paragraph of the Shema and the repetition of the Ten Commandments. It also contains admonitions to the children of Israel to keep the commandments which God had given them.

Another voice

Va'etchanan by Marcus J Freed :: 5768

Marcus J Freed is a performer, writer and Bibliyogi. He presented the Bibliyoga® Lovefest sequences at Limmudfest 2008.

The Torah reading is about a relationship. Va’etchanan means "and he pleaded" as Moses attempts to strengthen the Jewish people’s connection with God. We review the events of Mount Sinai and reinforce the prohibitions of even looking at other deities; this is monogamous monotheism and God won’t tolerate another bedfellow.

How is this relationship going to work? "Shema"(Deuteronomy 6:4, is the answer, we are told. Listen. It is as simple as that. "Be silent and know God" (Psalms 37:7), wrote King David. "God is not something we see, but a voice we hear" (Covenant and Conversation, 5th August 2006) says Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. We have two ears and one mouth and we are to use them in that proportion. We also have two eyes, but these can be limiting. Loving God with "all our heart" (Deuteronomy 6:5) is essential, and Ramban says that the heart is mentioned because it represents the power of desire which we are encouraged to overcome. Similarly, when it comes to the commandment about not coveting, the first category is your neighbour's wife. Ramban explains that the woman-next-door is mentioned because she could be the first point of temptation, at least to men, whose "imagination is evil from [their] youth, with respect to women more than anything else" (Ramban on Deuteronomy 4:17).

Many relationships break down due to infidelity, and the Torah has no shortage of devices to keep us faithful. The act of binding tefillin upon one's arms are a physical metaphor, and as we wind the leather straps around our fingers we say "I will bethrothe you to me forever" (Hosea 2:21). This is a wedding between us and the Shechina, the feminine presence of God, and we renew our vows on a daily basis. True romance.

But here's the problem. If the relationship described in this portion is one based on listening, then what happens when we read it on the 15th day of the month of Av? Tu B'Av was the day when young women wore white clothes and danced in the fields so that the eligible men could take their pick. Surely it was the ultimate in superficial actions? It brings to mind the remarkable poetry of Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock:

Say, why are Beauties prais'd and honour'd most,

The wise Man's Passion, and the vain Man's Toast?

Why deck'd with all that Land and Sea afford,

Why Angels call'd, and Angel-like ador'd?

…How vain are all these Glories, all our Pains,

Unless good Sense preserve what Beauty gains:

Good looks are deceitful, beauty is fleeting – we've heard it all before (and regularly sung it). Which is exactly why the dancing girls of Israel gave some crucial advice. They began by saying "Young [men], lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself," but concluded with "do not set your eyes on beauty, set your eyes on family" (Mishnah, Taanit 4:8). Don’t be seduced by a pair of stunning blue eyes, or by the lure of another nation's God. Know what’s really important and remember that sometimes beauty is only skin deep.


More by Marcus J Freed

Another voice by Helen Lyons

The Shema is pronounced during Moses second discourse after he repeats the Ten Commandments. It has always been considered the most important Jewish Prayer but in fact it is a quotation.

We are being told that there is only one G-d and we are being commanded to love G-d. I have often wondered how you can be commanded to love anyone and I have been looking this up. How can we make ourselves love G-d. It means that we should be thinking about Him at all times, when we are eating so that we keep our bodies healthy in order to serve G-d. Looking at the flowers, trees, grass, listening to music we appreciate the world that G-d created.

We are to teach our children these words and we are to think about these words – the Oneness of G-d at all times – in our homes, in the street, when we get up in the morning and when we go to bed at night. Additional props to help us remember are when we wear Tefillin and by putting a Mezzuzah on every room in the home except the bathroom.

If we do nothing more than just recite the Shema every day and say the words with meaning, we are showing our belief in the one and only G-d.


More by Helen Lyons

Other Divrei Torah on Va'etchanan

  • 5766 (Miriam Berger)
  • 5766 (Julien Gilbey)
  • 5767 (Colin Bulka)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Deborah Masel Miller)
  • 5769 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5770 (Ilan Goldman)
  • 5770 (Carolyn Bogush)
  • 5771 (Shoshana Bloom)
  • 5772 (Larry Tabick)
  • 5773 (Maureen Kendler)
  • 5773 (Toby Greene)
  • 5774 (Zvi Solomons)
  • 5774 (Linda Nathanson-Lippitt)