Vaetchanan 5768 – The Mitzvot and Israel

1020266_img This D’var Torah was delivered at Moreshet Yisrael in Jerusalem on August 16, 2008

Moses was one of the most selfless men who ever lived. Throughout his life he thought of others, not of himself. When God told him he was needed to help his long lost Jewish brethren, he set out on a journey to help. Once there he exposed himself to great personal danger, exhorting Pharaoh on behalf of his fellow Jews.

But when it came to exhorting, the one Moses exhorted the most was God, almost always on behalf of someone else. In Numbers 11, when the people were waiting to receive the Torah, we are told “And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord; and the Lord heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed those who were in the outlying parts of the camp. And the people cried to Moses; and when Moses prayed to the Lord, the fire was quenched.” Again in Numbers 21 we are told that when God brought the people out of Egypt the people complained “why have you brought us out into the wilderness to die?” God got so tired of the complaining that he sent forth venomous serpents among the people. The Torah tells us Moses prayed, and God told him what to do to stop the snake outbreak.

When our ancestors performed the greatest sin of all – worshiping an idol, the Golden Calf – and God was ready to wipe them all out and start over, creating a new nation from just Moses, Moses spoke out for his brethren once again: “And Moses returned to the Lord, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold.  Yet now, if you will, forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I beg you, from your book which you have written.”

And what I find one of the most poignant and moving prayers anywhere is the one Moses offered when his sister Miriam was stricken with tza’ra’at: א-ל נא רפא נא לה , “please God, heal her.”

All of those actions and words on behalf of other people. All of which makes Moses’s prayer in this week’s Torah reading, Vaetchanan, quite remarkable. It’s the only time in the Torah that instead of praying for other people, Moses asks for something for himself. The only time. And what does Moses ask for?

 אֶעְבְּרָה-נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה וְהַלְּבָנן:

“Please God, let me cross over and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, the goodly mountain and the Lebanon!” Rashi explains that “the goodly mountain” is Jerusalem, and the Lebanon is the Temple.

The only thing that Moses ever asked for for himself was to be allowed to enter the land of Israel. To be given the opportunity to make aliyah.

The Midrash says that Moses wanted this so badly that he prayed 515 times for it – the numerical value of “va’etchanan,” the name of, and the opening word of, this week’s Torah reading, in gematria. It means “I entreated.”

Why such intensity of prayer for entry to the land of Israel? Ibn Ezra (Spain 12th c.) says the main message of this section of the Torah is to teach us how precious the land of Israel is to the Jewish people. We can ask “is it possible that Moses would pray for something just for himself? Highly unlikely; rather, Moses’s prayer comes to emphasize the depth of his loss (that he could not enter Israel), and thereby cause the land of Israel to be even more precious to the people—so that as a result the people will not sin, and they won’t lose the land as Moses himself lost the land.”

A few verses after we read of Moses’s plea to enter the land, the connection between observing the commandments and meriting the land is made explicit: 

וְעַתָּה יִשְרָאֵל שְׁמַע אֶל-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶל-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר אָנכִי מְלַמֵּד אֶתְכֶם לַעֲשוֹת לְמַעַן תִּחְיוּ וּבָאתֶם וִירִשְׁתֶּם אֶת-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְי אֱ-להֵי אֲבתֵיכֶם נתֵן לָכֶם:

Now therefore give heed, O Israel, to the statutes and to the judgments, which I teach you, to do them, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord God of your fathers gives you.

This week’s Torah reading also contains the most famous statement of the statutes that God commanded the Jewish people – the Ten Commandments.

God also tells us that if we obey these commandments, the nations of the world will be very impressed. The Torah says “Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who, when they shall hear all these statutes, shall say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

But what is it that will impress the nations of the world? If we are particular about having an especially nice lulav at Sukkot, will the nations be impressed? If we insist on glatt Kosher instead of regular kosher, will the nations be impressed? I don’t think so. The rules of the Torah that will impress the neighbors are the rules requiring us to act ethically, morally, and generously. If we can live by laws like “love your neighbor as yourself,” “there shall be one law for the citizen and the stranger alike,” and “do not withhold your hand from your needy brother,” that will impress the neighbors.

Unfortunately, the nations of the world are not so impressed with our nation these days.  They may be impressed with our economic and technological achievements and with the strength of our military, but they are not so impressed with how we follow our ethical and moral teachings. For the first 20 years of so of Israel’s existence we were the underdog defending ourselves against the neighborhood bullies. Things changed after 1967 – in the eyes of the world, the 40-year occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza have moved us from scrappy underdog to bully.

But is world opinion the thing that really matters? After all, isn’t there still a lot of anti-Semitism in the world?

A few years ago my colleague and teacher Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Los Angeles gave a remarkable talk relating to Israel and world opinion. He said “Koffi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations put it succinctly: "Is it possible," he asked, "that Israel is right and the whole world is wrong?"” Rabbi Feinstein’s answer:  “You bet your life it is. You bet your life, because we’ve bet our lives. It is true now and it always has been.”

In this week’s Haftorah, the prophet Isaiah says “the nations are but a drop in a bucket, reckoned as dust on a balance.”

So if it’s not the nations we have to please to merit living in th
e land, who is it?


And what does God want of us? The truth is, it’s not enough to simply follow the explicit rules of the Torah. 800 years ago the great rabbi Nachmanides said it is possible for someone to be naval b’reshut haTorah, a scoundrel within the boundaries of the Torah. You can follow all of the rules of the Torah, and still not be a very nice person.

So what’s the standard? What are we to do? Again, the Torah provides the answer:

 וְעָשִיתָ הַיָּשָׁר וְהַטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵי ה לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וּבָאתָ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַטּבָה אֲשֶׁר-נִשְׁבַּע ה לַאֲבתֶיךָ:

“And you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord; so that it may be well with you, and that you may go in and possess the good land which the Lord swore to your fathers.”

Do what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord – that’s how we merit possessing this amazing country, Israel.

This week is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of comfort. The first Shabbat after Tisha b’Av. Having had the three weeks of rebuke, leading to the day when we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, we have now turned the corner, and instead of beating ourselves up and reading haftorot filled with rebuke, we take comfort and read a haftorah filled with prophecies of our redemption, filled with hope, filled with a promise that God has not forgotten us, and what’s more he’s far more powerful than all the nations of the world put together.

For nearly 2,000 years of exile from this land, words of comfort were all our ancestors had to go by. The Jews were homeless, state-less. The days of being an independent nation secure in our land was but a memory – a powerful memory, with daily reminders, but still, just a memory.

Today, thank God, the need for the words of comfort are somewhat less.

Jeremiah said lo yeshama b’aray yehuda, uv’chutzot yerushalayeem, kol sasson, v’kol simcha, kol chatan v’kol kalah, “Never again will Judah or Jerusalem hear the sounds of joy and the voices of gladness, the song of the bride and grooms.” But the pessimistic prophet was wrong. We are here – living in Jerusalem – and once again we can hear rejoicing, we can hear the song of the bride and groom in the streets.

But our joy sometimes feels a little tenuous. Israel is probably the only country in the world that is so preoccupied with asking itself “will we still be here 60 years from now?” India and Burma also gained independence from Britain about 60 years ago, yet their people don’t fret over their continued existence.

We need to remember the gold standard, the real measure, what we need to do to merit to continue to live here: to do what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord.

The fact that we are here at all is miraculous and a cause for celebration. Yet our cup is half-full, because we are surrounded by threats from without and threats from within. I suggest the threats from within are a greater danger than the threats from without.

Corruption among our political leaders is rampant. I’ve lost count of how many investigations have been launched against Olmert, although a prime minister under investigation is nothing new here. We have former presidents and ministers caught up in sex scandals. If the charges are true, it’s scandalous. If the charges are not true, it’s also scandalous that innocent men are being hounded and prosecuted. Either way—whether the people are guilty, or being hounded—we as a people are not acting in accordance with “what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord.”

As Jerusalem becomes increasingly charedi, secular Jews feel chased out, unwelcome. Is that really what God wants us to do?

Rabbinical politics retroactively invalidates the conversions of thousands of observant Jews committed to God and Torah. Is that right and good in the eyes of the Lord?

Settlers viciously attack Palestinians peaceably working their fields – people who worship the same God we do, our cousins, the descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael – is that right and good in the eyes of the Lord?

Settlers attack Jewish policemen coming to bring order and prevent harm to other people – is that right and good in the eyes of the Lord?

If we are to achieve true peace in this land – if we are to see the day when Tisha b’Av becomes a day of feasting, not a day of fasting – we, all of us, collectively and individually, must strive to do what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord.

But how are we to know what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord? The days of prophecy are over, we don’t claim that God speaks directly to us any more. We have to sort out competing claims for what God wants.

The great rabbi Hillel gives us good guidance. There is a wonderful story in the Talmud about a prospective convert who wanted Hillel to tell him the Torah “while standing on one foot.” Hillel told him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary; now go study the commentary.”

What do we mean by neighbor? There are those who would say it applies only to my literal neighbor, the guy next door; those who might say it’s just my particular flavor of Judaism, my sect or denomination; there are those who might say only Jews. But that would be missing the point of the story of Adam and Eve – we are all related, we are all God’s children, and I’m sure God wants nothing more than for all of us to get along and treat each other nicely.

If we can treat others – all others – with respect and love, following our ethical and moral teachings, and commit ourselves to Torah, we will be doing what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord. We will merit continuing to live in this land for countless generations.

And the nations of the land will say “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”


Shabbat Shalom



Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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