Friday, August 12, 2022

Chaviva on the Parashat Ve'etchanan: Aliyah, Changing the Law, Prayer, and more

Many moons ago, I sat down and studied the weekly Torah portion (parashah). I started this when I was living in Washington D.C. right after college. I'd finish my shift at the Washington Post, head to a coffee shop in Dupont Circle, and dig into the portion to figure out "What's bothering Chavi?"

It's been a long time since I had the mental or physical space to do this. Being a full-time working parent means my week is filled with living on other people's timelines and managing other people's problems and needs. Now that we're living in Israel, I have Fridays off (for the most part), which means I'm trying to reclaim Friday mornings as my own. 

Sometimes, that will mean heading into Jerusalem to the shuk and sometimes, that will mean staying local and bumming it at an Aroma. Sometimes I'll drive around looking for plaques to understand what occurred in the lands around me and sometimes that will mean going to museums, and sometimes that will mean reading the weekly Torah portion to try and reclaim a me of a bygone era ... a me who learned voraciously. 

This week, it means the latter. This week's Torah portion is chock full of so many thought-provoking verses, but I'm going to try and stick to a few that sing to me at this moment. 

Devarim 4:1 Possessing the Land of Israel

וְעַתָּ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל שְׁמַ֤ע אֶל־הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְאֶל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָֽנֹכִ֛י מְלַמֵּ֥ד אֶתְכֶ֖ם לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת לְמַ֣עַן תִּֽחְי֗וּ וּבָאתֶם֙ וִֽירִשְׁתֶּ֣ם אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר יְהֹוָ֛ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י אֲבֹתֵיכֶ֖ם נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם׃ 

Now therefore hearken, O Yisra᾽el, 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 (Devarim 4:1).

Here I am, living in Israel, re-fulfilling a dream I had a decade ago. This life is, without a doubt, filled with struggles and challenges and incomprehensible stumbling blocks. And yet, I'm also fulfilling what the Ramban considers one of the 613 commandments.

There is a positive, biblical commandment to dwell in Eretz Yisrael, as it says, "You shall possess it and dwell in it" (Devarim 17:14, 26:1). (Sefer Chareidim, Mitzvot Asei HaTeluyot B'Eretz Israel, chap. I, sec 15.) 

Chazal (חז"ל acronym for Chachameinu Zichronam Livracha, or “Our sages, may their memory be blessed”) say that the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel is equal to all the mitzvot of the Torah (Sifrei, Re'eh 28). 

I suppose, then, that it makes sense that it's so hard. If one mitzvah can be equal to all the mitzvot, then surely there must be challenges and feats to overcome. Imagine taking 613 steps versus taking just one. Imagine answering a test with 613 questions versus just one. 

(The truth is that the Land of Israel is easy. It's the State of Israel that is the challenge.)

The sun rises over Neve Shamir in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

Devarim 4:2 Waiting for Revelation, Not Change

 לֹ֣א תֹסִ֗פוּ עַל־הַדָּבָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א תִגְרְע֖וּ מִמֶּ֑נּוּ לִשְׁמֹ֗ר אֶת־מִצְוֺת֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶֽם׃ 

You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you (Devarim 4:2).

When I was in graduate school at the University of Connecticut-Storrs, I had a fantastic mentor and teacher named Stuart Miller. He was an Orthodox Jew who was also a professor, striking a challenging balance between "this is what I believe" and "this is what the facts tell me." And he was so good and managing that balance without the friction so many academics suffer while knowing what the historical and cultural record says and what the Torah says. 

This week's parashah is V'etchanan in which the pasuk (verse) above says the laws of the Torah are set in stone and must remain as they are literally written, period, full stop. The challenge here, obviously, is that time changes people, technology advances, and the world has become a different place. 

So how do we reconcile and balance the seemingly archaic and outdated laws of Torah with the way we live our modern lives?

What I learned from Professor Miller was that we cannot change the law if we are living Torah-observant lives. 

The Torah doesn't bend to us; we bend to the Torah. Over time, aspects of the law are revealed to us and re-revealed to the point where we can apply Torah to our daily lives in this modern world. The Torah doesn't have to change; we have to look harder and understand better. 

This is where the gedolim ha'dor (the big rabbis or thinkers of each generation) play a vital role. They see how the law applies to modern situations and advise accordingly. It's why there are Shabbat elevators and Shabbat lamps and why we can use timers and hot plates and other things that rabbis of generations gone by would have scoffed at, surely. 

Instead of saying "We live in a new world, the laws of the Torah don't fit with this modern world," we say, "How do these laws apply in our modern world?" 

Obviously, not all streams of Judaism or all flavors of Jews hold by this. In the Liberal world, much of the law has become optional and in the Orthodox world, some groups have taken the law and changed it to be more oppressive and hateful. Neither are what this pasuk says.  

Devarim 4:7 Waiting for Answers That Never Come

כִּ֚י מִי־ג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל אֲשֶׁר־ל֥וֹ אֱלֹהִ֖ים קְרֹבִ֣ים אֵלָ֑יו כַּיהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֔ינוּ בְּכׇל־קׇרְאֵ֖נוּ אֵלָֽיו׃ 

For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the LORD our God whenever we call upon Him (Devarim 4:7)?

When I was a little kid, I used to pray every night. I'd beg Gd to help me love myself more, for people to like me more, to not feel so sad, to not feel so alone, to be thinner, to be smarter, to be different, to be better. I never asked Gd for things. I was never the type of kid who'd say "I promise I'll be good for the next week if you convince my parents to buy me x, y, z. I was the type of kid who'd say "I promise I'll be good forever if you promise to convince more people to like me."

I was a depressed and sad kid. I was fat and unhappy and my journals from childhood are incredibly upsetting to read. Even as I continue to struggle with so many of these same issues today, I wish I had been kinder to myself. I was just a kid!

The hardest part of those prayers and being that kid was that I was never answered. Gd never responded to me. At least, that's what I thought and felt. There was no booming voice from the sky saying I was going to be okay or asking me to do something different to make my asks come true. As a kid who knew the stories of Gd talking to the prophets and Moshe, I thought maybe, just maybe, I'd hear an answer. 

At some point over the past 10 years, I learned that we always get answers to our prayers; they're just not the answer format we expect, need, or want. They don't come in the timeline we demand either. I spent my childhood asking for self-love and it wasn't until I was a fully grown adult human woman that I started understanding what it means to love myself.  It took until I was in my late 30s to learn that starving myself wasn't the way to happiness and health. I'm still working on it, and not doing a super-great job all the time, but I'm working on it.

So this pasuk (verse): Is Gd close whenever we call upon Him? Does he answer when we call upon Him? The truth is the verse says that He's close, but not that he answers. What does "close" mean? It means that HaShem neither slumbers nor sleeps and is always available to hear our prayers, our cries, our requests. 

The beautiful thing about Judaism is that the revelation at Mount Sinai/Horeb happened before all the Israelites. Everyone saw and experienced those moments. It wasn't a private revelation to one person. It wasn't a setup that said you have to rely on a specific person or persons as a channel to Gd. In Judaism, we all have access. Constant access. Because HaShem is close at all times and, as this pasuk says, aren't we lucky? 

And, indeed, in this parashah, the next several verses talk about that moment when HaShem appeared before the people and what they saw and experienced to serve as a reminder of this very fact. 

What did you see in this week's Torah portion? Do you have any thoughts about anything in this post? Share with me in the comments! 

And if you're curious what my TaNaKh of choice is, it's the Koren's Magerman Edition. I love all of the extra goodies in the back, the easy tabs, the two bookmarks to keep tabs on the weekly Torah portion and the haftarah, and more. Get yours here!