Parshat VaEthanan is the 2nd in the Book of Deuteronomy continuing Moshe’s admonishment of Bnei Yisrael during the last days of his life. It begins with Moshe explaining how he pleaded with the Almighty for permission to enter the land of Canaan but was rebuffed. It contains the Decalogue, the 1st paragraph of Shema Yisrael and part of the Pesah Hagadah.
‘Almighty G-d, You’ve begun to show me the mighty works of Your hands, please let me cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan.’ And G-d replied, ‘Enough, don’t speak of it any longer.’
‘Behold, listen to the statutes and laws which I teach you in order that you live and merit inheriting the land. Neither add nor detract from them. Remember what your eyes witnessed against those who worshipped the idolatry of Ba’al Pe’or.’
Moshe reminded Bnei Yisrael that these laws will make them distinct among the peoples in Canaan who will be in awe of them. ‘For to what great nation has G-d come so close? And, to which nation has G-d given these commandments. Be steadfast not to forget what you saw with your eyes and experienced in your hearts; make it known to your children and grandchildren.’
He then reminded them of Horeb (Sinai) where they received the 10 Commandments from the Almighty. How they saw no physical image of G-d, nor should they in future designate any natural body – such as the sun or the moon – into a deity for worship.
‘Only you has G-d taken from the iron furnace of Egypt to be a people of inheritance. But G-d was angry with me for your sake and I was prevented from going with you … beware, not to forget the covenant G-d made with you.’
Moshe described the relationship of causality the people would have. ‘When successive generations are born and turn to idolatry angering G-d, I call Heaven & Earth as witnesses, you’ll be destroyed and chased out of the land.’
‘You’ll be scattered among the nations and will remain few in number. And when you again seek G-d with all your heart and soul, you’ll be returned; for G-d is merciful, not forgetting the promises made to your ancestors. Ask those who know history, has G-d ever spoken from within fire to any people and they lived, or has any nation been redeemed from within another through miracles and wonders as you’ve been.’
‘For that reason be sure to observe these laws G-d has given you, so that it goes well for you and your children, and in order for you to prolong your days in the land.’
Then Moshe designated 3 cities on the Transjordan side for the accidental murderer. One was Betser in Reuben’s land, Ramot in the Gilad of Gad and Golan in the Bashan area of Menashe. The Torah then lists the place, time and circumstances when Bnei Yisrael was given this charge.
Chapter 5 retold the Sinatic experience where the people heard G-d’s words and Moshe stood as intermediary. [The 10 Commandments are listed.] Moshe described his role. ‘You said to me, Go close and listen, then tell us all that G-d tells you and we will hear and do.’
‘Then G-d said ‘return to your tents’ asking me to stay to hear all the commandments, statutes and ordinances that you should do in the land of your inheritance. Observe what G-d has commanded you, neither veer left nor right; so that you may live and it will be good for you, and you’ll enjoy long years in the land.
In Chapter 6 Moshe elaborated on the intent of all the commands; to engender within Bnei Yisrael an immense love and fear of G-d. [Here the 1st paragraph of Shema Yisrael occurs.]
Moshe warned Bnei Yisrael to avoid other scenarios which could lead to their expulsion; suggesting what might happen when Bnei Yisrael captured towns and houses full of the spoils of its inhabitants. ‘Beware lest you forget G-d who took you out of Egypt … refrain from following the ways of the idolatry of the local inhabitants.’
VaEthanan concludes with words also appearing in the Pesah Hagadah. ‘And should future generations ask, what are these testimonies, laws and ordinances which G-d has given you … Tell them our ancestors were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and G-d took us out to bring us to this land … And it shall be righteousness for us when we observe these mitsvot.’
The parasha ends with a stark demand to break the altars of the local inhabitants and destroy their deities; warning against assimilation and inter-marriage. ‘Don’t marry them; neither give your daughters to their sons nor take their daughters for your sons, for they will lead you astray.’
‘For you are a holy nation, G-d has chosen you as a treasure from among the nations. Not because you were abundant in number, for you are the fewest. But because of G-d’s love for you and promise to your ancestors … For G-d is trustworthy in fulfilling covenants and mercy … unto a thousand generations.’
Comment: Parshat VaEthanan – is essentially about creating a loving relationship with the Almighty. Moshe has crafted together a series of vignettes to draw out the positives and the negatives. He contrasts a sense of pride within Bnei Yisrael – evident in their national mission and destiny with potential betrayal through idolatry.
VaEthanan is about the opportunity for our relationship with the Almighty, Creator of the Universe. But profoundly, and uniquely to monotheism, such a relationship can occur not only nationally but on a one-to-one basis.
For anyone blessed with teenagers, you’ll recognise in Moshe’s warnings a familiar scene. Raising one who inhabits ‘a house they didn’t build and enjoying the fruits of a vineyard they hadn’t planted … growing contemptuous and ungrateful’. This is a difficult immature stage that requires much patience, understanding and empathy, and one where love is more out of self-interest than sincerity.
A pre-requisite to mature love is to appreciate the other for whom they are – their struggles and successes, their weaknesses and strengths, their goodness, hopes and aspirations – not just for what they do that satisfies me. Perhaps it’s reading too much into Moshe’s intentions, but reflecting in hindsight his role as shepherd and leader of Am Yisrael, could his message also be that it’s time for Bnei Yisrael to take responsibility for themselves, since he won’t be with them much longer?
For a more complex understanding of the subtlety in Moshe’s speech, click here.