In this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, Moshe continues to recount the major events of the last 40 years. The Torah is approaching its end. Moshe’s life is approaching its end. This Jewish year is approaching its end. And before all of those things happen, Moshe gets his swansong — he gets to give one very long speech on the banks of the Jordan. That’s what’s happening at this moment in our Torah reading cycle. This week, among other things, Moshe retells the giving of the Ten Commandments.
The giving of the Torah is framed as a covenant, a two-way agreement. Moshe reiterates that that covenant isn’t between our ancestors and God — it’s an eternal covenant between God and us, we who are living. The Ten Commandments begin, אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהֹוָ֣”ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ, “I am YHVH your God.” They start with a reminder that God is our God — and wow, there’s a question for the ages: what does it mean to say “my God”? How is my relationship with God my own? How is your relationship with God uniquely yours?
The whole verse is, “I am YHVH your God Who brought you out of constriction, out of the house of bondage.” (Deut. 5:6) The first commandment, Jewishly speaking, isn’t commanding us per se — it’s reminding us. God is our God — mine, and yours, and yours, and yours. “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Leah, God of Rachel,” as the amidah prayer says. Each of us has a relationship with the Holy. And each of us is brought out of constriction into freedom.
Maybe “the G-word” doesn’t speak to you. The Hebrew name YHVH seems to be a unique version of the verb to be, simultaneously implying Was and Is and Will Be, or we might say Being itself — or, better, Becoming. What does it mean to be in relationship with the force behind becoming, to find holiness in the reality of transformation and change? What does it mean to be in relationship with justice and with lovingkindness — two of the qualities our tradition says are manifest both in God and in us?
The teacher of my teachers, Reb Zalman z”l, used to quote R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev — “The God you don’t believe in, I might not believe in, either.” Reb Zalman would’ve wanted to shift the conversation away from theology — what we do or don’t believe about God — and instead toward when and how we experience something beyond ourselves. When and how do we experience justice or love or holiness or change? And do we let that experience shape our actions in the world?
In Deuteronomy 6:1, we read:
וְזֹ֣את הַמִּצְוָ֗ה הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֑ם
“This is the Instruction — the chukim and mishpatim — that your God YHVH has commanded [me] to impart to you…”
Chukim means engraved-commandments. Like the mitzvah of brit milah, which is literally inscribed on some of our bodies. Or the mitzvah of kashrut, Jewish dietary practice. Chukim are mitzvot that operate on levels beyond the rational. And mishpatim means justice-commandments, interpersonal and ethical mitzvot. In context here, this is a big lead-up to whatever Moshe is about to say next. Drumroll please! Whatever Moshe is about to say is core to our tradition, even more than the so-called Big Ten.
The Instruction — the Mitzvah in question — is a passage of Torah we call the Sh’ma and V’ahavta. It’s part of daily prayer. We recite it when we lie down and when we rise up; we teach it to our generations; we speak about this mitzvah when we are at home, and when we’re out in the world. This passage tells us to listen up; to love God with all we’ve got; to keep reciting these words, learning them and teaching them wherever we are. And, again: whether or not we “believe in God,” these words still have power.
I looked to see what some of our meforshim, the classical commentators, said about these words. Rashi (who lived around the year 1100) says that the commandment to “love God” means to do the mitzvot out of a sense of love, rather than out of a sense of fear, e.g. fear of punishment. One who does mitzvot out of love is considered to be at a higher spiritual level than someone who only does mitzvot because they’re afraid of what might happen if they don’t. It’s better to be motivated by love than by fear.
Ibn Ezra says: in antiquity the word lev, heart, also meant mind. For him, the way we love God with all our heart is by always learning, always going deeper into our texts and traditions. And arguably the more Torah we learn, the more mitzvot we’ll feel called to do. That’s the opinion of the commentator known as the Sforno. He says these verses come to help us recognize that when we love God, we’ll take joy in doing mitzvot, because there’s nothing better than doing what brings joy to our Beloved.
Okay: so maybe loving God means doing mitzvot out of love instead of fear. And maybe loving God is something we express through learning. And maybe it’s about finding joy in doing what’s right, because when we do what’s right, we bring joy to our Creator. This year, what jumps out at me is the placement of these verses in our seasonal cycle. Rosh Hashanah begins six weeks from tomorrow. Tomorrow in our Reverse Omer journey we’ll begin the week of Yesod, which means Foundations or Generations.
What could be more foundational to Judaism than the sh’ma and v’ahavta? We affirm the unity that underpins the universe. Twice a day we remind ourselves to love God, to put these words on our hearts and teach them to our generations and affix them to our doorposts. We use these words to mark our transitions in space (a mezuzah reminds us to pause and notice the sacred when we come and go.) And we use these words to mark our transitions in time: evening and morning, lying down and rising up.
Six weeks before Rosh Hashanah, we reach these verses in our cycle of Torah readings. It’s almost if the Torah herself is whispering to us: hey, y’all, the holidays are coming. And maybe we’ve let our spiritual practices slide, lately. Maybe because it’s summer and we’re distracted. Or because the world is a Lot, between the news headlines and the climate crisis and monkeypox and whatever else, and we’re distracted. Or because we have too much to do and we’re distracted. Or we’re… just distracted.
This week’s Torah portion reminds us:
Stop and breathe.
Listen, and remember the Oneness beneath all things.
Stop to pray the v’ahavta. Cultivate the intention and the ability to love.
Stop to kiss the mezuzah. Be mindful in comings and goings.
Stop to focus on the mitzvot that shape our lives at home and when we’re out in the world. The logical mitzvot, and the ones that transcend logic. The spiritual mitzvot and the ethical mitzvot. The ones between us and our Source, and the ones between us and each other.
Take these words, and place them on our hearts. Let them inform the actions of our hands. Let them be a headlamp between our eyes to illuminate our path.
Do these spiritual practices, and teach them to those who come after us, because they are tools to help us through whatever comes.
What if we made a point of that, over these next six weeks? What if we made a point of stretching our spiritual muscles twice a day, every day for the next month and a half? How might that change our experience of Rosh Hashanah, and our experience of the new year that will follow? Spiritual practice doesn’t change the cards we’re dealt or the world we live in, but it can shift how we experience things. An invitation to give that a try. And in six weeks, you can tell me what kind of difference it makes.
This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at Shabbat morning services (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)