OzTorah: Torah reading – Va’et’channan.



“Sh’ma Yisra’el” – “Hear, O Israel”

– comes twice in this week’s reading – Deut. 5:1 and 6:4. The second instance is the famous one.

The first passage is Moses announcing the Ten Commandments:

“Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances…”

In this Sh’ma, God has a message for Israel:

“This is who I am, this is what I require”.

In the second Sh’ma, Israel hears how to respond, by loving God with heart, soul and might.

Such is the eternal encounter between God and Israel. They speak to each other, they respond to one another. Such too is the way that human beings should conduct themselves – talking when appropriate, listening constantly.

The problem is that we sometimes talk too much and don’t listen. And the other way around: sometimes we sit passively, hear what is happening around us – and don’t open our mouths, whether to praise or to protest.



Moses says,

“I stood between the Lord and you at that time” (Deut. 5:5).

In what context? It was Mount Sinai, where the Israelites held back from the meeting with God. Moses had to be the go-between, conveying the Divine message to the people and giving them the assurance of Divine love and concern.

To this interpretation of the sages (Jerusalem Talmud, Meg. 4:1) a Chassidic teacher, the Rabbi of Kovrin, adds another approach. The word “anochi”, “I”, he tells us, is the human ego. It is this which is so often the “mechitzah”, the barrier, between us and the Almighty. A human being with an exaggerated sense of self is hardly ever able to find the Divine.

One who boasts,”I am the greatest”, leaves no room for God. Either God is the greatest – or I am. When I cannot understand my human limitations and cannot recognise how small a speck I am in the vast scheme of the cosmos, I squeeze God out.

There can be only one true “Anochi” – the “I” of “I am the Lord your God”, not the “I” of “I am the greatest”.

To use the imagery of the Kol Nidre service, God is the potter: I am the potsherd… a valuable, unique, useful potsherd, but a potsherd nonetheless.



Early in the sidra, D’varim 4:2 declares,

“Don’t add to the Word which I command you, nor subtract from it”.

This seems to invalidate the seven rabbinical laws (“Sheva Mitzvot D’Rabbanan”) introduced to face new problems.

In Rashi’s view the Torah is not denying the sages the right to interpret the commandments or introduce new subjects to the halachic agenda (Deut. 17:9-11), but telling them that they must not alter the established content of the laws, e.g. by having five passages in the t’fillin and not four, or five plants on Sukkot instead of four.

There is a further question suggested by the Torah passage, the apparent irrelevancy of verse 3:

“Your eyes have seen that the Lord did concerning the worship of Ba’al Pe’or”.

What does the Ba’al Pe’or incident have to do with not adding or subtracting? Is it because in that episode the people committed the two basic sins of idolatry and immorality?

The Alshich commentary says that the people thought they were improving on the teachings of the Torah, and so God had to punish them for believing themselves wiser than their Creator.



“You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6:9).

Rashi explains, quoting Yoma 11a:

“And on your gates – this includes the gates of courtyards, the gates of provinces and the gates of cities”.

Hence any city or country surrounded by a wall needs a mezuzah.

Its purpose is suggested by these words of Edmund Burke:

“The moral law was not written for men alone in their individual character, but it was written as well for nations, and for nations great as this of which we are citizens. If nations reject and deride that moral law, there is a penalty which will inevitably follow. We have the unchangeable and eternal principles of the moral law to guide us, and only so far as we walk by that guidance can we be permanently a great nation, or our people a happy people.”

Judaism enshrines this principle in the law that nations must write the Sh’ma on their doorposts and inspect their mezuzot twice in seven years in order to assess the moral quality of their national life. It is unlikely that any nation can give itself a clean bill of health; there are blotches on the face of every people. But would it not be a wonderful idea for nations to have regular occasions (say, twice in every seven year cycle) to look at themselves in the mirror?


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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