By Naomi Gurt Lind
Parashat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)
For Lea Andersen, of dear memory
Parashat Vaetchanan begins with Moshe deep in his feelings, as he remembers imploring God to be allowed to enter the Promised Land. He dedicated his life to his people, endured hardship and frustration, conquered self-doubt and overwork, only to find that at the end of his life he will not see the task come to fruition. In Deuteronomy 3:25at the beginning of the parashah he says:
Please let me cross, so I can see the good land that is across the Jordan, that good mountain, and Lebanon as well.
You can hear in the first word of this verse”e’b’rah nathe way his plea almost gets stuck in his throat — a sob, perhaps, or the return of the stutter he overcame to become a leader. This is hard for him. Letting go is so hard.
When the answer to his plea comes from God, the same root letters—yes, bet, resh-appear:
And God was angry with me, because of you, and did not listen to me.
And God said to me: “You are too much. Say no more word to Me about it.
Moshe never gets the response he hopes for; his transgression (aveirahanother one ayin-bet-resh word) is considered too large. Nevertheless, he composts his devastation at the missed opportunity and returns to his task. He can’t cross, but nevertheless he teaches us how. Sometimes disruptions, even catastrophic ones, can lead the way.
This seems an appropriate message at this time in the Jewish calendar. Parashat Vaetchanan is always closely associated with Tisha b’Avthe holiday commemorating the destruction of temples as well as many other calamities throughout Jewish history. Tisha b’Av is the culmination of the season of warning in our liturgical calendar, which traces the mounting horror of the three weeks from the 17 Tammuz at 9 A V in AD 70, when Roman invaders breached the walls of Jerusalem, besieged and ultimately reduced the Second Temple to rubble.
Our respect for Tisha b’Av is lifted, finally, in the afternoon, when tradition teaches that Mashiach (The Messiah) was born. The seeds of consolation are planted in the soil of the worst disasters, watered with our tears. In the coming week Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, and we are moving again – sobered, changed – towards wholeness. It’s our job to sift through the ashes of the crumbling city and find a reason to carry on.
Parashat Vaetchanan bathed in resilience and faith. Despite his disappointment, Moshe picks up the thread of instructing the Israelites on how to fulfill the long-awaited privilege he will never share. It reminds them of mistakes along the way and the slow-acting reward of staying true to core beliefs. In Deuteronomy 4:3, we read about the fate of some Israelites who fell back into idolatry. On the other hand, the following verse teaches:
But you who remained faithful to Adonai your God, each one of you is alive today.
This verse, familiar from our Torah service, testifies to the value of faith when things seem to be falling apart all around you. Faith keeps us alive as a people, even when individuals die. Holding to our core beliefs, as set out in Deuteronomy 5:6-18 in עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת (Asseret Hadibrotcommonly translated as The Ten Commandments), is fundamental both to our relationship with God and to our survival.
Then, in chapter 6, we come across perhaps the most famous words in all of Jewish tradition, a stark statement of faith, as succinct as a haiku (which it also is):
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהֹוָה אֶחָד׃
Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.
In the Torah scrolls, there is something interesting about calligraphy: the yes the word “schema” and the dalet the word “echad” are larger than the other letters. There are no accidents or errors in Torah, only opportunities for deeper meaning to emerge. What could be behind those oversized letters? What magic do they hold?
Chizkuni (13th century France) suggests that the yes is a reference to how God created the world. Using gematria (Hebrew numerology), Chizkuni connects the yes to the number 70, and places each element of creation in a long chain of seventy: Israel is one of the seventy nations, or one seventieth of the number of four-legged beasts on earth, or one sixty -tenth of the number of birds, etc. Chizkuni writes, in part:
הקב״ה ברא מעשיו בעי״ן עי״ן
The Blessed Saint engages in creation with ayin ayin.
Reading Chizkuni again, one could say that God created the world with both eyes open (another meaning of yes is “eye”) – knowing that there would be pain and breaking, and that by faith humanity would grope and pull through. With our eyes open, we can see the struggles of others. With our eyes open, we can see where our society can be fairer. With our eyes open, we can see the beauty of this incredible planet and commit ourselves to treating it with tenderness.
Rabbinical student Lea Andersen, who died just days ago, was one of the most open people I have ever met. A gifted teacher, a warm pastoral presence, a passionate activist and more, Léa did not turn away from anything or anyone. Her fierce and spacious Torah was a gift to the world, and those of us who knew her and learned even a little from her are sobered and changed because of it. Tragically, Lea will not see the task of her life come to fruition. I offer these teachings in his memory and in the hopes of inspiring more of us to see the struggles of others, to see where our society can be fairer, to see the beauty of this incredible planet. Above all, may we commit to treating him – and each other – with tenderness.
Naomi Gurt Lind is a rising student of Shanah Gimel at Hebrew College Rabbinical School, and is looking forward to rabbinical internships this year with 2Life Communities and Betenu Congregation. Naomi is an Innovation Lab grant recipient, a member of the inaugural cohort of Mayyim Rabbim Fellows from the Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh Community, and editor of the 70 Faces of Torah blog. When she has a free moment, she enjoys solving crossword puzzles (in pencil!), writing divrei Torah on her blog, Jewish Themes, and playing Bananagrams with her wife and their two awesome kids.