Pillars of Jewish Faith
V'etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11 )
In Parashas Va'eschanan there are many of the pillars of our faith: the Ten Commandments, the Shema, the art of prayer, prophecy, and teachings that guarantee our Jewish survival. Just by reviewing this portion, we can gain an enormous insight into the essence of our Judaism. In the opening verses of the parashah, Moshe Rabbeinu prays to God, but the expression he used is most unusual: "Va'eschanan" is derived from the word "chein - to find favor," or from "chinam - free," implying that even if we are undeserving, we beseech God to find favor with us, accept our prayers, and grant our request as a free gift.
It is difficult to understand why Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest of all men, would have to resort to such a form of prayer. If anyone was worthy, it was surely he. Never did Moses pray for himself. All his supplications were on behalf of the Jewish people, and now, for the very first time, he pleads on his own behalf and begs God to grant him the privilege of seeing the Promised Land. Moses certainly could have felt entitled to have his prayers answered.
The truly righteous understand, however, that before God, there is no entitlement. When we perform a mitzvah, when we live a righteous life, it is we who have to thank God for granting us that opportunity, that privilege. We are not doing God a favor when we fulfill the commandments; rather, it is we who become enriched and elevated. So, when we beseech God in supplication, we have no bargaining points, but are totally dependent on His infinite mercy. In effect, as stated above, we are asking that we may find favor in His eyes and be granted a "free gift."
This message is especially significant to our generation. Too many of us harbor feelings of "entitlement." In our foolish arrogance, we have come to believe that God "owes us one," never realizing that it is we who owe everything to Him. Were it not for His constant mercy, in a split second, we could lose our ability to function ... even our very lives. Therefore, we commence each and every morning with these simple, but majestic words, "Modeh Ani - I thank You" for returning my soul, and we proceed to express gratitude throughout all our waking moments. We thank God for the food that we eat, the water that we drink, for our bodily functions, for the wonders of nature, for the good, and even for the apparently bad - we take nothing for granted.
To be sure, it is not easy to focus on prayer. It is one of the most difficult mitzvos to fulfill. It is so easy to become distracted, to lose focus. Therefore, in earlier generations, pious people would meditate for a full hour prior to prayer so that they might properly direct their words to God. Obviously, we are not on their level, but just the same, we should all endeavor to pray with greater concentration and zeal.
Ours is a generation that is short on patience but long on expectations. If we feel that our prayers have gone unanswered, we are quick to give up in frustration and self-righteous indignation. Yet prayer is our only solution. Let us never forget that when problems overwhelm us, it is only God Who can help.
Our Sages teach that since the destruction of the Holy Temple, all the gates to heaven are locked, except for the gate of tears, which means that genuine, heartfelt, prayers can bring about many miracles. Let us never give up. Let us follow the example of Moses.
DOES GOD ANSWER ALL OUR PRAYERS?
The answer to this question is an emphatic "Yes!" As it is written, "God is near to all those who call upon Him, to all those who call upon Him sincerely."
So why, we might ask, didn't God grant Moses' request to see the Promised Land? Upon closer study of the text, however, we will discover that God did fulfill Moses' wish. "Alei rosh hapisgah - Ascend to the top of the cliff," God commands Moses, "and raise your eyes westward, northward, southward, and eastward, and see with your eyes ...." It was thus that Moses was granted his prayer. Not only did Moses see the entire Promised Land, but he also saw all of Jewish history pass before his eyes. So, yes, God does respond to all sincere prayer, but the manner in which He does so is His to choose, for only He knows what is to our benefit. So let us always approach God in prayer, and trust Him to lead us on the right path.
Our Zeide would often tell unmarried people who were searching for their life partners, "Got zol firren oif gittins: Rather than specify a specific person, ask God to lead you to the right one." Place your trust in Hashem, for only He knows what is right and good for you.
PERSEVERANCE IN PRAYER
The expression va'eschanan ("and I implored," referring to prayer in our parashah) in gematria (numerology) totals 515, teaching that Moses prayed in 515 ways and never lost faith ... so, surely, we must cling tenaciously to God in our prayers. This teaching is reinforced by King David in Psalm 27, which counsels us, "Kavei el Hashem - Hope to Hashem, strengthen your heart, and hope to Hashem," meaning that we must keep praying, for it is in prayer that we find our salvation. In Nusach Sefard, we recite this passage as we come to the conclusion of our daily prayers. One might have thought that it would be more appropriate to do so at the commencement of the service. Our Zeide, HaRav HaGaon Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt"l, explained that it is precisely at the conclusion of our prayers, when we may feel discouraged and wonder whether God will answer us, that we strengthen ourselves and proclaim our resolve to continue to pray.
Moshe Rabbeinu admonishes us not to add or subtract from the commandments, saying, "... be careful to perform them [God's decrees and ordinances]." This is a difficult challenge, since human nature is such that we like to write our own script and author our own mode of worship, but if we do so, we will not be upholding the commandments of God, but indulging our own whims and desires. To appreciate the audacity that tampering with the commandments connotes, consider only someone who, upon viewing a work of art - a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh - decides that the painting needs "a little bit more orange or a touch less blue." That painting was the creation of a human being, yet no one would dare touch it, but there are those who have no hesitation in rewriting God's Laws.
Moshe Rabbeinu reminds us of the eternity of our covenant and exhorts us to bear in mind that, "Not with our forefathers did God seal this covenant, but with us - we who are here, all of us alive today."
This teaching is at the root of our faith. It is a teaching that we must all engrave upon our hearts. Every person must, at all times, feel that he/she stood at Mount Sinai and that, yes, God sealed His covenant with him/her. It is in this spirit of accepting personal responsibility that we transmit Torah to our children. Torah study is not the study of ancient documents; it is not "Bible stories." Rather, it is the living word of God which we all heard at Mount Sinai and that continues to resound in our neshamos for all eternity.
The Ramban expounds on this concept, teaching that, in addition to keeping the Torah and the mitzvot, it is our duty at all times to remember "Ma'amad Har Sinai - the Revelation at Sinai," all that we witnessed there, and transmit it to our children forever and ever.
Yes, the covenant was sealed with each and every one of us - even with those of us who are alive today. We dare not forget.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
The Ten Commandments were addressed to the entire nation, they are written in the singular, teaching us that God is our personal God, who sees and is concerned about every individual. He hears our cry and feels our pain. He is our loving Father. This teaching is reinforced by the first commandment, in which God introduces Himself as the One Who brought us forth from the land of Egypt, rather than stating that He is the One Who created the heavens and the earth. Our God is not a distant deity. Rather, He is the God Who is with us in our suffering, and even as He brought us forth from the land of Egypt, He continues to bring us forth from our personal "Egypts" in every generation, no matter how hopeless our situation may appear to be.
Two letters in the Shema are written in an extra-large font: the ayin in the word "ShemA" and the daled in the word "echaD." These two letters, when written together, spell "eid - witness." When we say the Shema, we are witness to Hashem's presence, and indeed, that is the task of every Jew, to be God's witness. As it is written, "Atem eidai - you are My witnesses."
The Shema continues with the familiar words, "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart." Our Sages ask if it is possible for the Torah to legislate love. "Isn't 'love' an emotion?" they ask. But the Torah never demands anything without showing us how we may attain that goal. So, even as we are instructed to love, we are also immediately told to meditate, study, keep the word of God, and perform mitzvos. All those activities generate love, and indeed, the more we focus on the Torah, the more we probe its infinite depths, the greater will become our love for Hashem.
- Deuteronomy 3:23.
- Psalms 145:18.
- Deuteronomy 3:27.
- Psalms 27:14.
- Deuteronomy 5:1.
- Ibid. 5:3.
- Ibid. 6:4.
- Isaiah 43:10.