By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant This week’s Torah Parsha (BO) continues with the story of Exodus. God had already inflicted seven devastating plagues on Egypt, subsequent to the Pharaoh’s...
In last week’s Torah Parsha (DEVARIM), we read the words of Moses as he explained to the Children of Israel, how both he and their forefathers had committed sins against God, with the consequence that all were to be destined to be banned from entering the ‘Promised Land’.
This week’s Torah Parsha (V’ETCHANAN) begins with Moses continuing the narrative: “And now, O Israel, hearken to the statutes, and to the judgments which I teach you to do, in order that you may live, and go and possess the land, which the Lord, God of your forefathers is giving to you” (1). Moses proceeds to describe the Exodus from Egypt, recites the Ten Commandments; and, affirms the bridge between the ‘Shema’, and the essence of Judaism.
To a large extent, Parsha (V’ETCHANAN) is a polemic against idolatry. Moses repeatedly instructs, urges, and inspires the people to follow one God: “Did ever a people hear their Lord’s voice, speaking out of the midst of a fire, and continue to live?” (2)….”Or has any God performed miracles to come and take a nation from the midst of another nation, with trials, with signs, and with wonders, as all that the Lord, your God has done for your people in Egypt?” (3).
These statements seem to teach the same concept of monotheism. In ancient times, there were many larger nations, who believed in pantheism (i.e. a doctrine which regards the universe as a manifestation of God), or polytheism (i.e. belief in multiple gods). Judaism differs primarily because the Torah, and the numerous commandments, provides us with a blueprint of laws; justice; morality; and, an emphasis on love, compassion, and positive interactions with others in our communities.
There are, however, some nuances to be considered. Rashi offered an interpretation of the ‘Shema’, that otherwise may have been missed. He contends that the Hebrew word ‘echad’, which is usually translated as ‘one’, should be interpreted as ‘unique’, in this Parsha (V’ETCHANAN). Based on this perspective, the words of the ‘Shema’ would be: Hear O Israel, God is our Lord, God is unique. This basic, irrefutable principle of Judaism leads to the next statement in this week’s Torah Parsha: “There is no one else beside him” (4). This phrase is actually a profound, philosophical, and existential statement. There is ‘nothing’ outside of God; ‘Nothing’ else truly exists.
The Jewish formulation is not that every aspect of creation is God; rather, that God sustains every aspect of creation. There is, in fact, only one reality – – the infinite God, who cleared a small corner of His infinite existence, in order to permit our finite, fleeting universe to co-exist (5).
For believers of the Jewish faith, this existence is beyond our own….the existence in which God does not limit Himself for our benefit – – is the place of reality. We connect with this reality through our prayers, the Torah, and our traditions.
Saying the ‘Shema’, each Shabbat, brings us closer to God’s infinity….with a reality which is so much greater than our passing human existence. This is why, when reciting the ‘Shema’, we tend to cover our eyes, averting our gaze from an experience that is so intense and intimate.
This is how we can bring a touch of infinity into our lives…This is what makes Judaism so unique!
(1) DEUTERONOMY (4:1)
(2) DEUTERONOMY (4:33)
(3) DEUTERONOMY (4:34)
(4) DEUTERONOMY (4:35)
(5) Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, England