Parashat Va-etchanan 5779
by Meir Sendor
We’re traveling outside Israel right now, teaching some meditation workshops and visiting family. We’re grateful for these precious opportunities, but we also have to admit that there’s something painful about leaving the Land of Israel. It’s not about ideology, political or philosophical, it’s something visceral and experiential. It’s not just that the Land of Israel grows on you, it’s like it grows through you and around you and assimilates you to itself – it’s “a Land that consumes its inhabitants (Num. 13:32),” – but in an uplifting, transformative way. One of our friends remarked that as we eat the produce of the Land for a while, all the cells of our bodies become transformed into the Land itself. You can feel it. And it transforms your consciousness as well.
This may be part of Moshe Rabbenu’s longing to enter the Land, a last request which HaShem denies in the opening of this week’s parashah:
דברים פרק ג
כג) ואתחנן אל יקוק בעת ההוא לאמר:
כד) אדני יקוק אתה החלות להראות את עבדך את גדלך ואת ידך החזקה אשר מי אל בשמים ובארץ אשר יעשה כמעשיך וכגבורתך:
כה) אעברה נא ואראה את הארץ הטובה אשר בעבר הירדן ההר הטוב הזה והלבנן:
כו) ויתעבר יקוק בי למענכם ולא שמע אלי ויאמר יקוק אלי רב לך אל תוסף דבר אלי עוד בדבר הזה:
כז) עלה ראש הפסגה ושא עיניך ימה וצפנה ותימנה ומזרחה וראה בעיניך כי לא תעבר את הירדן הזה:
I pleaded with HaShem at that time saying: my Lord HaShem, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and your mighty Hand, such that who is powerful in heaven or in the earth who can do according to Your deeds and Your powers? Please let me pass over and see the good Land on the other side of the Jordan, the good mountain and the Levanon. But HaShem was angry with me for your sake and did not listen to me. And HaShem said to me: you’ve gone too far, do not continue to speak with Me further about this thing. Ascend to the top of the peak and lift your eyes West and North and South and East and see with your eyes, for you shall not pass over this Jordan.
A couple of questions about this passage. What is Moshe’s core motivation in wanting to enter the Land? Why does Moshe introduce his plea to enter the Land by referring to God’s greatness and power on a cosmic scale? Why does Moshe refer to this revelation as merely a beginning – what more would Moshe find out by entering the Land, that he hasn’t already experienced in his extraordinary life? Is Moshe satisfied with the consolation prize of seeing the land from a high lookout point on the Mount of Transition in Transjordan, and if not, why not?
In the Gemara Sotah (14a), Rabbi Simlai explains Moshe’s motivation:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף יד עמוד א
דרש רבי שמלאי: מפני מה נתאוה משה רבינו ליכנס לא”י? וכי לאכול מפריה הוא צריך? או לשבוע מטובה הוא צריך? אלא כך אמר משה: הרבה מצות נצטוו ישראל ואין מתקיימין אלא בא”י, אכנס אני לארץ כדי שיתקיימו כולן על ידי; אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: כלום אתה מבקש אלא לקבל שכר, מעלה אני עליך כאילו עשיתם,
Rabbi Simlai expounded: for what reason did Moshe Rabbenu long to enter the Land of Israel? Did he need to eat of its fruit? Or did he need to be satiated from its goodness? Rather, thus said Moshe: many mitzvot have been commanded to Israel and can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel. I will enter the Land in order to fulfill all of them myself. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: are you only asking to receive reward? I will account it to you as if you did them.
Rabbi Simlai, a student of Rabbi Yehuda Nesiyah, lived in Israel, and knows of what he speaks. Moshe Rabbenu was not looking to enter Israel to enjoy the food – though the food is very good. We’ve been growing fruits and vegetables on our little patch of Land and there is just nothing like them. But Moshe was not looking for physical enjoyment. He was longing to fulfill mitzvot in the Land. For instance, one of the wonderful things about growing your own food in the Land of Israel is the opportunity to do the mitzvot of taking Terumot and Ma’aserot – the tithes of the produce of the Land – intended to help those who are needy or the Kohanim and Leviim who are dedicated to public service. These tithes are a concrete expression of our gratefulness to HaShem, who grants us this Land. Moshe longed for such an opportunity – that we can do this is deeply moving.
HaShem suggests that if Moshe was looking for the reward for fulfilling mitzvot, no problem. There’s a principle that when it comes to mitzvot, HaShem joins the intention to the action and even if one is prevented by circumstances from fulfilling a mitzvah, it can be accounted to you as fulfilled (Yerushalmi Peah 1:1, Kiddushin 40a). Was Moshe consoled by this? It doesn’t seem so. It’s not about the reward for mitzvot, as if Moshe cares about filling a mitzvah scorecard in some heavenly bingo game. Nor is he consoled by HaShem’s suggestion in the parashah that he just climb to the top of the Mount of Transition in Transjordan and look out over the Land. In longing to fulfill mitzvot in the Land, what was he really seeking?
In the rest of the parashah, Moshe goes on lay out for Israel a grand vision of the meaning of Torah in general and in particular. Some of the greatest philosophical principles of Torah appear in this parashah: the incorporeality of God, the oneness of God, love of God, conscious adherence to God, the mitzvah to constantly learn and teach the eternal Torah. The revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments are reviewed. These general principles are what Rabbenu Bahya ibn Pakudah calls “duties of the hearts,” in his profound book of that name. These are general mitzvot and responsibilities that are constantly in effect, in all circumstances, as opposed to “mitzvot of the limbs,” which are particular and circumstantial and only kick in at specific times and places, when a specific event or condition arises. In the introduction to his book Rabbenu Bahya argues that while most observant Jews of his time seem to emphasize the particulars of detailed halakhic practice of these conditional mitzvot (true in our time as well), more attention should be paid to the general duties of the heart, since they are always in play.
But Moshe Rabbenu gives repeated attention not only to the grand, general mitzvot, but to these highly specific and situational “mitzvot of the limbs” as well, the statutes and detailed laws and halakhot, and connects them to living in the Land of Israel, such as when he says:
דברים פרק ד פסוק א
ועתה ישראל שמע אל החקים ואל המשפטים אשר אנכי מלמד אתכם לעשות למען תחיו ובאתם וירשתם את הארץ אשר יקוק אלהי אבתיכם נתן לכם:
And now, Israel, hear the statutes and laws I am teaching you, to do so that you live and come and inherit the Land that HaShem the God of your ancestors, is giving you.
דברים פרק ד פסוק מ
ושמרת את חקיו ואת מצותיו אשר אנכי מצוך היום אשר ייטב לך ולבניך אחריך ולמען תאריך ימים על האדמה אשר יקוק אלהיך נתן לך כל הימים: פ
And you shall observe His statutes and mitzvot that I am commanding you this day, that it should be beneficial for you and your children after you, in order that you have length of days on the Land that HaShem your God gives you all the days.
The Ramban, after the introductory verses of the parashah, sums up the rest of the parashah, saying:
רמב”ן דברים פרק ד פסוק ג
עתה בא להזהיר בפרטי המצות…
Now he comes to caution concerning the details of the mitzvot…
What is the special virtue of detailed mitzvah practice, especially of these more situational mitzvot?
In one of the most pivotal and profound verses of this profound parashah, Moshe reminds Israel:
דברים פרק ד פסוק לה
אתה הראת לדעת כי יקוק הוא האלהים אין עוד מלבדו:
You have been shown to know that HaShem is God, there is nothing else but Him.
The kabbalistic, hassidic, and philosophic traditions all understand this verse hyperliterally: there is nothing but God. As the Rambam says in Yesodei HaTorah:
רמב”ם הלכות יסודי התורה פרק א הלכה ג
ואם יעלה על הדעת שאין כל הנמצאים מלבדו מצויים הוא לבדו יהיה מצוי, ולא יבטל הוא לבטולם, שכל הנמצאים צריכין לו והוא ברוך הוא אינו צריך להם ולא לאחד מהם, לפיכך אין אמתתו כאמתת אחד מהם.
If one would hypothesize that none of all the existents besides Him would exist, He alone would exist and not be nullified by their nullification, for all existents need Him, but He, blessed be He, does not need them or any one of them, therefore His reality is not like the reality of any one of them.
We might get this in an abstract, general way, that all beings and events are conditional and dependent on God’s Absolute Being, but do we really realize what this means? Rashi on this verse brings the midrash Devarim Rabbah:
רש”י דברים פרשת ואתחנן פרק ד פסוק לה
לה) כשנתן הקדוש ברוך הוא את התורה פתח להם שבעה רקיעים. וכשם שקרע את העליונים כך קרע את התחתונים. וראו שהוא יחידי, לכך נאמר אתה הראת לדעת:
When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah, He opened for [Israel] seven heavens. And just as He ripped open the upper realms, so He ripped open the lower realms, and they saw that He is a Singularity. Therefore it says “you have been shown to know…”
To know that God is the One and Only Being in the abstract generalities of the upper Heavens is relatively easy. The challenge, as Rashi indicates, is to know He is the One and Only Being in the midst of our lower, earthly pursuits. This is the challenge of our earthly lives, and it is the special virtue of the Land of Israel that it reveals this – and helps open our hearts and minds to appreciate this. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, the great Hassidic Rebbe who made Aliyah in 1777 leading three hundred Hassidim, exemplifies this consciousness:
וכך סיפר רבי מנחם מנדל בעצמו – “דבר זה השגתי בארץ ישראל: כשאני רואה חבילה של קש מונחת ברחוב, הרי דבר זה שהיא מונחת לאורך ולא לרוחב הוא בעיני גילוי שכינה.
Thus did Rabbi Menachem Mendel himself say – “this is something I attained in the Land of Israel – when I see a bundle of straw lying in the street, the fact that it is lying lengthwise and not widthwise is in my eyes a revelation of the divine Presence.
He doesn’t mean that there is some higher symbolic meaning to the placement of the straw. He means that the very specificity of every detail of every item in the Land of Israel is meaningful in itself, an expression of the absolute infinite Presence of God. This is the special consciousness inculcated in us through the detailed mitzvot we are enjoined to fulfill in the Land. Perhaps this is the consciousness that Moshe Rabbenu was longing to discover in moving from wandering in exile to Aliyah to the Land.
Why the Land of Israel is able to awaken this high-definition consciousness for those open to it, I can’t yet explain. Is it intrinsic to the Land, or is it something in our relationship to the Land? Is it because it is the Land of our divinely given destiny and we finally feel at home in the place HaShem has commanded us to inhabit? Or is there something just uncannily vital about the Land that reaches out and embraces us. Maybe this way of being, once discovered and internalized, is something we are to bring with us even when we travel outside the Land. And maybe, when we really get this awakened consciousness through and through, it is our mission to share it with the whole world.