Parashat Va’etchanan: Enduring and Faring Well in Israel

This is the d’var torah that I delivered this Shabbat at Kol Ami in Thornhill, Ontario.

The great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes the following words in one of his most famous poems, Tourists:

…Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker.

“You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

I must confess that when visiting new places, tourist attractions and cultural sites are not enough for me. I have taken a cue from Amichai’s impassioned charge in his poem. When traveling, I’m not content with the Disney World version of a place. I always feel as though I am missing out on something if I don’t get to peel back the layers of a society and try to understand the people I am seeing all around me. What are their values? What is the dominant public culture? What kind of government is chosen or enforced? How do people relate to each other? 

I’ve often also thought to myself: What would someone visiting Canada think are the guiding principles of our country? Earlier this summer, in what would prove to be an incredibly challenging time spent in Israel, I thought the same question: What would someone visiting Israel right now think are the guiding principles of the country?

As it happens – perhaps unsurprisingly – our own textual tradition has much to say about the guidelines and mores of establishing a functioning society. In the case of our ancestors the Israelites, these rules were remarkably detailed and covered all aspects of daily life. This Shabbat as we read parashat va’etchanan, we again encounter what is the most well known example of these rules – the aseret hadibrot – the Ten Commandments.

Now the idea of a societal legal code was not something new at the time of the Torah’s commandments. Certainly, the peoples of the Ancient Near East were already quite familiar with legal documents, including the idea of protecting such rights as human life, personal property, and familial relations. What was unique about our text – the text that would become the cornerstone of Jewish society and the foundation of much of Western Civilization – is that it framed a legal text in terms of a covenant with God. For us, establishing a moral, legal society is itself an expression of God’s will.

This Shabbat, I want to examine what I think is a unique and often overlooked aspect of our Ten Commandments, and God’s will within it. The fifth commandment reads:

כַּבֵּד אֶת אָבִיךָ וְאֶת אִמֶּךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיכֻן יָמֶיךָ וּלְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

“Honour your father and your mother, as Adonai your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, on the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” (D’varim 5:16)

This is the only commandment that specifically includes a justification or added benefit for the performance of the duty – we are to honour our parents, so that we may have a prosperous existence in the Land of Israel.

Now this is peculiar to many – why is this the only mitzvah to have a benefit attached? Aren’t they all fairly important? And why is this the benefit that is included. Why not “Honour your father and your mother so that you may have all your needs met”? or “…so that you may live a safe and healthy life”? Moreover, why is this particular mitzvah the one to receive the benefit? Would it not be more appropriate, perhaps, for this benefit to be included in the commandment more connected to our ritual observance of Shabbat? Or why not attach such a benefit to belief in God’s eternal singularity?

This commandment pushes us to consider: what is relevant about the attached benefit being related to the Land of Israel? This mitzvah beckons us to ask: what is the connection between honouring our parents, and enduring and thriving in the land?

 

I believe that here we find one of the Torah’s most salient examples of what kind of people we are meant to be. In this one commandment, a direct line is drawn between our moral behaviour and our very existence. Our Torah is made up of a very long journey to reach the Promised Land, and here we are told that our time in the Land is dependent upon the performance of one singular mitzvah. Not belief in God; not observance of Shabbat or kashrut; not the Holiness Code’s laws of ritual impurity. Our life in the Land of Israel is indeed predicated upon our fulfillment of this mitzvah – upon our honouring of our parents.

Indeed, in the Mishneh Torah, the commandment to honour one’s human parents is compared to honoring God, and the Talmud teaches that since there are three partners in the creation of a person (God and two parents), honour showed to parents is the same as honour shown to God. (BT Kiddushin 31)

According to the prophet Malachi, God is the very one who makes this analogy!

“A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honour due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 1:6)

But is God really just dangling a carrot in front of our faces with this commandment? Is life in Israel just a form of positive reinforcement to get us to observe mitzvot? I cannot believe this. I believe that we honour our mothers and fathers not in order to receive the reward of the Land of Israel; rather our sustainable existence in the Land of Israel is itself based upon our living a life of honouring. Our existence in Israel is based upon the creation of a just and moral society – one where we give honour to those who gave us life and raised us. As the performance of God’s mitzvot is an attempt to become closer to the Divine holiness, we can only truly thrive in the Land if we are ourselves as holy, as moral, and as just as we possibly may be.

One clue towards this idea is the location of this commandment itself. The first five are often understood as being בין אדם למקום (between a person and God), while the second five are בין אדם לחברו (between one person and another). But this one – the fifth Commandment – can be interpreted as belonging to both groups.

Our parasha this week asks us to consider – What are the guidelines and mores of establishing a thriving society? This remains a struggle for us today as much as it was for our Israelite ancestors. Every day, the modern State of Israel faces innumerable challenges in its efforts to be a moral, just, and hopefully a holy community. If our State of Israel is meant to be one where our people can long endure, where we can fare well, as we are clearly meant to do… it must be a society that continually strives to attain holiness; it must be a place that creates laws and legal codes in an attempt to bring about a more just and righteous existence. It must be a place where honour is given to each other – not merely out of hope for some divine reward, but because this is the path to creating a long enduring community.

I was considering these ideas yesterday while reading a poignant commentary by Israel’s prolific Rabbi Donniel Hartman. Writing about the ease with which Israelis optimistically tell each other “hakol b’seder” (everything is okay), he had this to say about Israel’s current state of affairs in its war against Hamas:

“Everything is not OK when in striking distance of most of our citizens lies a terrorist organization with a charter which calls for our death and with the means and the desire to terrorize half of Israel whenever they so will it. Everything is not OK when our only avenue for defeating them will entail an unacceptable amount of casualties on both sides.

Everything is not OK when the only way we can fight Hamas is at the expense of innocent non-combatants behind whom they take cover. Everything is not OK when the only deterrent at our disposal is to wreak havoc on their society. Everything is not OK when we are forced to impose a blockade, with its horrific humanitarian and economic costs, simply because we want to limit their access to missiles and explosives that will be aimed at our citizens.

The paradox of Israel is that the only way for us to be a Western society is for us to embrace some measure of instability along with “hakol b’seder.” The only way for us to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger. Everything will never be OK. The challenge is what to do when one recognizes this.”

What are we to do? What is Israel to do? In an intriguing twist in the Torah, the earlier reading of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus only includes the line “that you may long endure on the land…” (Shemot 20:12), not yet receiving the idea in Deuteronomy that we “may long endure and fare well on the land.” Apparently there is a difference between mere endurance on one hand, and endurance coupled with faring well on the other.

I think this duality is at the heart of what Rabbi Hartman is writing about. Yes, Israel is blessed with the Iron Dome missile defence system, a powerful army, a strong democracy, and somehow an eternally optimistic people. Despite the dangers of war, we will long endure in the Land.

But can we endure without faring well? At what point do we begin to compromise so much that our endurance comes at the expense of our faring well? The progression of the Torah teaches us that endurance on its own is not good enough; we are meant not only to long endure, but to long endure and fare well.

Rabbi Hartman enjoins us to remember “the only way for [Israel] to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger.” I believe for us, in our observance of the violence in Israel and Gaza; in our viewing of local and international media; in our conversations on Facebook and Twitter; it is often far too easy to consider only the danger. Far too often, we are preoccupied only with Israel’s endurance. But hidden just beneath this surface in our parasha this week is the powerful reminder that endurance alone is insufficient. Endurance must be coupled with faring well. Likewise, combating danger on its own is insufficient. We must also be concerned with the perpetual embracing of our values.

The connection between a righteous existence in Israel and honouring ones parents goes one level deeper. What do we mean when we say honour? The Hebrew word כַּבֵּד (ka-bed) comes from the same shoresh (root) as the Hebrew word כַּבֵד (ka-ved), meaning “heavy.” The only difference is a dot in the second letter. Our duty is a heavy one, and we must treat it with the gravity it demands.

Israel – Medinat and Am (State and People) – must remember this. I pray that those making decisions in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv read this week’s parasha and are reminded of the heaviness of this duality. I pray that we, too, do not forget this powerful charge in our relationships with Israel. Yes, we should read and watch the news with a keen eye. We should share commentary and media online. We should dialogue with friends and colleagues. But our goals should not be limited to endurance. This Shabbat, may we now and always direct ourselves towards an existence in which we long endure, and in which we fare well with each other.

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