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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Parashat Vaetchanan

Parasha: Vaetchanan – Deuteronomy 3:23 -7:11
Haftara: Isaiah 40:1-26
Reading Date: 16th August 2008 – 15th Av 5768

Both this week’s Torah and Haftarah reading are full of issues of faith which stand at the centre of our lives. In addition to the Ten Utterances (commandments), we find concepts such as d'veykut- clinging to YHVH, and u'vikashetem- the quest for connection with the Divine from the lowest places. The Haftarah from Isaiah 40 not only provides comfort in the face of terrible tragedies, but also it inspires us to reach the lofty ideals of the parasha in the real world.
How do we do that? How can we, in our broken state, relate to the eternal? Like so many of our traditional texts, we are told to look at nature- to the deserts, the valleys and mountains, the grasses and the fields, the immeasurable waters, the wind and the storms, and then the climax: look up!

"Lift up your eyes and see who created all these- who numbers the heavenly forces and calls all of them by name.." (Isiaih 40:26).
Why is each star having a name considered to be such a personally inspiring phenomenon? Rabbi A.Y. Kook z"l (Chief Rabbi early 20C) answers in his commentary 'Olat R"ayh on the prayer from Psalm 147 that each of us has a particular purpose just as each star has a role. We may be grouped in family constellations and national galaxies but ultimately we all have individual roles as sparkling lights in this sometimes "dark" world. Each of us has a name means each of us has a purpose.

Hannah Senesh (a young Jewish poet who heroically died during WWII) wrote: "There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for mankind."
The main principles of Torah – the prohibition of idolatry, the principles of the unity, love and fear of YHVH – all are given an honorable mention in this parasha. It also constantly emphasizes the obligation to actually carry out and faithfully observe all the precepts contained in the Torah.
Now, O Israel listen to the statutes and judgments Which I am teaching you for the purpose of practice (4, 1)
See, I have taught you statutes… For you to practice in the land you are going to possess. (4, 5)
Then again as a concluding refrain to the account of the Giving of the Torah:
Stray not to the right or left. (5, 29)

After these numerous exhortations to put the commandments, statutes and judgments into practice in their daily lives, the Torah once again calls upon us to diligently observe the commandments of the YHVH your God, His testimonies and statutes which He commanded you and do what is right and good in the eyes of YHVH.

The question that immediately springs to mind is: Surely this exhortation to do what is right and good is already implied in all the numerous injunctions already enjoined in the Torah. Surely one who strictly obeys all the positive and negative commands in the Torah ipso facto fulfils the command to do what is “right and good in the eyes of YHVH”! What new obligation then does this command imply? Or is it perhaps merely a summary of all that has been stated previously? We must, of course, assume that the Torah does not multiply injunctions merely for rhetorical effect. We have, therefore, to seek the specific contribution of this verse to the whole, one which we could not have deduced from any other verse in the Torah.

Both Rashi and Ramban explain that this verse implies a further divine injunction not included in what has been recorded previously: That which is right and good” – this implies a compromise beyond the letter of the law. (Rashi)

Ramban this time agreeing with Rashi elaborates on his explanation: The idea behind this command is as follows: At beginning He asked us to observe “his statutes and testimonies which He had commanded you” and now He wished to add that you should do that which is upright and good in His eyes, even in regard to those things where no specific divine command applies, since He loves that which is good and upright. This is a very important principle since it is impossible to record every detail of human behavior in the Torah embracing man’s relations with his neighbors and friends, his business affairs, national and local welfare. But after He had made reference to many aspects such as “you shall not bear false witness”, “you shall not take vengeance nor bear a grudge”, “you shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor”, “you shall not curse the deaf”, “thou shall rise up before the hoary head”, etc., He included a general injunction to do that which is good and upright in every matter, accepting where necessary even a compromise in a legal dispute and going beyond the letter of the law.

The Ramban’s words will become clearer if we compare them with another precept occurring in the Torah, mentioning the most sublime principle of divinely ordained conduct.

Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel… Ye shall be holy; for I YHVH your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19, 2)

But one question still remains for us to clarify. Surely he who observes all the precepts in the Torah will find himself, of necessity, fulfilling the highest principles of holiness mentioned in the above citation. Holiness and righteousness are surely the logical noncomitants of a total observance of the divine precepts. Is it conceivable that one who observes loyally all the moral and ritual observances of the Torah should fall short of the standards of holiness and uprightness implied in the quotations already referred to of: “you shall be holy” and “you shall do that which is upright and good?”

According to Ramban such a state of affairs is indeed conceivable. Commenting on the above verse from Leviticus he states: “Separate yourselves from immorality…For whenever you find safeguards against immorality, you find holiness.” This is Rashi’s interpretation but Talmudic comment on this same text limits itself to the following general phrase: “you shall be separate”.
Since the Torah warns us against immorality and forbidden foods but permits marital relations and the partaking of meat and wine, the immoderate person might abuse theses, overindulging in permitted sexual relations and in eating and drinking, maintaining in common with all foolish people that this was not specifically prohibited by the Torah. He would be a fool by authorization of the Torah (naval bi-reshut ha-torah). For this reason the Torah adds to its list of explicit prohibitions and injunctions a general admonition to be holy, to sanctify oneself through minimizing his indulgence in even permitted enjoyments, in food and drink and sex. The Nazirite abstainer is called “holy” by the Torah. Similarly every man should sanctify himself till he attains a higher state of holiness and separation.

Ramban thus shows how is possible for a man to keep to the letter of the Torah and yet violate its spirit. Often in everyday life there are cases to which no direct and explicit injunction of the Torah applies. But we are called upon to act in these circumstances in accordance with the general principle of holiness and righteousness. This is the implication of those two admonitions “you shall be holy” and “you shall do that which is upright and good”. We may note that, in the former, Ramban confines his examples to precepts governing relations between man and man. Our Rabbis explained the verse in our parasha to refer to relations between man and man in which the individual is called upon not always to stand upon his rights but rather to agree to a compromise in the interests of a higher morality.

The practical legal implications of general moral injunctions may be seen from the following restatement of rabbinic rulings in Maimonides’ Code. These admonitions to be holy and deal uprightly were not intended to be merely high-sounding phrases: He who sells his land to another is obliged to give his neighbor who has an adjoining field precedence in any sale. Even if the purchaser is a scholar, a neighbor and a kinsman of the vendor the adjoining landowner an ignorant man and complete stranger, the latter takes precedence and may evict the purchase. This is in accordance with the principle stated in Scriptures “and thou shall do that which is right and good”. Our Sages said that since it is all one sale it is only right and good that the adjoining landowner should have prior right of purchase over the one whose fields are far away. (Code Shekhenim, 12, 5, see Bava Mezia 108a-108b)

A court that has made an order for the creditor to take the actual property of the debtor or property under mortgage in the hands of a purchaser and subsequently the debtor or the purchaser or their heirs acquire enough means and bring the money to the creditor, the property may be discharged and such a seizure for debt is always returnable to the original owner in accordance with the principle “and thou shall do that which is right and good”. (Loveh U-malveh 22, 16, see Bava Mezia 16b)

Although by law it would seem that a man can sell his land to anyone he wishes the Torah demands the exercise of the maximum moral consideration.

Shabbat Shalom

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