Building An Intimate Relationship With God
The Common Thread In Moses' Farewell Speeches
In this week's parsha, Moses speaks, a lot – but it all seems so boring, and disconnected. The Torah is a book and every sentence of that book fits together, like pieces in a puzzle. But how does that work, in this parsha? What is this parsha actually about?
Here is the link to the Passover series that discusses the essence of monotheism: What Does It Mean To Be God’s Chosen People?
Welcome to Parshat Va'etchanan.
As we said last week, in most of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the people, right before they enter the land of Israel. And our parsha is no different. Moses speaks, a lot – he gives the nation laws not to add or subtract from God's commandments, warnings not to worship idolatry, a reminder about the revelation at Sinai, a repetition of the 10 commandments, the Shema, an exhortation against intermarriage, he tells us that God loves us. And more, and more and more.
How Do We Understand Moses' Farewell Speech?
Okay, be honest. Did your eyes glaze over, just a little bit? There's so much here, and it's hard to make heads or tails of the speech. As we've said over and over in the Parsha Experiment, the Torah is not made up of scattered, random stories and laws. The Torah is a book – and every sentence of that book fits together, like pieces in a puzzle. But how does that work, in this parsha? What is this parsha actually about?
Join us as we try to make sense of Moses' speech. This week, on the Parsha Experiment.
Hi, I'm Imu Shalev, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment.
You have to wonder, the people of Israel who were listening to Moses's grand speech throughout the book of Devarim, did their eyes glaze over too? Moses is standing up there, speaking for hours and hours, moving from inspirational topic, to disjointed inspirational topic. At a certain point, it gets to be a little...much.
But maybe it wasn't quite like that. Maybe that approach – that the book of Devarim, including this parsha, is just one long speech – is wrong. Maybe, instead, the book can be broken down, into mini-speeches. Speeches that are much easier to grasp, and wrap our heads around.
But, okay, you say. Let's say you're right, Imu, and the whole book is actually composed of mini-speeches. Even if that's true, did you forget, the Torah doesn't have punctuation! There are no indentations, no dropcaps! How could we possibly find these mini-speeches? How would we know where one speech ends, and another begins?
Identifying the "Mini-Speeches" of Moses
Reading the parsha, we notice something jump out at us – a repeating phrase. It first appears near the beginning – Moses says,שְׁמַ֤ע אֶל־הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְאֶל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָֽנֹכִ֛י מְלַמֵּ֥ד אֶתְכֶ֖ם לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת, listen to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe. And then later, he says, וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת-חֻקָּיו וְאֶת-מִצְוֹתָיו, follow the laws and the commandments.
Go through it yourself, and you'll see this phrase, in different iterations, all over the place. Listen to the chukim, observe the mishpatim, follow the mitzvot… It gets to the point where every time we hear the verse, we think, yeah, we know, keep the laws – and we end up ignoring it entirely.
We want to suggest that in Parshat Va'etchanan, those words – chukim, mishpatim, and mitzvot – that they act as the signposts, to guide us through the parsha, as bookends to each of Moses's speeches. Let me show you what I mean.
Moses' Last Speech: Three... in One?
Chapter 4 begins: וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל, שְׁמַע אֶל-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶל-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, Now, Israel, listen to the laws and rules. Okay, opening bookend, check. And where's the close to this first speech? Let's glance down the page, there: וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת-חֻקָּיו וְאֶת-מִצְוֹתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם – and you shall keep the laws and commandments that I command you today. So everything in the middle would be Speech #1. Great!
Now what about the next speech? Right where you'd expect it, right after the conclusion of the first speech, Moses begins again: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר בְּאָזְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם – listen, Israel, to the laws and rules that I tell you today. And this continues – for the rest of the parsha, each section begins and ends with this phrase – chukim, mishpatim, and mitzvot.
Now that we see each section individually, without the speeches leading mind-numbingly into the others, we can focus on each speech as it was meant to be taken, and understand what we are meant to learn from it. Let's begin with the first speech in our parsha:
God says that when we get to the land of Israel, we should keep his laws,
כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים – for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the other nations,
אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה – who will hear all these laws,
וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן, הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה – they'll say, surely, this great nation must be very wise and understanding!
This may be the most remarkable and explicit description of Israel's mission in the entire Torah. We've seen before that Israel is God's chosen people, but here, we find out exactly what that means and how it works: We're not supposed to missionize. Instead, by modeling God's values and keeping God's laws, the other nations will see that there's something special there. They'll see the positive impact of keeping God's laws and emulating His values. So this speech is really about Israel's destiny, their special role vis a vis the rest of the world as God's chosen people.
But the speech doesn't end there. Moses doesn't only tell them what their destiny is and how to achieve it. He also tells them what may distract them from that destiny:
רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד – only guard yourself and your soul diligently,
פֶּן-תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר-רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ וּפֶן-יָסוּרוּ מִלְּבָבְךָ – lest you forget what your eyes have seen and you remove it from your hearts.
And how can you ensure that you don't forget?
וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ – you should make known to your children and their children,
יוֹם, אֲשֶׁר עָמַדְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּחֹרֵב – the day that you stood before God at Sinai.
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֲלֵיכֶם, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ – and God spoke to you – directly! – from the fire.
וַיַּגֵּד לָכֶם אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֶתְכֶם לַעֲשׂוֹת – and He told you of the covenant He commanded you to keep.
Moses isn't just telling the Sinai story because it was an important moment in their collective history. He's saying: You have a mission, a destiny. And you know when that all began; when you received that national mission? It was when you met God. When you came face to face with the Divine, and in that moment, He made a covenant with you. He charged you with a responsibility to the rest of the world.
So here, as the people are about to enter a land replete with other nations, God says: Remember you have a mission. And the primary way in which you keep that front and center, the way in which you won't forget it, is by remembering when it all began.
What follows, in speech #2, is a recapitulation of the Ten Commandments and the aftermath of the Sinai experience. And based on what we just saw in the previous speech, that doesn't seem so random or out of place.
Moses isn't just retelling important laws to the people… After Israel's reminded of their initial meeting with God at Sinai, Moses now reminds them what God actually said during that meeting. Essentially, it's the foundation of how Israel is meant to fulfill their mission: The Ten Commandments.
And finally, after the people asked that Moses take over instead of God directly, God says: Sure.וְאַתָּה, פֹּה עֲמֹד עִמָּדִי, וַאֲדַבְּרָה אֵלֶיךָ אֵת כָּל-הַמִּצְוָה וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר תְּלַמְּדֵם – you, Moses, stay here with me, so that I can tell you all the commands, laws, and rules. There's our phrase again – this time, serving as the intro of Speech #2.
And now let's look at the final speech of Va'etchanan. This speech seems to contain couple of elements that don't really go together – take a look and you'll see what I mean.
Point #1: Moses opens with: Shema yisrael Hashem elokeinu Hashem echad, Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. He continues: V'ahavta et Hashem elokecha, Love God, with all your heart, soul, and being.
#2: And when you're in Israel, in cities you didn't build, eating from vineyards you didn't plant, don't forget God, who freed you from slavery. Worship only Him, no false gods.
#3: When your children ask, מָה הָעֵדֹת, וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, אֶתְכֶם, what are these laws God's given us? You should say, God saved us from Egypt and brought us to Israel; therefore, we follow God's mitzvot.
#4: Moses says, after you defeat the other nations in Israel, don't intermarry, בִּתְּךָ לֹא-תִתֵּן לִבְנוֹ, וּבִתּוֹ לֹא-תִקַּח לִבְנֶךָ, don't give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons.
#5: Moses concludes: don't think God chose you because you're big. You're tiny. No, you were chosen simply because God loved you.
So if we're trying to figure out one coherent message, this seems pretty difficult. Is it intermarriage? Or maybe it's vineyards? Teaching your children about religion? But let's look back to the opening of the speech, the Shema, and I think it will give us a clue.
The Core Meaning Behind Moses' Final Speech
The Shema is an emphatic acceptance of monotheism, and of course, a rejection of polytheism, belief in many gods. But as Rabbi Fohrman explains in a Passover series linked to below, the difference between monotheism and polytheism isn't just quantitative – I serve one God, not two gods. The difference is qualitative.
Let's say I'm a farmer. The air has been dry, and I need rain for my crops to grow. In a polytheistic society, who do I turn to for help? Well, I pray to the rain god, right? Not because I have a connection with him per se, or because I love him, but because...he has what I need. My worship of him is out of fear, fear of drought or famine. At best, my worship of him is out of convenience. I scratch his back, and he scratches mine.
But monotheism? The nature of that relationship is entirely different. In monotheism, God isn't just the local deity who happens to be in charge of your crops. If there is only one God, then He created you. He is your Parent. When you recognize that God is one, you are saying: God, everything is from You. I only exist because You willed it.You are the Source, of rain, of life, of me, and when I recognize You, I can't help but feel close to You, my Father, my Creator.
And the very next words after acknowledging God's Oneness in Shema, is V'ahavta– love God, with your whole being. Love is an implication of God's Oneness. If He is One, He is my Source – He created me, did everything for me – how can I not love Him?
And that idea – not just recognizing God as One, but as Source – is the lens through which we can view all of the rest of the speech. It's easy, standing in your home, drinking wine from your vineyard, to forget that you didn't build this home, or plant this vineyard. So Moses reminds the people, hey, don't forget, God gave this all to you. He's the Source – the one Creator of everything.
And then, Moses teaches us how to answer our children when they ask: what are all these laws that God has commanded? And, we're given the command not to make covenants or intermarry with the other nations in the land of Israel. Why are these sections here? Well, who – which demographic – is most vulnerable to forgetting God as their Source? Their children. The ones who will not have experienced everything God had done for them in the desert!
So Moses tells us that once we understand and imbibe the value of God's Oneness in ourselves, we have to ensure to teach it those who are most susceptible to missing it – our children. Think about it; don't all children grow up in homes that they haven't built? Eating the produce of vineyards that they haven't planted? And yet all of us – all children, and the children of God – are expected to recognize the Source. And that's why we have the command not to intermarry into the idolatrous nations. Don't let the next generation, those children most vulnerable to forgetting God, adopt the values of idolatry and become blind to their Source.
And of course, the ending is the climax of this idea. We are connected to God, He is our Source, and we love Him – and Moses reminds us here,כִּי מֵאַהֲבַת יְהוָה אֶתְכֶם, God picked you, not because you were numerous, but because He loves you. The speech began with a command to love God, and it concludes with a reminder that God chose Israel out His love for them.
So we have three themes, for three mini-speeches: Israel's Destiny, Israel's Covenant, and God's Oneness. How do these fit together?
How to Have an Intimate Relationship with God
Last week, we saw that the very first speech in the Book of Deuteronomy was about quelling Israel's fear about entering Israel and fighting the Canaanite nations. So Moses reassured them, yes, it's scary, but God is with you, always, and will fight for you. This is the foundation of a relationship: acknowledging that the other is there, and won't leave you.
Then, this week's parsha begins with Speech #1: Israel's Destiny – a destiny that was established when the nation had their first meeting with God, at Sinai, as a people. From a relationship standpoint, this is very next step. God isn't only there, God also speaks to you, appears to you – God meets you, face to face.
Then Moses moves to Speech #2, the covenant between the people and God, in the Ten Commandments. What is the essence of the Ten Commandments? In Rabbi Fohrman's videos on this topic, he explains that the commandments are really expressions of larger principles, which all boil down to one idea: Respect.
Building an Intimate Relationship with God
Most basically, respect is about recognizing the value of others. Whether the relationship is with a family member, a coworker, or God, a real relationship cannot be formed without recognition of the intrinsic value of the other, and giving him or her the space to be.
If you claim to care for someone, but don't respect them, you make the relationship about you, and your desires – and you're really just loving yourself. So, after the people realize that God is there, and after they actually meet God, Moses teaches them the next step in their relationship with God: Respect.
Only then can we move to the highest level in our relationship with God...love. Which brings us to the 3rd speech. God's Oneness leads to love of God, with all of our hearts and souls, and it ends with God's love for us. It's mutual love… the sign of a real, intimate, two-way relationship.
Join us next week on the Parsha Experiment.