Kahal Joseph Congregation

310.474.0559 / webmaster@kahaljoseph.org
10505 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025

Rabbi’s Message

by Rabbi Natan Halevy


In this week’s Haftara we read “But Zion said, the L-rd hath forsaken me, and the L-rd hath forgotten me.” The Midrash tells us that this is a continuation of the theme of the previous Haftara, “Comfort ye, comfort ye My people.” In that first message of comfort, G‑d instructs the prophets to console Israel. To this, Israel’s response is, “The L-rd hath forsaken me.” They seek, in other words, not the voice of the prophets but a consolation that comes directly from G‑d.

In last week’s Parasha we read the first part of Shema, and in this week’s Parasha we read the second part of Shema. Among the differences between the first and second paragraphs of the Shema are the following:

(i) In the first, we are commanded (individually) to “love the L-rd your G‑d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” But in the second, we are addressed (collectively) only with the phrase “with all your heart and with all your soul.” The “might” is missing.

(ii) In the first paragraph, we are told first “And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and talk of them…” and then, “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand…” But in the second paragraph of the Shema, the order is reversed. First “You shall bind them” and only then, “You shall teach them to your children.” The commandments to put on tefillin follow the study of the Torah in the first paragraph of the Shema, but precede it in the second.

(iii) The first paragraph contains only mitzvot. But the second also mentions the rewards (“That your days may be multiplied…”) and the punishments (“The anger of the L-rd be kindled against you…”) which attend them. An underlying difference between the two passages is, as Rashi points out, that the first (written throughout in the singular) is addressed to the individual Jew, while the second (which uses the plural) is directed to Israel as a community.

This applies to the general mitzva of loving G‑d. In addition, the specific mitzvot of tefillin and mezuzah, which occur in both paragraphs, also convey something new when they are reiterated and stated a second time. In Rashi’s words, the extra significance is that “Even after you have been exiled, make yourselves distinctive by means of My mitzvot: Lay tefillin, attach mezuzot, so that these shall not be new (unfamiliar) to you when you return.”

Lastly, there is a nuance which distinguishes the two mitzvot of spreading the knowledge of Torah. “And you shall teach them diligently”—the version in the first paragraph—refers to the obligation of a teacher to his students. “And you shall teach them”—the reading in the second paragraph—refers to the relationship of a parent to children.

All these distinctions stem from a single point of difference: Va’etchanan concerns the revelation and deliverance that come from Above, from G‑d’s grace. Thus it begins with Moses’ supplication to G‑d for His grace, asking that Moshe be allowed to enter the Promised Land. For Moses was G‑d’s emissary through whom came the supernatural events of the Exodus and the journey in the wilderness. Had Moshe been permitted to lead the Israelites across the Jordan, the conquest of the land, too, would have been a supernatural event instead of a slow succession of military victories.

But the Parasha of Ekev is different from Vaetchanan. Ekev is concerned with the human situation, and the revelation a person draws down upon himself or herself by their own acts. So it begins with an account of what a person can achieve, and how: “And it shall come to pass, because you hearken to these judgments….” Even its name, Ekev (“because”), also has the connotation in Hebrew of a “heel”—the lowliest and least sensitive of man’s limbs, and an apt symbolism of his physical nature, which by hearkening to G‑d’s word he can transform.

This contrast is also reflected in the choice of verbs in the opening of the two Parashiot. In Vaetchanan, Moses pleads that he might “see the good land.” But in Ekev, G‑d says “because you hearken to (literally, ‘hear’) these judgments.” “Seeing” describes the vision of the supernatural that G‑d confers in moments of grace. “Hearing” refers to the more distant, less lucid perception of the spiritual, to which man can aspire by his own efforts.

For many, seeing something is clearer and more forceful than hearing about it. Nonetheless, this force and clarity are due to what is seen rather than to the person who sees it. It is the object which is clearly defined; and the person who sees it may still be unaffected by it. But if people have made the effort to hear about something, they have already aroused their feelings and made themselves sensitive to what they are about to hear. It can then enter the inwardness of a person’s soul.

This is true, too, of the difference between Vaetchanan and Ekev. Although the “vision” which Moses sought from G‑d was a greater revelation than the “hearkening” which the Israelites could achieve by themselves, it was less inward—it would have come to each person from outside instead of mounting from within.

The effect on the world would have been different, also. Through G‑d, via Moses, the nations who opposed Israel would have had their hostility utterly removed: “All the inhabitants of Canaan are melted away. Terror and dread fall upon them.” But through Israel’s own faithfulness a greater and more inward transformation would take place: “You shall be blessed above all peoples,” meaning that even Israel’s adversaries would bless and praise her.

Another difference between the two senses in this: seeing is only one of man’s faculties. But hearing touches all—intellect, in striving to understand G‑d’s command; will, in choosing to obey; and practical faculties, in translating intentions into deeds.

Jewish law reflects this. For if someone is guilty of causing a person to become blind, they must compensate the other person for the loss of eyes. But if a person is responsible for someone’s deafness, they must pay the other for the whole value of the other’s life, as if the other person has been robbed of all faculties.

Now we can trace all the many differences between the two paragraphs of the Shema to their source. The first paragraph of Shema belongs to Parashat Vaetchanan, which concerns the revelation from Above, as symbolized by the sense of sight.

The second is from Ekev, which concerns the revelation from within, which is like “hearing.”

Also, the first paragraph is addressed to the individual, the “one,” for it speaks of the revelation from G‑d, the “One,” which awakens the oneness of humanity. This vision of infinity makes a person restless to cast off earthly constraints, and this is why it adds “with all your might.” But the second paragraph, relating as it does to the human situation, speaks in the plural, to the community, for it is addressed to people in their diversity and in the plurality of their powers. The love of G‑d which a person achieves individually is settled and serene (“with all your heart and all your soul”). It does not share that intense desire to rise beyond the world which the words “with all your might” signify.

The first paragraph, as a consequence, sets the study of Torah (the word of G‑d) before the command of tefillin and mezuzah (the act of man). But the second, starting from man and working towards G‑d, reverses the order. The first paragraph also omits any reference to reward and punishment. For faced with a vision of G‑d, man needs no other inducement to do His will. But when he sets out to work towards G‑d from his own situation, he needs at the outset some motive (reward and punishment) that he can understand in purely human terms.

Despite this concession to human frailty, it is here, in the second paragraph, that we find a reference to keeping the mitzvot “even after you have been exiled.” For the first paragraph represents a state of mind where exile might take away the will to obey, might even remove the whole force of the Divine command. If the desire to do G‑d’s will rests on the vision of His presence, then once it is hidden by the dark clouds of exile, the desire too goes into hiding. But when it comes from within man himself, it remains, even in exile, in its strength.

And just as this revelation from within persists whether there is light or darkness in the countenance that G‑d sets towards the world, so it is to be communicated not only to those who have seen the light, the “disciples,” but to everyone; the “children.”

Lastly, we can see the link between the two kinds of revelation represented by Vaetchanan and Ekev, and the two kinds of consolation embodied in their Haftarot.

The revelation that comes from outside of man lacks the ultimate dimension of inwardness. That is why the Haftara of Vaetchanan, “Comfort ye, comfort ye My people,” describes an indirect consolation, one that comes via the prophets.

But the Haftara of Ekev is set in the human attempt to struggle towards G‑d from within. Its opening words dramatically convey this situation at its darkest: “But Zion said, the L-rd hath forsaken me, and the L-rd hath forgotten me.” And yet this is a measure of its inwardness, that the consolations of a prophet are not enough. And so, the Midrash tells us, G‑d accedes to Israel’s request. He admits, “O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, are not comforted.” And He proclaims “I, even I, am He that comforts you”—with the true, the final and the imminent consolation, the coming of the Messianic Age.

Shabbat Shalom U’mevorach

Kahal Joseph Congregation

10505 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025
310.474.0559 / webmaster@kahaljoseph.org