This Week's Torah Portion: The Ten Commandments, With a Twist (Part 42)

We’re publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week’s Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.


Dëvar Torah – Parashath Va’Ethchannan (Deuteronomy III, 23-VII, 11)

This week’s parasha contains both Moshe’s repetition of the ‘Asereth haDibbëroth (“Ten Utterances”, usually mistranslated “the Ten Commandments”; V, 6-18) and the first paragraph of the Shëma‘ (the Jewish declaration of faith; VI, 4-9). The ‘Asereth haDibbëroth are, of course, also found in parashath Yithro (Exodus XX, 2-14).

It is well known that there are several differences in wording between the two versions of the ‘Asereth haDibbëroth. For example, in Exodus XX, 6 we find G-d self-described as: “Vë ‘osé chesed la’alafim lë’ohavai ulëshomërei mitzvothai” (“ … doing kindness for the thousands, for those who love Me and keep My commandments”). The identical verse occurs in our parasha (V, 10) with one slight difference. While the qëri, the traditional reading of the last word is mitzvothai, “My commandments”, the këthiv, the form of the word actually written by a scribe, has a vav in place of the final yud, as though it should be read mitzvothav, “His commandments.” What does this difference mean?

The grammarians define pronouns in terms of proximity to the speaker. Thus “I” is called first person because it represents the speaker himself. “You”, the pronoun used in directly addressing another, is said to be the second person. One degree further from the speaker. “He”, “she,” and “it”, used to discuss a person or object at some distance from either of the first two persons, is said to be the third person.

It follows that the closest possible relationship between two entities is that of “I” and “you”. This is the relationship which Ha-Shem desires and offers to each individual member of Israel. For this reason, the ‘Asereth haDibbëroth, in both versions, pens with: “Anochi Ha-Shem Eloqecha asher hotzéthicha mé’eretz Mitzrayim mibéyth ‘avadim” (“I am Ha-Shem your G-d such that I brought you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slaves”). Each of the individual dibbëroth continues in the same vein, not only in the second person, but in the second person singular. The mitzvoth are a contract not only with Israel in the aggregate, but also a personal relationship with each individual Jew.

We find this same ideal relationship expressed in the first paragraph of the Shëma‘: “And you will love Ha-Shem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” and so throughout, Ha-Shem is the personal Father of each of us; we need only acknowledge the paternity.

But the second paragraph of the Shëma‘ (parashath ‘Eqev, Deuteronomy XI, 13-20) details the consequences for Israel in the aggregate, the sum total of those individual relationships.

First, the ideal: “If you will surely listen to My mitzvoth,” then “I shall grant your country’s rainfall on time … and I shall put grass in your field.” However, should Israel neglect their side of the contract, then: “Ha-Shem will be angry with you and He will close the heavens and there will be no rain, and the ground will not give its yield.” Note that the verbs referring to Ha-Shem shift from the first person to the third person; Ha-Shem is distanced from us. This is the phenomenon called hestér panim, “hiding of (Ha-Shem’s) face” (cf, Deuteronomy XXXI, 17-18).

This is the modality to which our verse alludes. The exalted Israel, accepting their mission to be the standard-bearer of Ha-Shem in this world, His “kingdom of priests and holy nation” (Exodus XIX, 6), as they did at the foot of Sinai, merit the closest possible relationship with Ha-Shem. We find the qëri and këthiv both reading mitzvothai, “My commandments.” In our parasha, Moshe characterizes the relationship at Sinai in the most intimate terms (V, 4): “Face to face Ha-Shem spoke with you on the mountain, from out of the fire.”

But in our verse, Moshe is addressing the ambiguous future, in which Israel’s relationship with G-d may be less close, if the sum total of Israel adds up to something less than their previous exalted state. Therefore, our verse is more ambiguous. We can still experience the original intimacy of mitzvothai, or the comparative alienation of mitzvothav, “His mitzvoth.”

But we are all in this together. The verse addresses ohavai vëshomërei mitzvothai, the pious and righteous people (as the great 12th Century sage Avraham ibn ‘Ezra reads Exodus). The great people of the generation who, we may be sure, individually merit this intimacy with Ha-Shem and, on an individual level, achieve it. It is, paradoxically, these same good and great people who most feel the hestér, the remoteness and alienation, when it comes upon Israel as a collective.

Thus, the Ramban writes concerning Deuteronomy XXXI, 18 that the hestér panim described therein is hestér pë ei hagë’ulla, “hiding of the face of redemption”, “and [those great and good people] will remain steadfast in the promise of the face of His mercy, as it is written. “And even despite this, while they were in their enemies’ land, I did not despise them nor did I loathe them” [Leviticus XXVI, 44], until Israel will add to their regret [over the idolatry of the First Temple period] with a full confession and perfect repentance, as we find supra: ‘And you will return to Ha-Shem your G-d’ [ibid., XXX, 2].”

This goes far to explain certain seeming lapses of rabbinic judgment, of da‘ath Torah, in our history such as Rabbi ‘Aqiva’s otherwise inexplicable proclamation of Shim‘on bar Kochva as Israel’s anointed king. How else to explain it, save that, in exile, what is hidden is the face of gë’ulla.

We must not despair. However things seem, Ha-Shem has not abandoned us. The verse from Leviticus cited supra by the Ramban continues: “I did not despise them nor did I loathe them to destroy them to overturn My covenant with them.” The mitzvoth remain the same as always; nothing is to be added to nor subtracted from them, either collectively (Deuteronomy IV, 2) or individually (ibid,. XII, 1). Our steadfast perseverance, our renewed efforts to bridge the chasm and effect that return will, with G-d’s help, bear fruit. We will again see the collective intimacy restored, and mitzvothav will be revealed to be what they always have been, mitzvothai.