Destiny and Morality
by Rabbi Andy Bachman
Two salient ideas ground this week’s Torah portion, ואתחנן/Va-Ethannan.
One, that through the human faculty of hearing (it is here, in this parshah, where the שמע/Shma is first revealed) we can learn of God’s oneness and unity of all things by listening, discerning, patiently absorbing without speaking.
And two, that the Land of Israel is central to the narrative of the Jewish people – both as an object of our aspirations that is meant to be achieved as well as an unattainable place of our yearnings that forever eludes us.
Moses opens the portion by pleading to God to be granted the privilege of entering the Land of Israel: “I pray you, let me go over and see the good land that is beyond Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon.” The Hasidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, teaches that “Moses prayed he’d be able to see the good of the land, and not the way the Ten Spies (who saw themselves as grasshoppers) had seen it. God does allow Moses to see the Land, to envision it, as it were, from the “summit of Pisgah,” a bittersweet personal horizon of distance that is memorialized beautifully by the Sages throughout the Midrash. God, however, reminds Moses that because of his earlier sin (losing his temper, smashing the rock to draw water for the complaining rabble of Israelites, not crediting the Source of Life for the sustenance) he is not to merit this achievement.
A tension is introduced in our Tradition between national and spiritual aspirations and historical reality: the Land of Israel we want to see and the Land of Israel we see. Bringing the two together is at times a bridge we are unable to cross.
How to resolve?
Moses is awakened to the idea that what each of us learns throughout the course of living lives of reflection and meaning is that none of us can ever merit seeing into the future but rather must take comfort in knowing that if we’ve lived well ourselves and taught the next generation to uphold the values of Torah, then the future will be secure.
Of course – whose values of Torah? The Haredi/Secular divide in Israel has never been greater. Vast distances separate contemporary communities in Israel. Can there be hope in a Land so greatly split?
The German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches about this week’s portion that whereas most people establish a nation and then write their laws, the Children of Israel first received their Laws – the Torah on Mount Sinai – and then entered the Land to establish a nation. That is to say, the moral underpinnings of Jewish people in their land are critical to the conceptualization of Jewish nationhood. That this week’s portion is the source from which we derive the Shma (the statement of God’s radical oneness) and a reiteration of the Ten Commandments (our fundamental moral code) emphasizes this view. The Jewish people here represent a nation founded on the Oneness of God and all humanity as well as a basic moral guide for the foundation and sustenance of that national vision.
It puts into a broader and vitally important context that questions of fair wages, minority &immigrant rights, women’s rights, and housing policy (to name but a few) are among the many moral questions demanding resolution for which the Jewish state was actually established. In coming together to build a nation in a Land, one must never shrink from the demands of one’s moral destiny.
Closer to home here in America, one is challenged to ask in an election year to articulate what unifies the citizens of this land of freedom; what values are shared; and what grounds our shared mission for maintaining the moral structures of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. In this formulation, the Torah and the Constitution represent bold prescriptions for what ought to be, the measure against which we test our mettle as Jews and Americans.
Rabbi Andy Bachman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Originally posted at Water Over Rocks