Parashah Va’etchanan

Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Haftarah:  Isaiah 40:1-26

Topic:  Chosen People

This coming Shabbat is called the Sabbath of comforting, Shabbat Nachamu;  the name is taken from the first word of the haftarah.  It is the shabbat that follows the fast of the 9th of Av which we mentioned last week.  Nachama is the first of the seven haftarot of comfort that lead up to the Jewish High Holy Days.

The parashah continues Moses’ final address to the people.  It includes a second reading of the Ten Commandments (5:5-19:  the first one is Exodus 20:1-14) and the ‘Shema’ (6:4-10) which is the best known of all the Jewish prayers.  Its name is taken from the opening verse:  “Hear, O Israel (Shema Yisrael), the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  The Shema is the first prayer that Jews learn as children and the last one that they utter before leaving this world.  Religious Jews recite the Shema every day of the year, morning and evening.

The language of va’etchanan is powerful, intense and urgent. Moses is passionately engaged with the message he wishes to convey and his evocation of God is openly and unabashedly anthropomorphic:  “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God …”  If Israel strays after idolatry they will “utterly perish” from off the land they are about to possess (4:24-26).  Israel must not worship idols, “graven images, even the form of anything at all”.  Idolatrous objects are not merely to be avoided or dismantled:  “You shall break down their altars, dash in pieces their pillars, chop down their sacred trees and burn their graven images in fire”  (7:5).  Idolatry is not only intrinsically wrong:  it is a spiritual equivalent of adultery and betrayal. 

There are several references to the covenant between God and Israel in the sidra (4:13;  5:2+3) but to see the relationship in purely formal or juridical terms is misleading.  Chapter 7 is the source for the much discussed notion of the chosen people and the language of the relationship, particularly words such as ‘chashak’ and ‘ahar’, ‘desire’ and ‘love’ indicate a depth of personal engagement that goes far beyond the normal terms of contractual obligation.  “For you are a holy people for the Lord your God who has chosen (bachar) you to be His own treasure (segulah) from all the peoples upon the face of the earth.  Not because you were more in number than any people … because you are the smallest of the peoples … because the Lord loved you and would keep the oath he swore to your fathers …”  (7:6-8).

God’s love is reciprocated in the second verse of the Shema:  “And you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your soul and all that you possess” (6:5).  “All of your soul” is taken by the rabbis as a reference to martyrdom, to giving up one’s life in circumstances when that is required.

Covenant is very different from contract.  One of its most extraordinary features is that the relationship remains, even in the event of a complete dereliction on the part of Israel which would lead to their being scattered among the nations and eventually worshipping other gods (4:28).  Wherever they are and whatever happens, they will one day return to the Lord their God (4:29).  As we see later on (30:4), even if they are scattered to the end of the heavens, “from thence (God) will gather you in, and from thence will He fetch you.”

For me, the idea of a chosen people only makes sense in a universal context, as a gift for the wider world.  From the very beginning, Abraham is told that his descendants will be a great nation and “in you shall all of the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12;3).  This is taken up by Isaiah’s concept of “a light to the nations” (49:6) and his vision of Jerusalem as an inspiration for the world and a source of peace for its nations and its peoples (Isaiah 2). 

The inspiration would come from a society that was governed by the Divine ideals of justice and compassion and that, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “has a preferential option for the poor and the marginal”.  He quotes Deuteronomy 10:17-19 which speaks of God “executing justice for the orphan and the widow and who loves strangers, providing them with food and clothing”.  Israel in turn is enjoined to do likewise:  “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (10:19).

The idea of a chosen people need not preclude God having profound relationships with other peoples and communities.  There is an extraordinary – and rarely quoted – attestation of this in Isaiah 19:18-24, which includes God sending a saviour to the oppressed of Egypt who will defend and deliver them.  The passage concludes:  “On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of Hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt, my people, and Assyria, the work of my hands, and Israel, my heritage.’”  There is also God’s fascinating relationship with Cyrus, “His anointed”, in Isaiah 45 – “I have called you by your name … though you do not know me” (45:4).

The Hebrew Bible takes for granted that God experiences passion and emotion – thus the depth of the Divine relationship with Israel.  Elizabeth Johnson strikingly contrasts the great Jewish religious scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel with the mainline of modern theism that drew on classical Greek philosophy.  For Heschel, “God is a God of pathos, who feels intensely:  loves, cares, is glad, gets angry over injustice, urges, prods, forgives, weeps, grieves, promises, pours out mercy … and loves some more.  Pathos … is a central symbol of the prophets’ understanding of God.  It serves as … a code for the covenanting God’s participation in the life story of the world.”

For the Greeks it was not conceivable that God would experience emotion.  They sharply distinguished spirit and matter, with God as pure spirit.  Spirit privileges the immortal soul and reason;  spirit is closer to the Divine, while matter drags the spirit down to the messiness of the earth, including the body and all its emotions.  God as pure spirit is beyond all emotion.  Possessing all perfections, the Divine nature cannot be affected by the world and cannot suffer.  Biblical thought, by contrast, does not distinguish spirit and matter, and emotion is “every bit as spiritually valuable as thought”.

I encountered this conflict at school when I unwisely told a visiting Rabbi that I was reading Heschel.  The Rabbi was a Cambridge philosophy graduate who was devoted to Maimonides – and Aristotle = and found Heschel deeply alarming.  I, in turn, found the Rabbi’s understanding of God as a purely rational being to be wholly unbearable.  Fortunately, Heschel and some of the great Christian thinkers who had been touched by the horrors of the twentieth century share my response, but I gather the debate still continues.

Jonathan Gorsky