1. We start this week with a very new concept. The 40 years in the desert aren’t presented as a punishment, but as a test so that Hashem will knows what is in the heart. It raises three obvious questions. First, how does Hashem not know what is in the heart? And second, what test involves the death of an entire generation? And, finally, did the people pass? The first question is easily answered – the test changes the reality of the heart. Through their 40 years, the people can develop the characteristics of passage just as Avraham did with the Akeidah. The second can be answered by realizing that this is a test of the people. As individuals, we pass a baton and carry on the building of character across generations. The third question is the hardest to answer. Did we pass? Perhaps there is the beginning of an answer in Hashem commanding the hornets to kill, but not telling the beasts to clear out? The people in the land may be vomited out, but at the present time, the animals still seem more worthy than us.
  2. Moshe describes the children of Anak having cities fortified to the heavens. This is like my son Yitzchak asking whether the Rockies touch the sky. It seems like nonsense. But the word Batzar can mean withhold. Vitzurot Bashamaim can mean withhold in heaven. We are then told that unlike the more general nations we conquer slowly in the first reading, the children of Anak will be conquered quickly. Their fortifications against heaven are their undoing. Why say this? Perhaps as a lesson for us. In the first part of the reading we discuss becoming haughty through success and our acts of building. We are described as being fortified against heaven. If we become the children of Anak we will suffer as they do – we will be conquered quickly no matter what our reputation.
  3. Parshat Devarim seemed to speak to responsibility, Parshat Vaetchanan spoke to love of parents. This parsha gets into the nitty gritty – the continual rebellion. It is almost like the Jewish people are drug addicts. Moshe gives us a talk about responsibility – but then about love. We’re being taken in by Hashem as a favor/promise to our parents. But we haven’t passed the test of being past our addiction. And all the reasonable people say we can’t pass that test. But it is core to Hashem’s message (as we see in the upcoming Yom Kippur Haftorah) that we bring in the poor and needy. Moshe’s defense of the egel is not only that Hashem will be seen as not keeping his promise – but that Hashem’s message that the downtrodden can be uplifted will be proved wrong. In this second rendition he says the land we were brought from will claim he grew to hate us – and perhaps that that land was correct in thinking we were best off as slaves.
    1. a.      Another interesting adjustment is that Moshe reports that Hashem wanted to destroy Aaron after the Egel – which wasn’t mentioned before. The stated punishment for the sin of the Egel was being blotted from the book – but Aaron doesn’t suffer that.
  4. But Moshe’s defense is not just words. Hashem follows is up by making him pesel luchot so Hashem can write on them. Pesel is used in only two contexts – fashioning a particularly odious kind of idol and Moshe’s making of the second set of luchot. Why? Working with stone is unlike any other thing. It lasts. Like Kedusha, work in stone can almost be timeless. We have many ancient stone idols. And because of this, it is dangerous. Why does Moshe need to cut the shape of the second set of Luchot in this way? And why mention it here? Hashem was going to give us G-d formed luchot. But we sinned. Going back to drug addiction – it is one thing to say the addict should be given another chance. But the addict needs a token of commitment. They need to make a permanent statement that they are interested in being fixed before they can be fixed. So when Moshe pesels the second luchot, he forms them himself. He creates a permanent space that is ready for the words of G-d.
  5. But a permanent space is not enough. Like an addict we have to continually refresh our dedication to staying rebellion free. And Hashem (as pointed out) is a true judge – so we need to have more than the favor granted by our forefathers. This is where the concept of circumcising the foreskin of the heart comes in. We all, in ourselves, need to take that step. If we don’t, we become the children do not know or see the Exodus. But if we do take that step, then we become actual witnesses and participants in the Exodus and covenant.
  6. With Egypt, Moshe talks about planting and watering. But with Israel, he mentions only the gathering of the crops, not the planting and not the maintenance. Elsewhere we mention planting in Israel, but not here. Why? An answer is that we are contrasting the lands. Earlier, Egypt would feel vindicated if Hashem condemned us. Here, we see why. Egypt cares about planting and watering. But the land of Israel cares about our commitment to Hashem – which results in crops. In other places we talk about the work of sowing and planting – they remain important but the contrast here is what is critical.
    1. a.      In a very strange bit Egypt sees us watering by foot like a green garden. But in Egypt, the land watered itself through flooding – no feet were necessary. The word can also mean irrigate. This might be to dig channels and demonstrate the character of a great nation through work.
  7. In this final reading, we see that we possess the nations everywhere the palm of our foot goes. This is very strange terminology. I believe it is in contrast to the irrigation of Egypt. In Egypt, they use their feet to irrigate with water. But in Israel, our feet irrigate with G-dliness. Our crop, ultimately, is not just grain but holiness, contentment and peace. If we circumcise our hearts and ready ourselves for Hashem – just asking for our addition to rebellion to be removed – then we can indeed be raised far above the material-only world of the Egyptians.


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