Painting by Yoram Raanan.
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan www.yoramraanan.com
The Hebrew calendar is a kaleidoscope of Jewish history, directing us to re-experience and thus eternalize the most significant events of our recorded six-millennial existence.
The calendar also provides theological texture to our historical remembrances.
Hence we have just concluded the three-week period of prophetic readings each Shabbat of retributive punishment culminating in the “black” fast of Tisha Be’av commemorating the loss of our Holy Temples, and we now begin the seven weeks of prophetic readings of consoling comfort, culminating in the Ten Days of Repentance which conclude with the “white” fast of Yom Kippur, promising universal forgiveness and redemption.
What will provide the consoling comfort that will lift our sagging spirits from living in exile bereft of the Holy Temple? Would it be another Holy Temple to replace the ones we lost, sanctuaries of sacrificial rites granting forgiveness from sin and purification from defilement? You will remember that on last Shabbat’s prophetic reading the prophet decried the sacrifices, claiming that God was “sated with the whole burnt offerings, weary of the Israelite sacrificial celebrations.”
He saw the gifts as mere indulgences, bribes to whitewash the evil deeds of the Israelites.
What God really desired was: “Wash yourselves, purify yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease doing evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17). In other words, God wants the Israelites to remove the transgressions for which the Temple was destroyed in the first place.
Israel must recapture its original mission, the mission for which God chose Israel as His special nation: “Abraham will surely be a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him. For I have loved [chosen] him because he commands his children and his household after him to take responsibility for the paths of the Lord, doing acts of compassionate righteousness and moral justice…” (Gen. 18:18-19) On this basis we can understand the view of Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, who suggested that in the Third Temple there would eventually be no meat sacrifices, only meal (grain) offerings: “The meal afternoon offering is sweet savor unto the Lord.” After all, he argues, does not Isaiah declare that in Messianic times, “they will neither do evil nor destroy in the entire Mount of My Holiness, for the wisdom of the Lord will fill the earth as the waters fill the seas” (Isaiah 11:9). And does the Torah not prohibit wanton destruction of animal life? In messianic times, everyone will become vegetarian.
Perhaps this is precisely why the Holy Temple was destroyed, the “sticks and stones” which served as the physical backdrop for the animal sacrifices, which had become a substitute for the compassionate righteousness and moral justice that God truly desires. Perhaps that is also why, during the entire period of the Second Temple, the Judeans continued to fast on the ninth day of Av (Maimonides, Interpretation of the Mishna, Rosh Hashana 1.3); the Temple was not the remedy; truly righteous living is the remedy. “Zion will be redeemed by moral justice, and those who return to her by compassionate righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27).
Hence on this Shabbat of consoling comfort (nahamu), we read the portion of Va’et’hanan, which contains the true watchword of our faith, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This seemingly simple but actually most profound verse is the quintessence of the Jewish mission, the very purpose of our having become a nation. “Hear O Israel, the Lord (YHVH) is our God,” the first part of the verse, sets the stage for our fundamental “God definition.”
El means power, Elohim the sum total of all powers of the universe, the powers evidenced in the majestic and miraculous act of creation. The verse is saying that this God of Power and Creation is actually YHVH, the God of consummate and unconditional love.
HVH is the same root as “ahavah,” ahvh – the Hebrew word for love (the vet and the vav are interchanged, as in ta’ava [lust] with a vav and te’avon [appetite] with a vet). The message is clear: Our God, whose powers we fear, is in reality a God of love and ultimate concern.
The root word hav means to give; the God of love gives and demands unqualified love, or compassionate righteousness; to sensitively discern what your neighbor requires and to do right by him in your helping of him. Love your neighbor as yourself; empower him to be free and self-sufficient. This is mature love and righteous giving. This will lead to a society of moral justice.
It is this message, embodied in the Ten Commandments likewise found in this portion – which Israel must teach the world. Our God of Power and Love must be accepted by the world in righteous justice if indeed the free world is to live and flourish. God loves everyone – His children, born from His Divine Image sharing a “Divine Nation Association” (DNA) – and everyone must love Him: Only then will humanity continue. That is exactly what the Prophet Zechariah says (8:19): “So says the Lord of Hosts, ‘The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth month and the fast of the seventh month and the fast of the tenth month will be for the House of Judea days of gladness, rejoicing and festivals of celebration – but truth and peace must you love.’”
Shabbat shalom Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His latest book, The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.