Torah Portion Vaetchanan Notes
Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11 

Introduction

I.      Read 3:23-26.

23 It was also at that same time that I begged the Lord: 24 Please, Lord God! You have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. What god in heaven or on earth can act as you do or can perform your deeds and powerful acts? 25 Please let me cross over the Jordan River so I can see the wonderful land that lies beyond it: those beautiful highlands, even the Lebanon region.  26 But the Lord was angry with me because of you! He wouldn’t listen to me. He said to me: That’s enough from you! Don’t ever ask me about this again!

What do you make of this? I thought God had been clear with Moses, and that Moses had courageously and dutifully accepted his fate?

(Moses certainly deeply wanted to go into the land. He had won the victory in the Transjordan in service of God. That might have encouraged him further to make the plea. Do we not hold onto hope for a dream we have even when we know it is no longer achievable, or at least until we’ve done all we can, and it’s “enough”? Or is he teaching that we all should hold to hope until it is absolutely clear it will be to no avail, and that payer to God is always in order until the outcome is absolutely clear?

 It does seem a bit out of character for him to plea in this fashion. Could there be a hidden and different reason for his telling us this? Note the language: Moses is telling us he pleaded with God. And he reports that God was wrathful with him on the people’s account. His loss of not getting in surely creates a pathos that makes us care for him more, cherish his leadership and create a debt toward him and his message to us. If Moses can’t get in the land because of us, how much more bound we are to listen, learn, remember, and follow. So, rather than being a sort of sad second try, Moses’ action here might really be a powerful leadership gesture.)

II. Read 4:1-2. Why would Moses’ discussion of the mitzvoth begin with this?

 Now, Israel, in light of all that, listen to the regulations and the case laws that I am teaching you to follow, so that you may live, enter, and possess the land that the Lord, your ancestors’ God, is giving to you. Don’t add anything to the word that I am commanding you, and don’t take anything away from it. Instead, keep the commands of the Lord your God that I am commanding all of you.

(This could relate narrowly to the teaching that there is just one God and that nothing should distract from that. Perhaps it simply means that his focusing on many, but not all, of the mitzvoth should not be misunderstood to suggest that there are a different number than were revealed. Or in the writing down or in the memory of them that there not be an error.

 But, it likely is much broader. Surely, there’s room for interpretation of the meaning of the mitzvoth (so long as the criteria are solid and strong), and changes in interpretation or emphasis have been made over time. Indeed, as we’ll see later today, Moses does this himself. But this mitzvah contains a powerful warning against easy or radical change.

I think it goes to what are the “clothes,” what is the “body,” and what is the “soul” of the mitzvah. The prohibition against adding to or subtracting from the Instruction goes, I think, to the commitment we have to be extremely cautious about change that alters the body and certainly the soul of the mitzvoth. Such change is serious and worrisome enough to merit this early focus. First, changing suggests that God’s word can be altered, perhaps even fundamentally. Second, on top of that, it would permit those in power or fashion to use their strength or influence in their own interest to turn God’s way into mores or rules that fit their interests, not God’s.

So, instead of the stability and sureness of the way that was revealed to us, what we would get would be a masked and altered version of it, indeed something that changes and fundamentally serves the interests of those in power at the time. There’s nothing just, fair, or reliable about such a system. This is why this is primary in importance.

Yet, what is interpretation and emphasis on the one hand and what is addition and subtraction on the other, and whether or not and how each generation should give meaning to these verses have been, are, and will be a source of continuing debate and difference - to be sure.)

III. Read 4:5-9, 15, 23, 25-31. These verses provide a good summary of Moses’ basic teaching to the people in these orations. Can you identify the key features?

So pay attention! I am teaching all of you the regulations and the case laws exactly as the Lord my God commanded me. You must do these in the land you are entering to possess. Keep them faithfully because that will show your wisdom and insight to the nations who will hear about all these regulations. They will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and insightful people!” After all, is there any great nation that has gods as close to it as the Lord our God is close to us whenever we call to him? Or does any great nation have regulations and case laws as righteous as all this Instruction that I am setting before you today?

But be on guard and watch yourselves closely so that you don’t forget the things your eyes saw and so they never leave your mind as long as you live. Teach them to your children and your grandchildren.

15 So watch your conduct closely, because you didn’t see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the very fire itself.

 23 So all of you, watch yourselves! Don’t forget the covenant that the Lord your God made with you by making an idol or an image of any kind or anything the Lord your God forbids,

25 Once you have had children and grandchildren and have grown old on the land, if you ruin things by making an idol, in any form whatsoever, and do what is evil in the eyes of the Lord your God and anger him, 26 I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you today: You will definitely disappear—and quickly—from the land that you are crossing over the Jordan River to possess. You won’t extend your time there but will instead be totally destroyed. 27 The Lord will scatter you among the nations. Only a very few of you will survive in the countries where the Lord will drag you. 28 There you will worship other gods, made of wood and stone by human hands—gods that cannot see, listen, eat, or smell. 29 You will seek the Lord your God from there, and you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your being. 30 In your distress, when all these things happen to you in the future, you will return to the Lord your God and you will obey his voice,31 because the Lord your God is a compassionate God. He won’t let you go, he won’t destroy you, and he won’t forget the covenant that he swore to your ancestors.

 (A. We are to follow God’s ways. We are bound to the covenant. We cleave to God. This is proof to the world of this powerful wisdom and discernment. God is forever close, responsive to our call, hears our prayers. In return, we are to be true to God’s expectations in the land. The “land” is ours to serve God there. We are God’s people, redeemed to be “a nation that is a heritage.” This is the legacy of the revelation to us at Sinai. 

B. Yet, we are prone to forget. Once we go astray, accustom ourselves to wickedness, we no longer have a claim to the land. God is the Creator, not the created. We are not to bow down to objects and idols. We stray into wickedness when we turn from God to an ultimate concern with images and the material. We forfeit the land when we do. 

C. Moses speaks as if this is such a powerful risk that such an eventuality is perhaps likely. He warns vividly, and will again and again in these orations that this will lead to destruction. Eerily, he speaks also as if there will be a remnant, and that the covenant will always be there, the promise will always be available to the remnant that stays true or returns.

Some scholars see pieces of this text coming in during the Assyrian period or even the exile, which would make these observations more a reflection of contemporary relevance than merely predictive of a future time. This would put this appeal right in the middle of the prophetic push for return. I don’t want us to divert to that path, but it’s worth keeping in mind, certainly for dimension.)

IV. We won’t discuss the rest of chapter 4, but I do commend it to your attention. It is a powerful account of God’s work in the world and the extraordinary gifts and blessings God has brought to our lives.

V. Read 5:2-4.

The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Mount Horeb. The Lord didn’t make this covenant with our ancestors but with us—all of us who are here and alive right now. The Lord spoke with you face-to-face on the mountain from the very fire itself.

What strikes you about these verses?

 (Most of these people were NOT physically at the mountain; their parents were, yes. But they (and we) were not. Yet, Moses is saying the covenant was not made with our fathers (at least not with them alone), but with us! Meaning?

It’s for each generation! It’s always current, and it always binds and supports the people who are “here today.” God speaks face to face to YOU  on the mountain out of the fire! This brings the instruction and God’s expectations directly to us.)

VI. All of that sets the table for another discussion of the Decalogue. We won’t study it in detail again here. But I do want us to look at a few new emphases here and think about why the differences.

A.    Read 12. Do you see a difference from the earlier text on the sabbath. (Here it is more about observing or safeguarding, as opposed to remembering. Any significance?

 12 Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the Lord your God commanded:

(This portion is a lot about doing, experiencing, observing, and going deeper. The details of the spiritual and joyful elements as well as the negative (the avoiding  of the ordinary on the day) - all these call for verbs that are more descriptive than “remember.” Some have concluded there’s a dual duty - both to remember and observe. Indeed a traditional view is that actually both were said at Sinai.

 Note, too, that Moses links the duty to the sabbath to God the Redeemer, as opposed to God the Creator. That would create a different or additional sense of meaning in the day, would it not?)

 B. Read 16. Any differences?

 16 Honor your father and your mother, exactly as the Lord your God requires, so that your life will be long and so that things will go well for you on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.

(A phrase has been added to the idea that honoring one’s father and mother will yield length of days in the land. Here it’s also that “it will be good for you” upon the land. Meaning? 

Length of days conveys either long life, long tenure in the land, or perhaps even eternal life, all of which are very good. But the new phrase adds a sense of quality, does it not, that however long it will be, it will be good in the moments in between, in addition to its quantity.) 

C. Read 17-20. Note the forbidden testimony is that which is “unfounded,” as opposed to false in the Exodus account. Meaning?

 1Do not murder.   18 Do not commit adultery.   19 Do not steal.   20 Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.

(More inclusive. Without foundation or grounding, perhaps misleading, which is more than outright false. A bit of a hedge against testimony that does not serve a just result.)

 D. Also note in 21 that we may not desire or crave that which belongs to others, as well as covet, which was prohibited in the Exodus text. Moses seems to be going deeper here, to prevent something of the thinking and desiring phase that comes before coveting. Also, the wife of your fellow is mentioned first here, whereas the property was mentioned first in Exodus. I don’t think the reason for this requires explanation, right?

21 Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife. Do not crave your neighbor’s house, field, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

Moses taught that we were not to add or subtract from the Instruction, as we learned earlier today. If that’s so, what has he just been doing?

 (I would say interpreting, getting to a deeper understanding, finding a way to see the teaching in ways that best fits the needs of the people he sees before him, the current generation. This, I think, is a great model for how we ourselves can look at the text, and benefit from our own study of the mitzvoth for our own lives in our own times, while being true to the core of the whole text itself.)

VII. Read 6:4-9. A. This is the watchword of Judaism, leading into one of the main prayers of Jewish worship. Any thoughts about why this text is so significant?

 Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength. These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.

(The Oneness and the sovereignty of God. Love of God with great depth (with all our heart, that is, with understanding and feeling, or wholeheartedly; with all our soul (or each and every breath), that is, with one’s deepest, most eternal part, one’s life force, indeed from many places  that are untapped but could and should be tapped; with all our might, that is, with strength and wealth) for that love. The acts of listening, acknowledgement through faith, loving with commitment, and passing on to children and to all whom we can lead or teach. At all times, and in all places. In our mind, our sight, and in our action. And in our habitations.) 

B. Crucially, we are to love God. What does all this teach us about what it means to love God? (Also, can love be commanded? Or, as Rosenzweig suggests, could it be that, in the form of command, this really is the Lover calling out in love to us, “Love Me?”)

(Follow God’s instructions, indeed in love. Living as God expects and in ways that encourage God to be beloved by others. 

A deep and committed yearning that comes from the deepest places. It entails following God in a way akin to cleaving. It’s commanded, taught, and, yet, crucially, natural. Importantly, it comes, in part, from thinking, studying, and teaching God’s word. It calls upon our strength. It has a basis in loyalty and trust. It’s not a part time activity done only in certain places. Rather it should be with us at all times and in all places, as much as we can. It is something that’s important to teach and pass on. Following God’s ways and being true to God in love helps us face life’s challenges. And, as we studied, loving God entails, and helps us in, loving our fellows. 

VIII. Read 6:10-12. What’s the basic message here, and its importance?

10 Now once the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to you—a land that will be full of large and wonderful towns that you didn’t build, 11 houses stocked with all kinds of goods that you didn’t stock, cisterns that you didn’t make, vineyards and olive trees that you didn’t plant—and you eat and get stuffed, 12 watch yourself! Don’t forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

(Our blessings come from God! We should never succumb to prosperity as if it was our doing and merits our devotion or faith.)

Conclusion

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