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Torah Commentary
Va-et'chanan (August 9, 2014)

Dr. Frederick S. Roden

Moses: Teacher of Love

IT’S HARD TO FORGET VA-ET’CHANAN, considering that here we find not only the Sh’ma and V’ahavta (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) but also a recitation of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-18). Va-et’chanan concerns the dangers of forgetting. We see the fullest realization of the sacred calling of the person of Moses: as teacher. This portion is preoccupied with futurity, the reality that the community will outlive Moses’ spiritual leadership. Moses, who wrestled with his vocation from the beginning (who was he to play an exalted role?), finally has become it so entirely that he must release it. In Va-et’chanan Moses names what must be remembered when he is no more. This is the secret to every great teacher: avoiding the idolatry that we are so necessary that our students cannot survive our departure. It is an affirmation of l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, the confirmation of continuity in the face of our own mortality and the awareness that change can result in growth. The “mission of Israel” is bigger than Moses’ personality; he must step back, be prepared to let another lead. If he were to cling to the idolatry of self, Moses would devolve into a guru. Even so, in letting go, Moses must crystallize the essence of the message he’s been called to witness: the Oneness of a God of love.

Va-et’chanan begins with Moses’ failed plea to God that he might enter the Land. From the first fiery foliage, Moses has been a “visionary.” Moses will see the Land as he envisions Israel’s future, even if he may not literally witness the unfolding. Moving from sight to sound, the narrative articulates what must be spoken: the laws and rules to be carried over to the Land. The Latin root of the English word “translation” means precisely this, “carrying across.” Our struggle for meaning in ancient texts re-enacts the work of cultural translation for a people in “transition,” the journey over. Moses’ rhetoric is a teacher’s review of the main points told with the urgency of fear of loss, a personal and collective anxiety. When Moses speaks of care and scruple lest we forget (Deuteronomy 4:9), he voices a crisis of what will remain after he makes his mortal transition. Our age struggles with a similar anxiety about Holocaust memory. The recording of so much testimony has become the writing of a new scripture for future generations.

As Moses repeatedly stresses the dangers of idolatry, we hear the agony of the ego in letting go, fully acknowledging the oneness of the people Israel in covenant with God. To claim immortality for himself would be blasphemy: hubris, tragic pride. A delicate balance between holding on and renouncing impels Moses to impart what matters most. To find God, one need only seek Him (Deuteronomy 4:29). That journey inward, paralleled in the Torah’s legendary quest outward to a Promised Land, has been the meaning and purpose of his life. In Deuteronomy 5:32 and following, Moses extols the power of the individual and communal story. As both bard and sage, he recounts the extraordinary narrative of a people led by God. Moses makes it clear that the tale is not stuck in history, lost to the past. It must live anew in each telling. This is how a teacher creates the future. As stated in Deuteronomy 5:2, “It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today.” We affirm this belief as we endeavor to make the stories of our tradition alive in each generation and for every individual.

The vocation of the teacher is to enact the work of translation: to interpret abstract knowledge. When Moses speaks the Ten Commandments here in Va-et’chanan, he identifies the role he’s played. Alone on Sinai he encountered Oneness in order to distill the essence of Its meaning for the whole community. If we view Moses as just a messenger, then we deny his sacred calling: the work of God in the world achieved by human hands and minds. After affirming the promises of the covenanted relationship with God in the commandments, Moses proclaims the Sh’ma and V’ahavta. Law is succeeded by Love. The oneness of Oneness is affirmed; the love for God in body, soul, and strength professed and located in both personal and generational time. This one commandment transcends physical, temporal and spiritual geographies. The oneness of Love and the love of Oneness are written on the body and every transition it makes.

The rest of Va-et’chanan seeks nothing more than preservation of oneness, avoidance of anything that might disrupt the people of Israel’s integrity. Rather than dismissing tribalism as particularism, we can understand the covenantal relationship of “a people consecrated to the Lord” (Deuteronomy 7:6) as a prelude to the “mission of Israel.” The teachings of the prophets would produce a universal wisdom fit for “All the World” (in the words of our beautiful hymn). Yet, it all begins with one small ethnic community and one mythic leader who shapes biblical narrative as a teacher and who must allow his students to succeed him. Psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl taught that a sense of meaning and purpose gives us reason for being. He once asked a class what they thought his own meaning and purpose was. One student observed that Frankl’s meaning and purpose was to help others to discern their meaning and purpose. In Va-et’chanan, we see that Viktor Frankl embodied Moses’ wisdom as a teacher. May we strive to follow their examples.

Temple member Dr. Frederick S. Roden serves on the Program Committee, Readers Panel and Ushers Committee. A professor in the University of Connecticut English department, he writes about religion and gender.

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