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Torah Commentary
Va-et'chanan (August 1, 2015)

Rachel Brumberg, Associate Director of Lifelong Learning

IN THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION, Parashat Va-et’chanan, Moses continues to tell the story of what has happened to him and the Israelites in the desert. The narrative includes Moses’ pleading with God to allow him to enter the Promised Land (which of course is denied), Moses telling the Israelites to follow God’s laws, the receiving of the Ten Commandments and a reminder not to worship other gods.

As I read about Moses imploring the Israelites to follow God’s law, I was struck by something: Several times Moses reminds the Israelites that when they heard God’s voice they saw no figure. Because of this he tells the Israelites that they specifically are not allowed to try and visualize the voice or create a sculptured image of any kind to represent God. Moses tells them to remember the exact scene when they were gathered at the foot of the mountain waiting to hear from God: They heard a voice and saw fire. God’s commandments are to be accepted and obeyed solely on the sound of God’s words and their experience — what God may look like, therefore, is completely irrelevant.

It is not difficult to understand why the Israelites would want to create a material likeness of God. It is part of human nature to want to see things in an attempt to make it more relatable. This often happens without even realizing it. When you hear a voice on the radio do you get an image in your head of what the person looks like? Have you ever been surprised to see a puppeteer in person when your only association with the voice is a cute furry animal? It is hard to deny that we have preconceived notions about physical appearances, and when we are confronted with only a part of that which we have come to define as a whole being, we want to paint the rest of the picture. Often there is a disconnect between our assumptions and reality, and we simply want to fill in the missing pieces to make a connection. But sometimes these connections lead us to false truths. Perhaps this is why Moses is so clear on this issue. If we can’t actually know what God looks like, why try to create a false image? Moses knows that false images lead to idolatry.

In today’s world where appearances — for better or worse — play such an important part in how we interpret what we are hearing, what would it mean for us to judge on word alone? If we could only listen and not see, how would this affect our understanding of the world and our interactions with each other?

Words are what we should rely on to communicate, not appearances. This certainly would take away biases based on race, gender or ethnicity and require us to think only about what is being said and not on who is saying it. Debates would revolve more around content and less on context.

Focusing on the voice and not the image can provide an even playing field for society to interact, one in which healthy discussion can replace false assumptions. In order to move forward today, we may have to go back in time and heed Moses’ warning. We must remember to pay attention to what we experience and not to what is missing.

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