The Order of the Parshah
Since Vaethanan and Ekev are both really one continuous flow, we backtrack somewhat to the end of the former. The section following the Shema focuses upon the Land of Israel, and the various temptations and dangers involved: beginning with unearned bounty—inheriting beautiful homes, vineyards, fields, and water wells “that you have not made” (6:10-11); assimilation and intermarriage with the pagan nations, and the deleterious influence bound to follow (7:1-11); on the other hand, the danger of cowardice and despairing of being able to conquer them, forgetting the promise of Divine help (7:17-26); and, finally, haughtiness, and relying solely on ones own strength: “my own strength and the might of my hand did this” (8:14-17). Intermingled with these warnings, the people are commanded to recount to their children the story of how all this happened (6:20-23; this is one of the sources for the mitzvah of telling of the Exodus on Passover night ); are reminded of the salient features of God’s providential protection during the period of desert wanderings (8:2-5); and, in general, are told of the blessings of the land, in abundant fruit and bread, water, and precious metals (8:7-10). This last is, in the narrow sense, the source for the Blessing after Meals; but, in a wider sense, to be generally thankful and aware of God’s bounty whenever experiencing the blessings of the land.
9:1-10:11: This section speaks of the sinfulness of the people, focusing particularly on the Sin of the Golden Calf; see below.
10:12 on: “And now O Israel.” Here the Torah begins summing up the overall lessons to be derived from the homiletic part of Moses’ address, with the rhetorical question, “What does God ask of you?” and a series of general commandments—”to love God … to follow in his ways... to fear him… to cling to him.” The Torah then sums up the lessons of the descent to Egypt and the Exodus, and reiterates the uniqueness of the land and, especially, the principle of reward and punishment (11:13-21). All these lead, repeatedly, to exhortations to keep the commandments of the Lord, culminating in the law code proper: “These are the laws statutes and laws…” (12:1; the beginning of Re’eh).
The Golden Calf Revisited
Special emphasis is placed in this portion, which begins with the sins of the people generally, on the sin of the Golden Calf (9:8-10:11, with two short asides in 9:22-23 and 10:6-9). As we already mentioned, one of the central and most interesting problems in understanding the Book of Deuteronomy derives from its special character as “Mishneh Torah”—a repetition or review of the Torah. There is much repetition, paraphrase, abridgement, and retelling of themes and stories and laws from the four earlier books of the Torah. The perennial question, in each case, is: Why does Devarim retell the earlier sections as it does? What does it choose to select, what does it choose to omit, and why?
A comparison of the manner of relating the incident of the Golden Calf in this chapter with the original narrative in Exodus 32-34 is highly instructive. First of all, most of the narrative details are omitted, leaving only the bare essentials—as only would be expected. In particular, the role of Aaron is almost completely played down: he is only mentioned in passing, in one verse: “And the Lord was also enraged with Aaron on your behalf…” (9:20). Likewise the role of the Levites, the one tribe that remained faithful to God, and even led the campaign against those who worshipped the calf (Exod 32:26-29), is also not mentioned; they are, however, mentioned in an aside, “at that time God set aside the tribe of the Levites to carry the ark of the Lord, and to stand before the Lord to perform service and to bless in his name” (10:8). It seems clear that the placing of the verse here is in fact no accident, but is an oblique reference to their merit at the time of the sin of the Calf, and their consequent reward (thus it is seen by the traditional exegetes; compare there, e.g., Rashi and Ramban).
But most significant, to my mind, is the complete absence of any mention of divine compassion, mercy, forgiveness, kindness, etc. The words hesed, rahamim, hanun, nihem, etc., do not appear here even once. In Exodus, the entire drama of the Calf centers around the dialogue between God and Moses, in which Moses insists, not only that God spare the lives of the Jewish people—rather than destroy them and make him a nation in their stead—but that He demonstrate His complete forgiveness and acceptance of their atonement, by his “face” going up among them. The climax of the chapter is in the epiphany in the cleft of the Rock, where God reveals the thirteen attributes of Mercy to Moses (see what I wrote on this at length in HY I: Ki Tisa). All this is entirely missing here.
On the other hand, it is emphasized that Moses beseeched God for forty days and forty nights, eating no bread and drinking no water (these phrases are repeated four separate times within a very small number of verses). The “tablets of stone” and the ark are also given much attention. Why?
The inevitable conclusion I reach is that the Torah wishes to emphasize here the aspect of Divine sternness and anger: middat hadin. This seems, perhaps, only natural. Moses‘ purpose here is to admonish the people, to prepare them to enter into the land, and to assure that they will maintain as high a standard as possible of loyalty to God and commitment to the mitzvot. He is well aware of the numerous temptations and dangers to which they will be subject once they enter the land. At this point, he has no need to remind them that they have an “out” in the Divine mercy and forgiveness in the event that they sin. On the contrary, he wants to impress them with the dire consequences of any possible straying from the path, and frighten them with the (very real) prospect of arousing God’s wrath. It was only by virtue of Moses’ intercession that they were spared the last time. Who knows what will happen if they do so again? Their entire history is recounted to them with the repeated leit-motif : ”you have been rebellious against me in Horeb… in Taberah and Masah and Kivrot ha-Ta’avah… and when God sent you up from Kadesh Barnea to inherit the land…” (9:8, 22, 24)—in brief, everywhere and anywhere, constantly.
“If you shall surely hearken to my commandments…”
Deuteronomy 11:13-21, known as Vehaya im shamo’a, occupies a central role in Jewish liturgy, serving as the second section of the Shema, repeated twice every day. Yet it is a very difficult and problematic passage. It states, in straightforward fashion, that if the people obey the mitzvot they will enjoy all the blessings that God is capable of giving: rain in its time, abundance of grain and fodder for your cattle, etc.; while, if they go astray, God will wrath angry against them, causing the heavens to withhold their rains and the earth its abundance. This of course goes against much of human experience: cases of entire communities who were righteous, and nevertheless suffered drought and famine, or were swallowed up, enslaved, or brutally murdered, by stronger, more violent nations, are legion.
Certainly, 20th century thought by and large rejected such causality, substituting for it natural cause and effect, governed by measurable, objective, scientific laws. In our parents’ generation, there was an almost unlimited belief in the ability of science to solve almost any and every human problem—and a concomitant rejection of religious explanations, or indeed of any non-positivistic explanations of phenomenon. Today, there is greater scepticism on this count. Many of the wondrous inventions of the earlier part of the twentieth century have been shown over the course of time to have carried in their wake dangers, some of which may yet threaten the very survival of humankind on this planet. The automobile has been a blessing in the mobility it has brought to masses of people, but also the source of major new dangers to health and life: pollution, road accidents, crowding. Atomic energy, once naively believed to be a potential savior, endangers our very survival. Various forms of heavy industry have upset the world’s ecology in ways undreamed of even fifty years ago; at this point, it is apparent to all that the human race, if it continues its activities unharnessed and unfettered, is the greatest threat to the balance of ongoing harmonious life on this planet, endangering species, forests, clean water, the very atmosphere, etc., etc. Who knows today what dangers may develop in the future from more recent developments: from genetic engineering, the unlocking of the genetic code, and other related biological manipulations; from hi-tech communications—whether from the direct affects of radiation, or from the psychological effects of isolation: that it’s now possible for a person to live his/her entire life in ones own home, ordering food and all other needs via Internet; entertainment, work, some say even “virtual” relationships, all via the computer screen and the wide band. How all this will affect the human soul and psyche, no one can tell. Even modern contraception, and the “rational,” “healthy” approach to sexuality seem to have brought in their wake AIDS—as if to say, that things are not so simple.
I am not advocating a return to the 19th century, a type of neo-Luddite position which calls for smashing all the machines. Rather, I am saying that the human race, collectively, needs to learn a certain modesty, a certain scepticism about its own ability to fully understand and control its own environment. Put quite simply, nothing human is “fail-safe” or “fool proof.”
What has all this to do with Vehaya im shamo’a? I see the central message of this section as the idea that there is a divine law innate in the universe, which we violate at our own peril. Decent, ethical behavior, grounded in respect both for fellow man and for nature, enables society to survive and flourish, while unmitigated competition and struggle among individuals destroys it. I wonder whether part of what bothers many moderns in this passage is its personalistic imagery of an angry, willful God. It seems to me that this passage may be read in metaphorical terms, and that nothing essential would be changed were one to read it in terms of what the Far Eastern religions call Karma: i.e., that the cosmos is structured in such a way that all human actions have consequences, whether immediate or long-term, whether visible or seemingly unseen. Perhaps the Torah and Hazal, when speaking of the concept of hashgahah, of Divine Providence, were referring to something very similar to this—the Torah, as is its way, using human language (vakm”l).
“To Love and to Fear My Name”
These sections of the Torah (both Vaethanan and Ekev) make frequent reference to both the love and the fear of God (love: 6:4; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; fear: 5:26; 10:12, 20; etc.). Interestingly, the prayer Ahava Rabba, that immediately precedes the Morning Shema, contains these phrases. After referring to the different aspects of relation to Torah (“to understand and to apprehend, to hear, to learn and to teach, to guard, observe and to perform…), and asking for “illumination of the eyes” in Torah and “cleaving of the heart” to the mitzvot, there appear the words ve-yahed levaveinu le-ahavah ule-yir’ah et shemekha (“and unify our hearts to love and to fear Your Name”)
The implication here is that, at least in the case of religious service, the emotions of fear and love can and should coexist, even be complementary. Yet the interrelation of love and fear is not a simple one. At least in the case of human emotions they are in fact conflicting, even contradictory (Sifrei, Devarim §32; and see Urbach, Hazal, pp. 348-358). Fear, in human relations, can be a paralyzing emotion. The warmth, the desire for closeness and intimacy, the trust and sharing of confidences that accompany love, are hardly compatible with fear, which, if not associated with physical anxiety for ones very survival, is certainly connected to insecurity, to the unpredictableness of the other, to never knowing where you stand, to the feeling of always “walking on eggshells.”
Religious thinkers, in describing the dialectic of love and fear in relation to the Divine, also note the contradictory aspect of the two. Love is seen as the result of fascination with the greatness, the beauty and sublimity of the Creation, which makes one wish to draw near and to know the Creator. Yet in that selfsame movement, one also realizes ones own smallness, ones insignificance and inconsequential standing as a human being—and this forces one to withdraw, overwhelmed by awe-stricken fear in face of the majesty and greatness of the Divine, what Otto calls the mysterium tremendum. (Maimonides, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2.2).
Nevertheless, in the end we have the ability to overcome this bifurcation, this seeming conflict between the two poles. The prayer ends with the words ule-yahedkha beahava, “that we may unify You in love”—as if to say, that the unity of the human heart, including the uniting of the seeming opposites of love and fear in the service of God (symbolized, according to Hasidim, in the two payot), is the prerequisite for unifying God.