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Parashat VaEtchanan 5779 — 08/17/2019

Parashat VaEtchanan 5779 — 08/17/2019

Devarim 3:23 – 7:11

In parashat V’etchanan we seem to have an authorship problem similar to the one we encountered in last week’s parashah. Here we have a second version of the 10 Commandments, and one which differs in a few significant ways from the original ones, back in parashat Yitro. Who wrote this set? Was it Gd speaking directly through Moshe, as before, and adding some edits for whatever reason? Or was it Moshe recounting the Revelation and adding some explanatory material for his audience, which by and large was not present at Mt. Sinai? If the latter, how did this version get included in the Torah?

As last week, so this week, the Rabbis are all over the map explaining this. First, on the macro scale: A Midrash points out that the letter tet is missing from the first edition of the 10 Commandments – all the other 21 letters are represented. Perhaps Gd, for some reason, found tet offensive. In the second set, there are two words that have a tet in them – one to make up for the prior omission and one to complete the alphabet in the second edition.

These nuanced distinctions, the rabbis explain, hardly occur by chance. Gd intentionally omits a letter of the alphabet when the Aseret HaDibrot are first given at Sinai in order to protect the Israelites from the full consequences of their impending sin – the sin of the golden calf. By rendering His contract with the people incomplete and therefore technically “invalid,” Gd deliberately minimizes the impact of their subsequent betrayal of that contract.

How literally this is to be taken is open to question. A recurring theme in Rabbinic thought is that the relationship between Gd and Israel is like that of husband and wife, with the Torah as the “marriage contract.” If the “marriage contract” is “invalid” then there is no stain of “adultery” when Israel has dalliances with other gods / lovers. This is obviously an extended analogy, and a powerful one at that. What interests me is that the absence of one letter somehow invalidates the Aseret HaDibrot (10 Commandments, more literally the “10 Utterances”). The Aseret HaDibrot are held to be an encapsulation of the entire Torah, and the Torah is held to be the “blueprint of creation.” We have analyzed that this “blueprint” is actually the vibrations of pure Being within itself, which can be perceived as the sounds of human speech – in particular, the grammar, syntax, phonetics and semantics of the Hebrew language. If this is the case, the Torah must contain all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, as they are the fundamental “tones” of creation. Any encapsulation would also necessarily contain every sound. If the first set is missing a tet, it cannot be a complete encapsulation. In this sense it is “invalid” until it is rectified by the second set. Which of the two tet‘s from the second set “belongs” to the first is not clear from R. Goldin’s discussion, nor is exactly how it rectifies the omission discussed (Pesikta Zutarta [Lekach Tov] to Shemot 20 [1st rendition] and Devarim 10:1 [2nd rendition]).

R. Goldin goes on to mention another omission in the first set that is related to the missing tet: the word tov / “good” (which begins with tet) is also missing from the first rendition. It appears in the second rendition in an addition to the commandment to honor parents: l’ma’an yitav lach, “So that it may be good for you.” Now it is clear that if there is no tet in the first rendition, there will be no tov, just as there can be no word that contains a tet. The fact, however, that a form of the word tov appears in the second rendition, indicates that the word that was left out was in fact tov. There is another case in which the word tov is left out – on the second day of Creation, the day of the first division – it doesn’t say “And Gd saw it was good.” In that case, Ramban explains, the work of that day’s creative activity was not complete. It is actually completed on the third day, and on that day the word tov appears twice, once to “make up” for the missing tov in the second day.

Again, the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Va’etchanan 830:5) explains that had the first rendition been complete, with the word tov in it, then Israel’s breach of the covenant with the golden calf would have caused all good to be removed from the people for all time. Gd “saved” us by leaving a vital component out of the first set of 10 Commandments and out of the first set of tablets, which Moshe broke. In fact, perhaps it was the “imperfection” of those tablets that allowed Moshe to break them – all in the name of protecting the people from the full consequences of their improper action.

We have two Torahs: the Written Torah from which we read and study, and the Oral Torah, which is the basis of the Talmud. The Oral Torah has since been written down, but it is not as fixed, “written in stone,” as the Written Torah. Tradition has it that the first tablets contained both the Oral and Written Torah – making them more complete, but much less flexible. Such Tablets have the attribute of Strict Judgment (midat hadin) predominant, leaving the people much less room for error. Obviously the people were in no condition to be judged on such a level. Had they been given the first set of Tablets and been held to the more strict standard, they surely would have been destroyed. Perhaps it is the very rigidity of the first set of tablets that allowed them to be smashed. Something that is inflexible breaks much more easily than something flexible.

The question that bothers me is, if Moshe was cognizing the internal dynamics at the heart of all existence, how does the first rendition of the 10 Commandments come up “imperfect”? Perhaps the answer to this question closes the loop on our discussion. Moshe’s cognition does not take place in a vacuum. He is not a seer sitting in splendid isolation on a mountaintop. He is the leader of the people, and his cognition is for their benefit. Indeed after the sin of the golden calf, the Midrash has Gd telling Moshe, “Go down!  Now that the people have sinned, what do I need you for?!” The people, having just come out of slavery, were weak, and their weakness, as it were, “clouds” Moshe’s vision, leading to a fragile, incomplete cognition. This cognition shatters under the weight of Israel’s sin. The new, more flexible cognition on the second set of tablets replaces the first. The nation survives and a new generation enters the Land, able now to actualize the Torah.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Va’Etchanan

“Play nice; don’t fight”. Momma may have said this to us and our playmates when we were children: Moses tells us that Gd says it to us always. When we stay together, when we are a community, a nation, Gd appears to us and leads us out of trouble and into the good land, the Good Land, in which we directly experience that Gd is Gd, there is no other.

Deuteronomy 7:6 “For you are a holy people to the Lrd, your Gd; the Lrd, your Gd, has chosen you to be His treasured people, out of all the peoples upon the face of the Earth”. (translation,

What qualities do we as the Jewish people have that make us holy that Gd loves us particularly and protects us?

The answer to this may lie with the qualities that Moses had.The qualities that enabled him to be in Gd’s presence and live, though our ancestors were afraid they would die if they even heard one word more of Gd’s voice than they heard when He gave the 10 Statements/Utterances/Commandments at Mt Sinai.

What qualities were those? Do we as Jews have them specially? Are we Jewish if we don’t have them? Is anyone who has them holy and treasured by Gd whether they are Jewish or not? How can we get these qualities of holiness if we don’t have them? Increase them if we do?

Torah tells us that Moses was the humblest man there was: and humility means he was completely open to Gd; though Gd preserved Moses personality, Moses used it so serve Gd, even though this sometimes meant challenging Gd.

This openness meant Moses could be in Gd’s Presence without fear.

This openness meant he was open to the Holiness that is Gd and was, therefore, himself holy, treasured, special.

Our ancestors also had some of this quality; enough to be special enough to deserve special attention.

Would we say today that the mere fact of being born Jewish, raised Jewish, converted to Judaism makes us holy, treasured, special? Some would, I don’t.

In our community of Fairfield we have people of many religions, and many who are not much observant of the details of their religion but we have a community that is extraordinarily friendly: “love thy neighbor as thyself, thy Self” is very much the reality of our community. Perhaps from Gd’s point of view, we Jews are a little more loving, a little more friendly, humble, open than others in our community but my perception is not fine enough to say this is so or not so.

I do feel that our religion can be a good source of guidance to grow in holiness, friendliness, love of Gd above all, love of our neighbor as our Self

These qualities we can continue to grow in by doing our best to follow the guidance of Torah and the Rabbis, our parents, our family, our elders, our teachers, our friends: as we grow in respect and humility, in love and a desire to serve Gd and our neighbors, we lose any fear that might cause us to put obstacles between us and Gd’s Presence: we become open for Gd, to reveal Gd’s Oneness within us, and we become Us and we become One.

Lovely! Let us keep doing it!

Baruch HaShem