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Parashat VaEtchanan 5778 — 07/28/2018

Parashat VaEtchanan 5778 — 07/28/2018

Devarim 3:23 – 7:11

Our parshah contains the warning against worshiping the “sun and the moon and the stars, all the hosts of the heavens.” The passage (Devarim 4:19-20) goes on to say that the hosts of the heavens were apportioned to all the other nations, but Gd kept us under His own personal guidance. Although there is a separate prohibition against consulting any kind of soothsayers, the Talmud seems to be of two minds about astrology and the influence of the stars and planets on earthly doings. (The Talmud is absolutely not of two minds about the worship of the stars and planets – it is one of the three transgressions that one must allow oneself to be killed rather than violate. The other two are murder and illicit sexual relations.)

Abarbanel weighs both sides of the debate. Do the stars influence the Jewish people?

On the yes side:

  1. There was in his time ample evidence that a good astrologer can often make very accurate predictions
  2. The influence of the heavenly bodies is as much a law of nature (or a set of laws) as gravity.
  3. The Torah itself states that the sun, moon and stars were made to “rule over” day and night – this doesn’t mean illuminating them, but actually influencing what happens both during the day and at night.
  4. Both Bible and Talmud have many narratives that point to the fact that the stars and planets do influence us.

On the no side:

  1. If the Jewish people depended on the laws of nature for our survival, we wouldn’t be here. We must be under Gd’s special protection or we’d never have made it out of Egypt.
  2. Reward and punishment is based on our having free will to choose our actions. If they were determined by the stars there could be no reward or punishment.
  3. Our passage indicates that Gd, not the stars, controls our destiny.
  4. Both Bible and Talmud have many passages that point to the fact that the stars and planets do not influence us.

Maimonides, ever the rationalist, comes down firmly on the side of “it’s all bunkum.” He probably never consulted a skilled astrologer. Abarbanel is more open to the possibility that it is real. But he has to reconcile these two apparently opposite approaches from Scripture and the Rabbinic literature. In general, I think Abarbanel leans on the definition of the word “influence.” To say that X influences Y does not mean that X determines Y. So we can admit that the stars influence Jews, or even the Jewish people, without sacrificing either free will or Gd’s special protection. Logically there is no contradiction. There are other influences besides the stars and planets that go into determining the outcome of our actions and the course of our lives. From our side, our free-will decisions to act in accord with Gd’s Will or otherwise will also influence the results of our actions, and our collective moral character will influence Gd’s reaction to us as a people, as many Biblical passages (including the second paragraph of the Shema) tell us.

In the West we often wonder what kind of influences these distant bodies can have on us down here. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection, other than gravitational, and only the sun and the moon have significant gravitational pulls on the earth (and those pulls don’t depend on what astrological sign they’re in either). In addition, the constellations are not even “things” that can influence anything – they are collections of stars that appear to be together from our vantage point, but may in fact be separated from one another by vast stretches of space. How can a “connect-the-dots” picture in the sky influence anything?!

I think the answer may be found on two levels. The first level is this – time moves in cycles. There are smaller cycles – the cycling of an electron around a nucleus, for example, and larger cycles – the rise and fall of stars for example, and everything in between (and on the outside of those boundaries as well). The heavens also move in cycles, as do the planets, and apparently this is what Gd intended for them to do: “They will serve as signs for seasons and for days and years” (Gen 1:14). So one way of looking at the “influence” of the heavenly bodies is that they are just markers for a very complex set of cycles that every life goes through. By reading the markers, we can read the cycles of a person’s life. There is really no question of influence at all. And, as in every case, what we do – what choices we make – in the situations in which we find ourselves, is really much more determinative of the results we will experience from our actions. The existence of these cycles is no more constraining of our free will than the putative “influence” of the stars and planets.

There is, I think, another, deeper connection. We have considered that there is a unified field at the basis of all physical existence, and that everything we see, all the particles in creation and their interactions, is a very complex web of vibration of this one field. The unified field itself is transcendental to time and space, so it is entirely possible for objects to be connected that are remote in time and space. And just like the tiniest gnat landing on a spider web causes the whole web to vibrate (alerting the spider that he has a meal waiting!), so any action that we do also vibrates the web of creation, influencing everything. These influences then come back to us, for good or otherwise.

We have the free will to choose what kind of influences we will put out, and therefore the quality of the influences that come back. The position of the heavenly bodies may have an effect on our situation, based on past action, and perhaps based on what role we each have to play in the unfolding of Gd’s historical plan, but they do not prevent us from making moral choices every step of the way. The Torah is the Jewish people’s guide to right and wrong action; we would all do well to study it and follow its dictates.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parsashat Va’Etchanan

Deuteronomy 4
“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, and which we directly experience that Gd is Gd, there is no other.

6. For you are a holy people to the Lord, 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.
הֶי בָּחַר | יהְוֹהָ אֱ בְּ הֶי וכִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַיהוֹהָ אֱ
לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה מִכּלֹ הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה:

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 any one 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 to 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

We can continue to grow in these qualities 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 His Oneness within us, and we become Us and we become One.

Lovely! Let us keep doing it!

Baruch HaShem