Vaetkhanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

07 Sep
September 7, 2013

If the entire Torah consisted of only this week’s portion, we would have all that is necessary to learn the most important spiritual and ethical laws of the entire Torah. For this week we are presented once again with the entire Ten Commandments (with a couple of slight changes from the original in Exodus) along with the Shema and the Veahavta.

The Ten Commandments still stand over three thousand years later as a benchmark of ethical behavior for the entire Western world. The Shema is the single most powerful theological statement in all of Jewish history, boldly distinguishing the Jewish people from our idolatrous neighbors and declaring unambiguously that God is one not many, and the same transcendent power for all people. The Veahavta gives practical spiritual guidance regarding how we are to incorporate Godliness into our everyday lives and then pass our traditions, heritage and values down to the next generation.

It makes this particular Torah portion extraordinary to realize that with these texts alone the essence of Jewish ethics, values and the Jewish spiritual path could be taught from one generation to the next. Yet, what most intrigues me about this week’s portion is neither those famous, grand ethical commandments nor the theology of monotheism of the Shema nor the spiritual challenges implied in the discipline of the Veahavta. My interest is captured by a simple, easily ignored phrase that opens chapter four of Deuteronomy: “Now Israel, listen to the statues and ordinances which I teach you to do them, that you may live…”

The phrase that captures my interest in this sentence is “…that you may live.” For with these four simple words the Torah signals a defining element of Jewish theology and ethics and sets a fundamental approach to understanding the role of religion in our lives and the world. In fact, in this phrase the rabbis of the Talmud discovered one of the most profound ideas in all of Jewish tradition.

Think for a moment about how often you hear friends and neighbors railing against the destructive effect of religion in the world. Indeed, how often have you or I shared exactly the same thought? For most of us, we can’t help but share those same thoughts about religion each time that someone hijacks an airplane, or blows themselves up in the middle of a busy intersection in Tel Aviv, or launches a war of aggression against Serbs, or Croats, or Hutus, or Christians, or Muslims or Jews somewhere in the world. We shake our heads and sigh and feel the frustration of religion at its worst.

This week’s portion teaches us one of the most profound lessons about religion in all the Torah, drawn from the conclusions of the rabbis as to why God would include these four simple words, “that you may live,” when speaking about the statues and ordinances that we are commanded to follow. A perfect example of the conclusions they drew can be found in the story of Hanukah.

When Mattathias and his fellow zealots were fighting King Antiochus and his Syrian-Greek army, they would often find themselves thrown into the midst of deadly battles every single day of the week. That meant that on Saturday, the Shabbat, they might very well be discovered in their hiding places and attacked just like on any other day. The problem was that if Jews were forbidden by Jewish law to work on Shabbat in order not to desecrate its holiness, they certainly were forbidden to fight and kill someone on Shabbat. After all, since all human beings are created by God in the divine image, how could you possibly justify the killing of another human being on Shabbat, which the Torah teaches was given to the Jewish people for the purpose of experiencing holiness?

Since Mattathias and his followers were pious Jews, they refused to fight on Shabbat, and as a result were rapidly being killed by the army of Antiochus. It was up to Mattathias himself (who was a member of the priestly family) to be the first to draw upon the fateful words of this portion and in so doing establish one of the loftiest religious principles in Jewish life.

He read this portion and concluded that God gave us these statues and ordinances in order “that we may live,” and certainly not “that we may die.” Therefore he concluded, that if following a specific mitzvah of the Torah would most likely lead to our death, we must invoke an even higher principle than the mitzvah itself. This “higher principle” that Mattathias posited, and which was subsequently embraced by all the rabbis of the Talmud and established as an overarching principle of Jewish law, is called Pikuakh Nefesh – the saving of life.

Pikuakh nefesh means that the saving of life takes precedence over any other mitzvah. In this case it took precedence over the mitzvah of not working or fighting on Shabbat, and the Maccabees were given permission to defend themselves and therefore were ultimately able to overthrow the Syrian-Greek dictatorship.

The same principle has come down to us in regard to even simple matters such as the religious duty of fasting on Yom Kippur. Jewish law states that one of the most important mitzvot of Yom Kippur is that all adults refrain from eating for 24 hours. By applying the principle of pikuakh nefesh, however, the rabbis said that anyone who is sick, or a pregnant woman who must eat to give nourishment to herself and the fetus must eat on Yom Kippur and are forbidden to fast. That is because we read this week that the Torah was given so that we might live, and not so that we might suffer or die.

“That you may live” is the same principle that has been invoked throughout history as one rationale for reaching out and embracing the non-Jews in our midst as well. It is a mitzvah to give them healing, to provide food for the hungry, clothing for the naked and housing for the homeless, because Jewish ethics understood the very nature of God to be a power that desires life not death, good not evil, blessings and not curses.

Perhaps this week is a good time to recall the universal nature of Jewish ethics and to be proud that for four thousand years Judaism has had the capacity to be flexible and evolve so that our ethics, values and even rituals could inspire the deepest wisdom that lies within the human soul.

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