Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)
Efrat, Israel - This week’s Torah portion contains two of the mostcelebrated passages of the entire Bible: the Ten Commandments and theShema, the quintessence of Biblical morality and the central expressionof our faith in one G-d. Shema is difficult to understand and is open tomany translations and explanations: “Hear O Israel the Lord our G-d theLord is One.” The Lord, Y-HWH, implies eternity, the ground ofexistence, ultimate redemption and love. E-loheinu, translated our G-d,is a plural noun (from E-lohim) and implies power and creativity. Thecombination of Divine names makes interpreting the verse a difficulttask. Indeed, I believe that each of these passages is linked to theother in an inextricable bond, and that once we understand the linkage,we will likewise understand one of the deepest meanings of the Shemawhich is also the most important message of Judaism.
The very first of the ten commandments, “I am the Lord your G-d who tookyou out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” is informing all ofIsrael that He is the G-d who frees, who liberates, the enslaved and theoppressed. And apparently this G-d definition, as it were, is not meantfor Israel alone. Had the Almighty merely wished to free the Israelites,He could have airlifted them “up and out” of Egypt (much as we Israelisdid for the Beta Yisrael Jews of Ethiopia). The only justification forthe ten plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea had to be in order toconvince Pharoah - and, through Pharoah, all the future Pharoah-liketyrants of subsequent world history - that the Lord G-d is the onlycreator, and as such the only “being” to whom we creatures throughoutthe world owe homage and service.
The G-d who created the world wants every human to be free to serve Himand only Him; the G-d who took the Israelites out of Egypt expressed bythat liberation that He detests any human being who “lords” over anotherhuman being. And since the Bible commands that “You walk in (G-d”s)ways,” just as G-d championed human freedom, so too must we championhuman freedom.
From this perspective, we can well understand the last fiveinter-personal commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commitadultery (take someone else’s wife); You shall not steal; You shall notbear false witness against your neighbor; You shall not covet…”(Deuteronomy 5:17,18). After all, if every human being is created inG-d’s image, if every human is intrinsically free, then every humanbeing is inviolate and dare not be compromised: not by murdering him,not by stealing from him - his goods or his spouse, not by “framing him”in false testimony and not by desiring what he has. These are alsouniversal commands that ought to apply to every human being. Indeed, thefirst three on our list are clearly included in the Seven Noahide lawsincumbent upon everyone, the fourth may well be subsumed under theNoahide prescription to establish an equitable judicial system (dinim),and the fifth is the psychological formula of prevention: be satisfiedwith what you have, do not be desirous of what your neighbor has, andthen you will not come to violate him by harming his person or seizinghis possessions. This moral position applies to people as well as tonations, to neighbors as well as to rulers, to parents and children inthe home, and to teachers and students in the classroom.
Let us now turn to the Shema. When we declare that our Lord is one, weare really saying that He is the G-d not only of the Israelites - ifthat were the case, then the Bible would have opened with Abraham andnot with Adam - but rather of the entire world. The prophet Zechariahspeaks of the time when the entire world will unite in peace and fealtyto the G-d of freedom and justice, the “perfection of the world in theKingship of G-d” (tikkun olam as described in the second paragraph ofthe Alenu prayer) - reminiscent of the victory of Zion over the machinesin the Matrix films - and “the Lord will be king over the entire earth;on that day the Lord will be one and His Name will be one” (Zechariah 14:9).
Our prophets never demanded universal conversion to Judaism. Indeed, theprophet Micah describes the “end of times” as a period when “nation willnot lift up sword against nation and humanity will not learn waranymore… for all the peoples will go forth each person in the name ofhis/her God, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our G-d forever”(Micha 4:3-5). What the Torah does demand of us is to influence humanityto convert to the seven Noahide commands (Not to murder, Not to steal,Not to commit adultery, Not to eat the limb of a living animal, Not toblaspheme G-d, Not to serve idols, and to establish a Judicial System -Maimonides, Laws of Kings, Chapter 8). The prohibition against idolatry,at least according to the great Sage and decisor Rav Menachem Meiri, isnot a theological statement but is rather a morality statement - againstthe wicked, despotic and heinous actions performed by the idolaters(Jacob Katz, Exclusivism and Tolerance , Chapter on the Meiri). And soKing Solomon, when he dedicates the Holy Temple, asks the Almighty toaccept the offerings of the Gentile (Kings 1,8:41-43), and this isaccepted Talmudic law (B.T. Menahot 73b, Hullin 13b, Zevahim 45a).
Therefore, I would suggest that built into the magnificent and majestictheme of tikkun olam - a world united in morality - expressed by theShema , (Alenu and Alken is the rabbinical interpretation of the Shema,and the Sages mandated that the Alenu prayer conclude every statutoryservice) is the message: Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d - who isexpressed in many ways by many people - is the one G-d of Creation andfreedom in whom we believe - and as long as those who call upon theirGods do so from the context of morality, these Gods are an expression ofthe one G-d of the Universe.