Va'etchanan | Affixing Ourselves to Clarity
Updated: Apr 28, 2020
Confusion and uncertainty are debilitating emotions. The Talmud says, “Ayn simcha kehataras hasfeikos – There is no joy like the resolution of doubts”. If a person has doubts about something and then reaches a point of clarity, that clarity is something which brings with it a great sense of joy.
This concept can help us understand this upcoming Shabbat, called Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbos of Comfort. It is the Shabbos immediately following Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av. After three weeks of mourning and a major fast follows the seven weeks of comfort with the seven shabboses known as the Seven of Comfort. The standard principle in the Talmud is that the good outweighs the bad showing that G-d’s Compassion and Kindness is always stronger than His judgment and retribution.
Last week’s shabbos was quite dramatic because it was a short while before Tisha B’Av with all the mourning and negativity associated with that day. This week we move into the shabbos of comfort and positivity. So how do we make the transition so quickly from one week to the next? And where does this comfort come from? It comes from a sense of confidence and certainty. Meaning: Just as the prophets’ predictions of doom to Jerusalem, based on G-d’s Revelation to them, if the people did not repent, did in fact occur, so did those same prophets say that eventually the redemption would come when comfort would return to the world.
This idea is expressed in the Talmud where the Talmudic Sages are looking at the Temple Mount immediately after the destruction. They see foxes scurrying over the ruins of the Temple Mount that had been destroyed by the Romans and the Talmud relates how the Sages were obviously very despondent, except for Rabbi Akiva. When Rabbi Akiva saw the foxes running on the Temple Mount he rejoiced. His colleagues asked him why he was rejoicing? And he said it’s because the prophets said that the area of the Temple would be ploughed up as indeed it was. And they said that the ruins would be such that even foxes – wild animals – would be running all over it. So to see the foxes was the fulfillment of that prophecy, meaning that all the prophecies of comfort and redemption would also come to pass. It’s a sense of comfort knowing that definitely the redemption will come. This clarity that the redemption will come, as opposed to confusion, is how we make the transition from negativity into positivity.
The meaning behind mezuzah
Confidence and certainty are very important in life because they give us the strength to follow the mandate that G-d has given us. One of the most famous commandments that we have is the commandment of mezuzah – to place a mezuzah in the doorway. A mezuzah is, in fact, a scroll with the first two paragraphs of the Shema written on it. The first paragraph comes from this week’s portion and says, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad – Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is one”. It goes on to say that, “You shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”. And then it says, “You shall bind this for a sign on your arm and you shall write it on your doorposts”. And then we have the second paragraph of the Shema, which is actually in next week’s portion, where the concept of reward and punishment is mentioned along with the mitzvah of mezuzah.
The parchment with the two paragraphs is rolled up and placed on the doorpost. The mezuzah goes up on all the doorways throughout the house and the doors leading into the garden, except on the doors leading into the bathroom and toilet. There are detailed laws on exactly how to fulfill this commandment and where to put the mezuzahs so one should always ask a rabbi to guide them in this mitzvah.
The mitzvah is mentioned in this week’s portion. The word mezuzah actually means doorpost. In one of the commentaries, Ha’ktav Ve’ha’kabbalah, written by Rav Mecklenburg – one of the great commentators from the 19th century – he asks the following question: Why is the parchment used to fulfill this mitzvah called mezuzah meaning doorpost? And he refers specifically in his question to the blessing that is recited when a mezuzah is put up on the doorpost which is, “Baruch atta Hashem Elokeinu melech ha‘olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu likboa‘ mezuza – Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to affix a mezuzah”. And he says, what do you mean to affix the mezuzah? The mezuzah is the doorpost. Why is that word chosen to describe this parchment? It’s really a parchment. One should really say to affix the parchment to the doorpost. What do you mean to affix the doorpost?
The miracle of the human being
The conventional translation of mezuzah is doorpost. But he says the root of the word mezuzah comes from the Hebrew word, zaz, which means to move and it refers to movement. Meaning: the human being is in a state of flux and change and is moving all the time. Why? Because we are unique; out of all of G-d’s creatures only human beings have two contesting components within them – the physical and spiritual. Animals are purely physical – they have a life force, but they are fundamentally physical beings. Angels are purely spiritual. Only the human being is made up of a physical body together with a soul from G-d called a neshoma. And these two – the spirit and the body – in fact don’t mix. One of the wonders of creation is that they constitute one unit in the form of the human being.
That’s how the Ramo, the co-author of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, explains the blessing that we recite for the working of the human body. We give thanks to G-d for all miracles as we take nothing for granted. That’s why our Sages instituted that after going to the toilet we recite a blessing of thanksgiving to G-d for everything that works because we can’t take it for granted. There are many people who, G-d forbid, suffer from illness when the function of excretion fails. So after a person goes to the toilet we say this blessing to thank G-d for ensuring that everything that needs to be open is open and everything that needs to be closed is closed. And then the blessing ends off, Blessed are You our G-d who makes wondrous creations – who does wondrous things. Although it’s specifically referring to the dimension of the body that produces waste and allows the body to be cleaned, it is a blessing about the wonders of the creation of the human body in general.
What specifically about the human body is particularly wondrous? There are many dimensions, such as the way the eye works or the ear. The Ramo, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, says the most wondrous dimension of the human creation, which is encapsulated in that last phrase of the blessing, is the fact that the human being combines body and soul, spirit and physical. That these two substances, that are completely different, are contained in one body. So if the physical body is destroyed the spirit is able to leave the body. The spirit gives the body its life, its energy, its colour and the human being the capacity to live and exist in this world.
But the difficulty is that these two elements within the human being draw us in opposite directions. The soul pulls us to the heavens to connect with G-d and that which is right and good whilst the body tempts us to the pursuit of the physical. These two pursuits are often in conflict and cause tension. Rav Mecklenburg explains that the human being is moving all the time between these polar opposites. And he says that’s where the mitzvah of mezuzah comes in. He says the mitzvah is likboa – to affix the mezuzah, which means to fix and to pin down the movement so that a person doesn’t move. Meaning: We have to have a centre of gravity, a sense of stability, of commitment and permanence within the spirit and soul. That is what he says is really behind this mitzvah. Because in actuality what is the mitzvah? We write on parchment the importance of loving G-d, of serving Him, of fulfilling His Commandments and of the unity of G-d. And he says we should take all of these concepts and let them be the point of strength and the fixed point in our life that will make sure that we remain linked permanently to where we should be in the world – which is with our connection to G-d. It’s there to give us a sense of being fixed in a world that is full of flux and is changing all the time. We move from point to point and we need to have that certainty, that sense of confidence and strength that we are fixed to a centre point which is G-d and His Laws and all of the teachings of Judaism. That’s why it’s on our doorpost so that we remember this is our fixed point in life.
The company you keep
It’s not just the conflict between body and soul that generates tension – it’s the flux of life and that human beings are very influenced by their surroundings. Our Sages explain that one of the strongest influences on a person is that of the people they engage and socialise with. It’s famously said in the Talmud, Oy Le’rasha, oy le’scheno – Woe to the wicked person and woe to his neighbour. It says in Ethics of Our Fathers, Pirkei Avot (1:6) we are told, “Acquire for yourself a friend”. One of our commentators from the Middle Ages, Rabbeinu Yonah, explains that a friend fulfils a number of different functions: to provide advice and be an objective sounding board, but also to be a source of spiritual strength within a person’s life; to guide one and positively influence one to fulfill G-d’s Commandments and to point out where one is going wrong. Friends are needed to make us better people and raise us up and not pull us down. So a human being’s zaz (movement) is generated not just by body and soul conflicts, but by the influences of the world in which we live – the people pulling us in a direction of goodness and other people pulling us in a direction of evil.
This constant movement, due to these influences, often makes a person feel uncertain and a lack of confidence in their path in life to follow the teachings of the Torah. And the mezuzah tells us to be strong and not to allow these influences to weaken you or cause you to lose confidence. Because a lack of confidence and self-belief is really about a lack of direction. We have to put a lot of effort into ensuring that we remain fixed.
Do not waver
Much of this week’s parsha, Va’etchanan, focuses on strengthening our faith and having a sense of direction and the confidence that we are on the correct path in life. And that’s why we are told in this week’s portion (4:1), “Now O Israel listen to the decrees and to the ordinances that I teach you to perform so that you may live and you will come to possess the land that Hashem, the G-d of your forefathers, gives you. Do not add to the commandments, nor take away from it”. In life there is a tendency to want to fit in, so you may want to add to the commandments or take away from them. And then it says, “Be careful to watch that you shall safeguard and perform them (all of these commandments), for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the peoples who shall hear all these laws and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and understanding people is this great nation’. Only be careful for yourself and greatly beware for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld, and lest you remove (them) from your heart all the days of your life and make them known to your children and your children’s children the day that you stood before Hashem, your G-d, at Chorev – which is Mount Sinai – when G-d said, ‘Gather the people to Me and I shall let them hear My Words’”.
The parsha is warning us to be careful and not forget because influences in life are trying to pull us away all the time. So we have to keep that fixed point, that centre which says that we will remain certain. Much emphasis is placed on being certain and strong in our faith. In Va’etchanan (5:4) it says, “Face to face G-d spoke with you on the mountain from the midst of the fire”. We actually heard G-d’s Voice speaking at Mount Sinai. This concept of “face to face” is not only about giving strength, confidence and direction but it’s also about the relationship with G-d and the love in that relationship. The mezuzah is not just about certainty and faith and commitment and being fixed. It’s about G-d’s Love. That’s why one of the central themes of the paragraphs that are written down on the parchment is about G-d’s Love for us. That love which is also our centre piece and holds us together is contained in the phrase “face to face”.
The Baal HaTurim, one of our classic commentators from the Middle Ages, asks the meaning of “face to face”? He answers that, it means a face filled with light and a face filled with friendship and that “face to face” is a sign of warmth and real love and care for a person. That’s why the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot tells us, “Receive every person with a friendly face”. Thus we are told that G-d spoke to us “face to face” – G-d who has no physical form, it’s a way of conveying that G-d loves us and is engaging with us and it’s from this that we draw our strength. We are able to withstand all of the influences that try to sweep us away from that loyalty and that commitment to G-d.
It is that special relationship with G-d that is also reflected in the other Hebrew word in the verse, “face to face G-d spoke with you” – imachem. Rav Mecklenburg says it means G-d speaks, “with you”. There are two expressions that we find in the Torah – sometimes we read that that G-d speaks to you and sometimes that G-d speaks with you. The ‘with’ implies an engagement with G-d not just a one-sided communication where He is speaking to us. G-d spoke to us at Mount Sinai and we spoke and said we would accept the Torah. The other dimension of ‘with’ is that He is taking us into the deeper understandings of His Wisdom. Rav Mecklenburg says the word panim – face to face comes from the Hebrew word penim which means inner wisdoms. He is taking us into the inner chambers of His Wisdom and showing us how He looks at the world. He is revealing to us something which is very intimate. And that too gives us the strength and the certainty to remain loyal in the face of all the different forces in the world which try to draw us away.
We remain fixed because we have clear faith and are committed to the truth but also because we are so much aware of G-d’s Love for us. This is contained in the mitzvah of mezuzah because the parchment is about G-d’s Love and it is what keeps us fixed from the internal conflicts of the human being moving between body and soul, and from the other forces around us that try to draw us away from the clarity of our faith and the confidence we need to have. That is the strength and the direction that the portion we are going to be reading this Shabbos gives us.
I look forward to being with you again this time next week.