In Va’etchanan, Moses continues his final sermon, and by extension, his criticisms of the people of Israel. Of course, whenever one criticizes another, it must be for the sole purpose of helping the other person improve.
This week’s Torah portion is Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11). In Va’etchanan, Moses continues his final sermon, and by extension, his criticisms of the people of Israel. Of course, whenever one criticizes another, it must be for the sole purpose of helping the other person become better and for them to learn from their mistakes. Moses acted likewise, and his criticism of the nation was simply in order to ensure that the people would be ready and prepared to enter the Land of Israel: the palace of God Himself.
Another major episode in this week’s Torah portion is the repetition of the Ten Commandments. That’s right – they are not “Ten Suggestions”, they are “Ten Commandments”! They are the fundamentals of all of Judaism and were unconditionally binding upon the entire nation.
Following the Ten Commandments our Torah portion continues with the “Shema” prayer, which I would like to address at length. The Shema prayer is the primary prayer incumbent upon all Jews to recite twice each day. Indeed, there are only two prayers that we are required to recite by direct torah law: The Shema and the Grace after Meals. Although all our prayers are important, it is only these two that are required by the Torah – all other prayers are rabbinical enactments.
Included in the Shema prayer are the mitzvot of Tefillin and Mezuza. Tefillin, often referred to as “phylacteries” in English (sounds Greek to me!) are the black leather boxes that are placed upon the head and arm, and worn during the morning prayers. Inside the Tefillin are four parchments that contain four different passages, which recall the unity of God and the Exodus from Egypt. In fact, one the passages in the Tefillin is the Shema itself! Hence, when we read the Shema each morning we are also recalling one of the passages that are resting upon our head and arm.
The Mezuza is the little scroll that is affixed upon all Jewish homes. There is a famous story in the Talmud concerning the Mezuza and the famous convert ‘Onkelos’ (sounds a bit like “Uncle Lewis”) which I would like to share.
When Caesar heard that Onkelos converted to Judaism he demanded that Onkelos be brought to him immediately. The soldiers arrived at Onkelos’s home in order to fulfill their mission, but something strange occurred: the soldiers never returned to Caesar! When the soldiers arrived at Onkelos’ home he warmly invited them in and spoke to them about his new religion. Onkelos did such a great job in teaching and explaining Judaism that the soldiers decided on the spot to convert and join the Jewish people, as well!
Word got back to Caesar as to what had happened. When it was certain that the soldiers weren’t coming back, Caesar dispatched another group of soldiers to bring Onkelos to him. But this time, Caesar was smart. He commanded the soldiers to go to Onkelos’ home and bring him immediately. They were told that they were forbidden to engage Onkelos in any conversation whatsoever. This way, Caesar thought, they could not be persuaded to convert to Judaism.
The soldiers arrived at Onkelos’ home and fulfilled their mission faithfully. The walked right in, picked up Onkelos, and dragged him out of his home without allowing him to engage them in conversation. But as Onkelos was being dragged out the front door he managed to place his hand and kiss the mezuza on the doorpost. Out of curiosity, the soldiers asked Onkelos what he had just done. Onkelos told them “With regards to a human king, the king sits in his palace while his servants guard the outside area. But with regards to our God, King of the Universe, it’s different. We, the Jewish people, His servants, sit inside our homes while He, the King of Kings, guards his people on the outside through the Mezuza scroll upon our doorposts.” When the soldiers heard these words they were moved that they too converted to Judaism! Caesar then realized that capturing Onkelos was not to be. He left Onkelos alone and Onkelos became one of the great Torah commentators of all time.
Va’etchanan marks our ascent to the High Holidays: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Let us take the message and mitzvot of Va’etchanan, the Ten Commandments, Tefillin, Mezuzot, the Unity of God and reciting the Shema twice each day. Let us equip ourselves for not only a fun filled summer, but a spiritually filled one, as well.
Shabbat Shalom from Israel!
Rabbi Ari Enkin
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