Not Only About the Ten Commandments

Va-et'chanan, Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11

D'Var Torah By: Cantor Evan Kent

This week’s Torah portion, Va-et’chanan, usually focuses on the Ten Commandments, but as I sat down to write my commentary, I was reminded of  my teacher Rabbi Nehemia Polen, who taught us that there would be times in our lives when the “text will blink at you.” Depending on our particular state of mind, he explained, current events or happenings in our personal lives would focus us on certain words or phrases in our sacred texts. Words that we had barely noticed previously would suddenly command greater attention and meaning to us. They’ll jump from the page so powerfully that the letters themselves will call out to you.

I first experienced that phenomenon when a close friend was ill. While reading the passage about Moses’ plea to God to heal Miriam, the words “El na refa na la” blinked at me. This past year, as the raging pandemic forced us to observe Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur via Zoom, the words of Un’taneh Tokef and B’Rosh Hashanah (Who will live…who will die…who by plague…) prayers blinked at me.

I experienced this effect again while reading the following verses near the beginning of Parashat Va-et’chanan, which  describes the Israelites’ entering  and occupying of the Land of Canaan:

And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the God of your fathers is giving you (Deut 4:1).

See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy (Deut. 4:6).

As an Israeli, a liberal Zionist, and a Jew  who reveres the ethical and moral precepts of our prophetic tradition, I found these verses  glaring at me. What came immediately to mind   was how often they are used by advocates of a “Greater Israel” movement as proof of a God-given mandate for Jews to annex territories captured by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. Such thinking serves as justification for the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and other occupied territory and the expropriation of  Palestinian land.  

Most recently, some ultra-right-wing members of the Israeli Knesset are applying rhetoric once reserved for Palestinians living in the West Bank to  Arab citizens of Israel, such as prohibiting the sale of land to Arabs. Such efforts to make Israeli Arabs second class citizens violate both the Torah and the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which promises:

The State of Israel… will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…

As Jews, we are commanded in the Torah not to  wrong or oppress the stranger because we know the feelings of the stranger, having ourselves been strangers in the Land of Egypt (Ex. 22:20, 23:9).

As Jews, we are also ethically guided by the words of the Prophets. In the Book of Isaiah, we are told: “Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Amos warns that we should “Seek good and not evil…” (Amos 5:14) and “Hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate…” (Amos 5:15).

As an Israeli, as a Jew, and as a liberal Zionist, I have a responsibility to advocate not only for a safe and secure Israel, but for justice for all who reside within her boundaries and occupied territories.

As I write this commentary, riots are raging outside the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, only about a mile from my home. I hear the sound of stun grenades as Israeli police attempt desperately to keep protesting Palestinians away from ultra-right-wing Israelis who are chanting “Death to Arabs.”

As I write this commentary, the Torah text is not blinking at me– it is screaming.