On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Va-et’chanan: What is the Essence of Judaism?

Ten is an important number in Jewish tradition, and in this parashah we read the second telling of the Ten Commandments. Though many consider the essence of Judaism to be the Ten Commandments, they aren’t necessarily the most important of the 613 commandments. More important than being able to recite the Ten Commandments from memory is embodying the essence of those commandments and practicing them.  God tells Moses, “Go up on the high place and raise your gaze, look out,”  challenging him to look up from his everyday tasks and see beyond the present moment to the future. We can all be inspired by that challenge, and look towards a future where each of us can distill Judaism into its essence, perhaps the way Micah taught: “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Listen to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discuss Parashat Va-et’chanan

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Welcome to Episode 30 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by
ReformJudaism.org. Each week we continue to reflect on more than 2000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we want to hear what you think, so talk to us on Twitter, our handle is @URJ. Like us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism, and continue to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. 

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, asks us to look up and see what is and what could be. And then he challenges us to figure out what happens when we try to distill our deepest messages down to their essence. 

This week we focus our attention on Parashat Va-et’chanan, the second parashah in the book of Deuteronomy. Amazingly, at the very opening of the parashah, the commandment goes to Moses. “A-le rosh hapisgah.” Go up on to the high place and raise your gaze. Look out. Don't just, as many of us do, look at the steps we're about to take in our lives, but look up. Look out. See what is and what could be. See the present, see beyond to the future. 

And in this week's parashah, we have some of the most famous little sections of biblical text that we, as a Jewish people, know. We have the Ten Commandments. We have the Sh’ma, the beautiful teaching about the oneness of God, the oneness of creation, the oneness of humanity. 

I want to focus some attention on those Ten Commandments. 10's a pretty good number in the Jewish tradition to kind of hold on to. You got those 10 fingers. So you can always remind yourself. Let's see-- one, two-- in the Jewish tradition, we have the 10 plagues. We have the Ten Commandments. 

So one of those questions is, why do we try to distill? Why do we try to organize in, kind of, smaller takeaways? What's the essence? 

Very often, as Moses does in Deuteronomy, or rabbis do sometimes giving talks, we say a lot of things. And people want to know, what do you really want us to know? What do you want us to walk away with? What's the essence? What's the critical piece? 

And in this parashah, we have the very famous second telling of the Ten Commandments. And the idea that these 10 somehow have a primacy over the others is one of those things we assume, but it's actually not the case necessarily in our tradition. 

I met a wonderful choreographer who was giving me a little bit of a challenge. He said, “This Parashat Va'etchanan, what are you going to talk about this week?” I said, “Well, I'm going to talk about the Ten Commandments.” 

He said, “Ah, you know, that's what liberal Jews-- you know, for you, that's probably a lot to remember.” I said, “Well, you know, it's got a lot of essence.” I said, “By the way, I would just like to try an exercise. Could you just recite the Ten Commandments for me?” 

He goes, “Are you kidding? That's like the easiest thing anyone's asked me.” I said, “I know. It's pretty easy. But just go ahead.” So he said, “Well, don't murder. That's one of them, right?” I said, “Yeah. Yeah, that's one of them, right.” 

He said, “Don't steal.” I said, “Yeah, yeah. Good.” He said, “Don't commit adultery.” I said, “Yep.” He said, “Don't bear false witness. That's one,” I said, “Yeah, yeah.” He said, “Don't commit adultery.’ I said, “Well, you already said that once.” 

He actually couldn't recite all Ten Commandments, even though he went to yeshiva. And I said, you know, in the Jewish tradition, we always want to make sure that we've got the essence with us. And those Ten Commandments aren't necessarily the most important commandments. It doesn't have [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] love your neighbor as yourself. 

It doesn't say, you shall love the stranger. It doesn't speak about the holiday of Pesach. Again, there's a lot that's not in those Ten Commandments. But I think we, as a people, are always trying to put it into an essence. 

There's that very famous story of the potential convert who goes to Shammai, the rabbi in antiquity, and says, can you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot? And, you know, Shammai is not happy with the question. He gives him a clunk over the head. Says, get out of here. Goes to Hillel and Hillel says yes. What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone. That's the whole Torah. Now go and study. 

So Hillel was able to distill it into one commandment. Actually one commandment that's not in the Ten Commandments. And it turns out that in ancient liturgy, the Ten Commandments were recited in the ancient temple. They became a part of the early liturgy. And then, they were deliberately removed from our prayer book. Why? Say the ancient rabbis, because they didn't want us to think these were the only, or necessarily even the most essential of the commandments. So they were removed so that we could hold on to the broader canon. In the Jewish tradition there are 613 obligations. But I love that the idea here is even as we want to distill, we want to keep open that we can't all carry every commandment, at every moment, but how do we distill? How do we make sure the takeaway? 

Maybe the takeaway is Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad! Hear, O Israel, listen Israel, God is one. God is not all the different pieces, God is the oneness. 

So in many of our spiritual lives, we're trying to find, kind of, what is that ikar. What is that essence that I can carry with us? And maybe is, what's hateful to you, don't do to anyone else. That'd be a pretty good starting point. 

Or maybe, it's that oneness. That sense that even in all our diversity, and all the different multiplicity of creation in the universe, that somehow there's a thread that ties us all together in a web of mutual responsibility. So as we distill, and we try to hold on, maybe we think of the prophet Micah, who distilled it into very beautiful words. He said, what's the essence? Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. 

Throughout our tradition, whether it's Micah, or Hillel or Moses, you try to give the essence. And more importantly than being able to recite these commandments, these obligations, these teachings, these spiritual truths, the most important thing is to be able to practice them. To do them, to embody them. 

So as we focus on Parashat Va-et’chanan, you might want to see how many of those Ten Commandments you can just rattle off now on your 10 fingers. You might want to pay attention to which ones don't come up. Might be that taking God's name in vain, or not making idols, or missing the first one, which is really not a commandment at all, but a statement, a statement of God and of God's presence in our lives and on the journey through history. 

However you remember or don't remember, the most important thing is to be able to distill, to discern, and to practice. So however it is that you follow the teachings of Hillel, hopefully not Shammai, the teachings of Micah, who so eloquently gave us what would literally amount to an entire lifetime, to try and do justly, to try and love mercy, and to do so with humility. The key is to distill, to discern, and may we each in our own way find those expressions that we can hold onto, that aren't ethereal in a moment of sermon or a moment of a great talk, but something we can literally use as a light to guide a day, to guide our weeks, to guide our lives. 

Open, open the parashah, open the possibility, and get up onto that Pisgah as Moses did. Look out. See not only your life and not only the world around you, let's see what we could build if we each were able to discern and to distill and to live those teachings. That would be a different world altogether. 

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. 

And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. 

Until next week,l’hitraot.