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Va-et’chanan: “Talking Torah"

  • Va-et’chanan: “Talking Torah"

    Va-et'chanan, Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11
D'var Torah By: 

Parenting is not only the greatest blessing of my life, but it is also the most incredible learning experience of my Judaism. When my older son was a little boy he told me that God had a huge pair of scissors, for how else, he explained, could he cut the moon each night and put it in the sky for us to see? When my younger son was in preschool he taught me to appreciate the multicolored sunset when he declared that God must have the big box of crayons, the sixty-four pack with all the different colors (not the small package of eight), because the sky was so pretty, and the colors so abundant and bright. In teaching my children from the youngest age to know and love God, I discovered that they taught me far more in return. Their awe and wonder rekindled my faith and opened my eyes to God's daily miracles. I did not teach my children and give them Judaism to burden them. On the contrary, each law, each commandment, and each observance was my way of protecting them in a world that has so many dangers and temptations. As a parent, I am so grateful for the path of Torah and tradition. Torah has guided them far better than my husband and I ever could have done on our own.

The V'ahavta passage (Deuteronomy 6:5ff.) lays out the blueprint for how we are supposed to teach: talk Torah, God, and commandments "when you sit in your house, when you walk on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up." Torah was never something I expected my kids to learn solely in religious school. Torah and God were part of every dinner table discussion, every values lesson, every act of tzedakah (charitable giving and doing), and every family activity. Jewish discussion invites God and Torah into our homes and our lives. Having them make Jewish choices and live a Jewish life when they left our nest was our goal as parents; their regular observance of kashrut, Shabbat dinner and weekly worship, Torah study, and community service as adults has insured Jewish continuity for the next generation.

As parents and teachers we try to show by example. This week's Torah portion reminds us that doing so requires us to talk about what we believe and what we should do. I believe in talking. Deuteronomy tells us this week, "Speak of them, when you sit in your house, when you walk on your way . . . " (6:7). How many households sit and talk daily without the distractions of work, technology, and the ever-present activities that pull us away from communicating meaningfully with one another? How many Jewish families talk about the importance of giving Jewishly as they plan and budget for a new year? How many people plan for their own personal fulfillment of the mitzvot and live life based upon a Jewish calendar above all else? Perhaps, the message is that it is not enough to walk the walk of Torah, we must also talk the talk of Torah.

If you asked me to tell you the most important words of the entire Torah, they would be these four words from Deuteronomy 6:7 " V'shinantam l'vaneycha v'dibarta bam," which the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation shows as, "Impress them upon your children. Recite them . . ." This translation, used and explained in our Torah commentary, as well as Mishkan T'filah, chooses the word "impress" for v'shinantam. Most English prayer books, for over a century, used the translation "teach."* I like the word "impress" because it is not enough for us to love God and keep God's words upon our hearts; we are commanded to pass God's words on to our children-our own and other people's children. Teaching them is not enough. We must have them make a lasting impression in word and deed if the Torah is to survive. There is no more sacred task.

But I disagree with the JPS translation of the phrase v'dibarta bam that appears in our Torah commentary. There is no indication that the later Rabbinic use of the Sh'maprayer as liturgy, which gives rise to the translation, "recite them," is intended in this passage. In fact, the literal meeting of "talk about" these commandments is more correct in the biblical Hebrew. The Jewish Study Bible says, "The original idea of the Hebrew is rather 'to speak about them,' "(Adele Berlin, Mach Zvi Brettler, eds. [New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2003] p. 380) Rashi quotes the Sifrei on this phrase, "And you shall speak of them" by saying, "that should be your principle topic of conversation not of secondary importance." Sforno says, "Memory is best preserved by constant verbal repetition. Hence the precept that one should talk of the Divine commandments."

This portion of Va-et'chanan has the phrase we say every time we lift the Torah after it is read, "This is the Torah Moses placed before the people of Israel" (Deuteronomy 4:44) to fulfill the word of God. Literally, "from God's mouth," al pi Adonai. We are told to "Hear," Sh'ma, but to be holy and a reflection of God's image, our mouths must speak words of Torah, as well.

Our portion goes on to command us to affix mezuzot to our doorposts (6:9). When I teach families to kiss the mezuzah wherever they are, I explain that we kiss our hand and then touch the mezuzah to acknowledge God's commandments and presence in our lives. After we touch the mezuzah and return our hand to our lips, we are promising to speak words of Torah and words God would want us to speak in our homes and on our ways. We must do more than hear and acknowledge the words of Torah. We must talk Torah.

How do we "talk Torah?" Deuteronomy 6:20ff. tells us to share our sacred stories with our children, for the Torah contains the stories of our relationship with God and our history as a people. Talking Torah teaches us to remember and inspires us to observe. We must do more than recite the Sh'ma every morning and every night. Walking the walk of Torah, requires us to "talk the talk of Torah," openly and often. Have you talked Torah today?

*See The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed., ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: URJ Press, 2005] p. 1,201; Mishkan T'filah: A Reform Siddur, ed. Elyse D. Frishman [New York: CCAR Press, 2007] p.12; Gates of Prayer [New York: CCAR Press, 1975, 1997], p. 57).

Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D. D., is a summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton University, and was ordained from the New York School of HUC - JIR in 1982. She is the senior rabbi of Temple B'nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, Virginia.

I Was There; So Were You!
Davar Acher By: 
Fred Greene

I enjoyed Rabbi Perlin's teaching about how to "talk Torah" and the power of engagement through conversations with others. There are few things as sweet as when my wife and I speak words of Torah around our own Shabbat dinner table with our daughters.

To reinforce Rabbi Perlin's argument, earlier in the parashah we read: "But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children's children" (Deuteronomy 4:9). Moses is addressing the community long after the Israelites left Egypt and stood at Mount Sinai. Most of the people he was addressing were not even actual witnesses to those great events. Nevertheless, the next generation needed to hear about the former generation's experiences.

I often wonder what builds a strong Jewish identity. Information and knowledge are surely significant ingredients. But the most crucial ingredient is memory. We have to remember what we have seen and pass it on to the next generation. When we lose our memory, our people become vulnerable and our relationship with Torah and God becomes at risk.

As I read this verse, I see that our response ought to be the sharing of these collective memories of our people. This is why we are told to reenact much of what our ancestors experienced: we say that we were slaves in Egypt at our Passover seders, we raise the Torah scroll as everyone stands and proclaims that this is the Torah that God gave to Israel at Sinai (bringing us back to Sinai), we build and dwell in a sukkah reminding us of our ancestors' journey through the wilderness, and so much more.

In the end, these aren't just rituals, but reenactments-our effort to reclaim our ancestors' experiences for ourselves and our Jewish journeys.

Rabbi Fred Greene is the rabbi at Temple Beth Tikvah of Roswell, Georgia, in the Metro-Atlanta area.

Reference Materials: 

Va-et'chanan, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,333-1,378; Revised Edition, pp. 1,184-1,221;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,063-1,088