“Parsha to the Point” – Va’etchanan 5777

Parshat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

Rabbi David Stav 

This coming Sabbath is called “Shabbat Nachamu”, in reference to the Haftarah, an excerpt from the Book of Yishayahu (Isaiah) that begins, “‘Comfort, comfort My people’, so says Hashem” [Is. 40:1]. This is the first of the Seven Haftarot of Consolation read every week between the Shabbat following Tisha b’Av until the Shabbat just before Rosh Hashana.

Moshe’s address to the people in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Va’etchanan, highlights his desire to remind the people of the stunning revelation they witnessed at Mount Sinai, when they were given the Torah. They experience, first hand, the presence of the Almighty and understood that no idols or other pagan force could ever be equated to the power of the Almighty, and this served as clear-cut evidence of the validity of the Jewish faith over the generations.

Accordingly, Moshe recalls the Ten Commandments given in the form of stone tablets at Mount Sinai. A superficial reading of the text of the second set of commandments reveals certain disparities when compared to the Ten Commandments that appear in the Book of Exodus [chapter 20].

One of the most obvious changes concerns the commandment to respect our parents. The commandment itself appears in both versions, beginning as follows: “Honor your father and your mother as the Lord your God commanded you…”, and both texts continue with the promise of long life given to those who respect their parents: “in order that your days be lengthened… on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you…”

One change stands out, however: the phrase “and that it may go well with you”, which only appears in the second version. Longevity is a fantastic blessing, of course, but a life that is both long and good is far better. Sadly, we can all encounter people who merit long lives but suffer for much of that time. Their health may be poor, or they might be financially destitute. Perhaps they have suffered emotional hardships. Here, however, the Torah bestows a blessing of a long and good life to all those who respect their parents. If this is such a good blessing, then, why not include it in the first version of the Ten Commandments?

Our Sages, cognizant of this discrepancy, asked an explicit question: “Why was the word ‘good not stated in the first [set of Ten] Commandments, whereas it was stated in the second set” [Talmud, Bava Kama 55a]. It’s a very good question. The first set of commandments make no mention of whether it’s good to be committed to the Ten Commandments as a Jew. Nothing is said about these commandments and values being something that is good and worthwhile to uphold. So why was Moshe the only one to remember to include the word “good”?

The Talmud answers, “… because [the tablets] were destined to be broken.” In other words, Hashem knew that these tablets would be shattered because of the Sin of the Golden Calf, so He didn’t want to write the word “good” in the first tablets.

The Talmud struggles with this answer, rebounding with another question: “But even if they were destined to be broken, why should this affect [the mention of wellbeing]?”

In other words, so what if the tablets were going to be shattered? Is that a good reason to omit the word “good” from the text?

The Talmud answers: “God forbid! Well-being would then have ceased in Israel.” Hashem didn’t want a text with the word “good” written on it to be destroyed, because that may lead the people to abandon hope. If they were to see the word “good” shattered to pieces, they may be misled to believe that their well-being could cease, too.

We must find an explanation to all of this. Do Israel’s hopes depend on whether the word “good” is inscribed on the tablets? The discourse between our rabbis reveals tension between morality and happiness.

There are things that everyone knows to be moral and healthy, things that are important and genuine, even if it isn’t necessarily pleasant to do them. Anyone of sound heart and mind knows that it is important to respect parents when they are in distress. People knew this before the Torah was given. That doesn’t mean that it is always fun and pleasant to respect parents. Sometimes, upholding this value means exposing oneself to humility and shame. It may lead to a loss of time or money, and we might end up sacrificing other things as well, but we must respect our parents, nonetheless.

The first tablets teach us that these Mitzvot are the truth, and even if we don’t always enjoy keeping them, keep them we must. Even if the tablets are broken, the logical and moral conclusion concerning the vital importance of these values remains intact. Yet the second set of tablets have another message to convey: those who adhere to this second set will also live good lives, better lives. It is no longer an integral part of a moral value, but rather a reward that Hashem gives humanity.

A moral person will lead a better life. If the tablets containing this message were to be shattered, this could imply that the reward will be rescinded, and that we, as human beings, are no longer be worthy of living good lives. This is why the second tablets were never broken – they merely disappeared. They discuss the goodness of keeping the Mitzvot, which will always be present.

How fitting to receive these words of consolation several days after commemorating Tisha b’Av. The decency inherent in the good deeds we do stays with us anywhere we go. It enhances our quality of life and infuses our lives with meaning, for the blessing of “and that it may go well with you” is eternal.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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