Richard Kronenfeld
Adult Ba'al Teshuvah Ph.D. Physicist

Essentials of Judaism

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It is difficult to find another parsha that encapsulates the essentials of Judaism as Parshas Va’eschanan does. Traditionally read on the Shabbos of the week in which Tisha b’Av falls, it contains the Torah reading for that day, Devarim 4:25-40, in which Moshe Rabbeinu warns the people not to go astray. In the Art Scroll translation, the verses read:

“When you beget children and grandchildren and will have been long in the Land, you will grow corrupt and make a carved image, a likeness of anything, and you will do evil in the eyes of Hashem, your God, to anger him. I appoint heaven and earth this day to bear witness against you that you will surely perish quickly from the Land to which you are crossing the Jordan to possess; you shall not have lengthy days upon it, for you will be destroyed. Hashem will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where Hashem will lead you. There you will serve gods, the handiwork of man, of wood and stone, which do not see, and do not hear, and do not eat, and do not smell.

“From there you will seek Hashem, your God, and you will find Him, if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have befallen you, at the end of days, you will return to Hashem, your God, and hearken to His voice. For Hashem, your God, is a merciful God, he will not abandon you nor destroy you, and He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore to them. For inquire now regarding the early days that preceded you, from the day when God created man on the earth, and from one end of Heaven to the other end of Heaven: Has there ever been anything like this great thing or has anything like it been heard? Has a people ever heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire as you have heard, and survived? Or has any god ever miraculously come to take for himself a nation from amidst a nation, with challenges, with signs, and with wonders, and with war, and with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with greatly awesome deeds, such as everything Hashem, your God, did for you in Egypt before your eyes? You have been shown to know that Hashem, he is the God! There is none beside Him!”

Also found in this parsha are a repetition of the Ten Commandments, with a few emendations from the original in Parshas Yisro; the first paragraph of the Shema; and even the Wise Son’s question “What are the testimonies and the decrees and the ordinances that Hashem, our God, commanded you?” from the Passover Haggadah. Along similar lines, the accompanying Haftorah reading for Shabbos Nachamu, initiates the seven Haftorahs of Consolation leading up to Rosh Hashanah.

Parshas Va’eschanan and the parshiyos that follow are replete with Moshe Rabbeinu’s exhorting the Israelites to obey G-d’s commandments and be blessed, as opposed to flouting them and reaping the consequences. Sadly, many of the consequences have been self-inflicted. The Tanach tells us that Israel followed the commandments during Joshua’s lifetime and the lifetime of the elders who outlived them, but since then, beginning with the era of the Judges, observance has gone downhill. One of the worst consequences is betrayal by our own. Some examples:

  • Ravshakay, the brother of the idolatrous King Menashe, became an apostate and served as general of the Assyrian King Sancheiriv’s army in his invasion of Judea. [The Midrash Says, Vol. 5: The Book of Devarim, pp. 55-56]
  • The Hellenists sided with the Seleucid Greeks against the Maccabees.
  • Josephus manipulated the drawing of straws in the Zealots’ suicide pact to become the only survivor and then defected to the Romans.
  • The apostate Nicholas Donin spurred the Catholic Church to burn 24 wagonloads of holy seforim, specifically every copy of the Talmud they could seize, in 1242.
  • Another apostate, Theobald of Cambridge, originated the blood libel in 1144 that led to periodic massacres of Jews across Europe and eventually to the expulsion of Jews from England in 1291 that lasted for over 350 years until the rise of the Puritans.

Being conscious of the Chofetz Chaim’s injunction against lashon hora, I’ll refrain from mentioning anyone living in our own time. We all know who the disloyal ones are.

That being said, we close on a more hopeful note. Two recent stories in the media are noteworthy for their spiritual implications. First, not one but five perfect red heifers, none of which has ever born a yoke, were raised in America by a Christian Zionist farmer and shipped to Israel in September 2022, where the religious authorities have to wait until they reach their third year to make sure that they don’t develop a blemish that could disqualify them for use in the ritual of the parah aduma [the slaughter and burning of a perfect red heifer whose ashes are then used for purification from ritual impurity]. The historical record shows that there have been nine such heifers in over 3300 years, the first having been prepared by Moshe himself, but none in the last 2000 years. Tradition holds that the tenth one will be prepared by Mashiach and will herald the building of the Third Temple.

Second, World Israel News has reported that a fox was observed on the walls of the Temple Mount on Tisha B’Av, fulfilling an ancient prophecy: “Footage of the fox at the southern wall of the Temple Mount went viral on social media after the animal was spotted Wednesday night.

“Social media users noted that the fox’s presence at the holy site during the night of Tisha B’Av – the traditional Jewish fast day memorializing the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple – fulfilled the prophecy given by Uriah in the Book of Micah (3:12): ‘Therefore, for your sake Zion shall be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become rubble, and the Temple Mount as the high places of a forest (where foxes are found).’

“In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Makkot 24b), Rabbi Akiva is recorded having laughed upon visiting the ruins of the Holy of Holies at the site of the Second Temple. Three other rabbis accompanying him asked Rabbi Akiva why he laughed where others mourned, prompting Rabbi Akiva to point out that the prophet Isaiah had linked Uriah’s prophecy of the desolation of Jerusalem with Zechariah’s prophecy of the city’s redemption.

“’Until the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, it is evident that the prophecy of Zechariah remains valid,’ Rabbi Akiva said.

“The three other rabbis present, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, and Rabbi Yehoshua, responded, ‘Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us.’”

Could the Almighty be sending us a signal? Stay tuned.

About the Author
I'm a native New Yorker (Brooklyn, to be precise) transplanted to the desert as a teen-ager. I hold a Ph.D in Physics from Stanford and have taught mathematics and physics at the high school, community college, and university level. I'm an adult ba'al teshuvah and label myself as centrist Orthodox and a Religious Zionist along the lines of OU, Yeshiva University, and Mizrachi.
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