Five Rashis, VaEtchanan: Hope, Memory, and Love

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

Eternal Hope

The beginning of the parsha offers two examples of Moshe seeing room to believe that he might be allowed to enter Israel. Aside from showing how much he yearned for that, it is a reminder and a proof that we should never give up hope, that there is always some room for Hashem to change what seems our determined future.

The first comes in 3;23, where Moshe dates his pleading that Hashem allow him into the Land to בעת ההיא, which Rashi says was after the conquest of Sichon and Og. Since those lands are also part of the Land, Moshe had apparently been allowed some entry to Israel, and he let himself imagine that the decree had been annulled.

In the next verse, he says to Hashem אתה החלות להראות את עבדך, you have begun to show me. The simplest reading of the verse would understand him to be saying that seeing Hashem’s victories over Sichon and Og were just the beginning and he, Moshe, wanted to see all of it. Rashi, however, reads this as hearkening back to Sinai, where Hashem had invited Moshe to pray on behalf of the Jews after the sin of the Golden Calf.

That lesson, that we can always pray to alter a Divine decree, is what he was applying here. Hashem had begun to show him the power and greatness of prayer and Hashem’s responses to prayer. Moshe was hoping, praying, for more.

Knowledge and Memory

It’s tempting but dangerous to psychologize the greats of our past, to relate comments they make to their biographies. Occasionally, I give in; one of those areas is Rashi’s emphasis on absorbing and remembering Torah (which I first encountered years ago in his Commentary on Avot, but that’s a different discussion). It seems to me so notable because Rashi himself spent eight years in Germany as a young man (apparently in poverty, seeing wife and family a few times a year), to absorb the tradition of learning of the yeshivot of Germany, not available to him in France.

In this parsha, Rashi several times unexpectedly deflects the conversation (as my teacher, R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik might put it) to study and knowledge of Torah where we wouldn’t have expected it. It seems to me plausible that his notable concern with acquiring and retaining knowledge was connected to his early life experiences.

4;6, for example, speaks of ושמרתם ועשיתם, you shall guard it and you shall perform it. We might translate that first word as “be careful;” for example, tradition reads another of the Torah’s uses of that word as the source for Chazal making protective ordinances. Rashi, however, says that here it refers to mishnah, by which I think he means knowing the Law, Written and Oral. Pairing it with observance is the Torah’s reminder that knowledge is a prerequisite for observance.

Three verses later, when the Torah warns against forgetting its laws, Rashi comments that if we don’t forget, and keep them properly, we will be thought of as wise and insightful (the adjectives in the verse). But if we keep them incorrectly because we’ve forgotten them, we’ll be thought of as fools. Learning and retaining are the key.

Two chapters later, 6;6, the Torah warns us והיו הדברים האלה, these matters should be on our hearts. Rashi sees that as a continuation of the previous verse, which commanded us to love God. How do we love God? By remembering these matters, which lead us to know God and cleave to His ways. A verse later, when the Torah says ודברת בם, you should speak about them, Rashi understands it to mean that they should be the principle topic of our discussions. The main element of our conversations, the important part, should be Torah, with all else subordinate.

For Rashi, our relationship with God starts with and is fundamentally founded upon, our studying the Torah God gave us, our retaining that Torah so that we know how to actualize it, and make that Torah the primary part of our daily conversation.

The Reach and Grasp of Idolatry

4;28 warns that if Hashem has to punish us, we’ll be exiled, where we will worship other gods. It’s an odd prediction, since nothing about exile forces worship of other gods. One option would be to claim that living in those lands is itself a sort of worship, since we absorb their culture, and are living proof that God’s people did not succeed at staying in their land.

Rashi takes it in a different direction. Based on Onkelos, he says it means that when we serve idolaters, it’s as if we worship the idols themselves. To me, that connects to a comment of his on 7;2, where the Torah commands לא תחנם. English translations render that as not showing them favor, but Rashi reads it as prohibiting commenting on an idolater’s attractiveness.

The comments remind us of the Torah’s revulsion for idolatry. Jews serving idolaters is a victory for idolatry; Jews praising the beauty of idolaters is a victory for idolatry. Rashi doesn’t say whether that is limited to idolatry or extends to other worldviews that run counter to that of Hashem and the Torah.

The Challenge of Love

Love is an emotion we might think flows on its own; when it comes to our feeling it for Hashem, it needs work. In 5;24, the Jews ask Moshe to speak to them rather than Hashem; Rashi understands ואת תדבר אלינו to imply his distress over their disinterest in direct connection. His phrase is שאינכם חרדים להתקרב אליו מאהבה, you are not tremblingly anxious to come closer to Hashem out of love.

The call to love is more explicit in 6;5, the second verse of Shema, which commands it. Rashi notes that one advantage of obeying out of love instead of out of awe or fear is that those who are only kept close to Hashem by awe or fear will decide to leave when the going gets tough. If we have built up our love, it never gets too hard.

And the going might get tough, since Rashi interprets the end of that verse to mean that we have to love Hashem with all our souls, hearts, and strength, interpreting that last word as meaning money. For some, he explains, money is their life; for others—to me, it’s poignant that this is true— it’s their money.  Either way, love of Hashem has to prepare us to give up that which matters most.

There are rewards to loving Hashem, too, but those aren’t what Rashi in this week’s parasha highlighted. Here, he wants us to remember what we have to work on, build up, and foster.

The Rewards of Humility

After saying that the words לא מרבכם, 7;7, follow their simple meaning (that it’s not our greatness of number that led Hashem to choose us), Rashi adds a Midrashic reading, that our refusal to take on airs even when Hashem gives us great bounty is our most attractive characteristic.

On the words כי אתם המעט, for you are the least, Rashi gives examples: Avraham referred to himself as dust and ashes after Hashem had promised him greatness, Moshe and Aharon wonder why the Jews see them as having any power, even after they were the vehicle of the plagues, the Splitting of the Sea, the Giving of the Torah, and more.

In contrast, non-Jewish kings in Tanach repeatedly claim powers they do not have. The readiness of our great leaders should be a reminder and an example, Moshe Rabbenu is telling the Jews, that when good comes our way, we have to resist the urge to see it as deserved or solely a function of our own efforts. To maintain the love of Hashem and the relationship with Hashem that leads to our best possible lives, we have to hold fast to being המעט מכל העמים, the nation least likely to pat itself on the back for the good that comes its way.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.