Parashat V’Etchanan: The foundations of peoplehood

In Parashat V’Etchanan, Moshe begins his oration before the People of Israel in the first person, and yet, his subject is not himself, but a nation that he hopes to build with his words. His topic is the memory of the future.  Parashat V’Echanana is a blueprint for peoplehood.

And now, Israel, listen to the statutes and to the judgments which I teach you to do, in order that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord, God of your forefathers, is giving you. וְעַתָּ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל שְׁמַ֤ע אֶל־הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְאֶל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָֽנֹכִ֛י מְלַמֵּ֥ד אֶתְכֶ֖ם לַֽעֲשׂ֑וֹת לְמַ֣עַן תִּֽחְי֗וּ וּבָאתֶם֙ וִֽירִשְׁתֶּ֣ם אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר יְהֹוָ֛ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י אֲבֹֽתֵיכֶ֖ם נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם:

 

The key to Israel’s future, Moshe tells us, lies in their keeping the Torah, but this in turn depends on their keeping alive the memory of Sinai:

But beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children. רַ֡ק הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֩ וּשְׁמֹ֨ר נַפְשְׁךָ֜ מְאֹ֗ד פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֨ח אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֜ים אֲשֶׁר־רָא֣וּ עֵינֶ֗יךָ וּפֶן־יָס֨וּרוּ֙ מִלְּבָ֣בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֣י חַיֶּ֑יךָ וְהֽוֹדַעְתָּ֥ם לְבָנֶ֖יךָ וְלִבְנֵ֥י בָנֶֽיךָ:

 

The goal is the transmission of lessons learned across millennia, not the mere decades of a human life, or the few centuries of an ideology. The goal is nothing less than the manipulation of history itself—the creation of a new type of human society. God can afford to wait, but He needs the material on which to work.

Memory and the meaning of history

[Remember] the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, “Assemble the people for Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children. י֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָמַ֜דְתָּ לִפְנֵ֨י ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֘יךָ֘ בְּחֹרֵב֒ בֶּֽאֱמֹ֨ר ה’ אֵלַ֗י הַקְהֶל־לִי֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְאַשְׁמִעֵ֖ם אֶת־דְּבָרָ֑י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִלְמְד֜וּן לְיִרְאָ֣ה אֹתִ֗י כָּל־הַיָּמִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֵ֤ם חַיִּים֙ עַל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וְאֶת־בְּנֵיהֶ֖ם יְלַמֵּדֽוּן:

 

This is not mere historical recollection, it is memory, the transmission of a visceral experience down through the generations. In his iconic book, Zakhor, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes about this particularly Jewish form of ahistoric memory:

This novel perception was not the result of philosophical speculation, but of the peculiar nature of Israelite faith. It emerged out of an intuitive and revolutionary understanding of God, and was refined through profoundly felt historical experiences. However it came about, in retrospect the consequences are manifest. Suddenly, as it were, the crucial encounter between man and the divine shifted away from the realm of nature and the cosmos to the plane of history, conceived now in terms of divine challenge and human response. (Yerushalmi, p. 8)

Yerushalmi goes on to say, “Only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people. … If there can be no return to Sinai, then what took place at Sinai must be borne along the conduits of memory to those who were not there that day.”

We don’t record history, we relive it. This means breaking the link to actual happenings and dealing only with our perception of them. In this way, we can understand Moshe’s retelling of the experience on Sinai to those who stood before him, who were only children at that time:

The Eternal spoke these words to your entire assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the opaque darkness, with a great voice, which did not cease. And He inscribed them on two stone tablets and gave them to me. אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֡לֶּה דִּבֶּר֩ ה’ אֶל־כָּל־קְהַלְכֶ֜ם בָּהָ֗ר מִתּ֤וֹךְ הָאֵשׁ֙ הֶֽעָנָ֣ן וְהָֽעֲרָפֶ֔ל ק֥וֹל גָּד֖וֹל וְלֹ֣א יָסָ֑ף וַיִּכְתְּבֵ֗ם עַל־שְׁנֵי֙ לֻחֹ֣ת אֲבָנִ֔ים וַיִּתְּנֵ֖ם אֵלָֽי:


Although the commandments—the contract between God and Israel—were written on stone, the voice of God never ceased speaking; it is heard to this day, if we will only listen. The verb form “listen” or “hear” occurs no less than 23 times in our Parasha, including in the phrase that forms the foundation of Jewish belief: “Listen Israel, the Eternal our God is one!”

But how can The Eternal, the transcendent God, the creator of being itself, be “our God”, an immanent, personal God, who takes an interest in human morality? The answer is in the preamable to the covenant: “I am the Eternal your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” not “I am the Eternal, Who created the universe”. We can know God through the meaning that we find in our own history.

Memory as social choice

But not every happening can, or should, be transmitted to future generations. Cultural memory, like individual memory, must be selective. Only those things that further group survival and group well being are remembered. “Many prophets arose in Israel, double the number of those who left Egypt; but prophecy that was needed for future generations was written and that which was not needed was not written.” (Megillah 14a)

What defines a people is precisely those events that it chooses to accept as meaningful. Some cultures choose to remember heroes or warriors, adventurers or scientists. Jewish culture remembers the moral strengths and failings of our ancestors, the humble beginnings of the nation, and the transformative event at Sinai.

Moshe’s passionate plea to the people to choose the right path is founded on his understanding that only in following the Law that he has transmitted to them will they survive and flourish. A mission has been given to them to become a kingdom of priests—a nation in which knowledge and moral insight are not the domain of the elite few, but of every member of society, from the greatest to the least influential.

But Moshe knows well that the creation of such a nation is fraught with peril. He knows that only through catastrophic failure will the nation of Israel come into its inheritance:

When you beget children and children’s children, and you will be long established in the land, and you become corrupt and make a graven image, the likeness of anything, and do evil in the eyes of the Lord your God, to provoke Him to anger, I call as witness against you this very day the heaven and the earth, that you will speedily and utterly perish from the land to which you cross the Jordan, to possess; you will not prolong your days upon it, but will be utterly destroyed.

כִּֽי־תוֹלִ֤יד בָּנִים֙ וּבְנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים וְנֽוֹשַׁנְתֶּ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְהִשְׁחַתֶּ֗ם וַֽעֲשִׂ֤יתֶם פֶּ֨סֶל֙ תְּמ֣וּנַת כֹּ֔ל וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֥ם הָרַ֛ע בְּעֵינֵ֥י ה’־אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לְהַכְעִיסֽוֹ:
הַֽעִידֹ֩תִי֩ בָכֶ֨ם הַיּ֜וֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ כִּֽי־אָבֹ֣ד תֹּאבֵדוּן֘ מַהֵר֒ מֵעַ֣ל הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֜ם עֹֽבְרִ֧ים אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֛ן שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ לֹא־תַֽאֲרִיכֻ֤ן יָמִים֙ עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֥י הִשָּׁמֵ֖ד תִּשָּֽׁמֵדֽוּן:

“All is foreseen, but freedom is given”

While Moshe ties together the past and future into a web of meaning, and seems to foretell the fortunes of the nation in the distant future, the outcome is not at all certain. Moshe emphasizes again and again that the God who spoke to the people was unlike anything in heaven or earth, and therefore cannot be represented by anything within the people’s experience: “Take care, for you saw no manner of form on the day that God spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire.”

And yet, earlier in the Torah, we are told that mankind was created in the image and likeness of God: “In the image of God (Tselem Elohim) He created them; male and female He created them.” What can this mean if God has no form? The answer may lie in the name with which God names himself: “I will be what I will be”. God is a free agent; not only can we not predict what He will do, but what he will do is not predictable in principle.

And, like God, man too is unpredictable. In the Song of Creation, with which the Book of Genesis opens, every creative act ends with the poetic refrain: “God saw that it was good”. This refrain is missing from the creation of man; there is no statement that man’s creation was seen by God to be good. Perhaps this is because man is never completed—as a free agent, he can never be a finished product. From the moment he left the Garden, he became a partner in his own creation. Human freedom partakes of the chaos at the heart of creation—the capacity for evil as well as for good.

Thus, just as God will be what He will be, so human beings create their own future. In the act of choosing this or that path, we alter the outcome of all future moments, and those moments in turn lead to more choices, until the whole cascading chain of consequences runs far beyond any ability to predict. The only power in our hands—and it is an overwhelmingly serious one—is the power to choose in this moment! Each decision brings its own cascading reality with it. And so individuals, civilizations, and species all hang by the thread of a decision by one person.

And that one person is each of us.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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