Light from the Sidra

Va'etchanan ('And I pleaded...') 31st July 2015. 16th Av 5775

Torah: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11. Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


The Chosen People

There’s no getting away from it, the Jewish people are unique. They are different. Some regard that ‘difference’ as sinister; the Jews are the people in the shadows who rig everything from the Oscar winners to the creation of the ‘Islamic State.’ For about ten years the Jews have been officially the smartest people in the world but you wouldn’t say it was their intellect that made them unique any more than you would describe the Dutch as unique because they are officially world’s tallest people.

What sets Israel apart is that they are holy: ‘For you are a holy people to HASHEM, your God; HASHEM, your God, has chosen you to be for him a treasured people above all the peoples that are on the face of the earth’ (Deut 7:6). According to Deuteronomy 7, God did not choose the Jewish people because of any unique quality in them, he chose them because of the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Israel was not the world’s greatest nation but they were chosen to be great. Israel was not the most numerous nation but God had promised the patriarch Abraham that his seed would be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand of the seashore. Morally and ethically the Jewish people were not very holy but they were called by HASHEM to be holy and righteous. Neither were they chosen because of the merits of their fathers, as some of the medieval Sages taught. God loved Israel because he had sworn an oath to Israel’s Patriarchs to take them as his people.

But with privilege comes responsibility. Israel was chosen for a purpose; they were to show the other nations how to live. By living according to God’s commandments and statutes, Israel would be a light to the nations who were in darkness.

See, I have taught you decrees and ordinances, as HASHEM, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it. You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation! For which is a great nation that has a God Who is close to it as HASHEM, our God, whenever we call to him? And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances, such as this entire Torah that I place before you this day? (Deut 4:5-8)

Israel’s calling is to reflect the holy character of God to the nations that are ignorant of him. The ‘Ten Words’ of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, which we refer to as the Ten Commandments are not arbitrary stipulations; they reflect the beautiful, holy character of HASHEM, the Creator of the universe. For example, although it might sound ludicrously simplistic to say, HASHEM has other gods beside himself. But the Hebrews, who had been delivered from Egypt, the house of bondage, had lived under an oppressive regime that worshipped dozens of deities - some major, some minor – but. HASHEM recognised none of them. They were figments of men’s corrupt imagination but he eternally exits as the one great Reality. And, as the plagues of Egypt demonstrated, HASHEM alone is God.

Neither does HASHEM take his name in vain; when he swears an oath, he swears by his own name because no name is greater than his own. He swears by himself and there is no greater foundation for faith than that. After HASHEM created the world he kept Shabbat and bestowed on man, created in his image, the blessing of a day of rest.

The God of Israel does not murder. When I was an atheist, I asked a colleague why he didn’t believe in God. ‘Because he’s a murderer,’ he replied. I didn’t understand what he meant then and I don’t understand it now. Murder takes place when one human being with premeditation takes the life of another human. HASHEM is the bestower of life and, as such, he has the right, when any of his creatures transgresses the boundaries, to take back that life. The prohibition against adultery is a command to be faithful and to keep covenant (because whatever else marriage is, it is a covenant) and the God of Israel, in spite of his people’s unfaithfulness, to this day remains faithful to his covenant with Abraham. God never steals from us or demands anything from us that doesn’t belong to him by right. He doesn’t bear false witness against us and he never covets anything that belongs to us.

Imagine if Israel had lived up to God’s required standard. Imagine if we all lived according to the ‘Ten Words’! But instead of Israel influencing the nations, the nations influenced Israel so that now, as Rabbi Lionel Blue so perceptively commented, the Jews are like everyone else, only more so. Is everyone into politics? The Jews more so. Is everyone religious? The Jews more so. Is everyone atheistic? The Jews more so. Is everyone into irrational New Age mysticism? The Jews more so.

Although he has punished Israel for their shortcomings, HASHEM has not given up on his chosen people and the Haftarah calls upon whoever hears to comfort Jerusalem with the Messianic Good News that she has received ‘double’ for her sins. In Bible times, if a man was in debt and could not pay his creditors, the elders of the city posted the man’s name with the list of his debtors and the amounts owed on the city gate until the debt was paid. If a benefactor agreed to pay the full amount owed, the elders ‘doubled’ the notice and nailed the folded bill to the city gate. The debtor had received the double for his failure. He was free from debt.

Maybe you have tried all your life to be obedient to the Torah but you feel crushed because of your many failures. You owe HASHEM an immense debt of obedience but you lack the resources to meet that debt. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone was ready, willing and able to pay off your debt off for good? Here is the comforting message God wants you to hear and respond to: when Jesus the Messiah was nailed to a tree 2,000 years ago, according to the New Testament he took the ‘handwriting of ordinances that was against us’ and nailed it to the tree. He paid the debt of obedience we owe HASHEM so our debt could be forgiven.

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