By Rabbi Shawn Zevit
This Shabbat, on which parshat V’Etkhanan is read, has a special designation as “Shabbat Nakhamu — the Shabbat of Comforting.” It is the first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
The Haftorah read on this Shabbat begins a series of seven haftorot, ending right before Rosh Hashanah. These readings all focus on healing the wounds of losing the Temple and, more broadly, also offer comfort for the impact of exile and the experience of being separate and separated from one’s home, and even from oneself.
The dimension of personal exile is seen in connection with Moses’ journey as he recounts it in the beginning of this parsha. The unusual verb that this parsha begins with, v’etkhanan, which means to plead for or on behalf of oneself. The classic rabbinic Midrash (Deut. Rabbah 2:1) understands this as meaning “to throw oneself at the mercy of the other.” A plea for mercy begins the parsha (Deuteronomy 3:23) and words of comfort begin the Haftorah portion (Isaiah, Chapter 40). Yet, as it was for Moses and for our ancestors, our pleas and prayers are not always responded to the way we would hope, and comfort is not available the way we long for.
In the case of the Torah portion, Moses recounts how he pleaded with God, “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan,” but to no avail.
Commentators over the centuries have mulled over why Moses uncharacteristically shares his inner struggle and dialogue with God in front of this new generation bound for the Promised Land. There is the perspective of admonishment: “Because of you, Israel, I do not get to cross the river to the land we have dreamed of — do not get there and squander the dream!”
There is the perspective of warning: “Look at what I did that cost me the thing I most longed for! Don’t get to the Promised Land and forsake following the Torah and run after false gods, thus forfeiting your own dreams!”
And, among many other interpretations, there is the possibility that Moses was reaching for forgiveness and legacy: “My time is over, I made critical mistakes and am bearing the consequences. As you move forward to fulfill your promise as a people, remember me for all that I did do, not only where I went ‘off-line’ from following a Divinely directed purpose.”
Whatever the meaning(s) behind his introductory personal reflection, Moses’ recollection raises the emotional stakes of what will now follow, and the rest of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is now established as Moses’ last words.
One verse that follows rises above even the power and primacy of the others:
Shma! Hear, Israel, there is only Oneness (Ekhad) our God.
This declaration to bear witness to the source of all existence and at the same time, Israel’s source, our source, is where both particular and universal meet in non-dual, mutually inclusive fashion. To really take this in, we are not instructed to write a treatise or discuss our understanding of how God is, and is our God, rather we are asked … to listen and to declare this truth as self-evident.
This may be why, according to Rabbi David Wolfe Blank, of blessed memory, Shma means many other things other than “to listen” based on the usage of related words in the Talmud. This idea invites us to pay attention to the many ways we might open up to holiness in our lives and find a connection to our Jewish path.
These meanings of Shma include the ability to: understand, attend, obey, surrender, gather, assemble, invite, be still, sing, make music, show willingness, take care of, attend to, prove, teach, proclaim and testify.
When our ears and our hearts are blocked to truth and living a committed spiritual life, when listening is difficult, we can try to connect with our soul’s purpose and make Jewish values-based and ethical choices through one of the other meanings of Shma. It is an extra blessing this year that Shabbat coincides with Tu B’Av (myjewishlearning.com/article/tu-bav/), an ancient Temple-centered festival that has flowered again in recent years focused on loving connections and finding joy in each other for who we essentially are.
The words that follow, “Shma Yisrael …” include, “Place these words of mine on your heart and on your soul …” (Deut 6:6). Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk points out that the Torah states ahl l’vav’kha, “on your heart.” The Torah does not say “in” your heart for your heart is closed at times, and it is impossible to place anything in your heart. But when words are placed on your heart, and the hour arrives that your heart opens up, they are ready to drop deeply into it.
As we move into these weeks of comforting, rising out of the ashes of the memory of past destruction, of an extended pandemic that has claimed so many lives, and struggling with many challenges we face here, in Israel and Palestine, and with our planet, I pray each of you finds the space to listen in ways that will allow the words we know to be true to enter into our hearts, making for change and transformation as we begin to count the weeks to another new year of possibilities — of us rising out of the shattering to a new and more lovingly connected world of our co-creation.
Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit is rabbi at Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia. He is co-founder/co-director of the Davennen Leader’s Training Institute and is the associate director for the ALEPH Hashpa’ah (Spiritual Direction) program. He is the co-chair of the Philadelphia Faith Leader’s caucus of POWER Interfaith. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.