parshat vetchanan

Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deuteronomy 6:4)

  שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, ה’ אֶחָד

Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Korcha along with his peers understood the Shema (Hear O Israel) as an acclamation of faith and acceptance of God’s Kingship that pre-empts and supercedes all of Jewish practice.

 “Accept the yoke of Heaven first, then accept the yoke of the commandments. – Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 13a

קבל עליו עול מלכות שמים תחלה ואח”כ

יקבל עליו עול מצוות


I was  introduced to the world of Musar by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (and see); one of the last greats of this 19th Century School of ethical thought and practice.

He recounted a story told of Rav Yerucham the spiritual head of the Meir Yeshiva in Poland.  Rav Yerucham had approached a student and asked if he had ever said the Shema?  The pupil was taken aback and replied:, “Yes, of course, Rabbi.”

Said Rav Yerucham, “Tell me, while you were saying the Shema did you feel a hint of rebellion against God?”

“Chas v’shalom,” (God Forbid) replied the pupil, “Of course not.”

“So you accepted the yoke of God’s Kingdom of Heaven (עול מלכות שמים)… on your feet, and anywhere they take you, on your hands and all your activities, on your eyes and anything you see, on your heart and emotions, your mind and your thoughts, imagination and curiosity… You accepted the yoke of heaven on all 248 limbs (traditional number of limbs in human body and number of words in the daily Shema declaration) …. and you never protested or stiffened in rejection?

“Then you have never said Shema ” replied the Rabbi [1]

I was struck by this interpretation of the Shema when I first heard it as I am now.

Did the Rabbi mean that unless one has felt the tingle of rebellion, at least once, one has never accepted the faith? Is this a one-off episode of a crisis of faith, or is this an ongoing dialectic?  As one’s faith and understanding of the true meaning of the “Yoke of Heaven” grow, must one’s sense of rejection and rebellion grow in-kind? Is the flip side of acceptance; rejection and vis a versa?

How ironic that it is precisely in a declaration focused on “ONE”  אֶחָד  that we focus on this tension between faith and rejection.

Once a musarnik, always a musarnik…  I have thought on this question for years as I have similarly asked myself.. what about this question so appeals to me.  I realize that what appeals to me about faith and observance in Judaism is exactly this duality within the unity.

The Rabbis have a way of changing a letter or word and standing a verse or a law on its head.  We had an example of that in the previous post where the Sifre changes a verse describing the Children of Israel’s time at Mt. Sinai that is normally interpreted as a description of bounty: ‘You have dwelt long enough at this mountain’. (Deuteronomy 1:6) רַב לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת בָּהָר הַזֶּה to a description of malaise: “It was bad for you to have dwelt at this mountain” רע הוא לכם ישיבתם בהר הזה

The giving of the Torah was good… but it was also bad… and, seeming to say…  if you don’t get this, then you have never received the Torah.

Another of my teachers who introduced me to the world of Hasidism and mysticism was Rabbi Moshe Wolfson.  Sitting in the woods at Camp Torah Vodaas summer camp in the Catskills he cited the text in Pirkei Avot:

Rabbi Yaakov would say: One who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, “How beautiful is this tree!”, “How beautiful is this ploughed field!”—the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life. (Ethics of the Fathers 3:7)

המהלך בדרך ושונה ומפסיק ממשנתו ואומר מה נאה אילן זה, מה נאה ניר זה – מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו מתחיב בנפשו

Asked Rabbi Wolfson “ How could admiring God’s works of nature be considered a crime worthy of death?” To which he answered… Anyone who is studying God’s Torah and considers it an interruption to study and admire God’s works of nature… for such a man the Torah considers it as though he had lost his soul… for the real Torah Scholar.. admiring nature is a continuation of Torah study….

Torah texts can isolate you from the truths and beauty of the world around us.. when they do, then you are no longer studying the Torah.

One Purim I was standing in the Yeshiva next to another Ba’al Teshuva (sometimes abbreviated to BT, a term that refers to a Jew who turns to embrace Orthodox Judaism). We both had had a few drinks.  I had always been proud of the fact that I was in the Yeshiva by-choice, not birth.  This guy turns to me and quotes the Talmud (Berachot 34a and Maimonides Hilchot Teshuva 7:4)

“In the place where Ba’alei Teshuvah stand, even the completely righteous are not able to stand”

Berachot 34b four amot

“Do you know why a tzadik can’t stand in the same place as a repentant?” Asked my friend.  “Because the spiritual level attained by a repentant is too holy” I replied with a smile.

No, said my buddy… according to the Kotzker Rebbe, A tzadik can’t stand next to a Ba’al Teshuva, because it stinks too much!

A little harsh.. but the lesson is clear… Being self-righteous is as much of a temptation for the pure as for the purified.. if you feel self-righteous you’re probably not.

The “ONE” at the end of my Shema is complex and is as much a challenge to any unified theory of God or the universe as it is an answer.  I think the same holds true for most Jews.  This profession of faith mixed with a question of faith is the core of my Judaism and, I believe the basis for Jewish humor.

I just saw a wonderful production of Fiddler on the Roof and Teviya’s constant questioning of God, while talking to God and his “you’re right too” response to the criticism that both sides of an argument can’t be right… is the crux of the play’s charm and the survival of his people.

Professor Sidney Morgenbesser, my college adviser and philosophy professor, was in great pain before he died.  He asked a student “Why is God making me suffer so? Is it because I do not believe in him?”

The tough-love aspect of the responses of Wolbe, Wolfson and the Kotzker are desperately needed in a world that seems to love platitudes in it’s religion, secularism and politics.

I read a powerful article this week criticizing superficial celebrities who use anti-Israel catch-phrases to give themselves painless (and brainless) righteous indignation.  The author cites a disposition that German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “Cheap Grace,”.  I had not heard of Bonhoeffer before, but he seems to follow in the footsteps of a great Christian thinker; Søren Kierkegaard, who I studied in my youth and admired greatly. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was so impressed by Kierkegaard that he wrote a book comparing Kierkegaard to the Kotzker named A Passion for Truth.

Kierkegaard did not believe in cheap grace, cheap truths or cheap faith.  He wrote a whole book on the attempted sacrifice of Jacob entitled Fear and Trembling in which he shows; in gruesome detail how wrong it was for God to ask and for Abraham and Jacob to acquiesce to such an immoral and irrational request.  Only after a total rejection of the Akeda can one accept it in a leap of faith…   I’m not sure that I can make this particular leap, but I do agree with Keirkegarrd that faith is not cheap.

Side Note: Kierkegaard never got married but he did write a large two-volume work on the pros and cons of marriage called Either/Or … it would seem that love and marriage are not cheap either…

Kierkegaard is considered the father of Existential Philosophy and the inventor of the never-ending dialectic where an idea such as acceptance is informed by an idea such as rejection, which leads to a higher idea of acceptance which is informed by a still higher idea of rejection and so on…

The problem with the cheap grace shown by celebrities affecting righteous indignation for suffering civilians without investing in learning the context of the conflict is that it does an injustice to the suffering on both sides and to the unknowing celebrity-watcher who want cheap facts.  The worst casualty of this cheap grace is that it makes those of us who wish to learn the context to naturally try to minimize the suffering cheapened by the celebrities and the too easy to process photojournalism.  We dare not.

Getting back to the iconic declaration of faith of the Jewish People.. the Shema; it is clearly a declaration of unity that includes a duality.  If unity was all it was looking for, it would have said “God is One” or “Hear O Israel, God is One”.

Rashi catches the duality and writes: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one: The Lord, who is now our God and not the God of the other nations-He will be [declared] in the future “the one God,”

 ה’ שהוא אלהינו עתה ולא אלהי האומות, הוא עתיד להיות ה’ אחד

Rashi sees a dialectical journey in human history and eschatology, I see in the Shema, our religion and peoplehood a challenge to travel a dialectical crevasse where neither faith, unity, nor love or peace are cheap.


In a search on the internet, I found this story twice, both times told about Rabbi Wolbe himself and a student (as opposed to a story R. Woble told of his Rebbe R. Yerucham) and both, mitigating the power of the story with a limitation of Did you ever say the Shema with kavanah [intent] … but that’s not the way I remember it.  See and see.


1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah

One response to “neither/nor

  1. sol

    In his undergraduate class, Prof. Morgenbesser is also reputed to have uttered the following paradox of the philosophy of language:
    When is a double positive a negative.
    When the speaker says” yeh yeh”
    Shabbat Shalom

Leave a Reply