Thursday, August 03, 2017

Parashat Vaetchanan: Prayer and Poetry

By Prof. Stephen Schecter

Moses goes on with his mixture of recollections and admonitions, retelling the stories of incidents past with a new twist or perhaps simply filling in gaps which he did not bother to relate at the time. But in one thing he remains constant: that the Israelites keep the covenant whose statutes and ordinances he has taught them over the years. And what is that covenant? One God, unique and unprecedented, Who took them out of the iron furnace of Egypt, gave them the Torah and brought them to the land where they will put His teachings to work.

And so Moses lays it on thick, that it may stick. Those who transgressed, like the fornicators of Baal Peor, are no longer here. But you who cleaved unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you today. For great is the nation that carries out God’s statutes and great is the nation that has such statutes. And even greater is your God, for who ever heard of a God speaking to His people from the midst of fire and the people lived? Who ever heard of a God taking one nation out from amidst another with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm? Unto you alone He showed that and unto you He did that, because He loved you and because you are special to Him. Know therefore this day, Moses tells the children of Israel, and lay it in thy heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and the firmament below; there is none else.

These, it should be noted, are words that have worked themselves into the Alenu prayer, just as the words about those who cleave unto the Lord being alive today have worked themselves into the Torah service. And after Moses has repeated to the Israelites the Ten Commandments he reminds and insists they are to keep His statutes and commandments once they enter the land, that it may go well with them. Indeed, Moses tells them in his own summary of the Ten Commandments that succinct homily that has become the hallmark of Jewish prayer ever since: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might. And you shall teach these words unto your children, and make them for a sign upon thy hand and a frontlet between your eyes and put them on the doorposts of your house.

And when your children ask you once you have settled in the land and prospered, what are all these ordinances and statutes of the Lord and what are they to us, then shall you say to them; we were once slaves in Egypt to Pharaoh and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And just as these words have entered the Passover Haggadah, so the words slightly changed in Moses’ recounting earlier of the fourth commandment, the one enjoining the Israelites to observe the Sabbath, have worked their way into the blessing of the wine every Sabbath eve. If in the Book of Exodus the Ten Commandments invoked the Lord’s work of Creation to justify the day of rest, here Moses invoked the exodus from Egypt to do so. And so in the Kiddush sung over the wine on the Sabbath eve, we celebrate the day of rest both in memory of the work of Creation and in memory of the exodus from Egypt. Thus did Moses ensure that what he said to the Israelites gathered round him when he recalled the events of Sinai would apply to every generation. Remember, he told them, the Lord made a covenant not with our forefathers, but with us who are all alive today. And so it is for Jews still, three thousand years and counting, one conquest, two exiles, two returns later.

Herein lies the literary brilliance of the Torah. In all its repetition and alliteration, in all its doubling over itself and inner commentary, it creates a work of literature that shines for all the ages, slipping in poetry that becomes prayer – for what is prayer if not poetry? – and turns the people whose saga it is into a people through its very words. The words are so powerful, so poetic, so brilliant, they turn what they proclaim into reality. The people Moses enjoins and cajoles to cleave to the covenant do in fact do so, in spite of all their slip and back-sliding, because the words see to it that they do. These words find their way into prayer books and Passover stories, into book titles and novels far removed even from the time and place and nation that conceived them. Romeo and Juliet. Abasalom! Absalom! East of Eden. On and on it goes, the story of the Jewish people that created the Jewish people now become world history. And to think there are those who would dismiss it as old hat.

Shabbat shalom!

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