Parasha Inspiration – Vaetchanan

וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָֽנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ: וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֨ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ: וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹֽטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ: וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזֻז֥וֹת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ:

And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

Devarim 6:6-9

This week’s Torah portion continues the sermon of Moses as he reiterates for the children of Israel everything that Hashem has done. This portion tells the story of how Hashem gives Israel the Shema and the Dibraya, the 10 Commandments.

We are all very familiar with these commandments. We understand that the Dibraya, rather than being solely commandments in and of themselves, are rather categories of commandments that are given throughout Torah. Modern theologians have brought forth the concepts that, realistically, in the Torah there are two different types of commandments. There are ethical commandments, and there are ceremonial commandments. Both types of commandments are visible in the Shema and its following verses.

This concept of ethical vs. ceremonial commandments has led to a misunderstanding of Hashem and the mitzvot. The “modern” idea is that we should pay attention to ethical commandments, and that ceremonial commandments are archaic and need not be followed. Nowhere in the actual text is this concept presented. Rather, the idea comes from an attempt to modernize Judaism and to make it more relevant in the modern world. This attempt is woefully misguided.

Are ethical commandments important, while ceremonial commandments are unimportant? Is it wise to create an artificial separation between the two types of commandments? Now that we are in the 21st century, do we really need to take biblical mythology seriously? Aren’t ceremonial commandments simply quaint traditions of old? Herein lies the problem.

If we believe that it is perfectly fine to pick and choose commandments, that some are more important and some not important, then we might believe it is perfectly fine to throw out all the commandments. At least it would be fine to throw out all the commandments, except two, love Hashem and love your neighbor. Throwing out commandments flies in the face of everything that the Shema and the Dibraya teach us. Yeshua is very consistent in teaching the importance of all 613 commandments. “If you love me, you will follow my commandments.” “Not one yud or vahv will pass away.” “I come not to abolish the commandments…” The message is simple and consistent, all the commandments are valid and important. So, the purpose of separating the commandments into categories of ethical and ceremonial commandments serves no purpose. Both types of commandments are equally valid and important.

Everyone understands the value and importance of ethical commandments. “Thou shalt not murder” is a good idea and easy to understand. But what is the purpose of ceremonial commandments? Why are they even in the Torah? The answer is that they are in the Torah for our sake. In the Shema, we are taught to teach the commandments to our children continuously. We are to bind them as a sign on our hands. They are to be an emblem between our eyes. We are to write them on the doorposts of our house and gates. There is no question that these are ceremonial commandments. However, these commandments are intricately connected to the commandment to teach our children. Here is seen the purpose of the ceremonial commandments. They raise our God-consciousness. When we do the ceremonial commandments, we think of Hashem. It cannot be avoided. Every ceremonial commandment we do is an action that if we were not thinking about Hashem, we would not enact. Dealing with ceremonial commandments on a daily and seasonal basis raises our God consciousness and reminds us to teach our children. Every ceremonial commandment leads us, and our children, and any other witnesses, to think about Hashem. When we do the ceremonial commandments, the God-consciousness of the world elevates. Therefore, it is not only through the ethical commandments, but it is also through the ceremonial commandments, that Israel is a light unto the world. Shabbat shalom.

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Rabbi Steven Bernstein

Steve was born on Lag B’Omer in Ann Arbor, MI but was raised in Gainesville, FL. The son of two University of Florida professors, he excelled in the sciences in school. In addition to his normal academic studies, he pursued his Jewish education studying with many Rabbis and professors of Judaic Studies from the University including visiting Rabbis such as Abraham Joshua Heschel and Shlomo Carlebach.