Covenant, faith and deed

By Rabbi Brian Zimmerman
Parashat V’etchanan

In what is one of the most remarkable Torah portions, Moses begs to be allowed into the land of Israel. Told by God that nothing has changed and he cannot cross into the land, Moses begins the process of sharing his ethical will with the people. Moses understands that without him, the journey is perilous. He must begin the process of reflecting on the journey and repeating the stories and wisdom that will be of most help to the Israelites as they move onward without him.

That acceptance of his fate and immediate embracing of the mission at hand begins the Torah portion V’etchanan. Moses tells the Jews, Sh’ma Yisrael, Listen Israel, God is one. He tells the Israelites to show that awareness through love of God.

How does one show love of God? How does one express so human an emotion toward the deity? How to approach such a monumental task? We do so by teaching our children, by telling our story morning and night, by affixing words of Torah to our doors, by remembering past trials and blessings and by keeping the ancient connection relevant in our daily deeds.

But Moses goes a step further. Anyone can love God. After all, if God is one, then God is the one of all. Each faith has its own path toward gratitude; what makes us unique?

Moses authors a whole book of repetition, a second Torah, Deuteronomy, and begins it with a reminder of each of the Ten Commandments. We love God through our actions. We affirm God through covenantal acts in our lives.

Anyone who studies the two passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy will quickly notice that the versions are slightly different. In some commandments, such as to observe Shabbat, a different word is used. Remember the Shabbat, Zachor, is changed to keep or guard Shabbat, Shamor.

Sometimes clarification and greater detail is added to the mitzvot. Many rabbis have pointed out that this is how Moses makes these words his own. He is not simply repeating in the Book of Deuteronomy. He is retelling the story through his own life journey and the lessons of a life traveling the wilderness.

Judaism is a religion of faith through deed. As we live in a time of unparalleled freedom in our own secular lives, we struggle with a religion that has commitment at its core. How do we sync those two concurrent realties?

For some, a strict life led through the letter of the law as interpreted through legal codes and rabbinic responsa of the past centuries is the way. For others, law evolves through history, and those Jews feel bound to the past but also free to innovate, though only up to a line that they have set for themselves. Other Jews believe all relationships require a degree of personal autonomy. They believe that any relationship with God in a modern age will mean a process of trying, debating, learning and ultimately choosing what enhances our Jewish life.

A lazy fallback is to label ourselves Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews. But, people are not movements even if they are a part of a movement. Each Jew’s belief system falls somewhere within these lines but those choices and beliefs do not always fit with the temple that we join. We may find ourselves in a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox congregation because we like the tunes or the rabbi or the other people who attend. But our own private religious lives do not always align with the places where we worship. 

Each of us will find our own path but I would suggest that one idea is central for all Jews.

God demands a response from each of us. We live in covenant. The degree to which each of us chooses autonomy in our relationships with God and Torah may be different (although some mystics would say the autonomy is an illusion, but that is another d’var Torah) but as this Torah portion reminds us, covenant is a response.

To do nothing is not an answer to the call of the Sh’ma, but to struggle, question, try, discard, debate, add, subtract and question is a part of the sacred conversation that Moses begins when he rewrites the Ten Commandments (and 603 others) that second time.

A New Year is almost here. What better time to restart the conversation with God, once again?

Rabbi Brian Zimmerman is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth-El in Fort Worth.

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