Parashat Va’etchanan / The Torah as Textual Homeland

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Rejoicing with Torah scrolls at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square.Credit: Alon Ron
Yakov Z. Meyer

In the Shema Yisrael (“Hear, O Israel”) passage that appears in Parashat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11), and which is recited twice daily in prayers, precise instructions are given as to how the biblical text is to be treated. The Torah’s words – that is, “these words” – must be placed “upon thy heart” (Deut. 6:6), and must be recited and constantly taught: “And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 6:7). In addition to teaching and learning the words by heart, there are more commandments: “And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates” (Deut. 6:8-9).

Compliance with these instructions will guarantee that the text will be preserved, internalized and absorbed into one’s body until it becomes one of its organs. The danger that will befall a person who fails to follow the instructions is described thus: “Then beware lest thou forget the Lord, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God; and him shalt thou serve, and by his name shalt thou swear. Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the peoples that are round about you; for a jealous God, even the Lord thy God, is in the midst of thee; lest the anger of the Lord thy God be kindled against thee, and he destroy thee from off the face of the earth” (Deut. 6:12-15).

The sages say that, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the very impulse to worship false gods vanished from the earth. Yet, the above verses have been preserved, and yetzer hara, the evil impulse, has not disappeared from humanity; it has simply assumed new forms. To keep alive the dialogue conducted with God by means of the Torah’s verses, the rabbinical homilist must interpret them in a manner that relates to his own world.

For their part, when the sages interpret the Shema Yisrael, they must propose a cultural, theological, anthropological interpretation that renders it relevant to their own era without diminishing the biblical power of the commandment and its punishment.

In the following commentary, the sages focus on the words “and [thou] shalt talk of them,” which, according to a literal reading, refers back to “these words” (Deut. 6:6-7). But the sages expand the phrase’s meaning, they define the limits of the dialogue. There are other things to talk about, but a person is permitted to talk about them only within the framework of the words God granted Israel on Mount Sinai.

“It is written, ‘and [thou] shalt talk of them’; you must make them the principal matter and not subordinate them. Your business transactions and negotiations must be conducted on the basis of these things and you must not mix them up with others. Can you say, ‘I have now learned the wisdom of Israel and can now learn the wisdom of the other nations as well’? No, because the Torah says, ‘to walk therein’ (Leviticus 18:4), which means you must never forsake them. Similarly, it is written, ‘Let them be only thine own, and not strangers with thee’ (Proverbs 5:17) and ‘When thou walkest, it shall lead thee, when thou liest down, it shall watch over thee; and when thou awakest, it shall talk with thee’ (Prov. 6:20-22). The phrase ‘When thou walkest’ refers to this world; the phrase “when thou liest down, it shall watch over thee” refers to the hour of one’s death; the phrase ‘and when thou awakest’ refers to the messianic period; and the phrase ‘it shall talk with thee’ refers to the next world” (Sifre, Deuteronomy: 34).

The question the midrash seeks to answer is what place should be given to the text in the reader’s world. The text must occupy a major role, and other sources cannot be associated with it even if they are assigned a secondary role. The Torah is the textual homeland and it alone must be studied.

Driven by a conservative, xenophobic view, the sages seek to deal with the issue of “forbidden knowledge” – in their view, any knowledge not found in the Torah. To support their argument, they combine three verses, one from Leviticus and two from Proverbs, forming an innovative, clear picture of the ideal manner in which the reader must encounter the biblical text.

In Leviticus, God commands Moses, “Mine ordinances shall ye do, and my statutes shall ye keep, to walk therein: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 18:4). The straightforward interpretation of the verse “to walk therein” is: one must walk along the paths as per the sages’ instructions and one must obey their commandments. However, when the verse is read in the present context, the word “therein” (literally, “inside them”) becomes a geographical description: The reader must “walk” inside the Torah and must avoid walking inside other texts. The Torah is depicted in terms of a physical expanse, as a territory surrounded by alternative textual territories. Readers of the Torah are commanded to walk – that is, to read – within their own territory only; they are forbidden to forsake it, to depart from the Torah’s words or to set out on a quest for “alien” knowledge. The Torah must be their textual homeland; there are no alternatives.

For this reason, the sages add the verse from Proverbs that depicts the Torah, using an image of water: “Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well. Let thy springs be dispersed abroad, and courses of water in the streets. Let them be only thine own, and not strangers with thee” (Proverbs 5:15-17). Readers are cautioned to “drink” only from their own well, whose water is intended only for them. In the present context, the term “strangers” refers to alien texts that cannot be attached as secondary items to the Torah or be interpreted by means of it. The rabbinical exegetist walks inside the Torah, finds various connections between distant verses, and creates new knowledge without venturing forth into forbidden external textual territory.

In the sages’ view, the “other” is not the idols that the Torah forbids one to worship, but rather “other knowledge” that cannot be appended to the biblical text, even though it may have a less important status. From a polytheistic world in which a person must choose one god from among a plethora of gods, the sages move to the beit midrash, the hall of religious study, where they must choose one text – the Torah – from among all other “alien” texts.

This process also entails a change in the concepts of reward and punishment. Obviously, God cannot openly punish people who draw a connection to other texts as secondary items to the Torah. After divine revelation disappeared from human reality, the sages came up with an innovation that is related to reward and punishment: the next world. Indeed, the verse from Proverbs cited in the above midrash refers to what will happen to those who observe the Torah’s commandments: “My son, keep the commandment of thy father, and forsake not the teaching of thy mother; Bind them continually upon thy heart, tie them about thy neck. When thou walkest, it shall lead thee, when thou liest down, it shall watch over thee; and when thou awakest, it shall talk with thee” (Prov. 6:20-22). In the sages’ interpretation, the Torah will accompany its faithful readers not only during the messianic period, but also in the next world.

In essence, the sages’ fundamentalist, exclusivist approach transforms the Torah from a scopic text that teaches one how to behave in this world, into a text that constitutes life itself. As it is written in “Ethics of the Fathers” (5:25); “Ben Bagbag says, ‘Turn it over and over again; all of it is inside you and all of you are inside it.’”