Torah Minute, Ve-Etchanan, Aug, 1991
Some weeks ago, Rabbi. Jacobson bestowed a great honor upon my family by dedicating these "Torah Minutes" to the memory of my mother during the year of mourning. I cannot think of a more fitting tribute because my mother so loved these weekly lessons. They were the topic of many a Saturday afternoon conversation over dishes of Shirley Rabinowitz's world class chulent. In deference to this, I was compelled to volunteer to try my hand at being a guest speaker.
On my first reading of the portion of Ve-etchanan, I was struck by the dilemma that the Rebbe must have had in deciding which aliya to take. What is the most import part of this diverse and challenging portion? Would it be Moses's final plea to the L--d to forgive his sins and, considering all the good he had done, permit him to enter the promised land? Could it be the re-reading of the Ten Comandments, the foundation of our ethical code. Or might it be the introduction of the Shema, our daily affirmation of our faith in the one G-d of our fathers? Fortunately, I need not answer that question since I was always taught that no part of the Torah is of greater of lessor importance.
Being of modest education in the scriptures, there is little that I could add in explanation of this reading, short of simply repeating some of the wealth of available commentary. therefore decided to put a unique perspective on this "Torah Minute" by interspersing a discussion of some of the highlights of this portion with some unique experiences I recently underwent. Perhaps, a parallel discussion of two "Desert Storms", occurring some 3500 years apart might serve to amplify the underlying themes of Moses's lectures which comprise Ve-Etchanan.
From a remote island in the Netherlands East Indies to a hamlet in the Republic of Vietnam, our nation's military conflicts have brought the American Jewish soldier to the remotest corners of the globe. This Jew, a civilian employee of the Department of the Army, wound up in the strangest place of all - the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If ever anyone felt the pain of Diaspora, I did there, spending a lonely Passover in a dirty Persian Gulf port city, the guest of a government who provided billions to support the PLO and where the mere possession of a siddur was grounds for arrest.
Our portion begins in another desert, in an earlier time, with the continuation of Moses's first discourse where he sternly chides the Children of Israel to follow the commandments as given by the L--d at Mt. Sinai. No clearer object lesson could be provided as to the consequences of abandoning our covenant than Moses's own tragic circumstance in being barred entry to the promised land. Though the L--d tempered His judgment with mercy and allowed Moses to miraculously view the entire land we now call Israel before his death, being our foremost prophet and teacher would not exempt Moses from punishment. I believe Moses's deep disappointment, as enumerated in the opening verses of the portion, is shared by every Jew today because we are all, in a way, barred from the promised land. The classical illustration of this point is found on Yom Kippur, while reading the Avoda, the description of the magnificent Temple service. Quoting Birnbaum's translation of the Mareh Kohen poem, "Like the morning star shining in the east, was the beaming countenance of the Kohen. All this took place when the Sanctuary was firmly established.." Many of us are moved to tears when we later read, "Indeed, the iniquities of our fathers destroyed our sacred home, and our own sins retarded its restoration." Yes, we can board an El Al aircraft and tread on Israeli soil in half a day, but, like Moses, we will never be able to participate in the ancient Temple rites as given to us in the Torah.
During the modern "Desert Storm" anger at being barred from the Promised Land was conveyed to me by a young non-Jewish captain in 24th Transportation Brigade. The 24th were the folks who unloaded all the ships we sent to the gulf and, being part of the logistical effort, came under the command of Lt. Gen. Gus Pagonis. Gen. Pagonis told all the Moslem troops under his command that he would make arrangements for them to participate in the Haj - the pilgrimage to Mecca. On hearing this, a group of Jewish soldiers, approached the General and asked if they might be permitted to visit Israel, seeing that this was the closest many of them might get to the middle east in their lifetimes. Gen. Pagonis refused, citing "security concerns". The Jewish troops shrugged their shoulders and forgot the incident - the American Jewish soldier is no stranger to veiled anti-Semitism. The amazing thing is fact that the person telling me of the incident didn't forget and could not forgive. Perhaps the anger of this Protestant captain from Pennsylvania at an act of anti-Semitism might mean that there is hope that we might all be able to live together someday.
Ve-etchanan continues with Moses's second discourse which begins with a reprise of the Ten Commandments. I had difficulty in finding a specific explanation of why we re-read the T. C. in this portion. What seems to emerge as I read through the various commentaries is that the first mention of the T. C. is the direct presentation of the law to the recently liberated Children of Israel at the Theophany on Sinai. It is instructive to note that the T. C., as read in this portion is not an exact duplication of the wording found in Exodus. It seems then, that the re-reading in this portion is Moses's interpretation of the Commandments to, paraphrasing JFK, a "new generation of Israelites", born not of slavery but of freedom and tempered by the torment of the 40 year sojourn in the desert.
Of particular stress in the portion is the second Commandment. Much of the portion is devoted to to warning Israel to avoid the idol-worshipping practices of the Heathen nations. It is important to consider how our implementation of the principle of "You will have no other G-- before Me,, differs from other nations. Two important points clearly define this difference. Firstly, our tradition holds only Israel to the belief in the one G-- of Abraham, Issac and Jacob. Second, and even more important, is the fact that our sages teach that all religions share a place in the world to come provided they are not founded in immorality or crime. This fundamental respect for other religions is the reason why Israeli soldiers are today guarding the Al-Aqsa Mosque while all the while it sits upon the sacred site of our destroyed Temple. Despite the fact that nearly all our holy sites in Israel have churches or mosques built upon them, our moral code requires us to protect them and insure accessability for all worshippers. Quite a different case when East Jerusalem was held by the Jordanians.
In Saudi Arabia, I lived in a hugh appartment complex in a suburb of Dhahran called Al-Khobar. Khobar Towers was completly taken over by the U.S. Army and turned into a gigantic base for the thousands of troops, brought in from the field just before embarking on flights home. Because of the very real terrorist threat the entire compound was encircled by barbed wire and sentries guarded every gate. An important part of the sentries duties was not only to keep hostiles out of the compound, but to ensure that American joggers did not accidently stray into Arab sections. If the joggers, who normally dress in shorts and tanktops, were to encounter the omnipresent Saudi religious police, they could have been arrested for indecent exposure. There is no freedom in Saudi Arabia to dress, act or even think independently. So strict is the Saudi interpretation of Islam, that religious freedom is an alien concept. Without religious freedom there is no freedom.
Army chaplains normally wear insignia according to their faith, Jews wear the two tablets of the law with a Star of David on top, Christians wear the Crucifix. Because of the Saudi intolerance of other religions, all chaplains were required to remove their insignia while "in country". In this war, the dying soldier on the battlefield would not have the final comfort of seeing the sign of his faith on his Chaplains collar.
Returning to Ve-etchanan, we are presented with the first part of the Shema. I will not speak about this because I believe the Shema is too critical to our faith to be explained by a layman. I would however, like to illustrate one sentence, "And you will bind them as a sign upon your hands and they will be as frontlets between your eyes". Our sages have determined that this sentence was to be taken literally and as such, we have developed the Tephillin which we bind on our arms and around our head. I felt a great deal of pride that I had in my possession one of the few pairs of Tephillin that were ever to be found in Saudi Arabia. Although possession of these objects could have resulted in my arrest, I would join the generations before me who were not to be dissuaded from observing the Commandments. Though I am a practicing conservative Jew, the lesson of Ve-etchanan is not lost to me.
No discussion of this week's readings would be complete without mention of the Haftorah. This week marks the first of seven readings from the Prophets which offer consolation for the loss of the Temple and our ensuing Diaspora. I must say that, because of my circumstance, the comforting words of Isaiah are as poignant to me as they must have been to the Jews of the ancient Babylonian exile. This morning though, I have great concern about the condition of Jews in the modern Babylonian exile. I hope they are today able to read and take comfort in Isaiah's words. When we read this and the other Haftorahs of Consolation, I hope we'll all remember the Jewish community in Iraq. I can only imagine the hardships they must be enduring in the aftermath of the "Desert Storm".
I would like to conclude with word of explanation. Many people have asked - "Why does Mr. Sturm read the prayer for the Government on Shabbos Mavorchim and why in English?". Quite simply, the reason the prayer is read is that I asked him to. I was somewhat upset that we were saying the prayer only for Israel without mention of my own country. No truer words were ever uttered than those of the Prophet Jeremiah who instructs us to "Pray for the welfare of your city because in it's welfare is your own". Persecution of the Jews has always been inflamed when conditions of the host country have deteriorated. It is ironic that we who gave the world the concept of the scapegoat have become the world's scapegoat. For over 200 years, the best haven for both Diaspora and Israeli Jewry has been a strong, healthy and economically sound America. The prayers for the welfare of Israel and the United States should be recited together and with equal concentration.
The reason that the Prayer for the Government is read in English is that my father wished to retain a beautiful custom of a synagogue we previously attended. There, the prayers for Israel and the United States were recited in the language of each respective nation. Those who contend that all prayers should be recited in Hebrew should remember that the Kaddish and other important personal meditations such as Kol Nidre are recited what was once the common language of the Jews, Aramaic. We read the Prayer for the Government in English for the same reason the Kaddish was read in Aramaic, so that it could be clearly understood, and fervently applied.
"Ve-etchanan" - Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
"Haftorah" - Isaiah 40:1 - 40:26
"Shema" - Deuteronomy 6:4 - 6:9
Jeremiah reference - 29:7