Celebrating the Spiritual Levels of Torah

Torah is a teaching that continues to unfold, guiding us to appreciate the text more fully
as our awareness evolves.

Weekly Torah Portion: Va'etchanan
(Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11)

Week of July 26 - August 1, 2015

The story of a shared history

As the people pause at the boundary of the Promised Land, Moses delivers several lengthy discourses reminding them of the story that unites them, the commandments that bind them, and the spiritual teachings that enliven them.

He reminds them of the dramatic scene at Sinai, reinforcing the narrative in which their invisible God proclaimed the Ten Principles. They heard a voice, but saw no image. Traditions differ on what the people actually heard, and the majority of commentators agree that, at most, the people were able to hear either the first word, "I AM," or only the first syllable, "Ahhh." All the rest had to be communicated to them by Moses, who alone was able to hear, since he was not limited by the fear that kept the rest of the people away.

Moses emphasizes again and again the cardinal sin: idolatry. There is nothing that can be perceived or conceived by a human being that is worthy of worship other than the One.

Take therefore good heed to yourselves; for you saw no manner of form on the day when the Eternal spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire; lest you corrupt yourselves, and make an engraved image for you, the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, (4:15, 16)

Any idolatry splits reality into different factions. Only Oneness is absolutely inclusive, a teaching and a reality that we are still striving to understand and to live. The greatest trouble will befall the people, about to become a nation, when they devolve into idolatrous thinking and practices. Perhaps this is still the foundation of the greatest difficulties we face as individuals, as religions, as national entities, and as a world.

The Eternal our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The Eternal made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, who are all of us here alive this day. The Eternal talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire, I stood between the Eternal and you at that time, to tell you the word of the Eternal; for you were afraid because of the fire, and went not up into the mount, saying, "I AM the Eternal your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." (5:2-7)

Although Moses says the people experienced the transmission of the Ten Principles "face to face" with God, it is clear that he alone was able to stand in the immediacy of that moment. Those central Ten Principles, later called the Ten Commandments, are repeated here almost exactly as they appeared before in chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus.

The basic guiding principle

Ultimate Reality is One. Quite simply, this is the basic guiding principle behind all the positive teachings and regulations contained in Jewish tradition. The "Name" of this singularity is "I AM," apprehended by Moses at the very beginning of his awakening as spiritual leader par excellence of what would become, under his tutelage, a People. Ultimate Reality can only express as One, and the only pronoun capable of conveying this Oneness is first-person singular, without limitation of space or time.

This may be the clearest way language can convey that All Being is alive: we are all part of a living Being, in whom all else exists.

And the single negative principle prohibits limiting that One by ascribing power to any particular aspect of that One. Whenever we do so, and, to be sure, we do so very often, we artificially split reality and ultimately work against ourselves. When we pay homage to position or possessions, to person or personality, we sever the integrity of our relationship to the whole.

All the negative commandments, all prohibitions, spring from this one.

The essence of ethical monotheism

There are so many verses in this parashah that speak a timeless spiritual teaching. In a moment, we will look at some that are most well-known to those familiar with Jewish liturgy. But first, a verse that has not received the kind of attention it deserves.

To you it was shown, that you might know, that the Eternal (YHVH) is God (Elohim); there is nothing else. (4:35)

Translated literally, the verse concludes, "there is nothing besides him," but this can be misleading. English can describe beings without an identification as either masculine or feminine, but Middle Eastern languages, like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, cannot. There is no "neuter," perhaps indicating that everything is essentially alive. When referring, then, to Ultimate Reality, there is simply no linguistic way to avoid ascribing a gender identity, even when speaking of that which is both beyond gender, as well as inclusive of all possible genders. The translation, "there is nothing else," communicates the essential meaning of the text.

Oneness is absolutely inclusive; nothing can "be" outside that One. Idolatry forces us to act as if this is not so, splitting power and authority in ways resulting in conflict and confusion.

Spiritual consciousness is the awareness, beyond words, of this Oneness. The more spiritual our awareness, the clearer our perception that all of us share a single Life, we all exist within a single Being, and we breathe a universal breath. When we realize this inclusivity, we naturally act compassionately with ourselves and with others. We avoid polarization and demonization. We act for the betterment of all. This is the essence of ethical monotheism: the ethic naturally flows from honoring the One Life we share.

The natural inclination of the soul

And then there are the verses that have become a part of virtually every Jewish worship service, the verses most familiar and most spoken.

Listen, Israel; The Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One; and you shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; (6:4-6)

The six words of Deuteronomy 6:4 are called "The Sh'ma," after the first word, which means, "Listen," or "Hear." What follows is what there is to hear when we are attuned to the universal whispers of the Life we share. In the particular expression within Judaism, this Oneness expresses as ultimate transcendence (YHVH, translated "Eternal," a way of indicating "Being without limitation of space or time") and each particular expression (Elohim, translated "God," indicating by its plural form that this is "the One expressing as the many").

These six words of the Sh'ma form the central affirmation of Judaism, and become a focus for meditative practice.

In biblical times, "heart" was where one thought. It was conceived that this was the place of the mind. Only later was the heart associated with feeling. It is interesting that today there are scientists who have found that the heart may well have a "brain," that such functions may not be limited to the contents of our cranial cavities. The original Hebrew indicated that the words of the Sh'ma were to be held in the mind -- always. (Some years ago, I wrote a teaching on using the Sh'ma in meditation that is still available here.)

It is no accident that the next verse speaks of love. When we awaken to the One Life we share, when we become available for that more inclusive consciousness, we meet a deep reverence, acceptance, and love of all life. Since "the Eternal" (absolute transcendence) and "our God" (all particular expressions of that One) comprise "all that is," the words indicate the embrace of all Being.

While often translated as a command, "You shall love," there is no linguistic need to do so. It may just as properly be translated, "Then you can love," indicating the consequence of the realization of One.

S'fat Emet, a late 19th century Hasidic commentator, noted that love can never be commanded. He taught that love is the natural inclination of the soul. When we become more aware of the Life we share, when we become more conscious of our interconnectedness to all others, love is the natural soul expression that follows.

Focus Phrases

I am fully present in this moment.
I am a unique expression of One Life.
I accept this moment exactly as it is.

Writing Prompts

One of the stories I use to define myself is. . .
The idolatries I most often meet include. . .
I opened most fully to Oneness when. .

Photo: Mark Reden