This week’s parasha contains the Sh’ma, the best-known Hebrew text in the Jewish world, our eloquent and yet so simple statement of faith. (Deut 6: 4) But what exactly do we mean when we say “Adonai Echad,” “God is One?” This is widely open to interpretation. I find it fascinating that even Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century philosopher and pantheist (one who believes that God and the Universe are one), who was excommunicated from his Jewish community in Amsterdam for his heresies, tried to explain its meaning. He wrote: “No one will dispute that this doctrine is absolutely necessary for complete devotion, admiration and love toward God.” (Theologic-Political Treatise, 14) Did Spinoza then love the Universe with such devotion? Maybe some of us can relate to this way of thinking. Today Spinoza’s ideas are accepted in the anthology of Jewish God ideas in the liberal Jewish world and perhaps beyond.
This week we begin to read from the last book of the Torah: Devarim (Deuteronomy). Moses shares the history of the wilderness years with the people before they enter the Land of Israel without him. As Moses reviews the wandering of 40 years and the people they encountered on the way, some are described as relatives, and we recognize the names from the Genesis stories. The descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother, are encountered along with way and so are descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Due to these relationships, the Edomites, Moabites and Amonites are all considered “kin” to the Israelites and their land considered already allotted by God and not available to Israelite settlement. This is a plea for peaceful coexistence with some of the people they will find as they seek to settle the Promised Land. The Israelites learn here that they are not the only ones who received a promise and that they will be living side by side with others in and around their Promised Land.
This week’s parasha (Torah portion) contains a law about a woman taking a vow and the ability of her father, if she is stilling living in his house, to cancel the vow if he does so on the same day that she makes it. (Num. 30:4-6) It sounds very sexist, right? And it is, and so was the patriarchal society out of which this law came. We need not embrace the law or the sexism today, but is there something we can learn from it? Rabbi Laura Geller suggests the following message: If we hear or read or witness something wrong, we must speak up immediately or the opportunity will pass us by. And our silence can be interpreted as our consent or assent. If the father of the woman taking a self-imposed law thought that her vow might harm herself or her family, he was duty bound to annul it. (Geller, Text Messages, pp. 208-210.) If we witness harmful speech in our homes, on social media, in the workplace or when out for a social evening with friends, we need to muster the courage to speak up. Letting bullying or racist or sexist comments or gossip go by without commenting is like consenting to what was said.