July 26, 2018


7.27.2018 Weekly Torah Portion

Parashat Va-Etchanan


This week we read in our Torah portion the verses that later will become part of the most sacred of Jewish prayers, the Shmah:

Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.  Impress them upon your children.  Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. (Deut. 6:6-7)

Our sages in the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) think about this verse and teach:

The verse states: “And you shall teach them diligently [veshinnantam].”  The root – shin, nun, nun – of veshinnantam should be understood as meaning “sharp,” i.e., that matters of Torah should be sharp and clear in your mouth, so that if a person asks you something, do not stutter in uncertainty and say an uncertain response to him.  Rather, answer him immediately.

In matters of the heart as in matters of the soul, clarity is required!  It is the essence of our Jewish credo.  But what is clarity?  Is there no room for doubt?  Is uncertainty so bad?

Uncertainty, we learn, is not desired.  Though it is not to be confused with doubt – which I hold dear and which is, in fact, fundamental to faith, I believe.  It is not the same as uncertainty, which Wikipedia quotes as being “’an unintelligible expression without a straightforward description.’  It describes a situation involving insecurity and/or unknown information.”  Uncertainty assumes that things in life are constant and assured.  That, in turn, leaves no room for wonder, amazement, growth, and experience.

The verse we are studying has become part of our daily liturgy, our declaration of faith.  Yet faith indeed holds doubt and offers in return a different kind of clarity – solace to the soul.  This faith that our tradition encourages in us comes from a delicate balance of awareness, action, and knowledge.  It is a core tenet in Judaism and a source of comfort.  It requires us to be as clear and as authentic as possible.  Even, and perhaps especially, when faced with the unknown – something we all fear.  Faith should never be a dogmatic statement or a self-aggrandizing tool.  Thus only a fool pretends to offer clarity they don’t possess.  Unable to convey nuance, the fool stutters and makes up a response.  It is a lie, one designed to mask what authentically is a mystery.  A wise man, when faced with the same question, says “I don’t know,” comforting those who would listen that the unknown has to be experienced.  Contradictory as it may sound, clarity is a state when we accept what we don’t know but strive to understand.  When we get to see ourselves and our teachers in wonder we are confronted by our experience, and the next step becomes a little clearer.

A few verses earlier we read:

The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape – nothing but a voice… (Deut. 4:12)

God himself, it seems, wants us to experience this abstract and to be okay with it. And perhaps in return to remind us that we should connect to the abstract that we are ever changing, ever asking.  It is to that ever-changing nature of God, of our relationship with him, of the world, and of ourselves that we must be authentic.  We must not pretend and stutter but say with clarity that we evolve and change, accept the unknown and embrace faith.  THAT is what we have to teach our children: to not be afraid to say who we are, that we struggle and express what our doubts are.

We must teach our children to be sharp and to be clear.  God is not a shape, or one thing, or just a being.  God is – to each of us – what we experience it to be and what we aspire it to be.  God of our own ever changing understanding.  God is wonder!  And if you ever experienced wonder you know it for certain.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Iggy