Parashat Vaetchanan 5781 / פרשת וָאֶתְחַנַּן
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
We live in a world whose divisions among humankind are too numerous to count. Rather than allowing ourselves to celebrate our differences, too often we use our differences to justify everything from dismissive eyerolls to murder and outright warfare. In Judaism, we recognize that we live among many nations with many beliefs. While it is true that the Torah contains many stories of God sanctioning the wholesale slaughter of peoples whose belief systems God deems too tempting for the nascent nation of Israel to resist, the larger, enduring picture is one in which Israel and the nations of the world live harmoniously side-by-side and are united in their allegiance to the One God, each in their own ways.
I was touched by the insightful teaching of my friend and colleague Rabbi Lewis Warshaeuer this week. Rabbi Warshaeuer’s creative reading of this week’s Torah portion, Vaethanan, speaks to the commitment of our sages to create a world in which “God’s name shall be One.” I am honored to share Rabbi Warshaeuer’s teaching with you here. Enjoy!
Rabbi Lewis Warshauer
Parashat Vaethanan 5781
July 24, 2021 / 14 Av 5781
Jews like to think that Judaism is a refined monotheism, purged of the dross of the pagans. But parts of the Bible point to a more raw set of ideas about God and other gods:
And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These the LORD your God allotted (halak)to other peoples everywhere under heaven (Deuteronomy 4:19)
A very plausible reading of this passage is that the God of the Israelites has actually authorized other nations to serve—that is, to worship– the sun and moon and stars.
Not surprisingly, the rabbinic sages resisted this notion. The Talmud has an explanation attributed to Rav, the first-generation leader of Talmud scholars, that is based on a play on words:
The verse teaches that God caused the nations to slip [sheheḥelikan] by matters (that seemingly indicate that idol worship is effective) in order to expel the nations from the world (due to their decision to engage in idol worship.) (Avodah Zarah 55a)
But another Talmudic passage (Megillah 9a-b) takes a different view of this verse, based on the Greek translation of the Bible. The oldest translation of the Bible into Greek, a work known as the Septuagint, is attributed by modern scholarship to the Jewish community in Alexandria and is thought to date as far back as the 200’s BCE. The Talmud however, attributes the translation to a semi-miraculous event in which seventy Jewish scholars, summoned by King Ptolemy, and each working independently, came up with identical translations from the Hebrew into Greek.
Not only that, but the translators (still, according the Talmudic version) changed certain Biblical verses when rendering them into Greek in order to keep them from being misinterpreted. One of these was the verse from Deuteronomy, which was changed from “these (the sun and the moon and the stars)… God allotted to other nations” to “God allotted to shine on other nations”—thus removing the plainer sense of the Hebrew text that God allotted the heavenly bodies to other nations for worship purposes.
Given all of this, one might ask: What are Jews supposed to believe about these matters? I would reframe the question: How have Jews expressed themselves about such matters?
For the answer, one needs to turn not to this passage in the Book of Deuteronomy– which is read in synagogue once year, nor to the ancient Greek translation, which is not part of the Jewish liturgical tradition—but to the Siddur, the prayer book. The Siddur provides a guide to two questions raised by the passage in Deuteronomy: what is the role of the sun, moon and stars; and what is the role of the nations of the world.
The opening daily prayers that lead up to Shema Yisrael include blessings, praise, for God who has created and activated the sun and the other lights in the sky in order to enlighten the world. The words of the Siddur depict them as sentient beings:
They are all beloved, they are all clear, they are all mighty
They all do with reverence and awe the will of their Creator…
With song and hymn they utter praises…
The daily prayers have, in effect, converted a Biblical notion of the sun, moon and stars as objects of worship by the nations of the world into subjects worship God and witness God’s greatness.
Regarding the nations of the world, the Jews express themselves most memorably in the Aleinu prayer at the end of the daily prayers by quoting the prophet Zecharia:
God shall reign over the whole earth
God shall be one and his name one
This is a way of saying that Jews do not aspire that all of humanity become specifically Jewish, but that all humanity will eventually recognize that there is one unity and unifying force in the universe.