The Torah portion of Va’etchanan contains some of the central ideas of Judaism. In my previous commentary on Va’etchanan (see my post of 23 July 2009), I discussed the unity of God as represented in the Shma. In the current article, I will address God’s relationship to mankind in general and to the nation of Israel in particular.
If somebody who knew nothing about the Jewish religion were to ask a Jew to summarize in one sentence the central belief of Judaism, the Jew might be tempted to answer that he believes in one God who has no physical body and who created the universe. While all the components of that statement are correct, such a summarization of Jewish faith would be inadequate.
When God first spoke to Moses, He said, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai; but by my characterization as YHVH, I was not known to them” (Exodus 6:3). The three patriarchs knew God as the God of the Covenant, a personal deity Who cares about the world and communicates with Man. They did not know Him as YHVH – the Lord, who is above nature, who is above the Universe and completely outside the realm of human experience.
In a similar vein, when God first spoke to the nation of Israel as a whole, He did not begin by saying, “I am the Lord your God, Who created the Universe.” Such a representation would have been too abstract, too removed from human experience, and would not indicate that God cares anything for the universe that He created, or that He directs the course of history. Therefore, God began the Ten Commandments saying, “I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2, and Deuteronomy 5:6). He is more than the creator of the universe: He is a personal God, Who intervenes in history on behalf of Israel and to whom we can relate through human experience.
Note that God does not give His attention only to the people of Israel. The whole world is His (see Exodus 19:5), and He has intervened in history on behalf of other nations besides Israel (see Amos 9:7). Also, God did not speak only to Israelite prophets, but also to the prophets of other nations, such as Noah, Bil’am, and Job. But the nation of Israel has a special place in the world, as a chosen people and a holy nation (see Deuteronomy 7:6-8, and Exodus 19:5-6), and the land of Israel occupies a special place in God’s attention (Deuteronomy 11:12). Therefore, in fulfillment of God’s plan for the world and by virtue of God’s covenant with the patriarchs, the people of Israel are inextricably linked to the land of Israel. (See Deuteronomy 6:10 & 23, and 7:1.)
The people of Israel were forcibly separated from their land when the nation was exiled in 586 BCE, only to return after seventy years. The Second Commonwealth stood until 70 CE, when the Romans again forcibly separated the Jewish people from their land. But, despite a duration of many centuries, this second exile could not be permanent either. As the Haftarah of Va’etchanan tells us, a voice from on high proclaims, “In the wilderness, make way for the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3), for those who were degraded are raised up, and God again intervenes in history to return the people of Israel to their land (Ibid 10-11).
© Copyright 2011 by Ben Roshgolin. All rights reserved.
For a discussion of “I am the Lord your God took you out of the land of Egypt” as the central creed of Judaism, see Yehuda Halevi’s The Kuzari I:11-25. My analysis, while not identical to Halevi’s, is to a great extent based on the discussion in The Kuzari. Please see the sidebar of this blog (you may have to scroll down a bit) for a link to The Kuzari.
For an interpretation of Exodus 6:3, see Zohar II:22b (bottom) through the bottom of 23a. My interpretation of that verse (see above) is loosely based on the Zohar’s interpretation, re-phrased in non-Kabbalistic terms.